Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is a true groundbreaker that defines what we’ll be doing with our phones, and with 5G, for the next few years. But after looking at all three Samsung Galaxy S20 models, I’ve decided the Ultra is just too much. It’s too expensive, it’s too heavy, and its vaunted “100x” camera takes up to four seconds to lock in focus. It’s my third choice in the S20 lineup after the all-around champ that is Galaxy S20+ and the friendly, portable Galaxy S20.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is massive, at 6.57 by 2.99 by 0.35 inches and 7.76 ounces. It’s actually slightly narrower than the Galaxy Note 10+ and the iPhone 11 Pro Max, and lighter than the iPhone. But its edges are less tapered than the Note 10+ or the Galaxy S10+, making it feel thicker in your hand, and it has a giant camera patch on the back. Available in black or gray and made of shiny yet surprisingly fingerprint-resistant glass, it’s quite slippery, and trying to take pictures with it is a very two-handed experience. The phone will be even bigger when it’s in a case.

I find phones this large off-putting, and after several weeks of handling the phone, it hasn’t gotten much more appealing. The Ultra is literally the most phone possible right now, with the most screen, the most battery, the most processor, the most megapixels, and the most RAM. If you’re  overwhelmed, as I am, you can go for the smaller Galaxy S20 or Galaxy S20+, but you’ll have to give up the flagship 10x lossless zoom you get here.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
The phone comes with AKG-branded headphones and a 25-watt charger

Samsung did away with the dedicated Bixby button, so now the only buttons are for power and volume. Sadly, Samsung also finally did away with the headphone jack, so you’re stuck with using USB-C headphones like the included AKG buds, or Bluetooth headphones. The single nano-SIM card slot pops out of the top edge and includes room for a microSD card.

The S20 Ultra has the same Qualcomm in-display fingerprint sensor as on the Galaxy S10 series, but with a year’s more software experience than when the S10 launched. That means better performance and accuracy, but it still has a small target area and requires a definitive, on-center finger press. Face recognition is also available for unlocking your screen, along with the old-school PIN, pattern, and password.

Samsung’s OLED screens were already very good. The S20 Ultra’s 6.9-inch, 3,120-by-1,440 screen is, predictably, a little better than the last one. Dr. Ray Soneira of DisplayMate Labs says it’s 14 percent brighter than the Galaxy S10’s display, with other measurements coming out similar to other leading smartphones. When using it at full brightness in full sunlight, there’s a visible difference between the S20 Ultra and a Galaxy S10e.

One thing that stays consistent, and that might surprise you if you’re not a Samsung user, is the company’s typical color oversaturation. The screen’s native Vivid mode has very punchy colors, much more so than you see especially on iPhones. A lot of people like that, but you can turn it off if you want. There are a lot of screen options. You can turn down the resolution for better battery life, or change the white point and screen gamut.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

The most talked-about display feature is the new 120Hz screen, with 240Hz touch support. That refreshes the screen twice as often as on previous Galaxy phones and iPhones.

Gamers will feel the 120Hz. In our benchmarks, I found that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chipset is capable of rendering the GFXBench T-Rex scene in 1080p at 120Hz, so well-programmed games will feel more responsive with the new screen mode. I find it most useful, though, for scrolling. On a standard 60Hz screen, fast scrolling in news apps tends to “tear” a little, with lines appearing to skip or deform as they fly up the screen. 120Hz makes this smoother.

Does it feel smoother than 90Hz? I’m not sure. The OnePlus 7 Pro line has a 90Hz refresh rate, which I also find smoother than 60Hz. 120Hz should be smoother than 90Hz, but I have to say, in practice the effect is subtle.

Right now, you can only activate the 120Hz mode with the screen at 1080p resolution. But XDA’s Max Winebach says that Samsung will release a software update enabling the 120Hz mode with the full screen resolution.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
The new chipset and 120Hz screen are good for gaming

Chipset and Software

The Galaxy S20 is the first US phone to use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 chipset. I’ve done a rundown of the Snapdragon 865’s main features here and have a full story on Galaxy S20 benchmarks here. If you’re curious about the nitty-gritty details of the Snapdragon 865 SoC, I suggest you read AnandTech’s coverage here.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Faster than the Galaxy Note 10+, but not as fast as the iPhone
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
resolution really affects browsing performance

The 865 will be the chipset in all of this year’s flagship Android phones. Qualcomm promises 20 to 25 percent better performance than last year’s 855, and on raw CPU measures like Geekbench, it delivers. But the Snapdragon hasn’t been strictly about performance for a few years now. It’s a complicated system-on-a-chip with components like an image signal processor and DSPs designed to enable specific new features we see in the S20, like 108-megapixel and 8K video capture, and the ability to do lossless 10x zoom with only a 4x lens.

I tested the $1,399.99 S20 Ultra with 128GB of storage and 12GB of RAM. There’s a version with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage for $200 more. You should spring for that model if you intend to take a lot of 8K video. While you can store photos and 4K video on a microSD card (I used a 400GB card, which worked fine), the card’s write speed is too slow for 8K. At 580MB per minute, you can fill a 128GB model’s 100GB or so of free storage using about three hours of 8K video.

Samsung still delivers a heavily altered version of Android, and if you buy a carrier unit, it will have plenty of bloatware. That means Android version updates tend to come later to Samsung phones than to, say, Google Pixel phones.

There are a lot of features in Samsung’s new One UI 2.0 for Android 10 that you’re unlikely to notice, but they’re useful. Link to Windows shows notifications on your Windows PC, while DeX lets you easily access data and applications on your phone from your PC. Focus Mode temporarily disables apps you find distracting. You can lock three apps into RAM (five on the 16GB unit) to keep your game from restarting when you tap away, and you can sign into multiple accounts on social media apps at once.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Part of the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s massive size is its massive battery: 5,000mAh, the largest I’ve seen on a mainstream Samsung smartphone. (The two smaller models come with smaller batteries—4,500mAh on the Galaxy S20+ and 4,000mAh on the Galaxy S20.)

We use Wi-Fi video streaming to test battery rundown. With the screen in 120Hz 1080p mode, we got 12 hours, 4 minutes of rundown time, which is just terrific. With the screen changed to 60Hz 1440p mode, it tracked to about the same amount. 

This probably comes down to the nature of our testing. The video we use isn’t 120fps, so the screen isn’t consuming the extra battery it would need to do the 120 refreshes per second. For what it’s worth, I think that makes an interesting point about the power consumption of high-refresh-rate screens—most of the things you’re doing don’t use the high refresh rate and won’t consume the extra power. I’ve had a bear of a time running this phone down over the past few days to get it ready for charging tests.

The Galaxy S20+ had about an hour less battery life; the Galaxy S20 had two hours less.

I’ve been seeing and hearing results from other reviewers that point out the range of things that can impact battery life. If you’re on a network with lousy reception, for instance, you’re going to get a lot less battery life. The same is true if you’re constantly gaming or using GPS driving navigation without the phone plugged in.

The S20 Ultra comes with a 25-watt charger and supports 45-watt USB-C PD charging. With the 25-watt charger, I got to 44 percent in 20 minutes and 100 percent in an hour, which is excellent. With the $50, 45-watt Samsung charger, I got to 48 percent in 20 minutes and 100 percent in an hour. That’s just strange.

The S20 series also supports wireless charging and wireless reverse charging, so you can charge your earbuds or watch on the back of your phone.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

On paper and in hardware, the Galaxy S20 Ultra has all of the 4G, 5G, and Wi-Fi features you need for the next two years. It’s the first phone I’ve seen that makes a really good argument for 5G—but it makes the argument on uploads, not downloads. The S20 captures really large files. Its 108-megapixel photos are 20MB each. 8K videos are 580MB a minute.

US carriers’ 5G networks aren’t delivering great upload speeds now, but they will in the near future. Verizon’s 5G in New York still uses 4G for uploads. But when we tested true 5G uploads on Verizon’s network in Providence, RI, they were triple 4G speeds. That’s what you need for these high-megapixel images. The Galaxy S20 has the right hardware to take advantage of those capabilities when they become real.

First, the good news: The S20’s basic LTE RF reception, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi 6 are on point. I got very good speeds from the Netgear Wi-Fi 6 router in PC Labs, and LTE connectivity dueled it out on signal strength with other leading smartphones. There’s nothing noticeably better about the S20’s 4G LTE than the S10’s—the major changes are in 5G.

The US model of the S20 has a single, physical, nano-SIM. There are international dual-SIM models, and I’ve heard rumors about eSIM support, but eSIM isn’t available on my test device. This is a major missed opportunity for Samsung. eSIM lets you easily add a second line to your phone, either for global roaming or for personal/work line use, and all the latest iPhones have it.

There’s not much to say about voice quality and such. This is something Samsung locked down a long time ago, and the S20 doesn’t introduce any issues.

Samsung’s new dialer has two features worth noting. There’s a video call button that triggers a Google Duo call if your interlocutor has Google Duo. There’s also a buried Places tab in the dialer that opens up a weirdly ad-laden tab suggesting nearby businesses you’d like. You’d never know it was there if I didn’t tell you, but it’s an unfortunate reminder that sometimes Samsung just won’t leave software well enough alone.

There are six main submodels of the Galaxy S20 Ultra and S20+, with different 5G frequency bands. While they all have similar 4G bands and capabilities, they will typically not work on 5G networks across regions. So no, you can’t use a European dual-SIM Galaxy S20 on T-Mobile’s 5G network, and you can’t use a US unit on British 5G networks. 

The S20 Ultra’s flagship feature is its 100x zoom, which is really 10x, which is really 4x. Let me explain.

On the back of the phone there are four cameras. There’s a 12MP 0.5x camera, a 108MP 1x camera (which defaults to 12MP using nine-pixel binning), a “48MP” 4x camera (which creates 12MP images using quad-pixel binning), and an infrared time-of-flight sensor. Between 4x and 10x, the phone combines the 4x camera with a cropped shot from the 108-megapixel 1x camera to create a supposedly lossless, zoomed 12-megapixel image. Any level above that involves heavy digital zoom; the phone suggests that you go to 30x and then to 100x.

You hear 100x zoom and you think spy cam. That wasn’t my experience, however. At 30x or above, things are just too hard to focus on—everything’s too tight, too shaky, and too sharpened to be of much use. At 10x, things still look good. 10x is the perfect zoom to grab a shot of a small thing on the street without stooping down, or an architectural element or piece of art from across the road. 10x lets you catch your kids playing, from a safe distance, without interrupting them. Concert stages, in general, look great at 10x. If you’re getting this phone for its camera, get it for the 10x.

You can also take shots in 108MP mode, at up to 6x of zoom. The idea is that you don’t have to think about your zoom beforehand; you’ll crop after. That said, it’s good to think about the zoom before. Below is a pixel-by-pixel comparison of a 5x zoom shot versus the 108MP at 1x. I’m not impressed with the quality of the 108MP shot.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
5X on the left, 108MP but zoomed on the right

A March software update partially fixed a focus-hunting bug I saw on the phone’s original software, but focus still takes too long to lock—up to four seconds, in some cases. The camera lets you take photos before the focus has locked, which means trouble if you’re too quick on the trigger. When the focus locks, it stays locked—unlike on the earlier software—but it can take far too long to get there.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Four seconds can make all the difference

The 108-megapixel main sensor has very short depth of field, which means you need to be a bit careful when taking photos of things that are very close to the camera, but it delivers terrific bokeh.

There are a lot of camera modes here, including super slow-mo, hyperlapse, filters, and silly settings that add augmented reality creatures or avatars to your shots. The most innovative is Single Take Mode, which has you take 10 seconds of video of something—usually someone doing some sort of antic—and then slices and dices it into cropped shots, filtered shots, a sped-up video, a forward-and-back “boomerang” video, and other very 2020 internet gimmicks. It’s great for adding a little of that Tik Tok aesthetic to your world if you have no idea how Tik Toks are made.

Samsung still needs work to catch up with Apple and Google on low-light performance. The S20 Ultra has a night mode that combines a bunch of frames for a brighter image. The most recent software update shortened the default night mode timing, reducing a situation that led to photos being far too blurry. But many of my night shots, especially at zoom, were still a little softer than I’d like.

Nothing in the US zooms like the S20 Ultra does. Abroad, the Huawei P30 Pro and the Oppo Reno 10x both promise 10x lossless zoom, but neither phone is available in the US. So the S20 Ultra easily destroys any other US phone in that regard.

For various zoom levels, I compared the S20 with the Galaxy Note 10+ and the Huawei P30 Pro.

At 1x, the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s 12-megapixel daylight shot is similar to the Galaxy Note 10+. Both show more saturated colors than the P30 Pro.

At 5x, the Note 10+ is clearly digitally zoomed and indistinct. The S20 is better, but it’s insufficiently stabilized to deal with my shaky hands, and as a result there’s some blur in the image. The P30 Pro images looks best of all.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Left to right: Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung Galaxy Note 10+, Huawei P30 Pro at 5x

At 10x, the Note 10+ image is soft and indistinct. The S20 Ultra and P30 Pro look sharpened, but I’d judge the S20 ahead by a nose in terms of naturalism.

At 30x, both the S20 Ultra and the P30 Pro look digitally zoomed, but the S20 looks oversharpened.

Nothing looks good at 100x; everything is soft and way too oversharpened. But that might also be because there is no way I can hold my hand still enough for the 100x mode.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: 1x, 5x, 10x, 30x
Huawei P30 Pro
Huawei P30 Pro: 1x, 5x, 10x, 30x
Samsung Galaxy Note 10+
Samsung Galaxy Note 10+: 1x, 2x, 5x, 10x
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: 1x, 10x, 30x, 100x

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is the first US phone to record 8K video, thanks to the Snapdragon 865 chipset. It won’t be the last. 8K videos can be recorded at up to 6x zoom, while 4K videos can be recorded at up to 20x zoom.

Zoom is the reason for the season here. 8K video is a 4x zoom on 4K, and a 16x zoom on 1080p. With file sizes at 580MB/minute, it’ll be hard to get these multi-gigabyte videos off your phone. So the phone comes with a basic video editor that lets you clip, dynamically zoom, and attach titles and such to your videos, then upload them to YouTube in 8K. But chances are you won’t be uploading in 8K; Google Photos mostly deals with 4K video, while TikTok is 1080p.

8K recording gives you latitude to crop and zoom after the fact. There’s a considerable amount of image stabilization added, and it works pretty well.

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has a camera unlike anything else on the US market—but in my mind, it flies a little too close to the sun. Usable 10x zoom is terrific, never mind the gimmicky 30x or the useless 100x. But the camera still takes longer to focus than a $1,400 device should, and it doesn’t stand out in low light.

Beyond that, the S20 Ultra is just plain huge. It’s a true phablet, to get back to that tired term—too big, too heavy, and too expensive. If there weren’t good alternatives, I wouldn’t be judging the Ultra so harshly. But the Galaxy S20+ does nearly everything the Ultra does (with better camera focus), and does it at a more reasonable size and a more reasonable price, making it a better buy and our Editors’ Choice.

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