Galaxy Note9 hands-on—Samsung ships a bigger battery, not much else

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NEW YORK CITY—I have touched a Galaxy Note9, and I’m back to talk about it. Samsung’s flagship smartphone for the back-half of 2018 was announced earlier today, with headline features like, uh, a new S-Pen? Bixby? It’s “new,” and Samsung hopes that will be good enough.

There’s not much to say on the hardware front. Anyone who has put a finger on a Galaxy S8, S9, or Note 8 will immediately be familiar with the Note9. It’s all glass, and it feels really solid, but the back is also fragile and a fingerprint magnet. The display is huge and beautiful, although the 0.1-inch increase this year is something you’ll only notice by looking at the spec sheet.

Samsung will gain a lot of fans this year by just standing still and not adopting any of the controversial smartphone trends that are spreading across the industry in 2018. The phone still has a headphone jack, and it hasn’t adopted a notch design, both of which are two big actual differentiators for the phone this year.

In terms of significant design changes, I can confirm the fingerprint reader is now in a more comfortable location. The move to below the camera assembly makes it no problem to reach with a one-handed grip, which was a problem on the Note 8. The small, skinny, horizontally aligned fingerprint reader is still weird though. A fingerprint is not shaped like a skinny horizontal rectangle, and I feel like it will only capture a sliver of my finger data. I think the real reason the fingerprint reader is so small and skinny is because that was the shape it was last year, and it needed to be small to fit next to the camera. Samsung moved the sensor, but that tiny, awkward shape still remains.

One of the biggest upgrades is the move to a 4000mAh battery from the 3300mAh on the Note 8. Remember, the Note 8 was technically a downgrade from the 3500mAh battery in the disastrous Galaxy Note 7, but of course the Note 7 had an exploding battery and the Note 8 didn’t. For the first model back, Samsung took it easy on the battery capacity with the Note 8, but, with a whole other year under its belt, Samsung seems more comfortable pushing the envelope with battery capacity.

The S-Pen has a few new tricks

The S-Pen now has the ability to remotely control some parts of the phone. Previously, the S-Pen worked via wireless power sent from an electromagnetic coil behind the screen, kind of like wireless charging without a battery. As long as it was close to the screen, it worked. This year, the S-Pen has been upgraded to a full-blown Bluetooth LE device, which means it needs an integrated power source. Rather than a battery, Samsung is using a super capacitor, which charges in a few seconds and lasts a half-hour.

Now, with a half-hour of juice, the stylus can control the phone remotely via its single button. There’s not a ton you can do with a single button, but it’s good enough to work the camera shutter or act as a Powerpoint slide clicker. I took a few pictures with the S-Pen, and, like any Bluetooth device, the response was super fast.

I was hoping the revamped S-Pen would mean it felt a bit heavier or sturdier, but it still feels like the cheapest little pen on earth. The S-Pen is still a hollow-feeling plastic tube that seems more like a disposable Bic pen than something that belongs on a thousand-dollar device. As someone who still fondly remembers his solid metal Palm stylus, the S-Pen is disappointing.

The Note9 comes with Bixby 2.0, which is the first version to use technology from Samsung’s Viv acquisition, rather than Bixby 1.0, which was a continuation of Samsung’s S-Voice line of voice assistants. 2.0 adds things like a “conversational” ability to use context from a previous question to answer the current question. I was able to ping a few questions off of Bixby 2.0, and other than an awful robotic voice, it answered things like the weather with aplomb. Like I said in my review of Bixby 1.0, though, the problem with Bixby isn’t what it can and can’t answer, it’s that Samsung doesn’t have the ecosystem to support a competitive voice assistant.

When you talk to the Google Assistant (which you can still do on the Galaxy Note9), the data goes somewhere. Make a note and it goes in Google Keep, and that data is accessible from all your devices via apps and the Web. The Google Assistant works on Android and iOS phones and tablets, Android Auto, Android TV, Wear OS, and various Google Home devices. Similarly, when you ask Siri to make a reminder, it gets saved in the reminders app and then synced up to iCloud and down to the reminders app on your Mac, Apple Watch, iPad, and HomePod. Data given to Bixby doesn’t go anywhere. It stays on the phone because Samsung doesn’t have the collection of cross-platform apps, Web services, and devices to move all this data around. Good assistants are multi-device, multi-form factor, cloud-syncing beasts, and Samsung would have plenty of work to do to come up with a competitive ecosystem.

Samsung’s solution to its dearth of viable apps is to plug into some third-party apps, like Yelp, Uber, Spotify, and Ticketmaster. It even works with Google Maps. Samsung is also taking a baby step across this hardware gap with a Bixby speaker, called the Galaxy Speaker. Both show that Samsung is aware of Bixby’s gaps, but it is just so far away from the established hardware and software ecosystems developed by Google, Apple, and (to a lesser extent) Amazon.

So that’s the Galaxy Note9

There’s not much different or new. You know, there’s a rumor out there from the Korean site The Bell that claims Samsung is considering merging the Galaxy Note and Galaxy S lines into a single device. The change would supposedly help to cut costs in the face of a saturated smartphone market. I’ve got to say that sounds like a great idea, because there’s just not much the Galaxy Note offers over the Galaxy S line. The different models made sense when Samsung was experimenting with ever-larger screen sizes, but as the Galaxy S Plus line gets bigger and bigger, there is less room for the Note to do anything different. Like last year, this year’s difference between the Galaxy S9 and Note9 is almost nothing. There’s the S-Pen and not much else. Lately, the Note line has felt like nothing more than a fresh PR push to distract potential iPhone customers. If we do see a Note 10, I hope it’s something different.


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