Every year for the past decade, Samsung has released a steady beat of new Galaxy S phones. The early Galaxy S phones were good, but not great, and were such close copies of the iPhone that Apple sued Samsung over them and won.
It took Samsung a few years to hit its stride with high-end hardware, and the last few Galaxy S phones have been considerably better, if a bit predictable. This year’s Galaxy S10 family is no different: these are high-end phones with cutting edge technology and sleek designs.
What Samsung has gained over the past 10 years is an identity. The Galaxy S10 is distinctly Samsung — it’s not a copy of the iPhone or any other device you can buy. In fact, it almost feels like the opposite of the iPhone: if you’ve been frustrated with Apple’s recent devices for lacking headphone jacks, adding notches, or removing fingerprint scanners, Samsung is here for you with a headphone jack, a fingerprint scanner, and a notchless screen design (that has some other compromises). It feels a bit like the S10 is the anti-iPhone.
That isn’t to say there aren’t similarities between Apple’s flagship and Samsung’s. For one thing, both are expensive: the Galaxy S10 starts at $899.99, while the S10 Plus that I’ve been testing for the past week starts at $999.99. You can even option an S10 Plus out to a staggering $1,600 — that’s nearly three times the starting cost of the popular OnePlus 6T.
The other thing that the S10 shares with the iPhone is a lack of a compelling differentiator from its previous iterations. Sure, the screen is bigger and there are some incremental advancements in performance and battery life, but an S10 is not going to change much for you if you have a Galaxy S8 or S9.
That said, the S10 is one of the best phones you can buy right now, and the best Galaxy S phone Samsung has ever made. It’s just going to cost you.
Like last year’s Galaxy S9 and the Galaxy S8, the S10’s hardware is very nice, which you’d expect from a device this expensive. The best way to describe it is refined: plenty of phones have curved screens, glass backs, and metal frames, but few feel this nice to hold or well put together. Samsung is now on Apple’s level when it comes to fit, finish, and feel, and well ahead of Google, OnePlus, and other Android device makers.
On the top-tier S10 and S10 Plus, the front and rear glass curve into the metal frame, which makes the phones easier to hold, even though they have very large screens. The curved screen has been a Samsung trademark for a few years, and while some might not like it, I don’t have any issues with it.
Curved screen or not, the S10 Plus is a big phone, and not one I can comfortably use one-handed. If I were to buy it, I’d probably put a case and a PopSocket on it to make it easier to manage. For those who want a smaller phone, there’s the standard S10, which is still fairly big, and then the new, smaller S10E, which we’ll cover in a separate review.
The S10 Plus’ refinements extend to things like its vibration motor, which is much nicer feeling than many other Android phones. It’s not quite as good as Apple’s class-leading Taptic Engine, but it’s not buzzy and irritating, either. It provides nice feedback for typing on the keyboard.
Unlike the iPhone, the Pixel, and many other phones, the S10 still has a headphone jack at the bottom, next to its USB-C charging port. There are also stereo speakers that are loud and full sounding for when you’re not wearing headphones.
There are also the Galaxy S mainstays: IP68 water resistance; fast wired and wireless charging (with a fast charging brick in the box); and microSD card support for expanding the phone’s storage. The base model S10 comes with 128GB of internal storage, which I think most people will be happy with. Both the iPhone or Pixel provide less storage in their base configurations and don’t give you the ability to expand it with a microSD card.
You can even use the S10 to wirelessly charge another device, like Samsung’s new Galaxy Buds headphones or Galaxy Watch Active smartwatch, but I haven’t really found much use for this feature beyond showing it off.
The main annoyance with the S10’s hardware is the same as the last few Samsung phones: there’s a dedicated side button for the Bixby virtual assistant. Samsung is finally making it possible to program this button to launch other apps and shortcuts — but it’s blocking the ability to set the Google Assistant or other virtual assistants to this button, so you’ll still have to resort to a third-party app if you want to do that.
Aside from the hardware design, the main head turner with any Samsung phone is the display, and the S10 Plus’ does not disappoint in the least. It’s a 6.4-inch OLED panel with rich, vibrant colors and excellent viewing angles. It gets extremely bright for use in direct sunlight, and has enough resolution that individual pixels are impossible to see with the naked eye. The screen stretches all the way to the top and bottom of the phone, with just the slimmest of bezels above and below it.
Samsung seems to have toned down its aggressive saturation, and the “Natural” mode, which is what I’ve been using, looks very nice and drops the eye-searing neon colors Samsung was known for. Samsung claims the S10’s display is the first on the market to feature HDR10+, which is supported by Amazon’s Prime Video and YouTube. (Apple’s flagship iPhones support the competing Dolby Vision standard, which the S10 does not. None of these really look like HDR on a TV.) Netflix doesn’t yet offer HDR on the S10 line, but it will likely be updated to support it shortly after the phone is available to buy.
I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that the S10’s screen is one of, if not the very best, screens on any phone available right now.
Perhaps more interesting than the screen itself is what’s embedded in it. Though the display stretches to the very top edge of the phone, the S10 doesn’t have a notch cutout for its front facing camera. Instead, Samsung is using an offset “hole punch” design, which allows the camera to poke through the screen on the right side. On the S10 Plus, this houses two cameras: the main camera and a secondary one for depth effects and portrait mode.
This design lets Samsung avoid the oft-criticized notch look, but it also means that the battery and network indicators are awkwardly pushed off-center to the left. A notch design has similar compromises, but it’s at least symmetrical: notifications and clock are on the left, battery and network indicators are on the right. The off-center look of the hole-punch design just looks worse to me.
You can choose to hide the front cameras entirely with a uniform black bar across the top, but that just makes the S10 Plus look like it has a giant “forehead” bezel. Depending on what app you’re using, that black bar might show up anyways — it’s there when I read articles in Pocket, regardless of my display settings.
The other new thing that’s embedded in the screen is the fingerprint scanner, which has been moved from the back of the phone. The S10’s scanner is ultrasonic, which is supposed to be more reliable and harder to spoof than the optical in-screen fingerprint scanners we’ve seen on the OnePlus 6T and other phones. It even works if your finger is wet.
But it’s not as fast or reliable as the traditional, capacitive fingerprint scanner on the back of the S9. The target area for the reader is rather small (though the lockscreen will show you a diagram of where to place your finger) and I had to be very deliberate with my finger placement to get it to work.
Even then, I often had to try more than once before the S10 would unlock. I’d just rather have a Face ID system that requires less work to use, or at the very least, an old-school fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone. The S10 does have a face unlock feature, but it’s just using the camera to look for your face and compare it to a previous image — there’s no 3D mapping or anything. I was actually able to unlock the S10 with a video of my face played on another phone.
Samsung says it developed the ultrasonic scanner because feedback from customers said they wanted the fingerprint reader on the front of the phone, and this design allowed for more screen real estate than placing a capacitive sensor in a bezel below the screen. The S10 also lacks the iris scanning login option of older Galaxy models, which would have required more sensors than the new hole-punch screen design has room for. The company told me that it will continually adjust and optimize the face scanner’s performance leading up to the S10’s availability.
But here’s my feedback to Samsung: go copy Apple’s Face ID system. It’s far easier and more reliable to use than the S10’s nifty-looking but ultimately disappointing in-screen fingerprint scanner.
The S10’s camera system is similar to the S9 Plus’, but instead of just two cameras, it has three. There’s the standard wide camera (12 megapixel, f/1.5 optically stabilized lens), the now-familiar telephoto camera (12 megapixel, f/2.4 optically stabilized lens), and a brand new ultrawide camera (16 megapixel, f/2.2 lens) all mounted on the back of the phone. This system gives you a level of versatility you just can’t match with an iPhone or Pixel — you can go from super wide shots all the way to portrait close ups with just the press of a button on the screen. It’s like having a whole camera bag full of lenses built right into your phone.
The ultrawide camera is ideal for sweeping landscapes or cityscapes, and lets you capture significantly more in the frame. But it’s so wide that it distorts heavily at the edges — Samsung really needs to do more post-processing correction after the image is taken to lessen the distortion. Still, it can be very fun to shoot with and offers a perspective you just can’t get on many other phones.
Aside from the new lens, camera performance hasn’t changed much from prior Samsung phones. The S10’s camera is still very good, with fast focusing, fast launching, and generally great performance in most lighting situations. But it still has the familiar Samsung look: overexposed images and warm white balance. If you didn’t like the way pictures looked from the S9, you probably aren’t going to like the S10’s photos.
Warm white balance can be good for portraits, but Samsung’s tendency to overexpose images for brighter shots also makes skin tones look weird a lot of times. The S10 will also aggressively smooth skin to reduce noise, especially in low light shots.
The one area that Samsung hits a nice balance between the Pixel and the iPhone is with HDR: it’s not as moody as Google’s photos, but it doesn’t pull up the shadows in weird ways like the iPhone does. That’s partly because it doesn’t need to, since it’s already overexposing more than the iPhone would, but the HDR does look more natural than Apple’s as a result.
One weird quirk: the S10’s portrait mode uses the main camera instead of the telephoto, so portrait shots come out pretty wide. It’s like how the iPhone XR works, as opposed to the XS.
Unsurprisingly, Samsung has added new software tricks to the camera: the AI-powered scene detection mode now has 30 different scenarios it will recognize, and it has a feature that will help you compose your shots better, which is cool because it can help avoid crooked horizons in your photos. It does have a night mode, but unlike the Pixel, you can’t just turn it on whenever you want. You need to be in a really dark area — less than 1 lux — and be using the AI scene optimizer mode for it to trigger. And even if you do all that, it still doesn’t work as well as Google’s Night Sight.
Over on the video side, though, the S10 is way more impressive than the Pixel and even gives the iPhone a run for its money. You can shoot in up to 4K at 60 fps with the main camera, or 4K at 30 fps with the ultrawide or telephoto. There’s a new Super Steady stabilization feature that makes really smooth footage, but that will lock you to 1080p and the main camera when you turn it on. Finally, the stereo sound recorded by the S10 is really quite good, and better than I’ve heard from most other Android phones.
For the front camera, the new 10-megapixel sensor with autofocus produces very sharp images, and there’s a button to get a little bit wider of a shot if you’re shooting a group selfie. (Amusingly, this does not use the S10 Plus’ second front camera for a wider view, it’s just cropping in and out from the same image.) Thankfully, the beauty modes are all turned off by default, but the image does start to fall apart in low light. The portrait mode on the S10 Plus is also pretty decent, but not perfect, much like any other phone’s portrait mode. There are a couple of new effects that you’ll probably use once and then never touch again, just like Apple’s Portrait Lighting stuff.
For many years, Samsung phones had beautiful, capable hardware that was let down by lousy software. I’m happy to say that’s not the case with the S10. Its software isn’t perfect, and there is still room for improvement, but overall it looks nice, makes sense, and is mostly easy to use.
Samsung is calling this software One UI, and it’s running Android 9.0 Pie as its base. Most of the goal of One UI is to offer a cohesive look and feel makes it easier to use these big-screened phones. In that respect, Samsung has been successful: a lot of the important stuff you need to access is down at the bottom by your thumb.
Samsung also includes many of the Android 9 features Google debuted last year, such as the Digital Wellbeing service, adaptive brightness features, and the screen rotate button in the navigation bar.
But I’d still like to see more improvements. Samsung’s take on a gesture interface is so confusing I ended up using the default three button navbar instead. There are also still a bunch of duplicate Samsung and Google apps, like two email apps, two app stores, two browsers, two virtual assistants, and so on. I wish Samsung would just let me choose which ones to install on setup. Further, the S10 Plus I’ve been using is an unlocked model, so you can expect carriers to make this even worse with their own apps on top.
The nagging question with Samsung software is how long it will take to get updates. Google’s going to release Android Q sometime later this year, and you’ll probably have to wait another six months or so before it arrives on the S10, if last year’s schedule was anything to go by.
The S10 Plus is the first phone I’ve used with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 855 processor, and performance is surprisingly fast and smooth. Apps open without hesitation, scrolling is very smooth, and the S10 never feels like it’s getting bogged down or overwhelmed. It’s hard to quantify this, but the user interface feels more refined than a OnePlus 6T or other high-end Android phones.
Similarly, the S10 Plus’ battery life has been reliable enough that I just don’t have to think about it or worry that I’m going to run out of charge. I’ve been able to get two days between charges with light usage and had no trouble making it a full day with heavy usage. But it’s a big phone with a big battery, so this is the kind of stamina I expect at this point.
After 10 years of Galaxy phones, it’s easy to dismiss the S10 as just another smartphone that doesn’t really offer anything new or groundbreaking. That isn’t necessarily wrong; I don’t think there’s much of a reason for S9 or even S8 owners to run out and spend $1,000 on an S10. Samsung itself is going to release a wild folding phone in two months, and the S10 is just another slab smartphone like we’ve had for years.
But this is the 2019 flagship Android phone that more people will buy than any other, and it provides as strong an alternative to the iPhone as you can find. It really comes down to personal preference — are you so married to iOS and iMessage that you’ll never leave, or are you looking for something that has features you just can’t get on the iPhone? If you’re the latter, the S10 is here for you.
Likewise, if you’re debating between the S10 and a Pixel, the question is how important you think software updates and night photography are. If those things aren’t very high on your list, the S10 is better than the Pixel in virtually every other respect.
And finally, if you’re wondering whether or not the S10 Plus is worth nearly double the cost of a OnePlus 6T, your extra money will go toward a better display, better speakers, waterproofing, wireless charging, and a much better camera. That might be enough stuff to make it worth it, provided you care about all of that.
It’s clear that after a decade of Galaxy phones, Samsung knows what its customers want and what they expect. We’ve already seen glimpses of where the next 10 years will take us, but if you’re looking for the best Android phone available today, the S10 Plus is it.
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