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Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff
Camera and zoom innovation
Even with AI, 30X is not as good as optical zoom
5G coverage is still spotty
Overall, Samsung continues to refine features, not mess up Android, keep pace with Apple on the photography front, and not over design the phone or, mostly, encumber it with useless features. If you’re looking for a powerful, not too-big but decent-size screen Android 10 handset, the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G should be part of your consideration set.
I’ve held and even used 5G smartphones for short periods of time. Most are over-sized heavyweights that make me yearn for simpler cellphone times. The Samsung Galaxy S20 5G is not one of those devices.
As a 6.2-inch, 7.9 mm thick, 163-gram handset, it’s relatively small, thin, and light (Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro weighs 188 grams), yet it still packs a large 4,000 mAh battery and the aforementioned 5G. All of it lives in an expertly crafted, exquisite design that is a pleasure to hold and use. Oh, and where the T-Mobile 5G network is available, it’s a mobile broadband speed demon.
It is a little hard to believe that such a small package of metal, glass and components can cost almost $1,000, but such is the price of the bleeding edge of smartphone technology—and for the most part it’s worth it.
In the Galaxy S series’ 11th iteration (yes, it’s called the S20, but that’s more about the year), Samsung packs all it’s learned about the smartphone market’s needs and desires in one small package.
Wrapped in glass on the front and back and tapering to a stainless-steel spine, the Galaxy S20 is comfortable to hold, if a bit slippery. I’d love to see a burnished back option to make the phone just a bit more grippy.
The AMOLED 563 ppi Infinity display is a thing of beauty, stretching from one edge of the phone to the other (there is a thin black bezel that runs along the edge) blemished only by a clean drilled-through hole for the 10 MP front facing camera. The screen now runs in 60 hz refresh rate or the smoother (but not default) 120 Hz. In HDTVs, 120 Hz’s motion smoothness has long been recognized as the bare minimum for smooth sport action (many TVs now offer 240 hz). The impact of higher refresh rate is harder to discern on these tiny screens, though. In my experience, I could see it a bit on app scroll screens and did notice smoother play in Asphalt 9 Legends.
The screen hides an effective under-the-screen fingerprint reader that sits higher on the screen than I’ve seen on any other smartphone. Fortunately, this makes it easier to use than most others, placing the fingerprint scanner more conveniently over my poised thumb. I also easily registered and used my face to unlock PIN and patterns are the remaining unlock options.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 5G’s Triple Camera is not quite as powerful as the huge S5 Ultra 5G, but then you make a significant trade-off in pocketablility for that 100x Space Zoom (which I still find of limited utility).
For this smaller handset, Samsung combined a 12 MP Ultrawide with a standard 12 MP wide and a 64 MP telephoto. It’s a good grouping with excellent image-capture performance across the lenses.
The 64 MP lens provides 3X hybrid zoom and 30X Super Resolution Zoom (SRZ), which uses Samsung’s homegrown AI to create better digital zoom images. There is no purely optical zoom.
I am impressed with the quality of my 3X zoom photos but remain conflicted about 30X SRZ.
Samsung’s done a lot of work here to create a zoom architecture unlike anything ever seen in smartphone photography. It employs larger sensors and a completely new lens and imaging architecture. The latter extends the distance between the back of the phone, the lens, and sensors to increase zoom opportunities.
Most phone camera zoom options are limited by the thickness (or thinness) of the phone. So, they’ll bump out the camera array to increase the distance between sensors and the lens. Samsung, by contrast, put the sensor at a right angle to the front of the phone. Then it stacked the lenses above that. To pull in the light, Samsung put a tiny prism against the back of the phone and external lens. Light comes in the prism, makes a 90-degree turn and is then sent through a lens array to the sensor. Samsung calls this a “Folded Lens” even though no lens is actually folded in the process.
The unusual design provides better zoom capabilities than your traditional smartphone, but I still encountered significant limits, especially as I scaled up beyond 3X and then used 30X.
Even though I can pick up images and details that might be impossible with, say, standard 30X digital zoom, the final result is still more Monet than National Geographic. Yes, I can see this is a red robin (below), but the image looks like a pleasing watercolor and not nature photography.
Samsung is leading the charge on using the surfeit megapixels to make more out of less. Having four times as many pixels means you naturally have four times as much information to stuff into your still relatively far away shot. While the default is 16 MP, Samsung does allow you to shoot with the full 64 MP, you select “3:4 (64 MP)” under the Ratio button. There is a huge difference between standard shots and ones with all that image data; fine details that are reduced to mud when you crop in on regular photos are all there in the full-resolution shots.
Samsung’s S20 ultra-wide lens ably matches the Apple iPhone 11 Pro’s 120-degree field of view and image quality.
This is also an excellent low-light and night shooter. I was particularly impressed with Night Mode, which took impressive night shots even without the benefit of a tripod.
The S20 is also capable of shooting 8K video, which will be awesome once the majority of us have 8K TVs. In the meantime, I shot some 8K video and used Smart View to stream it directly to my TCL Series 6 4K TV. It looked okay, but not remarkable. I think the TV was down-scaling it below 4K, but I can’t be sure. It’s also not easy to edit 8K video on the phone when popular apps like PowerDirector still don’t support the CODEC.
The 10 MP selfie camera, which I can access with a sweep of my finger on the screen, is good and, when I turn off Samsung’s auto filtering, produces accurate images and excellent back light performance. It also has a nice auto-wide-angle feature if I can find anyone to join me in my selfies.
Included in the S20 is the new Single Shot feature which uses all three rear lenses (but not the selfie camera) to capture a collection of interesting photos and videos. It works as promised, but this is a gimmick that I simply do not get.
In general, photos with the triple cameras look excellent. On Samsung’s AMOLED screen they can look a bit over-saturated. However, in side-by-side comparisons with images shot on the Apple iPhone 11 Pro, they’re indistinguishable.
T-Mobile claims virtual nationwide 5G coverage, but my experience in metropolitan New York and the surrounding suburbs was more of a mixed bag. In and around my mid-town office, for example, I couldn’t find any 5G, but as I left the city, I started to pick up threads of fat mobile broadband pipe between the city and my Long Island home. There’s some 5G around my house, but it drops off as soon as I step inside my house. As I drove around the island, however, I stumbled on some stronger 5G signals (I also found some “5G” that was not much faster than 4G).
Usually, I tested my 5G by streaming Netflix or Disney+, but I also ran a few Internet Speed tests. The highest speed I achieved was a rollicking 85.5 Mbps down and 22.4 mbps up. To put this in perspective, my home’s fiber-based broadband speeds are 192 Mbps down and 36.1 up, but the Verizon LTE near my home is a pathetic 7.4 Mbps down and 0.41 Mbps up.
Overall, where 5G was good, I could watch HD-quality streaming video, load web pages faster than I could blink and play multi-player games without a single hiccup. I have no doubt 5G will soon be as ubiquitous as 4G, but I am worried about what happens when everyone has a 5G phone and we’re all, once again, tapping into the still limited infrastructure. Will my blistering 5G speeds drop down to overloaded 4G speeds?
Inside the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, a 64-bit 7nm Octa-core processor backed by 12 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage (to start, I can install a microSD). Geekbench numbers are good, though they still trail behind Apple’s A13 Bionic CPU, especially on the single-core side. But benchmark numbers rarely tell the whole story.
Samsung’s Galaxy S20 is clearly a powerful smartphone and has no trouble handling detailed games like Player Unknown Battlegrounds and the aforementioned Asphalt. After 30 minutes or so of play, the back of the phone does get a little hot, but not uncomfortably so.
Battery life is a solid day (roughly 12 hours) with mixed use and the wireless charging works well with all of my Qi-based charging pads. I love the ability to wirelessly PowerShare from the back of the S20 to Galaxy Buds and other Qi-compatible smartphones like, yes, an iPhone 11 Pro. I hope Apple copies PowerShare in a future iPhone.
Samsung doesn’t mess around too much with Android 10, but the Galaxy S20 5G does come with all of Samsung’s custom-built apps and features including Bixby, which is on its way to becoming a full-blown digital assistant. When I asked Bixby, using only my voice, to take a picture, it automatically opened the camera and took a photo. However, when I asked it to take a picture of me, it opened the Gallery and found pictures of me. I repeated the request with clearer enunciation and the phone opened the selfie camera and took a shot.
There’s also Samsung Health and the Samsung Pay mobile payment system, all of it tied together by the Samsung Account. I’ve gotten used to using Samsung’s platform for all these features, even though I dislike signing up for yet another ecosystem in addition to Google’s which also lives on the phone.
By the way, there’s no 3.5 mm headphone jack (remember when Samsung used to make fun of Apple for that?), but it does include a pair of AKG USB-C headphones. The reality is the world is switching to wireless Bluetooth headphones like Samsung’s own very able Buds+. I used the original Buds with the phone, which, with Samsung Gear installed, recognized them instantly, as well as each time I put them in my ears. They’re quite convenient.
The phone is also IP68 rated, which means it can handle submersion in 1.5 m of water for 30 minutes. I put mine in a sink and ran water on it. It didn’t seem to mind at all. While I dropped the phone on a hard desk from a height of 12 inches without damaging the phone, I did not torture-test the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G.
From the perfectly pocketable size to the exquisite design, great photo, and video capabilities to the tantalizing 5G, the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G is an excellent Android 10 handset. I think the AI-powered 30X zoom is a nice start, but no substitute for optical zoom. I am impressed with the “folding lens” concept and wonder if other companies will soon copy it. I’ll admit that, for the first time, I’m finally excited about 5G, and it’s all thanks to this phone (and T-Mobile).