Reviews

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.

Laptops

ASUS VivoBook X412F Review: A great midrange option for work and school

For those who need a fresh start

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Not everyone can afford a premium device. Even if the specifications entice you to buy that nice laptop, the ultimate decision point is in its price and value to you. Parents and young professionals starting a new job would know.

ASUS regularly comes up with great midrange selections for students and young professionals. That seems to be what the ASUS VivoBook X412F is: an all-around midrange device for productivity and day-to-day tasks. But if you’re currently a student or working full-time, should you consider this device?


Here’s a rundown of the device’s specifications:

It has a 14” HD anti-glare display

It’s powered by an Intel Core i3 processor and an NVIDIA MX230 graphics card

It comes with both a USB Type-A and Type-C port

Has a fingerprint reader on the touchpad

It gets the job done for its intended purpose

The model I used came with an Intel Core i3 processor, which won’t deliver great performance on paper. But after using it for a while, I can say that it really isn’t the case. It kept up with the numerous tasks I threw at it, whether it was writing documents or watching videos. Do take note that this device only comes with 4GB of RAM, so obviously you won’t be able to do a lot more.

It also helped that it comes with a 256GB solid state drive installed. Using SSDs provide a significant boost in loading times, which allowed me to get more tasks done. I would still prefer to have the more powerful Intel Core i5 option installed to maximize performance.

You can play games on it, just don’t push it

The VivoBook X412F comes with an entry level NVIDIA MX230 graphics card. Upon reading this, my initial thought was that gaming was possible — and it was. The catch is, well any game that doesn’t require so much graphical power will run smoothly. Games like CS:GO, Minecraft, and Rocket League do reach a hard 50 to 55 frame per second cap.

But like any other non-gaming laptop, using this strictly for gaming is highly discouraged. This device was not exactly designed to be a gaming machine, even if you get the units with more powerful processors on it. Plus, you will definitely feel the heat on your keyboard when you play for too long. So, I’m not saying that you can’t use it to play games; don’t use it just to play games.

It lasts relatively long, as long as you’re using it properly

Upon initial testing, I did get around five to six hours on one full charge. It’s long enough for you to just browse the internet, watch a few videos or movies, and type down reports. Doing some form of photo or video editing decreases that number by just a bit. It took two to three hours to fully charge the device from zero.

Battery life when playing games on it is just what you expect it to be. I got close to two hours and 30 minutes before having to plug the charger. Again, you can play games on this device but it’s not meant for strictly just gameplay. 

The webcam is surprisingly decent

One of the key critiques I’ve had over most laptops centers around their webcams. Most built-in HD webcams, when used for the first time, are not as “high-definition” as promoted. Images and videos either look blurry or grainy, which won’t help during conference calls.

With the VivoBook X412F, the webcam is decent at best — which is all you could really hope for. Under good lighting conditions, image quality on this 720p webcam feels more “high-definition” than most. I observed relatively less grain than most other laptops I’ve tried, which is great for video calls at least.

Other features worth considering before you buy

The VivoBook X412F comes with a fingerprint reader on the touchpad. Setting up Windows Hello was pretty fast, but I found the sensor to be pretty sensitive after. Even if I had already cleaned my fingers and wiped out the sweat, the sensor sometimes won’t read it.

It also comes with a chiclet keyboard without the number pad on the right side. Key travel, for me was decent and took just a short while to get used to. Sadly, it wasn’t backlit which I would have liked — especially for working late at night. 

Finally, you get what you can with its display. It’s only a 14-inch HD display, which doesn’t leave you much room for proper viewing angles and color accuracy. The one good quality it has, in my opinion, is that it’s an anti-glare screen. I used the device outdoors several times, and even at 70 percent brightness I could still see the contents of my screen.

Is the ASUS VivoBook X412F your GadgetMatch?

The ASUS VivoBook X412F is one device that truly caters to those who want an affordable yet premium experience. It comes in a package that promises great productivity and portability, and lasts a long time. It’s a total fit for students and young professionals looking for their first school or work laptop. Of course, that’s only the case as long as it is used for its intended purpose.

With a device like this, you can only do so much. While tasks such as photo, video editing, and gaming are possible, it proves to do more harm than good. If you really want to get the most value out of this laptop, I suggest you use it mostly for its intended purpose.At PhP 32,995 (US$ 629) for the 256GB + 4GB RAM unit, the ASUS VivoBook X412F is a great productivity device for work and school. That is, if you will use it for work or school-related activities.

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Philippines

Nokia 8.1 review: What took you so long?

Solid but feels dated

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There’s a Filipino song called “Bakit ngayon ka lang?”. Loosely translated, it means “what took you so long?”. The song talks about a missed romantic opportunity — of someone else coming along while you’re already committed to another. That’s almost exactly how I feel about the Nokia 8.1.

The phone — known in other markets as the Nokia 7X — was first announced in December 2018. A full seven months later, it arrived in the Philippines. And a lot has happened in those seven months.


Performance on par with midrangers today

Before I proceed, let’s get some of the specs talk out of the way. The device is powered by the Snapdragon 710 SoC along with 6GB of RAM with 128GB of internal storage which is expandable via a microSD card. That’s not bad. At all. It’s even near-flagship territory… in 2018.

One thing about the Nokia 8.1 though that will never feel dated is its OS. The phone is part of Google’s Android One program which means this is running Stock Android. If you like it vanilla — like a lot of purists do — then this is one of the phones that offer that clean experience. Right now it’s still on Android P, but if you’re feeling adventurous, you can side load Android Q beta as it is a partner device for Android’s developer preview.

Google cards are quite useful

The chip together with vanilla Android makes for a smooth and snappy experience. Most of the time I’m either just browsing or working on my phone and doing so on the Nokia 8.1 one was a very pleasant experience.

I have said this countless times but in case you’re new here, I don’t really play mobile games. The only time I ever really do so is when I have to test phones. On the Nokia 8.1 I only played Honkai Impact 3, which is a pretty graphics heavy game. The phone had zero trouble running the game and it looked especially stunning on the phone’s 6.18-inch PureDisplay screen (which we’ll get to shortly).

This means the phone will likely have zero problems running some of the most played games today like PUBG and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang. If you play these games with this phone and don’t get that Chicken Dinner or that MVP, then you only have yourself to blame.

A display sent from the heavens

The PureDisplay screen technology is really pulling its own weight. When Nokia said this phone offers a higher contrast ratio and sharper output, it felt like it was even underselling it. The screen is vibrant and the colors and images look sharp all without looking too saturated.

It doesn’t have any of that crazy 90hz or 120hz display that we’ll find on 2019 flagships, but dare I say, the Nokia 8.1 probably has the best display in its price point.

I hid that notch eventually

I’ve often found myself happily watching on this phone while slowly being sucked into the YouTube rabbit hole. Speaking of watching videos on this display, I opted to turn the notch off altogether. The notch still looks like the one present on the iPhone X which came out in 2017. It’s 2019 and personally, I’d rather have a full bezel than be bothered looking at that kind of a notch.

Watching vertical FanCams is great on this thing

That said audio on this thing is far from perfect but it’s passable. The sound it produces isn’t as full as I hope to hear from phones when in speaker mode, but you can remedy all that by plugging in headphones because our good friend jack is still present on this device. Listening on wireless earbuds also offer a nice experience.

The build screams premium

One of the first things I noticed about the Nokia 8.1 is its build. The body is built with 6000-series aluminum with an all-glass back. And it feels pretty darn expensive. So much so that I was wondering why it didn’t come with any case in the packaging.

At first I was really hesitant to bring this around due to the lack of a case, but over time, my hands have grown accustomed to the glass finish. And I feel blessed every single time I touch it. There’s something about the build in finish that just screams premium.

The fingerprint sensor is at the back. And it feels like a blessing every time I touch this thing

It’s not fragile at all though. Being the clumsy oaf that I am, I may have accidentally dropped this phone twice already. The phone sustained zero scratches and zero damages. This is one tough cookie.

Pretty darn good cameras

I have to come clean and say I never really had too many chances to take photos during the testing phase. I’ve mostly just been at my desk or in a conference room which aren’t really ideal for taking photos.

The second lens acts as a depth sensor

So for samples I just took some quick shots around my place using the ZEISS-powered 12- and 13-megapixel dual-cameras. Hopefully I find some time to get a life outside of work for the next review. If you know a girl looking for a date, feel free to hit me up. I don’t bite… unless? Anyway, check out the samples below.

Quick note, features like Pro mode and Bokeh are also present on the 20MP front-facing camera.

Is the Nokia 8.1 your GadgetMatch?

And so, here we are. I’ve had nothing but mostly nice things to say about the Nokia 8.1. For a phone that was launched in late 2018, it can still square up with several midrangers in 2019. But the price, therein lies the rub.

At PhP 19,999, it’s not crazy expensive. It’s just that for a few thousand pesos less, there are actually better options. It’s hard to justify this purchase when  phones like the Realme 3 Pro and Xiaomi Mi 9T exist — both of which came within the seven months that the Nokia 8.1 was nowhere to be found on the archipelago.

Calling the folks at Nokia to bring their phones to the Philippines faster next time

Sure, those don’t have the build that the Nokia 8.1 has but the Realme 3 Pro offers much of the same performance for a more affordable price. And the Xiaomi Mi 9T actually feels like a 2019 phone with its triple-camera setup and a pop-up camera that makes way for an actual full screen display.

If you’re a Nokia stan — and I know there’s a lot of you out there — I can’t fault you for wanting this device. I get it. It’s pretty nice. But it’s really just a little too late. Timing is everything. Both in love and in smartphone releases.

*plays “Bakit ngayon ka lang?

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Accessories

Traveling with the Moment Lens

Is the Moment lens a worthy travel buddy?

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Phone photos become our very own souvenirs whenever we travel. More than something we upload on social media, they’re pleasant memories we can flip through when we’re back to the reality and routine of our lives. As such, it pays to have beautiful shots of the landscapes and sights we visit.

Earlier in July, I went to Hokkaido, Japan. To help me achieve said beautiful shots, I had with me a Google Pixel 3 and an 18mm wide-angle lens from Moment. It was my first time using a Moment lens. If you’re not familiar with Moment, they make special phone cases that can be pimped up with lenses that help elevate the photos you take.


Is the Moment lens a worthy travel buddy? Yes and no.

It’s great for taking landscape shots

Any tourist attraction can be turned into desktop wallpaper with the wide lens.

You also get to see the bigger picture. There’s a certain splendor added to a façade when you capture it from a wider angle.

It’s handy for when there’s limited space

In one of the farms we went to, there was a veranda where we wanted to take photos. It was great for portraits but not for capturing my outfit. There was not much space for the person taking the photo to move back to, so we got help from the wide-angle lens to capture a wider perspective and a full body shot.

It’s a hassle 

While it’s easy to plug the lens onto the case, the extra step of looking for the lens inside the bag is a hassle, and ironically, takes you away from the moment you’re trying to capture. Imagine getting a stranger to take a group photo of you and your friends at a restaurant — everyone would be waiting for you to find the lens in your purse and attach it to the phone — it ruins the moment a little bit.

I can also do without the extra weight and the extra space it takes up in my tiny bag. A less rugged-looking case would also be nice.

The Moment lens does offer wonderful improvements to my vacation shots. If you’re particular about how artfully angled your shots are, you’ll find that a wide-angle lens is a great addition to your arsenal. However, if you’re like me who is content with what your camera phone has to offer, you may find the lens unnecessary. With the Google Pixel 3 and a little post-processing, I was actually able to get nice shots even without the Moment lens.

“Ironically, the Moment lens takes you away from the moment you’re trying to capture.”

Traveling means you have limited time to spend in a place. Make the most out of it with a device that has all the camera features you need. In 2019 there are already plenty of phones with built-in wide angle and telephoto features, from different price points that you might want to consider instead.

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