Earlier this year, Samsung introduced the Galaxy S9 to near-universal raves. Critics liked the camera improvements that resulted in better low-light photos. They praised the performance gains introduced by Qualcomm's then-new Snapdragon 845 processor. We declared the Galaxy S9+, the larger-screen version of the phone, to be the best Android device you could buy — and we still feel that way many months later.
And yet, many smartphone shoppers aren't buying it.
When announcing its earnings this past week, Samsung specifically noted "slow sales" for the Galaxy S9. The news didn't just inform us how Samsung's last major smartphone launch went — it also ratcheted up the pressure on the Galaxy Note 9, which is set to debut this coming week at Samsung's Aug. 9 Unpacked event.
"As Samsung just admitted that Galaxy S9 sales are slow due to lack of differentiation and high pricing, Samsung could certainly use a hit with the next Note," said Avi Greengart, GlobalData's research director of consumer platforms and devices.
Where the Galaxy Note fits in
Galaxy's Note smartphones used to occupy its own special place in Samsung's lineup. The Note was the big-screen phablet built for power users who needed a high-performance productivity tool. "The Note 9 has historically been Samsung's flagship device to roll out new innovations," said Ramon Llamas, research director for mobile devices and AR/VR at research firm IDC. "Think of what they've done in the past — larger screen that basically jump-started the phablet craze, the S-Pen, which has been a key differentiator all of these years, and the curved display."
But somewhere along the way, the Note lost some of its uniqueness. The S Pen is still linked exclusively to the Note, but screen sizes on the Galaxy S phones have been inching upward to where the Galaxy S9+'s 6.2-inch display is only fractionally smaller than the 6.3-inch Note 8. Samsung's Infinity Display made its debut on the Galaxy S lineup, after all, before arriving on the Note.
"Traditionally, Samsung put its largest, highest resolution displays and biggest batteries in the Note, but it cannibalized the screen size advantage with the Galaxy S+, and pulled back from large batteries after the Note 7 debacle," Greengart said.
Can the Note 9 reclaim some of that mojo? Based on the rumors circulating about the new phone, Samsung will have its work cut out for it.
Note 9: What we expect
Early reports on Samsung's plans for the Note 9 suggest it will retain the same look as the Galaxy Note 8, and leaked images reportedly of the new phone bear that out. From the renders we've seen circulating on Twitter and elsewhere, the Note 9 is expected to feature an Infinity Display with an 18:9 aspect ratio, just like last year's phone.
The bezels may be a little thinner, allowing Samsung to squeeze in enough extra screen real estate to include a 6.4-inch screen without increasing the overall size of the phone. And while that will be a welcome change for people who want a lot of usable screen space, it's not the kind of improvement that screams innovation.
Other rumored enhancements also echo what Samsung has already done with the S9. The Note 9 is on tap to get the Snapdragon 845 mobile processor, which already debuted in the S9 and many other leading Android flagships at this point. (At least, the Note 9 is expected to ship with more RAM, up to 8GB depending on the configuration.)
The dual rear cameras introduced with the Note 8 last year should also be in line for an improvement, though many of the rumored enhancements — such as a variable aperture for improved photos in low-light situations — were first rolled out with the S9 this spring.
That leaves productivity as a way of making the Galaxy Note stand out. And that means one of the standout features for this year's model could again be enhancements to the S Pen, the stylus that can already do everything from translate text to scribble down memos even when the phone is locked.
"There's definitely some overlap between the [Galaxy S and Note], but for me the big difference has always been the S Pen and the Note's overall focus on productivity," Llamas said. "That has changed somewhat, but I think users gravitate to the S or the Note depending on whether they want content consumption or content creation/productivity."
To that end, this year's S Pen is rumored to be gaining Bluetooth connectivity as part of the Note 9. That would let you use the stylus as a remote control, letting you handle things like music playback and other tasks.
The S Pen could also help you game better if another rumor about the Note 9 pans out. Two reports claim that Fortnite will make its long-awaited debut on Android as a Note 9 exclusive, and players will be able to use the S Pen for aiming and shooting in the multiplayer battle royale game. A game like Fortnite would give Samsung the chance to show off the Note 9's processing power, though reports that Samsung will promote the phone as a gaming device seem at odds with the Note's reputation as a productivity tool.
One Note 9 rumor Samsung has essentially confirmed involves Bixby. Samsung has already said that Bixby 2.0 will make its debut on the Note 9. It's unclear exactly which features Bixby 2.0 will bring to the new Note, though apparently the digital assistant can now recognize individual voices and provide responses and contextual information relevant to the user's preferences.
Bixby hasn't really caught on with owners of Galaxy phones, where Google Assistant still seems to be the voice-powered helper of choice. And it's unclear if an update to Bixby on the Note 9 will change that. Llamas sees Bixby as a cross-device feature for Samsung’s products, instead of a centerpiece feature for a smartphone: "Still, it needs an endpoint from which to begin, and [with] previous comments about 2.0's availability on Samsung's next flagship device during the second half of 2018, this seems to be it."
There will be another elephant in the room when Samsung unveils the Note 9 this Thursday, and it will look a lot like Apple. While Galaxy S9 sales have struggled by Samsung's own admission, Apple is enjoying record revenue driven in large part by the iPhone X. In fact, Apple as a company just surpassed $1 trillion in market value. And with new iPhones expected as soon as September, the Note 9 will have a limited window for capturing the imagination — and dollars — of smartphone shoppers.
"Even as the smartphone replacement cycle has lengthened, Apple has proven that consumers will pay dearly for innovation," GlobalData's Greengart said. "Now it's up to Samsung to deliver."
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Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.