Unique features

In case you haven't noticed, the high-end smartphone market is pretty crowded these days. With each manufacturer vying to offer the best screen, the latest chipset, the sleekest body and the most advanced camera, choosing between them can become more complicated than you might expect. Here's what we found that stands out with Samsung's latest Galaxy S9+ flagship.

Key takeaways:

  • Dual-aperture camera design is unique to the Galaxy S9 and S9+ and neat in theory, but of questionable value in practice
  • Beautiful screen with good viewing angle that adjusts the tone curve of your images in real time to correspond to your viewing environment

Dual aperture design

Pay a visit to Samsung's official page for the Galaxy S9 and S9+ and you'll notice their headline feature callout is the dual-aperture capability of the phone's wide-angle camera module. In fact, these two phones are the only current models on the market that offer such a capability. We did some testing on it a while back; here's the basic gist.

The S9 and S9+ can shoot at either F1.5 or F2.4 on the wide-angle lens (which is the only lens on the regular S9). The camera app will toggle back and forth automatically depending on lighting conditions; F2.4 for daylight, F1.5 for lower light levels (Samsung said the switchover occurs around 100 lux, which is roughly equivalent to a dark overcast day). You can also manually select either aperture in the default camera app by swiping over to 'Pro' mode, which also offers full manual control for advanced users.

F1.5 F2.4
This example shows the difference in depth-of-field between the two apertures - click through for full-size images.

But whether you're an advanced user or not, we found that the dual aperture is a little gimmicky.

The wider F1.5 aperture doesn't offer much in the way of extra depth-of-field control (blurry backgrounds when not using any sort of portrait mode), and it results in marginally softer details across the frame, albeit not to the extent that you'd really notice a difference unless you're viewing at 100% on a bigger screen.

Try to photograph anything moving in a dimly lit setting and you're going to be disappointed

Since these sensors use fully electronic shutters that can reach insane shutter speeds, why not just simplify the lens and leave out the aperture blades, possibly making room for a sharper design at F1.5?

Most importantly for snapshot shooters, even though the Galaxy chooses F1.5 in low light, it is very reticent to raise the ISO or shutter speed. This is fine for a photo of your dinner in a candlelit restaurant (and the optical image stabilization is very good), but it invites motion blur if your subject isn't static. Try to photograph anything moving in a dimly lit setting and you're going to be awfully disappointed.

Stationary subject
ISO 50 | 1/13 sec | F1.5
Moving subject
ISO 50 | 1/4 sec | F1.5
Slow shutter speeds are fine for keeping the ISO down with stationary subjects, but I was surprised that the Galaxy S9+ used such a low ISO value with a 1/4 sec shutter speed in a dim scene with lots of movement. I would have preferred the grain from ISO 800 if it meant a 1/64 sec shutter speed.

If it sounds like we're being harsh on the S9 and S9+, well, it's mostly because we were expecting more from this sort of capability. That said, the dual aperture approach is a neat idea, and we hope that Samsung continues to iterate and improve upon it in future models.

Real-time image viewing adjustment

Continue perusing Samsung's product page for the S9+ and you'll stumble across a section for 'advanced contrast enhancement' on the Infinity Display (a fancy name for the Galaxy's screen). Contrary to competing models that simply adjust brightness automatically as your viewing conditions change, the Galaxy actually changes the contrast and tone curve of the images you're looking at.

In other words, the S9+ tonemaps your display on-the-fly to ensure your image is optimally viewable under a variety of lighting conditions. Check out this example.

Here we've shown a flashlight directly into the ambient light sensor to simulate a bright viewing environment. This causes the display to brighten as well as the phone to, in real time, 'tonemap' the image to brighten shadows - which might otherwise be invisible given the bright viewing environment.

As we pull the flashlight away though to simulate a darker viewing environment, not only is there a dramatic drop in screen brightness but also - especially - a darkening of shadows. Why? Because in a dark environment the viewer's eyes can comfortably see shadows without needing them to be brightened; hence, the phone darkens them enough that they still look like shadows, but not so much as to lose visible detail. It's not always perfect, but it's a neat touch that really makes a meaningful impact on the viewing experience of your captured images and videos.

We fully expect this sort of live display adjustment to become the norm. The way Dolby Vision works for HDR in movies is clearly suggestive of the need for live, real-time adjustment of displays to preserve creative intent no matter the viewing device or viewing environment.