Samsung Galaxy S20 FE review: Still a true flagship killer

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Galaxy S20 FE in Cloud RedSource: Hayato Huseman / Android Central

For years, there’s been a stigma around using plastic designs in high-end, expensive phones. Consumers have come to expect more luxurious materials like metal and glass, which, despite being more fragile than plastic, typically have a more “premium” feel.

I’m definitely guilty of shying away from devices whose spec sheets feature the word polycarbonate. I was reluctant to try the Galaxy Note 20 for precisely that reason. But once my review unit came in, my concerns surrounding creakiness and a cheap in-hand feel disappeared. Build quality, in general, has massively improved since the days when plastic flagships were commonplace, and the Note 20 felt just as solid as any other phone I’d tested in recent memory.

The story is similar to the Galaxy S20 Fan Edition — better known as the S20 FE. This phone is the latest in Samsung’s crusade to dominate every pricing tier with a well-rounded device that makes the appropriate sacrifices while maintaining the company’s standards for quality and performance. In short, it’s like any other phone in the S20 lineup, save for a plastic back and a flat display that brings it to a significantly lower price.

That means trouble for other affordable flagship manufacturers like Google and OnePlus, but for the rest of us, it’s great news. The S20 FE isn’t just a great phone, it’s still one of the best Android phones that we recommend to just about anyone, thanks to its unbeatable value. The S21 FE could replace it come January, but for now, this flagship killer continues to kill it.

Galaxy S20 FE in Cloud Mint

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

Bottom line: The Galaxy S20 FE offers nearly everything you’d find on Samsung’s more expensive models, with high-end specs and impressive cameras. The screen is totally flat, which means fewer accidental touches, and the back of the phone is made of sturdy plastic.

The Good

  • Flat 120Hz display is terrific
  • All-day battery life
  • Promised three years of software updates
  • Impressive cameras with 3x optical zoom
  • Sturdy design with fun color options

The Bad

  • Not every color option is available everywhere
  • Camera can be slow to load

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE: Pricing & availability

Samsung Galaxy S20 FESource: Hayato Huseman / Android Central

The Galaxy S20 FE launched on October 2, with a single configuration in the U.S. offering 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM for $699.99. It’s gone on sale several times since its launch, often reaching as low as $600. Additionally, Samsung offers generous trade-in promotions, knocking up to $275 off of the phone’s total cost depending on your existing device and its condition.

There are six color options available: Cloud Navy, Cloud Lavender, Cloud Mint, Cloud Orange, Cloud Red, and Cloud White. Specific colors like Cloud Red are getting harder to find as we get closer and closer to the S21 FE launch, but you’ll always find some stock if you aren’t picky about colors.

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE: What I like

Galaxy S20 FE in Cloud LavenderSource: Hayato Huseman / Android Central

Anyone who’s used an S20 series device before will feel right at home on the S20 FE. It’s slightly larger than the baseline Galaxy S20, but it’s still a reasonable size with roughly the same footprint as the S20+ and a nearly identical design language. Of course, the main difference is the polycarbonate (read: plastic) backing, which features a matte texture and comes in a variety of vibrant, almost pastel colors.

This signals trouble for Google and OnePlus.

This isn’t the same flimsy plastic we saw on the Galaxy S5 years back. The S20 FE doesn’t creak or give under pressure; it feels just as solid as the rest of the S20 lineup, thanks in no small part to the aluminum frame, and likely won’t crack if dropped. With how many matte devices Samsung has released as of late, it’s also easy to forget that the S20 series was entirely glossy — this is a very welcome change.

I really love the color options on the S20 FE, too. Instead of a physical briefing, Samsung sent over one of every color for photo purposes, which gave me a chance to really appreciate each shade without the guesswork of relying on heavily touched-up photos. The Cloud Mint is by far my favorite — it matches my guitar! — but they’re all gorgeous, muted colors that add a fun element to the phone.

Just like the on the Note 20, Samsung also ditched the curved glass on the front of the S20 FE, instead opting for a totally flat display that, while a bit less flashy, is a massive functional improvement if you ask me. This means slightly larger bezels around the perimeter of the screen, but in exchange, you’ll experience zero accidental touches. Like the rest of the S20 series, the FE features a 120Hz refresh rate that makes every action on-screen feel buttery smooth.

Category Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
Operating System Android 11 / One UI 3.1
Display 6.5 inches, 20:9 aspect ratio, 2400×1080 (407 PPI) resolution, Super AMOLED
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 865
Memory 6GB RAM
Storage 128GB
Expandable Storage Yes (up to 1TB)
Rear Camera 12MP, ƒ/1.8, 1.8μm (wide)
12MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.12μm (ultra-wide)
8MP, ƒ/2.4, 1.0μm (telephoto)
Front Camera 32MP, ƒ/2.2, 0.8μm
Security Optical fingerprint sensor
Battery 4500mAh
Water Resistance IP68
Dimensions 159.8 x 74.5 x 8.4mm
Weight 190g
Colors Cloud Navy, Cloud Lavender, Cloud Mint, Cloud Orange, Cloud Red, Cloud White

There’s only one specs configuration of the S20 FE, at least in the States, with 128GB of expandable storage and 6GB of RAM, though Verizon sells its own variant (with the totally consumer-friendly name of Galaxy S20 FE 5G UW) that’s optimized for its Ultra Wideband network. I think 128GB is totally fine for most people, especially since you can expand it with microSD, though it’s worth noting that the 6GB of RAM is a slight step down from the 8GB and up on the rest of the S20 series.

It’s quite remarkable how much Samsung was able to make the Fan Edition fit in with the rest of the S20 lineup, despite a starting price that’s $300 below the retail value of its peers. You get the same Snapdragon 865 processor, the same One UI 3.1 and Android 11 experience, and the same gorgeous Super AMOLED display tech.

I’ve spent a lot of time with Samsung devices this year, and this one feels no different from the rest; performance is top-notch, and there are plenty of software perks like Edge Panels and even Wireless DeX — a relatively new feature that first debuted on the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra.

Battery life proved great on the S20 FE, as well. In the 10 days I’ve tested the phone, the 4500mAh cell was more than enough to last through each day without a problem. In addition, it averaged about 5 to 7 hours of screen-on time. The S20 FE supports 25W Fast Charging, though Samsung only includes a 15W brick in the box.

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE: Cameras

Galaxy S20 FE in Cloud MintSource: Hayato Huseman / Android Central

The S20 FE features three rear cameras in the de facto standard grouping of wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto lenses. The main sensor is the same one found on the standard S20: a 12MP ƒ/1.8 camera with all of the typical Samsung qualities you’d expect, both good and bad. Deeply saturated colors, a strong tendency to lift shadows, and a preference for warm tones.

Unsurprisingly, that means that it’s great for the most part, and the vast majority of users will love the photos it takes. If you’re a pickier photographer, you might take issue with the often very harsh haloing effect in bright outdoor lighting or the strong HDR effect that overly flattens daytime shots, but of course, you can take a bit of control over these problems by switching over to a manual shooting mode if you prefer.

Samsung seems to have changed up its telephoto lens choice with every new release this year, and on the S20 FE, that means an accurate 3X sensor that can reach up to 30X through Space Zoom, Samsung’s coined term for its combination of optical and digital zoom.

Of course, the telephoto sensor isn’t quite as sharp as the main one, but I’ve still been very happy with it overall. It’s great for snapping a closer shot without a second thought, and of course, digital zoom on the primary sensor helps fill out the 2X gap between cameras.

The ultra-wide seems to be nearly identical in performance to that of almost every other high-end phone Samsung has released this year — which isn’t a bad thing by any stretch. The S20 FE does a great job at minimalizing barrel distortion, though haloing is even worse on the ultra-wide.

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE: What I don’t like

Galaxy S20 FE in Cloud RedSource: Hayato Huseman / Android Central

It’s impressive just how much the S20 FE feels like any other S20 model, but it isn’t without its faults. The reduced 6GB of RAM is plenty for most tasks, but it can hang up at times when you’re running multiple heavy apps in split-screen view. I’ve also found that the S20 FE is relatively slow to launch the camera and always seems to lag a bit for the first second or two. That may not sound like much, but a second is all it takes to miss your shot.

It’s a bit odd that the S20 FE only includes a 15W charger in the box, as well. Even the maximum supported 25W is a bit slim by today’s standards (though it’s in line with the rest of Samsung’s selection), but I’m doubtful that there was indeed a massive cost savings in reducing the in-box charging speeds.

Of course, if you’re a fan of glass backs and curved screens, the S20 FE will feel like a downgrade in that regard from even the baseline S20. I think most people will be pleased with the build quality of the S20 FE, though. Switching over from devices like the Galaxy Z Flip and Galaxy Z Fold 2, I never once found myself wishing the S20 FE had used different materials.

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE: The competition

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 FESource: Hayato Huseman / Android Central

The Galaxy S21 takes considerable inspiration from the Galaxy S20 FE, featuring a similar polycarbonate design and flat Full HD display for just $100 more. We’ve compared the S21 vs. the S20 FE, and while they’re pretty evenly matched, the Galaxy S20 FE is still the cheaper option, especially since you don’t need to pay extra for more storage thanks to its microSD slot. It also has a larger display and battery. But the Galaxy S21 has a more powerful processor, 2 extra GB of RAM, more pixels per inch, and one more planned OS update. The Galaxy S21 tends to sell out more frequently, making the S20 FE a good alternative.

The S20 FE’s aggressive pricing puts it in direct competition with devices like the OnePlus 9 and the Pixel 6. However, in terms of pricing and carrier incentives, the S20 FE has a distinct advantage over the OnePlus 9 with its overall better cameras, faster updates — man, the tables have turned in that department, haven’t they? — and wider availability in the U.S., but the OnePlus 9’s OxygenOS still appeals to many over One UI 3.1 on the S20 FE.

The Pixel 6 could be the S20 FE’s most deadly competitor, much newer but costing $100 less at launch. Its new Google Tensor chipset gives the Pixel 6 snazzy AI tools, powerful camera processing, and more Android support. In terms of raw performance, the S20 FE’s Snapdragon 865 and Pixel 6 Tensor are probably on par with one another. And the S20 FE has a larger and brighter display, plus a telephoto camera (which the Pixel 6 lacks).

Finally, the toughest competitors to the S20 FE haven’t come out yet. We’re expecting the Galaxy S21 FE to arrive in January 2022, followed by the Galaxy S22. The S21 FE is rumored to have the Snapdragon 888, a 6.4-inch AMOLED with a 120Hz refresh rate, a 64MP camera sensor, and between 6GB and 12GB of RAM. The S22, on the other hand, will have an upgraded Snapdragon 898 chipset but a much more compact 6.06-inch display.

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE: Should you buy it?

Galaxy S20 FE in Cloud MintSource: Hayato Huseman / Android Central

You should buy this if …

You don’t need fancy build materials

The Galaxy S20 FE is a fantastic phone at a great price, but if you’re after a curved glass design like Samsung’s higher-end models, you won’t find it here. The S20 FE instead uses polycarbonate for its back panel, though it still relies on an aluminum frame for durability.

You want the S20 experience without spending four figures

Samsung designed the S20 FE as a flagship-tier device for a slightly tighter budget. However, you’ll still get all of the same great features you’d expect on an S20, including great cameras, 5G support, and a gorgeous 120Hz display, without having to spend an arm and a leg to get there.

You want all-day battery life

The S20 FE comes equipped with a 4500mAh battery, which is more than enough to provide all-day longevity, even with the 120Hz refresh rate enabled. Of course, you’ll need to provide your own charger to reach the full 25W charging speeds, but the 15W brick included in the box will keep you topped up without a problem.

You should not buy this if …

You want the best of the best

There are few compromises with the S20 FE, but at nearly half the price of the Note 20 Ultra and S21 Ultra, it’s still missing some premium features like S Pen support, Samsung’s massive new cameras, and even foldable display tech.

out of 5

All in all, the Galaxy S20 FE makes few concessions to reach its lower price point, offering the same level of quality and performance you’d expect from a modern Samsung device. It’s a fantastic value, priced hundreds below Samsung’s other flagship devices, and even with the Galaxy S21 out for only $100 more, the S20 FE offers a better value and a bigger screen for less.

The six colors also give you some vibrant style, which you can take even further with the best Galaxy S20 FE cases for a Samsung experience that’s bold and unique, inside and out. So while the S21 FE might be on the horizon, the S20 FE remains one of the better smartphone deals from Samsung.

Galaxy S20 FE in Cloud Mint

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

Bottom line: The Galaxy S20 FE offers nearly everything you’d find on the more expensive S20 variants, with a more affordable plastic design. It features three great cameras, excellent battery life, and years of guaranteed software updates.

Review Changelog, November 2021

This article was originally published in October 2020. It was updated in June 2021 with the following changes.

  • Updated pricing and links to reflect retailer availability.
  • Updated the competition section to include the OnePlus 9 and the Pixel 4a 5G.
  • Clarified the mentions of One UI 2.5 to One UI 3.1 now that the rollout has completed.

It was updated in November 2021 with the following changes.

  • Updated pricing and links to reflect retailer availability.
  • Updated the competition section to include the Pixel 6, Galaxy S21 FE, and Galaxy S22.

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