Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G review: The budget flagship champion

In spite of the corners Samsung has cut, the Galaxy S20 FE 5G is definitely worth your money. If you haven't used a flagship smartphone before, then this is a good upgrade for the price.

Hyderabad: One reason why upper mid-range smartphones sell like hot cakes is that premium flagships, like say the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra or the OnePlus 9 Pro, are expensive and beyond pockets of most people. And that’s where Samsung is trying to bridge the gap through the Galaxy S20 FE, offering a flagship like experience, that’s easier on our wallets.

It has been about three months since the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G launched in India this March. Its 4G version with the Exynos 990 (7 nanometer) chip was launched last year, while the 5G version was kept away from the Indian market, for reasons best known to Samsung. Keep in mind that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chipset, which the S20 FE 5G is equipped with, is now a year old, and that other flagships are already on this year’s 888 version.

In fact, direct competitors of the Galaxy S20 FE 5G like the Xiaomi Mi 11x Pro have launched with the latest Snapdragon 888 chipset in 2021. So how does the ‘almost’ flagship by Samsung hold up against its competitors? Or even against models from its own stable?

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Well, that’s what you’re here to find out. For comparison in this review, I used the S20 FE 5G alongside my 2019 flagship, the Galaxy S10+, which was purchased about 10 months ago, to give a better understanding of the phone.

Spec sheet:

Build: 190g; Gorilla Glass 3 front, aluminum frame, plastic back; IP68 dust/water resistant (up to 1.5m for 30 mins); 6.5 inch Super AMOLED 1080P (407 PPI) resolution, 20:9 aspect ratio with 120Hz refresh rate.

Processor: Qualcomm SM8250 Snapdragon 865 (7 nm+); Octa-core (1×2.84 GHz Kryo 585 & 3×2.42 GHz Kryo 585 & 4×1.8 GHz Kryo 585) and Adreno 650 GPU.

Memory: 8GB RAM, 128/256GB 8GB storage; microSDXC (uses shared SIM slot) available.

OS/Software: Currently running on Android 11, Samsung One UI 3.1.

Rear camera: Main (wide): 12 MP lens (f/1.8, 26mm, 1/1.76″, 1.8µm, Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS); Telephoto: 8 MP (f/2.4, 73mm, 1/4.5″, 1.0µm, PDAF, OIS and 3x optical zoom); Ultra wide lens: 12 MP (f/2.2, 123˚, 13mm, 1/3.0″, 1.12µm).

Front camera: 32 MP (f/2.2, 26mm wide lens).

Video capture: 4K, 1080p, gyro-EIS – rear camera. Front camera: 4K, 1080p.

Battery: 4500mAh; Fast charging 25W and fast wireless charging 15W. Reverse wireless charging – 4.5W. USB Power Delivery 3.0.

Others: Under display fingerprint reader (optical), accelerometer, gyro, proximity, compass, NFC; stereo speakers

Design and build

In terms of design, Samsung offers a typical canydbar shape with the S20 FE 5G. The phone features the exact same physical build from last year – 159.8×74.5×8.4mm in terms of structure. It weighs 190 grams.

The front is protected by Gorilla Glass 3, while the back is made of plastic. That’s where Samsung has cut corners to keep costs low, because a typical flagship comes with the latest Corning Gorilla Glass 6 or Victus.

However, the S20 FE 5G at least gets an aluminum frame, which gives it a nice finish. For better understanding, my Galaxy S10+ is covered by Gorilla Glass 5, and has barely any scratches even nearly a year later.

It may be noted that a plastic back is not bad, given that it is sturdier and will not shatter like glass backs on most smartphones. Plus the gradient blue didn’t seem cheap at all. Would have been nicer if the it was equipped with Gorilla Glass 6 though.

And the 190 grams is not a problem, but when you slip on a back case and a tempered glass for added protection, the Galaxy S20 FE 5G can become a tad bulky. Reminds me of my old Samsung M31s phone that I was using (which is also a good mid-ranger FYI).

If you have used earlier flagships like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 or 10, then it won’t be an issue. But if you like small screens, then it might be a little difficult to use, especially with one hand.

Display

Coming to the S20 FE 5G’s display, it has a 6.5-inch full-HD+ 1080P Super AMOLED Infinity-O display. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? With an aspect or screen-to-body ratio of 84.8 percent and pixel density of 407ppi, the phone does have sharp and decent viewing angles. But here’s where the phone stops one step short of being a real flagship, in the sense that Samsung cut another corner to keep the price low.

The rest of the S20 lineup, i.e. the S20, S20+ and S20 Ultra, all feature Dynamic AMOLED 2X, 1440P resolution displays, which give users the option to shuffle between HD, FHD+ (1080P) and WQHD+ (1440P).

What it means is that you can bump up the screen resolution for a sharper and more immersive experience. Heck, even my S10+ has that option, since we’re talking about what the S20 FE 5G doesn’t have.

Moreover, the Samsung S20 FE 5G’s front is protected by the older Gorilla glass 3, and not the latest 6 or Victus. Won’t say it’s the worst, but this is generally what the Rs.20,000 segment has usually.

Last year’s Xiaomi Mi 10 5G, which was priced around the Rs. 50,000 mark, was protected on the front and back with the Gorilla glass 5. Little disappointed here. However, I used the phone without a screen guard, and haven’t noticed any scratches yet (but I am also very careful generally).

The S20 FE 5G also has a flat display, unlike the S20 lineup, which has slightly curved displays. But it has slightly larger bezels, which doesn’t give it the edge-to-edge screen. Which is why I sometimes preferred my S10+ over, because even that phone has a Dynamic AMOLED display, and a curved screen.

I personally like curved displays, but again, that’s a personal choice. Though slightly smaller bezels would have been a nicer touch.

But but, the S20 FE 5G, just like the rest of the S20 lineup, has a 120 Hz refresh rate, which makes the phone’s experience absolutely buttery smooth. That is one aspect where it beats Samsung’s previous flagships. My S10+ has a 60 Hz refresh rate, which in my opinion is something one would never want to go back to after using even a 90 Hz refresh rate. Though not flagship level, the 1080P display is a treat. No complaints there.

A note about the fingerprint scanner: When it comes to the phone’s security, the Galaxy S20 FE 5G also offers an in-display fingerprint scanner, like all flagships. But this time it is an optical scanner, and not the ultra-sonic one, which Samsung loves to flaunt. Technically a downgrade but it is fast, and works reasonably well, and doesn’t need much pressure. It also works when the screen is off.

Chipset and memory:

The Samsung S20 Fe 5G shipping with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 (7nm+) chipset is a big deal. Why? Because what we Indians always get is the Exynos version, which has found to be comparatively slower. The phone also has an Octa-core CPU (1×2.84 GHz Kryo 585, 3×2.42 GHz Kryo 585 and 4×1.8 GHz Kryo 585), apart from the Adreno 640 Graphics Processing Unit.

The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G also ships with 8GB RAM, 128GB built-in UFS 3.0 storage and a shared microSD/dual sim slot. What it means is that the phone is blazing fast, especially for general usage. No amount of open apps can slow down the phone, and that’s where this smartphone shines. You see, last year’s 4G model had several complaints of over-heating, especially while playing games. Not this time. The 865 chip can take on heavy tasks without breaking a sweat.

Software:

During my nearly one-month with this phone, it barely slowed down. Not that I expected it to, because my two-year old model S10+ still works like a charm. In fact, my S20 FE 5G also had the One UI 3.1, or Android 11 installed in it.

So thumbs up to that. FYI, my S10+ has the same software, and both phones are literally the same in terms of features, and functioning. The Android 12 update should be coming in a few months.

Prior to this, I did use the Exynos version of the Samsung Galaxy S20+, and I can say with some certainty that it felt a little slower than the S20 FE 5G. The Snapdragon 865 chipset is as good as any other flagship.

If you are someone who has never used Samsung before, or has hated the company’s products or even its software, I think this phone will easily change your mind. Samsung’s One UI is loaded with nice features, such as its Edge Panels (which are very handy mind you) and other things.

In fact, it even has the Bixby Routines feature, which I think can be a very useful tool to use certain features without constantly having to switch things on and off. For example, if you prefer keeping the location off, to save battery, then you can use Bixby Routines to automatically turn it on only when you use certain apps. Pretty nifty. The UI overall is very smooth, and the S20 FE 5G will also get updates for another two years. So good deal all in all.

Though I also love my S10+, it shows its age now that I’ve used the S20 FE 5G’s buttery smooth feel. It’s practically the same software. And I was also using the Xiaomi Mi 10 5G until some weeks ago, which has also has a similar Super AMOLED 1080P screen and a 90 Hz refresh rate. I’ve grown to like Xiaomi’s Mi UI too, but I still prefer Samsung’s One UI over it. The Korean brand makes using the phone easier.

Battery life and charging:

The Samsung S20 FE 5G comes with a sizeable 4500 Mah battery, and a 15 watt charger bundled in. Coming from a Xiaomi Mi 10 5G, I found the battery life little inadequate initially. However, a little bit of tweaking changed that, and I can say that this is easily an all day phone with some life to spare if your usage is moderate.

For heavy users, it will easily last a full day if you charge it fully and leave your house. I keep my location off, and use the always on display (tap to see), so a little bit of tweaking from your side should suffice. As far as charging speeds are concerned, the S20 FE 5G takes about 1.15 hours to juice up fully, if it is close to the 20% mark. Give or take 1.5 hour, is what you will need to charge it close to 100% with the 15 watt charger.

I personally wouldn’t recommend anyone to use their phones till the battery discharges regularly. However, an odd thing with my unit was that it did not have the 25 watt ‘super fast charging’, which is a feature the Galaxy S20 FE is supposed to have. Not sure why this was the case, but I hope this was a one-off thing.

The Galaxy S20 FE 5G also has other flagship qualities here, as supports wireless charging and also reverse wireless charging. But the latter is slow, and is something you can use to charge your bluetooth earphones when needed. Don’t be under the impression that you can charge another device easily with it.

Camera, photo and video quality:

The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE 5G’s camera lens is thick and has a nice bump.

I’ll be honest and say here that I’ve always loved Samsung’s cameras over other companies. It’s one reason why I still use my S10+. Heck, I’ve used almost every Samsung Galaxy model (S9, Note 9, S10/S10+, Note 10/10+, S20+).

The S20 FE 5G has the same main (wide) sensor like the rest of the S20 lineup, but the ultra-wide and the telephoto lens are different. FYI, I know the Pixel and other phones may be better, but this camera is just easy to use!

The main 12MP sensor has a 1.8µm pixels behind an f/1.8 aperture lens, which also features image stabilization and dual pixel autofocus. So that’s pretty much flagship grade, and it works that way too. I compared side-by-side images with that from my S10+, and the S20 FE 5G was often marginally better.

If you use Samsung’s ‘vivid’ display option, colours can pop a little too much, but the ‘natural’ option under the display settings fixes that.

Images from the S20 FE 5G’s 12 megapixel main sensor are a little contrasty, but they pick up details well, especially in low light conditions. It surpassed by S10+ sometimes, which by the way is still a very good camera set up. Images are nice and crisp and even pick up small details, like a true flagship camera.

Here are some sample shots to compare photos with that of my S10+:

Image comparison.
Image comparison 2.

As you can see, the images are quite comparable. Samsung’s 2019 S10+ cameras also hold up pretty well. If you have used the Galaxy S0/S10 models, then it won’t necessarily be a major upgrade in terms of the main camera. However, the S20 FE 5G does handle darker areas slightly better, and the dynamic range also seems to have been improved in the new 12 MP sensor.

Here’s are example of what I’m talking about. I took this picture en route to Moula Ali. The colours are a little better on the S20 FE 5G, and the clouds also are clearer. Not that my S10+ is bad, but there is a difference.

Ultrawide: Coming to the S20 FE 5G’s ultrawide lens, it covers a large enough field of view at 123 degrees and has an aperture of f/2.2, as on the other models. However, unlike the S20 lineup, it has a 12 megapixel shooter like the other S20 models, with the difference being in pixel and sensor size. It has a smaller sensor though, in comparison to the S20 and S20+ models. However, images are good enough, and pictures are not bad at all. Pretty much on par.

Here is a picture on a relatively cloudy day from the Moula Ali hill.

I compared the ultrawide lens with that of my S10+, and the images were nearly identical. In a way, Samsung’s image processing has not changed much, which is not a bad thing. The S20 FE 5G is definitely an improvement, but if you have used the Galaxy S10 series, then better stick to it. Here is the comparison:

I was also out for work and decided to stop at Osmania General Hospital to take some pictures of the magnificent heritage structure. The camera does a good job for most parts. Here are a few shots from the ultrawide camera:

The main difference between the S20 FE 5G and the rest of the S20 line is with the telephoto camera, as the former is fitted with an 8 megapixel shooter with 3x zoom. This camera has an f/2.4 aperture lens and a smaller 1.0µm pixels, when compared to the 64MP resolution of the S20 series (that actually does its zooming through software). However, if you ask me, I prefer the 3x zoom to the 64 MP shooting and digitally cropping in.

It’s also a good step up from 2x zoom on my 2019 S10+. I took the same shot of Osmania Hospital (images from above that I had taken from the ultra-wide camera, and also of a high-ish Habshi Kaman (arch) outside the Golconda fort to show how far the 3x zoom can take pictures from the ground.

Though it’s an 8MP camera, I must say that it is definitely an improvement over the S10+, and the images also seem better (from what I remember) than my S20+ that I used earlier. The pictures:

Portrait photos: For some reason, the Galaxy S20 FE 5G uses the main camera for portrait photos, which is not a bad thing. But even my two-year-old S10+ has the option of switching between the telephoto and main lens. Photos are mostly good, while the background blur is enough to make pictures look nice. But I can’t say that it is perfect, especially when it comes to hair on human subjects.

The S2- FE 5G’s portrait photos do a decent job.

As you can see above, this picture of the decoction container from an Irani cafe in Hyderabad is alright, but it still misses in some places, or basically the corners. For most parts most images are alright, and the subject segregation is good. But at times, in certain complex situations, the portrait mode may not be fully accurate.

The Galaxy S20 FE 5G’s portrait mode also has a few different options: backdrop, high-key mono and low-key mono, aside form the blur and colour point. Here are pictures of my one of my collages from all three options. As you can see, the images are generally clean, for as long as you position the phone properly. Otherwise there can be a few distortions.

Night photos:

I can say with some gumption that you won’t be disappointed with the Galaxy S20 FE 5G on this front too. It is definitely an improvement over earlier flagships like the S10+ (perhaps slightly), but only as far as the main lens is concerned. Otherwise, pictures from the telephoto and ultra-wide cameras are okay at best, and can be pretty grainy. Stick to the main 12MP camera in the night, and you will get good results.

Here are a few samples:

I also did take pictures with the night mode on, but images on the S20 FE 5G were more or less similar. While clicking a picture with the night mode on, the camera takes a few seconds to shoot, and even a few additional seconds for processing. While mostly it is fine, the result won’t necessarily be better always.

To show you how good the main 12MP camera can be, I took two photos of a plan in my office with the night mode on and without it, at around 6: 45 p.m. The night mode does take some seconds to come with a well-rounded picture. In this instance, it did made a difference. Take a look below. There is a difference, but it’s subtle. I didn’t bother with the ultrawide and telephoto lens, because those are okay-ish. Don’t expect anything there.

Selfie Camera: In the front. the S20 FE 5G is fitted with a 32 megapixel sensor for selfies, instead of the conventional 10 megapixel shooter, that we find on the S20 and S20+.

This one has the same f/2.2 aperture and 25mm focal length equivalent, but the autofocus is missing. However, in all honesty, I didn’t find it to be that good. In fact, my S10+ still does a better job in most cases I feel.

But you have the option of clicking 32 MP pictures, which are not so bad. However, it might be a software thing, and not necessarily the camera which is bad. Perhaps a future update will fix it.

My colleague Danish

I won’t say that the selfie camera is bad, because the pictures are decent, and it also comes with the portrait more feature, aside from 4k video recording. I made my colleague Danish click a picture of himself during work. As you can see, the image is not bad, but I think for a flagship, the selfie on the S20 FE 5G should have been better.

Overall thoughts on camera:

Samsung’s camera app is fairly easy to use, and you get an array of options, like the portrait mode, slow motion slow motion video, super slow motion, portrait video, and a slew of other options.

The portrait mode in fact has some unusual features like the ‘low-key mono’ and ‘high-key mono’, which I don’t remember finding on my S20+ earlier.

But the fact that we can only use the main lens for portraits, and not the zoom lens, is something I feel Samsung should fix. I mean the phone has a flagship grade chipset and camera module, so why is it missing a feature? The camera functionalities are also pretty easy to use. There are a ton of features that can make it fun to use: like the slow motion, super-slow motion and hyperlapse.

The camera AI is also helpful, and Samsung phones come with a ‘screen optimizer’, which generally make images contrasty. You can also click pictures and shoot videos on various resolutions, like 4k @ 60 frames per second, and a super-steady mode, which can be helpful while one is outdoors. All-in-all, it’s packed with features.

Video: On the video front, the S20 FE 5G can video up to 4K @60 frames per second (FPS) with its main camera. The ultra-wide and zoom lens can also do 4K and 1080p, but only at 30fps. You will actually need to switch to switch to the main lens, and then change the frame rate from settings. The video quality from the S20 FE is good,

Anyways. Video quality from the FE’s main cam is, well… adequate. While 1080p footage is comparable to the S20s’, 4K on the FE is a little inferior in terms of sharpness and detail. It’s not bad at all, it’s just not as good as it can be in this respect. Other than that, the videos have good colors and dynamic range is excellent.

Conclusion: Is the S20 FE 5G worth it?

To put it short, in spite of the corners Samsung has cut, the S20 FE 5G is definitely worth your money. As of today, it retails on Amazon (India) at Rs. 47,999 (8GB RAM, 128 GB storage), while the 4G/LTE version (with the Exynos chip) is about Rs.10,000 cheaper. Get the 5G version. If you haven’t used a flagship smartphone before, you’ll love this.

The phone does feel a little ‘cheap’, in the sense that it doesn’t have the same premium feel when you hold it. Maybe that is due to the plastic back, but most of us use back cases. Plus, it also means the phone is less prone to damage. Glass shatters easily, and I know that from experience. My S10+ feels more premium to hold, given its curved screen and glass sandwich design, but it can easily break.

But honestly, two weeks after using it I forgot about the back completely, because the Samsung S20 FE 5G is a treat to use. The phone is as good as any other flagship in terms of features, and does not skimp on important aspects like dust and water protection. The phone has a good camera module, it is buttery smooth and blazing fast. It ticks all the right boxes.

For those who can’t spend so much, I would suggest looking at slightly used phones on Olx or in local markets. Of course, please inspect the phone, check the bill, and make sure it is not damaged. But one can get a month or two old S20 FE 5G for even around Rs. 35,000, which I feel is a great bargain. Well done Samsung.

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