Samsung has seen its number one market share position in India swallowed by Xiaomi, in exactly the same way that it overtook Nokia many years ago. The company has tried to respond in several different ways over the years, but very few of its recent low-cost offerings have been competitive enough in our reviews and ratings. The Korean giant has used its youth-focused J-series and software features such as S Bike Mode to address the budget market, but that just can't compare to the big screens, powerful processors, and tonnes of storage that Xiaomi and others offer at the same prices.
It's finally time for a complete strategy reset, and so now we have the brand new Samsung Galaxy M-series. The two newly announced models, the Samsung Galaxy M10 (Review) and Samsung Galaxy M20, are launching in India before anywhere else, which shows how important it is for the company to recapture this market.
Strategy aside, the new Galaxy M series represents a huge shift for the company in terms of design and specifications. There's no doubt that these phones are aimed squarely at Xiaomi, Honor, Realme, and Asus. It seems almost as though Samsung went out into the market with a checklist and tried to figure out every last little thing that these companies do in their perpetual race to one-up each other.
Today, we have the more capable and higher priced of the two models, the Galaxy M20, for review. Let's find out whether Samsung's gamble has paid off, and whether it has finally managed to get the price, features, and performance right.
Samsung Galaxy M20 design
Put simply, this phone does not look or feel like any existing Samsung phone. It's extremely generic and could pass off for something from any of a handful of other manufacturers. Head-on, it's virtually indistinguishable from the Realme U1 (Review) or Oppo F9 (Review), for example. More than a criticism of Samsung though, this says more about how little scope there is for individuality when reducing a phone's features to such a degree of minimalism.
The biggest departure from previous Samsung designs is the waterdrop-style 'Infinity-V' notch at the top of the screen, which is just big enough for the front camera to fit into. The screen measures 6.3 inches diagonally with a 19.5:9 aspect ratio and rounded corners in keeping with current trends. There is a bit of a chin at the bottom of the screen — interestingly, if you place the Galaxy M20 and Galaxy M10 side by side, you'll see that they look identical except that the Galaxy M20 has a taller screen and narrower chin, for a screen-to-body ratio exceeding 90 precent.
The top and side borders around the screen do look narrow, but the sides of this phone bulge outwards considerably. This helps allow the earpiece to be placed within the frame, above the screen notch. There is an ambient light sensor, but it can't be seen. The proximity sensor is to the left of the notch and that placement doesn't seem to have hurt its functionality.
Both the Galaxy M20 and the Galaxy M10 will be sold in the same two colours, Ocean Blue and Charcoal Black. Our Galaxy M20 review unit is Ocean Blue, which does stand out. It's quite dark, with a glossy finish and a very fine grainy pattern that gives it some depth. Samsung hasn't said exactly what material it has used for the rear shell, but it feels plasticky.
The rear and sides of this phone are a single moulded shell with no seams or even antenna lines. We're happy to note that despite being glossy, the rear of this phone isn't slippery at all. The sides of this phone are rounded, but it is bulky overall, thanks to the 5000mAh battery — more on that in a bit. It's also quite thick and heavy, and we felt the weight after using it for extended periods. The Galaxy M10 is a lot lighter in comparison but it obviously doesn't have the huge battery.
The Galaxy M20 has a USB Type-C port on the bottom, unlike the Micro-USB port on its less expensive sibling. The speaker grille is also on the bottom, whereas the Galaxy M10 has it on the lower rear. Another big difference between the two phones is that the Galaxy M20 has a fingerprint sensor on the rear — the less expensive model doesn't have one at all. We found the sensor a bit too high for our index fingers to reach comfortably when holding the phone.
Everything else is fairly standard — there's a 3.5mm audio socket on the bottom, power and volume buttons on the right, and a tray on the left for two Nano-SIMs as well as a dedicated microSD card slot. The dual rear camera module has a tiny ridge around it to help prevent the lenses from getting scratched, but doesn't protrude at all.
Overall, while the Samsung Galaxy M20 doesn't have much of an individual identity, it's more than good enough to take on its competition in the sub-Rs. 15,000 market. Every design choice has been made to support a feature that Samsung needs to offer.
Samsung Galaxy M20 specifications and software
The most interesting thing on the Galaxy M20's spec sheet is its brand new Exynos 7904 processor. This oddly named unit was launched less than two weeks ago, and was designed specifically for the value smartphone segment in India. It has two high-performance ARM Cortex-A73 cores running at 1.8GHz and six power-efficient ARM Cortex-A53 cores running at 1.6GHz, plus a Mali-G71 GPU.
Samsung tends to use the same processors across a lot of models, sometimes over the course of several years. Since this is our first experience with the Exynos 7904, our benchmarks will tell us how it competes against the Qualcomm and MediaTek models that other manufacturers in this segment use.
The Galaxy M20 is available with either 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage for Rs. 10,990, or 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage for Rs. 12,990. We have latter configuration for review, and a quick look at the market shows that many other models at this price level don't have as much RAM or storage, which could give Samsung an advantage.
The rest of the specs are more commonly found in this price bracket. The screen resolution is 1080x2340, with a density of 409ppi. There's a 5000mAh battery, and Samsung says that the bundled 15W charger will fill it up quickly. Ten minutes of charging is supposed to be enough to enjoy three hours of videos or 11 hours of music playback.
The primary rear camera is a 13-megapixel unit with an f/1.9 aperture, while the secondary camera has a 5-megapixel sensor and 120 degree field of view. The front camera has an 8-megapixel resolution. Dual VoLTE is supported, and you can use LTE on either SIM at any time.
Samsung seems to have cut a few corners when it comes to the accessories in the box. Other than the 15W charger and USB Type-C cable, there's only a SIM eject pin — there's no protective case or screen guard, and in a page out of the Xiaomi playbook, no headset.
It's a little disappointing to see Android 8.1, but at least it was up to date with the January 2019 security patch at the time of our review. The Galaxy M20 runs the Samsung Experience UI, as the company's new One UI is still in its beta test phase. If you've used any recent Samsung phone, you won't find much that's new or different here.
Unfortunately, another thing that hasn't changed is Samsung's eagerness to put ads everywhere. From the moment we first booted this phone, we were confronted by them. The entire lock screen is now an ad – Samsung has integrated an app called Glance that shows a different photo or promotional item each time you wake this phone from sleep. Not only are the captions distracting, but they displace useful notifications.
In just the first few hours of using this phone we saw repeated clickbait messages to drive traffic to websites or apps. Sometimes we were prompted to vote in polls about cricketers or consumer product brands. Some of them were just flat out ads.
We eventually managed to disable this by choosing ‘Wallpaper' rather than ‘Wallpaper & Stories' when setting a new lock screen background image, but we shouldn't have had to dig as much as we did to figure out this workaround. If we had bought this phone, we'd be extremely aggravated by this level of intrusiveness, and we really think Samsung needs to dial back its monetisation efforts.
Besides that, we also got the usual barrage of notification spam from the My Galaxy app and some of the other preloaded apps. No matter how many useful extra features a manufacturer's custom UI has, this is the kind of thing that makes us long for stock Android.
Samsung Galaxy M20 performance, battery life, and cameras
We didn't have any trouble using the Samsung Galaxy M20 for day-to-day tasks. Apps and light games ran without any trouble, and we multitasked quite heavily too. There was only the slightest hint of lag in the UI on rare occasions, but not enough for us to worry about. Face recognition took about a second to work sometimes, which was annoying, but the fingerprint sensor was very quick.
The screen is bright and crisp, with good viewing angles. Videos looked good and games including Asphalt 9:Legends and PUBG Mobile ran fine at medium settings. We did feel the upper rear of this phone get a bit warm while gaming, which is not ideal.
Samsung's UI has also adapted well enough to the notch. Single-handed use was a bit difficult, owing to how large the phone is, and adjusting our grip was sometimes awkward because of its weight.
We were curious to see how the new Exynos 7904 SoC does in benchmarks, and it delivered good enough performance for this segment. Our AnTuTu score was 107,540 which is in the neighbourhood of what Qualcomm's Snapdragon 632 or Snapdragon 636 can achieve. Geekbench gave us 1,315 for single-core performance and 4,094 for multi-core performance.
Graphics scores were disappointing, with GFXbench's T-rex scene running at only 22fps and the Manhattan 3.1 scene at just 7.1fps.
Battery life in everyday use was extraordinarily good. We started our day unplugging the phone at around 8am, and used it as usual, with a bit of photography and a few short gaming sessions, and still had about 60 percent left in the evening. We were able to stretch till the middle of the next day without having to charge. However, our HD video loop test ran for only 12 hours, 53 minutes which was relatively disappointing, and other phones in this price class do better with smaller batteries.
The camera app is easy to use and well laid out. Most options and modes are within easy reach, and it's always nice to be able to begin recording video with a single tap. We found that the camera was quick to lock focus and there didn't seem to be much shutter lag. There's a selector for the two cameras right above the shutter button, but it's easy to forget which camera is selected. The app remembers what you were using last, so it doesn't default back to the primary camera each time it's opened.
You can enable a movable floating shutter button from the Settings, which could be useful. There are several stickers to choose from, including some that scale to faces automatically, and you can buy more through the Galaxy Apps store. The Pro mode is lacking in options – you can control only the metering, exposure compensation, ISO, and white balance. Samsung Mall integration lets you take photos of objects to search for similar ones across multiple online stores, and in our experience the results were pretty good but not very specific.
One noteworthy quirk is that the Live Focus mode only works on faces. You can't use it to get a depth effect on shots of ordinary objects, like you can on virtually every other phone. There's a beautification mode but no AI enhancement, which is something that other brands, especially Honor, are using to differentiate themselves.
Photo quality was fairly disappointing. We didn't see the kind of detail and sharpness that we're used to from phones in the sub-Rs. 15,000 price segment. Shots taken in the daytime were looked good on the phone's own screen, but a closer inspection showed that textures weren't very realistic and finer details were lost. On the positive side, all shots were all in focus and colours were fairly vibrant. Quality was also noticeably poorer when using the secondary camera with the wide lens, and there was a significant fish-eye distortion.
Low-light performance was way below par. Very few of our shots came out looking usable, even when taken directly under streetlamps or with plenty of artificial light. There was a lot of motion blurring and a massive loss of detail.
Video was also just about okay. Recording goes up to 1080p, and there's no stabilisation which is perhaps understandable at this price level. We saw quite a bit of focus shifting when recording moving objects.
The depth effect in Live Focus mode made shots look quite artificial to us. It also didn't help that face beautification was on by default, and dialled up too high. Beautification was also enabled by default when we switched to the front camera. Speaking of which, selfies were also just about acceptable.
Unlike some of its current competitors, Samsung has immense brand power. A lot of people might have chosen other options recently based on specifications and features, so having closed that gap, Samsung stands to regain a lot of the customers it has lost. Buying a Samsung phone doesn't feel like a gamble in the way that it might with less established brands. The Korean giant is capitalising on this in its Galaxy M-series marketing by underscoring its huge service network, spanning 1,650 service centres across over 6,000 talukas all over India.
We've reviewed the higher-end variant of the Samsung Galaxy M20, with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, which is priced at Rs. 12,990. At the same price, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 6 Pro (Review) offers similar specifications with the roughly equivalent Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor and better battery life. The Realme U1 (Review) and Asus ZenFone Max Pro M2 (Review) both have 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, but more powerful processors and also better battery life in our tests.
The race between all these models is pretty tight. It seems that the Galaxy M20 doesn't quite catch up to all of its rivals' advantages, but at least it is very competitive for the first time. We hope this is the beginning of a new era for Samsung.
Are Samsung Galaxy M10 and Galaxy M20 better than budget phones from Redmi, Realme, and Asus? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.