Take note: Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review

I have been using the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, on and off, for half a year now. In that time, it has gone from being the best Samsung smartphone in the market anywhere in the world to playing second fiddle to the company’s latest and greatest, the Samsung Galaxy S10.

Even though that is the case at the moment, it will still be a few more months before we get to see something new in the Galaxy Note series from Samsung. Until then, I have only two words to describe it: the best.

How best? So good that I went out of my way to get a unit for myself. Yes, you can be sure I did not spend Kshs 100,000 or more on it. Just like I had promised myself I wouldn’t.

READ:  Samsung Galaxy Note 9 specifications

While that conclusion, as many will be quick to say, is arguable, I doubt I am going to use a more pleasant device of this calibre until the Note 10 arrives. Or I get to use the Huawei Mate 20 Pro.

Here is why:

Display

The display on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 picked up all the accolades there were to pick when it launched last year and, until the S10 arrived, had the best display in the market. Bar the slip up in the rankings, that hasn’t changed and the device’s 6.4-inch 2K Super AMOLED panel is still quite the looker.

It’s what you’d want to be doing your little creations on the go from. It’s what you’d want to be consuming content from.

It’s a pity that it doesn’t have the HDR10+ certification of the Galaxy S10, though. However, the Note 9 has HDR10 certification and that will be just good enough for many of us. In fact, few will notice the difference.

No notch

First things first, the most glaring omission on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is the notch. I am saying omission in the most casual way as if it’s supposed to be there because that is the route everyone and their dog have opted to take.

Google’s Pixel 3 XL, the smartphone with what most agree is the best smartphone camera in the market right now, has a notch that is big enough to land two Airbus Belugas. Not that the referenced plane is any better-looking, by the way.

Huawei’s mighty Mate 20 Pro, the only smartphone with a notch I can consider after the P20 Pro, goes with a much bigger notch to accomodate the front-facing optics unlike its standard variant which goes with a “teardrop” notch design. I can go on and on about decent or half-decent options from Samsung’s competitors that are let down by the cutout at the top, no matter the efforts to hide it using software.

Yet in all these notch chaos, Samsung has been able to stand out with its almost bezel-less edge-to-edge display and highly proportionate and less intrusive head and chin designs. Without a notch! How do they do this?

Small as this is, it stands out for me and many others who have not been sold on the insatiable need by Android device makers to ape Apple. For me, it is the single biggest draw to the Samsung Galaxy Note 9.

Impeccable design

That notch that’s missing? It’s all because of the Note 9’s standout design. Everything that was wrong with 2017’s design on the Galaxy S8 and Note 8 was righted last year in the Galaxy Note 9. The fingerprint scanner has been moved to its most rightful position, just below the camera. Even though I feel it is still a tad higher than it should be, I can take this. You win some, you lose some.

The button placement is also on point. Well, for the most part, that is. I say this because on the left side of the Galaxy Note 9 is a horrible addition: the Bixby button. Sure, I have had my own bones to chew with Bixby since I first met it and even went ahead and tuned the button on the Galaxy S8 to point to the Google Assistant but that is not about that here, I’ll get to my misgivings on the same in the software section below. I cannot begin to recount the number of times I wrongly pressed the Bixby button mistaking it for the volume down button. To be honest, where it is located is where the volume down button is supposed to be. I missed taking screenshots because of that.

The decision to merge all those glaring sensors in 2017’s model makes for a nice-looking cleaner front-face that is not too intimidating or “geek-ish”.

The choice of contrasting colour options in the model I have (Ocean Blue with a Yellow S Pen) is just the best.

Overall, I am super impressed that the Galaxy Note 9 does not wobble when placed on the table, where it belongs when you are seated since you shouldn’t hide all that beauty! Besides, isn’t that where it belongs just like the notebooks it purports to replace?

The only downside here, just like with its predecessor, is that the glass back is the mother of all fingerprint magnets. Sure, it is beautiful and all and the last thing I would recommend is to hide all that beauty beneath a case but that is something you will seriously have to consider. Besides, as could already be seen on my unit back then, the metal frame delineating the camera module from the rest of the back is very prone to scratches and mine (on the review unit loaned to me by Samsung late last year) already had its colour peeled off, after just 2 months of use. I am just here wondering what it would look like after a year had I stayed with it.

The glass back, though manages to hold up well. That Gorilla Glass, which is also what is found on the front, earns its keep. Sure, it’s a fingerprint magnet but it’s not entertaining any scratches which is a good thing as that is every user’s nightmare.

Performance champ

There’s a reason that the Galaxy Note 9 became the very first Android smartphone to officially herald the release of Epic Games’ hit battle royale game Fortnite, albeit in beta. The hardware, thanks to the liquid cooling that accompanies Samsung’s Exynos 9810 chipset (which is what powers the Galaxy Note 9 that one can officially buy in Kenya), is more than capable to handle not only intensive games like Fortnite but also the gazillion features (more on that below) that the device packs.

This is why opting to go with the limited edition 8GB RAM variant may be a bit of a stretch. Sure, the more the better when it comes to memory but it is worth noting that Android, as things stand, is not very well optimized for such and additional memory, like Oppo and Xiaomi’s decisions to go first with 10GB RAM smartphones is just that: a gimmick (this was written before Samsung went ahead and announced a 12GB smartphone).

The other draw to that 8GB RAM Note 9 is the prospect of having a combined 1 terabyte of storage on a smartphone. Sure, that sounds cool and all and will earn you some bragging rights but really? For Kshs 30,000 more? The 128GB on this device is more than enough, at least that’s what I found out. And should need arise, one still has the option to go and get as big a memory card as they can get in the market.

Smart endurance

This particular sub-heading was picked for this section of the review over 3 months ago based on my experience with the Galaxy Note 9 on Android 8.1, Oreo. 3 months is a long time and things have since changed.

2 months ago, the Galaxy Note 9 picked up the Android Pie update in Kenya. That, as I have come to find out the hard way may have been a double-edged sword. Sure there’s the bit where we get this swanky new user interface and all the goodies lined up in Pie but at what cost? The battery drain has taken a turn for the worst, at least as far as my experience is concerned. By at least an hour, give or take a few minutes with every charging cycle.

The apparent notorious battery drain is more conspicuous when the device is left unattended overnight with the network radios switched off.

There are enough workarounds to minimize this but that is not the most desirable user experience as devices like the Galaxy Note 9 and others are meant for the mass market where those among us who can afford to part with 5 figures easily can pick it up; not necessarily geeks who worship at the altar of Android updates.

It’s a good thing that the Galaxy Note 9’s fast charging (using the adaptor and cable included in the box) is the best I have ever experienced on any smartphone I have owned.

Feature-packed

As can be seen in the sections that follow, that Samsung remains ahead of the pack when it comes to bundling everything and anything it can find on its devices has never been in doubt. I mean, these guys were already doing all those gestures that LG is going gaga over on its 2019 flagship device 6 years ago!

Still, while that is the case, it doesn’t mean that Samsung is regularly spot on with this feature overload trend. A good case in point is the weak facial recognition system on the Galaxy Note 9. It is the single most disappointing feature on the whole device. I had no high hopes for Bixby while picking up the Note 9 for review back in September but heck, I expected a more refined experience on the face unlocking tech given the strides that competitors have made and that Samsung had already laid the groundwork before. I was wrong.

The so-called face recognition/face unlock is so bad I had to turn it off in favour of its biometric siblings Intelligent scan and Iris scan. Even the Oppo Find X with all its faults (at least in my eyes) had a much better face unlock mechanism in place.

The good thing with a device as feature-packed as the Note 9 is that there is no shortage of plan Bs. The aforementioned Intelligent and Iris scans are good options but not as good as the super-fast fingerprint sensor which is, thankfully, finally in its rightful place. Well, the new Galaxy S10 has that swanky new in-screen fingerprint sensor tech powered by Qualcomm which is nice and all but for the technology that Samsung availed in 2018, nothing is broken.

A feature I have had much less use for and which can at times appear to be a nuisance and handy at others, like when you want to call up an app you don’t have pinned on the home screen, is Apps Edge. Rolled out when Samsung hadn’t gotten into the trend of doing what it calls “Infinity displays” and still banked on “Edge displays” to get the crowds through the door, the feature is one of the many that Samsung retains for the sake of retaining and not much for the standout value they add.

I find it surprising that there has been little emphasis on the multitasking capabilities of the device, at least from a marketing angle, unlike has been the case for the Note series over the years. You know, back in the day when Samsung’s own split-screen innovation, multi-window, was something Google hadn’t dreamed of borrowing and co-opting into Android? It’s a shame since multi-window, while novel as it has ever been, still has a learning curve in terms of activation when competitors like Huawei have perfected the art of simplifying access to such a feature – just slide your finger across the on-screen navigation buttons and, voila!

Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to try out the updated DeX so, while I can confirm the device’s desktop credentials if your idea of productivity includes blowing up your creations on mobile on a big monitor and continuing your work there since Samsung made a big deal about that at the Note 9’s announcement last August, I cannot attest to its efficiency or lack thereof.

Bixby

It is actually a good thing that after the release of the Galaxy S10, Samsung announced that it would be letting users do something they should’ve been allowed to do since day 1: map the Bixby button to do pretty much what they want. Granted, how that works in reality is limiting and we can’t bring up the Google Assistant as we would’ve wanted, it’s still better than nothing at all.

Why? Well, isn’t it obvious that Bixby is the “smart” assistant that nobody asked for? Samsung veterans would remember its crude predecessor, S Voice. Bixby, to be honest, is headed in that same digital graveyard. As such, it’s not worth wasting any ounce of energy on it. Life is too short to spend time on things that barely add value. Like Bixby.

S Pen

It is called a Galaxy Note for a reason. Since the first generation arrived, one key feature has always defined the Galaxy Note: the stylus aka S Pen. It is what brings to life the device’s note-taking credentials and the ninth iteration does the most to keep the family line going.

And, even better, unlike before, it can be used for more than take notes, something that I found unique since the S Pen in the Galaxy Note 3 allowed users to use that device’s capacitive navigation buttons without having to switch to their fingers.

It can be used as a remote camera shutter button, it can also double up as a remote multimedia controller – on YouTube and PowerPoint presentations.

All that via something that is new on the S Pen: Bluetooth. Just as is the ability to charge up in a few seconds without doing any damage to the device’s rather weak battery than other system resources are already doing thanks to the Low Energy (LE) spec of Bluetooth that we don’t talk about often. Heck, it can be your go-to accessory for creating GIFs if using the already nifty setting on the camera app that swaps burst mode for “GIF mode” isn’t your cup of tea.

Camera

Besides the consistent top notch performance, big screen and ease of text manipulation with the S Pen, the one thing that has made me a true Samsung Galaxy Note fan over the years is the assurance that the camera will always be great. That was true of the Galaxy Note II I used over 6 years ago, it was true of the Galaxy Note 3 I bought 5 years ago, it was true of the Galaxy Note 5 I took with me to Dubai 3 years ago. It is still true of the Galaxy Note 9 I have used over the last half year.

My favourite feature? The super slow motion at 960 frames per second. WATCH

I like that I get notified if someone posing for a photo blinks but that isn’t much of a deal breaker for me.

The worst feature? Those AR emoji. No, I definitely don’t look like that. Do better, Samsung. I mean, if we are to take pride in these half swipes at Apple and its iOS platform then the features “borrowed” from them need to be watertight not half-hearted attempts.

Photos taken at night are excellent, by every measure. As are videos shot anytime. In fact, it is clips shot via the Note 9’s 12-megapixel double lenses that kickstarted this blog’s YouTube channel (subscribe).

Here are some samples (compressed):

Sound

The audio one gets from the Galaxy Note 9 dual speaker arrangement which also incorporates the earpiece is easily becoming one of my main attractions to the device. The Dolby Atmos processing creates this rich immersive surround experience that is pleasing to listen to. Just when you thought you badly needed an LG G or V series device for that…

Conclusion

By all measures, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 was the best smartphone to buy last year, at least locally. It wasn’t until 2 months ago that its closest rival, the Huawei Mate 20, started selling in the country. While the device did get eclipsed by Google’s Pixel 3 XL on the global stage thanks to its superior imaging features, that particular device isn’t available locally and getting it is a small hustle.

That was last year.

This year, with all the stellar devices set to wow us, if they haven’t already, and the impending arrival of Android Q, there will be new stars of the show. While that spells doom on the Galaxy Note 9 on one hand as it ages, it is also the device’s silver lining.

The arrival of newer devices and even the imminent arrival of the Note 9’s own successor means that it falls down the pecking order and, as such, we will get to see its price get slashed everywhere. This is a good thing bearing in mind that the device started selling at a whopping Kshs 105,000 for the base model and a whole Kshs 135,000 for the model that made it possible to combine onboard storage and external storage to come up with 1 terabyte storage on a smartphone for the first time ever.

The rollout of the Android Pie update to the device this year, while shrouded in the controversy of reduced battery life, breathed new life to the device. The new Samsung user interface dubbed One UI is equally as divisive and controversial but it is also what one finds on Samsung’s latest and greatest device at the moment, the Galaxy S10, and it is what will be the company’s look and feel on its software so you still get most of the features on 2019 devices at 2018 prices. Without punch holes ruining your YouTube experience and other compromises.

On the flip side, my experience using the Galaxy Note 9 has taught me what I think is likely to be a reality for many exploring on whether they should get it or go with some other last generation champs from Samsung: the Galaxy S9 and S9+. If you can go for a whole week without ever needing to scribble down something or annotating on a screen grab or signing some documents then the Galaxy Note 9 may not be exactly for you. You would be much better saving a few coins and going with the Galaxy S9+, instead.

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com