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June 29, 2018
I’m thinking of getting a new smartphone so I asked for review samples of the Samsung Galaxy S9, Google Pixel 2 and OnePlus 6 to help me choose.
My current phone is the Samsung Galaxy S7, which I bought two years ago as part of a 24-month contract. That means I’m now eligible for a ‘free’ upgrade so long as I stay on the same contract. Alternatively the S7 still works just fine so I could just downgrade to a SIM-only tariff and save myself some money for a few months.
The obvious upgrade would be to move to the S9 so that’s the first one I had a look at. The most conspicuous difference from the S7 is that the ‘edge’ screen – i.e. one that wraps around the longer sides of the device – is now standard issue, while it was a premium upgrade two years ago.
You can see the difference in the photo below, which shows the S9 in the middle, my S7 on the right and the Pixel 2 XL on the left (the 1+6 hadn’t turned up before the S9 was reclaimed). You can also see that, while the overall size of the S9 is pretty much the same, they have shrunk the black bands at the top and bottom to reclaim some screen real estate.
And that’s well worth doing because the super AMOLED screen is one of the real strengths of this phone, it seems to have higher resolution and richer colours than the others, which makes looking at it a downright pleasure.
The other big change is that the whole chassis is made of a ceramic-like glass, which feels really premium and classy but also a tad fragile and pointless since I’d be whacking a case onto it as soon as I got it out of the box anyway. On that note the Spigen case I’ve had on my S7 as contemptuously shrugged off many drops over the past couple of years.
Other positives include a distinct upgrade in general performance over my phone, surprisingly good built-in speakers (The day is my enemy by The Prodigy and Hardwired by Metallica were my chosen test tracks, on the assumption that if they could handle them they could handle anything, see below), a top camera and a face unlock feature that worked very smoothly.
The major negatives all concerned the software Samsung has put on the phone as part of its endless quest to be more than just a Google vassal in the smartphone space. The big one is Bigby, Samsung’s take on the AI-driven personal assistant, but there’s the usual range of Samsung app it hopes we’ll use instead of Google or third party ones.
There’s nothing conspicuously wrong with any of these, it’s just that I find myself drawn towards the alternatives, often Google ones I’ve grown accustomed to. I have to admit I haven’t warmed to smart assistants in general and still feel a bit weird talking to a device without another human being involved in the exchange, but there was nothing about Bixby that made me want to revise that position.
Moving onto the Pixel, it should be noted straight away that Google sent me the XL version, so it has a bigger screen, battery etc and is more equivalent to the S9 plus, but other than size the features are largely the same. It has a metal back and sides that feel more robust than the glass S9 and you unlock it through a fingerprint reader on the back, which is handy because your index finger naturally heads that way when you hold it.
The screen seems every bit a sharp as that of the S9 but the colours seem slightly less vivid. The speakers are just as good and, quite frankly, it was hard to tell things like the camera, performance, etc apart – they are excellent on both. I preferred the stripped-down Android interface and the syncing with various Google services is spookily complete – it even sends me relevant sports news without me even requesting it.
It was hard to find fault with the Pixel 2 XL but equally difficult to find areas in which it was conspicuously superior to the S9, which is a general problem for dilettante smartphone reviewers like me, and which brings us on to the last device in this inexpert round-up.
The 1+6, as you can see in the photo below (on the right, taken next to the Pixel when it finally turned up) it looks pretty identical to the Pixel 2 XL, the only thing worth noting in this context being the fact that this is the only size the 1+6 comes in – around a 6-inch screen. It seems to have reclaimed even more screen from the black areas and features the ‘notch’ around the top speaker and camera associated with the iPhone X.
Again the components all seem up to scratch – chip, screen, etc, and it has not one but two cameras on the back. The speakers seemed to distort a bit with Prodigy and Metallica at top volume and you get the impression many of the components, while excellent, might be one level below those of the S9 and Pixel 2 XL. OnePlus does have its own UI skin, but it seemed pretty inoffensive and it also has a fingerprint reader on the back.
The chassis is glass, like the S9, but this is rendered even more irrelevant by the fact that, in a nice touch, the 1+6 comes with a case and a screen protector thrown in. Once more it’s hard to find either a killer feature or deal-breaker with this device – it just seems solid all round, albeit with a pleasantly subtle take on haptic feedback. This has been the case with smartphones for years once the form factor matured; how do you improve on a black touchscreen rectangle with all the latest specs?
But the 1+6 does have one massive differentiator: the price. The whole OnePlus proposition from the start has been to offer a flagship device at a mass market price. The 1+6 costs £469 for the version with 64GB storage. The 64GB S9 costs £739, with the larger Plus coming in at £799 and the 64GB Pixel 2 XL will set you back £799 too.
So the big question isn’t whether or not the S9 Plus or the Pixel 2 XL are better than the 1+6, but whether they’re £330 better. The answer, surely, has to be no. There’s just no way a slightly better set of components are worth pretty much the same as a new low-end Apple iPhone. If I’m paying my own money and EE doesn’t sufficiently incentivise me to sign up for another two-year contract, then the 1+6 seems like a no-brainer and the comparison table below bolsters that view, in my opinion.
Samsung Galaxy S9
Google Pixel 2 XL
147.7 x 68.7 x 8.5mm
2960 x 1440 AMOLED
2880 x 1440 pOLED
2280 x 1080 AMOLED
As the Editorial Director of Telecoms.com, Scott oversees all editorial activity on the site and also manages the Telecoms.com Intelligence arm, which focuses on analysis and bespoke content.
Scott has been covering the mobile phone and broader technology industries for over ten years. Prior to Telecoms.com Scott was the primary smartphone specialist at industry analyst Strategy Analytics’. Before that Scott was a technology journalist, covering the PC and telecoms sectors from a business perspective.
Follow him @scottbicheno
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