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Samsung Galaxy S9 Review: Brilliant but underwhelming

Brilliant but underwhelming

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For any creator serious about his craft, the end goal is the same — to create the best version of a product possible. You achieve this through innovation and experimentation, in rinse and repeat cycles until something great is created.

But then what happens next?

It’s a predicament shared by many of the best technology brands in the biz, and one that Samsung finds itself in this year. Its new Galaxy S9 smartphone, while better on the inside, is the same on the outside. And while that is only part of the story told, it is the narrative by which many a reviewer will tell the story of Samsung’s new flagship.    

Depending on who’s looking, the Galaxy S9’s recycled design can be seen any of two ways: either that it lacks the freshness that phones are so often measured by each year, or that Samsung has achieved the pinnacle of smartphone design and that the best way forward is to keep things as is.

The Galaxy S9 shimmers in Lilac Purple / Photo by Michael Josh

I agree more with the latter, at least when it comes to looks. Two years in and the S9 is still the most beautiful smartphone on the planet. Its curved Infinity Display and all-glass build are hard to match. And now with colors ranging from coral blue to lilac purple, it’s hard not to fall in love with one at first sight.      

But are looks enough? Does the Samsung Galaxy S9 have enough new features to back up its good looks? Is it the best Android smartphone ever made? And should you go out and buy it?  

But first, more answers to your most important S9-related questions.

Is dual aperture a gimmick?

Samsung claims it’s reimagined the smartphone camera on the S9. While that might be more marketing than fact, it’s dual aperture camera is an unprecedented engineering feat.

No Android smartphone thus far has had the ability to change the aperture on a single lens. On the S9, you can switch between f/1.5 and f/2.4. But why would you want that?

The Galaxy S9 has a unique variable aperture camera

A large aperture gives your photos that creamy background blur when shooting up close, but more importantly helps you take brighter, better photos in low light.

The S9’s f/1.5 is the highest aperture we’ve seen on a smartphone and significantly improves night shots. In fact photos we took at night using the S9 looked brighter than what the scene actually looked like in real life.

Why then would you need to switch to f/2.4?

The higher aperture, the bigger the depth of field. Sometimes details get too soft especially around subjects and sometimes you just want more details in focus; that’s where the smaller f/2.4 comes in.

The Galaxy S9 picks the best aperture depending on how much available light / Photo by Michael Josh

To be honest, the average user should not have to worry about any of this, and Samsung doesn’t think so either, so it’s making these adjustments in the background. With the goal being, you getting better photos regardless of the shooting situation.

For more advanced users wanting more control, there is Pro Mode that lets you manually switch between the two among a host of other camera settings.

Does the Galaxy S9 take better photos versus X?

DxOMark, an independent body that rates cameras, recently gave the S9+ its highest overall score and highest photo score. While the results of its test are debatable, it’s oftentimes a good benchmark to see how a smartphone fares in the camera space.

We will need more time to conduct an in-depth head-to-head test of our own, but based on some preliminary comparison photos versus the Pixel 2 and against the iPhone X shot during the day, deciding on which smartphone takes the best photos will boil down to a matter of taste or how technically meticulous you are.      

It’s in low light, however, that the Galaxy S9 shines, it is hands down the best low-light camera smartphone you can buy today.

Should I get the S9+ for the second camera?

The S9 comes in two sizes: 5.8 and 6.2 inches — the S9 and S9+ respectively.

If you get the bigger S9+, you not only get more memory (6GB vs 4GB), a bigger battery (3500mAh vs 3000mAh), and a larger screen. You also get two rear cameras.

The Galaxy S9+ has two rear cameras / Photo by Chay Lazaro

This second camera is a 2x zoom lens, a great thing to have if you like getting in closer on subjects without sacrificing the quality of your photos.

The second camera also enables a feature called Live Focus which we’ve also seen on the Note 8 and the A8 (2018) series. It’s a must-have feature on any top-of-the-line smartphone, giving your portraits a nice blurred background. Unique to Samsung’s implementation is the ability to adjust the amount of blur while taking the photo and after, and if you decide you like the non-portrait, wide-angle version better, the S9 also keeps a copy for you.   

These two features justify the US$ 120 premium of the S9+. If you’re torn between the two, it is the model I recommend.

Selective Focus on the S9 isn’t very reliable

It’s worth pointing out that on the S9, you can still blur out backgrounds using a software feature called Selective Focus, but it’s just not as good at cutting out subjects from their background.

Art Bokeh on the Galaxy S9+ / Photo by Joshua Vergara

Speaking of, if you’re really serious about background blur, Samsung added a new feature on the S9+ called Art Bokeh. If the conditions are right, when you go in and adjust Background Blur on a Live Focus image, you’ll get a bunch of shape options to choose from. You can get bokeh in the shape of stars or hearts as shown in the image above.

Super slow-mo 960fps, so what?

To better appreciate the next two features, you have to understand Samsung’s target demographic, a generation of creators who have an affinity for sharing and expression.   

If you like creating shareable videos, GIFs, and Boomerangs, you might like Samsung new super slow-mo feature. On the S9, you are able to slow down time more than ever before on a Galaxy smartphone.

To capture the best super slow-mos, you need plenty of light. The sample below was shot inside a controlled environment with plenty of available light.


The Sony Xperia XZ Premium was the first to get this feature, one whole year ago. Slow-mos shot on both phones are rather similar in terms of quality, with the S9’s slow-mos a tad bit warmer.  

On the S9 though, it’s easier to operate. Auto Mode detects motion and starts capturing once it senses movement. This way you get the shot each time.

But Auto Mode works best when you can control what you’re shooting. Out in the real world, you’re best using manual capture; you’ll need plenty of practice to get your timing right.

Finally, when you shoot super slow-mo video, the S9 adds background music automatically so you can instantly share your creations to Facebook or Instagram. You can go in and edit the track or just remove it entirely.

Not Animojis

When the iPhone X launched last year, one of its more quirky features was Animojis, basically the ability to animate nine popular emoji using the phone’s face tracking features.

The iPhone X has True Depth sensors that can match muscle movements on your face so your Animoji basically does as you do. Samsung hoped to do one better on the S9 with a similar feature called AR Emoji. Unfortunately, we didn’t enjoy it as much.

While we like the ability to personalize and create characters after our own likeness, we feel more often than not, AR Emoji characters don’t look like the selfies they are based on.

But more bothersome is the fact that AR Emoji don’t track as well. They especially struggle when trying to match speech. So nope, AR Emoji Karaoke is out of the question.  

Send animated stickers featuring your own emoji

We do like the personalized animated stickers, though. They are cool, and we like how you can use them across any or all of your favorite chat apps. They are accessible by pressing the sticker icon on your default Samsung keyboard, and are also saved as GIFs in your Gallery app.

Stereo speakers

Audio has just gotten better on the S9.

If you’re like me and watch a lot of videos or play games without headphones, you’ll like the new stereo speaker setup on the S9. Sound comes out of the earpiece up front, and the speaker grilles on the phone’s bottom. The sound is louder and more pronounced.  

The S9 also now supports Dolby Atmos, so you get surround sound-like audio when listening to content that supports it. Last year, Netflix announced support for Atmos with titles like Okja and Snowpiercer, but it doesn’t quite seem to work on the S9 yet.

Hello Bixby

Like Apple and Google, Samsung has its own personal assistant, Bixby.

And to show you its committed to Bixby, the S9 retains the S8’s dedicated Bixby button. If it’s not your cup of tea, you can deactivate the button completely, but you cannot remap it as a shortcut to other apps or commands. That would have been a killer feature.

Samsung promises Bixby 2.0 will come next August or September when it unveils the Note 9. For now, it remains underdeveloped.

Bixby Vision can estimate how many calories are in the meal you’re about to have

Sure, Bixby can do new things, like live translation when ordering food overseas. And when your meal arrives, you can also have Bixby give you an estimate of how many calories you’re about to consume. Cool tricks, but they do not replace a good old personal assistant.

In the interim, I suggest you use Google Assistant; it’s accessible via the usual voice command, “Okay Google.”

Improved biometrics

One way to recognize the S9 from an S8 is to turn the phone around and look at the position of its fingerprint sensor. Proving that it listens to user feedback, Samsung has graciously located it to underneath the camera instead of beside it.

It’s in a much better place, but unfortunately it’s still too close to the camera, and part of one single unit, instead of being separate. In my week or so of use, I’ve often brushed my S9 camera’s lens while trying to unlock my phone.  

Intelligent Scan on the Galaxy S9 combines facial recognition and iris scanning / Photo by Michael Josh

It’s kinda a big deal for me as the fingerprint sensor is still my default way of unlocking the phone. It’s just quicker, snappier, and more reliable even if Samsung has beefed up its “Intelligent Scan” by integrating its facial recognition and iris scanner.

Price jump

A smartphone’s price tag is as important as any new feature. And when it comes to determining the S9’s value, it’s important to take a look at how much the S9 costs around the globe.

Prices of the S9 went up everywhere except the US / Photo by Michael Josh

Here’s the thing: In the US, the S9 and S9+ cost as much as the S8 and the S8+ when they launched. But across the globe, prices increased by 5 to 15 percent.

Do all these features justify the price increase? No.

But having said that, when compared to the iPhone X, the S9+ is still more affordable, so there’s that. Depending on where you are in the world, the S9 and S9+ might not be the best value for money phone. But they are at least pretty competitive in the upper end of the price spectrum.

Is the Galaxy S9 your GadgetMatch?

If you’re looking for the best Android smartphones available today, the S9 and S9+ are a match. The S9+ especially is one the best Android phones in the market today.

Both models are deserving of the GadgetMatch Seal of Approval.

The Galaxy S9 is a pleasure to use / Photo by Michael Josh

Apart from an excellent camera and great looks, you’ll like the S9’s creator-focused features, loud stereo speakers, water resistance, and headphone jack. On the flip side, Bixby is still not ready, AR Emoji is unpolished, and battery life could be better.

The S9 and S9+ are not intended for S8 and S8+ users. If you own an S8, skip this upgrade and wait for next year.

Although, S7 and S7 Edge users might want to strongly consider this upgrade, especially if their contract is up for renewal. US carriers in particular are offering plenty of perks for those pre-ordering the phone.

For the more price conscious though, also consider not-so-premium phones from brands that may not sound as sexy as Samsung or Apple but offer all of these high-end specs at a lower, more reachable price point.

Following years of iteration, Samsung finally nailed it / Photo by Michael Josh

Following many years of iterating, Samsung seems to have nailed it. While in some ways the S9 is almost predictable, its purely iterative step-up also speaks to Samsung’s ability to make great phones. As a fan of innovation though, I want to see more, an under display fingerprint sensor maybe, better battery tech, and ways to leverage artificial intelligence to make their phones better. AI is the future, and it would be interesting to see glimpses of how Samsung plans to ensure their smartphone remains at the center of this computing revolution.

Reviews

Honor Band 5 Review: Reliable fitness companion

Counting steps was fun!

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We went hiking with the Honor Band 5 and I learned a few things about hiking, the fitness wearable, and myself — which is mostly just about how generally unfit I am.

The hike took place at Masungi Georeserve. It’s a conservation area in the Philippines that’s about 47 kilometers away from Metro Manila. One of the staff told us that during the prehistoric era, the entire reserve was submerged in water. Millions of years later, it’s now a mountain range inhabited by different species of plants, insects, and animals. Fun!

A view of a section of Masungi Georeserve

Unlike other trek sites, the Masungi Georeserve is  more… tamed. The rangers have built a path for curious hikers but if, like me, you have zero experience trekking or hiking, then don’t think for a second that this is going to be easy.

You need to have the right gear

The thing about having fitness goals (or just goals in general, really) are they need to be measurable for you to know your progress. With the Honor Band 5 slapped on my wrist, I was excited to find out several things but I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did when the hike wrapped up. More on this later.

MJ showing he has all the right gear for the hike

Another proper gear you need to take note of is your shoes. Just as there’s a pair meant for running, playing basketball, and training, there are also shoes made specifically for hiking.

I went out of my way to get a pair prior to the hike and it made a huge difference. I had a relatively easier time going through the terrain than some of the people I went with who wore regular running or training sneakers. This meant I had one less thing to worry about.

Getting started

Before we started, we first set up the Honor Band 5. To do so, you’ll need to download the Huawei Health app. Through the app you can see all your metrics as well as update the firmware and download more watch faces.

There were a variety of watch faces. They ranged from simple ones that just show you the time and the number of steps you’ve taken to those that showed the time, steps, and even heart rate.

For this particular trek, I wanted to check on my heart rate. I was happy to know it was still beating despite multiple failed romantic pursuits. In fact, it spiked more than I thought it would during the hike.

Design-wise, none of the watch faces really stood out. But there are enough options that I’m confident you’ll find something you’ll like and would want to stick with.

Tracking is insightful and fun

Onto to the hike! We were told it would take about four to five hours to complete the route. Naturally, we took longer than that. To completely track everything you need to go to workouts and choose outdoor walk.

The Honor Band 5 supports other workouts too like outdoor and indoor running, outdoor and indoor cycling, free training, and much more.

The trek had several stops — some were for resting, others were for the accompanying ranger to tell us more about the reserve. At each stop, I would check on the watch to see how many steps I’ve taken so far. Especially since the trail varies from straight and narrow paths to ones that require climbing.

The trek involved climbing down nets like this

Having the heart rate monitor up, I also made a conscious effort to check on my breathing. I’ve never really had strong lungs. Even when I still used to play basketball regularly when I was a lot younger, I was quick to run out of breath.

When I saw my heart rate going up so much higher than usual, I made it a point to stop for a while and take a few deep breaths to gather myself. The SpO2 Monitor2 also came in handy here. It detects your level of oxygen at different altitudes and thankfully mine stayed in the normal range for much of the trek.

There were too many of these nets. Not apparent in photo is the fear and dread I felt climbing down

Additionally, the colored amoled display on the Honor Band 5 made it easy to check on my numbers. This is also through even when it started to rain. I could still see the numbers clearly despite the watch being drenched.

The Honor Band 5 is water resistant for up to 50m. So not only can it survive the rain, it’s also made to accompany you during your swimming sessions.

Taking a closer look at the numbers

After the hike, you’ll need to stop the tracking so you get your entire workout summary. It took us nearly eight hours to complete the trek and the rest of my numbers are pretty interesting.

The Masungi Georeserve took our collective breaths in more ways than one

I took a total of 11,611 steps on an average cadence of 24 steps per minute with an average speed of 1.78km/h and an average heart rate of 129 bpm. If you thought that was confusing, it only means I’m about as out of shape as I expected myself to be.

You can check your data against what is supposed to be the average for a healthy human being. With this you can start working towards that goal. The idea is to gradually reach a state of being healthy and tracking your numbers will help you do that.

Other features and final thoughts

The Honor Band 5 also has a few other nifty features like Find Your Phone. Say you forgot where you last put your phone, the fitness band can ring it for you.

There’s also TruSleep tech that I didn’t get to try as much on this device but I did on the Honor Watch Magic so watch out for that article as well.

Just me trying to look triumphant midway through the hike

The Honor Band 5 promises up to 14 days of battery life. I had it on for a few more days post the trek and didn’t really charge it up until the 10th or 11th day. Which is still pretty darn good.

At PhP 1,699 (US$ 33), the Honor Band 5 lives up to its billing as your personal fitness tracker. The colored AMOLED display is great and the tracking is where you’d expect it to be. It’s also comfortable enough that you won’t mind having it on while you workout.

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Vivo V17 Pro Unboxing and Review

Overpriced and gimmicky?

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Vivo’s newest smartphone has cool camera features, including the world’s first dual pop-up selfie camera.

But is that enough for you to want to upgrade, or is the Vivo V17 Pro overpriced with a lot of gimmicks?

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Her GadgetMatch

LG Pra.L’s Galvanic Ion Booster makes your skincare products more effective

Makes your visits to the facial clinic less frequent

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The marriage of beauty and tech is not an entirely new thing. Ionic products, tools that are supposed to help slow down the signs of ageing, even water bottles that will supposedly make water better for your skin — they have been around for a while. LG’s new, Pra.L line is one of the most recent launches which was met with both shock and awe. This is mainly due to the new claims of what their high-grade devices can do but also because of the price tag they come with.

I personally love this whole movement. In the advent of the informed consumer trend, more and more people are becoming concerned about what they put on their skin. It’s highly common now that women who are into skincare are vigorously discussing ingredients. A lot of us are also becoming more interested in the details of what aestheticians are doing for us.

The entire Pra.L line is practically a beauty clinic within the convenience of your own home. It is democratizing the technology of some of the most common, non-invasive treatments and making it accessible to consumers who want to do things on their own.

One of the notable devices in the line is the Galvanic Ion Booster. The idea of an ion booster to help skincare products penetrate deeper into the skin is not entirely new. LG’s version of the device, however, is definitely a cut above most of the products in the market.

As someone with sensitive skin which is on a recovery period from hormonal breakouts, I tend to be quite picky with anything I put on my skin. It has also been recommended that I go for simpler routines using as few products as possible. With little product, you’d want them to be as effective as possible. This is where this device comes in.

Ease of use

For the past month, I’ve been using the Galvanic Ion Booster religiously — morning and night. I would use the cleansing mode with my CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser (green bottle, for normal to dry skin). The device literally tells you which part of your face you should be using it on. The voice is not too loud but perky enough to get you out of your own head. Just in case you get too in the zone. Using galvanic ion technology, the device helps the cleanser draw out the impurities in your pores. Expect a slight vibration that is more relaxing than uncomfortable.

For the boost mode, I either use it with a vitamin C serum or The Ordinary’s Alpha Arbutin 2% + HA. Both serums are helpful in brightening the skin and fading out the marks left behind by intense breakouts. For the boost mode, the same technology is applied but in a reverse direction, helping the product and its ingredients penetrate your skin deeper. The boost mode is something I enjoy a lot as you can actually feel your products getting absorbed right away. I top everything with a gentle moisturizer from La Roche-Posay and on days when it’s extremely dry outside, a face oil from Australian indie beauty brand Ipsum.

I also use it with retinol treatments once a week but would make sure I double up on sunscreen the next day. The heat and vibration from the device do render retinol to be more effective. However, it will also make your skin more susceptible to sun damage.

When a stubborn pimple decides to pop up unannounced, I also use the boost mode to help my Mamonde AC Balance Spot Serum be absorbed faster. I wake up the next day with the little bugger dry and ready to be forgotten in the next couple of days.

Worth the price tag?

The device’s triangular head is made out of medical-grade titanium, making it safe for use on your skin. The shape is also effective in reaching the small nooks around your face like the sides of your nose. I just make sure to clean the device with running water and wipe it dry before putting on the cover.

LG’s Galvanic Ion Booster also has a good weight to it without being too heavy. The device also travels well — it comes with its own carrying pouch — and can charge with a micro USB cable or through the charging dock it comes with. The sleek design of the device makes it an easy hold and a joy to use. This, despite having to move it around your face for about three minutes per mode. Sounds like a short time but not when you’re a busy, working woman. I found it to be a lesson in slowing down and just making sure I enjoy doing my skincare routine instead of rushing through it like a chore — a form of self-love if you will.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

After a month of use, my skin feels more plump and healthy. It’s also brighter and blemishes became more manageable. I can highly recommend this for the skincare junkie; It’s a game-changer.

The device retails for SG$ 529 which might seem like a huge blow to the wallet. However, prevention is definitely less expensive than cure so think of it as an investment for the future.

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