Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20+ review: Smaller screen, big value
Displays, audio quality, and benchmarks
If the rear of the Samsung Galaxy S20 series represents a liability for the art of smartphone design, the front, thankfully, claws that ground back. Because when you think of the very best displays, you think of AMOLED, and when you think of the very best in AMOLED, you must needs think of Samsung...
These 3,200 x 1,440 pixels resolution displays with a 20:9 aspect ratio, termed Infinity-O (sounds like a Toy Story breakfast cereal) for the O-hole front camera cutout, both support DCI-P3 and HDR10+, and go to 6.2 inches on the Galaxy S20 and 6.7 inches on the S20+.
Granted, this marvel of display engineering is not new to many (including iPhone X and 11 users) but it now comes with a 120Hz refresh rate. In my tests, these 120Hz displays are even more usable than OnePlus's 90Hz displays, which first brought high refresh rates to the world's attention, and, paradoxically, it's better because it's slower. On its 90Hz phones, OnePlus made a critical mistake of having extremely sensitive flick and swipe response as well, heightening the impression of speed - but causing display elements to scroll by at blinding, uncatchable rates. Samsung didn't.
Now, a bit on the in-display fingerprint sensor. Unlike just about everyone else, Samsung has cosyed up with Qualcomm for its ultrasonic technology. This sensor has been known to be very finicky in the S10 series, and is said to respond poorly to dry skin (like mine), for example.
I certainly found this to be true. When it's fast, the sensor is very fast, so fast it almost seems to unlock before the finger actually touches the display glass...
...which was the case immediately after enrollment - as I had just washed my hands. Fast forward to 30 minutes later, and the unlock delay was a good 2 seconds longer.
Curious, I tried it in the shower, with a light mist of water - and the phone unlocked almost immediately again. After a while of this, however, the skin on my thumb grew puffy, and it no longer worked. Maybe Samsung should just use a good optical sensor, like everyone else.
Verdict: There's not much more room for improvement in the displays of the S20 series, since Samsung is already king of the hill when it comes to mobile displays. The icing on the cake is the 120Hz refresh rate, which, paired with sensibly-judged scroll and flick speeds, delivers a knockout punch to every other smartphone in the business. If you've grown irked by curved-edge screens such as the one on the S10+ (and the difficulty of finding affordable, easy-to-apply glass screen protectors for them), the S20 range should also offer some much-needed relief. However, the ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensor is still a bit of a hit-and-miss affair.
Since most modern high-end smartphones lack any sort of headphone jack, we figured it would be worth taking a non-scientific look at loudspeaker performance on the Galaxy S20 and S20+ instead, again with some comparison to the previous S10+.
Using Florence and the Machine's Spectrum as my favourite test track - a difficult track even for IEMs and headphones - first on the S10+, vocals seemed a bit recessed in difficult passages such as the first chorus (and the transition to it), and the midrange was noticeably muddier. The S20 phones dealt with this a bit better than the S10+, and the S20+ better than the S20, which didn't have much mid-bass, probably due to a smaller bass chamber.
Verdict: Regardless, the S10 and S20 series will serve up loud, bright output well suited to casual listening in a room. I would have appreciated a bit more bass on the newer models, though.
Considering that the S20, S20+, and S20 Ultra all use the same Exynos 990 processor, we didn't expect to find much variance in performance between devices - and for the most part, we were right. We'll be taking into account the amount of RAM each of these is endowed with: 8GB on the S20 and S20+, and 12GB for the Ultra, both LPDDR5, while the predecessor S10+ has 8GB of RAM, which is also the previous-generation LPDDR4 type.
A bit of a refresher on the Exynos 990: you get two Cortex-A76 cores and four Cortex-A55 ones, plus two of Samsung's own Mongoose M5 core, which is going to be Samsung's last before it axes the whole Mongoose microarchitecture altogether.
It's interesting that Galaxy S20-series devices sold in some other markets use Snapdragon 865 processors instead, which employ four Cortex-A77 cores - the latest and greatest from ARM. How this competes against the Mongoose is not directly obvious, but from benchmarks run by others, it would seem that the Snapdragon devices have an edge simply because there are more A77s in the Snapdragon 865 than there are Mongoose(s? Mongeese?) in the Exynos.
But since we're not getting Snapdragons, the point is moot anyway, so let's move on...
JetStream 2 on Chrome
A note on our test methodology has been long overdue. We always run JetStream on Chrome, since it gives the best indication across devices, processors, and OS platforms - whether iOS or Android. Also, screen timeouts are always set to off or the longest available duration, and we make sure the screen doesn't turn off, since this would relegate the browser's thread(s) to background processing.
For some strange reason, the S20/S20+ duo always beat out their bigger brother by a bit, and the bigger brother fared not a lot better than the previous S10+, and this despite having a whopping 12GB of RAM. We can only guess that certain system optimisations (or lack of them) had a part to play in this.
For CPU performance, we go to Geekbench, a cross-platform processor benchmark that tests both single-core and multi-core performance with workloads that simulate real-world usage.
No surprises here; no differences among the S20 family, but a marked improvement in single-core scores against the S10+ and its previous-gen Mongoose M4. The S20 phones are also neck-and-neck with the OnePlus (Snapdragon 855) and Mate 30 Pro (Kirin 990), but as usual every Android phone is destroyed by the sheer might of Apple's A13 (Bionic)...
Of course, CPU benchmarks don't mean much in real-world usage, so we also need an all-in-one benchmark that tests CPU, GPU, memory, and storage - and that's Antutu.
The CPU benchmark evaluates both integer and floating-point performance, while the GPU tests assess 2D and 3D performance, the memory test measures available memory bandwidth and latency, and the storage tests gauge the read and write speeds of a device's flash memory.
Again, for some reason, the S20 and S20+ beat their Ultra brother, and at last, they were able to see off the iPhone...
3DMark Sling Shot is an advanced 3D graphics benchmark that tests the full range of OpenGL ES 3.1 and ES 3.0 API features including multiple render targets, instanced rendering, uniform buffers and transform feedback. The test also includes impressive volumetric lighting and post-processing effects.
The S20 series comes in on this front with all guns blazing, and finally, with the upgraded Mali-G77 GPU, manages to banish the ghosts of poor performance, relative to conspecifics, that have dogged the Mali name for quite a while, and which the previous Bifrost architecture claimed to be able to exorcise but never did.
For this, ARM has its new Valhall architecture to thank, which switches to wider, 16-wide warp-based execution units for better thread handling. Among other improvements, the instruction set has also been simplified, and instruction scheduling is now done by hardware, putting less load on the compiler. All this translates into a claimed overall 40% improvement in performance, even if there is no change in the manufacturing process size.
While it can't quite come close to the iPhone, the S20 family puts in a great showing with a jump of some 41% on the previous-gen S10+! Against the Mate 30 Pro, a Mali-G76 device, the leap ahead is even more pronounced.
Our standard battery test for mobile phones has the following parameters:
- Looping a 720p video with screen brightness and volume at 100%
- Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity turned on
- Constant data streaming through email and Twitter
In this case, all tests between all three S20 units were run at the maximum display resolution.
While the S10+ depended on a 4,100mAh unit to drive a 6.4-inch screen, the S20 has 4,000mAh of juice lighting up a 6.2-inch display, and the S20+ a 4,500mAh unit for a 6.7-inch one. These look like great numbers, but the reality is somewhat different:
The S20+'s larger display seems to be exponentially more power-hungry than the 6.2-incher, sucking juice at a faster rate, despite the larger battery. A jump to 6.9 inches from the 5,000mAh S20 Ultra actually seemed to do wonders for battery life. But more interestingly, neither of the smaller S20 devices could beat the S10+ in battery performance.
In real-world use, we had little trouble eking out screen-on times exceeding 6-7 hours from either device, and getting through a day of moderate use. There were also no slowdowns or lag to speak of, something definitely helped by the availability of the 120Hz display refresh rate.
Verdict: While battery life seems to have taken a hit, these are very much definite upgrades. Especially if you're the gaming sort, you'll be well served by an S20 device if you're upgrading from the predecessor S10 phones.