Not all that glitters is gold
Samsung's latest flagship phones come in three sizes, each with varying prices and specs. The Galaxy S10 and Galaxy S10+ feature almost identical specs between the two, making them the most even-keeled Galaxy models since Samsung started making more than one flagship model. As is usual with Samsung devices, the Galaxy S10 family is on the cutting edge of design, specs, and overall tech.
Some of these ideas can even be considered "bleeding-edge" in many respects. There's certainly something to be said about a $1,000 phone that pushes the envelope for expected specs and experience, and the Galaxy S10 family surely fulfills this thought in many ways.
Disclaimer: Android Headlines reviews are designed to cover both the "good" and the "bad" perspectives of all new phones. We've designed this approach to better serve readers who want to find out the best and worst part of a product without the finer details getting lost in the mix. This "bad" review focuses on things that might be considered to be negative for the Galaxy S10 family of phones. If you are specifically interested in the positives that set the Galaxy S10 family apart from the pack – check out our full good review.
While the design and screen are certainly spectacular, what's not so impressive are the random accidental touches that I found myself making on the phone. Nearly bezel-less phones aren't anything new at this point but there's something about Samsung's design here that makes it difficult to hold without accidentally touching something, particularly on that bottom section where the chin is almost non-existent.
Then there are the camera cutouts in the display, which are sure to be a polarizing decision. Some folks have said they'd prefer a notch over an off-center cut-out, and while this seems to be a minority opinion, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for this stance.
In terms of design, having the notch on the top-right is a bit off-putting, if for no other reason than that it's asymmetrical.
The camera cutout takes the place of the clock, which has been pushed to the left side of the screen and shifts all other icons closer to the middle of the screen as well.
It also makes selfies off-center when holding the phone straight, which can be awkward for some situations.
Another consideration is the handling of videos when in full-screen. Rather than not allowing the cut-out to invade the screen space, Samsung seems content with allowing this atrocity to ruin whatever positives the gorgeous display could bring along. This is a horrible decision, to say the least, and is incredibly distracting from the overall experience of watching videos on this phone.
Oddly enough, there's no traditional proximity sensor on the phone or even an ultrasonic one. Instead, Samsung placed the proximity sensor behind a small transparent portion of the display, located in the status bar just above the battery percentage sign which will blink when the phone is in use.
The problem with this design is that it's not always active, as proximity sensors have been since the inception of large touchscreen smartphones, and can sometimes cause issues when inside of a pocket where it'll touch skin through clothes and wake up. This can cause all sorts of problems and already has a fair number of users highly irritated at the decision.
New Software, Old Problems
Multitasking has the distinct promise of being something truly special with the Galaxy S10, but the out-of-the-box experience has some real frustrations to deal with first. First up is Samsung's home screen launcher, which feels dated the moment you start using it. Sure, it's got the swipe-up to open the app drawer gesture enabled by default, but the modernization stops there.
The app drawer is a random collection of icons by default and, probably more annoyingly, stuffs tons of apps into oddly categorized folders within the app drawer making things very difficult to find. Why are less than half the Google apps in a Google folder while the others are randomly sprawled out? Alphabetical sorting will help the random icons, but you'll still need to take things out of folders manually, and the overall design is far from user friendly or efficient.
Secondly is the default Overview/Recents screen, which partially adopts Google's huge design change in Android 9 Pie, forcing users to go back in time to when we had oversized cards that scrolled horizontally.
It's very difficult to multi-task with this view style, as you cannot see more than one or two apps at a time, and many of the extra actions are hidden within the app icon on top of each card tile, making it difficult to find actions like multi-window or floating window.
Worse yet is the fact that Samsung left the row of icons at the bottom, which randomly changes based on AI algorithms that detect which apps it thinks you might use. Without any names of the apps and without any consistency, this bottom bar is more of an irritation than something helpful when switching between multiple apps.
One UI is mostly a great step forward for Samsung, but it's got a few goofy bits that will certainly leave some scratching their heads.
While many of One UI's design changes revolve around bringing things lower on the screen for one-handed use, volume control is still mysteriously all the way up top. There aren't many UI changes in Pie that have been universally praised, but the volume control panel was definitely one of them and is something Samsung should have gone with.
Samsung introduced a brilliant and beautiful Infinity Wallpaper concept with the Galaxy S8 but, as we saw with the Galaxy Note9, seems to have been completely abandoned by Samsung. This is a travesty, to say the least, and really takes away significant beauty from something as simple as unlocking the phone.
There are also a few quirks that need to be fixed out of the box, and plenty of inconsistencies that simply cannot be fixed.
The always-on display features a music playback widget that can be swiped to, but this disables the persistent lock screen music controls. In practice, this means that pausing music hides music controls on the lock screen, forcing you to swipe over to the music controls on the always-on screen instead of just waking and tapping the play button on the dedicated widget. Thankfully, turning off the music face widget on the always-on screen fixes this issue.
Buzzwords that Buzzsaw the Experience
Despite having a 3.5mm audio jack on the phone, the sound output leaves a bit to be desired. When compared to the LG G7 ThinQ or V40 ThinQ, it's pretty surprising to find how much of the sound is seemingly "missing" from playback. Using a USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter fixes the audio quality issues, making it a rather curious problem to have.
You'll also find that a bigger battery doesn't necessarily mean multi-day battery life, rather just an insurance policy for getting through a full day without issue.
Reverse wireless charging is also not quite the dream that some might have imagined, as it delivers too low of a voltage for charging anything other than accessories like wireless headphones, making it useless for the vast majority of people.
Bixby is still the default virtual assistant, primarily called up by pressing the dedicated key on the left side of the phone. While Bixby has improved considerably since its inception 2 years ago, there's still no proper way to fully change out this virtual assistant. The first Galaxy S10 update introduced a way to launch Bixby by double-tapping the dedicated hardware key on the side, but you can't map it to Google Assistant, and cannot really turn Bixby off completely.
This is a big difference from other manufacturers that provide an "assistant button" on the side of its phones, as those manufacturers almost all allow you to set a default assistant without hassle. As it stands, the only true way to switch this out for your favorite Bixby alternative is by downloading yet another app from the Google Play Store.
The new in-glass fingerprint scanner isn't good at all, despite using completely different tech than other companies that have in-glass scanners. It's far slower and less accurate than the previous generation of dedicated fingerprint scanners and is very difficult to use without the screen turned on, as it's essentially impossible to tell exactly where the scanner is on a completely dark display.
As far as in-glass fingerprint scanners go, this is certainly one of the worst performers on the market. It isn't quite as bad as the scanner Samsung shipped with the Galaxy S5, but it's definitely the worst one since then. Samsung allegedly plans to fix this through software but it remains to be seen how effective this will be.
The worst part about having a fingerprint scanner that's less than stellar is the fact that there's no real alternative for anyone looking to have a convenient unlock method that's also secure. Face unlock is available but is easily the most insecure thing you'll find, as it can be easily unlocked with a simple picture.
Smarter Camera, Dumber Design
Samsung's new camera software is mostly a step forward, offering tons of great ways to help suggest better shots or automatically adjust the picture via AI-based algorithms, but the UI itself is yet another step back from last year.
Samsung's backward trend with camera UIs now extends to decoupling the photo and video modes, forcing users to change between dedicated photo and video modes and wait for each to load. Previous Galaxy designs had both a record and shutter button, allowing for instant photo or video capture the moment the camera launched. Now you'll need to swipe and wait for the mode to load before being able to take a photo or video.
The swipe-based UI is also a continued step back, something that began with the Galaxy S9 last year and continues to get worse with age. Swiping anywhere on the screen will cause an action to happen, making it far too easy to accidentally do something, especially when the entire phone is essentially a screen.
This sort of design is clearly made to make things "easier" but, in practice, makes the experience more frustrating than just having a dedicated button. Having a swipe action and a button for toggling between the front and rear cameras is simply silly, and swiping anywhere on the viewfinder to switch modes makes it too easy to mistakenly swap modes while just trying to adjust brightness or focus.
Although every other major manufacturer has delivered a compelling way to take low light shots with new software smart, Samsung has yet to debut a dedicated night mode. Samsung introduced Scene Detection in last year's camera software but this inconsistent automated detection is the only way to get brighter low light photos.
This new mode, called Bright Night, cannot be manually toggled and doesn't provide the quality improvement in lower light that we expect from a phone in this price range. In fact, there were plenty of times where the phone wouldn't enable the mode when it clearly should have, resulting in darker photos than need be.
It's clear this mode was not ready for primetime and seems rushed to meet user demand for better low light shots.
Samsung's noise reduction can still use some work, as it's often times too aggressive in reducing noise, even in well-lit conditions, resulting in loss of fine details when zoomed in. This mainly seems to occur on the ultra-wide-angle camera, which has smaller pixels than the other two cameras and often has to raise ISO to bring in more light.
A handful of odd quality limitations still exist as well. The new Super Steady mode can only be used up to 1080p resolution and can only be used on the main camera. Likewise, recording at 4K 60FPS is limited to the main rear camera as well, giving no option to select the telephoto or ultra-wide-angle cameras at this resolution with high frame rate.
Check out the gallery to see head-to-head comparisons between the Samsung Galaxy S10, LG V40 ThinQ, Google Pixel 3, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, HONOR View20, and the Samsung Galaxy Note9.
History Tends to Repeat Itself
For quite some time now, Samsung has held the image of a company that makes terrific hardware but continually struggles with software excellence. While One UI is a huge step in the right direction, there's no downplaying the amount of bloatware and superlative additions that are installed out of the box, especially if you're buying the phone from a carrier like Verizon.
Samsung has also made some rather curious decisions regarding hardware this time around. While a notch was heavily marketed against, Samsung is somehow OK with a nearly identically-sized chunk taken out of the screen in the form of a cutout. It also seems to have rushed the concept of an in-glass fingerprint scanner just to be "the first" to have an ultrasonic one, yet it's clearly not a good fingerprint scanner in any sense of the word.
Then, of course, is the camera which has yet to receive a proper night mode while every other major manufacturer has already jumped on this bandwagon months ago. Sure, the automatic scene detection may choose a "bright night" setting under certain lighting conditions, but it's wildly inconsistent in the scenes that it utilizes this mode in, and the quality itself is nothing to write home about.
We've seen Samsung make many of these mistakes in the past, particularly with the fingerprint reader, and it's more than a disappointment to see the company essentially going back on its marketing campaigns against the "notch" in favor of what's really no different than a notch in a different form.