SAN FRANCISCO—Samsung presented not one, not two, not three, but four new phones at its Unpacked event in San Francisco yesterday. The devices included three variants of the conglomerate’s S-series flagship phones—the Galaxy S10 as the default model, the S10 Plus as a larger variant, and the S10e as an iPhone XR-like lower-priced alternative, though in this case, the more affordable one is smaller than both of the other two.
Samsung also introduced the radical (and extremely pricy) Galaxy Fold.
After the public briefing, we were hurried to a crowded demo room to see three of those phones, as well as some wearables and a tablet that Samsung also presented.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do a whole lot with the devices on a crowded show floor. For example, there was no time to set up a fingerprint to see if the reader is fast enough, and the Adobe Premiere Rush CC app announced during the presentation was not installed on any of the phones. Also, Samsung did not offer hands-on opportunities with the 5G Galaxy S10 or its new folding phone. We were told more information about the folding phone will be released at Mobile World Congress later this month.
But we did have the opportunity to examine and handle the phones closely, as well as take a few pictures. Here’s what we observed.
Samsung Galaxy S10
Samsung’s flagship phone is the S10, and if you’ve used any other recent Samsung Galaxy phone, it’s going to seem pretty familiar. The most noticeable change when you first pick it up is that it has a larger, nicer display while keeping the actual size of the device close to that of its predecessor.
But let’s start by talking about the obvious: this phone has no notch, but it also has almost no bezels. This is possible because of Samsung’s hole-punch camera. On the S10, there is a modestly sized dot in the top-right corner. When the part of the screen around it is black, it becomes flush except on close inspection thanks to the black levels of the AMOLED display. When it’s not, it looks like there’s just a permanent black dot there.
Inspecting the handset closely, it feels a bit like this solution is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. It’s trying to be a screen notch without actually being a screen notch. Yes, It uses up a little less real estate than the notch on say, the iPhone XS. But there’s also less hardware being stored here, and it doesn’t save any space compared to the notch on, say, the OnePlus 6T. There are more pixels visible, but the space is still dominated by the pinhole, so apps can’t do anything with it.
It’s a non-notch notch. Like a notch, it’s not a big deal. You’ll stop noticing it pretty quickly.
The screen itself is very good. As with previous Samsung devices, it’s tuned to make colors pop, and it’s very sharp. Samsung says these screens support HDR10+, a Samsung-driven HDR format that adds some of the features seen in Dolby Vision to the more widely used HDR10 spec. It makes for a lovely looking interface, but of course, there’s not a of HDR10+ content to enjoy.
Samsung also promises a new record for performance on Android devices thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855. While we were not able to do formal benchmarks, we were able to briefly check out some games, which ran nicely, and observe that the phone did a great job staying smooth and responsive overall.
All three S10 models run Android 9 Pie with some Samsung-specific customization. As always, the extra Samsung apps are almost all useless, and we prefer stock Android, but Samsung hasn’t gone completely overboard here, thankfully. The new One UI felt and looked like an improvement and is particularly notable for helping make the phones a little easier to use with one hand.
Some of the benefits of Samsung’s software (like Bixby features) depend on app developers making software specifically for Samsung’s phones. While there is a small community of developers supporting Samsung this way and an annual Samsung developer conference, it’s probably not enough.
This is still a Samsung phone, with all the pros and cons we’ve observed many times before. The fundamental approach hasn’t changed—it’s just a little more refined.
Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus
The S10 Plus is not radically different from the S10—mainly, it’s just bigger, with a 6.4-inch screen to the S10’s 6.1 inches.
Notably, the S10 Plus has a wider and more-invasive camera hole punch in the display since it houses two front-facing cameras instead of just one. All the same observations about this approach above apply here, too. Is it better than a notch? Not really, but most consumers seem to have spoken with their wallets that a notch doesn’t bother them too much to begin with.
Like the S10, it has three rear cameras. That includes a wide-angle and telephoto lens like previous models, but adds a 16-megapixel, f/2.2, “ultra-wide” camera with a 123-degree field of view. You can switch between your options. Also, the camera system can record HDR10+ video at 4K. The 10-megapixel front-facing camera systems on both phones can do 4K HDR, too.
Also like the S10, the S10 Plus has an in-display ultrasonic fingerprint scanner. We were not able to test it on the show floor. Arguably the most exciting thing about the S10 Plus is its storage capacity: buyers will be able to configure it with 1TB of internal storage, which could then be extended with a MicroSD card to a whopping 1.5TB. The competition isn’t offering anything close to that.
Now on to the S10e.
Samsung Galaxy S10e
As flagship phones are now pretty consistently breaking the $1,000 barrier, Samsung is offering the S10e is a slightly pared-down option that starts at around $750. Despite its smaller size compared to the S10 and S10 Plus, the S10e felt hefty in my hand, and it reminded me quite a lot of holding an iPhone X or XS.
All told, impressions of the S10e were similar to impressions of the iPhone XR, which is meant to serve the same audience: yes, it’s a downgrade, but the sacrifices are in areas that won’t matter to people. If anything, I found the size of this phone (it has a 5.8-inch display with slim bezels) more manageable than its more expensive siblings.
The screen still looked good enough, even if it didn’t feature all of Samsung’s showy design techniques. The curved display in the S10 and S10 Plus is hardly critical, and the difference in resolution will be subtle to most users. The resolution is a bit lower than what we see on the S10—2280×1080 pixels instead of 2960×1440—but we couldn’t tell the difference at this screen size, and it’s still higher than the iPhone XR’s paltry-by-modern-standards 1792×828.
While we didn’t get to test the side fingerprint reader, it did seem like it would be a little more of a hassle—and a lot less cool—than using the in-screen one on the other phones.
The S10e has two rear lenses instead of the three in both of the other S10 models, but comparisons were difficult on the show floor. Best guess: this, too, won’t matter to most people who want to pay what used to be normal flagship phone price instead of the sky-high prices commanded by the S10 and S10 Plus.
Phones were the focus of Samsung’s event, but the company showed off a few other products, too: a few new or updated wearables and the previously announced Galaxy Tab S5e Android tablet.
The Galaxy Buds are Samsung’s answer to Apple’s popular AirPods, and they are successors to Samsung’s Gear IconX earbuds.
Like AirPods, the true wireless Buds come with a case that doubles as a way to avoid losing the individual ear pieces and as a charger. Samsung claims the Buds will get six hours of battery life on their own, plus an additional seven hours from the charging case.
We weren’t able to test listening to them or syncing them, but we did try charging them on the back of a Galaxy S10 using the phone’s new PowerShare, and this worked as advertised. Why would you want this, though? Most people would much rather they run out of headphone power than phone power.
Samsung also introduced the Galaxy Watch Active and the Galaxy Fit smartwatches/fitness monitors. We didn’t get hands-on time with the Fit, but we did get a brief glimpse at the Galaxy Watch Active. We liked the display but weren’t able to test any new features. We did take a couple of photos, though.
Galaxy Tab S5e
Samsung put the unassuming Galaxy Tab S5e on display, and it announced the device before Unpacked even began. Priced at $399, this mid-range tablet hits most of the bases you expect from a tablet, and it’s likely attractive to more people than the Tab S4. It’s just too bad it runs Android, which does not offer as good an experience on tablets as it does on phones.
The tablet’s metal enclosure has a nice feel, and the 10.5-inch, 2560×1600 AMOLED looks great. Unfortunately, the compromise here is in performance. It includes a Snapdragon 670, and it’s just not as fast as the best tablets on the market. If you want an Android tablet, it seems like a relatively affordable option, and it didn’t have any major flaws that we could find in a few minutes of use. But it’s still an Android tablet, and it’s starting to look like Google may prioritize Chrome OS over improving the Android tablet experience.