Editor’s note: The reviewer went through three review units from Samsung; the first one demonstrated the heating and display issues mentioned below. Unfortunately, the second unit also showed the same problems. We waited for Samsung to send us a third unit from another batch, but this unit too suffered the same problems.
Premium smartphones have always been about performance, attractive designs and loaded spec sheets. And from afar, it almost seems like Samsung’s new affordable flagship, the Galaxy S20 FE (Fan Edition) checks all the boxes (not just the right ones).
But after using three different review units over a period of three weeks, I can come up with a few reasons why you should not get one. And then, there’s also the Galaxy S20+ with its rather confusing price tag of Rs 49,999. This is why I would recommend that you read the complete review before you decide to buy one or go for something else.
Samsung’s really good at coming up with fresh new designs. The S20 series may not seem like a gigantic upgrade over the S10 series, but design-wise they do handle and feel more premium.
Going by the branding, the Galaxy S20 FE clearly belongs to the S20 series, but it also borrows the good stuff from the Note 20 series. It features a polycarbonate back with a smoky matte-finish that transitions from the main colour to a lustrous glow, depending how the light hits it.
We received three units in all, and the first two ‘Cloud Mint’ units shift from a mint green to a yellow shine, while the third, the ‘Cloud Lavender’ unit goes from lavender to a copper red shine. It also feels like the back of the Note 20 (not the Ultra), but is equally slippery and really good at rejecting fingerprints.
The thin metal frame runs from edge to edge. On the sides, it stretches a bit around the power and volume buttons. The back is covered by the plastic panel that curves well beyond the edges, meeting the thin metal frame at the sides and then the flat display on the front.
It looks good and feels sturdy, like a premium flagship should. Even the camera bump at the back is very minimal and barely protrudes by about 2-3 millimetres. It won’t bounce much when placed on a flat surface.
There’s also a dual stereo speaker setup. You will have a hard time finding the receiver speaker (that doubles up as the secondary), as it’s hidden under an almost invisible slit between the display glass and the top edge of the metal frame. Both of these do a really good job and deliver loud and clear audio, but are low on the bass. And because it’s a premium flagship, skipping on the 3.5 mm headphone jack is now mandatory.
At Rs 44,999, it’s surprising to see a proper IP68 rating at what is today, the lower end of the premium segment. But it’s a nice add-on and you can take a call in a shower or go for a swim with it without worrying about damaging your device.
It’s an OLED display
Hole-punch displays are a trend with premium smartphones, and Samsung’s included one as well. What I like about it is how tiny the cut-out is. It’s quite non-intrusive when watching movies or playing games, and you almost never notice it on this 6.5-inch AMOLED display.
And because it’s an OLED panel, Samsung went with an in-display fingerprint reader. It is still not as quick as the ones you will find on competing smartphones, and you can only register three fingerprints, but it gets the job done.
This is also a 120 Hz refresh rate panel, which gives you that fluid feeling when scrolling through lengthy Instagram feeds, or even the rest of the One UI software interface.
Samsung claims it also comes with 240 Hz touch-sensing. It seems to pull off a decent job of tracking your fingers in day-to-day use, but it has its share of problems that I have mentioned in the performance section of this review.
It’s also an FHD+ panel, so it’s definitely not the same stuff in terms of sharpness and colour accuracy compared to the Galaxy S20 (that you can get at an additional Rs 20,000). Still, the display showcases lovely blacks and the usual oversaturated colours that we are used to from Samsung.
Switching to ‘Natural’ colour mode was anything but natural, with very dull-looking colours, which is why I switched back to ‘Vivid’. This mode delivers better whites, apart from the punchy colours. The display also seems to be HDR10+ compatible, even though Samsung does not advertise it. While Netflix did not let me stream HDR content, Prime Video and YouTube will let you view HDR-friendly content.
Software is good
The S20 FE gets you the same One UI 2.5 with the Android 10 base as most of its other premium smartphones. Indeed, there’s nothing much to talk about, but that 120 Hz refresh rate does make things feel buttery-smooth.
While many expected a Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset inside, the Indian (non-5G) variant comes with a 7 nm Exynos 990 SoC. It is also found in Samsung’s high-end and ultra premium smartphones like the S20, S20+, S20 Ultra, Note 20 and the Note 20 Ultra. The chipset is paired with 8 GB RAM, and keeps the software layer running smoothly without any hiccups or stutters, no matter how many apps you open or multitask with.
Camera is flagship-grade
Indeed, this is one area where you will notice a few hardware differences between the S20 FE and the base S20 model. It seems like Samsung’s borrowed some of the hardware directly from the S20. However, this is not the case.
This includes the primary 12 MP that comes with Dual-Pixel PDAF and OIS, but features smaller pixels compared to those on the Galaxy S20. This is also the case with the 12 MP ultra-wide angle camera. The telephoto camera has been reduced to an 8 MP sensor, with 3X optical zoom instead of the 64 MP sensor with hybrid zoom on the S20. The 32 MP front-facing selfie camera will seem like an upgrade from the S20, but it does not feature AF like the smaller 10 MP camera on the S20 and the S20+. There’s also no 8K video recording like on its high-end siblings.
So, it seems like Samsung has cut a few corners to bring down the price tag.
But the image quality is surprisingly on par with the S20 series (but not the Note 20 Ultra).
The FE, like the rest of its S20 brethren, delivers saturated photos with excellent dynamic range in daylight. Even though it is a 12 MP sensor, the details are all in there, whether you are shooting a landscape photo or an object. It also works well with people and faces, and there’s no aggressive face smoothing, provided you turn it off in the settings of the camera’s viewfinder.
Move indoors, and you will notice a drop in detail, especially with faces and textures, and in odd settings where your subject is sitting against a bright window. In low light, image quality takes a bit of a hit, but the photos look good nonetheless. The night mode works really well, as it drastically improves image quality, especially when shooting selfies or even using the ultra-wide angle camera.
One detail to point out is that the cameras are not good with fast moving objects or subjects. Whether you are shooting 4 year-olds, pets or even a moving car on the street, you will need all of these to be still. The slightest of movements results in a blurry photo, and this is the case even with the ‘Night’ mode that takes multiple exposures to deliver a noise-free image.
The rear camera setup also offers 3X optical zoom and up to 30X ‘Space Zoom’. The photos at 3X optical zoom come out quite well, and this is partly because of the optical image stabilisation (OIS) on the telephoto lens. But after 4X, photos pretty-much end up looking like paintings. Still, it’s nice to see a smartphone offering 3X optical zoom in this price range.
Video recording works as expected, and the quality is on par with the S20 flagships. The colours are vibrant and the stabilisation is quite good, with great dynamic range. There’s no 8K mode like on the S20, S20+, S20 Ultra and the Note series.
All this aligns with one’s expectations of a premium, flagship-grade shooter. But there’s one issue with heating that affected my camera experience drastically.
Performance is a problem
The Galaxy S20 FE definitely has some heating issues.
If you are outside, far from the air-conditioned comforts of your home, the phone will remain warm constantly. And if you are constantly snapping photos on a vacation or a road trip, the phone will start to heat up after a few minutes of opening the camera app.
The FE touches a searing 47 degrees after clicking about 5 photos and shooting a 1 minute-long 4K video (a total of 2 minutes of camera usage). You can tell that things are going wrong when the camera slows down while processing images. Once it heats up, the ‘Night’ mode takes abnormally long to process photos. At one point, I was even greeted with a “Wait for your phone to finish taking the picture” message as I tried to exit the camera app, after getting tired of waiting.
And once it heats up, it takes about 5-10 minutes to cool down. During this time, the phone is operational and works fine, with minor performance drops. It just gets too hot to hold, so you will have to lock the screen and put it down for a while.
This heating problem also shows up while gaming. While the Snapdragon vs Exynos debate is another topic altogether. The heating or throttling issues drastically bring down the gaming capabilities of this smartphone.
Casual 2D games worked just fine. But you will need to lower your expectations a bit when playing games like COD: Mobile, Dead Trigger 2, Real Racing 3 or Asphalt 9: Legends.
The chipset heats up quite a bit (around 43 degrees) and that results in a stuttery gaming experience with plenty of dropped frames. I’m not the only one to be facing this heating issue, as owners have also started reporting the same on Samsung’s own forums. Indeed, it seems like there’s some GPU throttling going on. It’s best to stick to default settings or play games at medium settings to keep the gameplay smooth and the phone running cool.
Now, I would have not had a problem with lowering the settings had this been a budget smartphone. But on a premium device that costs around Rs 50,000, this is unacceptable; most smartphones with a Snapdragon 865 chipset can run these games without any issues.
To give you a simple comparison, the Galaxy S20 FE ran COD: Mobile best at ‘Medium’ graphics and ‘High’ frame rate on the FE, compared to the ‘Very High’ and ‘Very High’ on the Note 20 Ultra, with no hiccups. Xiaomi’s Mi 10T Pro with a Snapdragon 865 chipset ran without a hiccup, with ‘Very High’ and ‘Max’ settings, with anti-aliasing turned on and also managed to remain cool during gameplay.
There’s also a touch sensitivity issue that makes it difficult to aim and shoot in COD: Mobile and other FPS games. Pull up the scope and the crosshairs will go all jittery when you try to aim. This was a problem when using the display at the Adaptive 120 Hz refresh rate and the standard 60 Hz refresh rate. After a bit of googling, it turns out that the phone does have some touch sensitivity issues, as customers have begun reporting the same on Reddit. Samsung, in late October, also released an update to fix the issue. But it did not fix the problem, at least for my basic gaming requirements.
Battery life is average
With a 4,500 mAh battery inside, the Galaxy S20 FE did not run as expected in day-to-day use, but got me through a workday quite easily, with about 10-20 percent left in the tank.
I ran the smartphone at the adaptive 120 Hz refresh rate. Setting it to 60 Hz will add a few more hours to your battery life, but running it at 60 Hz would be a crime, given how nicely the software runs with the 120 Hz mode on. The Galaxy S20 FE also happens to be Samsung’s second smartphone with a high refresh rate display that runs at its native FHD+ resolution at 120 Hz (the Note 20 was the first).
The 15W charger in the box seems quite slow at filling up the battery, going from 0-100 percent in an hour and 30 minutes. The competition offers much faster charging speeds and they provide those fast chargers in the box. There’s also wireless charging that’s again stuck at 15 W. And if you have a pair of earphones or a Galaxy Watch that charge wirelessly, you can also use 4.5 W Reverse wireless charging to power your accessories straight from the phone.
Should you buy a Galaxy S20 FE?
Add it all up and the competition still offers better, fully-functional 5G-enabled smartphones at or slightly below this price point. An official IP68 rating is the only feature that Samsung seems to offer at a starting price of Rs 44,999 (for the 128GB storage variant).
If you are a Samsung fan, hell-bent on getting a Samsung phone or are a part of the ‘Boycott China’ brigade, there’s the Galaxy S20+. It’s not perfect either, as per Nandini’s S20+ review, but it’s currently going for Rs 49,999 and gets you better hardware, with flagship-grade performance.
If you are OK with buying a “Chinese phone”, but cannot spend a penny over Rs 45,000 (the Galaxy FE’s sticker price), there are still a lot of options.
There’s the OnePlus 8T (from Rs 42,999) that is a better-performing device compared to the S20 FE. It is a better deal if you can live without an IP68 rating and wireless charging. OnePlus even sweetens the deal by offering a 65W charger in the box. So, you will be sorted on the charging front and have a future-proof 5G smartphone. You will not have to deal with lower gaming performance and touch sensitivity issues either.
The Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro and the Mi 10 5G are also solid performers, with solid 108MP cameras, 144Hz LCD/90Hz OLED displays and offer faster charging than the Samsung S20 FE. They both offer 5G and are priced from Rs 39,999 and Rs 44,999 respectively, but skip on an IP rating.
Samsung went all-out to deliver an affordable flagship. It delivers everything that you would ever need in a smartphone in that price range. But it fumbled with the basics. Living with the heating, display and performance-related issues is a tough ask. And with that in mind, there’s no reason to recommend the Galaxy S20 FE, even to a Samsung fan.
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