I dropped a $1,400 phone on my toe. The weight of the thing was slightly heavier than a billiard ball. Needless to say, it hurt.
My grip was compromised because I had been trying different hand positions over the past week just to be able to use Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, a phone with a 6.9-inch screen. (For reference, the biggest iPhone has a 6.5-inch screen.) There have been a few moments where the phone slipped through my fingers as I reached to the top of the screen to pull down my notifications, or when I tried to tap an area to focus in the camera app while holding the phone one-handed. I usually managed to catch it and remind myself that this phone needs two hands. Except for the time it fell on my toe. Don’t worry, the phone (and my toe) are fine.
Size and an innate unwieldiness are this phone’s biggest weaknesses. The absurd price tag is also a weakness, because nothing on the S20 Ultra has convinced me it’s worth this much, especially considering how good cheap phones are these days. Still, Samsung’s biggest and most expensive S20 model is nearly impossible to dislike. The camera is great (though it needs a little more work), and everything else—from battery life to performance—is close to perfect.
The main reason to buy the Galaxy S20 Ultra is for its cameras, which offer a little more than what you get with the slightly more affordable Galaxy S20 ($1,000) and Galaxy S20 Plus ($1,200).
Namely, the Ultra has a camera with a large, 108-megapixel image sensor, which snaps some highly-detailed photos. (The image files take up between five and 25 megabytes of space each, I’ll add). But by default, the camera uses a process called binning to merge pixels so they can absorb more light, producing smaller, brighter 12-megapixel photos. I’ve snapped some great photos with both these modes this week, though in low light you can still see a good deal of grain.
However, there are two features I’ve been using the most with this camera: the variety of zoom capabilities and Night mode. The 108-megapixel camera is responsible for the shots where you zoom in between 1x and 4x, and then there’s the 48 MP sensor, which is paired with a 10x periscope lens (where the glass is stacked sideways and seen by the sensor through a prism). With this second camera, you can go all the way to 100x zoom. Don’t.
The quality is bad at that level of zoom. It’s amazing you can see objects so far away but that’s really all I’ve used it for. Going down to 30x zoom, the quality is a bit better, but I still wouldn’t share most photos taken at this level. Now 10x—that’s something I want to see on every phone. It opens up so many more possibilities of what I can take a photo of, like a great shot of the Statue of Liberty, or the retro sign of a diner across the street. I’ve been thinking far more creatively, trying different angles and subjects I otherwise would have ignored on other phone cameras.
Image quality is not consistent, though. That’s a theme that regularly came up using these cameras. When there’s not enough light in the scene, the image quality at 10x zoom drops dramatically. That’s where Night mode comes in handy, or at least, it should. In this mode, the camera snaps multiple photos at different exposures and merges them together for a single, brighter image. It takes several seconds, so you need to stay very, very still; it’s unforgiving with any kind of movement, much more so than Night mode on phones like the Google Pixel 4 or the iPhone 11.
This imaging technology isn’t new, but the results it produces in the S20 Ultra are a good deal better than those from its predecessor, the Galaxy S10. The new Galaxy can preserve a surprising amount of detail (if you and the subject can hold still), but often this only applies to the main camera with the huge sensor. My Night mode shots on 10x zoom have ranged from blurry, grainy, and severely pixelated to filled with lots of flare from streetlights.
Night mode isn’t perfect with the main camera, either. Photos can often look over-processed, with oversaturated colors (with a lot of yellowish hues), fringing, and a halo effect on the edges of subjects. Any natural shadows are also sapped away. A comparison with the Pixel 4’s Night Sight showed Samsung’s phone can retain more detail, but black levels, color saturation, and temperature are usually wildly off.
There is also a 12-megapixel ultra-wide angle camera. I love it for taking in sweeping landscapes or gathering more detail in tight spaces, but you need a lot of light to keep the images from looking blotchy. (Night mode does tend to fare better here than on the zoom cameras.)
What else is inconsistent? Autofocus, for one. I’ve spent a lot of time waiting for the camera to focus on the subject, and as I mentioned earlier, tapping the screen to force focus can be tricky when holding such a large phone with one hand. Portrait mode, which Samsung calls Live Focus, is erratic as well. This mode blurs the background of a subject for an effect that approximates what you’d get from a DSLR with a big lens. It can be fantastic … when you’re outdoors in good lighting. Anywhere else, the results are middling. You’re better off getting close to a subject with the main lens, as the natural bokeh it produces is fantastic.
Samsung is aware of these inconsistencies, specifically with the autofocus issues, overprocessing, and image smoothening. The company said it’s “working on a future update to improve the camera experience.”
The S20 Ultra’s camera is undoubtedly one of the most versatile available today (its selfie camera is pretty good, too!). I’ve had a lot of fun taking photos with its camera array and 10x zoom is undeniably a must-have tool in any shutterbug’s toolkit. If it sounds like I’m nitpicking, well, I’m not. I should not be encountering these issues on a phone that costs $1,400. Yes, it can at times triumph over the Pixel 4, my favorite camera phone, but I still lean toward the Pixel most of the time. It just reinforces the fact that adding a huge megapixel count to your camera doesn’t automatically translate to better photos.
8K video recording is overkill. That said, I’ve grown to like shooting at such a high resolution not only because the footage looks great, but also because when I edit these clips, I can crop in to get closer to a subject and then save the footage as a 4K file. But this is a very niche thing only creative professionals might do. Most people don’t have an 8K TV yet, so there’s not much of a reason to record all your footage at such high resolution. Go down to 4K and save some storage space. Or better yet, shoot at 1080p in Super Steady mode for some beautifully stabilized video.
Know what’s also putting the cart before the horse? 5G. The presence of a 5G modem didn’t enhance my everyday experience of using the phone. The Ultra supports both sub-6 and millimeter wave (mmWave) flavors of 5G, which you can read all about in our 5G guide. But that’s not a reason to buy the phone. I’ve been using a T-Mobile SIM and network speeds have been similar if only slightly better than what I see with 4G LTE. You might see a tangible difference if you’re on Verizon, as mmWave nets much faster internet speeds, but you can only find it on a few blocks in a handful of cities in the country. The range also only extends as far as a couple of city blocks, and it barely penetrates buildings.
Don’t buy this phone just because Samsung touts 8K or 5G. They’re nice features, but not very practical.
Close to Perfect
I have a hard time finding faults with the rest of the S20 Ultra. Performance, thanks to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 processor and the 12 GB of RAM, has been stellar.
The screen is my favorite thing about this phone. Watching The Witcher on a 6.9-inch screen in the subway (when the phone is comfortably in my two hands) is fantabulous. The 120 Hz refresh rate is the cherry on top. It means the screen shows more frames per second (most phones offer 60 Hz), and at 120 frames per second, the scrolling within apps feels buttery smooth. Same with fast-moving games. Samsung makes you drop the screen resolution down a notch to get 120 fps, but that didn’t bother me at all. Things look perfectly great at the lower setting of Full HD+.
I’ve also yet to feel any battery anxiety. The Ultra usually sits around 40 percent by 7 pm after an average workday, and if I forgot to juice it up overnight, I’ve even been able to go for half of a second day.
The phone’s still IP68 water resistant, can quickly juice up wired or wirelessly, has a MicroSD card slot, a reliable in-display fingerprint sensor, and is chock full of other features. But it’s a shame it’s so big, and that there’s no headphone jack. Hey, that’s why I said close to perfect.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is a heck of a good Android phone. It’s just not a good deal. If the price tag doesn’t give you pause, then don’t let me stop you. You’ll love the screen and the camera. But most people should either wait for a price drop or go for the smaller and cheaper Galaxy S20, which I’ll be reviewing next.