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Samsung Galaxy S20 vs. iPhone 11 Pro: A deeper division lurks beneath the spec sheets

Flagship phones like the just-announced Samsung Galaxy S20 or the iPhone 11 Pro get a lot of the marketing and press hype, but most people aren’t buying. The small percentage of consumers who are buying face a difficult choice that’s about much more than just benchmarks, specs, or camera features.

A recent NPD report claimed that fewer than 10 percent of Americans buy flagship smartphones (in this case, defined as phones costing more than $1,000). After a year of smartphone shipments and revenues gradually sliding down a hill, global smartphone shipments finally grew in the fourth quarter of 2019—but only by one percent. Of the market’s 369 million units in Q4, Apple shipped 78 million iPhone 11 models, and Samsung shipped 71 million. In other words, Samsung and Apple together accounted for 40 percent of the smartphones hitting the market. Looking at what they’re doing tells us a lot about what today’s priorities are.

When you look across the whole product lineups of these two companies, you see very different strategies. But at the top of each line, the phones are mostly similar. The latest flagship smartphones from these market behemoths focus on cameras and screens above all else, and on those counts, the Samsung Galaxy S20 and the iPhone 11 Pro aren’t actually that radically different from one another.

The S20 offers some cutting-edge new tech the latest iPhone doesn’t, but that could change this September. And as is, the iPhone has a unique comparative value proposition of its own. So let’s dive into the trends—and there’s no better word for them than that—that are appearing in the two most popular flagship phones in the world. Are these huge price tags worth it in 2020, and what do consumers need to think about when picking between these two giants?

We’ll spoil part of this exercise a bit right up front: we don’t believe that specifications or even features are what should drive buyers’ decisions about whether to go with Samsung or Apple when buying a flagship phone. First off, most people don’t need a flagship. Second, the differences that really matter center on software, services, and serious questions about how users should or shouldn’t relate to their gadgets and the tech companies that make them.

Table of Contents

Pricing

Speaking of the huge price tags: they’re huger now than ever before. Samsung’s top-of-the-line S20 Ultra starts at $1,399, and upgrades can push it up even higher. The iPhone 11 Pro Max, also an expensive phone by most peoples’ standards, starts at $1,099 and can go as high as $1,449 if you max out the storage capacity at 512 GB. (The S20 Ultra also caps out at 512 GB, but it offers microSD support up to 1 TB).

It’s difficult for those of us at Ars to imagine that almost anyone really needs to spend more than $1,400 on a smartphone. That said, there are certainly people who want to—for advanced camera features, for higher-quality screens on which to watch Netflix, or to impress others socially with a status symbol.

On the lower end of the current lineup, the Samsung Galaxy S20 starts at $999, and the iPhone 11 Pro (not Max) also starts at $999. There’s a lot more differentiating the S20 from the S20 Ultra (and there’s the S20+ in the middle) than there is between the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max.

Of course, both Apple and Samsung offer phones at lower prices. Samsung covers the entire range of consumer price points with other phones outside the flagship Galaxy S and Galaxy Note product lines. And Apple sells the iPhone 11 (which has a different design, a lesser camera system, and a significantly poorer quality screen than the 11 Pro) for $699 and up, 2018’s iPhone XR for $599 and up, and the iPhone 8 for just $449 and up.

There’s a huge difference between $449 and $999 or $1,399 for most people, obviously. Exactly what are users getting for going all the way?

Specifications

All S20 model specs are for the 5G versions.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Samsung Galaxy S20+ Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra iPhone 11 Pro iPhone 11 Pro Max
Display 6.2-inch OLED at 2,688 x 1,242 and 60/120Hz 6.7-inch OLED at 2,688 x 1,242 and 60/120Hz 6.9-inch OLED at 2,688 x 1,242 and 60/120Hz 5.8-inch OLED at 2,436 x 1,125 and 60Hz 6.5-inch OLED at 3,200 x 1,440 and 60Hz
Storage 128GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB 64GB, 256GB, 512GB 64GB, 256GB, 512GB
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Apple A13 Bionic Apple A13 Bionic
RAM 12GB 12GB 12GB for 128GB and 256GB models, 16GB for 512GB model 4GB 4GB
Battery 4,000 mAh 4,500 mAh 5,000 mAh 3,046 mAh 3,969 mAh
Rear cameras 12 MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.2), 64MP telephoto (ƒ/2.0), 16MP wide (ƒ/1.8) 12 MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.2), 64MP telephoto (ƒ/2.0), 16MP wide (ƒ/1.8), ToF 12 MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.2), 48MP telephoto (ƒ/2.0), 108MP wide (ƒ/1.8), ToF 12MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.4), 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8), 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.0) 12MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.4), 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8), 12MP telephoto (ƒ/2.0)
Front camera 10MP (ƒ/2.2) 10MP (ƒ/2.2) 10MP (ƒ/2.2) 12MP (ƒ/2.2) 12MP (ƒ/2.2)
Video 8K at 24fps, 4K at 60fps 8K at 24fps, 4K at 60fps 8K at 24fps, 4K at 60fps 4K at 60fps 4K at 60fps
Ports USB-C, MicroSD USB-C, MicroSD USB-C, MicroSD Lightning Lightning

Design

We’ve taken to calling today’s flagship phones “glass sandwiches” because they have almost-all-display front sides made of glass, and generally these devices are all glass on the back too (except for certain camera components). Thankfully, they typically use a material dubbed Gorilla Glass that is much stronger than say, a drinking glass, and Gorilla Glass has improved in durability year after year. Those glass backs enable wireless charging, which isn’t possible through some other common gadget materials.

However, Gorilla Glass is still not as durable as steel or aluminum. We’ve discussed materials at length before, and there aren’t big changes on that front in the S20 phones compared to last year’s S10 models. They feel nice, they look nice, but they’re generally not that durable and they’re fingerprint magnets. Both of these phones have the same upsides and downsides.

There are some newer developments worth highlighting. First up, Samsung has long made a marketing blitz of criticizing Apple for dropping the headphone jack from its phones starting back in 2016. But just over three years later, Samsung has also dropped the headphone jack in the Galaxy S line, launching its own AirPods competitors (which also support iOS, by the way). Samsung was one of the last flagship phone-makers to take this leap.

Below: Images from the Samsung Galaxy S20 announcement.

It might seem strange that the top-of-the-line phones typically lack something seemingly essential that cheaper phones sometimes still have—at least on the Android side of things. (There are no longer any available iPhones with headphone jacks.) But from Samsung and Apple’s point of view, wireless solutions are both superior and more costly, and thus wireless is the premium/flagship solution. Many users agree wholeheartedly, but some don’t, and the monetary cost of good wireless audio is steep.

Because of proprietary technology, Apple’s AirPods offer a generally better experience than today’s Android-friendly true-wireless headphones do. But that will likely change over the next year or so with the introduction of the first Bluetooth LE Audio devices, which will use a new Bluetooth audio standard that adopts some of the same benefits AirPods users have enjoyed.

In terms of design differences between the Galaxy S series and iPhones, Samsung offers its flagships in three sizes: the S20 at 6.2 inches, the S20+ at 6.7 inches, and the S20 Ultra at a basically tablet-sized 6.9 inches. The iPhone 11 Pro is available in 5.8- and 6.5-inch variants.

Below: A look at the design of the iPhone 11 Pro from our review.

Both have very different front-facing camera designs and authentication technologies. The Galaxy S phones have in-screen fingerprint readers, whereas the iPhone 11 Pro uses a sophisticated 3D sensor array that shares space with the front-facing camera to confirm that it’s you trying to unlock the phone.

That 3D sensor array (called TrueDepth) involves a lot of components, and it’s the reason for the noticeable “notch” at the top of the phone’s screen. That notch contains a lot of hardware. By contrast, Samsung just has a regular front-facing camera in the S20, and it has avoided including a notch by essentially punching a small hole in the center-top of the display.

Whether you prefer a notch or a hole punch is surely a matter of preference, as is whether you prefer Apple’s Face ID or Samsung’s in-screen fingerprint authentication.

Listing image by Samsung

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