The 5G revolution is upon us, apparently, and if you want a slice of that super-fast and low-latency connectivity speed then, well, you're probably going to have to pay through the nose to get it.
Not so much if you buy the Samsung Galaxy A90, though, which costs around a third less than the company's top-end flagship devices, but which also doesn't scrimp on the tech specs to provide a reliable sub-flagship model.
The A90's proposition is simple enough: make 5G accessible to a wider audience without forcing the highest purchase price or monthly subscription via your carrier. The question is equally as simple: does it succeed across the board?
Design & Display
- 6.7-inch 'Infinity U' Super AMOLED display
- Full HD+ resolution (2400 x 1080 pixels)
- Dimensions: 165 x 76 x 8.4mm
- In-screen fingerprint scanner
- Geometric pattern to rear
- Colours: Black / White
- Weight: 206g
In a way the A90 is Samsung's answer to the splurge of Chinese-made phones that we're increasingly seeing. Whereas the Galaxy A series once had the mid-range market sewn up, the likes of OnePlus, Honor, Oppo and more have come along and undercut the Korean market-leader with their bolder designs, more powerful specs, and lower price points.
More than the A90 just being Samsung's rethink, however, it's visually similar to a lot of those aforementioned phones. That makes for a display-forward design, minimal bezel, and just a small cut-out to the top for the front-facing camera. Samsung calls this notch design 'Infinity U', the 'u' representing the shape of the notch (there's also Infinity O with, you guessed it, a punch-hole notch; and Infinity V with a v-shaped one).
Whatever it's called is by the by, really, as this 6.7-inch panel is large and bright, delivering on what Samsung knows best: AMOLED. This display technology has individual pixel illumination, meaning blacks are truly black, while colours have greater punch than their LCD counterparts. But the colour saturation isn't overdone on this screen.
The resolution isn't staggeringly high, however, but we've become used to such a format. Elongated Full HD is perfectly fine for most instances anyway. It's only in some games, such as South Park: Phone Destroyer, that we've noticed bizarre scaling of the app and, therefore, some jaggies within certain sprites. No biggie, but points out that there are better-yet displays available - indeed it's Samsung that makes them for the likes of the Galaxy S10+.
Design wise, the A90 is somehwat mute in its approach. Available in black or white, the feeling of the device is rather plasticky - which is an impressive feat given that it's actually covered in Gorilla Glass 6. The rear sports a geometric pattern design which is subtle in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it kind of way; which is kind of nice compared to some of the over-shiny fingerprint-magnets that we've seen in recent times.
Speaking of fingerprints, there's an in-screen scanner in the A90. We feel that it's positioned a little bit low on the panel, but it works just as well as any recent such scanner.
Oh, and the rear camera bump doesn't protrude about three miles from the device's rear - we're looking at you, Xiaomi Mi Note 10 - which means it doesn't wibble about all over the place when flat on a surface. Wonderful stuff.
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, 6GB RAM
- Android 9 OS (with Samsung One UI skin)
- 4500mAh battery capacity
- Fast charging (25W)
- 5G connectivity
The innards of the Galaxy A90 are, as you can see from the bullet points above, rather flagship grade. The presence of Qualcomm's (almost) best processor, a decent lump of RAM, and large battery to back it all up certainly spells good reading.
It leads to good results in practice, too, as we've found over the days of using this phone as our personal main handset. Smooth handling from software, to apps loading, to multi-tasking - it's all here, without a qualm to concern. The design has meant we've never felt the phone get hot either, which is good news when gaming.
The software, which is built on Google's Android 9, but re-worked slightly thanks to Samsung's One UI, is also fairly approachable. Although, really, we prefer the stock Android you'll find on a Google Pixel 4 XL. Why? Because Samsung adds some minor oddities, such as the power button not actually powering off the phone, instead it only leads to Bixby voice control no matter how long you press it in for (switching off is hidden in the notifications shade).
There's also some default moving background wallpapers which make you feel like you're horribly drunk (in that spinning room kind of way), but thankfully which can be deactivated. And we find the swipe-right access to Bixby Home to be largely irrelevant (it made us think we'd ordered an Uber by accident, when this wasn't the case; and it's been showing us lots of footie results - which, for someone who doesn't enjoy football, is entirely impersonal).
Anyway, such minor software tweaks and changes don't ruin the experience and many will find ways to personalise to a successful degree. There's options to change the Android softkey positions, there are options for dual apps (but dual SIM didn't function for us in this handset, so a largely irrelevant point), various Themes and screen layout possibilities.
The bigger story with the A90 is its 5G connectivity. Which, as we're based on Three, is a somewhat throwaway point, because that network doesn't offer 5G at present. Using our personal SIM is an important factor to obtain true-to-life battery life understanding and so forth. However, we've seen Vodafone's performance in London, which is reasonable but not to the eye-watering speeds that should be possible in the future.
That's the thing with 5G: it's early doors at the moment, so you won't get the best possible speeds everywhere, nor will you get access to the network anywhere. Of course, 4G, 3G and below kick-in as necessary to ensure best possible connection. So the A90 is future-proofed for speed potential, just don't be too reliant on that potential right now.
Keep in mind that 5G also affects battery life for the worse. We haven't had that be a problem in our tests, of course, but the A90 lasts out for a reasonable length of time - we've been achieving around 16 hours per charge, with a reasonable slug of gaming in the evening. That makes it a one-day phone at best, though, not the two-dayer that you might expect from a 4,500mAh battery. Such is the impact of a high-end Qualcomm processor.
- Triple rear camera system
- Main: 48 MP, f/2.0 aperture, 26mm equivalent, 1/2in size (0.8µm pixel size)
- Wide: 8 MP, f/2.2 aperture, 12mm equivalent, (1.12µm pixel size)
- Depth sensor: 5 MP, f/2.2 aperture
- 32MP front-facing selfie camera
On the rear of the A90 you'll find the triple camera, with a standard wide and ultra-wide main pair of lenses, supported by a depth sensor that's used for some special modes (although the background-blurring Portrait is nowhere to be found, despite face detection autofocus working rather well).
In some regard the A90's rear camera's are high-end, the main sensor being a 48-megapixel unit that captures four-in-one to output at a more logical 12MP. In daylight the quality from this main camera is really good; it's crisp and clear, well processed with ample colour, certainly better than you'll get from many standard phone cameras.
As ever, of course, it's more challenging conditions that throw tangents at things. The A90 isn't nearly as good at handling low-light situations, even its main sensor and utilisation of Night Mode can't keep things quite crisp enough. We also found Night Mode would extend the shutter speed a little too long, making for soft results.
The ultra-wide second camera, which activates with a lovely animation to show the push or pull of focal length equivalent, offers a great view onto the world - but it does suffer with notable corner softness, which isn't ideal for those broader scenes. Interestingly, this is an area that Apple has progressed in, now offering one of the better wide-angle cameras on a phone.
Around the front that little dot nestled in the notch is a 32-megapixel selfie camera, capable of shooting 8MP snaps of relative quality.
The Samsung Galaxy A90 5G is the Korean company's answer to two things: one, it wants to reassert itself as market leader in the mid-level/sub-flagship market, seeing away the mass of Chinese phones that have come into contention; two, it wants to wave the 5G flag, making the super-fast and low-latency connectivity accessible to a wider market. And you know what? It more-or-less succeeds on both counts.
We think the A90 delivers much of what you'll find in the top-grade Galaxy S10, but for a cut of the price. We're not talking half price, though, this is firmly in the "third off" territory, so while not super cheap by any means, it's at least knocking on the door of affordable - and that's just what 5G needs.
However, whether you really need 5G is a whole other question. It's not especially common or stable due to the limited coverage offered at present. That will progress over time, of course, seeing A90 users future-proofed. Not only that, A90 users can be smug about all-day battery, flagship specs, speedy performance, and even a good camera (well, in daylight, at least).
This article was originally published 6 September 2019 and has been updated to reflect its full review status
Samsung Galaxy S10 5G
If you want 5G, plus all the bells and whistles, and know that an extra tenner a month on your contract isn't going to bother you, then splash out and get the top-grade Galaxy phone instead.