(Pocket-lint) - When Samsung announced the Galaxy S10 Lite, a lot of people stopped for a double take. Surely the Galaxy S10e was already a "lite" model, so what on earth is the S10 Lite and why make it in the first place?

As it turns out, the Galaxy S10 Lite could be Samsung's most appealing phone of 2020. That's not to dismiss the Galaxy S20 family, with various eye-catching specs, but as this phone offers flagship grade hardware and performance (albeit from 2019) at half the price of the S20+, there's reason to take this Lite phone very seriously.

A cheaper design

  • Dimensions: 162.5 x 75.6 x 8.1mm
  • Weight: 186g
  • Plastic back

The Samsung Galaxy S10 Lite looks and feels like other Samsung Galaxy S phones and it owes more in its styling to the Galaxy S20 than it does to the Galaxy S10. On the rear there's that enlarged camera unit, sitting proud on the back (literally and metaphorically), while the front of the phone carries that central punch-hole for the camera.

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That's very much Samsung's style for 2020, reflected in Samsung's affordable range of Galaxy A devices. The S10 Lite doesn't slot into that range, though, although it carries some of the hallmarks from Samsung's lower selection of devices.

There's no IP rating here, for starters, so you can't be quite as care-free with this phone as you might have been with the S10 or S20 models. But the design overall doesn't look hugely different and importantly, it doesn't feel hugely different. 

Yes, it uses plastic on the rear instead of glass. And under close inspection you can depress the back cover in a way that wouldn't happen with glass. That might mean it scratches more easily, but it might also mean it doesn't shatter if you drop it (we haven't risked that, but it's worth considering).

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There's also less of a curve to the edges of this display than there is on the S10 and S20 - something that phones elsewhere are starting to take to an extreme with their waterfall displays. Samsung basically started that trend, but here it steps away. We can't say we miss it: it just looks like there's a little more bezel to the edge because it doesn't curve as much as other models.

It's still a brilliant display 

  • 6.7-inch AMOLED screen
  • 2400 x 1080 resolution
  • HDR compatible

One of the money-saving measures that Samsung has used on the Galaxy S10 Lite is that it's a Full HD+ display rather than a Quad HD+ display. That results in less pixels per inch (here it's 392ppi, compared to the S20+'s 524ppi, if you like pixel-peeping figures).

However, Samsung's default setting on the S20 devices isn't full resolution, instead - you guessed it - it runs at 1080p out of the box. There's no 120Hz refresh rate here, it's simply not an option, but having moved from the Galaxy S20+ into the Galaxy S10 Lite, we really have nothing to complain about with this display.

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It won't shine from the spec sheet perspective, but in real terms it's as capable as the flagship display: it's sharp, it's vibrant, it can punch up the brightness in full sunshine. It also doesn't have the weird polarising layer that the S20 does, so it looks better than the S20 when you're wearing quality sunglasses. 

In many ways it's part of the underdog story: rather than offering Samsung's 2020 highlights - like a faster refresh rate - it just gets on with doing a brilliant job and that will keep most people happy. And that's what really matters.

Flagship hardware, with a Snapdragon advantage 

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, 8GB RAM
  • 128GB + microSD expansion
  • 4500mAh battery
  • 4G connectivity

There's no 5G in this handset, although given that the 5G networks are so new, that's unlikely to be a barrier for this phone in 2020. Yes, as this phone gets older it might go out of date and if you're really after 5G then Galaxy A71 5G could be worth a look, although it's a lower-power device overall.

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What you do get with the Lite, however, is Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 and 8GB RAM, which is a winning formula. It's 2019's flagship hardware, but you're not paying flagship prices for it. You're not even paying sub-flagship prices for it, so you get a lot of power for your money.

Again, moving to this phone from the Galaxy S20+ there was very little difference in real-world speed. Games like Call of Duty Mobile continue to get eaten up without any lag drop in performance.

About the only downside is that there's a single speaker on the bottom, so this phone doesn't sound great when gaming.

What's interesting is that there's no Samsung Exynos here, it's all Snapdragon, so for those concerned about what's powering their phone, the S10 Lite doesn't come in multiple forms. There's also no obvious overheating in this phone, it seems to remain cool after an hour of hitting those hardcore games.

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There's one area where the Galaxy S10 Lite holds its own against its more expensive siblings too: battery life. This is a phone that lasts and lasts well, certainly better than the S20 models in our experience. We've found it to last comfortably through the day and often well into the next one if you don't charge overnight.

That's because the battery cell here is far more capacious than either the S10 or S10+. It even stands up against the S20+ (which has the same size battery). Sure, if you use intensive apps it will drain more rapidly, but on the whole, the Lite is a heavyweight performer. 

A different camera story 

  • Triple rear camera:
    • Main: 48-megapixel, f/2.0 aperture
    • Ultra-wide: 12MP, f/2.2
    • Macro: 5MP, f/2.4
  • Selfie: 32MP, f/2.2

A glance down the camera specs suggests that Samsung is trying to impress someone. That's certainly the story for the Galaxy S20 family, but there's a hint of it happening here too. Take the selfie camera, for example: 32-megapixels is excessive in reality and the weakness shows when it comes to low-light images, which aren't great. Why the big number? It's Samsung following the trend and wanting to compete on numbers.

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On the back there's a 48-megapixel main camera which is also playing a similar sort of game, except throwing out 12-megapixel photos in normal shooting modes. The aperture isn't quite as wide as the S20 models and the depth of field isn't quite as shallow - so it actually works quite nicely. You can trigger a 48-megapixel mode - called 4:3H in the settings - if you want to use that full resolution and get a little more zoom-in detail.

Because zoom is the thing that's missing from this phone. There's no optical zoom lens, only an 8x digital zoom if you want to pinch to get a little closer, so cropping on that 48-megapixel image might have more use than on phones which have a dedicated zoom lens.

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The performance of the main camera is pretty good. Nice vibrant images come from good lighting and it copes fairly well in conditions like sunsets, with the Scene Optimiser swinging in to bring some verve. That might boost images a little to make them look better, resulting in skies richer than reality, for example. 

In low-light things get a little gloomy. Indoors is normally fine, but as the lighting drops you'll see image noise creeping in. The short version is that this isn't the best low-light camera out there, but it's still good enough.

The real weakness is the front camera in low light, which loses grip on detail pretty quickly, but otherwise is a good selfie camera, also offering a wide-angle view you can select to fit more people into the frame.

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The ultra-wide camera on the back we really like, as it performs well.

The final lens of the trio is a macro lens - although this setting is slightly hidden in the "more" section of the camera. You can easily edit the modes you see in the app and it's worth doing as the macro camera is a little more unique, giving you shots that many phones won't. 

It's odd, perhaps, that the Lite's camera setup is so different to both the S10 and the S20, but it's not a bad selection of cameras - and given this phone's price point, again it feels like you're getting a lot.

OneUI 2.0 

  • Android 10
  • Latest Samsung software

We've long be fans of Samsung's software. While it's a complete reworking of Google's Android operating system with Samsung changing the visual appearance and naming of just about everything, in recent iterations this has made for a great user experience. There's so much on offer, so many useful customisations, you can really make the phone your own.

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There's also very little difference from a software point of view to other Samsung devices, including the latest flagship phones. That's a good thing, because once you're in this phone, there's little giveaway that you're not using the most powerful device that Samsung offers. 

While there are a few pre-installed apps that Samsung bundles in, these are easily replaced or removed, with a few exceptions (like Facebook). There's Samsung's Bixby experience in this phone, fighting for supremacy with Google Assistant and a range of other Google services. You really can take your pick as to your preference, but if you don't use Bixby you really don't miss out.

Verdict

How Samsung came to the decision to pull things together to create this phone, we'll never know. But one thing is for sure: with year-on-year hardware gains now being fairly minimal, you're really not missing out on much here compared to the Galaxy S20.

That's why there's bigger differences elsewhere - the lack of optical zoom on the camera, the absence of 5G connectivity, the single speaker setup - but the question is whether that really matters or not. It's hardly a compromise, it's simply getting what you pay for.

And what you're paying for is a quality handset that defies its Lite name. This phone takes a slight hit on the spec sheet compared to Samsung's best, but in many cases, the downsides to this device are minimal.

The S10 Lite is a classic underdog story: there are things that should count against it, but really don't.

This article was first published 13 January 2020 and has been updated to reflect its full review status

Alternatives to consider

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OnePlus 7T

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If you like your software cleaner and are attracted to the idea of a faster display, then the OnePlus 7T goes toe-to-toe with the S10 Lite. Yes, Samsung's camera is probably slightly better, but the OnePlus 7T is a very good phone.

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Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro

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Xiaomi offers some of the best value for money in the smartphone market and comes in with specs close to the Samsung, but a fair bit cheaper. Samsung offers the better software experience, but if it's about power and camera, Xiaomi has a lot to offer.

Writing by Chris Hall.