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Galaxy S10: 7 things it needs to stay ahead of top rival Huawei

Samsung's next flagship can take a tip from the iPhone XS and Pixel 3, too.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

A month from now, Samsung will unveil the Galaxy S10 in San Francisco, settling months of rumors about all the new goodies Samsung's next flagship phone will have. As Samsung's 10th anniversary Galaxy S phone, the Galaxy S10 is of particular importance. This phone represents the culmination of a decade of improving designs that turned Samsung smartphones into a household name -- and the world's top smartphone brand. It also comes at a time when phone sales are slipping, and when rivals, like No. 2 Huawei, are out-innovating Samsung phones.

The many rumors swirling around the Galaxy S10 paint a picture of a flagship Android phone that improves on 2018's Galaxy S9 with multiple rear cameras, the world's first "ultrasonic" in-screen fingerprint reader, and a new screen with an O-shaped "punch-hole" not-notch for the selfie camera. But when I think about what I really want from the Galaxy S10, I can't help but pull inspiration from the Pixel 3, our favorite Android phone of the year, the iPhone XS family, the Huawei Honor View 20 and Samsung's own Galaxy Note 9

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm excited to see the S10's rumored Infinity-O screen in action, but notches don't really bother me the way they incense some. And while an in-screen fingerprint reader is something I'd have chewed my nails off to get on the Galaxy S9, a terrific 3D depth-mapping camera is more important now. Above all, I want a smooth, polished experience that makes the phone a joy to use.

The Galaxy S10 matters tremendously for Samsung's fortunes in 2019. The specs that go into the rumored phone will shape Samsung's response to intensifying pressures from other phone companies. Weak Galaxy S10 sales could crack open the door for Huawei, a Chinese challenger that replaced Apple as the second-largest brand, selling 200 million phones in 2018. 

But Huawei's friction with global governments and carriers only escalated when its CFO was arrested in Canada on Washington's accusation that Huawei violated US sanctions against Iran. As imperiled as Huawei is, its phone sales are on the rise while Samsung's are starting to slow.

It's against this backdrop that the Galaxy S10 must wow and inspire, even as handsets grow more expensive each year, and buyers wait longer before replacing old phones.

Some features topping my Galaxy S10 wish list are a long time coming. Others are more personal stretch goals for Samsung's flagship device. Feel free to add your own most-wanted Galaxy S10 specs in the comments below.

1. Overhaul that design


The Huawei P20 Pro's gradient finish makes the pretty purple Galaxy S9 Plus that I use feel basic.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are great phones with beautiful designs that nevertheless are beginning to feel dated. 

While some might say that Samsung has perfected the Galaxy S line, others -- including me -- are waiting for Samsung to give its 10th anniversary phone a makeover. The Galaxy S10 will earn applause if it can reinvent the Galaxy S line, and attract sharp criticism if the device bears too many similarities to last year's model.

Samsung could take a hint from Huawei, Oppo and OnePlus here to give the Galaxy S10 a flashier coat of paint. The Huawei P20 Pro and Mate 20 Pro, Oppo Find X and OnePlus 6T in Thunder Purple offer all the inspiration Samsung really needs.

Even if you just wind up putting a case on the phone, colors are one way that phonemakers can stand out and create shelf appeal.

2. A really good depth-sensing 3D camera

There's no doubt in my mind that the Galaxy S10 will have an in-screen fingerprint reader. And while I want that, it's also critical that the S10 have a quality 3D depth-sensing camera to go along with it. The Galaxy line is already two generations behind Apple's Face ID for the iPhone X, iPhone XS, and so on, and Samsung needs to get in on this face-mapping game if it wants to stay competitive.


Samsung now offers four different ways of unlocking the Galaxy S9 with biometrics -- facial recognition, iris scanning, fingerprint scanning, and a combination of iris and face called Intelligent Scan. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Galaxy S9 and Note 9 phones already have a built-in iris scanner that can verify your identity and securely pay for mobile goods and services. But Samsung also panicked last year and introduced a hybrid version of iris scanning and face unlock on the Galaxy S9, called Intelligent Scan, that's not secure enough to verify a monetary transaction. If it's not secure enough for payments, it's not very secure at all.

A 3D selfie camera is useful for things other than securely unlocking your phone with your face and approving mobile payments though. This kind of depth-sensing sensor would also open up different kinds of portrait photos, which could improve selfie quality while also enabling new effects, like say swapping out the background or applying a cool color filter on it.

A good depth-mapping camera could also upgrade the Galaxy S9's terrible AR Emoji feature to challenge Apple's whimsical Memoji. (In fact, the Honor View 20 has its own AR Lens feature without a standard 2D camera.) Finally, a 3D selfie camera could lead to some pretty interesting AR capabilities down the line.

The good news is that the processor we know will drive the Galaxy S10, Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 chipset, is outfitted to support a 3D front-facing camera. Samsung would have to program around that backend component to get its version of Face ID up and running, but the chip supports the feature.

I still want the Galaxy S10 to use Qualcomm's ultrasonic fingerprint reader in-screen, in addition to a 3D face unlock. One of my biggest complaints about using the iPhone X was that if Face ID fails, there's no biometric backup to unlock your phone (you have to use the passcode). Samsung could have it both ways.

ReadGalaxy S10 could shoot portrait videos and use 'ultrasonic' fingerprint reader with Snapdragon 855 chip

3. Pixel 3-level photos

The Galaxy S9 brought us an innovative rear camera with a lens that automatically changes aperture (the amount of light it lets in) when it senses low light conditions. But the camera that takes our breath away belongs to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL.

Externally, there's nothing special about the single lens on the back of Google's phones. But the software inside gives us the clearest, most detailed, best contrast on any phone you can buy right now. An additional mode called Night Sight takes it one step further, consistently producing the best low light pictures we've ever seen. It truly is, as CNET reviewer Lynn La said, "awesome."

On paper, the Galaxy S9's dual aperture sounds cooler. Some CNET editors will also defend its ability to correctly adjust to fit the scene. I, however, have struggled to be a fan. Photos often look pale and soft when I expect them to be punchy, and scenes I expect to capture cleanly tend to blur when you (or the subject) aren't holding perfectly still. Most of the time, though, the Galaxy S9 shots are still very good, especially when you take photos outside in broad daylight.

Samsung improved on the Galaxy S9's camera with the Note 9 Its AI software optimizes settings depending on the scene at hand. This would be a worthy addition to the Galaxy S10 as well. 

Let's hope the rumored Bright Night mode is real and delivers the goods. If Samsung can tighten up its photo processing, the Galaxy S10 could hope to at least match the Pixel 3's photo skill. 

4. 128GB starting storage


The Note 9 comes with 128GB of storage by default, and you can upgrade to a 512GB model.

Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung often reserves its best specs for the upmarket Galaxy Note line, but its 10th-anniversary phone deserves some of the limelight. My hope is that the base model Galaxy S10 comes out of the gate with 128GB storage, to match the Galaxy Note 9.

Realistically, getting this will be a stretch, since Samsung will want to keep the Galaxy S10 cheaper than the Note 9. But a phone with such an large initial repository would make a strong statement against the $1,000 iPhone, which starts at 64GB, especially if Samsung could keep costs lower.

Huawei already threw down the gauntlet here. It's midprice Honor View 20 has 128GB and 256GB storage options, and costs under $450 when you convert from 2,999 yuan. (We'll get more detailed global pricing on Jan. 22.)

In an age when people are taking and saving more large photo and video files, the amount of baked-in storage you get with a phone adds significant value.

5. Embrace AR with Google's help

Samsung's Gear VR headset makes it a notable player in the virtual reality space, but AR on the phone hasn't been the brand's strong suit (see AR Emoji above). Augmented reality hasn't caught on much on any phone, but Google laid the groundwork this year for friends to play the same AR game on an iPhone or Android device.

The Galaxy S10 could seize the opportunity to move AR forward. It has the global and monetary clout to work closely with Google's AR and Android teams. Will it? Probably not. AR doesn't excite everyday phone buyers the way a good camera does, so investing in AR won't translate into much-needed sales. On the other hand, nobody is going to get excited about AR until they see a must-have app or game leading the charge.

When and if that happens, Samsung would be wise to position itself at the tip of that spear, rather than to follow Apple or Google.

6. Two-way charging

An enormous battery would get us one step closer to the Holy Grail of all-day battery life on the Galaxy S10. But you know what would be even better? Being able to use your Galaxy S10 to charge another device via the USB-C port.

Say you need to help top up a friend, or power another, smaller device, like your smartwatch. If you've ever used your laptop to power your phone in a pinch, you already know how useful this is.

7. Fix the little things

Every phone has its quirks, and my Galaxy S9 Plus review unit has more than a few little things here and there that don't always function the way I want them to.

For example, copy and paste doesn't always work across apps the way I expect. Sometimes I can't copy, or I have to attempt multiple times to paste. Other times, I have to tap the same spot on the screen over and over to get the cursor at the front of a field, because the screen curve, as beautiful as it is, is messing up the phone's ability to identify my fingertip.

Then there's a weird bug I've experienced on the Galaxy S9 Plus that I've been using since last March, and not on any other phone I've tested or owned. Gmail will close down when I press the Send arrow -- not every time, but frequently enough that I get annoyed when I have to reopen the app and double-check that my message sent. Samsung says this isn't a bug they've heard of before, and suggested I clear my app's cache. I did, but the problem persists.

Some of this Gmail idiosyncrasy and others could be a side effect of the Galaxy Experience skin riding on top of Android. Or it could stem entirely from Google's app, the Android OS, or some oddity with the way it works on this particular phone. Without one company controlling both the hardware and software, it's hard to pinpoint the source of the bugginess.

These minor bumps in the road don't ruin my experience any more than a knob of undissolved brown sugar would ruin a well-made delicious chocolate chip cookie, but they do keep this particular Galaxy S9 Plus, at least, from being the best it can be.

Luckily, Samsung has a new interface to float on top of Android 9 Pie in the Galaxy S10: Samsung's One UI. The electronics giant showed One UI off  in November at Samsung's annual developer conference, where I got a quick look. Hopefully, One UI will be able to deliver an even cleaner, more polished interface that really does fix all the Galaxy S9's quirks.

What do you hope the Galaxy S10 will bring? In the meantime, catch up on the most important Galaxy S10 rumors here.

Originally published Dec. 19. Republished: Jan. 21 with updates.

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