A little over eight months ago, Samsung released the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20 Plus, and Galaxy S20 Ultra, then followed them up with the Galaxy S20 FE at the beginning of October. The Galaxy S20 FE’s low price has captured (deserved) attention of late, but the rest of the Galaxy S20 range is discounted for the end of the year, and warrants another look. So should you go with the new value-focused model, or set your sights on one of the more expensive phones instead?
I’ve been using all four phones for a week to find out.
A Galaxy in your hand
I returned to the Galaxy S20 series by choosing the phone I didn’t review earlier in the year, the Galaxy S20 Ultra. I used the phone when I was writing other pieces about it, but it was never my choice of Galaxy phone, as it always felt massive and a little annoying. I wanted to see how long I could stand it as my daily phone, before inevitably swapping my SIM into my preferred model, the Galaxy S20 Plus.
Surprisingly, my SIM has remained in the S20 Ultra, and I’ve appreciated its sleek design more. It’s possible the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has something to do with this, as it has been the Samsung phone I’ve used most this year, whih has helped me get accustomed to the overall size. The 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED screen is glorious, and it has become a benchmark for me when reviewing other phones this year. Very few have come close to its visual excitement.
The screen is a big part of the S20 Ultra’s appeal, but the S20 Plus’ 6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED is equally as stunning, and watching video on it instead isn’t really any different. I use the S20 series phones with the 120Hz refresh rate active, and it remains one of the best in the business. I don’t care if it uses more battery, the smooth scrolling benefits outweigh the pain of an earlier visit to the charger.
My desire to keep using the massive S20 Ultra was a surprise.
If the S20 Ultra hasn’t been a pain, does that mean it’s the one you want? Without jumping the gun on my conclusion just yet, the fact that I’m staying inside a lot more makes a 228-gram phone less of a problem. If I was out and about more, the 186-gram Galaxy S20 Plus would suddenly look a lot more attractive. The battery on both has been strong, with the S20 Ultra in particular lasting a full day with hours of video calls, some voice calls, video, and general use.
What about the Galaxy S20 and the Galaxy S20 FE? The Galaxy S20 can’t compete with the larger models, as it’s not small enough to be truly compact and stand out, while the Galaxy S20 FE is too plasticky, the screen bezels are too big, and the flat screen isn’t as ergonomic to my hands as the curved screen on all other S20 phones. The large Galaxy S20 Plus and Ultra win in functionality and materials.
Design and software
While the screen and overall performance of each Galaxy S20 phone has stayed competitive since their original release, the same cannot be said about the design. The S20 and S20 Plus were pretty dull in February, and they look even more faceless today, given how distinctive the iPhone 12 is, and how eye-catching is the OnePlus 8T. It’s also baffling that someone at Samsung decided Hospital Gray was a good color for a smartphone.
The Galaxy S20 FE suffers from the same visual dullness, and while the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s rear camera bump is unsightly, it does give the phone more identity than its siblings. Selecting the Galaxy S20 Plus in a decent color is the best way to go if aesthetics matter to you, but none of the phones are what you’d call lookers.
Samsung’s One UI is pleasurable to use, speedy, pretty, and easy to learn. I like the uniform look, the logical nature of the menu and settings screens, and the informative always-on screen. However, there are a few disappointments. Repurposing the power button into a Bixby button is sneaky and annoying. It forces you to go in and adjust the settings so the button does what every other phone’s power button does, and adds steps to the process of turning off or restarting my phone. It’s a hateful feature that goes against One UI’s otherwise friendly and simple nature.
Samsung’s software is generally easy to use and speedy, but still has some annoyances.
Then there are the software updates. Since returning to all the phones, I’ve received only one update. My Galaxy S20 FE now has One UI 2.5 and the November 2020 Google Security Patch, while the S20, S20 Plus, and S20 Ultra are all still on OneUI 2.1 and the March 2020 security patch. All phones have been powered on for days, and the S20 Ultra connected to both Wi-Fi and cellular for at least a week, with no sign of any update.
However, this may be specific to my review devices (which are also Exynos phones rather than Snapdragon versions), as there are reports that the One UI 2.5 update started seeding in August. It’s still a disappointment, as the S20 FE pulled in an update moments after switching it back on after several weeks of inactivity. For what it’s worth, my colleague’s U.S. unlocked models (with Snapdragon processors) have been updated more frequently.
Evaluating the S20, S20 Plus, and S20 Ultra when taking normal, everyday photos is a hard task, despite the differences in specifications. All three cameras perform very similarly when just taking regular snaps, and you could easily carry the S20 and take basically the same photos as you would with the S20 Ultra, at least until you start delving into the S20 Ultra’s zoom capabilities.
While 5x zoom on the S20 Ultra is good, you have to contend with it getting very close, and the 3x zoom on the S20 and S20 Plus does feel more approachable. There’s no point in using the 100x Space Zoom, as its photos are a horrid, pixelated mess. All three phones can shoot 8K video, if you want to fill up the internal storage very quickly.
The big surprise is how capable the Galaxy S20 FE’s camera is. It takes less saturated, brighter, better-balanced photos than the other S20 phones, and easily also outperforms them in lowlight shots. The 3x optical zoom shows more detail than the S20 and S20 Plus, and even in regular shots the FE focuses more accurately and therefore reveals more detail with less blur.
There’s nothing wrong with the S20, S20 Plus, or S20 Ultra’s camera, but the S20 FE stood out as being a noticeably better performer when directly comparing them this way.
All four cameras have Samsung’s Single Take mode, but the FE has the updated OneUI 2.5 version, giving it another benefit over the older models. However, it can’t shoot 8K video, if that’s a feature you really want.
While the 108-megapixel camera on the S20 Ultra is good, the big numbers don’t represent a correspondingly large jump in performance over any of the cheaper phones. Worse news for the S20 Ultra is the cheapest phone here takes better-balanced, more attractive photos. However, this is excellent news for you, as the S20 FE becomes even more of a risk-free purchase.
Deals, and which one to buy today
It’s easy to get carried away and simply want to buy the very latest smartphone, and because the replacements to the Galaxy S20 series are probably only months away, the current models could get overlooked. Using them again gives me confidence to recommend you don’t make that mistake, especially as these phones can be found for better prices.
Now that we’re well into the Galaxy S20’s life, all the phones are regularly discounted. Ahead of Black Friday Amazon has the Galaxy S20 Plus available for $950, and the Galaxy S20 Ultra for $1,150. That’s a significant reduction on both, and it’s hard to resist the S20 Plus at this price given its excellent performance, beautiful screen, and lower weight. However, you’ll have to really want the curved screen and glass back on the S20 Plus when Amazon also has the Galaxy S20 FE for $550.
Yes, really, and this is an excellent deal. I can forgive the screen bezels, the flat screen, and the plastic back much more easily, especially as the FE’s camera goes toe-to-toe with its more expensive siblings here, has the same level of power, and has the latest software, too. At $550, it’s approaching half the price of the Galaxy S20 Plus, one of the best Black Friday smartphone deals, less than the Pixel 5 and the iPhone 12, and even more of a bargain than it was at $699.
The Galaxy S20 FE was an incredible deal before, and it’s irresistible now.
The Galaxy S20 FE shows how mid-priced phones have changed since the beginning of the year, becoming better across the board. Returning to the Galaxy S20 range has shown they still do everything you want extremely well, but you do have to splurge for the better design and materials now that the S20 FE exists. There’s a solid reliability from a Galaxy S20 device that’s reassuring, from the basics like a strong connection and clear calls, to the fabulous screen for games and video.
However much you spend on a Galaxy phone, you’re assured of quality, and I have a feeling if I use them all again in six months, this opinion won’t change. Buy the cheapest model with confidence and without regret, is the overriding message, and it’s wonderful to be able to say this.
- You have to see this savage Galaxy S23 drop test
- I tried replacing my $4,000 camera with the Galaxy S23 Ultra and iPhone 14 Pro
- The Galaxy S23 upgrade I’m most excited about is one you can’t see
- Why you need to look closely at the Galaxy S23 to see what makes it special
- This exclusive Snapdragon chip supercharges the Galaxy S23 in 4 big ways