Over the past couple of years, Samsung has considerably tweaked its Galaxy smartphone offering. In addition to a regular and larger-scale flagship - just as you'll find with the S20, S20+ and S20 Ultra - we've also got the likes of the S10 Lite arriving at the same time. So how does all that leave the regular flagship?
Let's skip back a couple of generations: with the Galaxy S9 and S10 models, we came away wishing the battery life was better. These handsets had the power and finesse, but struggled to get through a full work day even with moderate use.
For the Galaxy S20, however, Samsung is suggesting those battery-weary days should be behind us. Could we finally have a smaller flagship on our hands, without a single compromise?
How different is the S20 to S10?
- Dimensions: 151.7 x 69.1 x 7.9mm / Weight: 163g
- IP68 water- and dust-resistant
What we love about the "small" S20 is Samsung's effective use of space and materials. The phone is narrower than the previous S10, despite having a slightly bigger screen, and that display is a big part of the visual appeal. Or rather, the lack of obstruction around or on the display is.
The bezel around that display is so minimal, it's almost as if the entire front of the phone is screen. Even the bottom bezel or 'chin' is slim. Still not quite as thin as the sides or the top, but it's barely noticeable. Neither is the selfie camera featured in the punch-hole camera at the top; it's so small that it doesn't cause any disruption to your viewing.
The glass on the front screen is subtly curved all the way around the edges and into the corners, where the glossy surface meets the shiny aluminium edges. While this all helps make a phone that looks classy and premium, it's also ergonomic, ensuring there aren't any jarring sharp edges in the palm when you're holding it.
Being the smaller model of the S20 trio, you shouldn't have any issue holding it in one hand or fitting it into your pocket. In fact, we think it's a great size overall. It's not so tiny that you feel cramped when typing on the keyboard, but likewise, it's easy to type one-handed with keyboards that support swiping. For everyday comfort and usability, it's a great size.
It's not just pretty either, it's resistant to the elements. As with many previous Galaxy S series phones, the S20 is built to withstand water and dust, which technically means it can survive being submerged up to 1.5 meters for 30 minutes. What it means on a daily, practical level is that dust from your pockets or handbag won't get into the phone, and it will be fine even if you get caught in a rainstorm, or it gets dropped in a puddle.
Somewhat contrasting compared to these curves and polished metal is the camera module. It's just a black rectangle protruding from the rear glass. It's just a bit plain. There's no further embellishment, no metal rings surrounding the lenses for contrast, or anything to divide up what just looks like a boring black surface. This is perhaps to make the S20 Ultra look more appealing, but in the end it's a shame a little more effort wasn't made to make it a bit more attractive.
Still, we like the finish of the blue S20. Head-on, it might look like a plain sky blue finish, but it actually has a very subtle rainbow finish to it, which you'll only see when looking at it from the right angle with light directed from the right place. It's not as ostentatious as the multi-colour gradients of previous years.
While the camera module simplicity could be seen as a negative, there is simplicity elsewhere which we welcome: the buttons. Samsung only has two of them: one for waking up and locking the phone; the other a rocking volume switch. There's no extra Bixby button this time going completely unused, as per the S10, and the S20's buttons are placed in convenient positions for easy reaching with the right thumb.
What's the S20 resolution and refresh rate?
- 6.2-inch 'Dynamic AMOLED 2X'
- Quad HD+ (1440 x 3200)
- 120Hz refresh at 1080p
If there's one element of a smartphone that Samsung constantly performs well in, it's display. Even if it's not its own smartphone, Samsung AMOLED panels are generally the best in the OLED business, so it's no surprise to see yet another stunning one in the Galaxy S20.
The screen is bright, crystal clear, sharp and vivid even when you have the resolution set to the Full HD+. That's perhaps the one benefit of having the smaller sized phone: you don't need as many pixels on show in order for the fine text and details to appear sharp and smooth. The panel's pixel's are more densely packed than they are on the S20+ or Ultra.
With over 400 pixels-per-inch even in Full HD (1080 x 2400) mode, there are no complaints over details, even when you hold the phone closer to your face. In fact, we never saw the need to increase the resolution, despite the facility to do so, as it's perfectly good in its default setting.
As well as saving some battery, that also meant we could enable the 120Hz refresh rate. That's something you can't do if you have the resolution set to its highest possible option. But again, we didn't really notice a tonne of difference when the 120Hz setting was enabled. At least, not in the everyday, casual use of the phone.
If you're a keen gamer and you enjoy one of the few games that supports up to 120 frames-per-second, you might notice it, but for the average person buying this phone, we don't particularly think you'll care if it's on or off. In fact, you might just prefer it off to squeeze every last minute out of the battery.
What's the S20 battery like?
- 4,000mAh battery
- 25W wired charging
- Wireless charging compatible
As we mentioned in the introduction to this review, the regular-size Galaxy S phone has underperformed when it comes to battery life for the past couple of years. With the S20, it feels like Samsung has finally solved it. And done so the easy way.
Rather than just trying some extra fancy and agressive software optimisations, Samsung just upped the battery capacity. Where the S10 had 3,400mAh, the Galaxy S20 has 4,000mAh. And that extra is enough to make it easy to get through a work day.
Samsung's software is optimised too, which helps. There are a number of different options you can activate to ensure that as much time is squeezed out of the battery as possible. There's a feature that learns your own particular daily habits to ensure it effectively manages power. Similarly, the screen is automatically set to Full HD+ resolution and 60Hz refresh, rather than either Quad HD+ or 120Hz.
What we found was that even on days when we pushed the battery use on purpose to try and drain it more than usual, it still held up well. Taking it off its charging base at 8am, spending about two hours using the screen - either on social media apps, or casual gaming and snapping a few photos - we still had 65 per cent left over by around 2pm.
Once depleted, there's versatility in filling it back up again, which will undoubtedly prove useful. First, the included charger is capable of delivering up to 25W charging through the cable, meaning it won't take all that long to refill it from 0-100. It's not as fast as some of the top Chinese manufacturers like OnePlus, Huawei and Oppo, but it's noticeably faster than Samsung's previous best effort in the S series.
It's wireless charging compatible too, up to 15W. But what's really impressive is how intelligent it is: you can schedule times for it to top up, so if you have a wireless charger with a flashing LED light, or one with a fan that makes a whirring noise, you can set it not to fast-charge at times when you're attempting to fall asleep.
How does the Galaxy S20 perform?
- Exynos 990 processor, 8GB RAM
- 128GB storage
- 5G capable
On the whole, Samsung's flagship phone is one without compromise when it comes to speed and everyday snappy performance. Using the phone is fantastically fluid and responsive, whether you have its frame-rate at its highest, or not. Games load quickly, and all gestures on the screen are met with an instant response.
If there's one element of performance we'd like to see improved, it's the in-display fingerprint sensor. Samsung has used an ultra-sonic sensor again, but in our testing it hasn't seemed that great.
Often when removing the phone from a pocket to unlock it, we'll get a message on screen saying it's activated its "accidental touch" protocol which - in theory - should be a good thing. It means you're less likely to activate something accidentally. But then the screen is unlocked, it's hardly a worry you should have.
What that means is that you then have to swipe down on padlock icon before you can then place your thumb on the sensor in order to unlock the device, thus adding a step to a process that makes it a little more time consuming. And that's when the sensor accurately authenticates the fingerprint. At times we've had to scan our thumb two or three times to get it to recognise it and unlock the phone.
A note on software
- OneUI based on Android 10
In 2019, Samsung radically overhauled its skin of Google's Android operating system with a refreshed software called OneUI. That has virtually stayed the same with the S20, albeit now has Android 10 features such as system-wide dark mode included. For the most part, it's good software. It's visually different to standard Android, with colourful square-ish icons, big magazine-like text on menus, and lots of pre-installed apps.
It can be quite a frustrating experience, though. For whatever reason, Samsung has decided that the default action for pressing-and-holding the power/sleep button is to launch Bixby. If you want to switch the phone off, or restart it, you have to either dive into settings to change its default actions, or press-and-hold it together with the volume button.
Similarly, Samsung wants you to use its own password management capabilities, so whenever you go to log-in on a new service, Samsung Pass is the default autofill option. If you use Google's own autofill system, that means again diving into settings to change the default so you can actually access your passwords and use them to sign-in to your apps.
Then there's the fact that when Samsung Pay has been activated to use for paying for items using contactless POS systems, swiping up from the bottom of the screen launches Samsung Pay. It's not an issue if you have standard Android buttons set for navigation, but when you're using gestures, you then have two very similar gestures doing very different things. We've accidentally launched Samsung Pay a number of times instead of going to the recent apps screen.
To its credit, however, Samsung has simplified some of the software. Particularly when it comes to the camera, which is no longer loaded with a confusing number of options and features. You can still access lots of different shooting modes, you just don't get inundated at the beginning.
Does the S20 have the best camera?
- 12MP primary f/1.8 camera
- 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide
- 64MP telephoto zoom
- 10MP f/2.2 selfie camera
- 8K video recording
In previous years, Samsung smartphone cameras have been among the best around, but over the last two or three years that's slipped a little. It now has much fiercer competition, and after a couple of generations of this phone series' results suffering with over-exposed highlights, things had to be better for the S20. And generally they are - although it's still not a perfect experience.
On the whole, the image quality from Samsung's new cameras is great, and part of what makes the experience good is the versatile array of sensors on the back. Being able to quickly switch between ultra-wide, standard/wide, and 3x zoom is really useful. What's more, Samsung has done a good job of ensuring the images look similar in terms of white balance, exposure and contrast from all three cameras, so there's no jarring difference.
You can also zoom all the way up to 30x zoom, but results are understandably smudgy and not as dynamic as using a more reasonable focal length. Pictures are surprisingly stable at this range, just not sharp or detailed.
Pictures taken in good light have plenty of detail, colour and contrast. Unlike the last two generations, we didn't notice any significant over-exposure in the highlights, so images had great dynamic range without being overblown. If we had to criticise, we'd say perhaps there was a bit too much contrast and oversaturation in the colours. Even when we had Samsung's auto-scene enhancer switched off, this was the case.
One thing that's cropped up across the entire S20 range is the shallow depth of field when shooting close to objects, making the in-focus area too slight and the blur/bokeh too aggressive. Sometimes this heavy blur can look good, but a lot of the time it messes with the sense of depth within the photo, which can be quite visually confusing.
As for night shots, they can be captured using Samsung's dedicated night mode which - like most other flagship phones - takes a few seconds to capture the scene, then uses artificial stabilisation and processing to keep the image detailed and blur-free.
End results are decent enough, but we found the S20 didn't capture as much light in these scenes as an iPhone 11 - which we were using as comprison. Colour seemed a little less rich and detail lacking a tiny bit too. But in the end, if you're taking photos in low-light conditions, you'll still get much better results than if you were to just take a standard auto shot.
In previous years, a recommendation for the regular-sized Galaxy S normally came with a caveat about battery life. With the S20, that's not necessary. This is a great flagship phone, full stop.
Yes, we can pick at some isses with the camera, the fingerprint sensor not being perfect, and the software being a little frustrating at times. But on the whole there's very little to moan about.
The S20 has one of the best-looking displays on the market, an all-round versatile camera and - at long last - a battery that'll easily get you through the day.
With the Ultra model not quite doing enough to earn its name or price tag, the S20 is everything you'd hope for in the premium flagship. It's an easy recommendation, one that's genuinely great to use day-to-day.
This article was originally published 11 February and has been updated to reflect its full review status
Alternatives to consider
Google Pixel 4
For that pure Android experience without any of Samsung's UI on top, the Pixel lineup is here. It's also a vastly different approach to smartphone design, but you may not get the same battery life as that of Samsung's.
iPhone 11 Pro
As always, the flagship iPhone is the direct competitor to Samsung's Galaxy S, and the latest is a great all-rounder. The hardware design is beautiful, as is the display and the camera system is really versatile.