Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

This cut-price mid-ranger pretending to be a flagship from Samsung is available in two flavours. Or three if you include the 4G Exynos version. Yes, a 5G SnapDragon unit or a 4G Exynos (or depending on your region) SnapDragon version. It feels like Samsung have raised to the challenge set down by the likes of Xiaomi and Oppo, hitting high specs but keeping the price down by shaving whiskers here and there. Is it any good?

The version we have here for review is the 5G SnapDragon one in blue. It's £699 SIM Free in the UK whilst the 4G version is £599. At the time of writing there's a £100 cash-back deal on the table from Samsung for either of these, so £499 and £599 respectively. For £50 more on both of these you can up the baseline 128GB storage to 256GB. It would seem that in the UK at least just now, direct from Samsung, if you want the SnapDragon chipset, you have to get the 5G version. But there are other outlets.

Anyway, on with the show and first physical impressions! Before you start, you might like to check out Steve Litchfield's video review in The Phones Show Episode 413 in which he puts this Samsung through its paces in the context of his December 2020 Top 5 Phones. The phone arrived in a simple box with charging brick, USB-A to USB-C cable, pokey-hole tool and no earphones or TPU case. Mean (on the case). In case you don't know, the 'FE' stands for Fan Edition, apparently. Which used to be applied to a phone back in the day with extra features on a phone release which fans would like - not a cheaper version like this of the S20, effectively an S20 Lite! But I guess the 'fans' might have simply been asking for less cost! Who knows.

One of the whiskers shaved has been the removal of a glass back and instead, plastic. Or glasstic as Samsung like to call it! They seem to think it's plastic pretending to be glass, but to me it seems more like plastic pretending to be aluminium. The cold touch is not there, but that's how it looks to me. Anyway, who cares? A TPU in place and every phone has a plastic back anyway! The frame is indeed aluminium which travels around the edges in a pleasing enough design arriving at the front, encasing the edges of a flat front panel. Another shave. But actually, there's a growing number of people (including myself) who are pretty fed up with curved displays anyway, so this shave they can have!

The phone is not as big as I feared it would be and sizes up closely in comparison with my Motorola One Zoom. It's not giant, like the 6.7/6.8" devices, but not dinky like a Pixel. It's thinner than the One Zoom but pretty much matches it otherwise. At 190g it's not the lightest, but for the size 'feels' light enough and has been certified IP6/8 for dust/water. The volume rocker and power buttons on the right side feel sturdy enough and a little 'clicky' in use. The left side is naked, up top is a SIM Card/microSD Tray and at the bottom, a speaker and USB-C data/charging port. The card tray on this unit is a Hybrid one which will take either 2 nanoSIM Cards or one, and a microSD.

On the back there's a big lump top-left (in portrait) acting as a camera island which sticks out a millimetre or so, but is flushed by the TPU I bought. The front of the phone is mostly glass screen with a small chin (good for swipes) and even smaller bezels left, right and top. Central and top is another speaker between the glass and the frame and just underneath it a nicely small selfie punch-hole.

The 6.5" Super AMOLED flat screen is, as you would expect, glorious to look at, bright, colourful, saturated and with manual overrides in Settings to adjust it however the user wants it to look. We've come to expect this with Samsung OLED screens and this is no exception. I did read in a spec-sheet somewhere that the brightness is around 400 nits but can go up to 800 in auto-brightness mode. Indoors, for me, it's perfectly good at 25% on the slider. There is another shaving here however, as this is a 1080p panel and not 1440p, though they have added a 120Hz refresh rate option (for those who can tell the difference). The ratio is 20:9 so you end up with about 400ppi. These shavings are insignificant for me at least - they've made the right choices.

Sticking with the screen for a moment, I should just mention that unlike some other flat-screened Samsung phones, they have included the Edge Lighting options here and they work very nicely. Completely customisable in settings it means that you can set the edges of the screen to play a merry dance with lighting when notifications come in, with what colours or theme you fancy applying. There's also Edge Panels to quick-access a huge bunch of apps and settings. This, along with the excellent similarly customisable Always on Display, means that the phone is available at all times for interaction with the user visually. Choice of clocks, colours, user-submitted Themes, calendar entries, battery information - it's all there and a delight to use.

In addition to this, I have the under-glass optical fingerprint scanner employed (which can be set to be always visible as a part of the AoD). This means that I can always see the target and full desk/table access to the device when I want to get in. I am finding it to be almost always reliable - just now and again it might miss for me, but second time is good. I'd go for 95% plus for first time. The registration is quick and easy, though it seems to be restricted to only three fingerprints instead of the 'standard' Android's 5. Supporting this entry is Face Unlock which is again, very quick (maybe a little too quick) to set up and register (though to be fair, tested with someone else's mug here, they don't get in). When it is looking for the face, there's a little lit animation around the selfie camera hole, then a swipe up and you're in. See *update, below for more on this.

It would be only fair to point out that at this point I'm approaching my so-called review from the angle of not wanting to use Samsung services (unless they are better than those supplied by Google, or that I actually would intend to use them because I prefer what they do over other apps/services which I'm used to). If you think that invalidates this as a 'proper' review, then do please move along and look at the thousand and one other appraisals which dig down into those areas.

*Update. During my time with the S20 FE it did receive Android 11 and One UI 3.0 (having already been on December 2020 Security). Well done Samsung. Only two months after Google released this for Pixel phones and evidence of their seriousness about prompt, regular and long-lasting OS and Security Updates. The changes from prior are mostly cosmetic, tweaks and improvements in the UI, most of which seem to be for the better. I'm going to link to an AndroidPolice Article here as they drill through the nitty-gritty of the changes. The big one for me will be coming with One UI 3.1 apparently, when Samsung are joining most others (including Xiaomi recently) offering the user the Google Feed/Discovery option to the left of the Home Screen instead of their own Samsung Daily aggregator or nothing. I have noticed a slight increase in speed when using the fingerprint scanner and a slight decrease in standby battery performance (which no doubt they will optimise in time).

Speaking of which, the phone has a 4,500mAh battery and before this update the performance was very good, even having to drive that amazing screen. I recorded 2 hours and 15 minutes on my 10% screen-on reading test and there's absolutely no problem getting to bedtime even after a heavy day of use. Light to moderate use and we're heading for two days. There's 25W charging out of the box with the charger, 15W Qi Charging and even a 4.5W Reverse Wireless Charging to charge depleted earphones or to help out a friend with a flat phone battery. That might seem a little light compared to others but on testing here it works perfectly well for those eventualities. I have no complaints about the battery or charging performance. Another (near) flagship box ticked.

As I said earlier, this review unit is the 5G version with a SnapDragon 865 chipset, but the 4G version is also available in some markets with an Exynos 990. As I have said before, maybe I don't push phones hard enough but when comparing these against each other in the past (which I was able to with the S10e and S10) I really saw no noticeable difference. I know that Samsung get some bad press for their Exynos chipsets but they're certainly sticking with it, having recently announced the 2100. On testing with car racing games here, there's never a jitter - smooth as silk. This unit has 8GB RAM and 128GB Storage but there is a 256/8 available as well as the 128/6. Check specs from retailers before buying. All this supported by a microSD Card slot - well done Samsung - and it's playing very nicely with my 512GB microSD. My SanDisk Extreme 2TB SSD plugged into the USB-C socket reads and writes more than fast enough for me (and against other tested phones) and HDMI-Out to send media to a TV or monitor by cable works perfectly.

DeX is also present and when I plugged the phone into my PC I was instantly invited to download and install the supporting Windows DeX software which was then available to control all aspects of the phone, pretty much. Apps in windows on the big screen, pass-through notifications and services, use the phone's screen as a track-pad if you like, all the bells and whistles we've come to expect with this clever stuff. Like Bixby and Exynos, they're sticking with this system and others are slowly following along with their own versions. Genuinely useful for those stuck in a hotel room and able to use a TV screen to get productive or enjoy media for leisure.

The software experience is a mixed bag. Great that Samsung now give the new user the option to not install a load of their apps by unticking boxes and great that Google have now placed even more of their basic apps into the Play Store (including even Phone, Calendar, Contacts, Clock) so people who, like me, are not interested in the Samsung versions can stick with the Vanilla ones. Bad that there remains some bloat - again, I don't get why they need to do a deal with FaceBook or LinkedIn. Surely people can go and install them if they want them. The list of stuff which are installed and you can't do anything but hide include AR Zone, Bixby, Calendar, Clock, Contacts, Galaxy Store, Gallery, Game Launcher, Messages, Phone and Smart Switch. I guess some people won't care if they use the Samsung versions of some/all of these - some may even prefer them, but as I said earlier, that's not how I'm approaching this. The apps can be hidden in the (forced to only scroll sideways) App Drawer or bundled off into a folder. What I will give them, is that they have cleaned up the 'nags' which used to blight the experience for those choosing not to use Samsung apps. In my time here, I've not seen a single one I don't think.

I give a pass to Samsung's Music and Video Apps, but that's probably for old-fashioned reasons - and that the Pixel ones are a bit rubbish! You know where you are with these and you have system-wide direct links to Dolby and a Lock Screen echo, for example. There's also a bunch of settings to play with in terms of playback and smart library management. Probably no better than installing VLC or the like, but I find them pleasing to use and good additions.

The One UI is generally pleasing to use with smart help throughout. The Settings take some getting used to when coming from Vanilla, but at least there's a good Search facility. The Notification area is clean and well arranged with loads of genuinely helpful additions including a Power-Off button in case you want to assign the physical one to something else. What Samsung also do very well is to pack the Settings full of useful additions, tools, optimisation features, tweaks to pretty much any setting you might want to change or check - and if you want to do something that it can't then Bixby Routines will fill the gap (in a Tasker type way). Bells and whistles throughout and tons of stuff to play with! Some of the stuff might not be arranged quite as I'd like it but you have to hand it to Samsung that the customisability is exhaustive with a plethora of options at every turn.

I decided to test the speakers' output with the Pixel 3 which I have here and I contend is probably pretty much up there with the best (laying aside specialist phones) and with 'proper' stereo. I say proper, because this Samsung like many, many other phones are not coming with two front-firing traditional stereo speakers but rather one bottom/down-firing and the other making use of the phone's telephone earpiece speaker. If you play some music and put the top speaker up to the ear it does sound tinny and rubbish. Try that with the Pixel 3 and you get the full left channel of the stereo. Having said that, these speakers are 'tuned by AKG' to counter these limitations and sure enough, they've done very well. Move the phone to 12/18" in front of the face and stereo effect can't be faulted. It sounds just the same as the 'proper' ones on the Pixel. Very impressive in audio and video with various 'surround' tests.

Having established that we're alright with that, to the volume and quality. In order to keep the playing field level I start by turning the Samsung's Dolby off. This done and the Pixel 3 just about wins it on quality, tone, richness, depth, whatever you want to call it - but the Samsung is louder. Maybe not surprising as it's physically bigger and the sound (presumably) has more space to move around the device. However, turn on the Dolby (using Auto, not Movie/Music/Voice) and the Samsung shifts up a gear in volume and quality leaving the Pixel in its wake. A nicer, richer, louder sound. The sound coming from both of these phones is fabulous, to be fair and I'm nit-picking of course. All but the serious audiophile would be more than pleased with the sound, loud enough to fill a lounge-sized room - perhaps not a noisy party though!

When that's needed, you can turn to bluetooth and grab a speaker or 12! Bluetooth 5.0 is on display here and the hook-up to equipment is quick and easy - pairing very fast and with the ability to hold onto a signal over good distances. Dual Audio enables connection to multiple devices, simply and quickly - works very well, sending the same sound out to multiple devices. There's no 3.5mm audio-out socket here sadly but the sound across bluetooth is very good indeed, 32-bit/384kHz audio Tuned by AKGas always depending on paired equipment. I have tried that with two or three dongles/adapters to 3.5mm I have here and the output depends on the electronics in the dongle/adapter so as expected, the best booming sound which blows my head off is the Razer Phone's dongle - but it's also really not half bad using a cheaper and presumably less able one. With all of these, turn on Dolby and the sound is enhanced in every way - at least to my ears it is.

Connectivity via the usual routes as tested here is excellent, though I don't have any 5G to check that. 4G cellular appears to be strong with voice calls and data in my neck of the woods as does GPS locking and tracking onto maps and weather apps etc. The WiFi hooks up to the two broadbands at my disposal just now cleanly and holds onto the connection well (as does it my MiFi). NFC is present and although I can't test Google (or Samsung) Pay just now because of lockdown, the pairing between devices is quick and reliable.

As usual, I'm going to refer you to Steve's appraisal of the camera options in this phone, where he assesses (in his video linked to above) the pros and cons of all things photographic here. But a quick run through the specs shows that we have a 
12MP f/1.8 (normal) shooter with OIS, an 8MP f/2.4 (telephoto) again with OIS offering 3x optical zoom, a 12MP f/2.2 123˚ (wide-angle), 4K@60fps gyro-EIS stabilised video recording and a 32MP f/2.2 Selfie, again with 4K@60fps, gyro-EIS stabilised video. I like very much the 30x zoom. It won't stand up to pixel-peeping but for the vast majority of people posting to social media, it will do absolutely fine (if you can hold it still enough) and the 3x optical zoom gives pretty near close-up shots. As with the rest of the phone the camera app is littered with options, clever AI stuff, Pro Mode, Night shot, fancy filters and super slo-mo. The world is your oyster in terms of having stuff to play with here - you won't get bored!

This is a super phone, no doubt about it. It feels like a flagship and is, really. Samsung have pitched the price absolutely right here. It has more capability of many phones costing more and certainly those from China challenging the sub-£400 range. There's very little to complain about and as long as the user is alright with the size of the phone and getting used to doing things the Samsung way, it will be a winner. If I was considering buying a phone for myself just now this would certainly be high up on my shortlist as, well, it just has everything. Oodles of capability, great fun to use and available in a bunch of colours. No longer do even the most demanding of users have to consider £1000+ flagships. Clever Samsung. Hope it pays off.

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