Samsung's Cheapest Flagship Is a Great Phone in A Weird Time

Illustration for article titled Samsung's cheapest flagship is a great phone in a weird time

Photo: Caitlin McGarry (Gizmodo)

Samsung Galaxy S20 is the company’s most affordable flagship and that doesn’t say much: the 6.2-inch smartphone costs $ 1,000. It’s a very good phone with a very good – dare I say it – display of almost every phone on the market (the only better panels are the S20’s bigger siblings, the S20 + and S20 Ultra). In normal times, I’d say the Galaxy S20 is clearly worth $ 1,000.

These are not normal times.

It feels a bit bizarre to recommend a $ 1,000 smartphone when people can’t get out of their homes, when unemployment is at record levels, and the last thing anyone cares about is a camera or a processor. But if you need a new phone and you can find a deal through your carrier, the Galaxy S20 is the Android phone worth buying.

Samsung Galaxy S20

What is it?

Samsung’s smaller, most affordable flagship

Like it

Superb screen with 120Hz refresh rate, solid battery life, 12GB RAM, the same camera as the more expensive S20 +.

No like

Weird lag switching between camera modes, only works on sub-6 Ghz 5G spectrum.

The Galaxy S20 just feels well, which is weird to say, but it is true. It’s narrow but large, with a slightly rounded screen that extends almost to the edge. If you have smaller hands, like me, the almost normal size of the S20 makes it easier to perform basic tasks with just an inch than on larger phones like the absolutely gigantic S20 + (6.7 inches) and S20 Ultra (6.9 inches). I think those phones are way too big.

You may prefer the more elaborate displays on those larger phones, but the S20’s panel is still incredibly stunning, even when I had to settle for the lower full-HD + resolution to take advantage of the buttery soft 120Hz refresh rate. (Unfortunately, Samsung doesn’t support that at full-width quad-HD resolution.) Scrolling through web pages was a joy, which I cringe at, but it’s actually true. And I played endless rounds of Asphalt 9, so immersed in the beautiful screen (along with racing my BMW and my own drifting skills) that I burned for nearly an hour before trying to race in San Francisco alone.

The S20's 120Hz refresh rate ensures smooth and enjoyable reading.

The S20’s 120Hz refresh rate ensures smooth and enjoyable reading.
Photo: Caitlin McGarry (Gizmodo)

The S20 is also (sort of) future-proof with a built-in 5G modem. However, Samsung’s smallest flagship is only compatible with the low-band sub-6GHz 5G spectrum, which has so far only been widely deployed by T-Mobile. AT&T and Verizon’s 5G networks are built on a millimeter wave spectrum, which offers much faster speeds than low-band, but you should also be directly outside a 5G node and keep your phone in the air to receive a signal. You can get gigabit speeds if you do, of course, but it’s not really conducive to your life.

Using the Galaxy S20, I had average download speeds of 85 Mbps on T-Mobile’s 5G network – that sounds pathetic, but compared to the 33 Mbps I saw with an iPhone XS on AT & T’s “5GE” network, it is moderately fast. But true 5G requires a mix of high, mid and low band spectrum, and the fact that the S20 can’t take advantage of all those spectrums and those super fast speeds is a drawback.

Like the S20 + and S20 Ultra, the base S20 includes packages with Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 865 processor, 12 GB RAM and 128 GB storage, with a microSD slot to expand your storage. There’s no headphone jack, for those of you who cling to a world where smartphone makers care about your wired headphones. (They don’t. I’m sorry.)

Sorry, there is no headphone jack here.

Sorry, there is no headphone jack here.
Photo: Caitlin McGarry (Gizmodo

The S20’s 4000 mAh battery sounds powerful, but results in an average battery life – 3:16 in our video rundown test, which is better than the S20 Ultra (2:41) but doesn’t last as long as the S20 + with its 4,500 mAh battery (15:56).

The battery difference isn’t entirely negligible, but for $ 200 less, you get the exact same cameras in the S20 that you do in the S20 +: a triple-lens camera with a 12MP wide-angle lens, 12MP ultra-wide, and 64MP telephoto lens with 3x hybrid optical zoom.

I tested the S20’s zoom with a photo of the Hollywood sign from a vantage point in nearby Beachwood Canyon. Compared to the iPhone 11 Pro Max, the S20’s zoom resulted in a smoother image: the iPhone’s zoom captured more lifelike colors, but the sharper details have artifacts that remove the S20’s zoom.

Samsung blew up the S20 with photography features, but many of them (like Single Take) seem gimmicky in use.

Samsung blew up the S20 with photography features, but many of them (like Single Take) seem gimmicky in use.
Photo: Caitlin McGarry (Gizmodo

I also tested the zoom function in the night mode of the S20 and compared it to the excellent Night Sight and Super Res Zoom of the Pixel 4 in a photo from the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The Pixel was the clear winner in that match, although the zoom couldn’t get as close to the observatory – the S20’s smaller angle didn’t result in a better shot because the observatory is pixelated.

The S20’s night mode fared better without zooming in on a photo of a Hollywood Regency-style building, although the Pixel 4 again shot better with more vivid green in both the building itself and the surrounding trees.

I also don’t like the Love Focus of the S20 (Samsung’s version of portrait mode), which I tested in a photo of myself compared to the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro Max. The iPhone’s image color is more natural, as usual, while the S20 comes way too close to my face, despite being in exactly the same spot as the other two phones.

Another problem I had with the S20’s camera was the delay. Switching occasionally between different modes in the camera preview took forever, which isn’t ideal if you’re trying to capture a moment.

Overall, the S20’s cameras are fine, although features like Night Hyperlapse and Single Take are gimmicky (and now available on the S10 and Note 10 with a software update too, so there’s no need to upgrade). Samsung has blown up its flagship cameras with features without taking the time to refine the cameras people actually use, such as Night mode and Live Focus.

The S20 is a good phone despite its shortcomings compared to its more expensive siblings. Still, it’s hard to recommend that someone spend $ 1,000 on something in the middle of time [gestures at literally everything], and I feel somewhat deaf, suggesting that someone would spend money on something during this crisis. But when this is over and you need to buy a new phone, the S20 is nice, fast and will last for a while.

Readme

  • The S20 is (sort of) future-proof with a 5G modem, but only works on sub-6GHz 5G networks, which aren’t as fast as millimeter waves.
  • This is Samsung’s cheapest flagship to date in 2020 and has the same camera settings as the more expensive S20 +.
  • The 120 Hz refresh rate is great, but it doesn’t work at full resolution.
  • Buying a $ 1,000 phone now seems like a bad idea, but carriers are offering deals on the S20 that take some of the sting out.

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