We’re officially dubbing the new Galaxy S20 Ultra the “kitchen sink phone,” because Samsung seems to have thrown everything it has at the device. There’s a 6.9-inch display with a buttery-smooth refresh rate, four cameras (including a wide-angle lens) and hiccup-free performance that can briskly handle all your daily tasks. It’s intense — some might even call it ultra-intense — but it’s somewhat expected given the phone’s $1,399.99 price tag.
We’ve been using it for the past week and it clearly stands out among the onslaught of new smartphones, despite a few glaring shortcomings that make it less than picture-perfect.
Four cameras and Space Zoom
Let’s dive straight into the S20 Ultra’s landmark feature: its four cameras. Samsung packed its most advanced multi-camera setup into the Ultra. The 12-megapixel ultra-wide lens allows you to capture wide, Ansel Adams-level landscape shots. The main 108-megapixel lens features a large sensor to grab more detail and deliver more realistic photos, while the 48-megapixel telephoto lets you zoom in with up to 10X optically to get crisp and clear photos up close. The depth-vision lens is mostly there for augmented reality experiences. All of these can tap the LED flash for extra lighting when needed.
You can capture 108-megapixel photos with the wide-angle sensor but, by default, it will use “nona binning technology.” That’s a fancy way of saying that it combines sets of pixels into one pixel. Why? To deliver a clearer and brighter image in a smaller size. A 108-megapixel photo takes up a lot of space, and this process tries to distill the quality of it into a smaller-sized photo. The end result is a 12-megapixel image instead of a 108-megapixel image. Results will vary on this: The photos generally look better from afar, but zooming in reveals some flaws. Going the full 108-megapixel route results in a longer time to take the photo (there’s a noticeable lag) and the image size is much larger.
Take a look for yourself. Here are some images shot at full 108-megapixel super-high resolution:
And here are some shot with the “nona binning technology”:
The pièce de résistance is the Ultra’s 100X zoom capability, which Samsung calls Space Zoom. It’s really just an intense digital zoom on top of what the lens can actually capture. So to get that 100X zoom, you’re really zooming 10X onto the 10X view with some software enhancements. Think of it as zooming in on a computer image — the full image is already there, and the software is just bringing you in for a closer look. Samsung is essentially stitching these together and using software to enhance the image with Space Zoom.
The experience is definitely a kick: Zooming across the Hudson River from our office building to New Jersey, for instance, we were able to make out the name on a building (in this case, a Sheraton hotel that we couldn’t even see with our own eyes). Playing around some more, we were also able to zoom in on our colleague holding a CNN mug from across the office floor and make out the logo — along with his smug look.
Simply put, though, you’re going to get mixed results with the 100X zoom. For the most part, photos will be viewable and even passable for sharing, but some will be incredibly blurry. The quality of the photos really depends on how steady you hold the phone and the lighting conditions around you. That’s why we highly recommend using a tripod or stabilizer to prevent blur.
Here are some shots with 100X zoom:
The lower amounts of zoom (less than 100X) performed better, so you can capture some really good shots on the S20 Ultra. The standard lens produces a natural bokeh effect — essentially a blur around whatever you’re capturing (the effect that Apple popularized through Portrait Mode). It lets you guide the viewer onto what you’d like to be the main focus of the photo and presents it in a sharp format.
This provides a good effect most times, but it also presents issues with autofocus. While shooting a landscape or wide portrait, it can be hard to focus on a specific area of the image or to get a whole object in focus sometimes. With a car, for instance, you’ll find that the front half might be clear, and the back is most certainly out of focus. It’s frustrating and not an issue that we’ve seen with iPhones, Google Pixels or even the previous Galaxy S10 generation of devices. This autofocus trouble also occurs with video. And Samsung knows this and provided us with this comment:
“The Galaxy S20 features a groundbreaking, advanced camera system. We are constantly working to optimize performance to deliver the best experience for consumers. As part of this ongoing effort, we are working on a future update to improve the camera experience.”
That’s fair, but it also makes you wonder how much software can do. For a phone that costs $1,399, we expected it to be the best that it can be out of the box.
Equally frustrating, we encountered a “camera failure” issue about three times on our S20 Ultra 5G. We were taking photos out of an airplane window the first time when it popped up; hitting “ok” to dismiss the notification resulted in the camera app closing. We’ve reached out to Samsung on this and have not heard back as of yet, but it’s certainly discouraging though.
It doesn’t completely ruin the camera experience with the S20 Ultra, it just doesn’t have a marked advantage over the S20+ or S20. The solution to these problems is to shoot in Single Take. This is when you just press the shutter button and move around to capture whatever you want. The S20 Ultra does the legwork and captures a variety of photos and videos. It even produces a quick montage for you with some royalty-free jingles. (It works particularly well with dogs, especially when they’re playing or running around, making it much easier than attempting to snap a shot of your feisty furball on your own.)
On the video side, the S20 Ultra can capture up to 8K video (4K, FHD and HD are all still there as options). Shooting in 8K will lock you into recording in the widescreen standard of 16:9. For reference, FHD and HD are still the standards; Live TV is still broadcast in HD, while 4K is becoming more commonplace, especially with streaming services. So 8K is most certainly a step up.
Recording at the 8K option may produce larger files, but you’ll get a lot more detail. You can also edit it right on the device and trim it down to a lower resolution clip, making it easier to share footage on social media. It performs pretty well and lets you get an 8K video, but we’re not sure how many people will actually use this, since most devices today don’t support 8K playback.
But if you do shoot in 8K, you’ll be able to easily share still photos — and not by taking a screenshot. The S20 Ultra lets you capture an image inline when reviewing the footage in the gallery app. It’s handy and surprisingly crisp and clear. It also gives you more of a reason to shoot in 8K, even if you don’t have a TV to view it on.
Ultimately, it’s a good camera setup that may drive you a little bonkers sometimes. It offers some improvements over the S10 family, but as of right now with the Ultra specifically, it’s not a significant enough improvement to rush out and get one.
A straightforward design that highlights the camera
The S20 Ultra still looks like a Galaxy smartphone, just supersized. It feels significant in the hand — hefty, but not bone-crushingly heavy — while still manageable for everyday use.
Samsung built in several ways to unlock the device. There’s an embedded in-screen fingerprint sensor near the bottom of the display or facial recognition with the front-facing cam at the top. The volume rocker and power button both live on the right-hand side, near the top of the phone. We’re extremely happy there’s no dedicated button to call upon Samsung’s Bixby virtual assistant, which was a huge pain point on the S10 series as it was far too easy to accidentally open it up.
At the top, you’ll find the microSD card and SIM card slot, while the bottom houses the USB Type-C port (but is absent a headphone jack). The backside, like the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 family, features a large camera bump — a rectangle that sticks out with black color all around, giving it some definition against the Cosmic Gray main color.
It’s a buttery smooth 6.9” display
With the Ultra, we recommend turning on 120Hz display refresh immediately. This is the same technology that OnePlus, Apple and most TVs use. It’s essentially how many times per second the screen can refresh itself, so the fast rate of 120Hz means that the display refreshes 120 times in a second.
The default 60Hz refresh rate still gives you 4K UHD resolution that delivers a more vibrant and clear experience. You may notice some frame rate drops in this, but it’s likely a rare occurrence as 60Hz is still the standard on most devices.
We found the 6.9-inch Infinity-O display to be a joy to use on all fronts. Colors in photos or videos look especially vibrant, with reds and oranges popping. Contrast matches this with deep blacks across apps and content. Elsa’s journey across the sea in Frozen II, for example, looked especially great with clear waves crashing amidst a nighttime setting.
The S20 Ultra is basically all screen with incredibly minimal bezels all around. It really lets you get immersed in the content; you feel as if you’re just holding a flat screen without any distraction.
There’s a noticeable difference between this display and the one on Galaxy Z Flip, Galaxy S10+ and Note 10+. The most striking is the 120Hz in comparison to 60Hz or 90Hz. We noticed this particularly when swiping through a timeline on Instagram or when reading a story from the web. There’s a certain fluidness that comes with 120Hz that lower refresh rates just can’t match.
The “O” in the Infinity-O display comes in the form of a pinhole notch that sits at the top center of the display. It contains a 40-megapixel selfie camera that delivers a lot of detail. A collection of photos are embedded below, but you can certainly see a lot. It also has an 80-degree field of view perfect for group selfies.
Longtime Galaxy fans will notice that the S20 Ultra’s (along with the S20 and S20+) display doesn’t slope down on the sides — what was called an “edge display” and felt like a waterfall going down the left and right sides. Instead of water, though, it was the screen slightly tipping over. It was novel for a bit, but frequently resulted in accidental presses. We’re pretty happy this is no longer a trait.
It’s ultra-fast with performance
Samsung really did throw everything into this phone and its performance comes through: We didn’t experience any app-specific crashes or slowdowns with the S20 Ultra. You’ll be able to keep a ton of apps open and really multitask with ease.
It’s even a solid gaming device, as we didn’t experience any crashes or hiccups while playing Fortnite, Call of Duty Mobile, Idle Hotel Tycoon or Real Racing. It was equally fast with less intensive apps or basic functions of the phone. This is all thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, which is paired with 12GBs of RAM, a speedy processor that’s more than powerful enough to handle Fortnite while running apps in the background.
If you want to both futureproof yourself and be able — for whatever reason — to run 50 apps at once, opt for the 16GBs of RAM model. But it’s most certainly overkill for the average consumer or even a gamer, with more RAM than most laptops have. Heck, even 12GBs of RAM is more than the usual 8GBs of RAM Apple throws into a MacBook Air.
Beyond daily use, the S20 Ultra performed well during a series of benchmark tests. These are the same tests we run on any device we’re reviewing to qualitatively compare phones. The S20 Ultra 5G scored a 901 on a single-core and a 3203 on multi-core, putting it in front of leading flagship devices like the S10 family, Note 10 family and the Pixel 4 family. It really blew the competition out of the water by more than 100 points.
The battery life experience matched the performance —- even with the 120Hz display turned on. We spent half of our testing time on 60Hz and a half on 120Hz. With both, we got a full day of use, so you can expect between 12 to 14 hours of daily use with it.
A note on 5G
You shouldn’t buy the S20 Ultra — or any device that supports 5G — just for 5G capability. The networks are not fully rolled out yet and you likely won’t see the differences. Still, even on 4G LTE, the S20 Ultra delivered impressive speeds as the device supports up to 2.0GBps download and 200MBps for upload.
At $1,399.99 unlocked, we really feel you should be getting a complete package, which the S20 Ultra isn’t — yet. We’re hopeful Samsung will fix the camera issues, but can’t guarantee that. The S20 Ultra 5G is a monstrous 6.9-inch phone that has the hardware to match the Ultra namesake. But for most users, it very much might be overkill and the S20 and S20+ deserve a second look, as do the S10 line of devices, which bring even more value than ever.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed prices at the time of publication.