That is the most obvious sensation when using the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which will be available in March for $1,399.99. If there was ever a phone that embodied the chip on a tech company’s shoulder, this behemoth is it. The Ultra is Samsung’s response to a couple of years of lagging behind the iPhone and Android competitors in a few key areas. It’s a Statement Phone, aiming to be the most powerful and best phone ever made, regardless of price or size.
The screen, battery, 5G networking, speed, and other features of the S20 Ultra are all impressive. The all-new camera system, on the other hand, features ultra-high megapixel counts and telephoto zoom in an attempt to usher in the next stage of mobile photography.
Samsung called this phone the S20 rather than the S11 to emphasize that it is the first of a new generation, which may be too revealing. As impressive as the phone as a whole is, the camera frequently behaves like a first-generation tech product with first-generation tech issues.
Galaxy S20 Ultra Hardware, screen, and battery
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is quite large. There is no way around it. It’s taller and thicker than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, with a 6.9-inch screen. And, despite the fact that it weighs less, it appears to be more imposing, which could be due to a lack of balance. I’m comparing it to that phone simply because it’s more familiar to more people, but it also towers over other plus-sized phones like the Pixel 4 XL.
The Ultra is also commanding in appearance, available only in black or slate gray. The rectangular camera module on the back is the most noticeable — both physically and aesthetically. It’s symmetrically laid out with a grid of camera sensors and a flash, but Samsung couldn’t stop itself from printing “SPACE ZOOM 100X” on it.
It’s well-made in the usual Samsung Galaxy way, with curved glass on the front and back — though the front is a little less curved at the edges than the back this time. All of the buttons are on the right side, which is a welcome change from previous Galaxy phones, which had a dedicated Bixby button. I’d say the buttons are difficult to reach, but the truth is that if you try to use this phone with one hand, you’re delusory.
It’s shiny and slick, and it attracts fingerprints. You’ve probably heard the fingerprint criticism before, but it’s even worse here. If you tap near the top of the screen, that massive camera module causes the phone to wobble on a table. Somewhere along the way, it also picked up a mysterious ding. Unfortunately, the moral of all of these observations is the same: get a case.
There are several reasons for this phone’s size, but the most obvious is to accommodate the 6.9-inch screen. It’s without a doubt the most impressive feature of the S20 Ultra. Because Samsung uses an in-screen fingerprint sensor rather than face unlock cameras, the screen can extend all the way to the top edge of the screen, making it appear even larger. Only a small, centered hole-punch is provided for the selfie camera.
This screen is also one of the reasons I believe Samsung is attempting to prove something with the S20 Ultra: it offers a 120Hz refresh rate option. High refresh rates improve the look of animations and scrolling and can also help with compatible games. We saw a few Android phones try it last year, but the S20 is the first to go mainstream.
Unlike other companies, Samsung isn’t attempting to change the refresh rate dynamically based on the screen. It comes set to 60Hz out of the box, and when you change it to 120Hz, it just stays there. The reason you might want to change the rate is to save battery life, but Samsung claims it takes about a 10% hit.
To be honest, I’m not sure if that’s true or not because I immediately turned on the 120Hz option and never looked back. It improves and smooths out the Android experience so much that I couldn’t bring myself to turn it off.
However, the 120Hz screen isn’t the only factor that could have an impact on battery life. In fact, estimating battery life for the S20 Ultra is particularly difficult due to the wide range of possible usage scenarios. Shooting 4K and 8K video, as well as mmWave 5G (if you can find it), will quickly deplete the battery. I believe that many people will purchase this phone in order to do all of these things and more.
Another factor that could have an impact on the battery is a new processor. The S20 Ultra is powered by the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, which lacks an integrated cellular modem. Previous Snapdragons did, and this is typically regarded as a battery-saving feature.
I believe Samsung believes that by using a larger battery, 5,000mAh, it can handle all of these potential battery killers. That battery performed admirably in my tests. In the last week, I got through a day’s worth of moderate to heavy use several times. Big phones typically have longer battery lives, and even with 5G, a lot of video watching, and a lot of camera use, the S20 lasted a day and cleared six hours of screentime.
With the high refresh rate option, Samsung may have made one concession to battery life: when you turn it on, the screen is forced to return to its default resolution of 2300 x 1080, despite the display’s support for 3200 x 1440. Even at this screen size, I believe the trade-off is worthwhile, but you may prefer to go the other route.
Aside from that, the screen is typical of Samsung, which is to say excellent. To make the colors less garish, I set the color profile to natural and turned off the blue light filter. All of the other screen quality metrics are self-evident: it looks great from any angle, indoors or out, and it supports HDR10+.
Galaxy S20 Ultra Camera
In reality, Samsung has already won the “make a bigger phone with a bigger screen than everyone else” game several times. That is not the case with the Galaxy S20. The new camera system is the most important new feature. More than anywhere else, Samsung is attempting to outperform the competition by employing novel smartphone camera technology.
If you count the depth sensor on the back, the S20 Ultra has five cameras. The majority of them have very high megapixel counts: 40 on the selfie camera, 48 on the telephoto, and 108 on the main wide-angle camera. The only camera with a more traditional 12-megapixel sensor is the ultrawide camera.
I’m going to go into technical detail (and you can read more about it here or here) because Samsung’s camera theory is that these sensors allow phones to take photos that they wouldn’t be able to take otherwise.
Those high megapixel counts are at the heart of Samsung’s camera wager. Historically, anything above 16 megapixels was a bad sign because more megapixels means they’re more tightly packed on the sensor, which means they can collect less light and end up with more noise. Samsung, on the other hand, has a couple of solutions for this issue.
The first and most obvious difference is that the sensor is physically larger than before. The second and more important solution is “pixel binning,” which involves grouping individual pixels together to act as if they were one larger pixel. This method has previously been used on phones, but Samsung, being Samsung, is taking it a step further by combining nine of them. As a result, the 108-megapixel sensor outputs 12-megapixel images by default — and this “nonabinning” occurs directly on the sensor hardware.
Now that we’ve covered all of that, how is the photo quality? Mixed.
Let’s start with the positive.
One thing you often hear about smartphone cameras is that they can take good photos in good lighting conditions, which the S20 Ultra clearly does. Outdoors, Samsung’s proclivity for boosting vibrancy serves it well, and it achieves good detail and sharpness in those situations.
Samsung is also doing a better job with low-light photos than it has in the past. It compensates well for those 108 megapixels, I believe, but its software tuning still falls short of the Pixel 4’s Night Sight mode. Portrait mode is similar: Samsung has improved on previous Galaxy phones, but its blur looks more artificial than the iPhone 11 Pro.
Comparison of night modes. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is on the left, and the Google Pixel 4 XL is on the right. It was a lot of fun running around the city and photographing architecture, plants, landscapes, and art. I was pleased with the results both during the day and at night, with the only exception being when it became extremely dark. Samsung’s color tuning is a little warmer and yellower than I prefer, but not by much.
The main feature is zoom, and one more technical detail is important for that. The telephoto lens on the S20 Ultra is a “folded” lens, which means that light passes through a prism and mirror system before reaching the sensor. The so-called “Space Zoom” allows you to zoom in up to 100X using a periscope, multiple photos, and sensor cropping.
As a result, you get true optical zoom up to 4X and decent zoom up to 10X. (Samsung claims it’s “lossless,” but I’m not convinced.) I compared it to a Pixel 4 XL, an iPhone 11 Pro, and a Sony RX100 Mark VII, a high-end point-and-shoot camera with a zoom lens.
The Pixel 4 (which has its own fancy zoom algorithms) has a maximum zoom level of 8X, so let’s focus on that. Of course, Sony wins on its own, but when you look at the phones, you’ll see that Samsung’s claims are true. It’s clearer and sharper than the Pixel 4, and it outperforms the iPhone, which is artifact-laden at this zoom level.
Zoom comparison, approximately 8X. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is on the left, and the iPhone 11 Pro is on the right.
I did get some good photos from the S20 Ultra at 30X, but they were overly processed and phone-like. I would have stopped there if I were Samsung. That’s because images at 100X are a splotchy mess; it’s mostly useful as a party trick.
Samsung deserves credit for creating a camera interface that condenses all of these options into something simple to use and comprehend. I also give Samsung credit for a new mode called “Single Take,” which allows you to simply press the shutter button and wait while the camera collects enough data to provide you with a variety of camera effects all at once. Samsung has a lot of strange camera features, and it’s impossible to remember them all, so Single Take does it for you. The quality isn’t great, but it’s a lot of fun.
The S20 Ultra’s other selling point is that it can take full 108-megapixel photos, allowing you to zoom in on specific details if desired. (There’s even more technical underpinning here involving subpixel arrangements and re-mosaicing processes that you could delve into.)
Samsung thinks it’s best for landscapes and recommends using it only when the scene is well-lit. I recommend that you don’t use it very often. I’ve yet to take a photograph that looked better as a 108-megapixel photograph than as a 12-megapixel photograph. On very close crops, some 108-megapixel shots have more detail, but there’s also enough noise that it’s only a marginal improvement over the 12.
Now comes the bad part.
The issue arises when it comes to faces. The S20 Ultra, like the iPhone, appears to see a face and wishes to perform a different type of photo tuning to ensure that it looks good. The S20 Ultra highlights shadows on faces and sometimes the entire scene, tries to adjust white balance differently, and smooths out skin.
In theory, none of these are bad ideas, but in practice, Samsung’s algorithms try far too hard. The aggressive brightening is clumsy. In many cases, skin smoothing has gotten out of hand. I have no idea what’s going on with the white balance. I’ve seen a lot of photos go haywire with cyan tones, and sometimes with yellow tones as well. The good news is that the S20 Ultra, at least, does not make things worse with darker skin tones.
When it detects a face, the S20 Ultra over-brightens and over-smooths. These effects don’t happen all the time with faces, but they happen frequently enough to be concerning. I asked Samsung about it, and other than implying the possibility of a future software update, there’s no clear answer. There are no options to disable the smoothing of faces. In fact, Samsung’s “Bixby Scene Optimizer” setting exacerbates the problem. What’s strange about it all is that none of it is really necessary. When your subject turns their head 45 degrees, the S20 suddenly stops doing all three of those things, and the photos turn out great. Similarly, switching into Samsung’s “Pro Mode” in the camera app resolves these issues.
The selfie camera is fantastic, and Samsung has made significant strides with portrait mode.
What’s more, the selfie camera has a slew of face-smoothing settings, and when you disable them, you get much better photos of people’s faces than the rear camera. Sincerely, the front-facing 40-megapixel camera is one of my favorite selfie cameras I’ve ever tested. It takes 10-megapixel photos by default, but as with the rear camera, you can set it to take full 40-megapixel photos if you prefer.
Another, potentially more concerning issue with the main rear camera is focus hunting. I initially assumed that my blurry faces were the result of user error. (This is frequently the case with new, unfamiliar cameras!) However, Input and PCMag both reported the same issue, and I’ve confirmed it with video tests. The phone simply takes a half-second longer to acquire focus than it should, and when shooting video, it will lose focus and have to hunt for it again.
The focus issue seriously undercuts video shooting, which is unfortunate because, otherwise, Samsung has an easy claim to make as the best video camera on an Android phone — and it may even be able to compete with the iPhone in terms of quality.
The ability to shoot and edit 8K video is a big selling point for Samsung, and the S20 Ultra has it. It’s an accomplishment, but it’s not something I’d recommend to most people, even if the ability to extract high-quality stills from that footage is impressive. For me, the slightly improved video stabilization is more important (even though it locks you into shooting at 1080p).
In theory, Samsung can address some of my camera-related concerns with software updates. Indeed, on the eve of this review, it responded with a statement stating that it would do just that:
The Galaxy S20 has a revolutionary, cutting-edge camera system. We are constantly working to improve performance in order to provide the best possible experience for our customers. We are working on a future update to improve the camera experience as part of this ongoing effort.
That’s encouraging, but only to a point. As a phone reviewer, I’ve heard many promises that a software update would fix camera issues, and they rarely come true.
I mentioned earlier that this camera has first-generation tech issues, and I believe that’s the root of the problem. The hope is that because Samsung is trying so many new things, it has overlooked some details.
Galaxy S20 Ultra Performance and software
Because of Qualcomm’s cadence for releasing new processors, Galaxy S phones frequently have the advantage of being the first mainstream phones with the latest Android chips.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is no different. It has the Snapdragon 865 processor, which is a little contentious because it has a separate 5G modem rather than an integrated 4G modem.
The S20 Ultra is plenty fast — as fast as any Android phone I’ve used — and given how many pixels it has to render and how quickly, that’s quite an accomplishment. However, it does not feel noticeably different from last year’s Snapdragon 855 in everyday use.
Samsung enjoys winning spec fights, and most of it is easy to dismiss as chest-thumping. But there are two features that I believe will be important to the majority of users: the 5,000mAh battery and the choice of 12 or 16GB of RAM. The large battery helps to mask any issues caused by 5G or the high refresh rate screen, and the extra RAM prevents apps from closing in memory. I’m not complaining about either solution being a sledgehammer.
The S20 line also includes a new feature that allows you to “pin” three or five apps (depending on RAM) to memory so that Android never closes them in the background. It’s a power user feature, but the Galaxy S20 Ultra is unmistakably a power user phone.
Samsung kept expandable storage but removed the headphone jack. Yes, it’s okay to be sad about the headphone jack even in 2020, especially since last year’s Galaxy S10 kept it.
One UI 2 is the name of Samsung’s custom software that runs on top of Android 10, and as usual, I think it improves on the default interface. There’s screen recording, more accessible content, and a sidebar you can access from anywhere that can contain your calendar, clipboard history, the weather, or other useful widgets. That’s fantastic.
Unfortunately, Samsung appears to have decided that it no longer needs to be conservative in its software additions. After years of reducing TouchWiz to something resembling stock Android, Samsung is Samsunging again. The left side of the home screen is labeled “Samsung Daily,” and it’s a sad collection of information widgets from companies with whom Samsung has a partnership. Bixby remains a mediocre voice assistant that is activated by a long press of the power button. The Quick Settings tray is crammed with arcane icons labeled with feature names that require a bachelor’s degree in Samsung feature creep to recognize.
All of this can be dialed back and cleaned up, but being forced to do so is vexing for experts like me and positively perplexing for newcomers to Samsung.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is a no-expense-spared, no-holds-barred phone. Samsung set out to outperform every other Android phone on the market. Many of them have been creeping up on the Galaxy, including the OnePluss, which beat it to high refresh rate screens, the Huaweis, which have periscope lenses, and, of course, the Google Pixels’ computational photography.
Samsung’s response to all of them is the S20 Ultra. And, for the most part, it’s an excellent response. It’s quick, powerful, and beautiful, with a long-lasting battery. It’s also very expensive: you’re paying for 5G and a large screen in that $1,399.99 starting price, but you can get both for much less money in other Android phones. The all-new camera system is the main justification for that expense in my opinion.
Unfortunately, all-new is dangerously close to too-new, and the cameras on the S20 Ultra feel like the latter. Samsung’s new camera hardware may give it an advantage someday, but it hasn’t fully wrangled all of those pixels with its software yet. That is, while it is extremely competent, it is also extremely inconsistent.
It’s worth waiting to see if Samsung can fix the focus and face issues with its camera software. I’ve asked for a comment on whether one is on the way, and I’ll update this review if and when it arrives. Until then, Samsung has certainly demonstrated that it is capable of producing a fast, powerful, and imposing phone. It also demonstrated that, once again, it can be caught assuming that powerful hardware is sufficient.