Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20+ review: Smaller is better

Cherlynn Low
Reviews Editor
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Samsung was more ambitious than usual this year, launching the souped-up S20 Ultra alongside a more conventional pair of flagships. The Ultra, though, is an impressive but impractical device. Most people should clearly consider something more sensible, like the "regular" S20s. The S20 and S20 Plus have the same smooth displays and 5G support as their larger sibling as well as cameras that aren't as excessive. That's fine, because they're not as expensive either. At $1,000 and $1,200, respectively, the S20 and S20+ are at least in the same ballpark as other flagships.

Design

After a week testing the S20 Ultra, switching to the S20 and S20 Plus felt like blessed relief to my arms and fingers. The smaller handsets are much more manageable, both in terms of weight and screen size. My personal preference is the 6.2-inch S20, which is much easier to type on with one hand. But those with bigger hands probably won't mind the 6.7-inch S20+.

Regardless of the size you pick, this year's flagships are slightly curvier and have softer lines than the boxy S10s, which make them easier to hold.

They're not the most inspired designs, but these are still the classiest Android flagships you'll find right now. The OnePlus 7T Pro has an attractive finish but lacks the subtle curves, and the Pixel 4's minimalist style is unique but doesn't feel as premium. Huawei's P series might be the only phones (barring iPhones) that offer a similarly elegant build, but you can't buy them in the US.

Display

The S20s also have better-looking screens than most Android flagships. For one, their 120Hz screens are stunningly smooth. So far, only the ASUS ROG Phone 2 and Razer Phone 2 offer screens this fast, and both of those are niche devices with a focus on gaming. Some mainstream options, like the Pixel 4 and OnePlus 7T Pro, hit 90Hz, but nearly every other phone sticks with 60Hz.

Those faster refresh rates mean smoother animations and more-fluid video, but there's a caveat. Like the Ultra, the S20 and S20+ only support 120Hz at a 1080p resolution, not the native 1440p. This is less of an issue on the smaller S20s, where the difference in resolution isn't as noticeable.

Because they're not as big, these panels are more pixel dense and look better than the Ultra's 6.9-inch display. The effects of the 120Hz rate also seemed more pronounced on the S20. Still, I didn't find myself missing the faster refresh rate when I switched back to the Pixel 4 or even the Pixel 3 (60Hz).

Refresh rates aside, the S20s' screens are gorgeous. Samsung continues to excel at building displays, and its latest flagships have the deep blacks and rich colors that I've come to expect from a Galaxy device. I could make out Nick Offerman's straggly strands of hair even in a pitch-black forest in a scene from Devs, and the display is bright enough to read in sunlight.

Cameras

One of the compromises you'll be making by choosing an S20 or S20+ instead of an Ultra is getting a less-advanced camera system. The Ultra's marquee feature is a 100x Space Zoom that combines a 4x optical zoom with some digital wizardry to try to improve clarity. The S20 and S20 Plus, meanwhile, just go up to 30x with a 3x optical-zoom system. You also won't find the 108-megapixel sensor that's on the largest flagship; instead, the primary camera shoots at a maximum of 64 megapixels.

But frankly, you're not missing out on much. The S20 Ultra's picture quality was pretty bad when zoomed in beyond 10x, and the full-resolution 108-megapixel pictures were surprisingly noisy. Plus, Samsung had to issue a software update after several reviewers complained about issues with the autofocus.

While I didn't notice the autofocus problem on my S20 Ultra, I did see the S20 and S20+ struggle as I was framing shots. It's strange: The camera would spend a few seconds shifting in and out before finally focusing or giving up entirely. Samsung says a fix for this is in the works, but it's not clear when the update will actually roll out.

Space Zoom remains an impressive-sounding but not particularly useful feature. I got great photos at 1x and using the ultra-wide angle camera, but when I zoomed in on a bus map across the street, the resulting images were a disaster. All I could make out from the muddy photo was the general shape of the bus route. I couldn't see a single word.

Samsung's Night Mode on the new flagships is impressive though. The algorithm uses more information than before, capturing more frames at varying exposures to stitch together brighter pictures in low light. It's a noticeable improvement over the S10s (thanks in part to larger sensors) and almost as good as Google's Night Sight -- though the latter is still slightly cleaner with less noise. Even though photos I took of night scapes weren't very dark without Night Mode enabled, I still got better, cleaner results when I activated it.

Night Mode on the S20 and S20+ is pretty much the same as it is on the Ultra, as are new features like 8K video capture and Single Take mode. The latter is meant to help you capture better shots of meaningful moments. It snaps a variety of photos and clips as you hold up your phone for a few seconds, then applies filters, effects or soundtracks to the results. It's fun, but it's not helpful enough that I'd use it more than a few times.

The front-facing camera is also different from the Ultra's. Rather than a 40-megapixel sensor, you get a 10-MP one in the S20 and S20+. In general, I didn't notice a huge difference in quality, especially since the S20 Ultra shoots selfies at 12MP by default. When 40-MP mode was enabled, the super sharp images definitely had more detail than the S20 and S20+ delivered. I didn't miss the extra clarity though, except in low light. Compared to the Pixel 4, the S20s' selfies look slightly softer and warmer, though the iPhone takes the yellowest portraits.

While the S20 and S20+ have the exact same camera setup for the most part, there is one minor difference between the two: The Plus has an additional time-of-flight sensor on its back to measure depth for things like better portrait and AR effects. Despite this, I didn't find the Plus any better in applying background blur than the regular S20, and my Pixel 3 still outdid both with its portrait mode. The Plus also fared as poorly as the S20 on AR Doodle effects: The heart I drew over my mug didn't stay in place on either phone as I moved the camera around my artwork.

Overall, the S20 and S20+ offer a great camera experience, even if they're not as advanced as the Ultra. You'll get vibrant colors and largely crisp details both day and night, and you'll love shooting landscapes with the ultra wide angle camera.

Cherlynn Low/Engadget

Performance

The cameras are perhaps the biggest difference between the S20 Ultra and the S20 and S20+. All three phones pack the same Snapdragon 865 processor with 12GB of RAM. There is an upgraded Ultra with 16GB, but that's kinda overkill when laptops usually come with between 8 and 16GB of RAM.

As I jumped among editing a picture, playing a game and chatting with some friends, the S20 and S20 Plus didn't so much as hiccup. The S20 also kept up as I shot 8K video while downloading a 1.4GB app over LTE, though it did get quite warm in the process.

I even found the in-screen fingerprint sensors surprisingly fast. Samsung uses ultrasound scanners as opposed to the optical reader in the OnePlus 7T Pro, which some reviewers have complained is slow and frustrating. But I haven't noticed a significant difference in speed. My main issue has been in trying to get my finger in the right spot to unlock the phone when its screen is off. You'll find a visual guide showing where to place your finger when the screen turns on, but it's an extra step in the way of unlocking your phone. I was able to correctly guess where this sensor was sometimes, but more often than not, I missed. I wish Samsung had used Qualcomm's new fingerprint sensor that's about twice the size of a thumb and would be much easier to find.

5G today

One of the things Samsung is calling attention to on the S20 lineup is 5G support across all three devices. It's a signal that the next-gen networking standard is getting ready to go mainstream. That's a nice story to tell the public, but it's incomplete. Yes, 5G is here, but coverage isn't comprehensive yet. It's also confusing as to what the different types of networking technologies mean, and not everyone knows that mmWave is much faster or that 600MHz covers larger areas. There are too many caveats about mmWave's limited range or the less impressive speed boost from 600MHz at this point that will confuse the average consumer.

I used the S20 Ultra on Verizon's 5G network: It's fast, but coverage is limited. Our S20, meanwhile, came with T-Mobile service (technically, anyway -- more on that later). While Verizon only supports mmWave right now, T-Mobile offers both sub-6 and mmWave 5G in New York. Spots with the much faster mmWave are few and far between though. That's not to mention that the S20 doesn't support them; only the Plus and Ultra model do.

T-Mobile claims that while 600MHz 5G will be noticeably faster than LTE, "customers won't see a dramatic difference" in others. On average though the carrier said there should be a boost of 20 percent download speed over its LTE network. Unfortunately, there was an issue with my S20's SIM card, and I never got to connect to 5G at all. T-Mobile hasn't been able to provide a solution.

Battery life

What was noticeable on the S20 and S20+ was their long-lasting batteries. Thanks to their large 4,000mAh and 4,500mAh cells, respectively, the two phones lasted surprisingly long despite power-draining features like high-refresh-rate screens and 5G. I set the displays to 120Hz and consistently got close to two full days out of both flagships. On our battery test, which involves looping a full HD video, the S20 clocked a little more than 12 hours while the Plus hit 15 hours. That's longer than the Ultra's eleven-and-a-half-hour mark, and the Plus ties with the Pixel 4 XL.

S20 vs S20+

The S20 and S20+ are basically the same phone, aside from their differences in size, battery and mmWave support. The Plus also has an additional depth sensor on its back for slightly better portrait mode and AR effects. Are those features worth the extra $200 for the larger phone? Only if you really want a bigger screen, extra long battery life and super fast 5G on T-Mobile (at least, when the network is more mature). Verizon offers an mmWave-compatible S20, so your decision will also depend on what carrier you use. For most people though, the base S20 is plenty of phone.

Wrap-up

In the case of this year's S20 trio, smaller is so much better. I felt like the Ultra was overkill when it came to size, camera features and, most important, price. At $1,000, the S20 costs the same as the iPhone 11 Pro but more than the Pixel 4 while the S20+ is more expensive than the iPhone 11 Pro Max and Pixel 4 XL. But the S20s are also the best-looking Android flagships around, with speedy performance and long battery life. For that money, you'll also be getting excellent displays and blazing 5G speeds where available. If $1,000 is too much for you, you might want to wait for other options like the rumored Pixel 4a or consider the S10 ($749), which offers most of what you need for hundreds less. Right now though the S20 and S20+ are among the best Android phones money can buy.

Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20+ review
Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20+ review
Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20+ review