The Galaxy S10+ may be Samsung’s most important phone in years, but at £899 does the huge screen, triple camera and fancy ultrasonic fingerprint scanner make for a worthy upgrade?
One thing is obvious: the Galaxy S10+ is not the future of smartphones. That would be the Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X, devices with folding screens that cost £2,000-plus. Instead the the Galaxy S10+ is one of the finest examples of today’s smartphones. Iterative but excellent. And you won’t need a mortgage to buy it.
Everything starts with the screen, and oh what a screen it is. At 6.4in it’s a monster, pushed all the way to the top and bottom, and curve at the sides with a hole in the screen in the top right corner through which the dual selfie-cameras poke.
Honor’s View20 had this hole-punch notch design first, but Samsung’s made it its own with a screen that is easily the best ever on any device. Nothing comes close to the sheer beauty of it, with rich colours, inky blacks, competition-crushing brightness and an image quality that has me seriously considering having to upgrade my TV. Out of the box it’s set to full HD+ resolution for power-saving reasons, but it is a QHD+ screen. I never felt the need to increase the resolution, unlike last year’s S9+, but it’s there if you want it, or have 4K movies to watch on it.
Despite the gigantic screen, the curved glass, lack of bezels and 175g weight make the Galaxy S10+ just under the limit of what I can comfortably hold. For comparison, the S10+ is 1.8mm wider than the Huawei Mate 20 Pro and 3.3mm narrower than Apple’s iPhone XS Max, but is significantly lighter by 14g and a full 33g respectively. Weight can determine how difficult it is to hold something of that size.
It’s not all good news, however. The curved screen pushed right to the edges meant I registered unwanted touches from my palm in the bottom right corner, which sometimes resulted in my zooming in Chrome rather than scrolling. An occasional annoyance rather than a deal killer, but not something that affected either the Mate 20 Pro nor Galaxy S9+.
The rest of the device is very well made. A polished aluminium frame and curved glass back with a small central triple camera lump means the phone doesn’t rock when you type on it flat on a desk.
The bottom of the phone has the USB-C port and, surprisingly for 2019, a normal, 3.5mm headphone socket. The Galaxy S10+ has the now expected IP68 water resistance rating, making it good up to a depth of 1.5m for up to 30 minutes, or more likely, a trip down the loo.
Screen: 6.4in QHD+ AMOLED (522ppi)
Processor: Samsung Exynos 9820 or Qualcomm Snapdragon 855
RAM: 8GB of RAM
Storage: 128GB + microSD card
Operating system: One UI based on Android 9 Pie
Camera: rear triple camera, front dual selfie-camera
Connectivity: dual sim, LTE, wifi, NFC, Bluetooth 5, wireless charging and GPS
Dimensions: 157.6 x 74.1 x 7.8mm
Samsung makes the Galaxy S10+ with one of two processors depending on your region. In the US it ships with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855, but in Europe and most of the rest of the world it comes with Samsung’s Exynos 9820 – the version tested here.
While there appears to be some potential energy efficiency and raw processing power differences, both processors should behave similarly under most circumstances. As such the Galaxy S10+ matched the best from 2018 on general day-to-day actively, feeling smooth and responsive throughout. Gaming was equally smooth, even after extended periods.
The S10+ is therefore iterative in performance over last year, but a big leap over the Galaxy S8 from 2017.
Battery life is slightly better than last year’s Galaxy S9+, which lasted 26 hours between charges. Used as my primary device without any special power-saving or performance modes active, the Galaxy S10+ lasted an average of just over 30 hours between charges.
With the screen set to FHD+ and the always-on display (AOD) setting off, the phone would last from 7am on day one until about lunchtime on day two. That was while browsing and using apps for five hours with 100 or so push messages, watching 60 minutes of Amazon Prime Video, shooting about 10 photos a day and listening to about five hours of music using Bluetooth headphones.
Enabling one of the various power saving modes will add hours to that time, while increasing the screen resolution or turning on AOD to show notification icons and the time on the screen all the time reduced battery life by about 8% - a trade-off not worth making in my opinion.
It’s also worth noting that the Galaxy S10+ started with pretty poor battery life, which got longer the more I used the phone. It took two weeks for it to settle down, presumably after the adaptive battery technology had learned my patterns. I saw a similar thing with Google’s Pixel 3.
I expect the Galaxy S10+ to easily make it through even the hardest of use days after about two weeks. It’s quite slow to charge, taking about 100 minutes to hit 100% via the cable, which is 40 minutes longer than the Mate 20 Pro, and longer still via wireless charging.
Samsung One UI
The Galaxy S10 line is the first to launch with Samsung’s new version of Android, the One UI, which is based on the latest Android 9 Pie.
For the first time, Samsung has nailed the software experience on its Galaxy smartphones. One UI is a shift-change in thinking about how software should work on today’s giant smartphones. In many ways, it is an admission that screens have become too big and too difficult to use.
Instead of filling the entire screen with interaction points, Samsung has attempted to move as many of the elements you have to touch as possible to the bottom of the screen – while leaving the top full of the things you read but don’t have to touch that often.
Menus, buttons, icons and things like that are now in easy reach of your thumb. You can even swipe down on the homescreen to pull the notification shade down, with big elements making good use of the massive screen. Others are doing similar with Android, including Google, but Samsung is the most successful to date – something Apple and its back button in the top left of the screen should take note of.
Samsung’s gesture navigation system is also interesting, replacing the standard back, home and overview buttons with swipe pads that do the same thing in the same place on the screen. It’s efficient and defeats the object of having flowing swiping gestures in the first place. The home button can also be dragged to the right to cycle through recently used apps, an innovation introduced by Google with Android 9 Pie, but it lacks haptic feedback so is slightly more difficult to use.
Samsung’s voice assistant, Bixby, has also improved slightly with routines and a British English option. But it isn’t anywhere near as good as Google Assistant, and this version is unlikely to stop “Bixby” from being one of the top auto-suggest options for searches for the keyword “disable”.
The dedicated Bixby button can be remapped to launch another app on a single press, with Bixby relegated to a double-press or a press and hold, which helps prevent accidental activation.
Overall, Samsung has significantly upped its software game and is no longer lagging behind the likes of Google, by introducing some good ideas that improve usability.
Ultrasonic fingerprint scanner
New for this year is an ultrasonic fingerprint scanner embedded under the screen, which is meant to be more secure than the optical in-screen fingerprint readers fitted to the Mate 20 Pro and OnePlus 6T.
While still not quite matching the speed of traditional capacitive fingerprint sensors from 2018, it is the best in-display scanners yet, working around 90% of the time, even when my finger was a little dirty or damp. Counterintuitively it worked best when I just jabbed at it with my finger, rather than pressing and holding.
Samsung has ditched its iris scanning for the S10+, but there’s traditional 2D camera-based face unlock, which is convenient but less secure.
New for the Galaxy S10+ is a triple rear camera system: one main 12-megapixel camera, a 12-megapixel telephoto camera and a 16-megapixel ultrawide angle camera. Together they allow lossless zoom from 0.5 to 2x, and on to a 10x hybrid zoom, which rivals the very best from Apple and Huawei.
The main camera has a dual-aperture system, switching between an f1.5 and 2.4 depending on the available light, as was introduced with last year’s Galaxy S9+. In good light the camera produces some exceptional photos, with great detail, colour and rapid autofocus, which is as good as the best of its rivals.
Its low-light performance is equally impressive, producing usable photos. But what the S10+ lacks is an effective rival to Google’s night sight or Huawei’s night mode. It does have a low-light mode triggered by the scene optimiser but it isn’t anywhere near as effective.
The ultrawide-angle camera is a lot of fun, as is the live focus mode, which does depth-sensing so you can blur the background in portraits or perform colour isolation. You can also post shots straight to Instagram using a dedicated camera mode, while video capture is also excellent.
Overall, the rear camera on the S10+ has caught up with the best of the rest, falling short only on the night modes.
The S10+ also has a two selfie cameras for fancy focus modes. Even without them it is arguably the best selfie camera in the business, capturing a terrifying amount of detail that you can soften with various beauty modes.
The selfie camera is delightfully encircled by a small ring of light circles when activated.
All Bixby Vision appears to do is recognise objects and then try and sell you something.
The stereo speakers are really good.
Alongside 10W wireless charging, the S10+ has Powershare, a trick first introduced by Huawei, with which you can wireless charge another device from the back of your phone.
The ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is incompatible with most screen protectors, but a compatible one comes included in the box.
Bluetooth, wifi, calling and mobile data performance were all excellent.
Haptic feedback (vibrations) are much improved.
The Samsung Galaxy S10+ costs £899 with 128GB of storage in white, black or green glass. A ceramic-backed version in either white or black costs £1,099 with 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage or £1,399 with 12GB of RAM and 1TB of storage.
By comparison, the recommended retail prices of the competition are £900 for the 128GB Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the 128GB Samsung Galaxy Note 9 costs £799, the 64GB Google Pixel 3 XL costs £869, the 64GB iPhone XS Max costs £1,099, 128GB Honor View20 costs £500 and the 64GB OnePlus 6T costs £499.
With Huawei snapping at its heels, Apple pushing ultra-premium devices and the world claiming smartphone innovation dead, the Galaxy S10+ is the most important mainstream smartphone for Samsung in the past three years.
Thankfully the fit, finish and screen are simply amazing, performance is good, battery life is good, the cameras are a lot of fun, the ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is really good, you can wirelessly charge something else, and it even has a headphone socket and a microSD card slot. All that packed into a device that weighs less and is easier to hold than most of its big-screen competition.
As important are Samsung’s great strides in software and experience, elevating it beyond Chinese rivals. While £899 doesn’t sound cheap, it undercuts arch-rival Apple’s iPhone XS Max by £200 and you get twice the storage.
Yes it’s iterative. And of course it’s not perfect: accidental touches were a slight irritation at first, the battery life could be longer and it really needs a rival to Google’s night sight too. Plus, there’s the cheaper and smaller Galaxy S10 or even the S10e to consider.
But with the Galaxy S10+ Samsung has hit a home run. If you want the very best big-screen smartphone you can buy right now, this is it.
Pros: amazing screen, ultrasonic in-display fingerprint scanner, hole-punch notch, solid battery life, wireless charging and powershare, brilliant camera, good performance, great software, good haptics, headphone socket, microSD card slot, dual-sim.
Cons: night mode not as good as Google’s, no 3D face recognition, relatively slow charging, questions over speed of updates, battery difficult to replace.
Honor View20 review: top phone at half the cost of an iPhone XS
OnePlus 6T review: you’d have to spend double to get better than this