Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Samsung Galaxy S10 (512GB)

Here we go again! Acknowledging that Samsung phones seem to be the only Android devices out there that tick enough boxes! Speakers, speed, storage, AoD, Audio-Out Socket, good enough camera, close enough to Vanilla Android and more... I've been through S9 Plus, Note 9, Note 10, S10e, S8 and one-by-one they get ruled out - but maybe I'm getting to the core reason eventually... size!

The latest shot at finding the perfect phone for me brings me opportunistically to the Samsung Galaxy S10. It's smaller than the S9 Plus and Notes, bigger than the tiny S10e. Perhaps things may have worked out differently if I'd tried the S9 (non Plus) but I always feared the battery horror stories. The S10 is just about the right size in my hand, my pocket and big enough to type efficiently on the keyboard along with getting enough content on the screen to see sensibly.

Box Contents and Ticking
The 'proper' price for an official UK (Exynos) version of this phone with 512GB storage is £999, but shopping around, considering importing or used, buying the (some other regions incl. USA) SnapDragon variant of the device, the thrifty purchaser can bag it for anywhere between about £500 and upwards. Clearly the 128GB version is cheaper, but big storage was certainly one of the boxes I wanted to tick! So, I managed to find a SnapDragon 512GB version in black, second-hand from a trusted friend, imported from Hong Kong, looked after with cotton wool gloves similar to mine! In the box there's a power-plug and USB-A to USB-C cable, a USB-A to USB-C adapter and a plastic case. It looks like there were some earphones in here but, along with the SIM Card Tray pokey-tool they seem to have gone AWOL. Good job I don't need them - and if there were earphones, I'm sure I'd have hated them for being in-ear plugs!

Goldilocks
The physical appraisal of the phone for me is about size, the Goldilocks Zone, just right. It's a little wider and taller than the Pixel 3 but not as fat, the 16:9 Nokia 8 Sirocco is a bit wider, less tall and not quite so fat - and against the Moto Z3 Play, it's about the same height, not so wide but a little fatter. It's 157g in weight which also makes it relatively light compared to the device set here. It feels good in the hand and easily passes the finger-thumb test around the waist - even with the case applied. This case is a hard, clear plastic one which is alright, but a little slippery. It's nicely minimalistic with proper cut-outs for all the ports and buttons, but doesn't offer huge protection. Much of the glass is exposed. As usual, I've applied a cheap TPU and it's much grippier and won't fall easily.

Sandwich
The S10 is a glass/aluminium sandwich with GG5 on the back, 6 on the front, both sweeping near-symmetrically to meet the frame. The curve on the edge of the glass is subtle, nothing like the Sirocco, and content on the screen is not in any way impaired. On the left we have the volume-rocker and Bixby button (which can now be assigned to pretty much any App you fancy for short-press) whilst quite high up for some on the right is a lonely power button. I rarely need it, so it hasn't bothered me. Up top there's a SIM Card Tray which offers 2 slots in this model (check regional variation) with the second doubling as a microSD Card cavity. Down at the bottom there's the usual USB-C port, 3.5mm audio-out socket and speaker. On the front we have the other speaker, various sensors and a punch-hole selfie, top-right. Lastly, on the back there's a Samsung logo with the camera-island placed centrally above it, 15% down from the top, housing the rest of the camera gear and heart rate sensor. It sits a tad proud, but cases make it flush. The phone is IP68-rated for dust/water resistant (up to 1.5m for 30 mins).

Dynamic
The front panel is a Dynamic AMOLED 6.1" 1440p one presented in a 19:9 ratio returning 550ppi and ready to make the most of HDR10+ content where it can be found. As you might expect, it's blazingly bright, enabling me to use it at about 25% indoors. When outside, there's no danger of not being able to see what you're doing on manual brightness or adaptive, swinging between c.400nits and 800. There's adjustments available for Vivid or Natural, a Cool/Warm slider and even White Balance RGB controls too - you can set this screen just how you want to see it. I've remained on Vivid (the default) and am happy with the level of saturation of bright colours - it doesn't feel OTT. There seems to be a factory-fitted plastic on the screen which, to be honest, I didn't notice on Day 1! Given my experience with the Note9 and micro-scratches on GG5 (not 6 as here), I'm inclined to leave it in place and see how I get on. I've tested the fingerprint scanner for rogue entries, just in case, and it doesn't let anything other than registered prints through.

Biometrics
The biometrics are up to the usual Samsung standards - face unlock works superbly well regardless of the fact that they've removed the Iris scanner, registers quickly even with full-face beard and never fails - there's even a slinky ring of light emitted around the selfie-cam when it's brought into play! Tested with photos and other people, it seems secure against intruders! The fingerprint scanner is ultrasonic and not optical and appears to work excellently well from various angles, various fingers, even when the screen is off - OK, not quite as fast as capacitive, but not far enough behind for it to be a pain - and I'd trade that, for being on the front aiding desk/table use. One thing to note is that as seems common these days, a swipe-up is needed to get into one's homepages after face-unlock has been executed. Seems a bit daft to me, but at least the fingerprint scanner gets me straight in.

Punch-Hole
The screen is impaired by the selfie-cam top-right of course. As usual, the human eye after a short time adapts and 'doesn't see it' unless looking for trouble! The bigger issue for me is that the battery icons et al are 'pushed' left, which takes more getting used to, making less room for notifications - hampered further by Google insistence that Notification bars are 'built for notches' still and all the 'middle' is wasted. This whole notch thing has been a disaster really!

Really Always On!
One of the fabulous aspects of the Samsung devices is the Always On Display, as we know. This one is exactly the same as the other devices in the family and works in just the same way. Loads of options, Edge Lighting for Notifications with even more choices, manual brightness adjustments and scrolling information from core apps which the user can choose per app on/off. This really should be baked into Android via the Mothership!

Q Pie
The phone arrived to me here with Android 9 Pie installed and November 2019 Google Security during the third week of November. Project Treble really seems to have done the job here and Samsung are better than ever before supporting their devices with prompt updates. Android 10 should be along any minute with the final stages of the Beta programme available as I type for those who jumped. In the meantime, with One UI software running in the background, I've found that the only feature I lust for is the left/right full-side Back gestures - but hang on - Samsung have provided this now for a while via their own installable One Hand Operation Plus app, which works perfectly in replication.

One UI
I have covered One UI time and again whilst reviewing other Samsung devices in the family, so I won't plough through it all again here - search my Blog for "One UI" and you'll find it all. It's the same here and has been thought out really very well. One UI 2.0 is in the pipes for the Android 10 rollout, I understand, so we'll see what that brings. It's almost tempting to use the Samsung Launcher, but I'm personally so at home with Nova Prime that I choose to use it. For one thing, I like my Google Feed page to the left which Nova's Companion App provides. (Warning - this needs side-loading, so be sure to flip Install Unknown Sources for Chrome off when finished.) If you stick with the Samsung Launcher you have the choice of the Bixby panel to the left of Home, or turn it off completely (once you've signed in to get to the settings), and Edge Panels to play with, regardless of chosen launcher. Anyway, as I say, lots of One UI coverage elsewhere here, including the deeper capabilities of the Bixby system for those who wish to dig around.

Bloat or Float?
This might be a question that Samsung have posed to themselves following huge uproar across the globe about how intrusive their bloated software experience feels to the new user - as here, it's really been very toned down. Even though I'm signed into my Samsung account, I have not got hardly any pop-up messages, reminders and plugs to install this, that and the other, use this, that or the other service and so on from previous experiences. A large amount of the Samsung Apps are only installed at setup if you specifically ask, otherwise sit, sensibly, in the Play Store. I have installed one or two, and that's how it should be. There are a few apps pre-installed, but I'll give them a pass on this as they have been selected to be generally enhancing the experience, like Always on and Edge stuff. Exceptions to this include the uninstallable Facebook, LinkedIn, all the Bixby support stuff (but as I say, it can now be largely hidden), Briefing (?), Link to Windows Service, Office Mobile, Dictionary and a few others. We could add to that list support for all sorts of other service-layer apps for the likes of Samsung Pay, Pass, Cloud, Store, Games, Gallery, Themes - and then the superfluous array of doubled-up and unnecessary apps which Google supply like Messenger, Calendar and Email. The point is though that they're more invisible than ever before because the system at last doesn't keep nagging the user to adopt them over the ones which s/he has chosen. This does seem like a significant strategy shift and welcome it is! I'm happy to ignore entries in the App list if I'm not nagged.

Chipset Choices
I have it on good authority that the SnapDragon 855 version of this phone brings better battery life, camera quality and headphone audio which I'll come to later, but for now, yes this is the USA version of the phone rather than the 'global' one. I also note that there's an FM Radio included, missing from the Exynos 9820 version. The speed of the engine is really noticeable when, for example, reading/writing data compared to lesser phones. I can remember waiting to copy my media to internal storage and microSD Cards for much, much longer than this. It races through every task thrown at it at lightning speed. There's 8GB RAM here which ensures again, rapid task-switching and few undesirable closures. Going back to apps used hours before, or even days, ensures immediate resumption. There are of course an array of 'care' tools to 'optimise' memory and RAM as usual in settings to tweak this experience.

Pocket Computer
The big one again for me here is that armed with my 512GB microSD Card, I have 1TB of storage available to me, and with all the media and files I want to carry inside my Pocket Computer it leaves me about 300GB free! I know I'm a niche case and self-confessed Data Hoarder, and I won't go over the pragmatic reasons for that again in relation to my living situation, but rather focus on the decades-long desire to really feel as though the device I have in my pocket really is a Pocket Computer, challenging in many ways, a desktop/laptop PC. Love it! The USB-C works perfectly with data OTG, passes my 2TB Extreme SSD test with flying colours as well as any size microSD Card I throw at it. When I want to watch my media on a bigger screen, armed with a USB-C to HDMI adapter, I can watch it on my telly! No WiFi needed. Good ol' fashioned cables! Well done Samsung. Furthermore, want to play with DeX? It's all present and correct, echoing onto a large screen on-demand. My Pocket Computer becomes a fully-fledged one with connectivity to keyboards, mice and proper productivity. Pass-through Qi charging? No problem - it just works, whilst mirroring or using DeX. This kind of solution has been tried many times by various systems, some half-bake it, some do some of it well, but Samsung just does it all - right!

Socks Blown Off!
I've been blown away by the sound coming from this phone through my usual reference headphones via the 3.5mm audio-out socket. It's quite stunning, quality, volume, bass, the lot. Apparently, as I said above, this sets the SnapDragon version of the phone apart from the Exynos one. The phone can cope with audio files with 32-bit sampling then downsample to push out the sound. Maybe not quite the height of what the LG phones can natively handle though, which have very high bit depth sampling. Hence 'Quad DAC'. There's also the matter of how much 'oomph' is in the amplifiers. This is strictly analogue. Akin to buying a 30W BT speaker rather than a 10W one! So the top-end LGs, for example, have dedicated high power amplifier stages, while the Samsung has an amp, but it's not as special. If you followed all that, you're more like a sound engineer than I'll ever be! Good job we have the likes of Steve Litchfield and Gavin Fabiani-Laymond to keep us straight! The long and short is that it sounds amazing to these ears.

System-Wide Dolby
Sitting above this, system-wide, is Dolby Atmos with basic controls, but controls which do make a difference. You can play with various settings when playing sound through the speakers, which I'll come to, but also even more when headphones are plugged in. Dolby Atmos ('tuned by AKG') offers a choice of Auto, Music, Film and Voice - and can be turned off if preferred. Siting below and usable in tandem are a few pre-set equaliser controls in the usual way, as well a custom setting and equaliser sliders for the user to set. A handful of ways to adjust the sound which is excellent to begin with anyway. There's a sound wizard you can run through which tests your hearing for an array of beeps and sounds in order to deliver the best experience. It's all very encouraging that such care and attention is given to sound in my view, neglected to this degree by most others.

Stereo Speakers
The Stereo speakers are similarly very good indeed. I would say that the sound produced is certainly better than the Note9, S9+ and Note 10 Plus (which I reviewed recently for Phones Show Chat) and on a par with the other market leaders just now (laying aside special cases such as Razer Phone). It's loud and produces good enough bass and mid-range for my kind of listening, capable of filling a small lounge-sized room, defying the physical size of the unit in many ways. The top earpiece speaker does push out less sound than the bottom-firing one but they somehow sound and feel balanced when placed centrally to the head. We've seen and heard this before on other phones of course, put down to the 'tuning' and clever software involved. This is no Bluetooth speaker with booming bass of course, but it ain't half bad and is oodles better than most phones I've tested. The stereo separation is extremely good even at slightly longer distances from the head. Tested with fancy YouTube Dolby Audio Surround tests, as long as the phone is close enough, there's a real sense of immersion. Nothing like with headphones of course which, again, blows one's socks off! Incidentally, unlike many other phones out there, Samsung switches the stereo between speakers regardless of which landscape way you turn it - ensuring that the left channel is always on the left and vice-versa.

Wireless Sound
Bluetooth 5 is on offer for those not wishing to use a cable and it supports aptX. The pairing process is one-tap quick and easy for peripheral devices and sound, though of course dependant on connected equipment quality, is equally amazingly clear and loud - with access to the same range of equaliser controls. All my testing has been done using the Samsung Music App but, as I say, these equaliser controls are system-wide so will work with all apps including YouTube. Hang on, there's more! On this SnapDragon version there's even the aforementioned FM Radio which works very well indeed, auto/manual scan, station memory/favourites, recording function. Once the aerial establishes connection via something plugged into the audio-out socket, you can then switch from headphones output to speaker. Reception is good in my test areas.

Connections
Talking of which, reception generally is excellent for phone calls, GPS for Mapping, Bluetooth range, WiFi, even NFC - tested here with Google Pay and hovering over terminals picks up with ease, quickly. Starts to feel like Samsung is the new Motorola when hardware components are so robust. Another connection, of sorts, are the Heart rate and blood oxygen Sensor on the back of the phone next to the cameras which is supposed to work in tandem with the Samsung Health App. Having downloaded and installed that, it all feels a bit like fluff - and interesting that all this has been removed from later models of the Samsung phones. I couldn't get the sensor to read my pulse successfully. It kept telling me that was finger was not placed correctly. It did at one point get to 80% and told me it was 63bpm but didn't finish - that was the closest I got! Good job I don't need it - or care! Samsung Health App uninstalled! All this wellbeing stuff is a bit lost on me to be honest - I'm sure some people make use of it, but it just feels like a gimmick. Maybe Samsung thought so too!

Power
There's a 3,400mAh battery in the S10 here. Having got used to 4,000mAh units these days I was a little concerned. In my 10% reading test we currently have the Google Pixel 3 at the low end floundering on 50 minutes and the Xiaomi Mi A3 leading the pack at 2 hours 6 minutes. The S10 returned just about 1 hour 20 minutes. Far from the best, and worst, somewhere in the middle. On an average day's use for me (yardstick being my normal behaviour applied to all test devices with Adaptive Brightness and Adaptive Battery engaged) we're looking at somewhere in the region of 24 hours between charges and 6 hours Screen On Time. I did get nearer 30 hours one day but with only 4 hours SoT. As always your mileage will vary depending on what you're up to, but it's certainly not as bad as I'd feared - and we do have Qi charging in the wings. Top-ups as we go, desk, car, bedside. There's a 15W fast-charging brick in the box that'll get you a 50% charge from flat in half an hour - and with the right gear, it'll fast Qi charge too at 15W. Also present is the fancy Reverse wireless charging, so you can charge a friend's phone from the back of yours - and even pass that through, so cable up yours and place theirs on yours! Even more boxes ticked.

Snap, Snap...
I'm not going to even try to compete with the glut of in-depth reviews by the Pixel Peeping Brigade when it comes to the camera option on the S10, rather I'll tell you what I find and how I find using it and how the resulting shots look to me! Check out Steve Litchfield's coverage for loads of thoughts about taking photos with phones, including the S10/Note 10 range from Samsung. There are three cameras on the back alongside the heart rate scanner and LED flash. The user switches between the three via on-screen icons. The main camera is a 12MP Dual (not variable) f1.5-f2.4 (which switches based on available light) unit with OIS and a 'normal' field of view, another 12MP f2.4 which has 2x optical capability again with OIS and a 16MP f2.2 wide-angle camera with no OIS. And boy, is it wide! Distortion is the name of the game here, in bucketloads! There is a setting in which you can 'correct' distortions created by this extreme wide-angle though in practice here it seems to also 'narrow' the angle slightly in the process. On the good side, the shooter can do amazing jobs with room interiors and stimulate creative juices for all sorts of wacky stuff. There's no AF but in reality, everything will be in focus working with such wide optics. The 2x optical zoom, though not now market-leading in terms of 5x, still produces a useful extended range and in my testing here, pinch/splay to zoom up additionally to 10x (and anything between) produces very good and usable shots as well. It also has a trick up its sleeve in terms of close-focus. Place something close to the lens and it knows what you're up to and snaps into focus as close as it can then auto-adjusts as you creep closer. I've been able to fill the frame from a few inches away with 13mm across. The main camera produces photos beautifully for me and the rest of the 98% of users who don't have test-benches! Even those who do, seem to report excellent results too, also in low light, making use of dedicated modes and that dual aperture. The Selfie is a 10MP f1.9 unit and also has icons to switch between 'normal' and 'wide'. The results seem excellent to me again and the 'live focus' smartly tracks the face for Portraits and suitably auto-blurs background.

Camera UX
Common throughout the camera software, there's lots of AI going on, lots of decisions about what's needed taken out of the hands of the users if they choose, like that aperture control on the main camera and when Night Mode kicks in and so on. This will be the perfect arrangement of course for the 98% so it is clearly the way to go. There are manual overrides as well, however, some strangely buried deep in menus, some up-front and centre, some only accessible via a switch to Pro Mode. The 'viewfinder' in Pro Mode does its very best to emulate a 'proper' camera with adjustments possible for, amongst others, ISO, Aperture, Focus, Exposure Compensation and even a multi-dot focus grid, switchable to centre-weighted. All great fun to play with and for those taking photos from phones in any way as a serious competitor to 'proper' cameras, tools for creation. For everyone else, there's Scene Optimiser with various 'intelligent' features, Shot Suggestions (where the AI tries to work out what you're shooting and adjusts settings to get you the best shot) that re-ordering option which Samsung does, letting the user choose which 'main' modes appear on the 'main' shooting screen - and so on. Oodles and oodles of stuff to play with for the fiddler, great shots via AI for the rest. And that's where I'll leave it! For those who want more in-depth on the camera and results from pixel-peeping, just search YouTube - there's tons of it out there executed much more ably than my attempt would be, even if I had the extended interest! To me, for now, a phone in a camera is for taking shots from the hip, out and about and not much more. For more, you know what I'm going to say, buy a camera!

Verdict
As you may have gathered by now, I'm hugely impressed. I'm mostly impressed over previous tries and fails with Samsung that they're actually leaving me alone! Much cleaner UX than ever before and allowing me to use the phone as I want to without nagging. It's just the right size for me, the AMOLED display is the best there is, the speakers approach being the best available on a phone, the build quality is equally reassuring and all the above attention to detail, functionality, facilities (which many others are removing) is, I think literally, second to none. It's a package which ticks so many boxes for me and it seems that at last, with Samsung not bloating things out and enabling the user to stick with Vanilla, I've found my niche. Especially with this 512GB version and microSD Card and all the connectivity options. Have we arrived? Truly a proper Pocket Computer? I would not pay £1000 for it but if you can find one at a reasonable price like I did, I'd highly recommend the Samsung Galaxy S10.

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