Samsung Galaxy S20 / S20+ Review – A Mixed Bag, Not a ‘Must’ Upgrade

Galaxy S20 bottom edge
It’s 2020, so why not the Galaxy S… 20. Rather than the S11, which is really what it is, a continued iteration from the decent S7, S8, the superb S9, and the slightly compromised S10. In essence, the S20 retains the ultrasonic in-screen fingerprint sensor, which I was never that keen on, fiddles with the camera system – as Samsung does every year – and… gets rid of the popular 3.5mm audio jack and heart rate/blood oxygen sensors. The main attractions here then are probably the 2020 chipsets and increased RAM, plus the optional 120Hz display. But are they enough? Find out in my full Samsung Galaxy S20 review.

What’s missing

Let’s start with those omissions. On the one hand, I’m shocked, having been a big audio jack proponent for years – and I thought Samsung was on my side here. On the other, having heard the superlative audio from the best Type C-driven external DACs, like this HIDIZS one, and also having got used to good Bluetooth audio – I use a ROCKJAW T5 conjoined set – even I don’t miss a jack too much in 2020. 

The heart and O2 sensors? I did use them on the S9, Note9 and S10, I really did. Though did I actually benefit from knowing my stats, did my life improve in any measurable way? Probably not that much. You’d have to be a fitness fanatic to need these – and then wouldn’t you already have a fitness watch of some kind, which is much more convenient?

So let’s stay open-minded, here, despite the omissions. There’s still a lot to talk about…

Galaxy S20 front

Hardware and variants

In the hand, this is a typical Galaxy S series, though with less pronounced curves on the screen edges, which is a good thing. Though as you and I always keep Samsungs in TPU cases it makes little difference in reality – if you’re handling glass then you’re ‘doing it wrong’.

As usual, there’s a larger sister device, the S20+, and just as with 2019’s S10 range, the smaller model here has similar internals and imaging as the larger device. Back in 2018, I had to choose and went for the larger S9+ because I wanted the telephoto lens. Here you can just choose on the overall size, the form factor in the hand. Which is good. And also means that almost everything in this review applies to the S20+ (screen and battery sizes being the main differences).

There is, of course, a third variant, the S20 Ultra, with crazily high-specced – though somewhat quirky, in terms of auto-focus and depth of field – imaging. It’s also super expensive and large and heavy. Almost prohibitively so, but in any case, I’m going to leave this for a separate review in the near future, I have a sample hopefully coming from Samsung PR. 

Galaxy S20 lock screen

In the meantime, with no performance or imaging compromises, I put down my own money for the standard S20 here, a not dissimilar feel to my beloved iPhone 11 Pro, i.e. fits in one hand, largely useable as such, and in this case the price is… acceptable. At £800 in the UK, at least, all-in. The S20+, for comparison, is £1000 here. And let’s not mention the Ultra. If you have to ask then you can’t afford it!

There’s also a 5G variant of the S20 at £100 more, plus 5G is standard in the S20+, but how appropriate 5G is to you will depend on where you live and in which country. I reckon that 4G is quite fast enough right now, that 5G rollouts are still very early, and my gut feel was that I’d get better battery life without 5G circuits wasting battery and hunting for signal. But your mileage will vary, as they say! Do your coverage research with your chosen network.

The ‘standard’ S series has been growing slightly, with the S20 here now a full half a centimeter longer than the 2018 S9, for example, and with a 6.2” diagonal display (compared to 5.8”). So all good, and the Dynamic AMOLED display here is right up to Samsung’s usual excellent standard, visible in all light conditions and with stunning color depth and accuracy. It really is.

The selfie cutout has moved into the center, which I prefer, compared to the S10’s corner arrangement.

Inside, most of us get an Exynos 990 chipset, though USA users get a Snapdragon 865, to work with the odd American cell bands, plus 8GB RAM, which is the sweet spot for a flagship in 2020, I reckon. Certainly the S20 powered through everything I gave it, with no slowdowns. As we expect each year for a Galaxy S series flagship.

Galaxy S20 rear

Up top there’s an earpiece speaker, which is ostensibly the same component as in the S10. With the combined main speaker firing out the bottom, and if you turn on Dolby Atmos as well, then the stereo and fidelity are pretty good for a phone. Not in the same league as the speakers in the iPhone 11 series, which are my current benchmark, but still very good.

The hardware buttons have changed for 2020, with just three on the right, and a long press on the power button launches Bixby – which is… fine. Though you’ll have to install extra software to switch this to Google Assistant, since I couldn’t find a way to do this out of the box. A double press of this button launches Camera, as you’d expect.

Galaxy S20 side buttons

Samsung Galaxy S20+ Camera Review

And so to the main event for most smartphones, it seems, though I do think we’ve somewhat plateaued in terms of what regular people use and need. The cameras. Three in this case.

Gone is the variable aperture camera that served the S9 and S10 so well, in its place is a much larger 1/1.76” sensored 12MP shooter with single ‘average’ aperture of f/1.8. Smaller than the widest 1/1.5 of its predecessors but it all comes out in the wash, as they say. Dual Pixel autofocus and OIS are still present, thankfully, and results are still good across the board, albeit with the usual Samsung over-zealous sharpening and enhancements.

Camera island

Curiously, on the telephoto side, there’s only a slight (less than 1.1!) optical magnification, but cropping into an also-optically-stabilized 64MP sensor is used instead. Which is odd, since zoom up to 1.9x is handled on the main sensor in software and then the ‘telephoto’ takes over from 2x zoom upwards. But at this point, Samsung is only using the central quarter of the 64MP sensor. In other words, ¾ of this sensor is never used!

For stills anyway. Video up to 4K is handled on the main sensor and then the 64MP zoom lens is used for the much-marketed-but-rarely-used-by-anyone 8K mode. Especially when 8K is punched in slightly by that 1.1x and of lower quality (tiny, tiny pixels) and limited to 24fps, but hey, bragging rights on 8K, eh?

Add a f/2.2 ultra-wide lens, which works well as usual. But the overall feel is of a kludgy and compromised-by-marketing imaging system – I think the Ultra will work better here, since it takes the same ideas and does them better.

Not that it all really matters. The user snaps away, does a bit of zooming, and a bit of ultra-wide too, and is happy with the results, especially if only viewing on the S20 screen or sharing on social media. But for once, I think Samsung is tripping over a camera system that’s more complicated than it needed to be.

Anyway, here are camera samples, along with notes and 1:1 crops where appropriate.

Sample S20 photo
Super contrast and Samsung-ised colours!
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, all textures and edges are ‘enhanced’ in slightly ugly fashion. No shortage of apparent contrast, anyway.
Sample S20 photo
Using the ‘3x hybrid zoom’, a clean image and the zoom appears to work well, even if very little of it is ‘optical’.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, you can see noise and artefacts when looking closely. But still pretty good for a phone camera and challenging detail here in the shade.
Sample S20 photo
Here with 2x zoom applied to get ‘closer’ to the flowers. Nice details and colours.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, sharpening seems to be within bounds when zooming, giving results comparable to those from the previous generation’s 2x telephoto lens.
Sample S20 photo
The ultra-wide lens proves useful when faced with large scenes where you can’t ‘step back’!
Sample S20 photo
A sunny suburban landscape, here focussing on the distant (60m) house.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing how Samsung’s edge enhancement and sharpening makes rather an exagerated mess of the house’s brickwork and lawn…
Sample S20 photo
Here’s a 10x zoom shot using the ‘hybrid zoom’ – this looks fine at web and screen resolutions.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, note that the 10x zoomed shot really is quite soft – as you’d expect. But as long as you don’t crop in, the shots are still useable. Just don’t go to 30x!!
Sample S20 photo
Super focus and detail from the main camera here (look at the model pilot). All bokeh here is natural.
Sample S20 photo
Loads of detail here in this plane cockpit…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, with texture made up somewhat by the sharpening, and with text exaggerated. But still a nice capture.
Sample S20 photo
This is with the optional ‘Live focus’ mode on – the bokeh ‘shallow depth of field’ effect is really rather brilliant. It’s a shame this mode isn’t in the main Camera mode carousel anymore, though.
Sample S20 photo
Dead of night shot, handheld – very clean and rather impressive. OIS plus clever software!
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, details are still clean and useable even when cropping in.

Battery and performance

Battery life has always been just a tiny bit disappointing on the Galaxy S series – usually one reason to go for the ‘+’ versions for the bigger batteries. But capacity has been going up on the standard units. From 3000 mAh on the S9 to 3400 mAh on the S10 to 4000 mAh here on the S20. And it’s absolutely fine with one caveat.

Which is that the display here can be cranked to 120Hz refresh rate if you so wish, rather than the usual 60Hz. As it sounds, a high refresh rate means that when you scroll through static content – so Twitter feeds, web pages, etc. – text will be more a bit more readable while in motion, i.e. there’s less blur as you scroll. How much of this you can see depends on how young your eyes are. In my fifties, I’m absolutely OK with 60Hz, but I can understand 20-something YouTubers with fresh eyes raving over the faster refresh. Anyway, options, eh?

Samsung’s default across the board is 1080p at 60Hz and this is perfect for the majority. You can go to 1440p, but not if you also want 120Hz. Possibly for technical reasons, but also because you would absolutely CANE your battery, I suspect. It’s rumored that Samsung may allow this in a future update, with appropriate on-screen warnings.

Both the extra refresh speed and resolution are nice. But I do think that most people would rather have a couple of extra hours of screen-on time per day from their battery than see slightly more pixels slightly more clearly when in motion. 

Battery charging is upgraded too, to USB Power Delivery 3.0 specs and varying voltages, with a supplied 24W mains charger. Plus there’s the same 15W wireless charging and reverse wireless charging as on the S10 range. Absolutely no complaints here, charging is fast and flexible.

Samsung’s One UI 2.0 OS and Interface

Plus all the usual Samsung extras. This is Android 10 with Samsung’s One UI 2.0 on top and you’ll be familiar with it. I loved the optional navigation gestures that mimic the Pixel’s and iPhone’s. Learn these and you’re good to go across numerous smartphones now, should you own (or have to support the family) multiple devices. Or you can use traditional on-screen nav-buttons, in whatever order you prefer.

You get the usual Samsung application loadout, including Gallery, Samsung Music, Samsung Browser, Samsung Calendar, but in fairness, many of these are arguably better than the Google alternatives, all of which are also present, in a Google home screen folder. In any case, this is Android, and 30 minutes fiddling when you get the phone will see your home screens and set-up back as you like them.

Also here – again as usual – is full IP68 waterproofing, this time with Gorilla Glass 6 front and back. And you’ll still need a case. I’m just saying….

The potential showstopper

Before summing up, I have to mention the in-screen ultrasonic fingerprint sensor again – because it’s a showstopper for almost everyone, at least out of the box. It’s just terrible, being slow to work (over a second) and unreliable (less than 50% in my first few days with the S20).

The thing is… it’s fixable, in about 30 seconds, if users know what to do. It would be nice if Samsung were to tell them, but we all know that’s not going to happen. First, there’s a somewhat buried setting called ‘Touch Sensitivity’ – turn this on to get the ultrasonic sensor to ‘reach out’ further from the glass into your thumb’s print. Secondly, there’s a factory-fitted screen protector and this needs to come off. It’s beautifully fitting and seems almost heretical to peel off, but this is needed for the in-screen fingerprint sensor to work properly.

No match on the FPS

Without the setting and the protector removal, every single time you pick the S20 up you have to brace yourself to wait. It’s a psychological factor, perhaps, but it’s one that really wound me up, which is why I was so glad to mitigate it!

At the end of the day, for a flagship phone, this ultrasonic finger tech just isn’t good enough. Especially when phones one fifth the price (I’m thinking Moto G series here) have capacitive sensors that are much quicker and 100% reliable.

Back to the drawing board, Samsung. For your S series flagships, surely it’s time to bring in a 3D-scanning Face ID system, as on the iPhones and Google Pixel 4 series?

Galaxy S20 Review Verdict

As someone who still owns – and loves – a Galaxy S9+, who lives and breathes Samsung, who used an S10 for a while and a Note 9 for four solid months, the S20 is… underwhelming. It’s very much an iteration on what’s come before – and it comes at the cost of numerous omissions. Compared to the S9/Note9 series, you’re missing that much-loved audio jack, you’re missing fast capacitive fingerprint scanning, you’re missing heart and blood sensors, you’re missing iris scanning. Compared to the S10, you’re missing that jack and you’re missing a real telephoto camera.

Are the undoubted improvements in battery, in screen size, and in refresh rate, all worth it, including the acquisition cost? If you already have an S9 or above then no, absolutely not, save your money, your existing smartphone will still serve you well for a couple of years.

On the other hand, if you have an S8 or before, or if you’re new to Samsung and quite fancy their take on ‘premium’, then this isn’t a terrible way to get started at the very top. 

So… I find myself both warning people off the S20 and simultaneously saying ‘consider it’. A paradox? Not really. Welcome to the smartphone world of 2020. The S20. It certainly had me scratching my head!

 

Cased S20
Cased, in running trim, this is the Olixar ‘Carbon Fibre’, by the way. Got to protect all that glass!!

Please feel free to drop me a line in the comments below if you’ve any questions.