There was something a little unusual about this week's Galaxy S20 launch, and no, it had nothing to do with the 108-MP main camera that highlights the Galaxy S20 Ultra or even the impressive-looking Galaxy Z Flip that stole some of the spotlight away from Samsung's new flagships. Rather, it was because at an event meant to highlight new devices, Samsung devoted a little stage time to last year's phones.
Specifically, Samsung highlighted the Galaxy S10 lineup it introduced a year ago rather than let those phones fade quietly into the background while the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra grabbed all the attention. Instead, Samsung announced a $150 price cut on the three main Galaxy S10 models. You can now get a Galaxy S10e for as little as $599, while the prices on the Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus have dropped to $749 and $849, respectively.
When new flagships come out, prices drop on older phones all the time. But in the case of Samsung, that usually happens quietly, with all the fanfare directed at the new flagships. Publicly announcing price cuts is a departure for the phone maker, and perhaps the beginning of a new strategy by Samsung to court smartphone shoppers put off by $1,000-and-up price tags on new flagships.
"I’m not privy to the decision behind this, but when I saw it come up at the event, it very much reminded me of what I’ve seen at Apple events," said Tuong Nguyen, a senior principal analyst at Gartner, referring to Apple's practice of announcing price cuts on old models whenever it launches new iPhones.
"It feels more that a coincidence that not only are Samsung and Apple competitors, but we’re specifically talking about the high-end hero product, [the] S10/S20, which is in direct competition with Apple’s phones."
Galaxy S20: Is the price right?
It's easy to understand why Samsung might be motivated to point budget-minded shoppers to discounted Galaxy S10 phones. While the new Galaxy S20 lineup boasts some impressive features, they have hefty price tags to match. The Galaxy S20 starts at $999 — the same price the Galaxy S10 Plus debuted at a year ago. The S20 Plus and S20 Ultra light up the cash register with respective starting prices of $1,199 and $1,399. Pre-orders on the Galaxy S20 start Feb. 21.
That's an awful lot to pay for a phone, particularly when overall smartphone sales suggest that there's a limit to just how much people are willing to pay for a flagship phone. As an example, there's probably a reason why the iPhone 11 has been Apple's best seller since the new iPhones came out last fall — paying $300 less than what the iPhone 11 Pro costs is probably more appealing to a wider audience than having a telephoto camera lens or an OLED screen.
"The most current launch — [the] S20, or whatever may come for Samsung or other vendors — tends to target a very specific group of buyers. These are tech enthusiasts and early adopters and others with the disposable income that are not concerned with the price, or when they last replaced their device," Nguyen said. "Then there is the rest of us. This includes people who may want more premium features than they currently have, but don’t necessarily require, or value having it first."
The Galaxy S10 lineup certainly fits that description. While these models have been out a year and newer phones can boast more premium specs, all three S10 phones are still among the best Android phones you can buy. That’s thanks to long-lasting batteries, solid cameras and processors that still deliver outstanding performance, even if they no longer run on Qualcomm's top-of-the-line chipset.
What you give up with the Galaxy S10
We've broken down the differences between the Galaxy S20 versus the Galaxy S10 elsewhere, but here's a quick summary of the biggest sacrifices you'll have to make to enjoy the S10's lower prices.
More powerful cameras: Cameras are really the standout feature on the S20 lineup, highlighted by the Galaxy S20 Ultra and its 108-MP main camera and 48-MP telephoto lens capable of a 10x lossless zoom and 100x digital zoom. But even if the Ultra is too rich for your blood, the Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus boast camera improvements, too, with a 12-MP main lens, 12-MP ultra wide angle camera and 48-MP telephoto shooter supporting a 3x optical zoom. The S20 Plus adds a time-of-flight sensor to help out with portrait shoots.
Those specs are definitely better than anything you'll find in the Galaxy S10 models, so if premium photo-taking tops your wish list for smartphones, you'll want to consider Samsung's newer models. Still, while the Galaxy S10 couldn't match top camera phones like the iPhone 11 Pro or the Pixel 4, they still take very good photos, and outperform similarly priced camera phones.
5G: To get 5G connectivity with the S10 lineup last year, you would have had to pay up for the $1,299 Galaxy S10 5G. Now 5G compatibility is standard across the Galaxy S20 lineup, and those phones will work with any 5G network, not just ones based on millimeter wave technology like the S10 5G was limited to.
So obviously, if you want to experience 5G first-hand — or you want a phone that's going to be able to take advantage of expanded 5G networks in the next couple years — the S20 is the way to go. If you can live without 5G, the S10's the better choice.
Faster refresh rate: All three Galaxy S20 models feature OLED screens that offer refresh rates of 120-Hz — double what the S10 lineup is capable of. Faster refresh rates make for smoother scrolling and better gaming experiences, so this is a welcome addition to Samsung's phones.
However, on the S20, you're not able to opt for the 120-Hz refresh rate at the phones' full resolution. Instead, you have to scale down to Full HD. That removes some of the luster from the S20's 120-Hz refresh, making it easier to opt for the lower-cost S10 phones.
Newer processor: New phones get faster processors. In the case of the Galaxy S20 models shipping in the U.S., that's the Snapdragon 865 — an upgrade from the Snapdragon 855 chipset in last year's S10. We won't be able to benchmark the Galaxy S20 until we get closer to the phones' March 6 release date, but we have benchmarked the Snapdragon 865 on a Qualcomm-supplied reference device, and the new system-on-chip comes very close to matching the performance of Apple's pace-setting A13 Bionic chip.
That said, the Snapdragon 855-powered Galaxy S10 phones are hardly laggards. You won't get best-in-class performance now that Snapdragon 865 devices are hitting the market, but the S10 lineup will run demanding apps and handle multitasking without any hiccups.
Bigger batteries: The Galaxy S10 Plus rode a massive 4,100 mAh battery to an outstanding 12 hour, 35 minute time on our battery test, which involves continuous web surfing until a phone runs out of juice. But bigger batteries are par for the course on Samsung's new phones, with the S20 kicking things off with a 4,000 mAh battery. Opt for the S20 Ultra, and you'll get a 5,000 mAh power pack.
5G connectivity, faster refresh rates and other features require bigger batteries, of course. But we'd expect the Galaxy S20 phones to outlast most of their predecessors once we get a chance to test them.
The bottom line? Unless you really demand the latest and greatest hardware from your phone, the Galaxy S10 tradeoffs are slight, especially in light of the lower cost of the phones.
Can the Galaxy S10 be a low-price winner?
Still, the stigma of "last year's phones this year" may put off some smartphone shoppers, to the point where it's worth asking whether Samsung should have come out the S20 equivalent of the Galaxy S10e — a lower cost model of its new flagship with more stripped-down features.
Nguyen isn't so sure: "Instead of a lower cost version of the S20, I think they decided to emphasize the S10 options." And with 5G connectivity and faster refresh rates, there's only so low your price can go.
It's an interesting gamble for Samsung, as it seeks to push out new features on its flagship phones while also continuing to offer high-end handsets that more shoppers can afford. Whether this turns out to be a new direction for Samsung's phone lineup will be determined with how comfortable people are snapping up 2019's top Android phone in 2020. But clearly the phone maker thinks the Galaxy S10 offers enough to still be a front-line phone a year after its initial release.