If the Pixel 3 was Google’s crowning achievement for showing how good a software-first approach to phone design can be, then the Galaxy S10 is a tribute to the hardware gods. Between a new take on the tired notched selfie cam, a redesigned rear camera setup with three different lenses, and incredible battery life, the Galaxy S10 feels like a celebration of smartphone tech sophistication.
It’s impressive how much Samsung crammed inside Galaxy S10, particularly the S10+. Despite having practically the same-sized 6.4-inch screen as the Galaxy Note 9, the S10+ sports a slightly larger 4,100 mAh battery (versus 4,000 mAh for the Note 9), an extra camera sensor in front and back, and reverse wireless charging (Samsung calls this wireless power share) in a body that’s actually 10 percent thinner. Now, I’m not someone who typically cares about the difference between 7.8 and 8.8 millimeters, but when they’re in your hand, you definitely notice. For a phone packing this many new features, at 6.1 ounces, the S10+ is surprisingly light too.
Everything about the S10's aesthetics is on point. Samsung’s new Infinity-O punch-hole selfie cameras are a sleeker, less distracting version of last year’s notches. Samsung also tweaked the aluminum chassis that holds the phone together, so that it’s more comfortable to grip. Even Samsung’s prismatic color options live up to their name, especially the prismatic white colorway, which shifts from electric purple to hot pink to pale blue depending on the light. And since Samsung replaced the rear fingerprint with an ultrasonic scanner buried beneath the display, there are fewer distracting features around back.
The most attractive thing about the S10 is its screen. For 2019, Samsung is calling the S10's screen a dynamic AMOLED display, a component that the screen testing experts at DisplayMate gave their highest grade yet. And while all those numbers and ratings are important, simply looking at the stunningly brilliant colors the S10's screen puts out is proof enough, the S10's display is the best on the market. It supports HDR10+ content, with a display that can push at over 1,200 nits in certain circumstances, as well as HDR10+ video recording. Combine that with top-notch photo capture, and the S10 has the uncanny ability to make all your homegrown content pop on screen better than anything the iPhone XS or Pixel 3 can manage.
In some ways, it’s a subversive trick, because it tends to make content appear more vibrant when viewed on the S10's screen than it might appear on other devices. On the flipside, the S10's screen also features improved blue light filters, which do a better job of cutting down on the slice of colors that can help make it harder to fall asleep.
To avoid the notch, Samsung had to eliminate the iris recognition sensors used on the past two generations of Galaxy phones. You can still unlock the phone with your face if you want, but to authenticate more sensitive actions like online payments, you’ll need to rely on the S10's in-screen ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, which Samsung claims is the world’s first FIDO-certified biometric sensor.
This is a trade I’m willing to make, as I prefer a more deliberate touch of a finger to confirm a purchase, as opposed to something like Face ID. And with the speed and reliability of the S10's in-screen sensor, there’s essentially no downside. Really, the only time the S10's ultrasonic scanner ever missed was when I tried to unlock the phone while its screen was completely off and didn’t have the little fingerprint icon to tell you where to touch. But that’s an issue that resolved itself after about a day of getting used to the phone, and now I kinda prefer the stealthy nature of being able to unlock the S10 without needing any overt cues.
As for those new rear cameras, Samsung added an ultra-wide lens to the S10's toolkit. It’s a move we’ve seen before on the LG V40 and Huawei Mate 20, and it cements triple rear cameras as something every high-end phone should have. All three are quite sharp, although the ultra-wide angle does suffer from slight distortion around the edges, owing to its 123-degree field of view. But the real impact of that wide-angle lens is how it supplements the other two cams, because now with three cameras of varying focal lengths, the S10 is better equipped than before to handle any picturesque moment life throws at you.
A great example of this happened while I was in Barcelona for MWC. While I was on the way to what seemed like an endless number of phone launches, I was able to step aside for just a minute to take three shots of the palatial Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya using all three lenses. In less than 10 seconds, I had close-up details of the museum from afar, a shot that captured the view as I saw it, and a third pic that captured the expansive surroundings. That’s a series of shots Google and Apple’s best phones can’t capture right now, and it highlights how an extra sensor that might seem superfluous can record a tranquil moment, even amidst an otherwise hectic schedule.
That said, if image quality is the only thing you care about, in certain situations, the S10's cameras fall short of what the Pixel 3 can deliver. In a side-by-side shootout between the S10+, Pixel 3, and iPhone XS Max, the Pixel 3 did the best job of capturing details on the crane in the background and the texture of the road in front. And unlike the iPhone XS, neither the S10+ nor Pixel 3 went overboard on the blue light seeping through the fountain in the center.
Samsung also updated the phone’s scene optimizer, which intelligently detects various objects and environments to help optimize camera settings. Now, the S10 can recognize the difference between a cat and a dog, a shoe and a car, or automatically turn on the phone’s Bright Night setting in very dark situations. The issue for the S10 is that unless the phone detects these things on its own, you can’t activate those photo tweaks yourself. This poses a problem for Bright Night mode, because even in low-light situations, unless it’s really dark, you won’t get any help.
Often, that’s not a huge deal, because, with the main cam featuring a max aperture of f/1.5, the S10 naturally gathers more light than the f/1.8 aperture rear cam on the Pixel 3. But when I set up a candlelit shot to test this out, while the S10 outperformed the Pixel 3 without any special modes turned on, I couldn’t do a direct comparison between Samsung’s Bright Night mode and Google’s Night Sight feature until I moved my one candle to the opposite side of the room. So after getting everything situated again, I tried once more and found that with Bright Night and Night Mode activated, well, let’s just say that Google’s Night Sight is the real deal.
Even though Night Sight has been out for six months, and its effects shouldn’t surprise me anymore, Google’s computational photography still finds ways to amaze. And now that Samsung has upgraded to triple rear cams, it feels like the biggest way it can improve photography on future Galaxy phones is to step up its image processing even more. Though all three of the S10's cameras are solid, there’s still a little room for improvement.
Packing a Qualcomm 855 chipset, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage standard, the S10 posted benchmarks 15 to 25 percent higher than even the fastest last-gen Android handsets. That bump might not be something everyone notices on its own, but working in tandem with Samsung’s One UI skin for Android 9, the S10 feels significantly speeder and more responsive than the S9. One UI also includes handy interface improvements that make buttons and icons easier to reach one-handed and useful additions like pop-up notifications that produce little bubbles on the phone’s home screen when someone sends you a text.
Finally, I’d be messing up big time if I didn’t mention how stupidly good, the S10’s battery life is. On our rundown test, the standard Galaxy S10 lasted 14 hours and 45 minutes, while the S10+ lasted 15 hours and 9 minutes. Seriously. That’s even better than the 14:09 we got from the Galaxy Note 9, and way longer than the Pixel 3's time of 10:50.
In the real world, the S10’s longevity is even more profound. During MWC, I used the S10+ as my main device, and between constantly using the phone to check Slack, looking up directions, shooting photos, checking notes and everything else I need to do, covering trade shows is one of the most taxing roles I could ask a phone to perform.
But even with all that, the S10+ lasted almost two full days on a single charge. After hitting 60 percent before falling asleep on the first day, the S10 finally conked out at about 10:30 the next night. Sure, it wasn’t a full 48 hours, but with even without any special battery saving modes turned on, going a night without plugging in isn’t the death sentence that it used to be. Unless you are intentionally trying to kill the phone, single day battery simply feels like its no longer a concern. No more carrying two phones, a charging case, or extra battery packs. The S10's battery life gives you freedom.
So what are you supposed to with all that extra juice? Well, make sure all your other gadgets are topped off, of course. While the S10's wireless PowerShare feature transfers juice at around 5-watts (or slightly higher depending on the device being charged), which is sort of the bare minimum for wireless charging speeds, the feature is more about utility than recharging things as fast as possible. It’s perfect for helping out a friend’s less energetic handset, but wireless PowerShare’s best use might be as a substitute wireless charging pad while traveling. With it, you don’t need to bring the cradle for the Galaxy Watch or other smartwatch with Qi support when you leave home for a couple of days. Flip the phone over, tap the PowerShare icon in the quick settings menu, and that’s it. Just remember that when it’s not plugged in, wireless PowerShare won’t work if the phone has less than 30 percent battery left.
I was hard on Samsung at the end of last year, but with good reason. As good as the S9 is, as the world’s biggest smartphone producer, I felt like Samsung could do even better. And with the Galaxy S10, Samsung has delivered. Even when compared to the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the Galaxy S10 has a better screen, sharper cameras, slicker design, and even longer battery life—all without needing to sacrifice the phone’s headphone jack.
The biggest thing stopping anyone from picking up the S10 is price, because starting at $900 for the regular S10, that’s a lot of money to throw down on a phone. But when you compare that to the Pixel 3 which hasn’t gotten a price drop and still costs $800 for less sophisticated hardware, and the $1,000 iPhone XS, the Galaxy S10 comes the closest to making all those dollars worth it.
- The S10+’s battery life is ridiculously good, and can deliver two full days of use between charges.
- Wireless PowerShare isn’t all that fast, but it’s a great way to lend spare juice to a friend in need, or better yet, leave the cradle for your Galaxy Watch at home while traveling.
- Every premium phone should have triple rear cameras (standard, ultra-wide, and telephoto), and Samsung’s setup on the Galaxy S10 might be the best implementation of that trend yet.
- The punch-hole selfie cam is a strictly better version of the notch, and less obtrusive too.
- It would be nice if Samsung offered greater control over the S10's scene optimizer, especially Bright Night mode.
- Samsung making 128GB of storage standard across the S10 line is a welcome upgrade for 2019. Also, the S10 still has a headphone jack.
Update 3/11/19: Added battery life results for the standard Galaxy S10.