A funny thing happened in the six years since Samsung first announced its line of Galaxy Note smartphones. A few things happened, more accurately. In an effort to compete with the Note, other phone makers started making large-screened phones, and later, edge-to-edge displays. Big phones got better-looking, in general. Many were imbued with powerful graphics processing. And eventually, the software on other phones began to support features like split-screen multitasking.
Few phone makers adapted a stylus, though. That part is really still a Samsung thing.
But as Samsung launches its newest Note smartphone, the Galaxy Note 9, it's facing the challenge of how to differentiate. Samsung is rolling out its summer flagship phone at a time when many of the elements that make up a premium phone have started to converge at the high end. Even Samsung's other flagship phone, the Galaxy S9, comes dangerously close to matching the specs of the Note line. So with this new Note, Samsung is appealing directly to the power-phone devotee: a person who wants the "best of the best," who "loves" their specced-out phablet, and who is "on the go," whether this a person who has three jobs, is a tattoo artist, or owns a small business (examples given by Samsung's marketing).
This person wants to play Fortnite on an Android phone. They want a giant battery—one that doesn't catch fire—and they want thermal cooling. They want their photos optimized by an AI; hopefully, someday, the AI will do all of the photo-taking for them. They might not even necessarily care how much the phone costs, something I gathered from the fact that Samsung didn't have the pricing information on hand during Wednesday's pre-briefing with reporters.
The new Samsung Galaxy Note 9 was officially unveiled today during a media event at the Barclays Center in New York City. Like earlier Galaxy Note phones, the Galaxy Note 9 has an aluminum frame, with Gorilla Glass on the front and back. Its measurements are close to last year's Galaxy Note 8, just slightly wider, and heavier. It has a 6.4-inch, QHD+, super high-resolution display with an 18.5:9 aspect ratio. It is an incredibly nice-looking phone, although its heft has not aged well in the era of elongated phones like the Galaxy S9 and the iPhone X.
It costs $1,000 for a 128 gigabyte model, and $1,250 if you get the top-of-the-line model.
The new Note runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, the same chip that's powering the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus. It charges via USB-C, and lo and behold, there is still a headphone jack. Fingerprint sensor, iris scanner, face recognition technology—the Note 9 comes with all of the bio-authentication options. It's water-resistant and dust-proof. Those buying it in the US will get to choose between four colors: black, copper, lavender, and a deep, "ocean blue." And yes, it still has that stylus, known as the S Pen.
It costs $1,000 for a 128 gigabyte model, and $1,250 if you get the top-of-the-line model. (Samsung eventually shared the price.) It's available for pre-order Friday August 10, and starts shipping August 24.
But let's talk about the aspects of the Note 9 that are extra. Because that's what makes it a Note. And what better place to start than battery, since the Note from two years ago was the phone that gained notoriety for its poorly-manufactured batteries. Since then, Samsung has established an eight-point battery check for all of its newer phones; last year's Note 8 suffered some scattered battery issues, but they weren't the fiery, explosive kind of problems. The Note 9 has a massive battery: 4,000 milliampere hours, compared with 3,000mAh in the Galaxy S9. It's the biggest phone battery Samsung has ever shipped, and the company says it should last "all day and then some."
The Galaxy Note 9 also has extra storage—again, the most Samsung has ever put into a phone. The base model has 128 gigabytes of internal storage and 6GB of RAM. The top-of-the-line configuration comes with 512GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. Samsung pointed out if you pop a 512GB microSD card into the Note 9, you'll have more storage than you'll probably know what to do with on a smartphone.
Samsung didn't stop there. It went ahead and made a deal with Epic Games—the people who developed Fortnite, the epically popular multi-platform game. As previously rumored, Fortnite Battle Royale is going to run from Samsung's game launcher on the Galaxy Note 9. It's also going to be available on the new Galaxy Tab S4 tablet. And it's coming to some older Samsung Galaxy phones, too.
We don't know yet how long Samsung's window of exclusivity will last; but we do know now that a beta version of Fortnite will be coming to other Android devices "in the coming days," according to Epic Games. On those devices, the game will be available as a direct download from the game's website (and not through malware-ridden side-loaded software). But players will Samsung Galaxy devices will be the first to be invited. Extra.
Games with heavy graphics like Fortnite can really tax the internal components of a mobile handset. In order to provide a solid gaming experience without causing the phone to overheat, Samsung has put some systems in place to throttle the Note, slowing the phone down in a way that doesn't show obvious performance tradeoffs.
The Galaxy Note 9 has a built-in water carbon cooling system, which is not new to Samsung phones, but the one used here is (according to the company) better than the system in older handsets. The thermal spreader, which wicks heat away from the Note's processor, is three times bigger than the spreader on the Galaxy Note 8. By coupling those hardware solutions with a software algorithm that reduces gaming framerates to ease the burden on the silicon, Samsung insists it can keep the smartphone operating at an optimal temperature as you game. Samsung hasn't shared exact data yet on the phone's throttled performance.
Here's the Point
The S Pen is no longer just a stylus. It's also a Bluetooth controller. Sure, it can still write notes, draw stuff, and scribble a memo even when the screen is off. But Samsung wants to shake the perception that styli are just for jotting. You can take a selfie now with the S Pen. I did this, myself, during a brief hands-on session with the new phone. Long press on the pen's side button, and the Galaxy Note 9's camera app will open. Double-press the same button, and the phone app swivels to selfie mode. Press once more, and you've taken a selfie. It's the killer app for people with shorter arms. Also, app makers will be able to build out other uses for this Bluetooth LE remote control S Pen. The S Pen charges when you slide it back into its nest on the side of the phone. It charges in 40 seconds, which is extra fast.
The Galaxy Note 9's camera's improvements are entirely on the software side. An AI-based algorithm that operates locally on the phone can now "see" the scene you're trying to shoot and, from a database of 20 different scenes, tune the camera to optimize the photo it thinks you're trying to take. Pets, flowers, street scenes, boring in-office photos, nighttime jaunts—the Note 9's camera app thinks for a split-second, as though it's focusing, and suddenly the image you're about to capture changes ever so slightly. In the quick hands on, this mostly meant that yellow sunflowers were tweaked to look even more yellow, and a plate of tasty macaroons looked extra colorful and tasty. If someone blinks in a photo now, or the photo is blurred, the camera app will tell you.
Bixby, Samsung's virtual assistant, was not mentioned during the company's pre-brief with journalists. Bixby, however, does live inside the Galaxy Note 9. At Thursday's event the company did show off some of Bixby's new conversational features, as well ways in which it "knows" its users. A Samsung executive asked for restaurant suggestions in New York, and Bixby responded with a French restaurant and offered to make a reservation.
Based on my first look, I can say the Galaxy Note 9 is an impressive smartphone. It's also still a very important phone for Samsung, which leads the global market in smartphone shipments. The Note has evolved significantly over the past six years, so that it's no longer a clunker of a phone with a pen and great performance, but a market-leading phone with aesthetic appeal. It is often a vehicle for Samsung to show off new technologies, and the company has done that–to a point–with this new model.
Although, as Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said in a phone interview with WIRED, it is getting harder for Samsung to keep the Note way ahead of the smartphone pack. If it was truly inventive, it would include more, "like a fingerprint reader under the display, or 5G support. But from a tech cycle perspective, some of the tech’s just not ready," she says.
That would be extra, indeed.
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