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Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus Redux: Aged gracefully
It’s been two years since Samsung released the Galaxy S9 Plus. That means that some users may be coming to the end of their contract and looking for an upgrade. Similarly, the price has come down so much in recent months that those who couldn’t afford it initially might be looking to pick one up.
At around £300/$300 renewed or on the second-hand market, it’s a phone I’ve been recommending for some time now for its tremendous value proposition. But let’s look back at the once best of the best and find out what differentiates it from the current crop of flagship devices, and see if it’s worth buying in 2020.
This is the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus Redux.
Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus: The background
The Galaxy S9 Plus was a great smartphone, but it didn’t change much aesthetically from the Galaxy S8 Plus. Instead, it was a refinement of the existing design with most of the changes being made under the hood.
There were a few notable introductions, namely a new hybrid stereo speaker setup and a revised fingerprint scanner location. The S8 and S8 Plus suffered from a really poor off-center rear fingerprint scanner which was easily mixed up with the rear camera if you didn’t have the location locked down in muscle memory. This lead to smeary lenses and blurry photos along with a slower unlock time if the user couldn’t feel out the scanner.
The camera was also greatly improved on from the S8 Plus with the addition of a 2x telephoto camera to the rear along with variable aperture to the main shooter. This would allow the camera to dynamically adapt its lens internals to best suit the lighting conditions. This wacky feature has since been scrapped, but it was really interesting and unique.
The S9 Plus' camera was far superior to the S8 Plus' shooter.
Despite seeming like a recipe for a great phone, the S9 Plus didn’t sell well. In its first two sales quarters, the Korean giant sold just 19.2 million S9 Plus devices — a record low for the company. By comparison, the Galaxy S8 surpassed 20 million units despite the worse hardware.
This was likely due to the S9 Plus looking too similar to the S8 Plus. Even though the internals were that much better, the external changes likely weren’t enough to sway anyone to upgrade. This “tick-tock” approach is something that Samsung has seemed to have left behind with its most recent Galaxy S-series devices. The Galaxy S9, S10, and S20 all look radically different from each other.
How does it hold up?
What’s immediately apparent, just by glancing at the device, is that the S9 Plus doesn’t have a punch hole, a staple of Samsung smartphones of recent. We’re instead welcomed by a small chin and forehead with curved glass sides. This layout might look out of place in 2020, but I wouldn’t call it a bad thing. You get the benefit of having an uninterrupted screen, which is my preferred kind of display.
Sat between the chin and forehead is, of course, the screen and it definitely still looks good. A big, bright 6.2-inch QHD+ Super AMOLED display — a staple in modern devices. Seriously, if you went back to this after using an S10 Plus or an iPhone 11 Pro, you would not be disappointed. Going back from an S20, however, is a bit of a harder task. If you’re used to high refresh rate displays, this 60Hz panel might not be as speedy as you’d like.
The build materials are certainly 2020-esque. It’s still got a curved glass sandwich layout with aluminum rails, there’s still a multi-camera array on the back, a USB-C port is still present, it’s all there. It’s the same story with IP68 water and dust resistance, USB 3.1 speeds, and microSD expansion.
What is different, I would weirdly call positives rather than negatives. There’s a headphone port for all of you who want one, and even a physical, capacitive fingerprint reader. That might sound backward, but remember that these are often faster, more reliable, more secure, and easier to find without looking than in-display affairs. I’m team capacitive over team in-display.
Being that we’re only two years into the S9 Plus’ life, the spec sheet is still pretty stout. There’s a Snapdragon 845, 6GB RAM, and 64-256GB of storage. I’d say the only obvious omissions are a wide-angle camera and a big battery. If you can live without those, you’ve got a top device in the S9 Plus.
The spec sheet is still pretty stout, making the S9 Plus great value for money.
To refresh my memory on the gaming experience, I downloaded and played Fortnite, Real Racing 3, and Project Offroad 2. There were a few dropped frames here and there, but for the most part the S9 Plus was able to hold a steady 60fps in those titles. As for the general user experience, I found my day-to-day social browsing, note-taking, and video watching to be just fine on the S9 Plus.
The 3,500mAh battery was just about enough to get me through a full day with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular connections. For reference, I had my Huawei Watch GT 2 connected and I was on the O2 UK network. Its 15W quick charging and Qi wireless charging weren’t super speedy by any means, but I didn’t need to top up throughout the day once. Your mileage may vary, however, depending on the age of the device, how many charge cycles it’s been through, how hot it’s been running, and the general usage settings such as resolution and brightness.
I attribute a lot of the S9 Plus’ modern feeling to the software. One UI 2.0 has breathed new life into the handset to make it feel newer than when it came out, even. The design aesthetic of the Samsung skin totally matches the curved edges and smooth lines in the hardware design.
The Galaxy S9 Plus got Android 10, which is the latest version of Android at the time of writing. That means that the S9 Plus is on the same version of Android as the latest S20 Plus, which is great. Beyond this, a further year of software updates, security patches, and bug fixes is to be expected given previous Samsung S-series phones. This, however, is likely the last platform update that the S9 Plus will officially receive.
Continue reading: When will your phone get Android 10?
Remember Samsung’s variable aperture?
So, as it’s going, the S9 Plus has aged wonderfully. But, and there’s a big but, a big way of telling how old a smartphone is is by testing the camera… and the Galaxy S9 Plus’ camera is a bit hit and miss. It has a 12MP dual-camera array, Samsung’s adjustable aperture, portrait, HDR, and night modes, and it can shoot UHD 4K video at 60fps. On paper, the S9 Plus is almost all there. The two main standout omissions that make the S9 Plus standout are a pixel-binned sensor and an ultra-wide camera lens. Both of which are very commonly found in 2019 and 2020 smartphones.
That all said, the images and videos coming from the S9 Plus look very much up to the current mid-range standard. The HDR is fairly powerful without being overbearing, and it even got the S10’s night mode in an update. The software has truly kept this camera system feeling modern and fresh, despite the two years since the release of the S9 Plus.
There is a distinct softness from a lot of the images compared to what we’re used to in 2020. Selfies, in particular, look a bit too smooth and lack structure. Having the night mode is great, but those images look rather soft, too. Also, on occasion, there would be a blown-out highlight. This is evident in the photo of the flower, above.
The S9 Plus’ camera system, overall, is still pretty good in 2020. The issue is, though, that it isn’t particularly great in either its versatility nor image quality. If one was really great, you could forgive the other. However, because both camps fall short of the fantastic mid-range camera phones of 2020, you have to wonder if it’s better to go with one of those.
Continue reading: Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus deep dive review
Galaxy S9 Plus in 2020: The verdict
The Galaxy S9 Plus has truly stood the test of time and is, by all accounts, still a very competent smartphone in 2020. Many of the scarcely found features in 2020 are in this device. If you’re looking for a great all-rounder in the used smartphone market, the S9 Plus has my recommendation.