Smartphones are finally getting weird again, and Samsung is right in the middle of all the commotion. Earlier this year, it showed off its first phone with a foldable screen. Now the Galaxy S10 series is hitting shelves, and it’s weird in its own ways, with a new hole-punch camera and ultrasonic in-display fingerprint reader.
The phone market is slowly spouting a new luxury category, and Samsung’s new Galaxy S10 phones teeter right on its edge, with prices starting at $750 for the basics and ending at $1,600 for a decked-out 1-terabyte spec. None of the Galaxy S10 models have the astronomical price of their upcoming foldable counterparts ($1,980!), but they’re also not cheap. Unless you’re moving from a phone that’s at least a couple years old, think hard about upgrading.
A Shared Galaxy
I’ve been using the Galaxy S10 Plus for the past week, but there are actually three high-end Galaxy phones coming out: the 5.8-inch Galaxy S10E (small), 6.1-inch Galaxy S10 (medium), and 6.4-inch S10 Plus (large). And they share a lot of DNA.
The first thing you’ll notice are the displays. They all have an HDR-certified, vivid AMOLED screen that packs an exorbitant number of pixels inside it and gets incredibly close to touching every single edge of the phone—top to bottom, left to right.
In fact, there is so much display that Samsung had little room for anything else. It could have carved out a notch at the top for cameras and sensors, like the iPhone, but what fun is that? So instead, Samsung punched a hole in the upper right corner of the display. The company calls it the Infinity-O display.
It’s a strange idea, and so far I love it. The odd hole-punch of a selfie camera hasn’t gotten in my way or distracted me. It’s charming in a cold, technological sort of way. If you hate it, you can try using a background with a darker top or turn the entire notification bar black to cover it up.
All three models are IP68 waterproof and have that metal-and-glass sandwich look that Samsung and Apple have made popular in the last few years. Though fragile (please, buy a case), that pane of glass on the back enables wireless charging and a secret new ability: power sharing.
The S10 can wirelessly charge other devices. It’s a slow charge, but I was able to get my wife’s iPhone to register, and Samsung now sells a pair of wireless Galaxy Buds that can charge wirelessly. None of the S10s have so much battery life that you’ll want to give it away freely, but it’s a fun new option—especially useful if you want to wirelessly charge something while your S10 is plugged in and topping itself off.
Samsung claims that each Galaxy S10 gets about 24 hours of mixed use. For me, that translated to about a 40 percent charge at bed time, or a pretty healthy, typical day-and-a-half runtime. One day, I had nearly five hours of phone calls (don’t ask) and still went to bed with a modest charge. It took some PUBG and Fortnite matches at high graphics settings to really put a dent in the battery.
The Galaxy S10 line also features proficient 10-megapixel selfie cameras and at least two especially excellent rear cameras (more on that later). Spec geeks will also like that you get 6 to 8 GB of RAM, 128 GB of internal storage, a MicroSD slot, and Qualcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon 855 chipset in every model.
The Invisible Fingerprint Sensor
Like the OnePlus 6T, the Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus have in-display fingerprint sensors. You can unlock the phone by touching your thumb directly on the screen. Under the hood, it works a little different than OnePlus’s offering, which has an optical sensor. Samsung uses an “ultrasonic” sensor that scans your fingerprint in 3D, making it more difficult to trick.
There’s a learning curve, and you’ll need to make sure you follow directions precisely when you initially scan your thumbs during setup. Once you get the hang of it, it’s about as reliable as a normal capacitive fingerprint sensor—both technologies tend to mess up regularly. That’s an accomplishment for Samsung, because it’s far more convenient to press your thumb on the screen than it is to hunt for a fingerprint sensor on the back of a phone. (The S10’s ultrasonic sensor seems to work after a shower, too!)
The smallest Galaxy, the S10E, doesn’t have ultrasonic capabilities. It has a traditional fingerprint sensor on its upper right side. I like the location, and it felt natural on a demo model I held. It may not be as sexy as an in-display sensor, but having your power button and fingerprint sensor share the same space is quite convenient.
One UI to Rule Them All
Every S10 comes loaded with Android 9 (Pie) and Samsung’s new One UI, which looks a lot like previous Samsung interfaces, though it’s much easier to navigate. The company finally took its time and figured out some worthwhile ways to make living with a big phone easier. For example, many of the app interfaces keep all of the buttons reachable from the bottom half of the screen. You can scroll them upward, but always pull them down far enough to tap any button.
Puzzlingly, the power button is placed incredibly high on the right side of every Galaxy S10. It’s an easy enough stretch on the S10E but more of a challenge on the S10 Plus.
You may notice a second key that looks like a power button right under the volume toggle. That’s the Bixby button. I don’t like that button. Samsung’s Bixby voice assistant doesn’t tell me anything I really want to hear, yet I’m constantly dealing with it because I can’t stop accidentally pressing the button.
Annoyingly, Samsung does allow you to remap the button. You can’t make it a power button or turn it off, but you can map a single or double press to another app. The best compromise I’ve found is an option that forces Bixby to shut up unless I hit the button twice. I’m told the Bixby assistant will one-day learn my habits and become a useful part of my daily routine. So far, it’s a thorn in the S10’s side.
Bixby also shows up in the otherwise excellent camera app as Bixby Vision. It’s supposed to tell you what objects you’re aiming your phone at and offer useful suggestions. But usually, Bixby doesn’t know what I’m looking at, and the suggestions involve selling me products that I don’t want. Aim it at a floor and it will try to sell you tiles. Aim it at a door and it might tell you how to buy a knob. Aim it at a computer kiosk and it will try to sell you … piano keys. It tries to turn your camera into a buy button but lacks the smarts to do it right.
Three Cameras to Find Them
Galaxy S phones are known for high-quality optics, and the S10 is no exception. Every Galaxy S10 has a very nice 12-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization and a 16-megapixel ultra-wide-angle camera with a 123-degree field of view. The two larger models also have a bonus 12-megapixel telephoto lens that enables 2X zoom.
Like with LG’s similar V40 phone, you can swap between these lenses with the touch of a button. Samsung will save you the effort, too. You can just scroll in and out more like a traditional camera, and it will automatically switch lenses when appropriate. The interface is easy to grasp and comes loaded with tweaks and extras, including a Pro mode and enhanced panoramas. There’s even a setting that allows Samsung’s algorithms to suggest a better angle.
The thing is, you won’t need the truckload of extra modes to take a great photo. The S10 captures better shots than almost any phone out there. It’s in the same league with the iPhone XS and Google Pixel 3 and handily outperformed the OnePlus 6T.
Night shots cannot match the Pixel 3’s new Night Sight mode, but they’re comparable (or better) than most everything else. The lens did a great job pulling in more light and color than I expected on a particularly brisk evening walk through the park. The automatic scene effects did let me down in some shots. For whatever reason, Samsung’s algorithms decided that every street lamp must sparkle like a star. At first it was charming, then it wasn’t. I had to turn off the camera’s Scene Optimizer to stop the sparkles.
Like LG, Samsung likes to enhance reality a little too much. It baffled me why I had to go into settings to get my selfies to save normally. By default, Samsung saves your selfies mirrored, which means you may think you look great in them, but everyone else will think you look strange.
On the other hand, I had fun with the Live Focus mode, which worked particularly well for selfies. Essentially, it finds your face and lets you blur the background in different ways. The best effect turned the background black and white, but I had fun toying around with all four options. It also works on the rear camera.
Back to Jacked
I never knew how much I missed my 3.5-mm headphone jack until I switched to the Galaxy S10 Plus. Samsung packs a pair of wired AKG earbuds with every S10 model, and they’re a treat. I cannot recall a better set of earbuds coming packed with a phone. (Angry audiophiles, I’ll meet you in the comments section.) For free packed-in headphones, they are an earful.
The entire audio experience is a pleasure. The Galaxy S10 supports hi-res audio and has Dolby Atmos and a useful equalizer built-in.
Which Should You Choose?
I’m a fan of all three Galaxy S10 models, but the S10E does have the most compromises. (Read more about the differences here.) It’s smaller, has an HD display that doesn’t curve over the edges, has 6 GB of RAM instead of 8 GB on the entry-level model, and has a traditional fingerprint sensor on its right side. The rear camera also lacks the optical 2X zoom.
If I were buying for myself, though, I’d probably choose the Galaxy S10E. At $750, it’s the most affordable model and still has a fast processor. It’s more comfortable to hold too; I still find myself accidentally activating apps or screwing up my scrolling on the larger Galaxy S10 Plus because my palms will accidentally touch the edges of the screen. A case solves this by distancing your hands from the edges. The flat-screened S10E likely doesn’t have this issue.
There are clear benefits to upgrading, though. The standard $900 Galaxy S10 is still a manageable size and has that extra rear camera, RAM, and in-display fingerprint sensor. The $1,000 Galaxy S10 Plus adds an extra selfie camera and slightly larger display. It also has an option with 1-terabyte of storage and 12 GB of RAM. (You definitely don’t need that.)
Regardless of the model, the Galaxy S10 is a step forward for Samsung. No, it can’t fold in half or connect to 5G networks, but it delivers in ways that matter and doesn’t suffer from some of the drawbacks Galaxy phones have had in the past. The fingerprint sensor is finally in a good spot, and Samsung’s Android UI has taken a real leap forward. Samsung is even delivering monthly security updates these days, and that’s fantastic.
You can find all the Galaxy S10 preorder deals here. There are cheaper Android phones you can buy, but Samsung has already set the bar for 2019.