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Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+ review: An evolutionary step up

By James Lu & Alvin Soon - 15 Mar 2018

Features and UI

Are AR Emoji just a rip off of Animoji?

Well... the premise is essentially the same: animated emoji that can imitate your facial expressions. One big difference is that Samsung also has a create your own emoji option that lets you use a cartoon version of your own face.

You set up your custom emoji by taking a selfie, or by asking someone to take a picture of you with the rear camera - as far as I can tell, there's no difference in the quality or accuracy of the emoji so either is fine. 

With the help of machine learning and the captured data, the phone will then create an animated cartoon character that closely resembles you. You can then customize your character's hair, glasses, and clothes. The custom emoji is pretty good, but it definitely helps if you have some distinguishing features, like a distinctive mole, or a mustache like my editor-in-chief - it didn't work so well with my wife, as her custom emoji sort of resembled her, but ultimately looked pretty generic.

Here's my AR Emoji next to actual me:

  

Not bad right? It even captured my I-overslept-and-didn't-have-time-to-shave-stubble quite well. Here's my editor giving it a go:

You can quickly access the created AR Emoji using the stock keyboard or within the messages app. It can also be shared in GIF or PNG format, and it is also possible to use AR Emoji as stickers with compatible apps.

So what's the difference between AR Emoji and Animoji? Apple's Animoji uses its highly complex TrueDepth camera system to map your facial expressions, while AR Emoji uses the S9's 8-megapixel front-facing camera. While it generally works fine and it's still pretty fun to use, AR Emoji is not as expressive as Apple's version, and it tends to work better on big exaggerated facial expressions. It also occasionally glitches out, especially if the lighting isn't good, leaving your character stuck in a weird facial pose.

If you're not keen on using your own custom emoji, Samsung's choices for default characters aren't as good either. Right now, your only options are a bunny, a weird blue block thing (that might be a dog?), and a pink cat - there are also some AR masks so you can add sunglasses, funny hats, or an actual mask (it's a kabuki mask) to your face.

While the current selection isn't that exciting, Samsung has also announced a partnership with Disney to bring Mickey and Minnie Mouse, as well as characters from the Incredibles, to AR emoji, which sounds a lot more fun than pink cat and blue-box-possibly-a-dog character. On that note, kudos to whoever at Samsung that managed to steal Disney away from Apple. Disney has been longtime collaborators with Apple, and I'm sure Apple wanted Disney faces for its Animoji to go alongside its Disney watch faces on the Apple Watch. Seriously, how did Samsung manage that? Disney CEO, Bob Iger, even sits on Apple's Board of Directors.

 

What's so smart about Intelligent Scan?

Intelligent Scan is a new biometric security feature that combines two of Samsung's previous technologies: Face Unlock and Iris Scan. 

When you unlock your phone, the front-facing camera will first scan your face. If that fails to unlock your phone (which might happen if there's insufficient light), the device will then check your irises. If both fail, Intelligent Scan will try to authenticate your identity using a combination of the two. This all happens almost instantaneously. At each step, Intelligent Scan also checks for spoofing, for example, if someone is trying to fool the phone with a picture of you. 

So is Intelligent Scan more secure than just using Iris Scan? According to Samsung, no. The most secure biometric authentication on the S9 and S9+ is still Iris Scan. Intelligent scan is more of a compromise between the more secure, but slower Iris Scan, and the less secure, but more convenient Face Unlock. By combining the two, it just ensures that no matter what conditions you're in, some form of biometric security should unlock your phone. It's also worth noting that, as far as I can tell, there's no way to use Intelligent Scan for Samsung Pay - you still need to use Iris Scan or Fingerprint unlock for that.

 

What does Oreo bring to the S9?

The S9 and S9+ are the first Samsung smartphones running on Android 8.0 Oreo. Oreo brings some big updates to the S9, mostly centered around the home screen.

By default, the home screen on both the S9 and S9+ will now automatically rotate into landscape mode when you're holding your phone sideways. Custom home screen launchers like Nova have had this feature for years, so it's nice to see it finally make its way to Samsung's default home screen.

Folders on your home screen can now be customized with a variety of color options. This option can be accessed through an icon on the top-right once a folder is expanded. You can even change the opacity of the color, view a history of your selections, and see a list of recommended colors for your theme.

You can now also customize apps on your home screen with App Shortcuts, which is quite similar to how 3D Touch works on the iPhone. Each app is allowed up to five shortcuts, accessible by long-pressing on the icon. So for example, if you want your camera app to load straight into Selfie mode, you can long tap it, then select Selfie, or you can setup Twitter to launch directly into composing a new tweet, direct message, or search.

Bixby, Samsung's virtual assistant, has also received a handful of updates with Oreo. For starters, Bixby Vision can now translate signs and other text in real time, similar to the Google Translate app. One big difference though is that Bixby requires an internet connection to work, whereas the Google Translate app works offline.

Bixby Vision is also smarter at recognizing objects, and now gives more information based on what you're looking at. For example, show it some food and it can tell you how many calories you're about to consume. Point it at the sky and it gives you the current temperature and weather report. Again though, you'll need an internet connection for any of this to work.

  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • User-Friendliness 8.5
  • Performance 8.5
  • Value 7
The Good
Gorgeous, color-accurate AMOLED display
Stereo speakers
Excellent dual rear camera setup
AR Emoji
The Bad
Looks exactly the same as last year
Benchmark performance only slightly better
Slightly worse battery life than last year
Very expensive