The device that plays safe

The S9 looks nearly identical to its immediate predecessor, the Galaxy S8. It is essentially a replay of last year's big Samsung phone - with a few tweaks.

  • Published 11.06.18

GADGET: Samsung Galaxy S9

TECH SPECS: 5.80-inch touchscreen, Android 8.0, 1.7GHz octa-core processor, 4GB RAM, 64GB expandable storage 12-megapixel camera

PRICE: Starts at Rs 55,399 

The S9 looks nearly identical to its immediate predecessor, the Galaxy S8. It is essentially a replay of last year's big Samsung phone - with a few tweaks.

The main differences are an improved camera and a feature called AR Emoji, which uses a photo of your face to create an animated version of yourself making various expressions, like crying in a bathtub or shaking your head. Upgrade to the Galaxy S9 only if you feel like splurging on a device with a powerful camera.

After a week of testing, here's how I rated the Galaxy S9's new features.

The Emoji

Last year, Apple's iPhone X introduced Animoji, the ability to create animated emoji that mimic your facial expressions. The AR Emoji is Samsung's response to it.

To set it up, you smile with your mouth closed and snap a photo of your face, and the phone software creates a computer-generated image of you. You then choose an outfit, facial hair and accessories like glasses. From there, the software creates animated stickers of your emoji conveying various expressions - like blowing a kiss, giving a thumbs up or flashing a peace sign.

There's a problem: the emojis look creepy. It's like taking a photo and a cartoony 3D image of yourself and mashing them together. The result is a phenomenon that robotics experts describe as "uncanny valley" - the image looks fake, but it also bears close resemblance to a person and causes psychological discomfort.

If what you want are custom emojis, there are better options. Bitmoji, an emoji maker acquired by Snap in 2016, generates flat cartoon emojis of you. The cartoon stickers are fun to use, and there are many outfits and expressions to choose from.

The Fingerprint Sensor

Critics gave the Galaxy S8 phone rave reviews, with one caveat: the fingerprint sensor. It was a few millimetres to the right of the camera lens and it was easy to bump into the lens when trying to unlock the phone.

For the S9, Samsung listened to feedback and moved the fingerprint sensor to a better place: below the camera. In my tests, I rarely bumped into the camera when unlocking the phone. That's a win.

The Virtual Assistant

If you thought Siri or Alexa was inadequate, wait till you try Bixby, the virtual assistant that Samsung introduced last year. To set it up, you create a Samsung account, and you hold down a button on the side of the phone to activate it.

Bixby is unreliable. It took me three tries to open the phone camera with the command "Open the camera" before it accomplished the task. I also asked, "Bixby, what can you do?" On my first try, there was an issue connecting to Samsung's server, and on my second try, Bixby replied: "Maybe a few things here and there, but I'm learning every day." Yeah.

The Camera

The Galaxy S9 has what Samsung calls a dual-aperture camera system. The aperture is the opening in the camera sensor that lets in light.

Typically, phone makers make the aperture as large as possible to let in more light. But Samsung's new phone has a mechanical aperture that adjusts to different lighting conditions: in scenes with bright light, it will step down to the narrower aperture to avoid overexposure, and in low light, it will change to a wider aperture.

In my tests, photos in bright light came out extremely crisp and clear - I was surprised that in one photo of my dog the camera even captured beads of saliva on her snout. Yet in other photos, Samsung's camera software appeared to oversharpen or oversmooth some textures like patches of grass.

In low-light settings, photos looked excellent. In pictures I shot of friends in dimly lit restaurants and cocktail bars, their faces were nicely lit up, and backgrounds looked natural. So when you ask a waiter to take a photograph of you and a group of friends at the dinner table, make sure the waiter uses the Galaxy S9 - and leaves the flash off.