The Galaxy S20 FE is possibly the best phone that Samsung has ever made. The S20 FE, which was launched last year to bring “premium Galaxy smartphone experiences” to more people, nails the fundamentals so well, it gives OnePlus, even Apple, something to think about.
For some curious reason, only the LTE version of the phone was available in India all this time. The 5G S20 FE has arrived nearly six months after global debut. Some might say, it was mighty brave of Samsung to launch it at all, but there is another way to look at it.
Samsung knew it had a solid product that it could bank on to play as a stopgap, until the S21 FE came along. To do what, you ask? Well, to spoil OnePlus’s party, what else?
There is no doubt that the S20 FE 5G is Samsung’s answer to the OnePlus 9 (as the S20 FE 4G was to the OnePlus 8T) and while spec-nerds will find it hard to believe, the phone makes a lot of sense despite its late entry and seemingly old hardware. If anything, the best phone that Samsung ever made just got better—in India.
Breaking the habit
On paper, there are only two differences between the S20 FE 5G and S20 FE 4G. The chipset and modem. The S20 FE 5G packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor and a second-generation X55 modem bringing support for Sub-6 bands in 9 different frequencies. The S20 FE 4G has Exynos 990 and the Exynos Modem 5123 accompanying it, though it is 5G ready, has been locked at LTE.
While 5G may not necessarily be a huge deciding factor for many buyers, a flagship-grade Qualcomm chip surely is, given Samsung’s unbendable perseverance to launch only Exynos-based premium S- and Note-series phones in India. The S20 FE 5G (like the S10 Lite) breaks with convention in that sense.
The Snapdragon 865 is based on TSMC’s N7P (DUV) manufacturing process and has an 8-core CPU, with one ARM Cortex-A77 Prime core clocked at 2.84GHz, three Cortex-A77 cores clocked at 2.42GHz, and four ARM Cortex-A55 cores clocked at 1.8GHz. The Exynos 990 is based on a more advanced 7nm LPP (EUV) manufacturing process but the Snapdragon 865 uses more advanced (and more powerful) cores. Exynos 990 also has a larger die size. In other words, the Snapdragon 865 is theoretically faster and more power efficient. The Qualcomm chip has the GPU advantage too.
All this translates into slightly better all-round performance in day-to-day tasks with real noticeable gains coming in while gaming. Compared to S20 FE 4G, the S20 FE 5G feels snappier and can maintain steadier frame rates more consistently during graphics intensive gaming. It is also better at heat management and does not break a sweat unless you’re really stress testing it with a heavy game like Genshin Impact – which by the way has a tendency to stutter every now and then at peak setting but then, that game is just too intense anyway.
That’s where the OnePlus 9’s next gen Snapdragon 888 unsurprisingly shines. But aside from that, you will have to be as observant as Sherlock to pinpoint the differences. The S20 FE 5G is by no means a slouch despite its one-year-old hardware. OnePlus gives you more RAM (up to 12GB) and storage (up to 256GB) options, but Samsung offers hybrid micro-SD expansion on top of 8GB RAM and 128GB storage.
The S20 FE 5G has marginally better battery life as well. Like the S20 FE 4G, the S20 FE 5G also has a 4,500mAh battery. I have been averaging 5-6 hours of screen on time with the phone’s display cranked up to 120Hz (at auto brightness) which is a respectable figure but of course your mileage may vary. Where the OnePlus 9 supports 65W fast charging, Samsung is sticking with 25W, and, shipping a 15W charger in the box. But while the S20 FE 5G supports 15W wireless as well as reverse wireless charging, the OnePlus 9 can’t do either.
If it ain’t broke
There is no telling the S20 FE 5G apart from the 4G model on the outside because they are virtually the same phones. It has the same matte polycarbonate back available in a slew of playful colours – including this minty fresh variant I have for review – with a metallic frame. It looks exactly like the S20 but obviously, Samsung has watered it down to cut cost. But it has not cut any corners, at least none that are deal-breakers.
The phone looks and feels high-quality and, original, even as OnePlus phones start to look more and more like a Samsung Galaxy with every new iteration. The OnePlus 9 may have a better in-hand feel, but the S20 FE 5G is hands down a better designed phone with just the right amount of elegance and practicality. It does not attract a lot of smudge and fingerprints. It is also IP68-certified for dust and water resistance.
The 6.5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED display of the S20 FE 5G is easily among the best in the business with ample brightness levels and rich colours. It is also very fluid – a term OnePlus likes to use to market its version of AMOLED – courtesy a 120Hz refresh rate, though this is not adaptive (or dynamic) like Samsung’s more expensive S- and Note-series phones. The display is flat and has significantly more bezels in comparison, but all this bodes well for content consumption while giving you enough breathing space to rest your palms while doing it – it is not a compromise. The S20 FE 5G supports HDR10+ content playback and has Corning Gorilla Glass 3 for protection. The optical in-display fingerprint scanner is iffy and perhaps the phone’s weakest link.
The OnePlus 9 has largely similar credentials but if I were to pick one, OnePlus offers a slightly better package when it comes to calibration and tuning. The OnePlus 9’s display can get tad brighter and has Corning Gorilla Glass 5. It has a faster, more accurate fingerprint reader too (though, it suffers from its own challenges particularly lower-than-usual positioning).
The difference isn’t like night and day though. If anything, most users would likely pick the S20 FE 5G because it is a little punchier. Content really pops out on it.
The real differences lie in the cameras. The two phones take two vastly different trajectories in approach and subsequently, the output. While OnePlus has gone with high-profile Hasselblad branding and high-resolution sensors, Samsung’s take is a lot more subdued but one that makes use of years of experience.
The S20 FE 5G has a more versatile camera setup among the two. It has a 12MP primary sensor behind a 26mm wide f/1.8 aperture lens with Dual Pixel PDAF and OIS. This is paired with another 12MP sensor behind an f/2.2 aperture ultra-wide-angle lens and 8MP telephoto camera.
The phone’s main camera shoots consistently good photos in good light with warm and pleasing – if a little oversaturated – colours, lots of detail and excellent dynamic range. The OnePlus 9’s main 48MP camera shoots more natural-looking photos in contrast. Both phones are well stacked-out and there is no clear winner here, to be honest.
OnePlus pulls ahead with better ultra-wide-angle performance across the board including spot-on edge correction on the back of a freeform lens. But Samsung offers more zoom which is also sharper. Optically, the S20 FE 5G can only go as far as 1.1x but 3x hybrid zoom photos are serviceable. On paper, it can shoot up to 30x zoom photos (up to 10x in low light/night mode), but that is just software overkill.
The S20 FE 5G’s cameras really come into their own in low light. Samsung’s night mode offers brighter, more detailed photos in tricky and low light. The same is true about the phone’s portrait mode. Samsung’s phone is just better at subject isolation and creates a nice, creamy background blur in photos across all lighting scenarios.
The S20 FE can’t do 8K video recording if you are into that sort of thing. 4K @30fps, 60fps videos shot with the phone are sharp, have lots of detail, and offer excellent all-round stabilisation. The OnePlus 9 metes out slightly better results though audio recording is better on the S20 FE 5G.
On the front, the phone has a 32MP camera which clicks nice and detailed selfies in most lighting scenarios – better than OnePlus 9.
The big picture
The S20 FE 5G’s biggest draw is software and support. Samsung now offers three major Android updates on select devices. Samsung says people are holding onto their devices for longer and it simply wants to extend the life cycle of its Galaxy products while providing the latest innovations “as soon as they are available”. This is a big step up from say three or four years ago when the company was infamous for software update rollout delays.
Tables have turned when it comes to OnePlus phones. Not only has OxygenOS started to look more and more like OneUI, but it’s also riddled with bugs and delays. OnePlus phones aren’t the holy grail of high-quality software experience, the way they used to once upon a time.
The S20 FE 5G is a classic example to show off the “new Samsung”. The phone launched globally in late September-early October last year with Android 10. It has launched in India with Android 11. Samsung has confirmed to Financial Express Online that it is eligible for two more OS updates. My review unit is already rocking the April security patch. The sheer frequency of Samsung rolling out fixes (like, the latest one improves the stability of touch screen, an issue I haven’t had on my unit, but many users have been reporting about it) has gone up significantly over the last one year.
Not just updates, Samsung’s software has also improved by leaps and bounds and even though there is still a lot of bloatware (and a few ads here and there), the experience is unobtrusive and efficient.
Samsung has launched the S20 FE 5G in India at an introductory price of Rs 47,999. Not only has it undercut OnePlus in pricing, the S20 FE 5G also offers more value over the OnePlus 9. Heck, it is a better buy than the S21 as well.
All this just goes to show how important nailing the fundamentals is. At this point, the only reason to get the OnePlus 9 is the new Snapdragon 888 processor and probably, its more powerful ultra-wide-angle camera. Had OnePlus launched the global variant in India, the one that it is selling in the US for instance with wireless charging and IP68-certfication, maybe, just maybe things would have been different.
Regardless, the S20 FE 5G is a no-brainer and a really good product despite the growing competition, including ones from Vivo and Xiaomi. One that gets you more bang for the buck yet manages to impress with all-round premium look and feel.
Pros: Premium fit and finish, IP68-certification, Fast 120Hz display, Fast performance with storage expansion, Wired and wireless charging available, Excellent software support, Stereo speakers
Cons: Iffy fingerprint reader, Haptics could be better