Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G Review | PCMag

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G Review | PCMag

The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE is everything you need, and nothing else. Samsung pared down its flagship S20 series to a more palatable $699.99 price, and the result is a value-minded standard-bearer to properly face up against the forthcoming iPhone 12 line. With fast performance, solid cameras, and often substantial discounts at major wireless providers, the S20 FE 5G becomes our default Android phone recommendation for 2020, as well as our Editors' Choice.

So Many Options, So Much Time

Samsung has a ton of phones out right now, but the two you should keep in mind are the Galaxy S20 FE 5G and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra ($1,299). These two models offer flagship and super-flagship performance; the S20 FE will satisfy most people, while the Note 20 Ultra adds an even better screen, an S Pen stylus, and the best phone camera we've tested.

They're also a reset from Samsung's strategy earlier this year. While we recommended the $1,199 Galaxy S20+ as our Editors' Choice for several months, the $999-and-up S20 lineup is overpriced for our struggling pandemic economy. The FE gives you more value for less money.

Our Experts Have Tested 61 Products in the Mobile Phones Category in the Past YearSince 1982, PCMag has tested and rated thousands of products to help you make better buying decisions. (See how we test.)The matte back finish repels fingerprints

Refined Design

At 6.29 by 2.93 by 0.33 inches (HWD) and 6.67 ounces, the S20 FE is almost exactly the same size as the S20+. That means it isn't a small phone, but it's on par with most of the flagships on the market.

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The phone comes in six colors including lavender, mint, navy, orange, red, or white. Overall, there's a humble feel to it. With its flat front and matte metal surfaces, the S20 FE doesn't try to scream luxury object the way curved-glass phones do. It's also a bit more usable, and you don't have the accidental-touch problem people often have with curved-screen phones. In addition, the matte back does a much better job at repelling both fingerprints and scratches than the S20's glass back does.

The S20 FE has a 6.5-inch 2,400-by-1,080, 120Hz screen that should always be kept in 120Hz mode for smooth scrolling. There's really no downside; the frame rate makes scrolling much smoother, and I tested battery life in 120Hz mode and it's excellent. As this is one of Samsung's recent AMOLED displays, colors are gorgeous and the screen is bright. While the S20 series is capable of going up to a higher 2,560-by-1,440 resolution, it can only do so at 60Hz, and I've found the smooth scrolling is worth the difference over the higher resolution.

Left to right: Galaxy S20 FE 5G, Galaxy Note 20, Galaxy S20+, Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

All the Performance You Need

The S20 FE has the same Snapdragon 865 processor as the S20 line does, along with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, plus a microSD card slot.

Its score of 12,705 on the PCMark Work 2.0 benchmark is on par with the S20 series, and its Geekbench scores of 862 single-core, 3,069 multi-core are slightly below the S20 series, but not enough to matter. GFXBench graphics benchmark scores are also on par with the other S20 phones, running at 45fps for the Car Chase onscreen benchmark.

Battery life is excellent. The FE has a big 4,500mAh battery, and combined with the 1080p screen, I got 13 hours, 31 minutes of video playback at 75 percent brightness. Battery life will be shorter if you're doing a lot of scrolling, as that pumps the 120Hz screen, but it'll still stay strong. The phone has 22W fast charging, wireless charging, and reverse wireless charging, taking about 90 minutes to reach a full charge.

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The software here is Samsung's version of Android 10, with all of the Samsung additions that come with the S20 series. Most notably, that includes a lot of integration with TVs and Windows PCs: Link to Windows lets you text, get your notifications, and mirror your phone screen on a Windows PC, and DeX lets you cast a multi-windowed, desktop-like mode to a TV for presentations or other work.

Samsung promises that the FE will get Android upgrades up to Android 13; we anticipate Android 11 will come early next year, if past performance is any guide.

Samsung's Android skin is feature-rich, but people tend to like it a little less than competitors. Google's Pixel phones are the gold standard, but this year they fall behind on processor and camera. Motorola's skin tends to be relatively elegant, and I really like the OnePlus UI, which has attractive fonts and feels really fast, though these skins lack Link to Windows, which is a very useful feature.

The Galaxy S20 FE (left) has a lower-key design than the Galaxy S20+ (right)

Call Quality and Networking

While there's an unlocked version of the Galaxy S20 FE, you should probably buy the phone from your carrier. The unlocked model doesn't support AT&T's Wi-Fi calling or Verizon's 5G system; it really can only take full advantage of T-Mobile's network features.

The Galaxy S20 FE has the same network hardware as the small Galaxy S20, technically with the same capabilities: seven-carrier aggregation for 4G; sub-6GHz 5G on all models and millimeter-wave on the Verizon model; and Wi-Fi 6. That said, my unit made some odd network choices when I tested it against a Galaxy S20+, like picking slower frequency bands when it could have chosen faster, only to recover later or on a different test. This strikes me as the behavior of firmware, not bad hardware, which I think will be fixed with a software update.

Wi-Fi performance was very good in testing. Checked on a 5GHz network against a 500Mbps connection, I maxed out the link on both an S20 FE and an S20+ near the router; at the edge of the connection area, I got 110Mbps down on the FE where I got 55.1Mbps down on the S20+, a really nice difference.

Back in February, I marked phones down for not including millimeter-wave 5G. I've reconsidered, as AT&T and T-Mobile have backed away from millimeter-wave. There's no AT&T 5G technology that works well right now, so it's a good thing the S20 FE can take full advantage of AT&T's 4G network while technically attached to 5G. (The Snapdragon 765 used in the Google Pixel 5 has issues there.) I hold out high hopes for a new range of airwaves called C-Band that AT&T and Verizon are likely to use next year, but we probably won't see phones that can use it until next March.

Call quality hasn't been a problem on Samsung S-series phones for a while. They all use the highest-possible voice codecs in any given situation, and the FE's earpiece and speakerphone quality sound just about exactly the same as the S20+'s. If you're moving up from a phone that's several years old, you might notice an improvement in voice quality because of the EVS codec, but most higher-end phones for the past few years are on par here.

As with most recent phones, there is no headphone jack; you need to use USB-C or Bluetooth headphones. The FE supports Bluetooth 5.0.

Zoom Zoom

The S20 FE has three cameras on the back: a 12-megapixel, f/1.8 main camera; a 12-megapixel, f/2.2 wide-angle camera, and an 8-megapixel, f/2.4 3x telephoto camera. There's a 32-megapixel camera on the front.

What this means is that the FE has effectively the same image quality as the S20 series in its main and wide-angle modes, and at up to 3x zoom. The FE lacks the Space Zoom feature that combines a high-resolution main camera and an optical zoom lens to create sharp 5x or 10x zoom images, and you can see that the S20+ is much sharper at 10x. That's a slightly gimmicky, less-used level of zoom, though, and 3x will be just fine most of the time.

At 1x, you can argue that the Galaxy S20 FE (right) takes more appealing photos than the Galaxy S20+ (left)At 3x, it's hard to tell the Galaxy S20 FE (right) and the Galaxy S20+ (left) apartAt 10x, the Galaxy S20+'s Space Zoom (left) clearly outpaces the Galaxy S20 FE (right)

Side by side, I actually prefer the FE's shots to the S20+ in good light, both with and without up to 3x zoom. Like many people (and unlike photography snobs), I like my images to look a little hyper-real, with rich colors, and the SE has richer colors and more shadow detail in good light than the S20+ does. (As the main cameras are the same, this has to be the result software, or just luck.) The S20+ also made a few lighting choices that washed out my test photos a bit, where the FE got them right.

The FE doesn't have quite the low-light zoom performance of the S20+ and Note 20 Ultra, although you might only notice that if you have the two side by side. With an f/2.4 rather than an f/2 zoom lens, the S20 FE has to pump up the ISO and "film grain" a bit more, making lower-light images a little noisier.

Video modes, on both the front and rear cameras, go to 4K at 60fps, with HDR10+ recording. That isn't the 8K of the S20 or Note 20 series, but 8K is definitely a niche need right now; you really only want that if you intend to crop in post-production. That said, if you want the ultimate in mobile video recording, you might want to take a look at the LG Wing with its crazy virtual gimbal mode.

Less Is More

The Galaxy S20 FE 5g refines rather than innovates, and that works in everyone's favor. Three S20 models and two Note 20 models paved the way for Samsung to decide what's worth investing in (a Snapdragon 865 chipset and a solid 3x lens) and what isn't (a glass back and ultra-high-megapixel main cameras). And as of this writing, the S20 FE is a strong deal from carriers. AT&T, for example, is giving away S20 FE units for free if you sign up for a 30-month payment plan, an unlimited service plan, and trade in a phone like an iPhone 7, Galaxy S8, or Google Pixel 2. Even without these promotions, the S20 FE is the best Android phone you can buy for $699, and the right phone for 2020, making it our Editors' Choice.

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G

4.5Editors' ChoiceSee It$499.99 at AmazonMSRP $699.99



The Bottom Line

The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G delivers all the phone performance most people need at a price more people can afford.

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