A little over half a decade ago, OnePlus spearheaded the introduction of the value flagship segment. The premise was straightforward. Offer top-tier specs at a price that’s affordable to a much wider set of buyers. That strategy, however, isn’t infinitely sustainable without a wider portfolio of devices to sustain growth and profit margins. The company’s constant trajectory up the pricing ladder and the introduction of the Nord series is further proof of the same.
Samsung has traditionally been at either end of the value spectrum. While the company thrived in the entry-to-mid-range segments as well as flagships through its Galaxy S and Galaxy Note families, it has traditionally been a bit shy about going up against the likes of OnePlus in the $500-700 segment.
All this changed with the advent of the Note 10 Lite and S10 Lite in 2019. The two phones saw Samsung taking baby steps into the world of value flagships. While the phones made some compromises to hit a lower price point, they garnered favorable reviews and were generally well-received. The one-off Galaxy S10e was yet another beloved phone aimed towards people looking for a more pocketable smartphone without major sacrifices on power or features.
Related: The best Samsung phones you can buy
Blame it on slowing upgrade cycles, lack of differentiation, or simply, an uncertain economy, buyers are looking for value. The resounding success of the iPhone SE has further proved the importance of a device that straddles the fine line between performance, features, and value, though for those used to true flagship experiences Apple’s budget phone was perhaps a step too far down the ladder.
Some 2020 phones like the Google Pixel 5 and LG Velvet bridged the gap between the mid-range and premium market by offering flagship-style phones with weaker processors, but these didn’t deliver the raw power many enthusiast buyers crave. With OnePlus seemingly preoccupied with its new budget Nord line and an increased focus on the premium tier, the affordable flagship market was left wide open for Samsung — it just needed the right phone.
Enter the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE.
Like the Note 10 Lite and the S10 Lite, the premise of the Galaxy S20 Fan Edition (or just Galaxy S20 FE for short) is similar: build a cut-down version of a popular high-end model. Except this time around, the additions far outweigh the omissions. Having spent about a month with the phone, I’m fairly confident that the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, yes even with the Exynos 990 chipset in my version here in India, is the sleeper hit of 2020.
Let’s talk about design and finish. It’s arguably one of the most distinguishing features of a premium smartphone. Polycarbonate isn’t perceived as the most premium material in a world of glass and metal sandwiches. However, it affords a range of striking pastel shades that look downright gorgeous. The shades spoke to me when Samsung announced the phone, and the minty green hue of the Galaxy S20 FE was positively refreshing to see in the flesh. My colleague C Scott Brown recently took the red version for a spin and was equally enamored with the bright and bold look.
But it’s not just colors. The fact of the matter is that polycarbonate, when done right, can be a fantastic material for a smartphone. No matter how good-tempered glass gets, polycarbonate will hold up better against drops and scratches.
Then there’s the flat display. Call it a cost-saving measure, or Samsung listening to user feedback. The 6.5-inch size and flat screen simply make the phone better for usability. Moreover, Samsung makes some of the best AMOLED panels in the business. The Galaxy S20 FE is no exception. It sports a fantastic one. The 120Hz panel is absolutely stunning to look at with none of the display issues often found on rival OnePlus hardware.
Stripping away unnecessary design flourishes to make a phone more 'premium' can actually make a phone better. Who'd have thought?
Even on the imaging front, the Galaxy S20 FE wins by focusing more on image quality than gimmicks or megapixels. Compared to the OnePlus 8T, the most obvious competitor, the Galaxy S20 FE’s stellar 12-megapixel camera wins out over the 48MP sensor on the competition. Samsung’s color science pulls ahead of the 108MP camera-equipped Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro as well, which targets the same affordable flagship segment.
In fact, we pit the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE against the iPhone 12 and came out surprised just how close the two phones were — check it out via the link above. Additionally, while it’s down to personal preference, a more traditional trio of a wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto should be a lot more useful than the macro and depth sensors available on alternate options.
But hey, that’s the basics. Where Samsung really hits it out of the park is the sheer number of value additions. Want microSD expansion? You got it. How about wireless charging? That’s included too. The large 4,500mAh battery also lasts a day and a half without breaking a sweat. It makes the lack of 30W or 65W charging speeds a lot more tolerable.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE packs a laundry list of hardware differentiators like an IP68 rating and wireless charging.
Then are features like Samsung Pay. Once kept aside for more premium offerings, Samsung has been bringing its payment solution further down the lineup. The Galaxy S20 FE benefits from it as well. The real advantage here is support for MST or magnetic stripe readers which are still exceedingly popular in markets like India. It makes the idea of a fully digital payment future a lot more feasible.
Even on the software front, the cleaned-up One UI is a step above most smartphone skins. I know, I know, Oxygen OS is the darling of Android fans. However, there’s a case to be made for the sheer number of useful feature additions that Samsung has made to One UI — be it Good Lock or the excellent Dex Mode.
Samsung phones also integrate beautifully with Windows PCs. My personal favorite? Dual Bluetooth connectivity to share your audio stream with multiple speakers or headphones.
Priced the same as the OnePlus 8T, the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE offers a very different experience. For those unlucky enough to only get the Exynos variant (like me), the Snapdragon 865 in the OnePlus 8T offers a lot more grunt for performance seekers. Elsewhere, it’s great to see true flagship power in an affordable Samsung phone. However, performance isn’t the be-all and end-all of a smartphone.
While enthusiasts will, obviously, seek performance, the average user is more often than not, looking for quality-of-life features. And in a world of alternatives that don’t often add much to enhance usability, the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE is a shining example of hardware and features that make a direct impact in day to day usage.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE democratizes all the key features of the Galaxy S20 at a price point that is highly competitive — and that’s no small thing.
This is Samsung realizing that with relatively diminishing gains in the top-tier flagship segment, it’s time to focus on distilling the innovations to one of the fastest-growing market segments.
Between a highly-competitive value flagship, and pushing the gamut with its foldable phones, Samsung has all the right pieces in place to make strides across two of the most important verticals in 2021.
Read our full verdict: Samsung Galaxy S20 FE review