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Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20+ review: Smaller screen, big value

By Luke Tan - 19 Apr 2020
Launch SRP: S$1298

Cameras, two comparisons, and conclusions

Very decent cameras... but should you just go for broke?

When I was mulling over how to structure this review, one of the first things that came to mind was: maybe we don't want to see a deluge of shots, because they're Samsung flagships...

Galaxy S20+. Badly lit food looks good.

...everyone else is going to be reviewing them...

Galaxy S20, Night mode. Look at the awesomely saturated and very balanced highlights and midtones!

and - as the Android phones most compared against iPhones - Samsung flagships can be counted upon to have cameras that are more than decent.

So, let's just do a direct camera comparison of the Galaxy S20 and S20+ versus their bigger Ultra brother to see if there's any sort of yawning chasm between them.

Before we begin, here's a simple breakdown of all three cameras:

  • The highest megapixel count on the S20 and S20+ is 64MP for both, while the S20 Ultra is, of course, 108MP. 
  • The 108MP sensor, custom-made by Samsung, uses "Nonacell" technology that combines the output from the 8 pixels around each pixel (sort of like Minesweeper) to gather more light, for brighter images in low light conditions. Till date, all other smartphone image sensors have used 4-pixel groups ("tetracells").
  • The S20 Ultra's telephoto camera is a periscope-lens unit with 4x (real) optical zoom and a 48MP sensor, and it enables 100x hybrid zoom.
  • The S20 and S20+ have a telephoto camera that crops the image from a 64MP sensor to give 3x "hybrid optical" zoom, which goes up to 30x hybrid zoom. 
  • The ultra-wideangle camera is the same across all models: 12MP, f/2.2, 13mm.
  • The S20+ and S20 Ultra have a Time-Of-Flight (TOF) sensor, which should help with ensuring properly separated backgrounds in shots where shallow depth of field (aka background blur aka "bokeh") is required.

Again, we'd like you to note that since the S20 and S20+ have the same sensor hardware, it was unsurprising that the outputs of both cameras were found to be virtually indistinguishable from each other.

Even without a Time-of-Flight (ToF) sensor, which is supposed to help improve edge detection in bokeh, the Galaxy S20 was just as good...

...as the S20+. There was no real difference in the quality of edge detection.

As such, we'll mostly be comparing just 2 sets of images: S20/S20+ vs. S20 Ultra.

Let's start by examining basic camera output. At first, it was hard to find meaningful variances in colour, contrast and tonality between all S20-family phones:

Galaxy S20/S20+, wideangle (normal) lens.

Galaxy S20 Ultra, wideangle (normal) lens.

Galaxy S20/S20+, ultra-wideangle lens.

Galaxy S20 Ultra, ultra (hah!)-wideangle lens.

We started to see differences only in high-contrast scenes or scenes with light sources that could potentially confuse white balance processing, as this shot at Jewel Changi Airport illustrates:

The Galaxy S20/S20+ produced the more pleasing image of all three as far as saturation and tonality were concerned. The green cast on the roof glass panes is a faithful reproduction.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra seemed to flatten the highlights a bit, although it expectedly produced more detail.

I had the privilege of hanging out at a homely house in the Tanjong Pagar area over the weekend, and got some really nice views that further drive home the point:

Galaxy S20/S20+. Observe the hotel's shadow detail...

Galaxy S20 Ultra. Again, shadow detail is more muted.

And now, for the part you've really been wondering about:

So... how do they zoom?

The S20 and S20+ have "only" 30x hybrid zoom, while the whole planet likely knows by now that the S20 Ultra maxes out at a mindboggling 100x "Space Zoom". However, before you rush out of the house with your fistful of dollars, read this part through:

We're going to use this image as a guide for our zoom tests. Observe the two blue-circled areas. (This image was not shot with the Samsung devices.)

Galaxy S20/S20+, 10x hybrid zoom. (This is the circle on the left in the image above.) The lower 64MP resolution and lack of a true zoom lens mean less image data to work with, and it's clearly struggling at this range.

Galaxy S20 Ultra, 10x hybrid zoom. There's just a lot more detail, and the image is perfectly usable.

But at 30x hybrid zoom, the S20 and S20+ are, strangely, not as terrible as you might expect:

Galaxy S20/S20+, 30x hybrid zoom. The image has a lot of processing artifacts, but the texture in the roof tiles is retained, and you can still make out the railings.

Galaxy S20 Ultra, 30x hybrid zoom. The image is usable, but not by a huge margin.

Let me try to make this point in a slightly different way. Consider these three shots:

We'll use this shot from the Galaxy S20 Ultra as a reference. This was taken at 10x zoom.

Galaxy S20/S20+, 30x hybrid zoom. The branding and detail on the containers can be made out.

Galaxy S20 Ultra, 30x hybrid zoom. While there's a little more detail, it's still not sufficient to give clear edges to the brand logotypes.

Let's take another look:

Look below the Pinnacle@Duxton flats and you should be able to make out what we're looking for: the roof of the Poo Thor Jee Temple.

Galaxy S20/S20+, 30x hybrid zoom.

Galaxy S20 Ultra, 30x hybrid zoom.

Would I say there was a meaningful difference between the zoom quality on the S20/S20+ and the S20 Ultra? Yes - depending on your needs. Would I say it was worth a full $600? Maybe not.

We've come a long way with periscope lenses plus high-megapixel sensors that were once only the preserve of medium-format studio cameras, pumping out huge amounts of detail which today's lightning-fast processors can integrate and crop in a matter of mere seconds to produce levels of digital zoom hitherto unseen on smartphones. But you know what? It's still digital. Don't expect to take the S20, S20+, S20 Ultra, or any of their contemporaries on safaris and get long zoom shots of cheetahs or wildebeest worth a page in a coffee-table book. The quality still isn't there yet.

Verdict: If the idea that the S20 Ultra wipes the floor with any other smartphone today in terms of resolution and zoom power keeps you awake at night, then by all means go for it. However, the average Joe and Jane, unaccustomed to zooming even past 5x on a daily basis, will probably not make enough use of the extra detail to justify the huge premium - and the S20/S20+ already have very good cameras. 

There's also the issue of the S20 Ultra's gigantic form factor and huge camera bump. The S20 Ultra is certainly better at this new and exciting hybrid zoom game, but whether it's $600 better off-the-shelf (maybe some can close the gap by signing a telco contract) is something you should think about carefully, especially since for all other intents and purposes both sets of cameras have very similar output quality.

Has 8K video killed the 4K video star?

8K video recording is still an idea before its time. There's not a lot of (affordable) gear out there that will play your glorious clips at full resolution, and all you'll be doing is filling up your internal storage (and whatever poor microSD card serves in your phone) at 600MB per minute. Also, video is recorded at a film-era 24fps with no autofocus tracking or image stabilisation. 

On top of all these, what I consider the Numero Uno problem with 8K video was that we just could not find anywhere to share it. We read that both YouTube and Vimeo would accept it for upload, but YouTube had only processed it to Full HD 1080p a couple of days later, while Vimeo hadn't even gotten past 360p.

What sounds like a more practical use of 8K video on the S20 phones is the ability to produce 33-megapixel still images from any frame in an 8K video. This can be done from within the phone's native Video player app by tapping the Quick Crop button on the upper left hand corner (the one below the file name.)

Now here's the catch. I say "sounds like" because, with any camera movement and indoors or in low light, the 24fps frame rate results in too many blurred frames to deliver enough keepers for Quick Crop:

This wasn't even a fast pan, mind you.

On the other hand, Samsung has made sure that the standards are well in place. Good ol' 4K video is recorded at 60fps, doesn't look any less crisp (the difference is practically indiscernible on the phone's display), and best of all, looks great even in low light. The Quick Crop stills from 4K video are 8.3MP, more than enough for social media sharing.

There's something to remember regarding angle of view in both camera modes, too. Eagle-eyed punters will have noticed (and think) that you get more hybrid zoom ("10x") in 4K mode, while in 8K mode you'll have to make do with only "6x". Sorry to burst your bubble, though: the actual amount of zoom is the same!

I'll sum it up thusly: 8K eats storage and battery juice like it's going out of style, while affordable, ubiquitous 8K consumer displays are not even ripe for the picking. Nope - just like "108MP mode", 8K video is, for now, just another party trick.

How do these phones fare at selfies?

The S20 and S20+ use a 10MP, f/2.2 selfie cam, losing the dual-camera setup on the S10+. 

In normal conditions, the selfie cam is unremarkable (which is to say, quite acceptable...)

I threw the selfie cam a hard task with this shot.

And what about S10 upgraders?

Maybe it's that time of the year when your contract is due. Should you get the S20/S20+?

A 128GB S10+ seems to be able to fetch north of $500 (as of the time of writing) in some of the more well-known mobile stores. If you're renewing your contract, it's a no-brainer. You could pay a couple hundred, or nothing, after selling off your existing phone.

As for no-contract purchases, with the street price of the S20+ being about $1,100 now this would mean forking over another $600. Is $600 still worth paying? For the first high-resolution pixel-binning camera hardware on a flagship Galaxy, a class-leading combo of AMOLED and 120Hz display refresh rates, and a more efficient and powerful Exynos processor and more RAM... I say yes.

If the camera is your main concern, here are some comparison images that might sway you. Or not:

In certain difficult lighting conditions, the S10 tended to compensate better for white balance. This is from the S20/S20+...

...the same shot looks more pleasing on the S10+.

In some cases, the S20/S20+ produced images with blurring off-centre...

...versus the S10+.

At night, however, while the S10+ had more pleasing white balance, it was harder to keep up in detail...

The S20/S20+ duo and their pixel-binning 64MP shooters were simply able to combine additional detail with superior light-gathering ability. Observe the detail in the trees.

Conclusion

Apart from their rather "meh" design language, I found that I enjoyed the time I spent with the S20/S20+ duo more than I expected.

I received all three members of the S20 family for review, and I was initially only excited to finally be able to Space Zoom my way to infamy on my own Instagram feed. But after some time, it became clear that the bread-and-butter casual shots were good enough to impress friends, family and followers - and that the smaller duo were easier to handle than the Ultra, yet with similar battery life.

The S20 and S20+ together represent a solid effort from Samsung that addresses most of the gripes I've had with previous-generation flagship products, and so both come highly recommended from me. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be off to look for some flashy cases...

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8.5
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • User-Friendliness 9
  • Performance 9
  • Value 8.5
The Good
Gorgeous, slick 120Hz AMOLED display
Curved-edge screen is no longer as pronounced
Solid all-round performance
Decent battery life for daily use
Cameras worthy of a flagship
The Bad
Not the last word in design
S20 Ultra still has better hybrid zoom
Some bloatware on One UI still
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