Samsung Galaxy Note 9 Review: Pen Wielding Android Powerhouse

Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Software, User Experience And Camera Performance

We're not going to sugar-coat it. If you don't like OEM skins layered on top of Google's highly refined Android OS (in this case 8.1 Oreo), Samsung's latest setup, though a far cry from the original days of TouchWiz, probably isn't going to win you over. That said, for the vast majority of mainstream users, the Galaxy Note 9's user interface is clean, intuitive and efficient. There's a lot of functionality here for casual and power users alike, though again Android purists will likely wish things were just a touch leaner and, well, just more stock Android. 

Note 9 Skin Note 9 Samsung Apps

Aside from reinventing the wheel in a few places, however, you can't fault Samsung much either, with a device like the Galaxy Note 9. There's a ton of integration here, from simple things like a solid file manager (handy for working with DeX we might add), to Smart Things compatibility, Galaxy Wearable devices like the new Galaxy Watch and Samsung Knox for security. 

S Pen Remote bixby galaxy note 9

Samsung's AI assistant Bixby makes a return here and though the interface seems to offer some refinements and an improved level of intelligence, it still simply just lacks the speed, depth and accuracy of Google Assistant, no matter how you slice it. I get why Samsung needs it and offers its value proposition to end users, I just don't see its adoption rate changing all that much. Maybe some day there will be a killer Bixby powered app or function?

When it comes to pen stylus input, functionality and controls, on the other hand, Samsung is King and the Note 9 is the new S Pen's super hero.

air command galaxy note 9
Galaxy Note 9 Live Message
Samsung S Pen Live Message Feature

As in, if you had any inkling at all that a pen stylus input device might be useful for your daily adventures, you really owe it to yourself to check out the Galaxy Note 9. This one feature might be justification alone for large format smartphone users to make the jump that are looking for a bit more functionality, input and control of their device. Samsung has refined the S Pen over the years and this version is by far the best yet. In the screen shot further up on the left here, you can see that the S Pen's Bluetooth BLE connectivity now offers remote control functionality, from snapping selfies sans timer with the camera, to hitting play/pause/skip within YouTube, and DeX desktop remote control integration as well. The Note 9's new pen is much more capable and yes, you still can fire up those fancy Live Message animated GIFs to impress your non-Note wielding commoner friends. 

Say Cheese - Maybe A Nice Brie Because Note 9's Camera Is More Refined Too

Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 camera hardware is identical to that of the Galaxy S9+ and its software interface is largely unchanged as well. However, there are some new hooks and features here that do empower the Note 9's camera with a bit more smarts and savvy. 
Scene Detection Galaxy Note 9

blurry shot detection galaxy note 9

We now have shot Flaw Detection available to alert us if something has gone awry with the current shot. Have a less-than steady hand? The camera will alert you now if a shot is less than perfect due to motion blur. Is someone in your shot asleep standing up? The camera will alert you to lazy or blinky-eyed conditions as well, so you can hit retake without having to preview the last shot. Note the little speech bubble next to ol' Max up there, informing us that his last shot may be blurry.

As noted previously as well, the camera's Scene Optimizer will categorize shot subjects into one of 20 different types, to optimize lighting and color in a shot. Notice the tiny leaf on the middle right side edge of the shot of the plant above. Samsung notes various "scenes include food, portraits, flowers, indoor scenes, animals, landscapes, greenery, trees, sky, mountains, beaches, sunrises and sunsets, watersides, street scenes, night scenes, waterfalls, snow, birds, and text." 

Note 9 Pro Camera

We'll see how this all works in practice next, but when all else fails, you also have Samsung's excellent Pro shot mode that let's you dial things in nine ways from Sunday, so to speak, with everything from exposure to white balance, ISO and more.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 Vs. Google Pixel 2 XL Shot Comparison

It would be fair to say that the Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL are almost universally recognized as offering the best smartphone camera performance on the market currently, so of course these are the yardsticks we'll measure the Galaxy Note 9's camera performance against. In all of the shots below, both the Pixel 2 XL and Galaxy Note 9 were left in full Auto mode, with the Note 9's scene detection system active. We chose a mix of moderate indoor lighting, tricky mixed lighting shots indoors and outdoors on a bright but slightly overcast day. 

Note 9 St Michael Pixel 2 St Michael
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (Left) - Google Pixel 2 XL (Right)
Note 9 knick knacks Pixel 2 Knick Knacks
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (Left) - Google Pixel 2 XL (Right)

Starting with the indoor shots, the Galaxy Note 9 seems to offer less noise in lower light and mixed light scenes. However, there are other notable differences and shortcomings. The Pixel 2 XL, though slightly noisier in the wall area, offers a bit more detail on the statute of St. Michael the Archangel. The Note 9, however captures better color reproduction we would say, in that particular shot. The shot of the knick-knack table, on the other hand, is a bit of mixed bag for both the Pixel 2 and the Note 9. Again, the Note 9 seems to produce with less noise and grain, but is a bit over saturated and yellow. The Pixel 2 XL's shot is unrealistically dark and a bit drab. In reality, the lighting and color of this shot is somewhere in the middle between the two images captured by these cameras.

Note 9 black eyed susan Pixel 2 black eyed susan
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (Left) - Google Pixel 2 XL (Right)
Note 9 Rose of Sharon Pixel 2 Rose of Sharon
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (Left) - Google Pixel 2 XL (Right)

Outdoors things got even more interesting. We fully expected the Galaxy Note 9 to win the Black-Eyed Susan flower shot on top here, but that was not the case and the Note 9 ended up shooting a touch over-exposed. It did in fact, however, detect that we were shooting flowers and foliage so it should have been on its A-game, so to speak. That's not to say it's a bad shot; it's just not as vibrant and lush as the Pixel 2 XL's rendering. And then there's the pink Rose of Sharon shot, which the Galaxy Note 9 really nailed handily. We tried to capture identical angles in this close up macro shot, but it wasn't easy and at an elevation. If anything the Pixel 2 XL had an advantage here with a more straight-on shot while the Note 9's shot is angled ever so slightly upwards. Regardless, the Pixel 2 XL struggled with complete scene focus and lighting, while Galaxy Note 9 captured better detail with better exposure as well. 

Note 9 Yogi3
Samsung Galaxy Note 9

Pixel 2 Yogi3
Google Pixel 2 XL

We'd like to thank our 7 year-old Jack Russell Yogi for his unyielding patience sitting still, whereas most times he's in a state of perpetual motion. He really makes for a good shot subject on the stairs here, with lots of detail and color variations in his fur to go along with the complexities of the patterns in the stair runner he's occasionally sacking out on. This shot comparison is a virtual toss-up in our opinion and we'll leave it to the eye of the beholder here. The Note 9 is ever so slightly more saturated, while the Pixel 2 XL again delivers slightly more muted colors and even a tinge of blue on the white of the staircase on the right side. You decide -- it's toss-up for us. 

Note 9 Live Focus 1
Galaxy Note 9 Live Focus
Pixel 2 Portrait 1
Pixel 2 XL Portrait Mode

Note 9 Live Focus 2
Galaxy Note 9 Live Focus
Pixel 2 Portrait 2
Pixel 2 XL Portrait Mode

When it comes to the Pixel 2 XL's Portrait Mode versus Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 Live Focus we were more than surprised to see Samsung has the upper-hand and in some cases by a significant margin. With two cameras at the ready on its backside, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. The Galaxy Note 9 delivers a deep, evenly disburse background bokeh blur effect with crisp foreground capture of the main subject, along with better lighting and exposure (indoor flower shot) than the Pixel 2 XL. The Pixel 2 XL actually has some weird blotchy blur effects in its shots, with some parts of the background captured in almost complete focus. Perhaps you might actually like that kind of anomaly? We didn't. In fact, there were even times when we'd put the Pixel 2 XL into Portrait Mode and try to capture a shot in that mode, only to realize it snapped a standard, all-sharp pic. Regardless, hands-down, when it comes to portrait mode shooting, aka Live Focus, we'll take the Galaxy Note 9, indoors or out. 

Galaxy Note 9 Video Footage Samples

We won't drone on too much here except to say that the Galaxy Note 9 does a nice job with video shots, with fast auto-focus and great variable lighting response. Image stabilization can be a bit of a mixed bag, however, with sometimes janky artifacting going on if the shooter is moving or walking, as you'll see in the 4K30 and 1080p60 clips. Our favorite mode was 4K60 shooting for its crispy capture that isn't affected by the Note 9's sometimes funky OIS in videos. Finally, you'll also note Super Slo-Mo mode makes a return here with Galaxy Note 9 and works exactly like it does in the Galaxy S9+. That is to say it's pretty fantastic and a whole lot of fun. 

Right, on with the performance benchmarking then...

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