NEW YORK—Samsung announced the Galaxy S9 to the world this week, and recently we were able to get our hot little hands on Samsung’s latest. The phone is very much a Galaxy S8 with some upgrades; you can get the basic info here.
The thing I was most interested in trying out was the fingerprint reader placement, which is new this year. When Samsung switched to a slim bezel design with the Galaxy S8, the fingerprint reader needed to move to the back. Rather than place it in an easily reachable position, Samsung opted to stick it on the side of the camera module. As a result, the fingerprint reader was difficult to reach from a normal hand position, making the fingerprint reader feel like an afterthought.
On the S9, the fingerprint reader now sits below the camera and is a lot closer to where your finger would normally rest. After trying it in person, I’m happy to report that the fingerprint location is totally fixed. The Galaxy S9+ reader isn’t just lower than it was on the S8; it’s lower down on the back of the phone than the Pixel 2 XL that I brought for comparison. The S9 fingerprint reader should be easily reached by everyone, no matter your hand size. I didn’t get to try the accuracy of the fingerprint reader, though, which I’m still apprehensive about. It’s still one of the smallest fingerprint readers on the market, which could make it harder to use.
The Galaxy S9 is not using exactly the same body as the Galaxy S8. The S9 is 1.2mm shorter than the S8, and the S9+ is 1.4mm shorter than the S8+. These space savings both come from shaving off some of the bottom bezel on each device, but you’ll only really notice the difference in a side-by-side comparison.
The other big Galaxy S9 upgrade is the new camera setup. It now has a dual aperture camera, meaning there are teeny-tiny aperture blades inside the camera lens that can move, resulting in either an f/1.5 or f/2.4 aperture. We’ll have to wait for a review unit to really test out the camera, but it was pretty amazing seeing the tiny aperture blades move in and out. I expected the movement range to be pretty small on such a small lens, but it’s something you can easily see with the naked eye.
I also tried out the new speaker setup. This year Samsung has stereo speakers, with the earpiece doubling as a second speaker. Again, it was just a quick demo, but it was very loud. Good enough for the occasional video or game but not something you’d want to listen to music on.
This year, Samsung is satiating its deep-seated Apple envy with a copy of Animoji called “AR Emoji.” Samsung has retrofitted the iris scanner and front-facing camera into a primitive motion-capture system so an on-screen character can mimic your facial expressions.
The tracking can handle eye blinks, eyebrow movements, lip flap, mouth shape, and head angle. While it seems comprehensive, the problem with AR Emoji is the high amount of jitter present in all the tracking. Characters all twitch uncomfortably and have constant micro seizures—eyelids and eyebrows spasm up and down, and the mouth opens and closes at random. The characters all come across like defective robots. This isn’t just me, either—you can see the erratic movements during Samsung’s stage demo. The tracking never had to be perfect, after all; these mo-cap characters are just for fun. All they needed to do was be cute and appealing, but they are the complete opposite: they are twitchy, creepy puppets more likely to inspire a nightmare than a smile.
Speaking of nightmares, the Galaxy S9 can make Animoji characters based on a picture of you. Just take a picture, and, after a bit of processing, the phone will produce a horrifying creative that lives at the bottom of the uncanny valley. You always seem to get a little stick body, a huge head, and huge eyes. I think the main problem (besides all the creepy twitching from the janky face tracking) is the skin, which builds an actual skin texture from your photo. Blemishes, stubble, and the occasional skin pore all get brought over to the character, and it looks awful.
It’s worth mentioning that this is purely a software feature on a pre-release device, so it could get improved over time. The best thing Samsung could do is set some kind of threshold to the face movements to smooth out all the little tracking twitches. If a character wants to rapidly blink, that’s fine. But it should never be able to have an eyelid rapidly twitch up and down.
Don’t fix what isn’t broken?
That’s about all I got to look at in my brief time with the Galaxy S9. We’ll have to wait for a review unit to really dive into the features, as I still haven’t gotten to try out the new face unlock, the camera, or a million other things.
On the one hand, seeing such a “bare minimum” update from Samsung is disappointing. Recycling the same design from the Galaxy S8 certainly won’t keep Samsung competitive with the iPhone X or upcoming slim-bezel wonders like the Xiaomi Mi 2s. Galaxy S phones are supposed to be flagships with the best specs, but you can get more RAM from the much cheaper OnePlus 5T, which comes with up to 8GB of RAM.
On the other hand, no one is really giving Samsung a reason to change. No matter what the reception of the Galaxy S9 is, it will be the top-selling Android flagship of 2018. The S9 will be in every store and pushed by every carrier sales rep. It will be on every TV and in every ad banner. No other Android OEM can compete with the scale of Samsung’s advertising and distribution machine.
Even Apple’s flagship is not doing so well. The company was reportedly forced to cut iPhone X production in half due to weak sales of its $1,000 phone. Samsung can also dig into some consumers’ hearts by just standing still—the Korean company produces one of the few flagship smartphones that hasn’t stripped away fan-favorite features like the headphone jack and MicroSD card.
So while it seems like many new phones have a better hardware or software design or are a better value or are more exciting, all Samsung has to do is be successful. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, I guess?
Listing image by Ron Amadeo