Early 2019 is a particularly fraught time to be in the mobile phone market as either a buyer or a seller. Global sales are flat; it appears the world can only absorb so many smartphones. But at the same time, the industry is on the very tip of commercial deployments of 5G networks, while flashy (and pricey) foldable phones are being demoed in anticipation of hitting the market later in the year.
The eternal technology purchase question — do you buy now or wait for prices to drop and new features to emerge? — may be harder to answer for mobile phones today than at any time since 4G was first being deployed. At the cusp of the age of 5G, should you be buying the last generation of flagship 4G phones, even if you don’t know exactly what 5G speeds will truly mean or when 5G will come to you?
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that three of the four Galaxy S10 phones that Samsung debuted recently may be the right phones at precisely the wrong time.
Let me be clear: the Galaxy S10e, S10, and S10+ are all you’ve come to expect from Samsung: great build, great specs, business-oriented features. The most obvious difference among them is size (5.8-in. screen vs. 6.1-in. vs. 6.4-in.), but they differ also in screen resolution, battery size, and camera capability. (PCWorld has all the key specs.) And, of course, price: the S10e starts at $750, the S10 at $900, and the S10+ at $1,000. All three are available for pre-order now; they’ll ship March 8.
Samsung made available the top-of-the line S10+ model for this review.
The most obvious advance from last year’s model is the screen, which now occupies pretty much the entire front of the phone. The top and bottom bezels are about 3mm high. The side bezels are maybe half that and, because of Samsung’s characteristic screen curve, look even thinner.
The S10+'s two front-facing cameras are tucked in a ½-in. by 3⁄16-in. oval near the top right edge of the screen, pushing the battery, Wi-Fi, and cell signal icons toward the center of the screen. It’s way less intrusive than the iPhone X’s notorious notch. Less functional, too, because Samsung’s backing away from face recognition (which it says is less secure) in favor of a better fingerprint unlock.
Because the phone’s face is nearly entirely screen, one might think that the company would stick with a back-mounted fingerprint sensor. Not so. Samsung’s put an ultrasonic fingerprint scanner under the screen, about ¾ in. from the bottom of the phone. The company makes elaborate security claims about how the sensor measures the depth of your fingerprints for improved authentication. We couldn’t test that. We can attest, however, that the phone can save four different prints and was reliably quick to recognize them.
In action, the Dynamic AMOLED screen is gorgeous, especially when you dig into the settings and pick Quad HD+ 3040 x 1440 resolution. (Default resolution is lower, at 2280 x 1080.) Combined with the negligible bezel, viewing media is more like looking through a window than staring at a phone. Sound is full and loud, and seems to fire through the back of the phone rather than small speakers at either end.
The phones run on top-shelf Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipsets, and the review unit came with 8GM RAM and 128GB of storage (expandable by 512GB via MicroSD card). There are models with 512 GB or 1TB of built-in storage, the latter with 12GB of RAM. In terms of usage, there was nothing resembling screen lag or latency. Using the phone is a very slick experience.
The S10 line runs on Android Pie 9.0, with Samsung’s useful One UI skin. DeX, the feature that lets you plug a screen, keyboard and mouse into the phone and use it as an Android desktop, remains on the Galaxy line and is as useful as ever for those on the go. (Samsung says it’s a popular application in the first response and medical markets — places where people are only lightly attached to location.)
The Bixby assistant is here, too, but Samsung seems content to put it in the background, learning your routines and managing things like battery life and app usage as it gets to know you. That kind of thing takes time, though, and we were unable to test it by deadline. The Bixby button still lives, though, on the phone’s left edge underneath the volume button.
Maybe the least expected feature is the S10’s ability to act as a wireless charger. Samsung reps talk a lot about battery life, and the S10+’s 4100mAh battery should get you through a day and then some. But if some other gear needs a boost, or if you want to simplify your life when you get back to your desk or hotel, you can turn on a Qi transmit coil in the phone’s back and charge another device, like wireless earbuds or a smartwatch. You can even give a colleague’s Qi-capable phone a boost.
So this is a nice phone. But the question still nags: Is it the right phone at the wrong moment?
To buy or not to buy?
As flagship phone prices top $1,000, replacement cycles are slowing from every two years to every three. Buy a 4G phone today, and for the next three years, you’re locked into 4G technology just as 5G networks with their promises of big bandwidth, high availability, and low latency, are visible on the horizon. Is that a good business decision?
In fact, there’s a Galaxy S10 5G coming in the second quarter of 2019. — With a 6.7-in. screen and a 4500mAh battery, it’s even bigger than the S10+ but is essentially the same phone with a sub-6mm band 5G radio — and a higher, as yet unannounced price.
On the other hand, 5G “on the horizon” and 5G in widespread operation are very different things. It’s true that the first 5G networks are starting to get turned on in limited rollouts in a limited number of cities. But it’s also true that it will be years before 5G becomes common, let alone ubiquitous. 5G networks are complicated, expensive things to build — more so than 4G networks — and mobile operators are going to be financially strained to get them up and running. And then the question becomes: What’s the business case for wanting 5G on your mobile phone in the first place?
Whether the Galaxy S10+ is the right phone for right now depends on your migration strategy. If 5G is in your short-term plan, you might want to wait a few months for the 5G model, realizing that it’s probably going have niche, at best, application for a while.
If you buy and hold phones for three years, maybe you should consider the smaller Galaxy S10 or S10e or look at a very strong midrange phone like the OnePlus 6T or a refurbed Google Pixel. At $550, the OnePlus isn’t exactly free, but it’s half the price of the S10+. If that’s still too much, there’s no shortage of budget phones that may fill the bill until 5G matures and you can get on a reliable replacement cycle.
But if you’ve got the budget to get a top-end phone now and upgrade to 5G whenever you need to, then pull the trigger on this one; it’s the best business phone of the moment. Just keep in mind that its moment may be fleeting.