Samsung Galaxy S20 is all 5G, no thrills, but a winner by default

Now the Samsung Galaxy S20 series is official, we can confirm what the leaks told us: the push to 5G, and the need to keep prices relatively affordable, has crowded out significant upgrades in this flagship line-up.

That won’t stop Samsung from winning, though, far from it. Looking at the underwhelming tech, price hikes and geopolitical tangles elsewhere in the smartphone world, there’s a strong chance that one of the Galaxy S20s will soon be the Android phone we recommend for most people. We’re just not hugely thrilled by them.

Samsung is sticking with its three-strong Galaxy line-up with the announcement of the Galaxy S20, Galaxy 20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra. All three will go on sale on March 13 in the UK. The big news, if you’re into 5G (and going by UK sales not many of you are), is that all three will support 5G with only the smallest, most affordable option, the 6.2-inch Galaxy S20, coming in a 4G variant. The Galaxy S20 (4G) is £799, the S20 (5G) is £899. Then in the higher end the S20+ is £999, the S20 Ultra is a not insubstantial £1,199 for 128GB and £1,399 for 512GB. They’re all up for pre-order now

Samsung continues to make capable all-rounders and the S20 does fill in some power user specs that may have led to Galaxy users peeling off to Huawei before the Chinese tech company’s relationship with the US began to affect its smartphones. But most of the advances are to be found on the most expensive model, the 6.9-inch S20 Ultra, and when it comes to R&D, it’s not the Galaxy S20s that offer something genuinely fresh, it’s the latest folding phone, the Galaxy Z Flip.

Samsung senior product manager Mark Holloway predicted that sales of 5G phones will leap from around 1 per cent of total sales in 2019 to a “mainstream” level of 18 per cent of sales this year. Making all but one of its new flagship phones 5G could well shift that considerably on account of Samsung’s marketing alone, though taking into account the slow rollout of the network, the 4G S20 might still be seriously worth considering, depending on your upgrade cycle.

Once again, the cameras – three on the S20 and four on the 6.7-inch S20+ and the S20 Ultra – are the focus here. Samsung is competing on specs on at least one more front and considering its brand value, it will probably be enough to match or just nudge ahead of Xiaomi, OnePlus and the rest.

That starts with the main upgrade to the AMOLED displays: they all support a 120Hz refresh rate for smoother UI animations and an advantage for mobile gamers, especially combined with 240Hz touch input. This follows the 90Hz displays we’ve seen on the OnePlus 7 Pro and Google Pixel 4 and a pre-emptive tease from OnePlus CEO Pete Lau that the upcoming OnePlus 8 will feature a 120Hz screen. Meaningless numbers? Not quite, the fluid transitions are noticeable on the OnePlus though the feature isn’t without its trade-offs including battery life; that’s why Google initially limited the high refresh rate to certain apps and high brightness levels.

A slight redesign is much of a muchness, these are still well put together devices. The standard Galaxy S20 looks slightly slimmer and taller sitting next to a Galaxy S10, the screen sizes are all a touch bigger this time around and the punch hole for the 10MP front-facing camera is now smaller and centred at the top of the screen, rather than in the top right-hand corner. OnePlus, Oppo and Xiaomi have moved to a pop-up, front-facing camera, and Samsung too has experimented with a rotating slider camera on the Galaxy A80, but it’s sticking to the punch hole cutting into the screen for one more generation. All three S20s are IP68 certified for dust and water resistance.

Battery capacity gets a boost across the board to 4,000mAh in the Galaxy S20, 4,500mAh in the S20+ and 5,000mAh in the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Given the larger displays and 5G support, this doesn’t mean an improvement in day-to-day stamina and Samsung isn’t pretending it does. It’s more that it’s required to keep it in line with Samsung’s faster Wireless Charging 2.0 as a bonus. On the other end of the spectrum, Motorola’s new G8 Power gets up to three days of ‘mixed usage’ out of its 5,000mAh unit.

It’s also worth noting that the S20s all weigh slightly more than their S10 counterparts, so the S20+ is 186g whereas the S10+ was 175g. It’s not too apparent in use, though, and Samsung has done a good job of bringing down the size and weight from last year’s first attempt.

On the features front, Samsung’s additions for 2020 include fully integrated Google Duo video chats, to rival FaceTime, Spotify in Bixby Routines and the ability to run games in the background. There’s also a new Music Share feature which sounds pretty neat. It allows you to open up access to your phone so your mates can share music to your device if, say, it’s streaming to a speaker.

Now, to those all-important camera updates. The camera on the Galaxy S10 was, in fact, lagging behind the iPhone 11 Pro and the Pixel 4, as we found when we asked a pro photographer to test out all the flagship phone cameras last year. Its triple-camera setup performed well in low light and for portraits, though we did experience some object outlining and overexposure.

As ever with smartphone launches, Samsung’s corporate amnesia means it has forgotten all the photography-related promises made 12 months ago. In reality, despite the fact that Samsung says it has “completely changed” the camera system to make it more versatile, the advances will probably result in incremental improvements IRL. Unlike Apple, which upgraded its iPhone cameras all at once, Samsung has been dripfeeding features and spec upgrades for the past half-decade.

The standard S20 and S20+ have a triple-camera setup on the rear, in a tweaked camera bump: the familiar 12MP main camera, a new 12MP ultra-wide lens and a new 64MP telephoto lens with 3x hybrid optic zoom, as compared to the ‘2x zoom’ on the S10. OIS is present across the board and the ‘super steady’ mode on video capture – now up to 8K – should be even smoother than on the Note 10. The only difference in cameras between the two cheapest models is that the S20+ also has a time-of-flight depth sensor.

As we expected, the most work has been done on the S20 Ultra. Samsung says it has redesigned the tech in the new 108MP sensor to make use of hardware based ‘nona binning’, which combines nine pixels into one to produce a 12MP image, with – in theory – less noise. (Nona, nine – get it?) There’s also new positioning of the optics on the Ultra and a Samsung rep tells us if you listen closely you can hear it in operation. The Ultra is the top-of-the-line option for this year, as the Galaxy S10 5G was last year. We haven’t been given any indication as to how many Samsung has produced and how widely it expects this ‘pro’ model to sell.

In our hands-on time, we tried out the S20’s Single Take mode, which takes a bunch of Boomerang-type videos and stills with all the lenses so you can pick the best one. Clever but similar to what we’ve seen before and indicative of the feature drip feed.

We also got to play with the ‘space zoom’ of 30x on the Galaxy S20 and S20+ and 100x on the S20 Ultra. On spec sheets, this is Samsung’s catch up, or indeed overtake of Huawei’s 50x digital zoom; in practice the natural wobble from our human hands was so pronounced when we zoomed into offices across town that Samsung reps offered us a tripod. More impressive is the 10x hybrid zoom which will NBA doubt be genuinely useful.

If all this sounds down on the S20s, let us reiterate. There might not be any surprises but these new flagship Samsungs are likely to offer the best combination of specs, design and features you can get on Android, whether or not you’re ready to buy a 5G phone. They have set a bar for OnePlus, in particular, to match, whereas whatever Huawei does in the next few months, Samsung will still have the major advantage of, well, offering all of Google’s apps on a high-end Android phone.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

The S20’s missed thrills arrived in the form of the Galaxy Z Flip, which is strictly more of a folding phone than the Galaxy Fold. That’s because the display that folds is roughly phone size and shape whereas the Galaxy Fold’s main display was in fact the mini tablet screen. Half-announced in an Oscars advert this weekend, the Galaxy Z Flip follows the 2019/2020 edition of the Motorola RAZR. Folded down, it looks like a pocketable square with a very small cover touchscreen for alerts.

The Z Flip comes in three colours: ‘mirror’ black, ‘mirror’ purple and gold. On the cover screen, you can see the time or see alerts for calls or texts. It also acts as a teeny viewfinder.

Samsung says the ultra thin, flexible glass protects from scratches and you can fold and unfold the display 200,000 times.

There’s a centred hole punch on the display and a three stop ‘hideaway’ hinge which allows a ‘flex mode’ which splits the screen into a viewing area and control area. It props itself up for video chats and selfies or timelapses too. For anyone worried by the Fold’s delicate gen 1, Samsung says a layer of fibres between the screen and the hinge will protect from dust and other particles.

The Galaxy Z Flip is available to buy from February 14th – the UK price is £1,300, much closer to Galaxy S prices than the Galaxy Fold.

Samsung Galaxy Buds+

Samsung also updated its wireless Galaxy Buds for 2020. The new Buds+ don’t have any type of active noise cancelling, in order to compete with the Apple AirPods Pro and Sony’s WF-1000-XM3s. There is a substantial boost in battery life, though, with the 2020 model now good for 11 hours from a single charge, according to Samsung, and the addition of touch controls for Spotify.

If the Buds+ can get to 11 hours, that would indeed be “industry leading” – the 22 hours with the case is great too – but for sound quality and NC, we’d still advise looking elsewhere. The original £109 Galaxy Buds dropped out of our best wireless earbuds guide last year, not because there was anything especially wrong with them – aside from a few minor connectivity issues – but because similarly priced rivals are so strong.

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