Design and performance
The iPhone has gone a bit retro this year, setting its aluminium edges at right angles in opposition to the curved body and/or glass of practically every other 2020 phone. It’s not a design that fits naturally in the hand, but it does stand out. There’s the usual lovely but slippery glass on back, and up front a custom “ceramic shield” glass Apple says is much more resistant to damage from drops.
Meanwhile Google has also made an odd decision, encasing the phone in a 100 per cent recycled aluminium body rather than glass, while somehow maintaining its ability to charge wirelessly. The Pixel 5 is painted with a textured coating that feels pleasantly like eggshells, while its small size makes it the easiest of the three to use one-handed. I also prefer its rear-mounted fingerprint scanner to the Samsung’s under-display version and Apple’s Face ID.
The Galaxy S20 FE is larger and heavier than the more expensive standard S20, and Samsung has opted for a textured plastic back. You probably wouldn’t notice it without other phones to compare to, but this results in a bit of a front-heavy phone. It does still feel premium though, and the frame is aluminium like the others.
As you’d expect all three phones have amazing displays, but somewhat surprisingly this is one of the areas where you can see why the iPhone costs more. Apple’s last few less expensive iPhones — the XR and 11 — have had comparatively low-resolution LCD screens, but the iPhone 12 packs a beautiful 6.1-inch OLED at well above Full HD, making for more pixels per inch versus the Pixel 5 or S20 FE. It’s night and day versus the iPhone 11, and supports Dolby Vision HDR, which is rare in phones.
The Android pair sport equally nice OLEDs, at 6-inches for the Pixel 5 and a skinny 6.5-inches for the S20 FE, but where they beat the iPhone is refresh rate; you get 1.5 times the frames per second on Pixel versus iPhone, and twice as many on the Galaxy, making for smoother motion and less blur while scrolling. I also can’t quite believe the iPhone hasn’t yet adopted an always-on display, which practically every other phone has, which makes it handy to see basic info at a glance.
In terms of actually using the phones, all three are very slick. Apple’s latest iOS software is more customisable and helpful than ever before, the Pixel offers the most streamlined and powerful AI-powered version of Android 11 yet for those who prefer Google services, and the Galaxy is a middle ground with its colourful and bubbly software.
The iPhone of course behaves identically to all other current iPhones — but quite a bit faster than last year’s thanks to Apple’s shiny new processor — while there are significant differences between the two Androids.
The Pixel is very focused on delivering Google’s software, including the fastest and best integrated version of Google Assistant and plenty of AI fare like automatic captions for everything from phone calls to Facebook videos. But the Pixel’s processor is a step back in power from the Galaxy S20 FE’s, which combined with the difference in screen size means gamers and other power users might be turned off by Google’s offering.
All three phones take exceptional photos in most situations, and pack at least a wide and ultra-wide lens, but they do each have their own strengths and weaknesses.
The iPhone has a new primary lens this year and the largest aperture of the three, and as you might expect this results in the brightest and most naturally coloured daylight shots. Pixel isn’t far behind with highly detailed shots that tend to be a bit less exciting on auto, while the Galaxy artificially trumps up the colours just a bit.
Ultra-wide performance is a similar story, although I’d give the edge for colour and light to the Pixel in this case. If your wide shots often include glimpses of the sky you might favour the iPhone, which has made massive strides in its implementation of HDR since last year and is the strongest of the three when it comes to maintaining definition in clouds and the subject at the same time.
In the realm of computational photography — that is, using the phone’s processing power and AI to improve the photos — Google is a true pioneer and has dominated since the original Pixel. But Apple has clearly invested heavily in the space and this year delivers a great experience. The iPhone now offers an automatic night mode on all three lenses, and the results are far better than what you’d see on most phones. The Galaxy does alright here, but isn’t quite up to the same standard.
Yet when it comes to AI-intensive tasks like separating subjects for faux-bokeh portrait shots, eliminating distortion in ultra wide or improving the detail loss in zoomed shots I still give the advantage to the Pixel. Its camera hardware is outdated compared to the iPhone, but its smarts more than close that gap in some situations. For example given the challenging task of a portrait-mode shot from the inferior front-facing camera, in the dark, the Pixel will manage a clear and well-coloured result where the others do not.
Where the Galaxy has a clear advantage is in zoom shots, since it has a third lens at 3x optical zoom. Pictures at 3x look great here compared to on the other two phones, and on the Galaxy you could push it as high as 10x and still get an ok shot. The Pixel and iPhone only let you go to 7x and 5x respectively, with blotchy results.
I found videos shot at 4K 60fps to be great on all three phones, and all can do up to 240fps slow motion, but once again they excel in different ways. The iPhone will record in Dolby Vision HDR if you bump the frames down to 30fps, which looks great, while I found stabilisation a bit more solid on the Pixel. The Galaxy, again, has that 3x zoom which can take excellent vision even at 4K assuming you can keep it still.
Of course Apple, Google and Samsung all offer variations on these phones with tweaked specs and a range of price tags. On the iPhone side the least expensive 2020 option is now $679, with the tiny iPhone SE seeing a price drop when as the 12 range released. There’s also an iPhone 12 Pro that adds an extra camera and next month there’ll be a 12 Pro Max and a smaller (but just as capable) 12 Mini.
For Google, the Pixel 5 represents the cream of the crop despite its upper-mid-range price and processor. If you’re happy to make some spec sacrifices you can save some money going for the Pixel 4a (which is about the same size as the Pixel 5 but less powerful) or the 4a 5G (which is bigger than the 5 but with some of the premium features shaved off).
Samsung offers a massive range of phones, but the FE is as cheap as it gets for the flagship S20 line. You can step up to the S20, S20+ or S20 Ultra to add more power, better displays and more cameras, or jump across to the more niche Note or Fold devices. Below the S20 FE is the Galaxy A line, which spans all the way from the $249 A11 to the $899 A71 5G.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.