Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: The Pen gets mightier!

Deccan Chronicle.  | Amritanshu Mukherjee

Technology, Mobiles and Tabs

The Galaxy Note 9 redefines what a productivity oriented smartphone should be, without losing out on essentials.

The Note 9 is a culmination of the best mobile technologies that Samsung can deliver in the present.
Rating: 4.5/5

While some say that the Galaxy S9 is Samsung’s most underrated smartphone, it could be said to an extent. The reason — probably Samsung’s inability to offer something exciting and different from its predecessors. Therefore, the market was sure that Samsung would bring out their second flagship offering from Note series — the Galaxy Note 9, a bit earlier than expected. Sure enough, the Note 9 has already hit several markets across the world by now and is helping Samsung gather attention in a world where a new smartphone becomes obsolete within a month.

Similar to the S9, the Galaxy Note 9 is an iterative update from its predecessors. Samsung has retained the aesthetics from the older model, but has focussed its attention underneath to make the Note 9 one of the most important smartphones the company ever rolls out of its stables. And the best part is that Samsung has managed to keep the prices at a level that can still let many go for the ultra-premium flagship without the need to burden the wallet — Rs 67,900 for the 6GB/128GB variant and Rs 84,900 for the mighty 8GB/512GB version.

So what makes the Note 9 one of the most important Samsung smartphones? Read on.

The design galore

Samsung has exercised a high degree of finesse for making some of the most premium smartphones using glass and metal. Last year’s Note 8 was a fine example of that idea — an elegant design fused in a slim, yet tall body while keeping an eye on practicality. With the Galaxy Note 9, nothing much has actually changed, except ..... we'll get there in a while.

The new phone looks almost identical to the older model at first glance. You still get the narrow yet tall form made out of glass and held together by a metal alloy frame. The display curves towards the edges in typical Samsung fashion, giving the Note 9 a unique presence — it looks like a slab of glass with no sharp edges. Samsung has avoided the notch trend and has stuck with a balanced design from the front — a slim forehead and a leaner chin than before. And yes, it’s IP68 water and dust resistant.

The Bixby key also makes a return and so does the 3.5mm headphone jack. Yes, Samsung still values the dedicated headphone jack and is the only company in the flagship segment offer the port that productivity enthusiasts seek. You will also find the USB-C port and a loudspeaker at the bottom, resting alongside the S Pen slot.

However, if you have used a Note 8 before, the Note 9 feels slightly evolved once you hold it. The metal frame now features more chiselled lines that help in enhancing the grip. To the rear, the fingerprint sensor now rests at a more reachable position than before — under the camera module. The sensor isn’t large enough for most fingers but gets the job done.

Do note that the Note 9 now features a larger battery and a few additional hardware underneath, which translates to a heavier weight of 201g. Add to that a glossy glass surface and you have to ensure the Note 9 is wearing its case while you are on the move.

Impressive display

Samsung is known for leading the display market with its AMOLED panels and the Note 9 harvests on that benefit highly. There’s a 6.4-inch Curved Super AMOLED display with 2K resolution staring right back at you. With deep blacks eventually resulting in higher contrasts, this is undoubtedly one of the best smartphone displays on the market. Viewing angles are great while sunlight legibility is good for an AMOLED panel.

Samsung has increased the display size marginally by narrowing the chin, resulting in a screen-to-body ratio that's 83.4 per cent. However, what’s sad here is that rivals have managed to offer equally bigger displays with slimmer bezels, while the Note 9 still features chunkier bezels on the top and bottom. Probably, Samsung wants to be away from the market trend of opting for a notch, and has something new planned in the game ahead. We hear that the next S flagship will have a completely new design, but are yet to know that when Samsung pulls off the wraps from its newbie at the MWC 2019.

The mighty S Pen

While the display may not be the edge-less beauty like some of its rivals, the Note 9 has got an ace up its sleeves that the competition hasn’t adopted in years — the S Pen stylus. For years, the S Pen has been doing standard stylus duties on the Note series, helping users jotting down notes the old-fashioned way or scribbling illustrations while on the move. This year, Samsung is betting high on the S Pen’s new feature — added Bluetooth connectivity.

With Bluetooth LE, the S Pen’s productivity value goes up by multiple folds. It can still do notes, navigation and Air Commands. But the wireless connectivity makes it act like a remote control to the phone. You can use the S Pen for taking pictures (the most useful feature for casual users), control a PowerPoint presentation or shuffle between photos with the S Pen’s button.

Kept alive by a supercapacitor (similar to a battery, but with a flash charging capability), it holds power for around 30 minutes, after which it needs to go back in the slot and require up to 40 seconds for delivering another 30 minutes of wireless connectivity. Even if the power depletes, you can continue to use it as a normal stylus. The power is basically meant for the BT connectivity and respective features.

The S Pen provides a lot of opportunities for app developers to make exclusive features for the Note 9. Even for those who seldom find a use for the S Pen (like us, for example), the remote controlling abilities make it a useful component rather than just another feature meant to appease a particular crowd.

The power house

The Note series has always been considered the ultimate choice for those who prefer productivity over everything else. This year, the Note 9 is also positioned as a premium gaming smartphone. Both these usage scenarios need a lot of firepower with careful optimisation, which Samsung has managed to strike right. Underneath the body lies Samsung’s Exynos 9810 — the Snapdragon 845-rivalling octa-core chipset with clock speeds of up to 2.7GHz, paired along with a Mali-G72 MP18 GPU. As stated, you get either 6GB or 8GB of RAM along with 128GB or 512GB of storage. The Note 9 is also amongst the last few flagships to offer expandable storage — only here you can slot in up to 512GB of memory — a hefty 1TB of storage in total. And, there’s Android 8.1 Oreo wearing Samsung’s custom Experience UI 9.0 to look after the errands.

While such a setup ensures effortless performance, Samsung has built-in a bigger liquid-cooling-based heat sink, which is commercially called the Water Carbon Cooling System. Samsung says the bigger heatsink should help dissipate the heat quickly during intense gaming sessions efficiently.

On a daily basis, the Note 9 doesn’t shed sweat. We were multitasking with Gmail, WhatsApp, Microsoft Word Chrome (opened with 4-5 tabs) and an audio streaming app channeling to a Bluetooth speaker — the Note 9 handled everything with ease. Samsung’s heavy UI is far from stock Android, but is cleverly designed to offer the most useful features without hunting in menus. Since this is a Note device, the OS offers bundles of additional features that make living with the Note 9 a breeze. The Apps Edge panel on the home screen is a clever way to access your favourite apps and contacts quickly. The clipboard feature is great for accessing all the stuff that you have copied and accessing anytime you prefer. The Smart Screen Selection feature, which requires the S Pen, is a great feature to illustrate content on the screen. One can make GIFs out of videos with the S Pen as well. Dig inside the settings and you will be greeted with hundreds of customisation features.

Then there’s Samsung Pay, which has proven itself to be a convenient feature for carrying all debit/credit cards on your device. The military-grade KNOX data protection also ensures that data stored on the Note 9 is hard to steal by those with malicious intentions. The DeX mode is now accessible without a dock -- Samsung's new USB-C to HDMI dongle makes it easier to use the Note 9 as a desktop computer anywhere with a monitor, keyboard and mouse setup. And as always (pun intended), the Always On Display is one of the easiest ways to catch up with all the notifications and alarms without unlocking the device. Sadly, the addition of features in a bulk also means Samsung would take its own sweet time in delivering the Android Pie update.

The UI also has certain tricks to please the mobile gamers. As is the case with all Samsung flagships, the display resolution is set to full HD+ by default. However, there’s a performance mode that bumps the resolution to 2K and prioritises the resources for the game. We played some of the most demanding mobile titles of the present and the Note 9 managed to impress with flying colours. Games such as PUBG MOBILE, Asphalt 8, Fortnite (of course we had to try it on the Note 9 as it was launched as an exclusive) and some others ran perfectly fine at the highest graphics settings. It was also during these longer online multiplayer sessions that we noticed the phone becoming toasty. However, the heat sink ensures the Note 9 never goes into the dangerous territory and cools down rapidly once you have had enough of your gaming dose.

Is it all good on the Note 9 then? Sadly, no. Bixby continues to be the Note 9’s sore point, especially with its dedicated button that can’t be remapped. On the Note 9, we get introduced to Bixby 2.0, which is supposed to be smarter and ensure continued conversations, like the Google Assistant. The new Bixby struggles with speech detection and has a lot of bugs as we speak. However, Samsung says the Bixby will improve over the time and it should provide a pleasant experience. We also want it to happen as Bixby is one of the few voice assistants that offers unparalleled integration with the OS. You can ask it to open a camera and take a selfie, or even slide across the gallery using your voice when you are feeling too lazy to switch between the screens manually. Bixby 2.0 holds a lot of promise for the future, but isn’t polished enough for relying on it right now.

Then there’s the biometric verification system, which is unsatisfactory considering the Note 9’s stature in the smartphone world. The fingerprint sensor, despite the repositioning, is still hard to reach for smaller palms. The Iris Scanner is highly secure, but is undeniably slow. Samsung’s Intelligent can, which debuted on the S9, uses the Iris Scanner with the Facial Recognition to enhance the security and speed of verification. Sadly, the Iris Scanner is hard at work even when the ambient light drops its intensity — the Face Unlock is plainly appalling. With so many manufacturers offering robust yet cheaper ways to offer faster facial recognition, Samsung could have surely embedded an Infrared sensor-based face unlock system for faster unlocking speeds, considering they chose to opt for a noticeable forehead.

The keen eye

This is where the Note 9 borrows heavily from its sibling. At the rear, we find the same 12MP + 12MP dual camera setup, with the primary sensor equipped with a variable aperture of f/1.5 and f/2.4 and the second sensor being a telephoto lens with f/2.4 aperture. Both the sensors have Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS), which does help maintain stability while shooting outdoors.

Similar to the Galaxy S9+, the Note 9’s optics do an impressive job. You can snap really good looking photos in most lighting conditions. In daylight, the pictures exhibit loads of details fused with vibrant colours and contrasts. Samsung’s new ‘Scene Optimiser’ detects scenes and adjusts the camera settings automatically to boost the colour saturation slightly. The AI also notifies of blurry images and closed eyes, and suggests having another go at the shot for better results. With light levels falling down, the optics manage to maintain a respectable amount of details without losing much of its brilliant dynamic range  — all while ensuring noise is kept to a minimum level. The portrait mode works well too, with careful detection of the subject’s edges and the background.

The 8MP front shooter with an aperture of f/1.7 and dedicated autofocus system ensures clear selfies with vibrant colours and tonnes of details. The portrait mode here manages proper cutouts of the subject too, but softens the overall image. Similar to the S9+, the AR Emojis also make a return and they haven’t improved in any way — Samsung needs to optimise the facial tracking for AR Emojis.

Auto Mode

Portrait Mode

The Note 9 also carries over the 960fps slow-motion video recording from the S9, which can still shoot at a maximum stretch of 2 seconds in dead-slow motion. However, 4K videos at 60fps are smooth, with OIS ensuring stable shots.

The reservoir

The Note 9 has the pleasure of getting Samsung’s biggest fuel tank for its flagship smartphone in the recent times — a 4000mAh unit. Compared to the Note 8’s paltry 3300mAh unit, the Note 9’s tank can actually claim to be a true all-day battery, provided if you are exercising caution. On an average usage pattern of a typical Note user, which includes texting, browsing the web, jotting down notes, streaming music and doing light MS Word/ PowerPoint work, the Note 9 can easily stretch it to the end of the day, sparing around 30 per cent of power. The numbers go down as you include intensive gaming titles, which is when you should accompany a power bank.

While Samsung offers Adaptive Fast Charging, it takes a lot of time (around 2 hours) for the battery to be topped up from close to nothing. We wished Samsung could have worked towards getting a faster ‘Fast Charge’ system, despite considering the huge 4000mAh battery. Fast Wireless charging is also there if you prefer your desks to be clutter-free while revitalising your Note 9.

Boiling point

After going through the Note 9 in detail, it’s easy to see why Samsung still keeps making an impressive phablet in 2018 while others have ditched the idea. The Note 9 is a culmination of the best mobile technologies that Samsung can deliver in the present. The large Super AMOLED display is clearly the best in business, delivering an immersive experience while the cameras have the capability to go abreast with the entry-level DSLR cameras. A large battery ensures a day’s power while the new S Pen makes it easier to live with on a daily basis.

However, the Note 9 also offers all the essential features such as a 3.5mm headphone jack, an expandable storage and military-grade security that make it presently the best utility smartphone in the market.

It’s not completely perfected though — the battery takes a pretty while to be topped up and Samsung’s idea to enforce a partially-baked Bixby with a dedicated button is a bit too much. Ignore these issues and the Note 9 is a smartphone that gets closer to the concept of a perfect smartphone. With its reliable and blazing performance alongside all the essential features, the Note 9 is presently the best Android  smartphone money can buy.