Canada Markets open in 4 hrs 28 mins

Samsung Galaxy S9 still sets the pace for Android, but looks a lot like last year's phone

Todd Haselton
Samsung Galaxy S9 still sets the pace for Android, but looks a lot like last year's phone

Samsung just unveiled the Galaxy S9, its brand new flagship Android smartphone, and I had a chance to check it out in person.

The Galaxy S9 is packed with the newest and most powerful hardware available for smartphones running Google 's Android platform, including Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 845 processor. It's the best Android phone of 2018, so far.

But it's not shockingly new, and in many ways it feels like the Galaxy S8 version 2.0.

Two models

As is typical, Samsung has two versions of its smartphone: the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+. The devices are nearly identical, though the Galaxy S9+ has two cameras on the back (more on that in a bit), a bit more speed thanks to more RAM and a 6.2-inch display versus the 5.6-inch screen on the Galaxy S9.

While it's larger and a bit harder to handle, I think the Galaxy S9+ will better suit most people. The additional RAM will help software feel faster, the larger screen is really appealing for music and videos and the extra camera on the back adds support for 2x optical zoom.

Similar design to last year, but improvements throughout

An untrained eye wouldn't be able to spot the difference between the Galaxy S8 and the Galaxy S9 -- the phones look almost identical. Samsung stretched the screen a little more to take up almost the entire front face of the phone, however, and added new features that are nearly invisible to the naked eye.

There are stereo speakers for the first time on a Galaxy smartphone, for example, which means audio comes out of the top and bottom of the device -- or left and right in landscape mode. I tested this briefly with a sample movie and some music and found that the speakers were surprisingly loud and good. This is certainly a welcome feature and one where Samsung has lagged in the past.

Other options introduced last year still remain.

For instance, there are several ways to unlock the phone. You can use an iris scanner, a fingerprint reader or a less secure face recognition option. Samsung also continues to offer a headphone jack (unlike Apple's latest iPhones), expandable storage (there's 64GB on board both phones to start) and wireless charging. They're both also water resistant.

A focus on photography

Samsung is putting a lot of focus on the cameras in the Galaxy S9 this year. It promises that both phones are capable of taking better photos in low-light conditions, and I was able to test this briefly in a meeting. Samsung had a dark box set up with a low-lit scene inside. With the naked eye, I could just barely make out the objects inside the box. When I pointed the Galaxy S9 camera inside and snapped a photo, everything came out as bright as day. It was impressive, but I won't know just how good until we have a review unit to play with more.

The Galaxy S9 also supports 940fps slow-motion video, which was really fun to use. The camera is automatically able to detect movement in a scene, so when I tested this with a confetti popper, the camera automatically detected when the popper burst and showed the confetti blowing out in slow motion. You can save these clips as GIFs and share with friends, too. It's probably not a feature I'd use often, but it's something I haven't seen before. An example of this in action is in the video above.

Finally, the cameras support new "AR Emoji" which is Samsung's take on Apple's Animoji on the iPhone X.The front-facing camera scans your face and then uses this either on pre-loaded characters or on custom emoji.

If you snap a selfie, for example, the camera will scan your face and then try to create a character that looks like you, which you can share in text messages and other apps. It wasn't very accurate and my character didn't look like me at all. The feature seems rushed.

Coming soon

The Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ will be available for pre-order this Friday and launch on March 16. Samsung is launching three colors in the U.S. including blue, pink and black.

I need more time with the Galaxy S9, but I already think folks upgrading from a Galaxy S7 will be impressed. Anyone with a Galaxy S8 may not see enough here to warrant a new purchase. It feels too much like an iterative upgrade. Expect a full review from CNBC shortly.