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The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is finally here in the Philippines! And we’ve got one with us right now.

And what do we do when one of the most eagerly awaited phones of the year drops into our team’s hands? Why, review it, of course, just for you!

Are you with us, or are you with us?

Inching (striding) forward

The first thing to realize about the Note 9 is that it doesn’t look so different from the model it replaces, the Note 8. This is quite in line with how Samsung and other big dog manufacturers like Apple operate – they introduce something new and refine it for the next year before jumping ahead to the next big new thing. Many of the changes to the Note 9 can be seen as just that, sensible refinements to the Note 8 in response to user feedback and technological advancements.

For example. The Note 9’s sides have been flattened out to make this big phone easier to pick up and use even without a case, and a chamfer at the meeting point of the metal and the glass makes the Note 9 easier to grip, too. (We still recommend you use this phone with a case to make sure it stays good-looking.) The bezels are a little bit narrower than in the Note 8, too. Flip the phone over to view the rear, where you’ll see that the camera visor is a bit smaller and more centered than in the Note 8, and the fingerprint reader has been moved to under the visor. This new positioning works out much better than the old one, where it was all too easy to smudge the camera lenses when trying to unlock the phone without turning it over.

The Note is powered by the Exynos 9810 octa-core CPU and Mali-G72 MP18 GPU and runs either 6GB or 8GB of RAM. A lot of power for a lot of phone – this one runs flawlessly, it’s extremely snappy and very responsive no matter what we did with it. We always felt it had power to spare irrespective of what we threw at it; it didn’t stutter or lag at all.

Turn the phone back over to admire the 6.34” Super AMODEL WQHD+ (2960 x 1440) 18.5:9 aspect-ratio display, which is fantastically bright, sharp and clear – could it be the best display of any smartphone available right now? We think it just might be. At 514 pixels per inch, you’re practically not going to be able to see any pixels whatsoever. Blacks are extremely, well, black, and colors are awesomely bright – wherever you take the phone, whether indoors or outdoors.

We’re also loving the fact that this phone comes with a whopping amount of internal storage: either 128GB or 512GB of space, expandable via microSD (imagine having about 1TB of internal storage on your phone). And what really gets our nod is that the Note 9 has a 4000mAh battery – 700mAh more than in the Note 8, and 500mAh more than in the S9 Plus. This, we would argue, is more than an incremental change. The battery gave us an average of more than 7 hours of no-holds-barred usage, which by today’s standards is really something (imagine not having to scrimp and scrounge on your usage just to save on battery life).

Super snappers

As for the cameras, up front you get an 8MP snapper, and out back a dual 12MP sensor set – exactly the same set that debuted in the Galaxy S9 Plus including the dual-aperture lens. Are the pictures just as good as those taken by the S9 Plus? Yes and no – quality-wise, certainly, as our testing produced some exceptional images whether indoors or out and in bad light and good, but Samsung’s enhanced the feature set of the Note 9 in keeping with its top of the line status.

First off, the Note 9’s camera gets a new scene recognition mode that automatically tries to identify your subject (whether it’s a pet or food or whatever) and tweaks the colors of your photos to make them more interesting. While it did come up with some more interesting shots, they weren’t always necessary as the Note 9’s camera is extremely capable all on its own. Secondly, a new flaw detection feature tries to pick out flaws such as, say, someone blinking or closing their eyes during a photo and will give you a little nudge via a popup if so; welcome and useful if needed

And we didn’t get to test the Note 9’s video capabilities that extensively, but we were able to shoot pretty great videos thanks to features like optical and electronic image stabilization. We’re quite impressed that users can even shoot 4K video at 60 fps – that’s a feature usually reserved for the most expensive and capable cameras (although, take note, you’ll need to disable electronic image stabilization to do so).

Samsung exclusives

As for Samsung’s proprietary stuff – the Samsung Experience skin and the included features like Samsung’s own apps and the Bixby personal assistant – we’d say they’re a work in progress. In all fairness Samsung Experience, which is now up to 9.5, is better than it was previously, but we have to say Bixby still does need some work. It wasn’t all that accurate when we tested it by asking for directions for example. Note that Bixby is linked to Samsung-specific apps, so if you want to use it you’ll need to put up with those apps. (Also, note that in the Note 9, the Bixby physical button can’t be disabled or remapped to other apps like Google Assistant.)

We also wanted to bring up Samsung Dex, which harnesses the power of the Note 9 by allowing users to plug it into a monitor and use it as a desktop PC. With the Note 9 Samsung has taken a step forward with Dex by doing away with the need for a dock – just link the Note 9 and the monitor with a USB-C to HDMI adapter. For you to make the most out of Dex you might want to use a keyboard and mouse for the full desktop experience.

And of course no review of the Note 9 would be complete if it didn’t cover the S-Pen – the biggest differentiator between the Galaxy Note and Galaxy S (in terms of screen size and other key features, the two have been inching closer and closer for a while now, and even share some features such as processor options in some markets)? The Note 9’s S-Pen now benefits from Bluetooth functionality, which allows it to do much more than in previous Notes. You can use the S-Pen to trigger the Note 9’s cameras remotely, for example, or use it to transition from slide to slide when giving Powerpoint presentations. Some apps already come with S-Pen functionality, and some developers will be able to make their apps S-Pen-compatible as well. And of course there are all the other things you can do with S-Pens like write messages and so on.

Any of the color choices the Note 9 comes in are winners – pick from Midnight Black (with a black S-Pen), Metallic Copper (with a copper S-Pen), or Ocean Blue (with a headturning yellow S-Pen) – our test model came in blue. We can tell you that the yellow S-Pen is a very good way to tell people that you’ve got a Note 9, as we got plenty of stares when using it while outside our office. Note that you can also buy an S-Pen separately in case the standard color doesn’t suit you.

The verdict

What else is there to say? The Note 9 is a superb large phone and you should definitely consider getting one if you’re in the market for a big phone. Of course, what hasn’t changed in between the transition from Note 8 to Note 9 is the character of the phone itself: this is the best smartphone Samsung offers, a big, beautiful bruiser of a phone with the specs to match. Sure, many of the changes ushered in via the Note 9 may be incremental – but they all add up in a big way, making this phone a definite leap forward.

 

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