The Samsung Galaxy S20 is a mostly excellent phone. I know that is an unpopular take at this point in the yearly Android review cycle, partly because of the price of each S20 phone and also because Samsung can’t quite seem to tick every single Android purist box. But man, I really like this phone a lot, outside of one area.
Now, I should point out that it’s the Galaxy S20 Ultra that is ultimately looked at as the controversial phone today that everyone (outside of Tim) is taking turns sh*tting on. Its $1,400 price tag, massive size, and mixed bag of a camera experience has (rightly) ruffled some feathers. Over the past several weeks, I’ve spent zero time with the Ultra and have instead been all about the regular, smallest-of-the-group Galaxy S20. I can only offer my experience here and why this phone has come so close to completely winning me over.
I think this phone is (almost) great. This is our Galaxy S20 review.
This almost goes without saying from one flagship Samsung phone to the next, but the display here is insanely good. The regular Galaxy S20 that I’ve tested sports a 6.2″ QHD AMOLED display with a 120Hz refresh rate and HDR10+ certification. It is so far and away better than any other display I’ve used recently, that my mind is still a little blown all these weeks later.
You’ve got all of the options for this display that you need, like a night or blue light filter, dark mode, adaptive brightness, and “Vivid” or “Natural” screen color modes that can help you adjust the color profile to your liking. It has a range of brightness that gets stupidly bright in direct sunlight, so bright that I had to double-take a couple of times while it had the sun shining on it, because I couldn’t believe that I could see it as clearly as I was seeing it. It also gets incredibly dim so that dark situations are pleasant, which is something I can’t say for many phones.
The viewing angles lose almost no clarity or show almost no color shift at even a 45-degree angle. Touch responsiveness is as good as I’ve seen on any Android phone in history, and yeah, at 120Hz, things are obnoxiously smooth at all times.
I have zero complaints about this display. If you need one, I guess it’s the limitation that Samsung put on 120Hz, where you can only use that max refresh rate at FHD (1080p) and not QHD (1440p). Samsung shouldn’t force you into downgrading (even if slightly) one feature because you want to use another feature. I think we’ll survive with 120Hz at 1080p, but hey, it’s a thing that we can’t (yet) use that refresh at the full phone resolution.
Oh, the curved edges of the display are still not my favorite. However, they seem more subtle than ever on this phone and I didn’t find myself fighting with edge swipes like I have in past curved displays.
Seriously, though, this display is just nuts.
Hardware and Specs
The Galaxy S20 may technically be the lowest-end of the S20 line, but it still includes more specs than almost all of its competitors. You get the crazy-good display I just talked about, Snapdragon 865 processor with 5G, 12GB RAM (LPDDR5), 128GB storage with SD support, 4000mAh battery with fast charging (and wireless charging), stereo speakers, NFC and MST (Samsung Pay) for mobile payments, in-display ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, IP68 water and dust resistance, WiFi 6, and triple camera setup.
I’ll talk further about the camera in just a second, but Samsung is giving you what you need for 2020. You get the high megapixel (64MP) telephoto sensor, an ultra-wide shooter for flexibility (12MP), and a 12MP Dual Pixel main shooter that tries to give you expected results for a phone of this magnitude.
What’s missing? A headphone jack, if you care. That’s it. Again, this is the smallest, low-ender of the bunch and yet it has everything I just listed, like a massive battery, triple camera, Snapdragon 865, and that glorious, glorious display.
The Galaxy S20, with 12GB RAM, UFS 3.0 storage, a Snapdragon 865, and 120Hz display, should be speedy and lack hiccups or stutters. It shouldn’t slow or crash or fail to load a previously opened app or need regular reboots or clearing of running apps. In my testing, this phone really holds up in the performance department, delivering everywhere it needs to.
I don’t know that I’d consider myself a heavy lifter of smartphones, but I do run a dozen or so apps frequently, I take lots of pictures, and I watch a good amount of video. This phone has easily handled any task I’ve thrown at it. I think I’ve rebooted it a few times during this review period, though I’m not sure it really needed it.
I don’t have benchmarks to share, because we don’t do that here, just understand that the performance Samsung has created is something everyone would love. I really think you could throw the world at the Galaxy S20 and it still wouldn’t slow.
Through the first few days of testing, I was worried that battery life with 120Hz turned on would lead to a daily struggle to avoid a charger before going to bed. And then as the phone learned from my usage, it all changed and I’m now mostly happy with the Galaxy S20’s battery life.
My typical day consists of 3.5-4.5 hours of screen on time made up of the Camera app, Twitter, Chrome, Instagram, YouTube and Twitch, Gmail, and Hangouts. I don’t venture much out of those spaces, but I do keep them on the screen for hours at a time.
After those first few days of worry, I’m now getting around 4 hours of screen time on a single charge that runs from 7AM or so to 11PM. In recent days, I’ve had 20-30% battery left as I dropped my head on a pillow.
Is this king-level battery life? No. But when I test a phone, if it can get me through an entire day with 20-30% battery to spare, I’m good. There aren’t many phones not named “OnePlus” that push much beyond that, so I’ll take it. If I don’t need a charger by the time I go to bed at night, I think we’ve got acceptable battery performance.
For charging, the S20 features 25W wired charging and Samsung’s semi-fast wireless charging. I think in both areas there, Samsung is behind in the charging game compared to competitors. It has been this way for years, but I never start charging a Samsung phone, look at it 15 minutes later and say, “Wow, that’s a lot of charge already!” like I seemingly do with every single one of OnePlus’ phones. You’ll still get fast-enough speeds, I just want Samsung to try and lead in this category.
This might sound weird to say about a Samsung phone, but this regular Galaxy S20, specifically in this grey color I have, gives off such an understated appearance. You know the minute you pick it up that it’s a Samsung phone because of the perfectly put-together pieces, the gem-like feel of the glass everywhere, the narrowness of its body, and all those curves. But it’s not screaming for attention either, which I can really appreciate.
It’s a lot like a Tom Ford tux. It’s so perfectly built and tailored from a design or structural perspective, that it doesn’t need embellishment or an “Oh So Orange” color or gradient or a pop-up mechanism. Instead, it grabs your attention and demands your respect without asking for it because you can tell the level of craftsmanship. It just looks good.
Beyond just the appearance, this Galaxy S20 might be the perfect size smartphone. It’s about the same size as the smaller Pixel 4, yet I find it easier to use because of its width from side to side. The glass and metal combination, which is often slippery in other phones, hasn’t been for me and I’ve instead noticed frequently how un-slippery it has been in my hands. It is quite tall and not exactly a one-handed phone, but it’s close to being one.
For those of you looking for a smallish device that still checks all of the boxes, Samsung has what you need with this regular S20.
Samsung’s software is weirdly an Android skin I no longer look to ditch the minute I’m done reviewing one of their phones. With the introduction of their One UI software, I actually kind of enjoy using Galaxy phones and that hasn’t changed with the Galaxy S20.
This phone runs the latest One UI, which is version 2.1 on top of Android 10. It’s filled with more features than you’ll ever need or find uses for, just like all Samsung phones. It’s starting to feel a little bloated again too, if I’m being honest, though that just means I’m ignoring a lot of stuff and using the necessities.
I think Samsung gets a lot of criticism from tech media because they aren’t into providing the basics or bare minimum software experience like Apple or Google do. And while I can see some of the appeal there, since a basic phone lets you add onto it as you see fit, I’m coming around to being fine with Samsung throwing it all at you.
Why? Because Samsung is letting you decide what to use and not to use. Want a super download mega booster thing that uses your cell and WiFi connection? Cool! Use it. Don’t care? Ignore it. Do you want access to their weird camera modes and Bluetooth music sharing and secure folders and Bixby and various Windows integrations? Use whatever you want. If you don’t want any of that, you can ignore it or turn it off.
My setup with this Galaxy S20 has been pretty simple. I immediately ditched their sh*tty launcher and put Nova Launcher on, which I know sounds like a bad move during a review period, but their launcher might be the worst in the industry. I just can’t, OK?
But beyond that, Samsung lets me customize the lock screen appearance, gives me all of the display modes I love, I get various volume and vibration controls, and there are several sweet “Advanced” features. I don’t use most of the crap Samsung puts on here and that’s OK. I use what I want and that’s given me a software experience I enjoy because the base of the UI and design are very Android-familiar.
I think the point I’m trying to make here is that people find it cool to trash Samsung for giving you features because they’ve created this fantasy world where only Google’s minimal approach to Android is proper. I think that’s small-minded.
On another software note, we should talk about software updates. Samsung used to be awful at them, but the company has turned a corner over the past year. They are now issuing major version updates within a couple of months of Google doing so and pushing monthly security patches quicker than almost anyone. Their security patch schedule is actually better than Google’s at this point, because they are offering these updates for 4 years on some phones. Google only does 3. Now, we need them to add an extra year of Android version updates, since they currently only do 2.
If there is one area that I’ve found myself somewhat disappointed, it’s the camera. You may have been hoping I’d come to a different conclusion than others in this area, but I’m just not sure I can with a straight face. The Galaxy S20 camera experience is best described as…OK.
To recap the setup, you have a 64MP telephoto lens with 30X zoom, 12MP main shooter, and 12MP ultra-wide angle camera. That combination gives you great flexibility for any shot. It’s also not trying as hard to be new, like Samsung did on the S20 Ultra, so you should feel more confident in shooting with this regular S20. Do I? Eh, sometimes?
I can tell you that of all the shots I took with the Galaxy S20, there aren’t many I absolutely love. There are a few, for sure. I guess I just hoped that it being a Galaxy S20 with a new camera setup that it would do something special and become the camera that I never wanted to part with.
On a sunny day, the camera can take a really nice shot. Add some clouds and things get dramatically drab, maybe even more so than what your eye can see. Add some low light and I’m not sure you’ll get a result that will impress you like the same shot might from a Google Pixel phone. So we’re getting that sort of mixed bag where some shots are great, but the corrections to bring out better shots in challenging situations aren’t there.
I will say that the portrait algorithm Samsung is using is super good, though. The edge detection is excellent and I love the real-time bokeh sliders you can use. The selfie camera might be the best in the business too.
During my testing, I used the phone for weeks with the out-of-box camera that had issues with autofocus. I’ve since updated and taken another batch of photos. I do think the focusing situation is now fixed, but the results of photos in-focus are mostly the same.
I think the Galaxy S20 camera will be fine for most people, just don’t go in expecting the best camera or a camera you hoped $1,000 would get you.
The Galaxy S20, like the S20+ and S20 Ultra, is a 5G phone. Since it runs Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 and Qualcomm forced everyone into buying their 5G modem with it, you’ll be able to get on a good chunk of 5G networks in the US.
Out of the gate, this phone has access to mostly low-band 5G from AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as Sprint’s mid-band. You’ll notice I didn’t mention Verizon there and that’s because this phone does not support 5G mmW, which is the high-band 5G that Verizon has deployed. Verizon is supposedly launching its own Galaxy S20 with mmW support later this year.
Should you buy this phone, you’ll get a mixed bag of 5G experience and your expectations for what 5G will produce should be low. For example, I’ve been on T-Mobile’s 5G here in Portland from the minute I pulled it out of the box. The 5G connections I’m getting are not great. In fact, I’m pretty sure my 5G speeds and connections are lower and less stable than the previous 4G LTE connections I had from similar locations. Your 5G world could be better than mine, just know this phone has some 5G limitations for now and that the networks aren’t quite ready to wow you.
5G is here, technically, but it’s no where near the future we keep hearing about from all of the parties looking to get rich(er) off of it. Unfortunately, we’re being forced to pay for it now.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to test a phone for any period of time and then tell you it is completely worth buying at a price of $1,000. And that’s exactly what this phone costs. It starts at $999.99. The S20+ and S20 Ultra only go up from here.
Sure, I genuinely like using this phone every single day, but $1,000 is a lot of money to ask from someone for a phone the company selling it probably hopes you’ll replace within 2 years. And this is not just because we’re living through a global pandemic and money is tight either. Spending $1,000 for a phone, after spending years paying $600-$700 for them, hurts. It probably always will because I refuse to make $1,000 phones a normal thing.
I’m well aware that our phones today do far more than phones from years ago. The displays are crazy, the processors could power a computer, and the cameras can rival point-and-shoots, but there is no getting around that this is a hefty sum of money for anyone.
Samsung is at least trying some new ideas to push the Galaxy S20. They are almost always doing their crazy trade-in program that we love, but now they are doing a 50% buy-back guarantee where they’ll pay you 50% of the original value of your S20 within 2 years of purchase. I’ll let you guys decide if any of that makes $1,000 more appetizing.
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The Galaxy S20 is so close to being the phone I’d tell everyone to buy for 2020. You won’t find a better display. You might not find a better in-hand feel. Battery life is solid. Performance is excellent. The software experience is smooth and feature-packed. There is so much good going on here.
With that said, I wanted just a bit more from the camera on a $1,000 phone. It’s a really nice camera, I’m just not sure it’s going to impress you in ways we hoped it would. And yeah, the phone also costs an enormous amount of money for anyone, to the point where you expect perfection.
If you can find the Galaxy S20 at a decent discount (even $200 off), go for it. You will be happy. Do your best to avoid paying full price, though.
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