(Pocket-lint) - A month is a long time in smartphones. Following the Samsung Galaxy S10 going on sale in early March 2019, there was another device launched to take it down just weeks later: the Huawei P30. And make no mistake, the brand that every other wants to take down is Samsung as it holds the number one position in global smartphone sales. Until recently, Huawei had been rapidly catching-up, even knocking Apple from the number two spot.
But if one month is a long time, then three months is almost like an eternity. Within that timeframe the tables turned dramatically in a way that will likely - and unfortunately - see Huawei suffer. Samsung, meanwhile, continues to push forward with its flagship phones. And with the S10 - sitting between the S10+ and the S10e - being the arguable perfect purchase at this moment in time, is Samsung's fortune up?
Familiar, copied, design
- Glass and metal design
- IP68 water- and dust-resistant
- 149.9 x 70.4 x 7.8mm; 157g
Samsung hasn't switched up the design drastically in recent years. Since it introduced the curved edges to the S series, it has worked to refine that look. The curves to the edge of a Galaxy handset are now familiar: they belong, even if the likes of OnePlus and Huawei both have adopted them in recent designs.
That Samsung's Infinity Display would be so replicated is perhaps a high form of flattery. In the compact form of the Galaxy S10, it helps the phone to be manageable one-handed. That's not true of the OnePlus 7 Pro, which is just too bulky by comparison, despite offering those curves.
But Samsung's big design play with the Galaxy S10 is really about the punchhole camera: this sees a hole in the display rather than a notch, like you might find on an iPhone; or a pop-up camera, like you might get from Oppo. It's allowed Samsung to reduce bezel and use a little more of the display to show you content - as well as leading to some amusing wallpapers.
None of this really feels ground breaking though. The design will be familiar to anyone who has used a recent Samsung phone. And while the S10 is well-built - offering IP68 protection - it's not as eye-catching as some rival colours or design. That's perhaps because Samsung doesn't need to go full peacock to attract your attention - it's a Samsung Galaxy flagship phone and, for many, that means it's worthy of attention anyway.
- 6.1-inch Dynamic AMOLED display, 19:9 aspect ratio
- WQHD+ resolution (2560 × 1440 pixels)
- 1,200 nits peak brightness
- HDR10+ compatible
We've already mentioned those curves on Samsung's display so we won't dwell on them, except to say that the experience of every other Samsung edge display is repeated here. It might mean that some content flows over the edge and those edges can be slightly less responsive - that's something that seems to have plagued OnePlus - and we've had some taps that don't register, but not so much so that we'd want to pack up the phone and send it back. If you really don't like it, opt for the Galaxy S10e with its flat screen - and save yourself a few bucks too.
Samsung has also got itself a reputation for producing the best displays on mobile devices. It's a spec sheet point exclaimed by other manufacturers too - using a Samsung AMOLED panel is seen as a positive. In the S10 that panel is in its native environment, with all the richness that AMOLED brings. Inky blacks meet vibrancy that will bring a flush to the cheeks of lesser alternatives - although you still get options to tailor this display to your preferences.
The phone also supports high dynamic range (HDR) and HDR10+ - but for the latter there's no actual content yet so that's either spec willy-waving or future-proofing. Such brightness - peak is said to be 1,200 nits, which is brighter than most 4K HDR TVs - means that even in bright sunlight conditions you'll be able to make out what's on the display, in vivid detail, which is perhaps more important than the HDR content side of things for a phone.
It's a Quad HD panel, so there's loads of detail if you want it, but at just over 6-inches on the diagonal, you can stick to Full HD within the settings without feeling like you're missing out. That'll help the battery life last a bit longer too. At this scale we also find the new One UI interface much easier to use with one hand than other, larger phones.
So what of the in-display camera? It's there, sure, and that does mean that some system icons are shifted left. Samsung is good at working around the camera 'hole' and it's hard to get it in the middle of your content. Open Netflix and a normal 16:9 film doesn't hit it, pinch to go full screen and Samsung throws in a bit of bezel to isolate the camera so it's not included. That's because it's automatically scaling apps so the hole doesn't appear in the way. You can change that position - you can have a top bezel permanently to hide the camera, or you can force apps to go full screen, enveloping the camera.
On some rivals we've seen notches literally biting a chunk out of content - in some cases there are game controls you can't hit because there's no display there - like with the Honor View 20. Samsung manages things a lot better and we can't say that the punch-hole camera has caused us any problems. It's an oddity, just like the notch was, but it's not a problem.
- Octa-core 8nm processor - Exynos or Qualcomm Snapdragon, 8GB RAM
- 128GB/512GB storage + microSD
- 3,400mAh battery
The spec sheet remains a big battleground in smartphones - especially in some regions where it's spec sheet bragging to the nth degree. In many cases it misses the point that the spec sheet doesn't define the experience, just as benchmarks don't reflect day-to-day use.
Samsung continues its dual-hardware position with some regions getting Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 and others getting the Exynos 9820. Both offer flagship performance - but there's nothing unique about this experience. The Huawei P30 Pro is impressive (but not without uncertainly now) and the OnePlus 7 Pro arrives with its more-optimised-than-you feeling.
Does Samsung feel like the fastest phone out there? It's a bit of a mixture. Certainly, there's nothing that this phone won't do when it comes to power. It will go toe-to-toe with its rivals - and coming to this phone (the Exynos version) from the OnePlus 7 Pro (on Qualcomm), there's not a huge difference in day-to-day usage in terms of speed.
One area that the Samsung phone performs well is with its under-display fingerprint scanner. This is an ultrasonic version rather than optical (used by most rivals) and Samsung's system is better and will battle through things like wet fingers - but you do have to get the knack for pressing in the right place with the right force. It's not to the standard of the Vivo setup that's coming in the future though.
Another advantage that Samsung brings is support for microSD card expansion. This has been widely dropped by many rivals. For some reason, having the option for expandable storage now seems to be seen as a budget option, but if you've got stacks of music or movies on a microSD card, then it's a great thing to have.
You also get a 3.5mm headphone socket. Even though we're mostly using Bluetooth headphones these days, it's still a legacy connection option that many want - again, almost seen as the budget handset feature these days, oddly. Around that are great stereo speakers, offering Dolby Atmos to enrich the performance - although we'd now say that the OnePlus 7 Pro sounds better.
So that hardware offering is all pretty solid, right? The biggest downside - and the biggest flaw of this Galaxy phone in general - is its battery life. Samsung cannot seem to compete with some of its rivals - and on the Galaxy S10, with its 3,400mAh battery, power-users might be charging in the mid-afternoon to get it to survive.
Of course, battery life depends on how you use the phone and the display, given all that potential brightness. It feels like Samsung's aim is to deliver the experience, whereas if you compare it to something like the Xiaomi Mi 9T, you get the feeling that Xiaomi is all too keen to cut the brightness to preserve the battery.
The Samsung offers fast-charging, both wired and wireless, but again this is an area where Samsung hasn't stepped up to beat back rivals with super-fast charging (understandable, really, given firegate with the Note just a couple of years ago). It's just a little more average, which is perhaps an apt description of the overall battery experience.
- One UI based on Android Pie
- One UI 2 update with Android 10 incoming
We've mentioned the software experience a couple of times and the Galaxy S10 was the phone to debut Samsung's new user interface - called One UI. This system has rolled out across many of Samsung's recent devices, even our old Galaxy Note 8 has it. It's based on Android 9 Pie, the previous version of Google's mobile operating system. Samsung has promised an Android 10 update with One UI 2 from January 2020 in the UK.
Samsung's take on Android - it's "skin", if you will - has built on years of development from TouchWiz to the present day. It's about as comprehensive as any you'll find and a lot more refined. There's some duplication of apps, while you're also offered a list of Samsung services you might want on first setup (and you can opt out). Some, like Facebook, are preinstalled, but that's pretty common across Android phones.
You also get a lot of other great features and customisation options galore; it's in the details where things are especially good. While we like the simplicity of pure Android as you'd find on a Google Pixel, and the close experience that OnePlus offers with OxygenOS, we still think that Samsung executes the experience far better than more recent challengers like Huawei or Xiaomi.
It's unavoidable that the much-derided Bixby voice assistant is still pushed by Samsung. If you want to disable or reassign the Bixby button, you'd have to log-in to your Samsung account and activate Bixby before you can kill it. Google Assistant still feels like the service to rule them all, but recent events with Huawei have perhaps underlined why big brands invest in their own systems. Importantly, aside from the occasional erroneous Bixby launch, you can generally ignore it.
Fighting in a world obsessed with cameras
- Main wide dual pixel 12MP, dual aperture f/1.5 + f/2.4 with OIS
- Ultra wide 16MP, f/2.2 (fixed focus)
- Telephoto 12MP, f/2.4 with OIS
- Front 10MP dual pixel f/1.9
The main camera that Samsung offers is about as consistent as you could want it to be. It will use the toggle-option scene optimiser to bring a little artificial intelligence (AI) and make things look a little better. We've been using the Galaxy S10 with the scene optimiser on most of the time and you'll notice things like richer blue skies for a slightly more idealised photo. Most of the time things still look as they should - but remember that any photo you take is also boosted by the display, so might look flatter when viewed on another device.
There are plenty of photo options, but generally we find the main camera is the best. You could use the integrated Instagram mode, but it's better to take images and use Samsung's great photo editor to make changes before sharing. Just for the added flair.
The ultra-wide angle camera offers a view that's now pretty common; in previous years this was the preserve of LG, but it's on Xiaomi and Huawei phones too, giving everyone a different perspective. It's prone to distortion and the edges often are pretty soft too, but that's all part of the characteristics of such an optic.
The zoom is fine, but we'd only say fine; it gives you 2x optical and up to 10x digital, but phones like the Huawei P30 Pro or Oppo 10x Zoom is really knocking digital zoom quality out of the park - and Samsung isn't really keeping up in that regard.
There are some things that Samsung is pretty good at. The portrait modes give good separation and some nice effects - on both the front and back cameras - but the thing that interests us the most is that the experience on the S10 front camera is little different to the dual lens S10+. If it's not making a huge difference, then why two lenses on that bigger phone? We suspect, once again, it's mostly about spec sheet boasting.
Since launch Samsung has looked to address the night shooting situation. With the Google Pixel changing the game and then Huawei following suit in other ways, night shooting is the hot topic in phones right now. Samsung's night mode lengthens the exposure and then processes the image to give you a better result than just shooting in auto mode. That works, but it's not a patch on the Pixel 4's Night Sight - and the fact you'd still have to go and select it manually in the Samsung means it's just less effective overall.
With so much noise coming from other areas, it's almost too easy to overlook Samsung. The Galaxy S10 adds to the company's great previous offerings, without being a huge step forward for the brand. But that's as much a reflection of Samsung stellar performance in flagship phones as it is of the market. There are new features here, but the experience of the previous device was also excellent.
The price remains fairly high, too, being a good deal more expensive than devices like the Xiaomi Mi 9T or the OnePlus 7T - both of which offer similar performance. But what Samsung delivers is consistency, a mature and sophisticated operating system in its One UI skin, and an all-round great experience. Battery life is about the only real shortcoming if you're a power user.
Ultimately it's hard not to be impressed with the Samsung Galaxy S10. It's perhaps the underdog in the S10 pack - it lacks the big screen experience of the S10+ and the uncompromised value proposition of the S10e - but it's still a great phone that will satisfy all but the most demanding.
Alternatives to consider
Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro
If you're looking for similar power in a phone that costs a lot less, then the Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro is the device for you. It offers a great build and good display, with a camera that's as fully-featured as Samsung. Where it falls down is in the software experience however, which lacks the refinement that Samsung offers.
Huawei P30 Pro
Huawei has shown its pedigree with progressively impressive phones. The P30 Pro shows all this with a class-leading camera experience, excellent battery life and loads of power. The problem that Huawei now faces is some uncertainty over its future with Android.
Samsung Galaxy S10e
Samsung made a move in a more affordable direction with the Galaxy S10e, offering a cheaper alternative to the flagship phones. It has the same core power as the Galaxy S10, but it loses some of the features - hte Infinity Display and one of the cameras. However, the experience of this phone is still pretty solid - so if it's Samsung you're after, the S10e offers better value for money.