Samsung Galaxy S20 FE Review: Compromise Never Felt So Good
Normally, I’d start off a review by taking a look at the hardware, and I will - it’s very nice by the way - but before i do that, I feel like I need to provide some context regarding this phone. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Fan Edition is not really for fans. I don’t mean to say that it’s bad. It is absolutely not. But I’m going to suggest that fans of the Samsung Galaxy line of phones will have already bought the S20, or the S20+, maybe even the Ultra. Remember the Fan Edition name has really only gone onto one other phone, and that was the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Fan Edition. Yes, that Note 7. They were the refurbished Galaxy Note 7s that Samsung fixed and then resold to the Korean market only.
This fan edition is quite a different animal. Samsung focused on keeping only the features that “fans” want, but don’t want to spend $1000 to get. Those features include a 120hz display, IP68 water resistance, killer cameras, and battery life. Where it cuts corners includes the periscope camera lens, the glass sandwich finish, and about 50% more price. Good trade off if you ask me. Basically, this is the Samsung Galaxy S20e, but available in fall, not spring. I’m not sure why Samsung went with "Fan Edition," but here we are, so let’s get to it.
The phone is a slippery beast which has made this last two weeks carrying this phone without a case quite harrowing. The weather is starting to get cold and my hands are starting to get numb, so that's not a good combination. This phone has a 6.5” super amoled 120hz display, a Snapdragon 865 processor, and 128GB of onboard storage. There’s a 4,500 mAh battery, and triple camera setup on the back with a camera bump so big it shows up on topographical maps. The phone has no headphone jack and a single downward firing speaker.
So let’s talk about the 120hz display. It is by far, without a doubt the most overrated piece of technology I have ever laid eyes on. Reviewers have consistently dinged phones for not having a 120hz screen. Many others are all like, "Gosh Buffy. Now that I’ve had a 120hz screen i can even imagine using 60hz displays again. Oh, it’s your serve Buffy." In my world that’s almost worse.
Granted I’m on the wrong side of 40 and my eyes are not awesome, but i can’t really tell the difference between a 60hz screen and a 120hz screen except that the 120hz screen is harder to scroll. It doesn’t move as far when I flick it. Actually, that's not true. I can see the difference between them; I just don’t give a crap. So let that be a lesson to you folks - going forward if I’m working with a 90 or 120 hz screen, plan on me not mentioning it.
But let’s not move on from the screen just yet, because in addition to the 120hz display which is overrated, Samsung needs to do something about the touch sensitivity of its screens. In addition to being old, I’m also on the wrong side of 250 pounds and my pudgy fingers are phantom touching all over this thing. Honestly I'd hoped that the flat screen on this phone would alleviate that, at least partially. This is the main reason why I’ve been craving a case for this phone - to stop my fat sausage fingers from accidentally touching the screen. Frankly this phone for me is a two-hand phone. One to hold the phone, the other to navigate it with a finger pointed straight out.
Other than those two gripes, I really have nothing bad to say about the hardware. There’s no headphone jack, but this phone costs more than $500, so that’s not surprising. Not to mention, I don't even really notice the lack of headphone jack any more. I use Bluetooth all the time for better or for worse. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse.
The "glasstic" back is plastic and slippery which I really don’t mind. I like a good polycarbonate body and I frankly wish more phones would do it. The matte finish on the back gives the phone a nice look - i have the blue one which I’m sure has a fancy PR name. I have found the fingerprint sensor to be decent at best, but that's high praise for an under screen fingerprint reader. You have to get used to how the fingerprint sensor behaves. You need to touch it, and release a half second before you think you need to release for the sensor to work. It’s probably the best under screen fingerprint sensor I’ve used thus far, but that's a very low bar.
I should also mention that this phone is a 5G phone, for what it’s worth. I used my T-mobile SIM card and indeed, this is a T-mobile branded phone since i had to buy it. Samsung, my DMs are open, just saying. Network performance is just fine, 5G works, kinda, so there’s that. So let’s move on into software.
One UI is still a nice version of Samsung’s UI. One UI brought the concept of moving most of the interactive space to the bottom of the phone which is a nice idea. Samsung’s skin is fine - nothing spectacular, but Samsung definitely makes as its presence felt - this is not a stock Android build. Swiping up or down on the screen brings up your app drawer which is a horizontal scroller. I’m generally not a fan of horizontal scrollers because there’s no easy way to jump from your Amazon App to your YouTube app. With the 150 apps I have on my phone, I’ve got nine pages of apps to scroll through to get form A to Z and that can be annoying. Samsung doesn’t offer any kind of recent apps or predictive apps.
Samsung has it’s dumb news feed off to the left where Google feed should always be. In fact I often found myself accidentally swiping to the left looking for the feed before realizing that damn it, Samsung doesn’t have that. Instead you get this Bixby feed. So Samsung is still pushing Bixby for some damn reason. Even the power button is now a Bixby button, which led to a very frustrating sequence where I actually had to Google how to restart my damn phone. Because pushing and holding the power button just summons stupid Bixby.
Now before you judge me, I haven’t used a Samsung phone in literal years and the last time I used a Samsung phone, the power button was the power button. Putting power controls in the notification shade actually does make a lot of sense, but you have a power button, Samsung. Use it.
Samsung also has a smart pop up view of apps that put notifications into a little chat-head bubbles which, when pressed open a small version of the app to show you what’s up. It’s neat, but can also get annoying when you’re trying to game and you get an email. There’s no way to dismiss the bubble without opening the mini app and closing it. If i didn’t game so much on my phones, i would have actually kept that on, but i do, so i don’t.
I continued using gestures onto the Samsung phone, which is the least accommodating phone I’ve used gestures on thus far. They work fine, but swiping up on the screen often brought me to the app drawer when I actually wanted to go to multitasking. Overall I worry that Samsung might be Samsunging it up again and throwing on features and UI decisions that fly in the face of Android, rather than work with the operating system. We’re not at full Touchwiz yet, but I see more and more traces of it with every generation. Tread softly Samsung, for you tread on our dreams.
Battery life on this phone is quite good. Most nights I went to bed with between 15-20 percent left in the tank. Some days I pushed the phone harder than others, but it wasn’t strange for me to push around 5 hours of screen on time. This is definitely a one-day phone, make sure to plug it in every night for sure, but it will get you through a long day of 5G and traveling.
As for performance, well it’s basically top of the line. It’s a snapdragon 865 processor which means it can handle just about anything. The Galaxy S20 FE was the phone I really started to do some video editing on, due mostly to the fact that I launched the TikTok channel while I was using it. So I got to play with Premiere Rush and Cyberlink's Powerdirector on here, and they both run great. I’m not quite to the point where i can run video output tests, or see how fast a phone can produce a 4K video, but I’m working on it. After the camera overhaul is done, that’s next in line.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Fan Edition is the entry level version of Samsung’s flagship line. Think of it like the Samsung Galaxy S10e from last year. Indeed along with some physical alterations to this phone, such as the glasstic back, and lower resolution screen, so too did Samsung downgrade the cameras, but honestly not by a lot. I took a lot - A LOT - of sample photos with this phone and I think I can arguably say it is the best camera phone I have used this year. That being said, the iPhone 12 pro is winging its way to me as we speak, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. But the three cameras in back impress, that is for sure.
So let's get into them. First of all these three cameras are very good. Yes Samsung overly warms and sharpens pretty much everything, but the results are impressive and not just social media good..Like big screen good too. But everything is not perfect, so let's dive right in.
Your typical flower shots are first, and I'll be including trees in this area because it's fall and trees are pretty. The first thing you'll notice is that shots on the main camera tend to be warmer than on the ultrawide. Everything on the ultra wide is a bit more pale. I'm not sure that's necessarily a bad thing because first, it's really hard to tell at a glance unless you're pixel peeping. But it is noticeable, so I need to mention it. There is also some loss of detail, but really not a whole lot. There's no predominant fisheye effect, it's just a couple of good quality sensors. The same goes for the telephoto. Particularly in shots of trees with leaves, the telephoto really catches the detail of the leaves against the sky, it's all really well done. I'll be interested to see how this telephoto performs in situations where the kids are performing...assuming that ever happens again ever.
Speaking of kids performing, the old action shot. Now, before you ask, "Why are all my action shots of my daughter on the trampoline?" Let me just tell you it's because she's the only one around the house that does anything action-y and it's usually on the trampoline. While it's true that my action shots were mostly captured in burst mode, which is not at all intuitive to use, I had to really pick and choose the best ones to show you. There were others where the details got fuzzy or just out lost.
But the photos I examined show you that a good action shot is possible. This camera can pick out details, like hair or moving limbs and you can get some good results. I just wish Samsung could figure out a good way to do burst mode. When you hold the shutter button in the camera mode, it starts capturing video. I suppose that's valuable, but we've been training people how to take burst shots for ten years now and Samsung's all just like, "Nah...do it this way."
Now let's talk about zoom. The zoom on this camera can go up to 30x, and i'm sure it will surprise absolutely no one when I say you probably shouldn't do that. A photo of my family taken from hundreds of feet away does allow me to recognize them, which in itself is very impressive. But the photo is not one for the wallet. Photos are 30x are chunky and blocky, which is normal. What i will say is i took some of the best 30x photos i've ever taken, but folks, the best piece of garbage is still a piece of garbage. I would max out this camera at 10X and that's only if you're desperate.
Night shots are always the true test of the camera. In this case, it's not bad. Yes, you get a ridiculous amount of lens flare from lights in the foreground, and yes you get a loss of detail with the zoom lens, but overall, I've seen a lot worse. The telephoto in particular seemed to have trouble finding a focus point, but overall these could have turned out much worse.
So let's turn our sights to the selfie cam and to put it bluntly, it's not very good. During the day in good light, it's fine. At night, sweet Jesus it's a hot mess. It's ok if you can find some way to light yourself from the front, but if you have light behind you, just don't even bother. Even when lit from the front selfies are soft and a little bit gross.
That being said, portrait mode on selfies and on the main is very good, including the Benefit of the Doud patented head propped on hand test. When you get multiple subjects in the shot, the portrait mode gets a little confused but overall I have few complaints about this. So let's dive into video.
Overall, video on this phone is better than most of what I've seen, but still not great. Both from the selfie camera and the main camera, I'd like to see more stabilization. Plus I noticed more than a few dropped frames during my review of the footage I took. At night, the video is really not all that great. It's choppy and the telephoto has a lot of trouble focusing on anything. But night time is the most challenging time for a camera to get things right, so I can't penalize the cameras too much in this category.
One of my old standby favorites on a camera is super slo mode and yes, these videos are still pretty awesome. The detail that is kept during the slo mo is amazing and I just love these videos. A new favorite of mine might just be time-lapse and hyper lapse. I could have some real fun with those, and I'm happy to report this phone does a great job with those.
So where does that leave us? Well, they are the best cameras I've used this year, so far, with this set of testing protocols, which is an admittedly low bar and a lot of caveats. But honestly, I really enjoy the products of these cameras, as much or more than the Pixel 4A which is why this is probably going to be my new standby camera phone. That is a big deal.
So that takes us over into our YouReview segment and this week, I’m very thankful for a contributor from the past, Chaim who was able to send in a single YouReview question. That’s mostly my fault because I forgot to tell you all that i was going to be reviewing the darn thing until last week. All’s forgiven because Chaim is here to save the day with the question: Is the s20 FE worth it if you can get the more premium s20 for the same price used?
That is a very good question. So here’s the thing, I have never used the Galaxy s20, s20 Plus, or the s20 Ultra, so it’s hard for me to stay decisively one way or the other. I honestly think the main thing you’d be missing out on is the super periscope lens of the s20 Ultra. That’s really the only thing i could imagine missing out on. Everything else is here - the large screen, the overrated 120hz screen, the battery, the overrated 5G, all of it. You miss out on a little bit of RAM and a little bit of camera. And I think the difference in cameras would honestly be negligible. I don’t recall how the selfie cameras were on the S20 others, so there might be something there if you take a lot of selfies, because seriously the selfie camera on this phone is just ass.
Now, the main reason I tend to not buy used phones is because of battery life. You simply don’t know what a phone has been put through, so it’s hard to gauge what a phone's battery life would be. With the Galaxy FE, battery life is very solid, and you’d be buying it new. If you really want the periscope lens, I frankly don’t blame you, then go ahead and get the used phone. But if you don’t care about that, or if my video of camera samples convinced you that the cameras on this phone are as baller as I think they all, then go with the new FE hands down.
So let’s go ahead and wrap this up. I know I spent a lot of time on this review complaining - nit picking actually about a touchy screen, and some software improvements I’d like to see. But overall, I’m really digging this phone and I’ll probably keep using it as my daily driver for a while yet. Yes, I love the Pixel 4A. So I might honestly carry both. They both have amazing cameras, but the Galaxy has the power I need to edit videos on the fly and post them on the fly, and that’s very valuable. If you made me pick just one or the other, I’m inclined to think I’d pick the Galaxy, but i can’t honestly say it wouldn't be because it’s a shiny new toy. I would probably miss the 4a after the honeymoon period was over.
All told, This phone is a tremendous value at its $700 price tag, and if you can get it cheaper, do it. Don’t hesitate. I know T-mobile is running a thing where if you switch to tmobile and get 4 lines they’ll give you 4 of these phones for free. That’s a steal. Bottom line, I love this phone and I’m very happy with this phone, and the compromises it makes to get to that price, and exactly the right compromises to make.