Verizon’s Galaxy S20 ditches RAM for 5G, proving carriers run the mobile world

When Samsung’s Galaxy S20 launched with 5G on every device in the family, the situation was confusing. Technically, the Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra can work with every type of 5G network available. However, the smallest and least expensive Galaxy S20 can only use one of the two versions of 5G available — the low-band iteration.

If you subscribe to T-Mobile, this is no problem. because the magenta carrier uses that same version of 5G. It’s slower but has solid range and reliability. AT&T uses both the low-band 5G as well as the faster, power-hungry high-frequency called mmWave. The Samsung Galaxy S20 on AT&T can talk to only the former, so if you buy the Galaxy S20 and use it with AT&T, you can’t access the carrier’s full 5G potential.

Verizon, which uses only mmWave technology for 5G, skipped the smallest Galaxy S20 entirely because it wouldn’t work with Verizon’s 5G network at all. Until, that is, Samsung announced a few weeks ago that a special version would arrive, the Galaxy S20 5G UW (short for “Ultra Wideband”). Ultra Wideband is another way of describing mmWave. The new Galaxy S20 UW will indeed support Verizon’s high-frequency network.

The device went on sale this week, and it came with a couple of unwelcome surprises. Although it wasn’t mentioned previously, the new Verizon Galaxy S20 UW has less RAM than the other Galaxy S20 phones. It also lacks the expandable memory microSD card slot. Those are curious omissions.

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When asked for a comment on those changes, Samsung told me “The Galaxy S20 5G UW was designed to meet the needs of our carrier partners and Galaxy fans alike. To support the addition of mmWave components, we had to make certain design and hardware decisions to provide a device with the form factor and price point as other S20 models.”

The amount of RAM a phone needs is debatable. More RAM certainly means smoother multitasking and switching between open apps, and phones are multitasking champs in the computing world. On the other hand, few apps fully tax the RAM on modern flagship phones, and apps that are well-executed can get by on much less. Apple is infamously stingy with RAM in the iPhone, though it helps that Apple can be incredibly efficient, as it controls every part of the iPhone’s software and hardware.

The only real-world difference Samsung notes is the number of apps users can pin to launch instantly. “Galaxy S20 5G UW customers can pin one designated app in the system to launch instantly, compared to three apps with a Galaxy S20 with 12GB RAM, or five apps with a Galaxy S20 with 16GB RAM,” a Samsung spokesperson said. Samsung also notes the phone has been available in other countries with only 8GB of RAM.

Expect the Verizon model’s battery life to suffer

An SD card slot is missing from the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G UW. I had hope that might leave room for a larger battery. A mmWave modem, such as that used in the Verizon version of the Galaxy S20, uses more power. A larger battery would help, even a marginal improvement. However, the battery is the same 4000mAh unit in other Galaxy S20 models.

It could be that the mmWave antennae needed the extra space, so the SDcard had to go, When asked, Samsung’s PR told me that “from a design standpoint, [the] Galaxy S20 5G UW also contains additional RF components not included in other versions of the S20 5G in order to support mmWave bands.” So, new antenna elements are present — but Samsung avoided linking them to the loss of the SDcard.

Expandable storage has become a bragging point instead of a commonly used feature. Plenty of buyers will be impressed by the “expandable to 1 terabyte of storage” footnote, but few will ever expand the phone’s storage beyond what it ships with. Hardcore users who transfer large files may miss this feature, but those folks probably don’t want the ‘low-end’ Galaxy S20 anyway.

Carriers like to cut deals and make special offers to customers, but the first sale is between Samsung and Verizon, not Verizon and you.

Still, it stings, doesn’t it? The Galaxy S20 is the pinnacle of mobile hardware and the flagship device family for the country’s 5G network launch. Verizon is the largest network carrier, relying on the most aggressive 5G technology. Being the only carrier with a full family of Ultra Wideband-capable phones would be a coup in an industry that loves to brag about exclusives and advantages.

So why does Verizon’s new Galaxy S20 arrive slightly hobbled?

It all comes down to pricing

The real answer is in the cost. Verizon’s mmWave Galaxy S20 has a suggested retail price of $1,000, the same as the T-Mobile version of the phone without mmWave, and the same as the unlocked version of the phone. Qualcomm’s chips are expensive and adding support for the more advanced mmWave network add extra silicon that doesn’t come free.

Carriers like to cut deals and make special offers to customers, but the first sale is between Samsung and Verizon, not Verizon and you. In the wireless industry, the real customer for phone makers is the network carrier, not the user.

Verizon likely saw the unit cost of the Galaxy S20 UW and balked. The margins on smartphones are already thin, and Verizon has a whole new network to build. Samsung needed to come down in price. Ditching some RAM and swapping out the SDCard slot are easy ways to improve margins.

If there was any doubt wireless carriers still have ultimate control over the mobile phone market in the United States, let it be put to rest. After wrestling with Apple for years to finally bring the iPhone to The Network, Verizon has never offered another manufacturer such independence. Samsung is the largest phone maker in the world, but Verizon was still able to send its product teams back to the drawing board to create an entirely new SKU just to save itself a few bucks.

Disclosure: Philip Berne worked for Samsung as a Product Review and Crisis Communications Lead from 2011 to 2017.

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