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First Look: The Samsung Galaxy S9 is banking on a better camera



Should you be excited about Samsung's new phone? Geoffrey A. Fowler from the post office takes a first look at it and states its advantages and disadvantages. (Jhaan Elker / The Washington Post)

When a new phone comes onto the market and no one can figure out what's different, does it matter? Samsung has unveiled its new Galaxy S9 flagship on Sunday and I've got a first look ahead. At some point I put the S9 side by side with the Galaxy S8 last year … and then could not figure out which one that was.

Get your loupes out, people: The screen edges of the S9 are a bit narrower up and down. The fingerprint reader on the back moved an inch in the middle. The biggest change is that the camera opening now physically opens and closes.

What is obvious is that the smartphone technology has reached a plateau. Samsung's theory may not be confused with success: the S8 design (now passed on to the S9) was revolutionary, beating Apple's iPhone X for the all-screen look by several months. For Samsung less is at stake after concerns over exploding batteries have been dispelled.

Can you discover the new phone? This year's Galaxy S9 is on the left and the Galaxy S8 from last year is on the right. (Geoffrey A. Fowler / The Washington Post)

But in the United States and other developed markets we keep our phones getting longer. Samsung's targets for the $ 720 S9 are not just owners of the S8 – they may still be stuck with an S6 or older. So what would a new Android phone be worth if it was worth the upgrade?

Samsung has decided to double the camera. And for anyone who views smartphone photography as a hobby or communication, some improvements to the S9 may be interesting – though they still need testing.

The Galaxy S9 + has two lenses and a fingerprint scanner in the middle. And it comes in sparkling purple. (David Orr for The Washington Post)

As of March 16, two new cell phones are in the shops: the S9 with a 5.8-inch screen and the S9 + with a 6.2-inch screen. On the larger phone Samsung has added a second lens on the back for zoom and depth effects. (This is standard on large high-end phones.)

The S9 promises improvements in photo quality on both models. The camera shoots up to 12 separate shots at a time to combine them into a 12 megapixel image, reducing pixelated noise.

The slow motion is now extremely slow – 960 frames per second – to record every hectic millisecond. A new mode can detect movement and automatically start recording.

And the S9 camera has a geeky but impressive trick on its opening, the opening where light comes in. Most smartphone cameras are stuck with a standard size for all openings. The S9 can switch between two openings: It opens 28 percent more light in the dark and closes again for bright shots. When it switches, the camera looks like it's winking.

Does this make a noticeable difference in your recordings? I'm looking forward to putting it in a three-way death game against Pixel 2 and iPhone X, both of which have a fixed aperture.

Over at the front camera, the S9 does not make the iPhone X all the fun with its Augmented Reality Animojis, these cartoons that bring you to life by moving your head.

Samsung's answer is AR Emoji, who prefaces the idea with a cartoon that looks like you.

The S9 automatically generates personal AR emojis based on a photo. Mine looked like a cross between me and Jay Leno. (Or maybe that's Tim Cook?) Still, being a star is fun. However, I was surprised that Samsung did not go forward with AR sensors, as it was accustomed to the iPhone X unlock the phone and do other tricks with your face. (Samsung is playing its various unlocking options using the same technology as last year.) The S9 can unlock with face recognition, but it's not as secure as Apple's Face ID. There's also a secure iris reader and a trusted fingerprint scanner on the back.)

The S9 has many other small improvements, from a faster processor to louder sound. It is also one of the few flagship phones that still comes with a standard headphone jack and the ability to add your own memory.


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