Apple iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy S20 FE: Battle of the affordable flagships

Apple iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy S20 FE: Battle of the affordable flagships

The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE grabbed plenty of positive headlines late last month for its $699 price tag while keeping a flagship-level screen and SoC. While we in the Android enthusiast space are keen to pit the Galaxy S20 FE against other recently-launched, similarly-priced Android rivals in the OnePlus 8T and the Google Pixel 5, in the real world — to average consumers — the biggest (and perhaps only?) challenger to the Galaxy S20 FE is the iPhone 12.

Apple’s device is $100 pricier, but it’s still considered a good deal in developed, high-spending markets such as North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Samsung’s home country of South Korea. I’ve been using both of these phones over the past few days, so let’s see how they stack up against each other.

White Apple iPhone 12 with a Blue Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

Display

Both the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S20 FE have gorgeous, arguably best-in-class OLED panels. They both get about equally bright to my eyes and are perfectly fine to use even under harsh sunlight. And despite the fact that Samsung’s panel refreshes at twice the speed of the iPhone’s 60Hz panel, the actual real-world fluidity in UI isn’t as wide as one may think.

Apple iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S20 FE in hand, besides each other

Chalk this up to Apple’s SoC, and a synergy between hardware and software that Android brands can’t match, or the touch panel response rate, but whatever the case, the iPhone still feels very smooth despite its “outdated” 60Hz panel. Sure, animations on the Galaxy S20 FE appear faster and zippier, but it’s hard to pick up the iPhone 12 and have much to complain about in terms of animations and UI fluidity. You can check out the video below to see me moving around both phones’ UI.

However, I’m still giving the win to the Galaxy S20 FE’s panel because it doesn’t have a giant notch. Apple fans can argue all they want about the benefits of Face ID — and I admit, logging into websites by just scanning my face feels damn cool — but the notch was unsightly and large in 2017 and even more so today.

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE screen compared to Apple iPhone 12 screen

Design and in-hand feel

The iPhone 12 is a glass sandwich phone, but not a typical one. Its display panel uses something Apple calls “Ceramic Glass,” meaning it’s a glass panel that has been infused with bits of ceramic, which Apple claims makes it 4x harder and shatter-resistant than last year’s iPhone panels. The Galaxy S20 FE uses Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3, which is not the best Corning has to offer. I haven’t dropped either phone (and don’t plan to), but on the spec sheet, it seems like the iPhone’s glass panel should be sturdier.

Around the back, it’s not even close: the iPhone 12 has a premium feeling matte glass panel while the Galaxy S20 FE has a plastic back. The chassis on both phones are made of aluminum, but you can feel it more on the iPhone because it is larger and flatter. On the Samsung device, you’re feeling mostly glass and plastic, as the aluminum railing is quite thin. However, despite the Galaxy S20 FE being larger, it “fits” into my palm more comfortably due to curved back whereas the iPhone 12 has a boxy design with sharp edges.

Camera – Photos

The Galaxy S20 FE is equipped with a triple camera system consisting of a 12MP, f/1.8 main camera, along with an 8MP telephoto zoom lens and a 12MP ultra-wide-angle camera. The iPhone 12 has a dual-camera system featuring a 12MP, f/1.6 main camera, and a 12MP ultra-wide-angle camera. The lack of a telephoto zoom lens means the Galaxy S20 FE wins in zoom shots, as can be seen in the Bruce Lee statue 3Xxsample shots below.

iPhone 12 at 1x vs Galaxy S20 FE at 1x; iPhone 12 at 3x vs Galaxy S20 FE at 3x

Generally speaking, both cameras are excellent with dynamic range and are very fast to focus. If lighting conditions are good, it really comes down to a matter of personal preference in terms of which phone has a better main camera.

iPhone 12 vs Galaxy S20 FE

With the ultra-wide, the iPhone 12 pulls ahead during the day with a generally sharper image and better dynamic range. But at night, I prefer Samsung’s cooler tones than the iPhone 12’s overly warm color science — at least when shooting Hong Kong buildings at night.

Camera – Video

Both phones can shoot video up to 4K/60fps, but the iPhone 12 can shoot in Dolby Vision, and it really shows in high contrast scenes or when I’m switching from a shaded indoor scene to outdoor under the sun. In the video below containing both front-facing and main camera video footage, notice the iPhone consistently exposes a bit better and has slightly better stabilization all around. The iPhone has been the smartphone video king by consensus and the iPhone 12 keeps the lead.

SoC and Overall Performance

It should be no surprise that Apple’s brand-new A14 Bionic is more capable than the seven-months-old Snapdragon 865 powering the Galaxy S20 FE. Benchmark scores are a lop-sided win for Apple, but really, in real-world performance scenarios such as launching apps or running basic apps, I don’t see much of a difference, as the Snapdragon 865 is still very, very powerful. However, for more intensive tasks like editing 4K video clips, the iPhone 12 consistently processes and loads faster. But since they run on different OSes and I’m editing videos using different apps, it’s an apples and oranges comparison.

Battery

The Galaxy S20 FE, despite having a faster refresh rate, seems to have better battery life. The 4,500 mAh battery of the Galaxy S20 FE has been consistently able to last me an entire 14-hour day, while the iPhone 12 did not make the full 14-hour day in two of the four days I’ve had with it so far. I need to do more testing, however, as I was using the iPhone 12 a bit more on those days it couldn’t hang.

Final thoughts

The iPhone 12 and Galaxy S20 FE are both excellent handsets.

The Galaxy S20 FE has a better screen, more focal length versatility, and better battery life. The iPhone 12 meanwhile is better at capturing videos and has a better ultra-wide camera, along with a more premium build. Ultimately, there’s no point in declaring a winner here, since they run different eco-systems and each base has loyal fans that are firmly entrenched. Each of these phones will easily satisfy — it’s great the world’s two most prominent smartphone brands are giving us such great value at $800 or less.

    Apple iPhone 12
    The Apple iPhone 12 is perhaps the best placed smartphone in Apple's 2020 lineup, with a well-rounded package that delivers great value within the iOS ecosystem.
    Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
    The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE is one of the better values in Android right now, with a 120Hz panel and Snapdragon 865 but at a price that's several hundred dollars less than other flagships

About author

Ben Sin
Ben Sin

I'm a senior editor at XDA Developers. I have been a journalist for a decade, the last five years covering the mobile tech scene closely, reviewing just about every phone and attending trade shows and launches. I also run a gadget review channel on YouTube.