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Monday, September 09, 2019

Review: Samsung Galaxy S9+ (128GB storage, 6GB of RAM)

This year's trip finally convinced me that in 2019, it is insufficient to have an Android phone with only 3GB of RAM. On the days when I was using Google Maps to navigate the route, the any attempts to take pictures with the phone would cause my Moto X4 to stop navigating. And of course, when my Canon G7II failed, my phone became my backup phone. I don't expect much from phone cameras: the idea is to take pictures that are better than nothing. The problem with the Moto X4 was that the camera startup time was 5-7s. That's an eon. By contrast, my wife's Pixel 3a XL always kicked off the camera quickly, and of course, the camera on that phone takes superlative pictures.

During this year's Prime day, the Pixel 3a XL was sold with a $100 coupon attached to it. This was tempting, but I came to the conclusion that the 3a XL was too much of a compromise: it wasn't waterproof, didn't support SD cards, and came with only 64GB of storage. I could probably give up any one of these in exchange for the pure android experience and superlative camera, but all 3? That was too much. There were also a couple of other niggling things, such as the fact that the Pixel 3a XL is not compatible with QC chargers (it only charges quickly with the USB PD standard). Google's product managers will never learn that if you're not Apple, you can't unilaterally impose a new standard on customers without that annoyance turning off their customers. Whoever's sitting in Android HQ thinking that customers just want an iPhone, only running Android OS is smoking some really good stuff.

By contrast, Arturo's Samsung Galaxy S8 had been used for the last couple of years with no problems. He'd even cracked the screen and jumped into a lake with the same phone and it was still waterproof. Arturo is almost as tough on equipment as I am, and uses his phone way more than I do, so I reluctantly came to the conclusion that if he could come to terms with the Samsung bloatware, I could do the same. He also claimed that a software update in the middle of the lifecycle actually improved the battery life of his phone! It helped that on Prime day, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ with 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM was $500. I considered other phones, such as the Galaxy S10 (similar specs, but with a 3rd camera, in-screen camera reader, $100 more, worse battery life), and the Moto Z4 (not waterproof, worse everything else, same price), and decided that the S9+ was the best fit: Samsung had fixed the problematic fingerprint placement on the S8, and the additional performance of the S10 didn't justify $100 more. I was pretty sure that I didn't want a wider angle lens than the one that came with the S9+. Note that the S9+ 64GB would have only come with 4GB of RAM, and I decided that if 3GB was sufficient in 2016 but not in 2019, I'd better have more than 4GB.

To begin with, the phone is fast. The camera starts up with a double-click of the power button in a second, as fast as my wife's Pixel 3a XL. You can then use the volume down button to shoot pictures, or you can reprogram the Bixby button to do the same with a $3 paid app. In practice, the phone is still more awkward than the 3a XL because the volume/bixby button is opposite from the power button, rather than next to it, but I could still shoot reasonable pictures while cycling:
Having said that, I'm still not as competent as on the G7X II with its real shutter buttons --- I've shot many pictures of my stokers on the back of the tandem shooting blind, but I tried the same on my S9+ and couldn't get a single usable shot! However, it did take me a while to get used to the G7X II's blind shooting capabilities as well, so there's a good chance that in a couple of months I'll be as good with the S9+ as I was with the G7X2.

There's a 2X zoom on the camera, and I thought I wouldn't use it, but in practice once you know it's there, you use it a surprising amount, which makes me think that the ultra-wide camera on the S10/S10+ might not be a waste at all.

Arturo complains that the plus size version Samsung's phones are too big, but when I compared it with my wife's Google 3a XL phone, they're about the same size, and because of the smaller bezels, the S9+ has a bigger screen. Compared to my older Moto X4, it's about 1cm longer, which isn't enough to cause it to fall out of my favorite Columbia Trail Splash shorts, even with vigorous cycling. Screen size is a big deal: for viewing maps, photos, movies, and web pages, you want as big a screen as you can get. The only thing I'd complain about is that I think they could have made the screen narrower to make it easier to reach the entire width of the screen with one hand. But I'm not going to complain about the ergonomics --- it's still better to have a bigger screen.

The bloatware is annoying, with 2 of everything, including calendar, e-mail, and even web browsers. I just disabled everything I found annoying, but of course no doubt some of the performance of the phone is compromised because it's running 2 of everything. The audio is great, and of course, unlike the Moto X4, the S9+ supports band 71. Until 5G becomes ubiquitous, this is a good setup. It's actually the only justifiable reason to get a flagship phone: excellent world wide coverage with better antennas.

There's an amazing number of features on the phone, including some that I'll never used, such as support for Ant+. (I have bike computers for hat) Similarly, there's an O2 sat sensor that I used once and decided it wasn't worth the effort. I looked for an infra-red port but there wasn't one, and of course, there's an FM radio that you can use where your wired headphones become an antenna, that's got great reception, something none of the flagship phones from Apple or Google have. This could turn out to be a life-saver in emergencies when cell phone towers go out. Since nobody has a wired landline any more, I think it's worth shopping around for a phone with this feature. (And yes, the idiot lemming manufacturers who followed Cupertino into killing the headphone jacks don't offer this, so Samsung, LG, and Motorola are pretty much the only phones left with this feature --- even the 3a XL doesn't offer this despite having a headphone jack)

The extra memory was disappointing: I hoped that the extra memory would be put to use and my commonly used apps like Audible audiobooks wouldn't get swapped out. Nope. Audible still occasionally gets swapped out even as the amount of "free memory" in the status pages is north of 1GB. I couldn't help wishing for more options to say, pin certain apps in RAM (hey, I've got plenty of it, why not give me some control) so they don't ever get closed or swapped out.

What surprised me was how much better the bluetooth audio was: my Taotronics headset, despite being too soft with the Moto X4, could be tuned louder with the S9+. I really don't understand why. The headset doesn't draw power from the handset, so there's no reason why one phone should produce louder sounds than the other, but for whatever reason, the Samsung definitely sounds clearer.

The NFC chip is in the middle of the phone, rather than the top edge where the Moto X4 was. I had to retrain my muscle memory to use it. Samsung Pay, of course, is superior to Google Pay, mostly because of the hardware. Even if there's no NFC chip on the transaction terminal, you can use Samsung Pay because the device works with magnetic card readers as well as NFC terminals. In previous years when NFC terminals weren't prevalent this would have been a major feature. Now it's just "nice to have", since NFC payments have been made available nearly everywhere except the post office and certain government offices.

Phone calls are crystal clear and a noticeable improvement over the Moto X4. Most users probably don't care, in this day and age.

Battery life is good in default mode. There are various battery management modes that I didn't know until Arturo told me during a recent backpacking trip. In the most optimized mode, I went from a 99% charge to 74% during a 36 hour overnight backpacking trip with plenty of picture taking, bluetooth turned on for connection to both my Fenix 5X and the AirMini, and occasional use as a flash light, etc. (Airplane mode was on)  This is remarkable battery life and a huge win. I'm very impressed, because I didn't notice any missing functionality and didn't baby the phone at all.

I actually tried Samsung Dex for half a day. I was very impressed. You can plug your device into a standard usb-C dock, and get 1080p resolution on a big monitor, a wired keyboard, and bluetooth mouse pairing. To get 4K resolution you need to shell out for the $90 official Samsung adapter ( While not all applications happily adapt to a desktop environment, ConnectBot ( does, and grants you a reasonably good ssh experience, complete with cut/and paste. If you're a C/C++/Go programmer, Termux ( even lets you develop in a semi-linux environment right on the phone, but doesn't support proper cut/paste.

Unlike Google phones, Samsung's phones do not get updated frequently. Even worse, the updates are frequently gated by your carrier, even for unlocked phones. I'm past the point where "upgrades" have a positive connotation --- the constant UI changes (probably driven by UI designers in search of a promotion rather than any desire to actually improve the user experience), so this doesn't bother me, but it might bother you.

Would I have paid the full $840 price for the S9+ when it first came out last year? No way. But at $340 less for the upgraded 128GB/6GB RAM version? I think it's well worth the slight premium over the Pixel 3a XL. Waterproofing, microsd expansion, QC compatibility, and more RAM are well worth the extra money, no matter what Google's product managers think.

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