Praise be to the mighty Samsung, for it has heard our pleas of “good freakin’ grief, phones are getting too expensive.” In its infinite wisdom, it hath remade the Galaxy S20, flagship from earlier in 2020, with slightly cheaper materials and components. It hath been rechristened the “Fan Edition,” and bestowed upon us for seven hundred dollarydoos. Hot diggity, rejoice!
It’s hard to see the Galaxy S20 FE as anything except a course correction for Samsung, which must have observed a comparative drop in sales as its standard Galaxy S line started to skyrocket in price. Between the noted phenomenon of people keeping their high-end phones longer and the global economic crunch of a still-raging epidemic, not many are eager to drop four digits on the latest Galaxy S, Note, or forward-looking folding phone.
Hardware and Value
Let’s have a quick look at the specs:
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865
- RAM: 6 GB
- Storage: 128 GB plus MicroSD
- Display: 6.5-inch 2400×1080 OLED, 120 Hz refresh rate, and hole-punch front camera
- Cameras: 12 MP standard, 12 MP ultrawide, 8 MP 3x telephoto lens, 32 MP front-facing camera
- Ports and charging: USB-C, up to 30 watts, 15-watt wireless charging, reverse wireless charging
- Headphone Jack: No
- Battery: 4500 mAh
- Fingerprint Sensor: In-display
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5; NFC; 5G mobile connection
- 5G bands: N5, N41, N71
- IP Rating: IP68
- Colors: Navy, Lavender, Mint, Red, Orange, White
- Dimensions: 159.8 x 74.5 x 8.4 mm, 190 grams
- Price: $700 for American unlocked version
That is a lot of phone for seven hundred dollars. It compares quite well to the Pixel 5, which uses a much smaller display, less powerful processor, fewer cameras, and a conventional rear fingerprint scanner (though that might not be a miss for you). The S20 FE is $100 cheaper than the OnePlus 8, while featuring the wireless charging and water resistance that the latter declined to include. It even compares well with the iPhone, where the same price only gets you the relatively tiny iPhone 12 Mini.
But the most damning hardware comparison might be between the Galaxy S20 Fan Edition and the original base model of the S20. The Fan Edition gets a much larger but slightly less sharp display, drops the 64-megapixel telephoto lens, gets a dramatically better front-facing camera, a 12% larger battery, and a slight RAM downgrade to 6GB. The rear panel also moves from tempered glass to colored plastic, which we’re fine with.
All that, for $300 less. True, you can find a Galaxy S20 or any of its upgraded models for well below MSRP, but the same is already true for the S20 FE—man, Samsung phones get price cuts quickly. I should point out that I’m reviewing the unlocked North American model: your 5G bands might vary based on your territory or carrier. Surprisingly, Verizon’s ultra wideband variant of the S20 FE doesn’t get a price bump.
Samsung’s aim with the S20 FE appears to be delivering about 95% of the experience of its mainline S20 family for a significant price drop. Strategically, this is similar to what Google’s been doing with its Pixel 3a and 4a variants. It’s almost like someone said, “let’s build phones like we did five years ago, price them like we did five years ago, but add in all the hardware goodies we have today!”
And they did. And it works. $700 is still a lot of money to spend on a phone, especially at the moment. But Samsung’s upgrade now looks a lot better than its competition. Compare this phone to the Galaxy A51, and then consider the Pixel 4a versus the Pixel 5, or the iPhone SE 2020 versus the standard iPhone 12. With Samsung, paying double the money gets you about double the features, while other phone makers are offering more incremental upgrades.
Using the Phone
Transitioning from a steel frame and glass rear on the S20 to plastic all-around doesn’t seem to have hampered the feeling of the S20 FE. In fact, considering the size of the phone, I think it’s probably a better user-facing choice: the plastic is easier to grip than the glass would be, and it offers a range of colors. We chose orange, which is really more of a flesh tone (depending on whose flesh, of course) that I’m not in love with.
I’m also not in love with the size. Don’t get me wrong, the S20 FE uses its size well: the body is barely bigger than the 6.5-inch screen, and that center-mounted front-facing camera is absolutely tiny. But I’ve found that about 6.2 inches is as large a phone as I can reliably use with one average-sized hand, and this phone is a good bit beyond that barrier. That’s a very subjective comparison, obviously.
The only other downsides to the phone’s physicality are a lack of a headphone jack (Samsung seriously couldn’t fit it into this thing?) and a pretty pronounced, sharp camera bump—a case is a must-have. I’d also have preferred a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor after getting used to it again on the Pixel series. The under-screen sensor of the S20 FE seems to be the same one Samsung uses in its more expensive phones, and it doesn’t have the slow performance of those sensors found in cheaper models. But I still like the ergonomics of having it on the back: I’ve come to the conclusion that under-screen sensors are entirely form over function.
Otherwise, the S20 FE is more than capable of doing pretty much everything I wanted it to. The battery lasted me a day and a half on average, the performance is zippy thanks to that top-of-the-line Snapdragon 865 processor, and the 120Hz screen is absolutely gorgeous, even at “low” 1080p resolution. I appreciate the loud stereo speakers while watching video, and I the IP68 water resistance (not a given for any “budget” model) while watching video on the toilet.
5G performance is hard to quantify since nobody’s traveling and 5G coverage is still spotty. But around my neighborhood, where Google Fi has 5G access (presumably via T-Mobile), I was getting 80-100 megabits down and up. The signal is rock-solid, and it doesn’t seem to punch battery life in the face like the early LTE phones did—the optional always-on display was a much bigger battery hog.
I did notice the occasional stutter in the touchscreen, which sometimes interpreted taps as swipes and vice-versa. A reboot cleared them up quickly. This seems like the kind of thing that Samsung could solve with a quick software update…and indeed, a Samsung software update explicitly addressed this problem just as I was wrapping up this review. Samsung’s support isn’t terrible, even if they aren’t all that concerned with upgrading to the latest Android version.
I could feel the lowered RAM versus the base model OnePlus 8, especially with Samsung’s heavy software load, but it was a long way from a dealbreaker. If you know and appreciate Samsung’s software tweaks—which the next section covers—the S20 FE can handle it.
Still Extremely Samsung
Enough comparisons with other phones. How does the Galaxy S20 FE hold up on its own merits? Quite well…assuming that what you want is a big, powerful Samsung phone.
Okay, that’s a lot of qualifications. What I mean is that Samsung has cultivated a very specific experience with its phones, so distinct from other Android phones that it might as well be its own category. And that’s extremely intentional. If you watch a Samsung event or read a Samsung spec sheet, you won’t see “Android” mentioned anywhere. (This phone runs Android 10, by the way.) Unless you’re intimately familiar with the operating system, you might not even need to think about it until you go to the Play Store to get your apps.
So all of the Samsung hallmarks are here: lots and lots of extra apps that duplicate Google functionality, weird interface touches that would probably be useful if I had the desire to learn them, and other interface tweaks that I can’t believe anyone actually wants. That weird thing where long-pressing the power button activates Bixby (which no longer gets its own button) is still here, and you can still turn it off with a deep dive into the settings menu.
I could go on for a thousand words about all the little tweaks Samsung has made to the software. But on the assumption that anyone interested in this phone knows the broad differences between Samsung software and standard Android, or even the more gentle tweaks of OnePlus or Motorola: this is more of the same. Take that as a positive or negative, for whatever you want.
There was one feature I was eager to try out: the deeper integration with Microsoft’s Your Phone. Your Phone for Windows allows you to do some standard call and text stuff from a laptop or desktop, a la Mac and Chrome OS, but for the moment Samsung phones have an exclusive on using full applications from the desktop.
It’s more appealing to me than Samsung’s DeX desktop UI (which is also present on the S20 FE), but the end result is less than amazing. The system doesn’t tunnel into your phone, it launches the app on the screen and then remotely accesses it…so you’re using the phone app on your PC while the phone is sitting next to you, screen on, the whole time. And while I can see that having some limited utility for quickly typing out a text message, I already have solutions for that.
The biggest difference between the Galaxy S20 FE and the more expensive S20 models released earlier this year, at least on paper, is the cameras. And that bears out in its real-world use. While the S20 FE is perfectly competent in terms of photography, it’s not going to match up to its more expensive brethren when it comes to still shots or video.
Comparing to the S20, the FE’s photos tend to be a little on the over-exposed side, while the colors are less saturated and a little dull. (That might actually be a plus if you’re not a fan of Samsung’s high camera saturation defaults.)
Above: the same spot at telephoto, standard, and wide-angle shots.
Naturally, the 3X optical telephoto lens takes the biggest hit: it’s dramatically worse than the more expensive phones, to the point that cropping after the photo is taken is the better choice for almost all shots. The ultrawide lens is on par with the pricier options, with perhaps a bit of distortion around the edges of the frame.
The front-facing camera, likewise, is a little disappointing. On paper it should be much better, at 32 megapixels, but I didn’t see that in the actual shots. I’d much rather have gone with a lower-resolution sensor and added on a wide angle lens option for group selfies.
So yes, the cameras are a definite low point, especially when comparing this with a similarly-priced iPhone or Pixel. It’s not as if the cameras are terrible, they just don’t compete with flagship devices as much as the rest of the phone does. It’s more than acceptable, either as a known trade-off or for someone who just doesn’t care about phone photography that much.
A High-Performance Bargain
I’d be lying if I said I prefer the Galaxy S20 FE over the equivalent Pixel, but that’s because I like Google’s version of Android. On paper, and as the big, bombastic, proudly Samsung smartphone that it is, it’s a competent device and a great bargain. You won’t find this much pure hardware goodness for this price anywhere else at the moment.
Even with the slightly diminished camera power and screen issues, the S20 FE is easily the best bang-for-your-buck anywhere on Samsung’s lineup. If you love Samsung’s phone design, but your budget won’t stretch to the heights of the top Galaxy S, Note, or Fold series, the Fan Edition is a wonderful compromise.
Here’s What We Like
- Flagship hardware
- Almost no compromise on features
- Big, beautiful screen
- Solid battery life
And What We Don't
- Phone's a little big for my taste
- Deep camera bump
- Camera downgrade versus S20