Tech Guide

Samsung has an amazing new Galaxy phone, but it's facing the same problems as the iPhone

Key Points
  • Samsung's newest flagship phone, the Galaxy S10+, is a great phone, but it's expensive at $1,000.
  • Consumers have shown they've lost an appetite for expensive phones if they can't offer innovative new features beyond what's available on older devices.
  • Smartphone innovation has plateaued in offering must-have features, so consumers aren't spending lots of money to upgrade anymore. The Galaxy S10+ is no exception.
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Samsung's Galaxy S10 shows that the company is finally listening

Samsung introduced four new Galaxy S10 phones earlier this month, and I've been testing one of the higher-end models, the Galaxy S10+, for the past several days. It's one of the best Android phones you can buy if you're willing to spend $1,000 or more for it.

And that price is the key point, because fewer people are willing to spend that kind of money on a phone now that carrier subsidies have changed and people are holding on to their phones for much longer than ever before. That means the Galaxy S10+ isn't in a position to steal sales away from Apple in the way that Chinese brands such as Huawei and Xiaomi have by offering premium phones at cheaper prices.

The Galaxy S10+, as great as it is, is a reminder that smartphone innovation has plateaued when it comes to offering must-have features. While the screen is lovely and the cameras are awesome, they aren't leaps and bounds better than what your phone likely already has. Maybe when folding phones come down in price more people will want to spend a lot of money to upgrade, but not yet.

Samsung Galaxy S10+
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Samsung likens the Galaxy S10+ to a high-end car and knows that most people might not spend this much on a new device. But the company told me there are people who still want all the bells and whistles. For those folks, the Galaxy S10+ is a good option.

This is the same situation Apple is in right now. The iPhone XS is great, but it doesn't offer enough compelling new features for someone to upgrade from an iPhone X and maybe even an iPhone 8 or iPhone 7. After all, there are plenty of people who used to upgrade annually or every other year who are still carrying phones as old as the iPhone 6, which is a good indication many buyers don't see enough reasons to get a new phone. Apple's CEO Tim Cook even hinted at that trend when he told CNBC in January that customers aren't upgrading like they used to.

So as excellent as the Galaxy S10+ is, it's launching March 8 into a complicated smartphone market. On its own though, there are plenty of things to love about the Galaxy S10+, and it's a worthy upgrade if you find yourself in need of a new phone.

Here are some features I loved most about the Galaxy S10+.

The display is incredible

Samsung Galaxy S10+
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Samsung's new Infinity-O screen is my favorite feature of the Galaxy S10+. It takes over almost the entire front of the phone and is brighter and more colorful than any phone I've ever used. There are tiny cutouts for the two front-facing cameras instead of a notch or big bezels on the top and bottom, and this makes it appear to be a single, all-screen slate.

Since Samsung provides displays for Apple, my guess is we'll see this technology, or something awfully similar, pop up in iPhones in the coming years. So, even if you don't like Android phones, this is a display you should see for yourself.

I love the in-screen fingerprint reader

The fingerprint reader is built into the screen.

Samsung lets you unlock the Galaxy S10+ with facial recognition or by using a new in-screen fingerprint reader, which works great. The sensor hides under the screen so you never see it, and it's no longer near the camera on the back, which caused some people to accidentally smudge the lens while unlocking their phone.

It's really fast. You just hold a finger on the screen and the phone unlocks, even if the display is idle and off. I still like Face ID on an iPhone better because it feels like you don't need to interact with the phone at all. Face ID is also faster and more secure than Samsung's face unlock option.

It has great battery life

Samsung Galaxy S10+
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I regularly got two full work days of use before I needed to charge the Galaxy S10+. The large battery lasts so long that I never felt like I had to charge it every night, which is something I still do with my personal iPhone XS Max. It also charges really quickly with the included charger. Apple lets you charge its phones fast too, but you need to pay more for an accessory that lets you do that.

You can charge phones and other gadgets from the Galaxy S10e, Galaxy S10 and Galaxy S10+.
CNBC

There's also a really fun feature called wireless power share that lets you turn the Galaxy S10+ into a charging pad, which can charge other devices, including an iPhone. It was designed to work with Samsung's Galaxy Buds, the company's take on AirPods, but Samsung didn't send me some to test.

The downside: Wireless power share on the Galaxy S10+ doesn't charge as quickly as a regular charging pad. I tried to charge my iPhone XS Max, but it didn't even jump 1 percent in battery life after 15 minutes, so you'll probably need to find an outlet if you want to charge another phone. This feature seems better suited to charge accessories with smaller batteries.

The cameras are fun

Samsung Galaxy S10+
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Galaxy S10+ has five cameras, and they're all good. The back has three, and each serves its own purpose: One for regular shots, one for 2X zoom shots and another for super wide-angle shots.

Samsung Galaxy S10+, wide angle camera sample.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I loved the wide-angle lens. On a ski trip to Vermont, it let me capture the whole mountain in a picture instead of just a piece of it. It also let me fit our entire vacation home in a single shot. The lens does add a warped, fish-eye effect to wide angle shots, but it's still great for capturing huge landscapes.

Samsung Galaxy S10+ wide angle camera sample.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There's an additional lens on the front-facing camera for portrait-mode pictures, which means you can take a selfie and blur the background. It worked well, but this isn't a must-have feature for me. If you don't need it, consider the regular Galaxy S10, which is cheaper and doesn't have this secondary front-facing camera.

The software is better, but Samsung's assistant can't stand up to Google or Siri

The new Galaxy S10
CNBC

Samsung is known for great hardware, but its software has consistently been a weak point. Samsung fixes much of that with One UI, a new software interface that's cleaner, smoother and requires less digging to find what you're looking for. It's a step in the right direction, but I still like regular Android from Google better, and I wish Samsung didn't fiddle with it.

Bixby isn't great at answering questions, like when Villanova's men's basketball team is playing next.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Bixby, Samsung's digital assistant that ships with its phones, still lags far behind Apple's Siri and the Google Assistant. It struggled to even answer basic sports questions, like when I asked when the next Villanova men's basketball game was happening. Also, the main Bixby page feels cluttered with junk, like ads for Samsung's theme store.

The Bixby screen on the Galaxy S10+
Todd Haselton | CNBC

You use Bixby by tapping and holding a button on the left side of the phone, but Samsung says it's rolling out an update that'll let you change that button to launch other apps. You should do that when you can.

Luckily, the Galaxy S10+ still ships with Google Assistant, like most Android phones, so you can ignore Bixby and use Google's superior option instead.

Bottom line: Samsung should just ditch Bixby and stick to Google Assistant. And while the software has improved quite a bit, users would be better served using something closer to what Google offers on its own Pixel phones.

Should you buy it?

Samsung Galaxy S10+
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Sure, if you have $1,000, the Galaxy S10+ is a good bet, and you'll love the screen, cameras and battery life, three things that matter most to consumers.

But you don't need to upgrade if you have a Galaxy S8 or newer, since the changes probably aren't worth the cost. If you like your iPhone, stick with that. There's no "must have" feature in the Galaxy S10+ that you can't find on an iPhone either.

There are also some cheaper versions of the Galaxy S10+ that offer most of the same features I described here. The "regular" Galaxy S10 has a slightly smaller screen and one front-facing camera instead of two. It starts at $899. There's also the Galaxy S10e, which has less RAM and a flat (not curved) display to keep costs lower. It starts at $750. Finally, a version of the Galaxy S10 that can connect to 5G networks will launch later this year.

That's the story of the Galaxy S10 family of devices. They're fantastic phones with high-end features, but there aren't enough things here that are going to make this the must-have phone of the year. That won't happen until something far better — or more affordable — comes along.