Samsung Galaxy Note9 with S Pen stylus
Photo: Samsung

The Samsung Galaxy Note9 is a good example of how—sometimes—bigger does mean better.

Consumer Reports just finished its testing of the extra-large phablet. A long-lasting battery and other factors have helped the Note9 become our highest-rated smartphone.

At least for now.

The Note9 may face stiff competition in CR's labs from the new iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, which are going on sale to the public this week. Consumer Reports only rates products we buy at retail, which means test results on the new iPhones will be available soon.

In our testing, the Note9's battery lasted a whopping 29 hours. While a few other CR-recommended models lasted a little bit longer, the Note9’s battery performance beat those of a vast majority of smartphones currently on the market.

“It’ll get everyone except the most extreme user through a day without needing to recharge,” says Richard Fisco, CR’s head of smartphone testing.

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To find out exactly how long a smartphone’s battery can go, Consumer Reports uses a robotic finger programmed to put the phone through a range of tasks designed to simulate a user's average day.

The robot browses the internet, takes pictures, uses GPS navigation, and, of course, makes phone calls.

Fisco adds that once the Note9’s operating system is upgraded to the newest version of Android, which is designed to boost smartphone battery efficiency, the Note9's battery could last even longer.

While its industry-leading battery life gives the Note9 an edge, Fisco says it's just part of an all-around strong performance that also includes improved durability and a great camera, along with unique features such as a redesigned S Pen stylus.

If you’re not a phablet fan or someone who loves using a stylus, you might want to consider some of the other high-scoring models in our smartphone ratings.

The same goes if you balk at dropping a grand at the phone store. The Note9 starts at $1,000 for a 128GB model; the 512GB version goes for $1,250.

Here’s a more detailed look at how the Note9 did in our testing. 

Note9 Strengths

Improved durability. Consumer Reports tests the durability of smartphones by submitting them to 100 drops in a tumbling machine that repeatedly subjects them to falls of about 2.5 feet. This ensures that the devices strike the bottom of the machine at myriad angles, simulating a wide range of falls.

It’s not an easy ride to survive, especially for phones like the Note9 that have a glass front and back.

But the Note9 made it through all 100 drops with the glass intact and just a few minor dings.

In contrast, when we tested the Note8 last year, the glass back broke in the first 50 drops. And when testers checked after 100 drops, the display was broken, too.

Bigger display (slightly). The Note9 has one of the biggest displays out there, at 6.4 inches when measured diagonally. Among the phones we've tested, only the iPhone XS Max, which goes on sale this week, has a larger screen—by just one-tenth of an inch.

At first glance, the Note9 looks much like its predecessor, the Note8, which has a 6.3-inch display. The Note9 has the same tall, thin aspect ratio of 18.5:9, which makes it fairly big yet easy to hold.

To make room for the larger display, Samsung whittled away at the bezel running around the edge and eliminated wasted space on the phone’s face. You really have to look closely at the two models to see the difference between the Note9 and the Note8.

Like the Note8, the Note9 has an OLED screen. The technology, also used in high-end TVs, produces blacker blacks and nearly unlimited viewing angles. So it’s not surprising that just like the Note8, the Note9 got high marks for its display.

Better camera. The Note9’s cameras rate right up there with the best of the best, Fisco says.

Like other premium phones, this model has two rear cameras, one with a wide angle and a second with a 2X zoom that can go seamlessly to 10X for shooting up close.

The bokeh feature, which allows you to take a portrait where the subject appears in sharp focus in front of a blurred background, works well, according to the testers. They also noted that the autofocus is very fast.

The cameras take great-quality still photos with very sharp images. But while daylight images are very detailed with true-to-life colors, photos shot in dim lighting end up slightly dark, though little detail is lost.

New and improved stylus. The phone's trademark S Pen stylus makes handling the big device a little easier. With a phone this size, many consumers would need two hands to reach every corner of the screen.

Our testers found the stylus convenient and well-designed. For instance, you can click the button on the S Pen to snap pictures with the front camera, making it easy to take selfies with your friends. Tap the button twice and the Note9 shifts from the front- to the rear-facing camera.

The button can also be used to advance slideshow-like through the images in your photo library. It can even help you play the role of DJ, aptly controlling the song selection from your favorite music app.

And, of course, you can use the stylus to doodle and jot down notes on your lock screen.

Because Samsung has decided to open the S Pen’s remote-control abilities to third-party development, we expect owners to be able to use the button for even more tasks sometime soon. 

Samsung Galaxy Note9
Photo: Samsung

Note9 Shortcomings

The Samsung Galaxy Note doesn't have a lot of objective weaknesses, Fisco says, but it's not for everyone.

As mentioned before, the phone is big—really big. And it weighs in at just over 7 ounces. If you don’t like that sort of heft, you might want to look for something a little smaller. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S9, which is also rated very high by Consumer Reports, includes much of the same hardware and software but weighs a bit less at 5.75 ounces.

The Note9's price could be a hurdle for many consumers as well. With a $1,000 starting price, the Note9 is one of the most expensive smartphones on the market, matching the new iPhone XS. (The $1,000 version of the Apple device has a 5.8-inch display and only half as much storage—64GB.)

If you want an Apple smartphone with a similar-sized display, you’ll have to shell out $1,100 for a 64GB iPhone XS Max. The 256GB version costs $1,250.