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Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus Review: Props For Not Jumping On The Notch Bandwagon, Samsung

Look ma, no notch. Photo: Ben Sin

TL;DR Version

  • What’s good? Hole-punch design looks better than a notch; excellent display; much-improved UI; superb in-hand feel; versatile camera system with a wide-angle lens
  • What’s bad? If you’re open to buying Chinese handsets, there are much better value out there; Samsung barely improved the main camera much … this is almost the same level camera as the Galaxy S8!

***

Where I come from, you best not talk trash about someone else’s decision if you’ve done, or will do, the same. Samsung, Xiaomi, Google all poked fun at the iPhone X’s notch when it was unveiled in late 2017, and within a year, two of the three brands went ahead and copied the iPhone notch anyway. That’s called a self-own.

And so I give Samsung credit for sticking to their guns and remained notch-less, even if it became apparent that the notch was perhaps a necessary evil. This didn’t come without sacrifice, as the Galaxy S9 and Note 9 suffered less-than-ideal sales, partly because the phones were considered boring, iterative updates over the S/Note 8.

And so Samsung effectively sat out a year in terms of pushing the all-screen design forward, and in that time they found a way around the notch that doesn’t require moving parts like pop-up cameras: the hole-punch display.

The hole-punch design.

Samsung techincally weren’t the first to introduce this new design — Huawei’s sub-brand, Honor, beat the South Korean company to it by mere hours. But while Honor’s implentation is on LCD screens, Samsung is able to do it on superior OLED displays.

I’ve been using phones with a hole-punch cutout for a total of a month now — first Honor’s View 20, and then now the Galaxy S10+ for a week — and I can say that this design is superior to the notch, because the missing chunk of the screen is smaller, and it’s moved to the sides instead of smack dab in the middle. There are people, like that one dude at The Verge, who prefers the notch, but I suspect his opinion is an anomaly.

The notch eats up more screen space.
Watching full-screen videos on the iPhone XS Max (top) compared to Galaxy S10+ (bottom).

Let’s get the rest of the display talk out of the way while we’re at it. The larger S10+ model I reviewed has a 6.4-inch OLED display that’s curved at both sides, the smaller S10 and S10E model has a 6.1- and 5,.8-inch respectively. The curvature on both sides do result in accidental palm touches when holding the phone with one hand, particularly when the user is lying down and holding the phone over their face. It’s a bit annoying — a flat display like the iPhone X for example, suffers from no such problems — but it’s a fair tradeoff for that sexy curvy look. Plus, if you use a case, that problem is allevated significantly.

Still, there’s not much more to the display curves than sleek looks. It offers almost no practical functionality. But looking good is what this display does. It’s the brightest, most bezel-less, vibrantly-colored screen on a smartphone yet, with a resolution of 1440 x 3040 that is more than crisp enough for any living human being. It’s a stunning display overall, though the gap between the S10+’s screen and something like, say, an LG V40 or Huawei Mate 20 Pro’s also excellent OLED screens isn’t that large. In other words, Samsung’s display is the best, but it’s not like the second, third or fourth best screens are anything less than excellent (both of them have a notch, however, so there’s that).

That hole-punch on the S10+ is larger than the one found in the S10 because Samsung included two front-facing cameras inside the hole — a 10-megapixel f/1.9 selfie cam with a secondary depth sensor that helps with bokeh selfies.

I’m just going to be blunt: that secondary depth sensor is pointless, and I’d much rather lose it and get the smaller hole-punch cut-out. I feel like Samsung’s just inserting a second cam here for the sake of differentiation between the large and small S10s. As Google has proven, you can take excellent selfie portraits using entire software-created depth-of-field effect. You don’t need a dedicated depth sensor for that.

Around the back, you get a triple camera array that offer three distinct focal lenghts — wide-angle, normal, and telephoto (aka zoom). I am a big fan of wide-angle lens on phones, and I’m glad to see Samsung, like Huawei last fall, is jumping on the bandwagon after LG began doing this years ago. I recently published a wide-angle camera test between the Galaxy S10+, LG V40 and Huawei Mate 20 Pro, so if you’re interested in that, please head over there.

Samsung’s offering is solid for the most part. The main 12-megapixel lens can jump between an f/1.5 or f/2.4 aperture depending on the lighting situation, and the with a large 1/2.55″, 1.4µm sensor, can pull in a lot of light. Too much, perhaps, as the lens tend to over-expose by default if you’re shooting completely blind without fixing the exposure dial.

The 12-megapixel telephoto lens offers 2X zoom, or an equivalent of a 52mm focal length. That wide-angle lens has an extra wide 123-degree field-of-vision, which is wider than what LG or Huawei offers. The result is that the S10+’s wide-angle shots have slight distortion around the corners.

A wide-angle image captuered by the Galaxy S10+, notice there’s some distortion in the corners.
Another wide-angle image captured with the S10+.

As is usual with Samsung cameras, the lenses focus very fast, with on-point object detection. Shots captured generally look great, with punchy colors and excellent details. Sharpness tend to be above what the iPhone XS Max can do but below the Huawei’s.

If you’re shooting on a sunny day or with good lighting, shots are going to turn out superb. Low light performance is good, about on par with the iPhone XS Max, but not quite on the level of a Google Pixel 3 or Huawei Mate 20 Pro, mostly due to the lack of a software-assisted night mode.

In the below side-by-side samples, you’ll see the S10+’s image can go toe to toe with the iPhone XS Max. Even when looking closely, the two images are similar, with mostly color temperature difference.

When shooting with wide-angle, details appear softer.
Another wide-angle.

In all, the S10+’s camera system is versatile and easy to use. The three rear cameras allow a user to capture three distinctive shots without moving; bokeh images with the rear main cameras has accurate and realistic depth-of-field blur effect. The selfie portrait shots is average; like I said, I’d rather just use have a single selfie camera.

The three rear cameras allow a user to capture images with three distinct perspectives without moving.
A bokeh image with in-house motion blurring effects.
A selfie portrait shot. The edge detection found both of our heads just fine, but a single lens can do that just as well.

Sleek, sexy, Samsung

The S10+’s overall build is very similar to previous Samsung devices over the past few years: you’re looking at a glass sandwich display with the aforementione curved screens that bends seamlessly into the aluminum sides. The back glass also curves towards the sides, making for a device that is perfectly symmetrical front and back. It’s a superb in-hand feel that’s rivaled by only the niche Meizu Zero concept device I tested.

Samsung, like LG, has kept the headphone jack, which is great news. The port sits at the bottom along with a USB-C port and speaker grilles that work fine. Along the left side of the device are the volume rockers and the Bixby button, the latter used to trigger Samsung’s digital assistant. Every reviewer has criticized the Bixby button, so I’m not going to pile on the poor thing. Samsung at least gave us the option to remap the button (and sort of turn it off to prevent accidental triggering of Bixby from just one press), which is good enough for me.

The power button resides on the right side in a hilariously high position. It’s so high that even MKBHD, who’s 6’4 wit huge hands, complained about it. I mean, I hold the phone with my left hand, so the power button is impossible to reach without adjusting my grip every single time.

There’s an in-display fingerprint reader too. I know, I know, you may be wondering why it took me this long to mention this cutting-edge tech… well the reason is because while in-display fingerprint tech is new to many Americans, I’ve used, like, six phones with this tech already. Samsung’s implentation is supposedly superior because it is an ultrasonic scanner instead of an optical one, so the scanning is done via 3D sonic, sort of like a radar. Other devices I’ve tested uses an optical one which merely “lights up the screen to pull your digits’ pattern into a sensor underneath the screen”. Samsung’s offering is supposedly more secure, but I have no proof of this, as the other phones I’ve tested had scanners that weren’t easily tricked from my testing.

Like all in-display fingerprint readers, it will take the user a couple of days to learn where to place the finger accurately without looking, and by day three, I can unlock the S10+ almost as fast as I would if it had a traditional hardware scanner.

The S10+ has a glassy back that attracts fingerprints easily.
That Bixy button sits below the volume rockers. It is what it is, man.

Powerhouse phone, but that’s to be expected

With a Snapdragon 855 chipset paired with either 8GB or 12GB of RAM, the S10+ obviously has zero performance issues. I opened up a 20-minute 4K video clip on the video editing app Power Director, trimmed the clip down to 45-seconds, and the output processing time took only 37 seconds. This phone is super fast, though the iPhone XS Max’s A12 Bionic chip is still faster.

If you care about benchmarks — I don’t — the S10+ scored a 9,379 and 2,351 in multi- and single-core respectively on Geekbench.

To be honest, performance on the S10+ is flawless but I’ve come to expect that from all new phones above the US$500 range. Even the $400 Vivo V15 Pro I tested operated smoothly.

What’s impressed me more is the battery life. Samsung has upped the S10+’s battery to 4,100 mAh (from 3,500 mAh), and in eight days of heavy use, the battery didn’t die on me once. I’m averaging around six hours of screen-on time a day, with one day hitting close to seven. I’m used to Chinese phones having great battery life, but Samsung, LG, Apple devices usually fall short. Even last year’s Note 9 couldn’t hang a whole day, but the S10+ can.

One Pie

Part of this is likely due to the improved Samsung software, which is cleaner and lighter and can be turned mostly dark to conserve battery. Named One UI, this Android skin sits on top of Android 9 Pie and this is the first Samsung software I don’t hate. Previously, when I test Samsung phones, within a day or two I’d install Nova Launcher. With One UI, it’s been a week and I’m still using it with only minor nitpicks. This is a major win.

So the big change with One UI, is Samsung has made the software more manageable to use with one hand, this includes pushing some buttons and tabs within system apps down to the bottom of the screen, and more fluid animations.

A decade of refinement

Truth be told, nothing about the Samsung Galaxy S10+ is new or exciting, if you’re a tech-savvy consumer living in Asia. Triple camera array, hole-punch screen, in-display fingerprint reader, big battery – we’ve seen all of that from Huawei, Oppo and Vivo.

However, if you live in the US or South Korea, in which Chinese brands aren’t widely sold, then I can see genuine excitement on your end. The Galaxy S10+ is the most feature packed phone yet for you.

But even for someone like me who’s seen all the other phones, the S10+ is still arguably the best all-around package. It is the most refined, the most polished of the bunch. If you have US$1,000 to spend, I can whole heartedly recommend the S10+.

But read the first part of that last sentence carefully — if you have US$1,000 to spend. If you don’t; if you care about savings and finding the best value, then there are lots of options out there that can give you something close to what the S10+ offers but at much less. Chief among these is the Xiaomi Mi 9, which offer the same Snapdragon 855, in-display fingerprint reader, triple camera system, big battery, etc, at a price point that’s less than half of what Samsung charges. Of course, the S10+’s cameras are slightly better, the display is more immersive, vibrant, and brighter. And the S10+ is waterproof while the Mi 9 isn’t. But are all those things worth an extra US$400 to $500? Most people would probably say nah.

There’s also the OnePlus 6T and Honor View 20, both are great value options too. But still, if you want the best of the best right now and money is no object, then it’s the Samsung Galaxy S10+ for now.