Monday, 26 August 2019

Samsung Galaxy S10e

I'm back again box-ticking! Just can't leave Samsung alone it seems, knowing that of all the Android phones out there they alone are providing hardware that takes (most of) the best features from all the others, scoops them up and blends them together. The usual question now rears its head, however, whether or not I can, this time, live with the Samsung compromises, and enhancements, to the Vanilla Experience.

One of the special reasons that I'm drawn to the S10e is the physical size. I have found most phones these days to be too big - as a phone in my pocket - though of course, great for all sorts of other reasons. The only phone in stock here that comes close to the size of the S10e is the Nokia 8 Sirocco (even the little Pixel phones are bigger). This is the same height as the S10e, pretty much, but wider, to accommodate the 16:9 screen. I'm likely to compare the S10e experience with that, then, as I move along, no doubt focusing on the Samsung vs Vanilla differences, but also the key extras Samsung offer - microSD Card expansion, wide-angle camera (instead of 2x Zoom), stereo speakers and 3.5mm audio-out socket. Here's a handy GSMArena Comparison.

Eastern Promise
The unit I got my hands on here is second-hand incidentally, originally bought from Hong Kong, so has the Snapdragon chipset instead of Exynos and dual SIM. There's much talk about the differences between the two and depending on whose bench-testing you read or whose real-world use results video you watch, it seems to me that the average user really won't notice the difference. If you're a gamer, it seems, or power-user, you'll get more performance and maybe even battery-life from the Snapdragon - but for my use, I fully expect that it wouldn't matter a jot! I don't have the other to compare here, so can only report on what I find with this one.

Phone Sized Phone
This really is a dinky phone. A real phone-sized-phone, pocket-dwelling unit. My problem with small phones has not been so much diminutive content view, but rather effective use of the keyboard. The Sirocco is wider, so I've been fine with the keyboard there, but I do struggle with that on the smaller Pixel phones. I have recently reviewed the Motorola One Vision which is pretty much the same width as the S10e (but taller). During my review period I didn't have any problems with the keyboard, so maybe I'll be alright here. What might help is that the screen certainly fills the front - right out to the edges almost, differently to Pixel.

Weight vs Premium
One of the aspects I recognised immediately was that the Sirocco feels much heavier. It's 177g and the S10e, 150. That's quite a difference, and depending on your view about whether or not heft and weight = premium feel, you might count this a plus or minus. The IP rating for both is about the same, good for 5ft in fresh water for half an hour, and both a Gorilla Glass 5/metal sandwich - S10e aluminium and Sirocco, steel (which no doubt accounts for some of the weight difference). Whatever your view about weight, the S10e feels absolutely premium in the hand, very much like an iPhone-clone from the near past, curved edges and pebble-like. The Sirocco differs here and feels premium in a different, almost industrial way, with sharper edges and 'pointy' construction.

On the right side of the phone there's a pill-shaped capacitive fingerprint sensor which doubles up as a power button. Click in for power or touch to open up the screen and get past the lock (with an option in Settings to assign it to swipe-down the Notifications bar). This is a diversion from the under-screen version in the bigger S10-series of Samsung phones, but it works perfectly well and for me, having got used to the Moto Z3 Play and Razer Phones, more than acceptable. Unlike the Moto, but the same as Razer, clicking-in as power works much more effectively than a separate power button. Capacitive buttons still work more quickly and reliably than under-screen, whichever tech they use, in my experience. Some are saying that the sensor is too high on the side of the device for comfortable use, but I'm not finding that at all - I do have big hands, and can understand the issue for those with small ones. The Sirocco similarly has a capacitive sensor but it's round the back, which means you really have no choice but to pick it up to use it. Supporting the arrangements for opening things up is a staggeringly well executed face-unlock so if you do pick the phone up, and have that enabled, by the time you want to do anything, you're in!

On the top of the phone we have the SIM Card Tray which, in this case, is a Dual-SIM version (or single SIM/microSD Card) so if you need that function, check before you buy as other units with other chipsets for other regions, may vary. The tray is plastic, though doesn't feel flimsy like some, but the Sirocco wins here with a premium metal tray (though there was no dual-SIM version of that ever made). On the left is a volume-rocker and Bixby-button, both of which feel solid and premium. The Bixby button can now be remapped to anything you want and I have chosen the Google App. As Samsung One UI doesn't offer the option of right-swipe for my Google Cards pane, as Vanilla (and indeed the Sirocco) does, this is an acceptable replacement - maybe even preferable - with the added bonus of hiding Bixby!

On the bottom of the phone we have the USB-C port, which works perfectly with OTG and HDMI-Out, invoking Samsung's DeX desktop experience optionally when plugged in. It also passes my 2TB External SSD test with flying colours, speedy read/writing. Next to this is a 3.5mm audio-out socket, which will invoke a 'hurrah' still in some quarters! For me, I don't use it much, but great to have rather than not. I note that in some upcoming Samsung devices, this is something that (even) they are looking at moving away from in favour of universal Bluetooth. I won't weep, but I know some who might! The downwards-firing speaker of the 'stereo' pair is there too and I'll come to sound later.

I have a black unit here and the back glass has a kind-of shimmery-effect, which almost looks blue in some lighting conditions. Towards the top is the two-camera island, which I'll come back to, a Samsung logo and nothing much else. It's very smooth and slippery, but doesn't seem to be a fingerprint magnet. There's no TPU in the box (with this unit) so you'll need to grab one. Or maybe not! It's a gorgeous looking/feeling device and I can imagine many people wanting to show it off as-is. The OCD in me, however, wouldn't allow! What I have noticed, moving to a Samsung from a less-popular manufacturer's model, is the depth and range of accessories and cases available. I guess that stands to reason. Popular.

Flat Glass
The front glass is flat. The screen displays minimal bezels with a slightly larger one on the chin. That's good if you're going to use the supplied Gestures for Navigation. Yes, flat. Unlike the Sirocco's wildly curved screen - and most of Samsung's flagship devices in recent years, including the rest of the 10-range. I think that's a good thing. It may not look so futuristic and gorgeous as the Sirocco's screen, but certainly navigation is simpler and viewing media doesn't lose you content around the edges! There's the other speaker of the pair up the top, doubling as an earpiece for calls, and a Selfie-cam punch-hole cutout top-right (portrait). Controversial it seems, cutting holes into front glass. We dwell in an era where manufacturers are actively seeking alternatives to that and coming up with creative options like pop-ups, swivels and under-glass. We'll see where that goes, but for now, most people, including myself, claim to 'not see it' after a while of use. The Sirocco defies all these problems by having a 16:9 screen, big chin and forehead, where all the sensors are hidden from view. How you feel about that will depend on what you think about screens completely filling the front of your phone.

Dynamic Screen
Staying with the screen, it's lower resolution than the Sirocco's and the rest of the Samsung flagships at 1080p (438ppi) but because it's a smaller phone, it works just fine - at least for my 56 year old eyes! It's amazingly sharp and bright (up to 803 nits in Auto) and colours are vibrant, adjustable and as punchy as you want them to be - and still supports HDR10+ content. We wouldn't expect anything less from a Samsung 'Dynamic' AMOLED screen. They make the best, as we know. It's 5.8" (curved) corner-to-corner with a 19:9 ratio. The insignificance of the lower-resolution screen provides a welcome boost to battery-life, of which I was unduly concerned.

Power Matters
A good place to continue from, then, the battery is a 3100mAh unit. After testing over the course of half-a-week, I'm pleasantly surprised. In my 'continuous reading' test 10% battery was used in just over an hour. I test all devices in the same way and the best ones seem to get me an hour and a half for 10%, but the 'acceptable level' I have established is an hour. Anything less is dismissed. So just over an hour is a good return, not quite as good as the Sirocco at 1hr 20min, but fine. The 'in normal use for me' test, a mixture of all sorts of use through and average day, doing average things, it looks like equalling the Sirocco, returning 24-30hrs between charges, 5-7hrs SoT, adaptive battery and brightness. It's not an exact science and different devices have different demands going on, of course, but as far as I'm concerned, the same conditions are applied to all phones. Like the Sirocco, there's also Qi Charging available (fast 15W, with a switch in software to slow it down) but unlike the Nokia, Samsung provides 9W Wireless PowerShare. This allows you to not only use the power in the Samsung's battery to charge another Qi-enabled device, but also allows you to charge the Samsung at the same time by cable, for those occasions when you only have one cable and two phones to charge! But seriously, like the 3.5mm audio-out socket, better to have than to not have. These are the little additions which give the owner a warm feeling that their outfit are including useful stuff that others don't bother with - and to some degree justify the cost difference. How many times we rue the missing of one feature or another and muse about how little adding that would have cost. Box ticking! There's a fast-charging 15W power brick in the box which can get you about a third charged from flat in about 25 minutes when needed - again slow-switching in Settings.

Under the Bonnet
This unit has 128GB Storage (my new minimum) and 6GB RAM, the same as the Sirocco. Unlike the latter, however, the Samsung continues to support microSD Cards. I have got used to living without this now (as long as I have 128GB onboard and USB-OTG) but, again, better to have than not have. Transferrable content is a great bonus for ease of moving media between devices. As for the chipset, the SnapDragon 855 flies through every task! Nothing seems to slow it down, darting between apps and services with loads of stuff keeping running in the background (unless you tell the system not to in order to save battery). I'm not a gamer (and wouldn't know where to start) so you'll need to look elsewhere for an appraisal of how this phone performs (particularly against the Exynos version) from those who know about gaming and do it!

Always On
Android 9 is present out of the box and this unit is updated to July 2019 Google Security. I have heard it said that the SnapDragon version doesn't get these updates as quickly from Samsung as the Exynos version, but we'll see. We're almost at the end of August now, so potentially we're almost two months behind, for what it matters. What Samsung are good at, is updating their own software of course and that's where I'll head next, starting with the superb Always On Display. This is market-leading as far as I'm concerned. The options, colours and functionality are not equalled. LG come close to emulating it, but others lag behind, either by the aforementioned aspects or by not being truly 'always on'. Samsung have done it right, even down to interactive controls via the AoD itself, for example, changing the brightness, independently of any other brightness controls, by providing a slider after double-tap. Kudos. They also include the Edge Screen options, even on this flat screen, which are a joy to use for notifications.

System Apps?
Samsung have started not pre-installing many of their apps, including Samsung Music and Video. This move is great, and during setup you get the choice to say yes/no to installing those. The net effect is more choice for people in the know, but for Joe Bloggs who has no idea about such matters, they might bemoan the loss of various apps and services that they're used to seeing as a part of the system. No prizes for guessing which camp (you and) I pitch up in! There are still some irritations. Two of which are no-choice 'system apps' of Facebook and LinkedIn! System apps? Really? You can't uninstall them, only disable - and when updates to the apps come along, if you have auto-update enabled in the Play Store, they just update and become enabled again so you have to go and disable again. If you don't have auto-updates switched on then they sit forever at the top of the Updates list reminding you what a nonconformist you have become. I guess it's only 2 apps and you can get the UI to 'hide' them, but it's disproportionately annoying here! Why do Samsung just assume that everyone buying their phones also use Facebook, I wonder. If we're going on popularity, why not Twitter or WhatsApp! I guess it's a monetised deal. Like Samsung need money!

I'm not going to pick apart the oodles of bells, whistles and options in Samsung's One UI again (particularly if you choose to exploit Bixby) as I have done it before. Here's links to my previous reviews and musings. Samsung Galaxy Note9, Samsung Galaxy A50. Bottom line is that One UI is the best looking, most-Vanilla and pleasant front-end UI that Samsung has created so far. The system-wide dark theme drills down into corners that most others get nowhere near, the adjustments for one-handed use (not needed here with such a small device of course) are well thought out and the homescreen settings and options much more useful. There's a plethora of options in Settings, little things that many others don't think about or implement, often later being adopted by Google for base-Android. It seems that Samsung have great ideas which they're not afraid to throw in the pot - and make sure that they work well! The downside of this of course is that for the casual user of phones, moving between manufacturers' devices each time they get a new phone, it can be confusing and present a huge learning-curve. Samsung helps with that by supplying suggestions and Search in Settings, but it might be better for people, much like Apple users, to get into Samsung - and stay there!

It's a Gesture
One of the excellently implemented aspects of One UI is the Gestures. You can switch Home and Recents if you like, have three buttons if you like, or use the full-gesture option which enables sweep-ups from the bottom of the screen, Back/Recents on the sides and Home, centre. You can choose to see the 'hints' at the foot of the screen (thin bars taking up a few pixels) or turn them off. Now, I've been playing with the Android Q (10) Beta builds during the summer and enjoying the new navigation controls which are going to be baked-in to the forthcoming version. Swipes in from the left and right of the screen, particularly on a one-handed device, is a real boon and has been baked into recent Huawei devices as an option. It'll come along as part of Android 10 (when Samsung get round to updating) but in the meantime, I've uncovered a Samsung App called One Hand Operation+ which does exactly the same thing - and much more! Trust Samsung to have got it sorted ahead of the game!

Sound One
The S10e, unlike the Sirocco, has a 3.5mm audio-out socket which of course means simple plugging in of, not only headphones and earphones, but also a wired connection to other equipment like speakers. This is the primary use for me, so I don't have to fiddle around with bluetooth. Having said that, once hooked up, the Bluetooth 5 works flawlessly with aptX, producing a great sound. In the box there's a pair of (nasty-looking) AKG-branded ear-plugs which, according to those who could bring themselves to put them in their ears, sound excellent - so I'll take their word for it! Built in to the phone is a 32-bit DAC and the sound through my AKG K701 reference headphones is loud and meaty. There's Dolby Atmos built-in too. Like some (but not all) other Samsung devices, it's on by default but can be turned off. Adjust between Auto, Voice, Music and Film. Differences can be detected and there's also a Custom setting available for headphones and speakers (to work on top of whatever Dolby Atmos setting is applied). Nice to see some more control available for sound, particularly, unlike many, as it includes speakers.

Sound Two
Talking of Speakers, I selected what seemed to be the closest likely contenders here to pitch the output against - the Google Pixel 2XL (with similarly faux stereo) and Razer Phone 2 (with 'proper' stereo). The volume of the S10e holds up very well, right with both of them and only lags behind the Pixel slightly in richness and quality but, as we might expect, by a margin with the Razer. Maybe that was unfair - indeed, pitching the Razer against any other phone! The Samsung produces a fabulous sound for my piano and jazz and is only tiny degrees behind bigger devices in the S-series range (presumably because of space inside the tiny body for assistance). It packs a great punch for volume and quality, very comparable to the Pixel. Only a true audiophile would complain - speakers on phones are getting better. I'm so pleased. The stereo is not particularly wide or effective, as you might expect with such a tiny body - the speakers are too close to each other! It really might as well be Mono (which can be switched to in Settings) as by the time the phone is far enough from the head for reasonable listening/viewing, it's all lost. But yes, shut your eyes, put the phone in front of your nose and it works perfectly! By the way, there's also an FM Radio included in the SnapDragon model which works perfectly well, records and plays through speakers with something plugged into the 3.5mm audio-out socket. Sadly, it seems, missing from the Exynos version altogether.

Flagship Cameras
I'm going to point you to Steve Litchfield to get a feel for the camera's capability, as usual, in his coverage over the months of all of Samsung's flagship cameras, starting with Phones Show 365 in which he declared the S10e top of the picks for May 2019 in his Top 5. Steve has done loads of tests of the Samsung hardware both for The Phones Show and over at All About Windows Phones. Go fish around and dig in! Here are the basics, though. The S10e has got two rear cameras, an (auto) variable aperture 12MP f1.5-f2.4 main unit with OIS supported by a 16MP f2.2 unit for wide-angle shots which also acts as a depth data module. The bigger brothers in the range have telephoto lenses too, but something had to give here on physical size! The Selfie snapper is a 10MP f1.9 unit and there's tons of fun and functional stuff to play with in the camera app for both front and back cameras, as you'd expect! You can shoot in RAW if you fancy and there's 'Pro' options aplenty, though I wasn't too impressed with minimum focus - nowhere near 'proper' Macro. Low light shooting is handled beautifully well by the auto-options. I have experienced excellent results with the cameras, perfectly good for almost all non-pro, non-nit-pick uses - and a beautiful screen on which to view them.

Just because the Galaxy S10e is smaller than the brothers in Samsung's family, don't mistake it for anything less than a flagship. It is! An area previously near-dominated by Sony, so it's great to see someone else doing it. Particularly someone who's going to tick even more boxes! I maintain that it was a fair comparison to make with the cleaner, more vanilla Sirocco - and was fully expecting to pass over this Samsung as I have many before it, on the grounds of software. I'm not sure what it is particularly about this tiny phone which has made me shift, but shift I have. I can see a growing admiration for this phone and what Samsung are doing already and I'm only in week one. Yes, the microSD Card expansion is important for many, take your pick between the S10e's wide-angle camera or Sirocco's 2x Zoom, but the big difference for me is sound. The much bigger sound of the Samsung wins me over, whether stereo or not - it's streets ahead of the Nokia's output - and I have to admit that the 3.5mm audio-out socket is useful.

Pure Enough
However, Dame Vanilla is a comely mistress and I wonder how long it'll be before I'm hankering after a cleaner, purer experience again, close to the beating heart of what Google are doing with the Pixel range. With Android 10 (proper release) due to drop any minute, the draw of the Pixel might just be too much! In the meantime, this is as close as I have ever got to adopting a Samsung and taking it seriously. It's a beautiful little phone with amazing capability and very highly recommended even, I imagine, the Exynos version. It just ticks every box apart from one - the software - and that's so incredibly close now for this reviewer to think again. It's a delight to use and great value for the six hundred-odd quid, or even better if you're brave enough to have a SnapDragon one imported.

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