When it's time to start building their new, premium smartphones, companies like Samsung are usually driven by a simple mantra: "more." More power, more features, more cameras. And it's to the point where — after a while — it all starts to seem like overkill. Sure, all of these high-end devices are drool-worthy, but honestly, who needs that much smartphone? Maybe you do, since you're reading a review on Engadget. And so do I, as you might expect from a professional phone snob.
The thing to remember is that, broadly speaking, we're the outliers here. Most people want a powerful, capable phone that doesn't cost $1,000 and won't feel obsolete in a year. That's where Samsung's smaller, $750 Galaxy S10e comes in. If phones like the S10+ represent the company at the peak of its hardware and software game, the S10e reflects an understanding that these new developments really shine when more people get to use them. The end result: A smartphone that, while not as flashy as its siblings, packs nearly all of the modern conveniences that make those pricier devices such a pleasure to use.
- Affordable by S10 standards
- Excellent performance
- Great trio of cameras
- Much-improved software
- Great for one-handed use
- Underwhelming battery life
- Questionable fingerprint sensor placement
- What is the point of Bixby?
And when I say "nearly all," I mean it. The S10e comes clad in the same colorful finishes as the regular S10 (plus a few extras in certain markets), and rocks the same slightly squarish design. There's a USB-C port and a classic headphone jack on the phone's bottom, plus a SIM tray on top that also takes microSD cards as large as 512GB. For better or worse, the physical Bixby button still lives on the phone's left side so you can talk to Samsung's slightly improved virtual assistant. Even the wireless PowerShare system found in the S10 and S10+ is here, you can wirelessly charge the phone charge other devices wirelessly with the phone. Granted, you won't be charging your friend's phone or smartwatch terribly quickly, but the fact that Samsung even bothered to carry it over to the S10e remains a pleasant surprise.
Most importantly, though, the S10e uses the exact same Snapdragon 855 chipset you'll find in every other premium smartphone this year. I'll dig into performance a little later, but suffice to say that even with the 6GB of RAM found in the base model S10e, you're still getting full flagship power at a significant discount. Oh, and in case it wasn't clear, you're getting it in a smaller package, too.
With rare exception, smartphone makers rarely produce small, high-end devices. (Sony is the only company that readily springs to mind, but c'mon: No one really buys their phones.) Because of that, the S10e can't help but feel a little refreshing. It slides in and out of pockets with minimal fuss, and despite the learning curve that comes with using a smaller screen after years of using phablets, I've really enjoyed living with the S10e. That's partially due to how nice the fit and finish of this cheaper phone is, but it's also because of how its design differs slightly from the S10 and S10+. See, those phones have sides that terminate in slightly flat edges, and whenever I use them, it feels like the edges are all I'm ever really holding onto. The metal frame on the S10e has slightly wider sides, however, which makes this smaller phone noticeably easier to grip than either of the bigger models.
Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S10e review | 19 Photos
Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S10e review | 19 Photos
Overall, the S10e is as well-built as the S10 and S10+, but I still have a few quibbles. I'm all for phones that won't strain your hands or your wrists, but the S10e is so light it feels a little insubstantial at times. Granted, the massive S10+ is almost startlingly light, too, but I had to throw a case on the S10e before I ever really felt comfortable using it. Cases will also help with the phone's inherent slipperiness; I can't tell you the number of times I put the caseless S10e down on an almost-completely flat surface and watched in horror as it skittered to the floor.
And then there's the fingerprint sensor. To help keep costs down, Samsung avoided the ultrasonic, in-display sensor found in the S10 and S10+ in favor of a more traditional sensor wedged high on the S10e's right side. Considering how finicky that ultrasonic sensor has been for some people, this hardly seems like a compromise. Or at least, it wouldn't feel like a compromise if the sensor weren't so awkwardly positioned.
When you can get your finger on there just right, you can unlock your phone almost instantaneously. In my experience at least, getting your finger to the right spot can be a little of a headache; it sometimes requires a bit of a stretch, especially for people with small hands. And that's assuming you're using your right hand. I've never been able to unlock the phone with my left index finger on the first try, so I'm a little concerned about how well lefties would take to this thing. This isn't a dealbreaker so much as one of those low-level annoyances you'll have to learn to live with. You could always set up face recognition for faster unlocking, but since Samsung ditched its iris scanners for the Galaxy S10 series, that's easily one of the least secure ways to get into the S10e.
In some crucial ways, the S10e doesn't stray far from the standard S10's high-performance formula. That was the whole point. In general, Samsung has said it focused on two key areas for every version of the S10 family: The screens and the cameras. It's probably no surprise that these areas are where the S10e stands apart most noticeably, and the company's decisions for both have made a dramatic impact on what it's like to use this phone.
First up, that screen. I'll be frank: the 5.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display here is noticeably smaller than the S10's, and after years of defaulting to big phones, getting used to a panel like this has taken me more time than I'd care to admit. You can expect the same sort of learning curve if you're used to larger screens, but you'll feel right at home here if you're upgrading from a tiny device already, or if you just prefer the idea of a relatively pint-sized phone.
As usual, though, the display here is gorgeous. The S10e sports one of Samsung's first HDR10+ certified screens, and it shows — the colors here just sing, and I never had trouble reading on the display under harsh sunlight thanks to its improved brightness. Just be aware that its maximum resolution is Full HD+ (2,280 x 1,080), a far cry from the 3,040 x 1,440 resolution the S10 and S10+ max out at. That's another key compromise that Samsung made to help keep the S10e relatively cheap, but thankfully, it's an easy one to live with.
I've been using the S10e and the S10+ extensively over the past week, and honestly, the difference in overall quality isn't very noticeable. It's certainly there: The S10+'s display is more pixel-dense and is, therefore, better at showing off fine detail in images. In terms of brightness and colors, though, the S10e gets pretty close, and there have been a few situations where I've actually preferred how colors looked on the S10e. (In case you were curious, both phone displays were running in the "Vivid" color mode, so they should have looked virtually identical.)
The S10e's hole-punch (sorry, "Infinity O") display will probably take a little more getting used to. Between CES and Mobile World Congress, I've tested my share of hole-punch smartphone screens, and if you're concerned about them, don't be. Seeing a hole cut out of a screen to let a 10-megapixel camera peek through is definitely a little strange at first, and for a while at least, you might have a hard time not looking at it while you're watching a full-screen video or playing a game. That impulse will fade. The cutout is off in a corner where your eyes never really linger for long anyway, and because of the hole's placement, I find it much easier to tolerate than big notches that eat into the top of a display. You just might agree. And if not, well, considering the way the industry is moving, you're just going to have to get used to them.
And then there are the cameras, Samsung's second big area of focus this year. We've seen smartphone makers pack an absurd number of cameras into their phones over the past eight months, but the Galaxy S10e feels like proof that we don't need that many sensors to capture great shots. There are only three here: a 10-megapixel front camera, plus rear-facing 12-megapixel wide and 16-megapixel ultra-wide cameras. The only thing that the S10e lacks compared to the S10 and S10+ is a third, telephoto camera around back, and frankly, you shouldn't worry about that too much.
That's because the cameras on the S10 are fantastic — not to mention dramatically better than what we saw last year. The S10e's image quality seems marginally better than what the Galaxy Note 9 was capable of, and even the pickiest among you will find plenty of detail in those 12-megapixel shots. And, as usual, Samsung's image processing means the objects and landscapes you see in the S10e's photos often looks a little better than reality. We could get into a big, philosophical argument about whether a camera should improve on what it sees versus simply capturing whatever's in front of it, but let's save that for another time.
Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S10e camera samples | 22 Photos
Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S10e camera samples | 22 Photos
All in all, the S10e produces photos that are just as vivid and gripping as those taken with an S10 and S10+. As good as the S10e's main camera is, though, I still don't think it's enough to unseat the Pixel 3 as the king of smartphone cameras. Samsung's sensor might be more modern, but Google's command of computational photography is unmatched, and still manages to outclass the Galaxy S10e in low-light and nighttime shooting.
That said, the secondary camera here helps give Samsung a leg up on the competition. The ultra-wide camera captures a 123-degree field of view meant to mimic what you can see with your own eyes, and it gives photos a sense of space they would've otherwise lacked. Shots taken with this 16-megapixel camera are crisp and satisfying, but the same issues with barrel distortion we ran into with the S10+ apply here. If you're standing a little too close to your subject, you'll probably notice a reality-bending fisheye effect around the edges. As you might expect, the effect worsens when you're very close to your subject.
Thankfully, toggling between the wide and ultra-wide modes is a breeze, so you'll never really have trouble shooting with the wrong camera. And if the fisheye is especially bothersome, you can toggle a setting that tries to correct that distortion after you've taken the photo. It works fairly well most of the time, but the easiest fix might be to just back up a little bit first.
In terms of pure flexibility, though, I'd gladly take the ultra-wide camera over a telephoto — you can walk right up to your subject if you want a tight shot, but the sense of scope the ultra-wide gives photos can be hard to replicate otherwise. That approach also carries over to the front-facing camera, too. It takes perfectly nice selfies (especially once the aggressive beauty mode is turned off) and you can toggle the camera to take slightly more expansive shots. The effect isn't as dramatic since there's only one camera up-front and most of the wide-angle magic happens in software, but it's better than nothing.
These cameras pack a few other tricks, too, like an occasionally handy Shot Suggestion mode that basically just tells you where to aim. It's occasionally helpful in finding perspectives I wouldn't have thought of myself, but there's a reason it's off by default; I ended up ignoring it half the time because it asked me to aim at something I didn't want to. You can also shoot video at 4K HDR10+ if that's your thing, not to mention crisp "Super Steady" video. I'm not sure any of these are make-or-break features for the Galaxy S10e, but the fact that they're all here proves that Samsung wasn't willing to water down the camera experience just to save some money.
I'm not going to dwell on it for too long, but the S10e's performance hasn't been watered down either. As mentioned, the S10e shares the same brain as the pricier S10 and S10+, and in my experience, you'll only ever notice a difference between these phones when you get a lot of apps running side by side and jump between them like a madman. Even then, the difference in speed is practically negligible. Whether you're gaming hard or just trying to get through your work day, there is more than enough horsepower here for you. I will say, though, that when really pushing the S10e, it seemed to get warm faster than the S10+, but this didn't result in any noticeable performance degradation.
We dug into Samsung's updated software in our Galaxy S10+ review, but I think it's worth pointing out again that using it feels like a revelation, especially if you're coming from an older Samsung device. The new One UI isn't just smoother and cleaner than what we used to get in Samsung's TouchWiz days — it's also more thoughtful. Menus, especially in the device's settings, have been redesigned to push options down toward where your thumb naturally rests. There's a system-wide dark theme here, for instance, which has been remarkably helpful when I've been up late cruising forum threads. I've always hated the Android 9.0 Pie's default gesture navigation (especially on the Pixel 3s) so the ability to use traditional navigation buttons again has been a godsend.
Even Bixby has gotten a little more tolerable this time around — it's still very good for very granular voice commands like "set screen brightness to 50 percent", but more important is the ability to run "routines" made of specific device actions depending on what time it is or where you are. In particular, I've grown fond of quick commands, which basically act like macros you can toggle at will; I built one dubbed "Bedtime" that toggle the phone's blue light filter and automatically launched the Kindle app for a bit of pre-sleep reading. Ultimately, though, the best thing about Bixby this year is that you can remap its button to do something else entirely.
All told, actually using the S10e as my daily driver has been almost uniformly great. My only real concern here is the battery: There's a 3,100mAh cell tucked away inside, and even with Samsung's use of AI to manage the phone's performance, I've generally only been able to use the S10e for between 12 and 14 hours on a charge. In fairness, I tend to push my phones pretty hard, and on weekdays I hardly ever put them down. Over quiet weekends when I managed to ignore the S10e more easily, it would easily last from one morning to the next with a little bit of juice left. That's not bad, necessarily, but it pales in comparison to the battery life we got out of the S10+ — there's no way it couldn't, considering the difference in battery size. If you're the kind of person who remains glued to your phone, the S10e may come up short.
So, with all that said, should the Galaxy S10e be your next phone? Well, if all you care about is getting a high-performance phone with great cameras that won't strain your pocket or your wallet, the answer is a definitive "yes." The S10e is the best "small" Android phone we've tested in a really long time, and the blend of power and polish here means you can safely splurge and not worry about upgrading for a while.
To be clear, the S10e still falls well short of perfection: The battery life here is mildly concerning, and the phone's cheap-ish charms may soon waver a bit thanks to stiff competition (hi, OnePlus). In every other way that matters, though, the S10e never left me feeling like I was working with a lesser smartphone.