Samsung’s funky new flagship shines.
What makes a Galaxy phone a, well, Galaxy phone? Up until recently, I didn’t have an answer for that question. They’re Samsung’s crown jewel with state-of-the-art specs, but it’s been difficult to pinpoint their defining characteristics. I believe that’s starting to change though as Samsung has veered away from replicating the iPhone’s design decisions—and the further they get from the iOS devices, the better they’ve become. This year, Samsung released three new Galaxy phones. These phones feature bezel-less curved AMOLED displays, impressive cameras, high-end specs, and a high price tag. The cheapest is the 5.8” S10E, which starts at $749, the most expensive is the 6.4” S10+ which starts at $999 (which can be kitted up to 1TB of storage, if you’ve got $1600 to drop). Right between the two sits the now “midrange” S10, at 6.1” and starting at $899 for a 128GB (See it on Amazon), or $1149.99 for 256GB. I hate to give Samsung any ideas, but after testing the phone, I think the S10 is worth every penny.
Samsung Galaxy S10 – Design and Features
The S10 looks gorgeous and feels substantial in the palm. It’s no stretch to say it’s among the best-looking phones I’ve ever held, and I’ve held pretty much all of them. The phone looks a lot like the Galaxy S9 and a little like an iPhone XS—complete with striped antenna bands. But its AMOLED display looks miles better than the iPhone’s, with an impressively curved screen that makes other phones look flat and listless.
But really, the most distinct feature of this phone is the hole-punch camera. By removing the iris scanners, the S10 can get away with a small circle in the corner instead of a big, honking notch. It’s less intrusive than the iPhone’s solution, but it’s also not as capable. Face Unlock is relegated to simple tasks like unlocking your phone, but anything that requires additional security, like making payments, requires a passcode or thumbprint. The latter is done through a nifty ultrasonic reader that’s built in the display. (Word of warning: only certain types of screen protectors—like thin plastic ones—will work.)
While the hole punch (or “Infinity O” as Samsung calls it) is very subtle, it’s not perfect. It sits, weirdly offset, in the upper right-hand corner of the phone. Samsung seems unwilling to embrace the style fully—instead, the S10 is loaded with textured wallpapers that all vignette or darken that corner of the screen.
Samsung’s fans, however, have had less challenge embracing the quirk. There’s no shortage of hilarious wallpapers that help the camera stand out and one of the first apps I downloaded, “Energy Ring,” encircled the camera with a ring of light, which functioned as a battery indicator, depleting into an ever smaller sliver as the battery drained.
The camera position does have a negligible impact on the software. The menu icons are all pushed to the left of the camera. At times when you’re not noticing the camera, the icons seem to sit in a weird no man’s land somewhere to the left of nothing. Weirder to me is the strange offset on the home screen—not in any way a compromise of the hole punch. By default, the date and time sit very low on the home screen, the icons are all smushed below it. In typical Android fashion, it only takes seconds to customize this, but it baffled me that this would ever be someone’s preferred option, regardless of reachability.
The back of the phone is much less interesting than the front. That’s in part to an oblong camera hump and a dull glass panel. My unit was matte black, but it looked like nothing so much as a collection of fingerprints.
Samsung Galaxy S10 – Real-world Testing
The very first thing I noticed about the Galaxy S10 was its stunning, curved AMOLED screen, which Samsung calls the “Infinity Display.” It really does make every app look richer. The device included a preinstalled screen protector—which I hated, and peeled off immediately.
The device feels light at 5.53 ounces. (That’s versus 6.24 ounces for the iPhone XS, and 5.22 ounces for the Pixel 3.) That weight is pretty surprising, given how large the S10’s battery is. Relatively, it’s huge, weighing in at 3,399 mAh. (In comparison, the iPhone XS is 2,658mAh and the Pixel 3 is 2915mAh.) With enough gaming, you can still reliably run down the battery, but for the most part, you’re looking at a phone that will last you the entire day and then some.
With enough gaming, you can still reliably run down the battery, but for the most part, you’re looking at a phone that will last you the entire day and then some.
One of the coolest new features Samsung has added to the S10 is with the flip of a toggle your phone becomes a wireless charger. That’s right, your phone can charge other phones— even iPhones—just by putting them back to back. This drains your battery, and fast, but I couldn’t help but admire the feature. Talk about a power move.
Unfortunately, the S10’s other power move—a built-in-the-screen finger scanner was less impressive. In theory, the S10 offers the best of both worlds, packing a Face Unlock for your lock screen, and Pattern or thumbprint unlock for the more sensitive actions. This has been touted as A Very Big Deal by Samsung, but unfortunately, it was nowhere near reliable enough for me. If I’m being generous, I’d say it worked about sixty percent of the time. That’s a stunningly low accuracy, that was only slightly alleviated by re-adding my thumb as multiple fingers.
The speakers are also a disappointment. At full tilt, they’re muffled and not particularly loud. In a blind audio test, five separate people preferred the iPhone XS’s speakers—and were divided between the S10 and the Pixel 3. However, the S10 is the only phone of the bunch with a headphone jack, at least.
Ultimately, I’m able to forgive these shortcomings due to everything the phone does right. And one of my favorite features is the camera. Or, cameras. The S10 has four (and the S10+ has a fifth, with the addition of an 8MP front-facing camera). I’m always skeptical of these multiple lenses, but the S10’s are a treat. There’s a 12MP Telephoto, a 12MP Wide-angle, and a 16MP Ultra Wide—each activated with a simple toggle flip. Of the lenses, my favorite was by far the least useful: the ultra wide that made everything look like a 90s skate video. It’s that wide. Like, “I can see my legs when I’m holding the phone in front of me” wide.
The photos below were taken three times from the same spot, using the Telephoto, Wide, and then Ultra Wide camera.
The wide-angle camera self adapts between two apertures (f/1.5 and f/2.4). This adds a ton of utility to the camera—especially during night photography when a wider aperture is necessary. But it’s a little slow-focusing for my liking, and many times I waited while my subject went in an out of focus.
The S10+ has two front-facing cameras, so you can add depth of field to your selfies, but unfortunately, on the S10 you’ll have to settle for one. It focuses quickly and seems to takes capable photos.
The Selfie camera does come with some software effects to add a digital bokeh. Oh, and stay far far away from the AR Emoji.
The phone also boasts a whole slew of software features that can improve the quality of your photos and videos. The best of all is “Super Steady,” which stabilizes videos. There’s not much to say about it, except that it works phenomenally. I used the Super Steady in a video (below) while walking with an intentionally exaggerated bounce in my step, and it looked steady enough to be drone video. Once i turned it on, I couldn’t think of a reason to turn it off
Samsung Galaxy S10 – Gaming
Despite a recent influx of “gaming phones” like the Asus ROG phone and Razer Phone 2, most gamers will be perfectly happy with a phone like the S10. While it’s missing out on a slew of gaming-centric features that Razer and Asus offer, it’s still perfectly capable of playing anything you throw at it. That won’t surprise anyone who’s read its laundry list of specs. It’s powered by a Qualcomm 855 CPU with 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of onboard storage by default. (The S10 storage is also expandable storage with microSD.)
The S10+ is fitted with a vapor-chamber cooling system, but the S10 only has a heat pipe cooling system. Playing games does get the phone pretty warm. After about 20 minutes, the phone was hot and games suffered from occasional frame rate dips. But those dips were infrequent, and during longer stretches neither the temperature or frame rate were an issue.
Also, whereas the curved screen is great for everyday use, it’s not ideal for gaming. That’s because many games I tested (Need for Speeds: No Limits, Fortnite, and a few more landscape-oriented games) use the top– and bottom-most corners for icons. These are just a little more troublesome to hit reliably on a curved screen.
I was able to drain 10 percent of the battery in 20 minutes of intense gaming. That might not sound great, but it means you’ve likely got nearly three and a half hours on uninterrupted game time—and most games won’t be as taxing as the ones I put it through. When provided with the option, I locked games to their highest settings.
The Samsung Galaxy S10 is available in two capacities and several colors, either unlocked or with a carrier.