Jacob Krol/CNN
CNN —  

For those keeping score, Samsung released yet another phone — its 15th this year. The Galaxy S20 Fan Edition is a Frankenstein device, for which Samsung pulled what it deemed the “best” and “most important features” from the rest of the S20 family to build one monster of a device. And, at $699.99, it’s an affordable hodgepodge of a smartphone.

Budget and performance harmonize beautifully with the Galaxy S20 FE. After using it for 11 days, we’ve found that Android performs in the ways we’d expect. The camera is dependable. A flat screen is super nice and means no more accidental touches. And the design, while not super high-end, doesn’t feel like a cheap build.

Should you be oohing and aahing over the S20 FE? Keep reading to find out.

It feels really good in the hand

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Rather than a metal and glass build all around, Samsung swapped the glass back for a polycarbonate (read: plastic) back. It has a smooth matte finish that, at least with the Cloud Navy shade we tested, hides fingerprints pretty well (even when they were greasy after our all-important potato chip test). Dust and particles, though, do linger on top.

It’s not glossy like glass, so it’s easier to get a grip on. The point being, it still feels nice. It’s well-made plastic, which is then surrounded by a metal frame that adds rigidity to the S20 FE. The 6.5-inch 1080p HD display on the front features a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass 5 to protect from scratches and dreaded drops. It’s also a flat display, meaning the left and right sides don’t curve down the sides toward the back. Other S20s feature this, along with the Moto Edge (you could say it capitalizes on that), but it doesn’t provide much in terms of use cases. But the flat design here does eliminate accidental touches.

And let’s get a bit more specific on the 6.5-inch screen: It’s an FHD+ Super AMOLED Infinity-O display with a 1080 x 2400 resolution and 407 pixels per inch. In our tests, it’s sharp and vibrant.

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Most important for video playback and gaming would be the 120 Hz refresh rate. This measurement describes how many times in a second the screen refreshes itself. The higher the number, the better, and 120 Hz is the standard we wish every phone would reach. Whether you’re watching a YouTube video or a feature film on the S20 FE, you’re getting a TV-level experience. We also didn’t experience any pixelation when zooming in on text. For most people, a 1080p display is just fine. It does feel a bit less vibrant than the S20 Ultra or Note 20 Ultra, though.

Toward the bottom of the display, in the center, is a fingerprint sensor. It’s the same ultrasonic sensor found on other Samsung devices, and it performs well here. The more you use it, the easier it is to get the hang of it. It’s a nice higher-end feature to have on this midrange device.

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Rounding out the design is a volume rocker and power button on the right-hand side, a USB-C port and speaker on the bottom and a microSD card and SIM card slot on the top. The rear side does feature a slim camera bump with three cameras and an LED flash.

The S20 FE trucks along

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The Galaxy S20 FE is powered by the same Qualcomm processor as the rest of the S20 family. The big difference is the amount of RAM, as the S20 FE features a modest 6GB of RAM compared to the rest of the S20s that feature up to 12GB. It’s still ample enough to provide a runway for intense apps, multitasking and everyday use cases.

It might seem like a big number drop, but we didn’t notice much performance difference when completing core tasks. Browsing social networks like TikTok, Instagram and Twitter was seamless. Productivity apps like Outlook, Gmail, Google Drive, Docs, Trello, Slack and a few others worked just fine, even with multiple applications open in the background.

Real Racing 3, Call of Duty: Mobile and streaming titles from Xbox Game Pass (via the xCloud streaming service) all performed well. The first two run on-device, while the latter is streamed in via the internet. We didn’t notice any hangups with either approach, and the 120 Hz screen delivered a smooth experience.

Performance is really not a concern here, and it scored similarly to the rest of the S20 family in our tests. As with every CNN Underscored review, we ran the Galaxy S20 FE through a series of benchmarks to determine quantitative performance. In GeekBench 5 it scored a 900 on single-core and 3,197 on multi-core. In comparison, the Galaxy S20 scored a 911 on a single-core and a 3,233 on multi-core, while the S20+ scored a 918 on single-core and a 3,274 on multi-core. So, yes, the quantitative matches up with the qualitative here.

Inside the Galaxy S20 FE is a large 4,500mAh battery. That’s bigger than the battery in the A71 5G or Galaxy S20 from Samsung. We had no issues getting through a full day with 10 to 12 hours of use. It does support fast charging via a 25-watt brick, but Samsung only includes a 15-watt in the box. You can also charge it wirelessly or charge another device on the back with Wireless PowerShare.

And a quick note on 5G. As we always say, don’t buy a device just for the 5G connectivity — networks are still young in the United States. If anything, buy a device that has appeal, and if it has 5G support, you’re future-proofing yourself. The $699.99 Galaxy S20 FE only supports the sub6 connectivity, which is more prominent but a bit slower. There’s a $749.99 Galaxy S20 FE that supports sub6 and mmWave, but it’s exclusive to Verizon in the US.

Four cameras make for a solid shooting experience

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In total there are four cameras on this $699.99 smartphone:

  • A 32-megapixel front-facing lens: Perfect for selfies and video calls.
  • A 12-megapixel ultrawide lens: Similar to other Samsung devices, this lens is great for capturing a wider frame of view with a focus on details.
  • A 12-megapixel wide-angle lens: This is the default lens on the S20 FE and is also similar to other Samsung devices.
  • An 8-megapixel telephoto lens: This was the big question, as it’s the lowest-megapixel lens on any Samsung device that is powering Space Zoom (Samsung tech combining optical and digital zoom for getting extreme shots). The Galaxy S20 FE supports up to 30x Space Zoom.

You can see a full gallery of images shot on the Galaxy S20 FE below, along with a video test. On the latter, the Galaxy S20 FE supports up to 4K video recording. There’s no 8K here like on the Note 20 Ultra, but most users won’t really miss that.

Similarly, we were impressed with the 50x and 100x Space Zoom on the Note 20 Ultra and S20 Ultra. The Note 20 Ultra’s addition of laser autofocus made it usable, but even at 50x it seems more like a party trick, as images still contain some blurs and quality losses. We found the 30x function to be the most reliable, along with 10x optical zoom.

So how does the 30x Space Zoom perform on the S20 FE? Well, it performs pretty admirably. Most 30x shots we captured indoors, zooming into a small object — like a Lego figure — resulted in a loss of quality. This can depend on lighting, but it’s clear that the sensor here performs a little less than what we would have hoped for. You’re much better off sticking with the 10x zoom function or the 3x optical zoom.

Don’t get us wrong, though — the S20 FE still captures some nice shots and gives you the advantages that come with three lenses in your pocket. Just take a look at our test photos below. There’s some weirdness with how Samsung handles colors, saturation and white balance, though. Images often skew to warmer colors and up the saturation to high levels. The iPhone still offers the best capturing. Pixel follows close behind.

Bottom line

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It’s clear Samsung struck a harmony with some wrong tones. Namely, with the camera, we think the Pixel 4a (a $349.99 smartphone), the iPhone SE (a $399 smartphone) and the iPhone 11 (a $699 smartphone) do a better job of just snapping the shot. Even still, if you practice a bit and play around with the settings, you can get a nice photo or video.

The rest of the S20 FE is up to snuff, though — performance is zippy, the screen is sharp, you won’t struggle with the battery and the build is quite nice. For $699.99, you’re getting value, and it will likely make a good gift this holiday season. Especially if it gets a deep price cut.

It’s launching at an unusual time, though. The Pixel 5 ($699) and Pixel 4a 5G ($499) are launching soon, and there’s likely a new iPhone in town that will hit this same price point. For many of you as well, if you don’t care about the modern design, the iPhone SE and Pixel 4a are tremendously great phones.

If you don’t want a flagship like a Note 20 Ultra or iPhone 11 Pro, the S20 FE has a clear space and offers the most value of any Samsung phone announced this year. You’ll just need to decide if this lower-end flagship works or if it’s better to wait for the Pixels or a new iPhone.