The Samsung Galaxy S10+ Snapdragon & Exynos Review: Almost Perfect, Yet So Flawedby Andrei Frumusanu on March 29, 2019 9:00 AM EST
Conclusion & End Remarks
As we’re wrapping up one of the biggest smartphone reviews to date, it’s also the wrap-up for one of the most important devices in 2019.
As early as last year I heard from some vendors that Samsung had big plans for the Galaxy S10, with the company aiming to make the device “something special” for its 10th year anniversary. While I believe Samsung has definitely raised the bar with the Galaxy S10, I'm left with mixed feelings on the phone overall. On the one hand it really is an almost perfect device, yet at the same time it also comes with many flaws.
The design of the new Galaxy S10 family, and in particular the S10+ is a stand-out feature of the new phones. In terms of aesthetics, the phone looks great with the new minimal bezels, however I think Samsung could have done better with the new cut-out camera designs. In particular, I would have liked to see the cut-out be slightly higher – placing it near the bezel of the screen – as to avoid having such a thick notification bar. Instead, this wasted space means that despite the larger screen and higher screen-to-bezel ratio, the top of the screen is no more useful on the Galaxy S10 than it is on the S9. Personally, I also didn’t like the visuals of the cut-out, however Night Mode in OneUI makes this a non-issue.
Another design change I didn’t care for was the new ergonomics: because the phone’s round edges now have a tighter radius, even though the absolute width of the S10+ hasn’t changed from the S9+, it actually feels like a bigger phone. The just released Huawei P30 Pro has almost the same width as the S10+, however those 1-2mm and the wider curve gradient with smaller bezel edges makes for a significantly more comfortable device. So if you’ve used the Plus variants of the S8 or S9 in the past, I’d actually recommend trying the regular S10 first. Finally, another oddity in the design of the S10+ is that the power button is just absurdly high up, which is a definite regression in ergonomics.
The screen of the Galaxy S10 is excellent, however there are still bugs in Samsung’s factory calibration. Getting correct gamma curves seems to be a major issue for Samsung, and we’re now in the Nth iteration of a Galaxy S phone where we’re seeing problems like this. The Exynos S10+ variant in natural mode has far too low and non-linear gamma, while the Snapdragon unit again clips the lower greyscale levels to black. This is fundamentally a software issue, and like in past years with the S8 and S9, Samsung will probably address it in a software update. I just wish Samsung would finally get their quality control to the point where they can get this correct for the phone's release, rather than having to fix the display settings after the fact. The screen for the third year in a row also has a too red default colour temperature.
In terms of display accuracy, Samsung does well, but it’s no Apple. Samsung’s choice of enabling Android’s colour management system on the S10 is weird. At least Samsung does have one first-party app supporting it: the Gallery, which is more than what you can say about Google's own Pixel phones. Beyond this, the inherent limitations of the Android CMS means that it’s nowhere near as useful as how it works on Windows or even the current gold-standard: Apple's iOS. I wish that Samsung would have at least enabled wide-colour gamut support for taking photos. Maybe that’s something for next year?
Two SoCs - This year more evenly matched
One of the bigger narratives for the Galaxy S series over the last few years were the product differences between the Snapdragon and Exynos units. 2018 in particular was a rough year for Samsung’s in-house developed Exynos variants, as the chip simply delivered a notably worse experience than what was available on Snapdragon 845 variants of the phones.
The Snapdragon 855 met our expectations and initial impressions of the new Qualcomm chip. The combination of Arm’s new Cortex-A76 CPU cores, Qualcomm’s Adreno GPU and DSP, and the new 7nm manufacturing node make for a fierce little chip. Power efficiency in particular is fantastic and the SoC represents a solid foundation for many other flagships in the coming months.
Meanwhile the Exynos 9820 improves massively over its predecessor. This year, Samsung LSI has largely addressed some of the previous deal-breaking issues with the introduction of the new chip. On the microarchitecture side, the new Cheetah M4 cores don’t bring as big of an improvement as we would have wanted. Samsung’s IP still seems to lag behind the Cortex-A76, however the new cluster design and introduction of Cortex-A75 cores as the middle cores seems to have resolved the overall efficiency issues that the previous generation had.
In terms of performance, the Exynos chip slightly lags behind the Snapdragon, partly due to the microarchitecture differences, but mostly due to Qualcomm’s much more aggressive scheduler. With that said, in real-life daily usage (and thanks to better framework boosting mechanisms on the Exynos) the differences are actually minor. So you should have a harder time telling the difference between the two, with the end-result being a similar user experience.
The most surprising result in our testing was that both variants of the S10+ seem to be almost evenly matched in terms of battery life. The Exynos variant even has a slight advantage in our web test, while the Snapdragon variant pulls ahead in PCMark. It should be noted that the Exynos S10+ does suffer from some firmware issues at the moment which cause higher idle power consumption, however this fundamentally can be and should be fixed by Samsung in coming updates, as it’s inherently not a hardware issue.
In absolute terms, both Galaxy S10+ models are now Samsung’s longest-lasting phones ever. Critically, Samsung seems to have taken hardware optimisations for battery life seriously, so the most important improvement for the S10+ isn’t its larger 4000/4100mAh battery, but rather the reduced base power consumption of the phone that is now 100-120mW below the Galaxy S9. This is the true reason the S10+ lasts so long. It’s fantastic to see Samsung focus on this aspect of battery life, and sets the new bar for the rest of 2019 for other vendors to meet.
Triple-cameras - surprising differences
Talking about cameras, the new wide-angle sensor on the Galaxy S10 is a fantastic addition, and it really augments the shooting experience. Currently it ranks as the best wide-angle shooter out there, battling with the Mate 20 Pro’s wide angle unit.
As for the rest of the camera modules, while the main camera and zoom module haven’t fundamentally changed much compared to the S9 in terms of specifications, the processing has changed dramatically. First of all, I applaud Samsung for keeping all three cameras for both the S10 and S10+ – no longer is the smaller version handicapped in the camera department.
The key new aspect of the S10’s cameras, beyond the wide angle module, is their far greater dynamic range, which looks to be significantly ahead of other phones. Samsung’s AI processing actually makes usage of the DSP and NPUs of the chipsets, and I think one of the results is that the Galaxy S10 now is now often spot-on in terms of exposure, colour-balance, as well as consistency between shots.
One surprising revelation of our testing is that there are huge (and dare I say shocking) processing differences between the Snapdragon and Exynos S10+ variants. HDR on the Snapdragon unit is consistently superior, as it's able to achieve much better dynamic range and details in shadows. Furthermore, the Snapdragon unit’s colour rendition is more saturated and akin to the real-world, as opposed to the more washed-out pictures the Exynos variant produces. This difference is really accentuated on the wide-angle module shots. My Exynos unit’s wide angle camera suffered from inexplicable blurring off-centre, making me suspect that there are issues with the actual optics of that lens. If so, this is a quality assurance issue out of the factory as the module doesn’t even have an autofocus mechanism which might otherwise cause such an issue.
Low-light camera capture on the Galaxy S10+ is nothing special. Here the phones still largely lag behind Huawei’s capabilities, and the new Bright Night mode that the phone comes with is also no match against Huawei's Night Mode or Google’s Night Sight. I would have liked to see more usage of computational photography to improve the phone’s capabilities, especially given that the SoCs have the new IP blocks to enable it.
HDR10+ video recording is great, however it will be a pain to do anything with the resulting video files as there are big compatibility issues. Attempting to play back HDR recordings correctly on social media sites or any other non-HDR10+ device is a mess. Even Samsung’s software to convert videos to SDR is currently bad or just outright missing, something I hope will be addressed with coming software updates.
Finally, another difference between the Snapdragon and Exynos is the audio playback quality on the 3.5mm headphone jack. Unfortunately it looks like Samsung messed up with both the DAC as well as the implementation, as the Exynos Galaxy S10 has widened the existing year-long disadvantage to the Snapdragon.
Almost Perfect, Yet so Flawed
Overall, the Galaxy S10+ is an almost perfect device. At least, it would be if it weren’t for the fact that there's two of them. The Snapdragon Galaxy S10+ is actually the first phone I would have considered giving a gold award to, which considering that over the years I've never given an award to any phone should put things into context.
If you’re a reader in the US or other Snapdragon markets, you can stop reading here and feel happy about your purchase or go ahead and buy the Galaxy S10+.
Unfortunately the rest of the world gets another phone. Although battery life and performance this year aren’t an issue for the Exynos variant, the unexpected huge discrepancies in the camera quality, some screen calibration bugs, and the audio quality disparity all make this variant of the Galaxy S10+ a lesser choice. Except for the audio matter, most of these issues are software related. However I do have reservations if it’s even possible to make the camera processing equal to the Snapdragon.
Yet even with all these drawbacks, the Exynos variant of the Galaxy S10+ is still a great phone. It's just not as great as the Snapdragon version; which is to say that it's not as great as it could and should be. Consequently, interested buyers may want to wait a few months to get it at a cheaper price, making one feel better about the disadvantages it has against the Snapdragon.
Ultimately if Samsung wants to continue to compete against Apple and a surging Huawei in the ultra-high-end smartphone space, they will need to be able to deliver more consistent products across all markets. That Samsung Mobile division is not a vertically integrated with full control over their own silicon is now starting to show its disadvantages. It’s clear that vertical integration and more exclusive features is how things will go forward in the future for vendors who want to truly differentiate their products. In Samsung Mobile’s case, even with Samsung's incredible resources at their disposal, if they have to split their attention across two variants, it means each model will only get half the invested effort. Which, I suppose, is food for thought for what this means for the future of Samsung’s flagship devices.