For better or for worse, Samsung’s Galaxy S phones have always been synonymous with “Android” to mainstream consumers, especially those in North America. Other Android phonemakers simply do not have the combination of marketing muscle, widespread global availability and hardware excellence required to enter mainstream consciousness the way Apple and Samsung have.
(Huawei might have been able to get there, were it not for the fact that they’re essentially banned from the third-largest smartphone market in the world)
Speaking personally as an Android fan, I’m glad Samsung refused to jump on the notch bandwagon of 2018 like almost every other phone brand, because it would have been a terrible look for “the Android phone” to appear to be a blatant iPhone X copycat, too.
Instead, Samsung’s 2018 offerings stuck with traditional bezels that were widely considered iterative and boring updates. Sales suffered, too, but Samsung didn’t spend the year sitting on its laurels, it developed and perfected a new screen cut-out design that differentiates from the iPhone notch enough to be its own thing: the hole-punch design.
The design is ready just in time for Samsung’s 10th anniversary Galaxy S10 line, and they’re definitely lookers that, perhaps more importantly, have a visual identity distinct from iPhones.
Of course, given the competitive nature of the smartphone space, some of Samsung’s thunder has been stolen by Huawei, which launched a hole-punch design phone of its own two months ago, but Samsung’s version uses the superior OLED display tech, and Samsung’s phones are available stateside.
I tested all three models of Samsung’s S10 line–S10, S10+, and S10e–for 10 days, but this review will focus on the S10 and S10+, as they’re the two superior models and more closely resembles Samsung’s true vision of a flagship.
S10 and S10+: what’s the difference?
The most noticeable difference between the two models is physical size, with the larger “plus” model sporting a 6.4-inch display compared to the standard S10’s 6.1. The larger model is roughly the same size as the iPhone XS Max and other recent Android flagships–think the LG V40, OnePlus 6T, Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, etc. It’s not a small phone per se, but thanks to the elimination of bezels in recent years, it’s not uncomfortably large either. All of these recent 6.4-inch flagships should be completely useable by the average adult male. The S10, on the other hand, is small and easy to use with one hand. Both phones are surprisingly lightweight, at 157g (S10) and 175g (S10+).
The S10+ also has two front-facing cameras (the second being a depth sensor) compared to the standard phone’s single selfie camera. This means the hole-punch cut-out is larger on the S10+, eating up more screen space.
The larger body of the S10+ also houses a larger battery, a 4,100 mAh cell, while the S10 runs on a 3,400 mAh cell.
S10 and S10+: what’s not different?
Everything else about the two phones are identical. They have the same glass sandwich design with a complete symmetrical front and back due to that display panel’s curvature; same ultrasonic fingerprint scanner embedded underneath the display; and same processor, which is either the Snapdragon 855 for North American and China/Hong Kong models, or Exynos 9820 for everywhere else.
(China and the U.S. models require the Snapdragon chipset due to existence of CDMA networks in both countries; the rest of the world are on GSM bands)
Samsung’s OLED displays are just about flawless and the screens on either S10 or S10+ are the best screens on the market right now in terms of brightness, viewing angles and color vividness.
The other big additions
Going forward, I will refer to both the S10 and S10+ as S10 for the sake of simplicity, but everything written applies to both handsets unless specifically stated.
Other than the hole-punch design, which gives the S10 some of the highest screen-to-body ratio around, the two other headline grabbing additions this year is the new wide-angle camera that joins the existing standard+telephoto set-up of previous Samsung devices; and that in-display fingerprint reader.
Both of these new additions are likely exciting for American or South Korean consumers, as no other device in those markets offer these tech. But for me in Hong Kong, it’s old news–there have been four or five Chinese phones with the same offerings.
Samsung’s take on these new tech can be considered superior in some ways, but can also come up short. The ultrasonic fingerprint reader under the screen, for example, is supposedly more secure than the optical in-display fingerprint scanners found in phones like the Vivo V15 Pro, because ultrasonic uses sound vibrations to map a 3D image of the user’s thumb print, while optical scanners only scan a 2D surface, but the latter is also faster and more responsive. I can consistently unlock a Vivo V15 Pro easier and faster than I can the Galaxy S10. Now, if Samsung’s radar-like scanner is truly more secure than Vivo’s optical, then fine I can accept the slightly slower speed, but I have read no official reports–from Google, from payment apps, media–that have warned of the supposed lack of security of optical scanners.
My experience with the S10’s scanner–I can make do with it–is already on the positive end of the spectrum, other reviewers at Android Policeand The Verge flat out hate the new tech.
As for the wide-angle camera, Samsung’s lens has a field of vision of 123 degrees, wider than what LG’s and Huawei’s wide-angle cams offer (roughly 107 degrees), but there’s also significant barrel distortion around the corners.
Still, I have gone on record stating my love of the wide-angle camera, and I’m glad Samsung’s offering one too. LG deserves credit for pioneering this tech, by the way. We’ll discuss more about the S10’s camera in the next section.
Versatile, capable shooters that’s not quite the best
The S10’s triple camera array includes the aforementioned 16-megapixel wide-angle cam with a pair of 12-megapixel standard and telephoto lens. The latter two lens are almost completely unchanged from last year’s cameras, and Samsung didn’t seem to have improved the image processing software much, so photos captured with the S10 are very, very similar to the S9.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the S10/S9’s main camera can alternate F-stops between the wide-open f/1.5 and f/2.2, so its photos are very rarely over- or under-exposed. But contrast is still artificially-boosted a bit too much, and the Samsung’s camera lacks the A.I.-assisted night shooting mode (the phone will take 3-4 seconds to snap four to five images and then stitch them together for one particularly bright and balanced night shot) that was pioneered by Huawei last year and have since been done to critical acclaim by Google’s Pixel 3.
This means that in low light situations, the S10 simply lacks the dynamic range of the Google Pixel 3 or Huawei Mate 20 Pro. To be fair, photos turn out heavily processed when captured with the night mode, so the S10’s night images could be considered more natural and close to real life. Check the sample below, taken in a dark alley, by the S10 and Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro with night mode.
Notice Huawei’s image has more balanced lighting: the shaded parts of the ground isn’t as dark; the brightly lit part of the street in center frame is less blown out; there’s more texture and sharpness in the air conditioners; the tall building in the upper right corners are more clear.
But keep in mind, Huawei’s image was captured using a special shooting mode that takes several seconds; Samsung’s image was captured immediately. Still, software-assisted photo processing is clearly the direction toward which mobile photography will have the next breakthrough, so it’s a bit disheartening to see that Samsung made little progress on this front.
When not nitpicking and comparing side to side with other top-tier phones, however, the S10’s cameras will produce images that are well detailed and pleasing to look at.
Having three cameras with different focal lengths give the S10 the ability to capture three distinct perspectives without requiring the user to move. Of course, I must say that Samsung isn’t breaking ground here–rival South Korean brand LG offered this same triple camera layout since last October.
In the above sample, notice the photo quality–exposure, sharpness, color accuracy–across all three images are uniform, which is good, as LG’s three cameras tend to produce slightly different quality images.
Focusing on just the wide-angle lens, the S10’s shooter can capture visually impressive shots, though with the aforementioned heavy distortion.
Pointless second selfie cam…
The larger S10+ has an extra front-facing camera that’s a depth sensor, whose purpose is to better produce that depth-of-field bokeh effect. But for the most part, I find the extra depth sensor pointless. I took a series of selfie portraits with the S10+ and the mono-selfie cam S10 and the two photos are very similar. I can see the S10+’s selfies can have slightly better edge detection, but it’s not enough to justify an extra sensor, because it eats up more of the screen. I’d rather the S10+ just stick with one selfie camera and give us more screen.
But video recording is top notch
One area the S10 beats other Android performers is in video recording; the S10 can record footage up to 4K/60fps that is relatively smooth. Footage shot with 4K/30fps or lower are even smoother, thanks to advanced EIS (electronic image stabilization) and OIS (optical image stabilization). I think the iPhone XS is still the best phone video camera around, but the S10 has overtaken previous Android king LG V40.
Software, battery, performance–all good to great
The S10 runs Android 9, with Samsung’s new software skin One UI on top. One UI is supposed to be make one-hand usage easier, but I find that other than re-positioning some of the buttons in apps such as phone dialer and contacts to the bottom of the screen, Samsung’s software still isn’t as one hand friendly as the best software skin, OnePlus’s OxygenOS. For example, when opening an app folder, the apps are ridiculously high up on the phone’s screen, making it hard to reach. OnePlus’ software is intuitive enough to keep these apps near the bottom of the screen.
In terms of standard performance, the S10 are just about flawless. It’s worth pointing out that the units I tested run on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855, which is superior to Samsung’s Exynos chipset that powers European or Southeast Asia S10s. I don’t suspect those phones to be too far behind, however.
Battery life has been much improved this year, too. The S10+ has a large 4,100 mAh cell, so it’s easily an all-day phone. The S10 has a smaller 3,400 mAh battery, so whether or not it can last an entire day depends on your type of usage. In general, I get 4.5 hours of screen-on time for the smaller S10, and six hours of screen-on time for the S10+. Both results are excellent, though not as good as Huawei, the battery endurance king.
The new Android king? Depends on your point of view
In a vacuum, Samsung’s Galaxy S10 phones are sleek, gorgeous, powerful, cutting-edge devices. But there’s a giant elephant in the room: the day before Samsung unveiled the S10 line, Xiaomi introduced a smartphone named Mi 9 that has almost the same set of specs and hardware features as Samsung’s: same Snapdragon 855 processor, similar OLED display with an in-display fingerprint reader, similar triple-camera set-up. And Xiaomi’s device, starting at around $450, costs about half as much as the S10’s starting price.
I have only tested Xiaomi’s device very briefly, and I can confidently say Samsung’s S10 has a better display and slightly better camera performance, but you’d have to be the most diehard phone geek to argue that those features alone are worth an extra $450.
The big saving grace for Samsung is that Xiaomi phones are not sold in Samsung’s two top markets (South Korea and North America), and the U.S. government’s public campaign to convince the world not to trust Huawei/China has probably convinced some to stay away from all Chinese tech brands. So for those who live in North America or South Korea, and those who have been scared off Chinese products, the Samsung Galaxy S10 has little to no competition right now in the Android space. It is the most powerful, feature-packed phone on the market right now, and relative to other options available, not too unreasonably priced. LG’s upcoming G8 could rival the S10 in terms of overall greatness, but it has that outdated notch design and is not on sale yet.
For others who have access to, and aren’t weary of, Chinese phone brands, the S10 is a luxury option. There are a half dozen phones out there that offer an in-display fingerprint, triple-camera set-up, OLED screens, and powerful chipset for less. The S10 could still appeal, but anyone who knows their smartphones in Hong Kong or London, Singapore or Paris know they can get a similar experience to the S10 for less if they so desire.