Aesthetically, it would be difficult for anyone to tell the two smartphones apart. From their metal-meets-glass premium constructions to the placement of their ports and buttons, there’s no denying that Sammy has recycled the majority of the design. To be technical, though, the Note 9’s is shorter and heavier, but it’s almost indistinguishable when you hold the two together in the hand. Still, there are a few changes to the design.
For starters, the most notable change here is the repositioning of the fingerprint sensor. Samsung received flak for having it placed in an odd spot near the camera with the Note 8, which made it prone to being covered and smudged when trying to unlock the phone. Thankfully, they’ve listened to the criticism this time and moved it just below the cameras – though, we still wish it were moved just a little bit farther down to give it more separation.
Secondly, the mighty S Pen with the Note 9 has been upgraded with Bluetooth LE connectivity for additional functionality. At the core, though, the S Pens with both devices function similarly in providing users that pen and paper-like experience when it comes to jotting down notes and drawing sketches, but now the Note 9’s S Pen becomes an extension of the phone. That’s because it can be used as a remote shutter for snapping photos, navigating between slides in a presentation, and even offering media playback controls. The added functionality is useful, but we wouldn’t necessarily say that they’re essential.
It is also worth mentioning that the Note 9 comes in a slightly different selection of colors. Out of the four, the new Ocean Blue Note 9 paired with a yellow S Pen makes for the most interesting color combo.
And lastly, the cameras on the Note 9’s back occupy less room that what we see with the Note 8. It may be negligible for some people, but it’s still nonetheless a noticeable difference with their designs.
Over on the specs side, the only change that’s evident in this comparison is the miniscule increase in size with the Note 9’s display, which of course, borrows the same all-screen look as its predecessor. It’s a 6.3-inch Super AMOLED panel with the Note 8, while the Note 9 goes up slightly with its 6.4-incher – with both employing Quad HD+ resolution. On paper, that equates to a slightly better pixel density count for last year’s Note 8. Then again, it’s something so insignificant that no one will notice.
Specs aside, the characteristics between them are surprisingly similar, which would lead many to believe that they’re identical. While their spot-on ~6400K color temperatures and color accuracy in the sRGB gamut chart appear to be the same, the only improvement we see with the Note 9 is its stronger brightness output of 575 nits, which is a step up over the Note 8’s mark of 518 nits. Naturally, that increase helps in the Note 9’s visibility outdoors under direct sunlight, but the Note 8 is still visible as well. This is truly a case for that age-old adage of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
At this very moment, both the Note 8 and Note 9 are running Android 8.0 Oreo – with the two on tap for Android 9.0 Pie whenever it becomes available. Superficially, there’s no denying the incredible focus on productivity that’s offered by the two experiences, as they’re packing nearly the same arsenal. They include things like Edge Panel for quick shortcuts, side-by-side apps windows for better multi-tasking, one-handed mode for easier operation, and vast S Pen functions to jot down notes and drawing stuff.
So what’s technically new and different? Well, we already mentioned some of the S Pen’s new abilities with the Note 9 thanks to its Bluetooth LE connection, but besides that, the only meaningful differences are the enhanced Bixby functions, access to AR emojis, and there’s no longer the need to use a DeX pad/station to access the phone’s desktop-like experience. Knowing all of that, we feel that these new features with the Note 9 doesn’t necessarily redefine the experience, but instead, they complement the fundamental experience that the Note series is known for – and that’s a feature-rich experience for power users.
Performance and Memory
Newer is better, that’s the expectation whenever a new product succeeds a previous one. However, the question that needs to be asked is actually how much better it is? Predictably so, the Note 9 leverage the latest silicon from Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 845 for US-bound models – while international units will be running the Samsung Exynos 9810. Running several benchmark tests on our Exynos-packing Note 9, it already confirms the obvious performance boost, but when it comes to real-world results, the Note 8’s Snapdragon 835 SoC conjures the same level of responsiveness and finesse with basic operations.
Graphics benchmark tests also indicate a boost to the Note 9’s performance, resulting in faster frame rates. We should also point out that the Note 9 features a new carbon water cooling system, which is purported to stabilize the phone’s temperature while carrying out processor-intensive applications. However, we still found the Note 9 a little bit toasty to the touch when playing some games for a period of time. As for the Note 8, it still carries itself in a high manner in this area because it can handle all of today’s games.
One aspect about the Note 9 that we appreciate greatly is the decision to boost the starting storage capacity to 128GB, which is double the amount over the Note 8. That’s undeniably fantastic by itself because in an age where 4K video recording is readily available, having a base storage of 128GB certainly goes a longer way. Then again, the two smartphones offer expansion courtesy of their microSD card slots!
Improving upon its predecessor’s dual-camera implementation, the Note 9 also takes after the Galaxy S9+ by implementing a variable aperture. This year’s combo breaks down to a wide-angle 12MP sensor with f1.5/f2.4 aperture, and a telephoto 12MP sensor with f/2.4 aperture providing 2X zoom. The main difference here again with the Note 9 is that variable aperture, whereas the Note 8 only has a fixed aperture of f/1.7 with its main 12MP camera. Naturally, they’re equipped in snapping portrait shots thanks to their dual cameras.
On the software side, there’s an assortment of modes available with both, but the Note 9 benefits from having additional features such as AR Emoji, super slow-mo, and a new “scene optimizer” mode that intelligently detects a scene and applies enhancements to improve the look of the shot.
When there’s good lighting around, you won’t be disappointed by the results from either smartphone. They’re definitely stunning, nothing short of breathtaking. However, there are a few minor differences that we can point out after investigating the shots more closely. For starters, the Note 9 tones down some of the enhancements, as the Note 8 samples clearly tend to have more contrast and saturation. While details remain rich and plentiful, there’s a subtle amount of sharpening applied to the Note 9’s shots.
In low-light situations, we’re giving the advantage to the Note 9, mainly because its shots look cleaner in general. Don’t get us wrong, the Note 8 captures some good looking low-light shots, but its performance is just a smidgen noisier and softer. The Note 9’s stronger performance can be attributed to its wider f/1.5 aperture, which allows it to capture more light.
With their front-facing cameras, which are both 8MP sensors, the results are very similar, but again the Note 9’s performance is accompanied with a hairline increase of sharpness. And another advantage for the Note 9 is that it offers a new “selfie focus” mode that applies portrait-esque effects with background blurring around the face.
Moving onto video recording, there are no surprises here considering that the Note 9 already showed us an advantage with still photography. Its superiority, while very miniscule, is evident in the various recordings we captured. First and foremost, we’ll admit that their performances are top-notch amongst smartphones in general, but as we’re required to closely inspect the results here, we uncover some differences between them. It’s worth pointing out that the Note 9 benefits from a newer UHD 3840 x 2160 recording at 60 FPS.
Details are very strong with the two when comparing their UHD footage at 30 FPS. However, the Note 9’s performance is strengthened by its ability to stabilize footage better, a sharper overall tone, and better handling of dynamic range. The Note 8 just seems to struggle when it comes to adapting from low to high exposure scenes, since there’s some noticeable artifacting elements produced in the process. On top of that, the Note 8’s footage is shakier.
Low light performance goes to the Note 9 as well, generally because the Note 8 exhibits far more noise in the scene, which doesn’t help either when details are a tad bit softer looking. Moreover, the Note 8’s footage tends to skew towards a colder color temperature – whereas the Note 9 sticks to a warmer one.
And finally, the Note 9 has the edge when it comes to slow motion video – thanks in part to its super slo-mo mode that captures video in 720p at 960 FPS. You’ll get some ridiculously smooth slow-motion footage with this mode, which dishes up a whole new perspective for capturing video.
What’s interesting is that while the Note 9 recycles its predecessor’s design for the most part, Samsung managed to offer stereo support thanks to its dual speaker configuration. Despite that new addition, it doesn’t improve the audio performance, seeing that it achieves a peak output of 74.6 dB, which is the same output found with the Note 8’s single speaker.
Videos look absolutely amazing on these phones’ Quad HD+ Super AMOLED displays. Believe us when we say that playback is rather hypnotic, especially when watching HDR clips on YouTube. However, it seems as though that it’s only the Note 9 that can play back videos in 1440p60 HDR format.
Sure, their gigantic sizes don’t make them the most ideal candidates for phone calls, but they don’t get in the way when it comes to call quality performance. Conversations are handled decently, and in our experience, they both suffice for the occasion. Voices are generally audible without sounding too artificial through the earpiece, while their speakerphones are loud enough to be usable during noisy conditions.
What’s really impressive is that while the overall size and shape of the Note 9 is nearly identical to the Note 8, Samsung somehow manages to stuff a larger, 4000 mAh battery into its chassis – versus the 3300 mAh one in the Note 8. The difference that we found in our testing is an increase of over an hour in our custom battery benchmark test. That’s notable, to say the least, which indicates that the higher capacity battery does offer longevity in the long run. For most people, however, they both are more than capable of lasting a full day with normal usage, but the Note 9 will just simply have more gas leftover in the tank.
At the same time, too, the Note 9’s battery doesn’t need a whole lot of extra time to recharge. In fact, it’s almost just as fast as the Note 8! Last year’s model requires 102 minutes to get back to full capacity, whereas the Note 9 zips close to that at 109 minutes. Factoring in the higher capacity battery that’s in tow, the Note 9 is incredibly zippy with its recharge. And finally, they both offer the convenience of wireless charging.
If you haven’t read our review for the Note 9 already, we’re going to simply reiterate our sentiments about how it stacks up against last year’s Note 8. If you currently own the Note 8, there’s seriously not a whole lot of reasons to make the upgrade to the Note 9 – it’s just not worth forking over the extra money! Starting at $999.99, the Note 9 is undoubtedly the most expensive in the line. Sure, you’ll get a phone with the latest hardware, new S Pen features, slightly better camera performance, and longer battery life, but at the end of the day, it’s not worth making the upgrade if you currently own the Note 8 because you get the same core experience and baseline performance.
Now, if you tell us that you’re torn between one of the two phones as your next device, then that’s a totally different story. At this very moment, the Note 8 can be fetched for as low as $600 through a carrier (Verizon) – or $750 for an unlocked one. The savings are no doubt tempting, which adds more difficulty with the decision. But we’re inclined to say to go with the Note 9, despite the substantial investment. There’s not only the Note 9’s newness and set of additional features that you’ll get, but also possibly a bunch of freebies that come along if you pre-order. And you’ll spend less money if you intend on accessing its DeX desktop-like experience!