Samsung Galaxy S10E review: short, not shortchanged

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Samsung’s smaller S10 is a step in the right direction

The past few years in smartphones have led us to believe that bigger is better: bigger displays, bigger batteries, and bigger price tags on these pocket computers we carry with us every day. Thankfully, in the case of the new Galaxy S10E, that’s no longer true. With the 10th anniversary Galaxy, Samsung is offering a smaller variant of its flagship phone that punches way above its weight.

There’s more to the S10E than just its size. But, for a lot of people, that may be the strongest reason to choose this model over the S10 or S10 Plus. If you’re intent on upgrading to one of the new S10 models, the S10E is the best Galaxy model for most.

The best way to think about this phone is to figure out what the “E” in S10E stands for. Samsung’s already said that the E is short for “essential,” but where the device stands out is its ergonomics. The S10E measures just one millimeter narrower than the canonical S10, but it’s significantly shorter by 7.7 mm, or roughly a third of an inch, and it’s more comfortable to hold securely — especially if you have smaller hands like I do.

I prefer the S10E’s flat screen over the S10’s curved edges

Despite a tiny width difference, the S10E’s display drops to a 5.8-inch screen from the S10’s 6.1-inch screen due to thicker bezels on the side. Personally, I think Samsung could have gone even smaller. It still doesn’t quite fit in my jeans pockets without peeping out from the top. The company says it stuck with a 5.8-inch display because it found that Galaxy customers liked that size from the S8 and S9.

The S10E’s screen is also flat instead of using the curved sides that Samsung put on its flagship Galaxies from the past few years. I actually prefer this screen over the other S10s. Full-screen videos look less warped, and my palm doesn’t wrap over the edge screen as much. It also makes the edge lighting feature for notifications look much more vibrant and lively against the darker sides of the screen.

One main differentiator between the S10E and its taller siblings is the placement of the fingerprint sensor. Instead of the new (and somewhat controversial) in-screen reader, the S10E built a capacitive sensor into power button on the right side. Its placement is right around where your right thumb normally rests when you pick up the phone, making it a lot more natural to use than the in-screen sensor. It’s also extremely fast and authenticates instantaneously. There’s a small divot that lets you easily find the power button without looking at where you’re aiming, which I find nicer than Sony’s side fingerprint design that has it flush with the rest of the phone.

Left-handers might find the fingerprint reader’s placement to be awkward

Even with this placement, left-handers might find it a bit awkward to use. Remember how the S8’s fingerprint sensor was on the right side of the rear camera? Then, with the S9, Samsung moved it to the center underneath the camera lens? When you have the S10E in your left hand, you end up having to use your left index or middle finger sideways to reach the power button. In my experience, it took longer for the S10E to register my left fingerprints, and sometimes it could take a bit of finesse to get that sideways placement just right. Once you have this nailed down, it does work fast and fine, but it still feels like a left-hand-friendly design was an afterthought.

One great thing about the S10E’s power button is that you can still use it to drag down the top navigation bar, which is a feature you end up losing with the S10’s in-screen reader. Even with the shorter display, I still can’t quite reach the top of the screen without wiggling the phone down my palm, so being able to navigate in this way is super convenient — as long as the phone is in your right hand.

Let’s loop back to Samsung’s interpretation of the E in S10E: essentials. I think Samsung has mostly nailed that. With this phone, you’re not sacrificing much of the S10 experience, and the list of things that are constant between the S10E and the S10 is a lot longer than what it’s missing.

Here’s what you actually give up: the telephoto lens, a bigger battery, and a nicer screen. The S10E has a Full HD display instead of a Quad HD display, which means it’s only 1080p wide and has about 100 ppi less than the regular S10. If you’re coming from a Quad HD display, this difference could be noticeable. For me, I only started to see the discrepancies when I lined it up with another phone in its category, like the Pixel 3. Even after adjusting the tones on the S10E for more vibrancy, the whites are whiter on the Pixel, and you get a lot more depth there. But it’s something I don’t think most people will notice without directly comparing the screens.

The same could be said about the S10E’s camera. Sure, it only has two cameras in the rear instead of three, but I think 95 percent of people will love the photos that this phone can take. Pictures are sharp and vibrant, and there’s a lot of versatility between its Pro, Instagram, and Beauty modes. (Skin smoothing on the Samsung looks a lot more natural when you don’t crank the volume all the way up to 7, but I know it’s fake, and that makes it a lot less fun to use, much less share. But more power to you if you enjoy it!)

Where it starts to feel like you’re missing out is when you compare niche features to competitors like the Pixel. I’ll admit that perhaps I’m spoiled by the Pixel’s Night Sight and ultra-wide selfies. With low light photography, in particular, you can’t manually turn Bright Night on for the S10E unless it’s very dark out. Even with it on, the processing just looks much better on Pixel’s Night Sight, with more details and vibrancy.

As for the wide angle selfie camera, the S10E’s lens doesn’t extend as far for group selfies (97 degrees field of view on the Pixel versus 80 degrees on the S10E). It also tends to overexpose skin tones and make everyone look pale.

These are minor grievances, though. If you’re coming from an older Galaxy, you’ll be very happy with the upgrades without splurging for the $1,000 S10.

The battery is a little smaller at 3,100mAh compared to the S10’s 3,400mAh battery, but it works out to be roughly the same battery life because of the S10E’s smaller display. I’ve been using the device for a few days, and it makes it through an entire day of scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, Slack, and playing games on my commute without needing to recharge until I go to bed. (That’s without using the power-saving mode.) Batteries do degrade over time, though, so I worry that, in a few months, this won’t be the case. For now, I’d recommend keeping power saving on to keep the device trudging longer into the night.

Get a better screen protector

There are a couple of other things I didn’t love, including the size of Samsung’s default keyboard. With a smaller display, everything is naturally going to be more condensed, and I found myself making more typos even after making the keyboard as large as it can get. I also ran into similar issues that we had with the S10 / S10 Plus’ face unlock, and I was also able to unlock the device with a video of myself.

Thankfully, these are easy things to work around. If you decide to go for this device, the first things to do are to adjust the icons so that they don’t look cartoonishly big and download an app like Gboard to address the keyboard issues. For biometric unlocks, just stick with the fingerprint sensor and a pin / pattern.

One last thing to note with the S10s is that they now come with a screen protector preinstalled. And while it’s thoughtful of Samsung to include it out of the box, it’s not very good at protecting against scratches. I’ve only had the device for a week, and I’ve already seen some significant scrapes. The corner radius and the hole-punch camera also don’t quite match up with the display, which is hard to unsee once you spot it. I’d go ahead and just get a better screen protector and not rely on the one Samsung stuck on here.

Somewhere, this is bothering someone immensely.

The last E is economics. At $750, you’re getting nearly the full S10 experience without spending as much money and in a size that’s a lot more appealing across demographics. Samsung phones also tend to go on sale pretty quickly after new Galaxies are announced, so you’ll probably find the S10E discounted or in BOGO deals very soon.

If you’re looking for a good, small Android or one that isn’t uncomfortably close to a thousand bucks, this is a phone that I think most people will enjoy without sacrificing much in quality. Smaller and cheaper doesn’t have to mean worse, and I think it’s time major smartphone manufacturers start making devices that can do the most without a gigantic size. The S10E is a good step in the right direction, one I hope others will follow.

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