Hands on with Samsung's Galaxy Note9 and Galaxy Watch

Samsung held its fall Unpacked 2018 event yesterday in Brooklyn, where it announced three new products: the Galaxy Note9, the Galaxy Watch, and the Galaxy Home. The Home is a smart speaker that's powered by Bixby, and unfortunately, there really isn't much more to share there, as more information is on the way about that.

The Note9 and the Watch, however, are a different story. The Galaxy Note9 is Samsung's newest flagship smartphone, powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845, just like the Galaxy S9.

The shape is mostly the same as last year's Galaxy Note8, something that I'm really not a fan of. In this current trend of making screens longer and longer while narrowing bezels, Samsung seems to have forgotten that the S Pen is pretty much the only value proposition of the Note over a Galaxy S. The phone feels so narrow that it's somewhat uncomfortable to write on with a pen.

Let's be clear though; the display is probably the prettiest smartphone screen that exists. Samsung's Super AMOLED displays are beautiful. The only problem is that it's pretty much the same as a Galaxy S9+. Note handsets used to be defined by a bigger screen and the S Pen. With the S9+ coming in at 6.2 inches and the Note9 coming in at 6.4 inches, that former differentiator is gone.

Frankly, I don't even know why the Note brand still exists, or why it's launched at a separate event. Samsung could simply launch a Galaxy S9+ with S Pen.

And being that this is a Note, there are some new S Pen features that seem genuinely useful. The main change is that the Pen now has Bluetooth LE, so you can use it as a remote control for the phone. The demo onstage was to use it to take a picture, and then to control PowerPoint presentations and such. The presenter even closed by showing that the entire presentation was controlled by an S Pen.

Because it uses Bluetooth, the S Pen now has a battery in it, which charges while it's stored inside of the Note9. Samsung says that a full charge takes under a minute, and that lasts up to a half hour. The S Pen still uses Wacom technology though, so it's just the Bluetooth that uses the battery. Regular pen usage will still work.

The big new feature for this round is, you guessed it, an AI camera. This is a trend that was started by Huawei with the Mate 10, which has a dedicated Neural Processing Unit. LG did the same in its G7 ThinQ, but the experience was slow and clunky, due to the fact that the handset uses the Snapdragon 845 instead of dedicated AI hardware.

The idea behind an AI camera is for the camera to be able to see what it's looking at, and adjust the settings accordingly. Samsung should be using the same method that LG did, and unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any way to turn it off. You can expect to see lots of AI cameras moving forward, and they should get better over time. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised at all if Qualcomm's next flagship chipset has a Neural Processing Unit of its own.

The 960fps Super Slow Mo feature has been improved. Rather than only recording the slow motion video for 0.2 seconds, it's now 0.4 seconds. Unfortunately, you're still limited to 720p unless you want to reduce the frame rate.

Other than that, the camera is pretty much the same as the Galaxy S9, with dual 12-megapixel sensors with an adjustable aperture between f/1.5 and f/2.4.

One other thing I want to note (pun intended) is that the fingerprint sensor has finally been moved to below the camera, similar to what we see on the S9. Last year's Galaxy Note8 (and the S8) placed it to the right side of the camera, causing users to accidentally smudge the camera with their fingers.

And then there's the Galaxy Watch, which is a Tizen-based smartwatch. The one you see in the image above is the 42mm one, as it also comes in a black 46mm variant for those that have massive wrists. Indeed, even the smaller one isn't very small, but it's just not as huge as the Wear OS smartwatches that are on the market.

My biggest issue with it is that it comes in at 12.7mm thick, or a half an inch. While it's definitely not as bulky as devices that have a much larger footprint, it's still a bit too thick. The larger 46mm model comes in at 13mm.

Still, if you're going to buy a Samsung device and you want a smartwatch, this is the one to get right now. Qualcomm is holding an event where it will likely announce a new smartwatch processor on September 10, but as it stands right now, the state of the Wear OS ecosystem is terrible.

One thing that's really nice about the Galaxy Watch though is that it supports 4G LTE, so you're connected wherever you're are and it can work as a standalone device. That means that if you're out exercising, you can use it to stream music and such.

Finally, this is Samsung's Bixby-powered smart speaker, the Galaxy Home. While Samsung did show off some Bixby features, it didn't say much about the speaker itself and how it will work. The company will have more to share about the Galaxy Home going forward.

As for the Galaxy Note9, you can pre-order yours right now, and it will be available August 24.

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