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Galaxy S20, S20 Plus and S20 Ultra hands-on preview: Samsung’s biggest camera bump in 4 years

Get ready for sticker shock — and then three exceptional phones.

Galaxy S20 hands-on

  • Hardware and design
  • The S20 Ultra is massive
  • Display quality
  • Promising new cameras
  • Spec and feature changes
  • Entering the 5G era
  • Yup, they’re expensive

This is it, the Android world’s biggest launch of the year. Quibble all you want about whether you like Samsung’s hardware, software or approach to making phones; it’s the biggest Android seller in the world, and that means each Galaxy S launch carries a uniquely heavy weight.

Because when Samsung makes a move, everyone watches. Even if you’re not in the market for a new phone, or don’t want a Samsung in particular, the Galaxy S20 series is going to set the bar and roadmap for what we can expect from Android phones in 2020.

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

And they’re setting quite a bar. As a group, the three Galaxy S20 models cover a solid range of sizes and price points, with an incredible amount of consistency both carried over from last year’s phones and between the three models. It’s typical Samsung execution through and through, with big improvements in camera technology, even better screens, and some new 5G networking for good measure.

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Here’s how it all comes together in the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Metal and glass, continually refined

Source: Android Central

Samsung was one of the earliest to popularize this metal-and-glass design we see across the industry, and frankly hasn’t changed it substantially since the Galaxy S7. But to say that implies that it’s a bad thing, when it really isn’t — Samsung has continuously tweaked and refined this look and its execution of the materials, and the Galaxy S20 series is once again the best iteration of it.

This is your typical aluminum alloy metal frame, with a familiar glossy finish that has few adornments aside from more dramatic swoops and cutouts to accommodate the glass around the buttons on the side. The glass has what looks and feels to me like the same curves as before, but has been upgraded to Gorilla Glass 6 on both sides.

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

The hardware is, as is the case for the last couple generations, a delivery device for Samsung’s excellent display and feature-packed software; but I’ll get to the displays themselves in a moment. The only design change that will actually identify the S20 series at a glance as separate from any other is the rectangular camera arrangement — in small, large and extra large sizes on the three phones. It’s big and imposing, and the morass of black stands out strongly against the grey, blue and pink color options — despite that, I’m not a fan of how boring the black model looks.

Sure they may be familiar, but the phones feel great, there’s no way around it. The S20 and S20+ strike a great balance between nice heft and practical lightness, both coming in about 10 g heavier than their predecessors. And while they’re even taller than the S10 series, they’re both easily manageable in the hand — with the standard S20 feeling particularly compact. My feelings on ergonomics are quite different when we talk about the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which deserves its own section below to discuss just how huge it is.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is massive

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

By modern standards, the Galaxy S20 really doesn’t feel all that large. Even the Galaxy S20+ feels within the range of “normal” as it’s still smaller and lighter than last year’s Galaxy Note 10+. But with those two phones anchoring the line, it let Samsung go all out with the S20 Ultra; and it did, because this thing is an absolute unit.

It all starts with bumping up the screen to Samsung’s largest-ever size, at 6.9 inches. It’s just 0.2 inches larger than the S20+, but leads to an overall size that’s 5 mm taller and 2 mm wider. The width isn’t necessarily a problem, but the height certainly poses usability issues — this isn’t a display you’re going to be reaching the top of unless you’re using two hands. Of course you get the benefit of the extra space for viewing even more at once, and it’ll be particularly useful for gaming, but it sure is a huge amount of space to contend with getting your thumb to cover.

You’ll never be able to forget how big and heavy the S20 Ultra is.

The added height and width isn’t nearly as striking as the thickness and weight. At a whopping 220 grams, The S20 Ultra is 34 g (18%) heavier than the S20+, and surprisingly 24 g (12%) heavier than the Note 10+ — and about 10% thicker than both. That’s before you add in the camera bump, which is substantial in all dimensions. The word “chonk” was thrown around several times among those of us who had an early look at the Ultra, and that impression still sticks with me. The Ultra is downright heavy, and its large dimensions don’t distribute the weight enough to make it feel any lighter.

It still isn’t the heaviest phone out right now — that honor goes to the 240 g ASUS ROG Phone 2 — but it’s one hell of a girthy offering nonetheless. Just like every other year as phones have gotten larger and heavier, I’m sure Ultra owners will eventually get used to its size to some extent; but I don’t think you’ll ever be able to forget just how big it is.

Once again using the best displays

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

Samsung was already shipping the best overall smartphone displays you could get, but once again has outdone itself here. It isn’t even talking about numbers anymore — DisplayMate will offer those soon, I’m sure — and that’s totally fine, because it really doesn’t matter at this point.

Samsung upped its display game once again, and they’re gorgeous in all three sizes.

What does matter is how pristine and excellent all three screens look to the eye. The colors really pop in the default “vivid” mode, but even when you switch to the “natural” mode you get all of the other benefits of the screen: excellent clarity, wide viewing angles, low reflectivity, and high brightness. It seems impossible at this point to find a flaw in Samsung’s displays — they’re so good you don’t even think about it, which is exactly how it should be.

The one area Samsung was leapfrogged in 2019, refresh rate, has been addressed. All three models have a 120Hz refresh rate, which is double its previous phones and 50% faster than most phones out there today that were already soothing our eyes at 90Hz. It makes every bit of motion on the screen incredibly smooth, once again adding to the “don’t think about the tech, just use it” mentality of these screens.

Choosing between QHD+ resolution and 120Hz refresh is annoying, but 120Hz is worth it.

There’s a single caveat, though: 120Hz refresh is only available when the display is set to FHD+ (1080p), which is the default resolution for all three phones. Just like the last few generations of Samsung phones you can up the resolution to QHD+ (1440p), but in this case that forces you back down to 60Hz refresh rate. To my eyes, the phones look great at FHD+ — even on the Ultra’s 6.9-inch display — and I’d take the 120Hz refresh rate over added resolution every day.

Better than the display quality itself, the displays are now even less encumbered by the surrounding hardware. Samsung has ever-so-slightly reduced the bezels all around, which just enhances the feeling of an “all screen” phone in your hand. It’s also moved back to a single front-facing camera across the entire range, and moved the cutout to the center of the screen to save us from the awkward status bar shift found on the higher-end Galaxy S10s. The camera itself is really small too; believe me, you’ll forget it’s there in short order.

A promising new camera array

Just as we fully expected, and all desired, Samsung has overhauled the camera system on all three Galaxy S20s — and even bumped up the S20 Ultra to its own higher level.

Let’s start with the Galaxy S20 and S20+. I applaud Samsung’s restraint, because it did exactly the right thing here: stick to a 12MP resolution main camera, and just make the sensor bigger and optics better.

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

The pixels are nearly 30% larger, letting in much more light — and even though the lens aperture is technically narrower at f/1.8, it has dropped the complicated (and frankly generally useless) f/1.5-2.4 variable aperture. This is better overall, hands down.

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

Samsung’s telephoto game has also improved dramatically from its behind-the-times sensor and 2X lens. The secondary camera is now 64MP, which offers “lossless” 3X zoom and then extends all the way to 30X if you really want it — though detail starts to drop off pretty quickly after about 10X.

Now, here’s where things get a little confusing, because the S20 Ultra has an altogether different main and telephoto camera setup. Its main camera is a massive 108MP, but this isn’t a bad thing: it uses 9-to-1 pixel binning to take 12MP photos. The sensor is physically much larger than the S20’s 12MP sensor, and with the binning has an even larger effective pixel size.

Samsung made all the right changes here, and didn’t give up on its ultra-wide camera.

The telephoto camera is also different, but in the other direction with 48MP resolution. That’s a downgrade in that it has the same pixel size, so it’s physically smaller overall — but it has an entirely different lens arrangement in front of it. Samsung actually has the camera assembly positioned horizontally in the phone, using a prism to make the most of the space it has to offer 10X lossless zoom — that beats the S20’s 3X, even though it’s starting with a lower resolution.

And Samsung goes way further than that, with a staggering 100X zoom available. Now as you can expect, photos taken at 100X are pretty rough — but I was surprised how solid the shots were at 30-40X. Just how serious is this zoom? You’ll be able to take surprisingly up-close photos of city blocks or even individual buildings from a plane window. Yeah, that’s a lot of zoom.

So long as the processing is good, the S20 Ultra could be one of the best cameras of the year.

Across all three phones, you get an upgraded ultra-wide camera as well. This new sensor drops to 12MP (from 16), but has 40% larger pixels in the process, helping make up for its f/2.2 aperture. The wide-angle should be more capable in low light now, though it doesn’t seem to have gotten as much attention as the other cameras here. I’m just glad Samsung still chose to include it, with all of the hype it’s putting on zoom this year, while also giving it a nice sensor size bump.

As for the quality of the resulting photos from all of these promising camera improvements, that is something I won’t ever be able to determine from just an hour using the phones in a very well-lit demo space. With these new sensors, Samsung has the hardware it needs to take really good photos — critically, in low light situations where the larger sensors make the biggest difference. I want to get out there and shoot with all three to see just how big the improvements are, because the Pixel 4 has set an extremely high bar.

The big spec and feature changes that matter

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

What Samsung added

Much like the discussion of the screens earlier, individual line items in a phone’s spec sheet are steadily becoming less important. Still, there are improvements in this generation that manifest themselves in the most important aspects of how we use our phones.

Battery size, processing and memory are all bumped — let’s hope battery life is still good like the S10+.

Just like screen sizes, battery sizes are up across the board: 4000, 4500 and 5000mAh, respectively, are healthy upgrades from the Galaxy S10 series. Then you add on the new efficiencies of the latest Snapdragon 865 platform, and chances are it will be able to overcome the inevitably higher drain coming from the 5G connectivity. The Galaxy S10+ already had strong battery life, and the formula here points to the same.

That Snapdragon 865 should also offer great performance, because honestly the 855 didn’t leave us needing more power as it waas. And now it’s paired to an incredible 12GB of RAM in all models — with 16GB being optional on the S20 Ultra. That’s really more RAM than you’ll know what to do with in the two (or so) years you’ll own one of these. We don’t yet know what performance is like in the Exynos-powered version of the phones that will be released in some places internationally, but I sure hope it doesn’t come with the battery hit that the S10 generation did.

What Samsung removed

The big loss this year is the headphone jack, which has been removed from all three Galaxy S20 models. This should come as little surprise after the Note 10 series axed the port, but now none of Samsung’s latest-generation flagships have a 3.5 mm headphone jack. Instead, you’re getting the same AKG headphones in the box as the Note 10, which truncate in a USB-C plug.

There are very few USB-C headphones out there, but of course Samsung will sell you a $15 adapter — and if you’re like most of us, you’re using Bluetooth audio most of the time anyway.

What Samsung kept the same

Perhaps the defining feature of Samsung’s Galaxy S line is consistency. Sure there are additions and subtractions, but overall Samsung’s phones really stick to a tight path and give people exactly what they’re accustomed to.

The software is more or less the same as the One UI 2 update we’ve seen on the latest Galaxy phones, with very few changes. The camera app has a few tweaks, Duo video calls are integrated into the dialer, and you can now “pin” three apps into RAM so they never get closed. Outside of that, it’s the same Samsung software we know from the past couple months. That’s a good thing, honestly, even though I’m outspoken about my feelings on its design being a bit tired.

The defining feature of Samsung’s Galaxy S line is consistency of hardware and features.

On the hardware front, it’s more of the same. You’re getting IP68 water resistance, a microSD card slot, and reverse wireless charging. On the charging front you get what’s available in the Note 10 and 10+: 15W wireless, 25W wired on the S20 and S20+, and 45W wired on the S20 Ultra — the latter only being enabled when you buy a 45W charger, as it comes with a 25W in the box.

I’m happy to see Samsung step up its charging game across the entire lineup, but I would’ve loved to see some positive movement in the fingerprint sensor. Yes, unfortunately, this is the same sensor as the S10. It’s been positioned a bit higher on the phone so it’s more natural to reach,a nd Samsung says the software has been improved, but in my short use it was just as slow and janky as before … way behind the modern competition. This is going to be one of the notable cons on every S20 review.

Entering the 5G era

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

2020 is the year Samsung is leaning heavily into 5G; and that means anywhere 5G has even a nascent possibility of launching is likely to get a full 5G Galaxy S20 lineup. We don’t actually know precisely which models will be made available in each region, but the basics are this: the Galaxy S20 only supports Sub-6 5G, while the S20+ and S20 Ultra support both Sub-6 and mmWave 5G.

5G isn’t going to be a selling point for everyone … but you don’t have a choice.

The worldwide 5G landscape is far too complicated to explain here, but Sub-6 is the much more ubiquitous version being deployed worldwide. So that means so long as Samsung makes a model with the necessary frequencies, there’s a good chance you’ll have access to all three phones — be it officially or through online resellers.

In the U.S., the only restriction we’ve been made aware of is that Verizon will not be carrying the Galaxy S20 because the carrier simply doesn’t have a Sub-6 network yet — it will have the S20+ and S20 Ultra. AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint will carry all three models, though each one obviously has its own gaps in actual 5G coverage as they balance rollouts of both Sub-6 and mmWave.

How much the addition of 5G will mean to your buying decision will depend heavily on your carrier and where you live. If you live in one of the top couple dozen largest cities in the U.S., there’s a good chance at this point you’ll actually see 5G on a regular basis. But it’s nowhere near being ubiquitous enough to keep you from falling back to LTE frequently. And that makes it tough to recommend switching carriers just to get a Galaxy S20 (or + or Ultra) and use 5G. It’s a mixed bag still; and the mix is different with each combination of carrier and location.

Yup, they’re expensive

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central

One of the biggest talking points of this launch is going to be pricing, and rightfully so. By going larger, introducing new cameras, and (perhaps most substantially) adding 5G connectivity, Samsung has increased the price of the entire lineup. Last year’s Galaxy S10 line launched at $750, $900 and $1000 … this year’s Galaxy S20 group is $1000, $1200 and $1400. To jump from 128 to 512GB of storage, you pay $150 more on the S20+ or $200 more on the S20 Ultra — and on the latter get a jump to 16GB of RAM as well.

These prices are tough to grapple with — you get a lot, but you pay dearly for it.

The Galaxy S20 line is likely to feel less out-of-touch expensive as the year goes on and we see even more 5G phones launch with $1000+ price tags. This is going to be the new normal for high-end 5G phones, and Samsung is going to take the brunt of the pushback by being first out of the gate with a mass-market device lineup that’s all 5G.

Samsung can also justify some of the price increase with the fact that there’s no “entry level” model here — the Galaxy S20, unlike the S10e, is a full-fledged flagship that can easily be the go-to pick for a large number of people. It’s big enough, and capable enough, to stand on its own — even without mmWave 5G. From that point, it’s a pretty typical $200 upgrade for the S20+ with a larger screen, bigger battery and mmWave for carriers that offer it.

Even at these higher prices, each Galaxy S20 somehow manages to offer solid value for the money.

On the highest end, though, a $1400 Galaxy S20 Ultra is a tougher sell. Yes it has a bigger display, but it’s the same resolution and refresh rate. It has an 11% larger battery and the even more interesting camera system, but it’s yet to be determined how much battery life and photo quality is really improved. You also get the exact same internal specs otherwise, all the way down to 128GB of storage, which feels like a bit of a cheap-out for a $1400 phone.

Putting the large price tags into context, all three phones somehow offer a solid value for the money. We know every 5G phone is going to be more expensive than a 4G counterpart, which raises prices here. Even still, you’re getting a whole lot of capability and quality hardware out of all three of these phones at their respective prices. Samsung’s done it again.

Default choice

Galaxy S20

A proper flagship phone, in a more compact size. It may be more expensive than the Galaxy S10e, but it doesn’t make compromises. You aren’t missing out on much by getting the “cheap” S20.

  • $1000 at Samsung

Solid upgrade

Galaxy S20+

A solid upgrade pick. For $200 more you get a much bigger screen and larger battery, plus access to mmWave 5G networks. The other capabilities are unchanged, but you get more room to do everything.

  • $1200 at Samsung

Biggest and best

Galaxy S20 Ultra

The “cost is no factor” choice … provided you can deal with the size and weight. An even more impressive camera array and a massive battery underneath Samsung’s biggest screen. Plus, an option for 512GB storage and 16GB RAM.

  • $1400 at Samsung

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