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'The camera. Reimagined.' The tagline for Samsung’s new Galaxy S9 and the larger S9+ gives you a pretty unambiguous idea of where the Korean electronics maker has focused its attention for its pair of premium smartphones for 2018. While there are other additions to the handsets, it’s the camera technology – both back and front – that’s the real star of the show.
Samsung’s smartphone cameras have long set the bar, especially when it comes to low-light photography, and its new handsets are no different. The key feature of the rear camera – or cameras, in the case of the S9+ which gets a second, telephoto lens like the one found on the Galaxy Note 8 – is the variable aperture, which can be manually adjusted from f1.5 to f2.4 using the “pro” camera mode or adjust automatically when in the default point-and-shoot modes. That means better image quality in bright or dark conditions.
The adjustable aperture isn’t the only moving part in the S9, like its predecessor the S9’s camera also includes optical image stabilisation (OIS), which means elements of the camera setup actually move to offset camera shake. Combine the OIS with the variable aperture and you get incredible performance in low-light conditions, and in the case of the dual-lens packing S9+, the ability to blur the background of an image while keeping the subject sharply in focus – the sort of effect that usually requires a DSLR camera.
Traditionally, manufacturers have talked up the megapixels of their cameras, even though megapixels are only one of the elements of a camera that determines image quality. In Sunday’s presentation Samsung didn’t mention megapixels at all, and it hasn’t included them in the press materials accompanying the S9 or S9+ either. That leads us to believe it’s using the same 12-megapixel sensor(s) found in the S8 and S8+, but frankly, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is the results, and our early test shots suggest those are very impressive indeed.
Slowing things down
There’s also a new super slow-mo camera on both S9 devices that’s able to capture video at 960fps. That’s four times the frames as most other phone cameras, which tend to top out at 240fps, and a frame rate only rival Sony has offered in a handset before.
Granted, you can only capture super slow-mo footage at 1080p instead of the 4K resolution you can use for regular videos, but that’s a small price to pay. The impressive frame rate means 0.2 seconds of action can be turned into six seconds of playback. Your pooch shaking themselves dry after a dip in the pool has never looked so good.
Last year Apple introduced Animojis with the iPhone X that used face mapping to let users replicate their facial expressions on animated animal faces. Samsung’s response is AR Emojis. Use the front-facing camera on the S9 or S9+ to take a selfie and the handset will then create a 3D animated avatar for you that actually looks like you.
In our case, it created an avatar that looked somewhat like us, but a few tweaks and the resemblance was a lot stronger. Pick an outfit, adjust the hairdo or accessories and then share your animated self as a movie file or GIF – or a still sticker – in any of the big-name messaging platforms.
The same face-mapping technology that makes AR Emojis possible has also been integrated into the S9’s security features, so you can unlock the handset with a glance. Or, if conditions are too dark for the facial recognition tech, the phone can automatically fall back on the iris scanner (which first appeared in the last generation of Galaxy flagships).
If you’d rather stick to using your fingerprint for security, this time around Samsung’s pleasingly placed the sensor to beneath the camera, rather than next to it like it did with the previous generation of devices. That should also mean fewer greasy fingerprints on the camera lens.
The camera’s other new trick is live translation in conjunction with Samsung’s digital assistant, Bixby. Point the S9’s camera at text in a foreign language and you can get a real-time on-screen translation. The same Bixby Vision feature can be used to identify buildings or other landmarks, check a bottle of wine’s online reviews, and search for online sellers of a particular item. You can also run images you’ve already taken through Bixby Vision after the fact.
Samsung’s kept the nearly bezel-free, curved Infinity Display it debuted on the S8 for the S9, but now it’s made it even better suited to media consumption, thanks to the addition of a second speaker and Dolby Atmos sound reproduction. If you weren’t the sort who watched video on your phone before, you might find yourself reconsidering.
Both of the new handsets include IP68 water resistance, which means they should survive everything from light rain to an inadvertent dip in the shallow end of the swimming pool. We’d still advise against trying to shoot an underwater documentary with them, and we’d definitely keep them away from salt water, though.
Another thing Samsung omitted from its presentation was any mention of the battery capacity of its new devices, which suggests it may be unchanged from last year’s models. The company did, however, mention the handsets’ support for wireless charging. You’ll need to buy a wireless charger separately to take advantage of this feature, but if you’re planning to stay in the Samsung stable for the foreseeable future it’s a worthwhile investment for the convenience.
Get the Samsung Galaxy S9
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