Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: Glorious Excess with an Excessive Price

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: Glorious Excess with an Excessive Price

Let’s skip past all the hemming and hawing. Between its huge 6.9-inch 120Hz screen, beastly specs, 5G support, 108-MP main camera, Space Zoom lens, and 8K video capture, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is an absolute powerhouse. It has practically any feature you could ever want (aside from a headphone jack), and unless you’re a stylus die-hard, the S20 Ultra makes the $1,100 Note 10+ seem like a quaint mid-range device. And if price wasn’t a factor, I’d have a hard time choosing any phone available today over the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

But a world without price tags simply isn’t a place where normal people live. Ultimately, how you feel about the S20 Ultra is intrinsically linked to how willing you are to part with $1,400. For a lot of people, that’s a month’s rent or nice vacation, and a frighteningly steep jump up from the $1,000 flagship phones that were already making people’s wallets weep. So the only way to really get a feel for what this phone can do is to take a deep dive down to see if the S20 Ultra can really justify its price.

Design: Putting that thickness to good use

Look, there’s no getting around it, at 6.57 by 2.99 by 0.35 inches and weighing 7.83 ounces the S20 Ultra is a damn big phone. But Samsung puts that room to good use, and in fact, the S20 Ultra is slightly narrower than the Note 10+ (6.39 by 3.04 by 0.31 inches, 6.91 ounces). What makes the S20 Ultra feel so bulky is its thickness and weight. Now I admit, a few hundredths of an inch and less than an ounce of added heft don’t sound like much, but those things do make a difference when you’re trying to reach across the phone to hit a letter while typing—especially if your hands are on the smaller side.

Illustration for article titled Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: Glorious Excess with an Excessive Price
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

At the same time, phones have continued to get larger every year since the original Galaxy Note broke past the 5-inch barrier in back in 2011, so I’d have to be somewhat shortsighted to declare that even at 6.9-inches, the S20 Ultra is officially “too big.” And when you consider the spectacular image quality the S20 Ultra’s screen offers, it’s damn near impossible to argue that bigger isn’t better, even if its size and weight sometimes makes the phone feel cumbersome.

The rest of the S20 Ultra’s design is actually surprisingly utilitarian. The massive camera module around back calls attention to the S20 Ultra’s quad cam arrangement and provides a place for Samsung to install its periscope zoom, but it ain’t pretty. Samsung also slimmed down the S20 Ultra’s even further and reduced the curvature of its rounded glass, which should be a welcome change for all the people who’ve been hating on the sloped screens found on previous Galaxy phones.

Illustration for article titled Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: Glorious Excess with an Excessive Price
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

So while the Galaxy S20 Ultra is very practical, it doesn’t look as expensive as it costs, which is kind of a shame. Going back to the Galaxy S8, Samsung made one of the prettiest phones of all time, and while the S20 Ultra shares the same DNA, with just two rather drab colors to choose from (black or gray), Samsung’s glass and aluminum design has gone from being a slick, well-tailored suit to something closer to a pair of work overalls. A very slippery and shiny pair of overalls, but overalls nonetheless.

Display and audio: 120Hz is where it’s at

When it comes to the S20 Ultra’s screen itself, after Samsung saw its best phones last year get one-upped by handsets with 90HZ displays like the OnePlus 7 Pro, Pixel 4, and others, this year, Samsung is flexing on the smartphone industry by introducing new 120Hz OLED screens on the S20 line. To me, Samsung’s jump up to a 120Hz refresh rate offers an even better sweet spot between the 60Hz panels found on regular phones and the overly-thirsty 300Hz or 360Hz displays we’re starting to see over in the PC world. It’s difficult to properly describe the increased smoothness and fluidity a high refresh rate display offers in words, but if you just take a couple seconds to toggle on the option in the phone, your eyes might almost cry with delight.

The one downside is that 120Hz mode is only available when the phone is set to FHD+ resolution or lower instead of its max QHD+ 3200 x 1440 capacity. Samsung says it implemented this limit to help balance the phone’s power draw with its display performance, which makes sense, but I can’t help but wish there was an optimized mode like you get on the Pixel 4 that can dynamically switch the S20 Ultra’s refresh rate depending on content without lowering the phone’s resolution.

Illustration for article titled Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: Glorious Excess with an Excessive Price
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

But regardless of which resolution or refresh rate you use, the S20 Ultra’s 6.9-inch display is enchantingly pleasing. Its peak brightness of 707 nits is excellent, and especially in Vivid mode, everything pops with splashes of rich, punchy colors. For years, Samsung has demonstrated that it makes the best mobile displays in the world, and that’s definitely still true on the S20 Ultra.

Moving on to sound, the S20 Ultra’s speakers use a familiar setup featuring a big speaker on the bottom of the phone and the earpiece above the display to deliver powerful stereo sound. The S20 Ultra has no trouble filling a medium-sized room with music, but audio quality doesn’t seem to have changed much from the Galaxy S10 or Note 10.

Specs and performance: Overpowered as hell

There’s a weird notion that’s been floating around the net that somehow a phone that has more RAM than a typical laptop is stupid. But it’s not, it’s fantastic. Getting annoyed about a phone having too much RAM is like being upset that your Ferrari’s top speed is too high. The S20 Ultra is really expensive, and it ought to have specs to reflect that. And while it’s true that apps like Facebook and Twitter don’t exactly tax phones that much, there are a number of situations where having a ton of RAM is genuinely useful.

With 12GB of RAM, you rarely have to reload apps, which means you can switch between tasks with the greatest of haste. And for anyone who plays more demanding mobile games like PUBG Mobile or Call of Duty Mobile, having all that RAM is a massive time saver that allows you to keep multiple memory-heavy games going in the background with essentially no impact on the phone’s overall performance.

Illustration for article titled Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: Glorious Excess with an Excessive Price
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

And when you combine that RAM with a Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 865 chip, 128GB of storage (or 512GB if you pay for the upgrade), a microSD slot, and support for all three flavors of 5G used in the U.S. (sub 6Ghz, 2.5Ghz, and mmWave), you get a blazing fast 5G-ready phone that works on any carrier. In fact, when it comes to 5G performance, you’re more limited by the networks than what the phone can do. While testing out mmWave 5G on Verizon, I saw speeds between 500 Mbps to well over 1.2 Mbps in New York City, though only outside and in limited areas like around Bryant Park and MSG, as Verizon’s 5G service is relatively spotty.

When I swapped in a T-Mobile SIM to try out another 5G network, I got a very different experience due to T-Mo’s use of sub-6GHz 5G, with speeds ranging from 60 Mbps to over 100 Mbps. But unlike Verizon, I was able to get that relatively consistently throughout the city, and even inside our office on the 28th floor of our building.

Is the S20 Ultra a bit excessive? Sure, But for $1,400 it damn well better be, and despite thoughts to the contrary, it is possible to use nearly all of the phones prodigious performance, especially if you’re one of the few people that takes advantage of Samsung’s DeX mode, which is still available on the new S20s.

Cameras: More features and reach than you really need

Packing a 108-MP main camera, a 48-MP telephoto camera, a 12-MP ultra-wide-angle camera and a 40-MP selfie cam (not to mention a bonus 3D time-of-flight cam), the Galaxy S20 Ultra might have the most pixel rich assortment of smartphone cameras ever.

Illustration for article titled Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: Glorious Excess with an Excessive Price
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

When shooting normally, the S20 Ultra uses it huge 108-MP sensor to create sharp detailed images, and a nine to one pixel binning technique so that even in low-light, you still get bright, colorful images without needing to switch over to night mode. This is one of the S20's biggest strengths, because quite often, you may not have the time or luxury to sit there and hold the phone still for three or four seconds like you have to when using night mode. In a comparison against a Pixel 4 XL in a darkened theatre, the S20 Ultra’s pic was noticeably sharper, captured way more fine details like on the brickwork in the background, and was less grainy to boot. (See the images below.)

Samsung had been losing ground to Google and then Apple last year with the iPhone 11 Pro when it came to pure image quality. And while the S20 Ultra hasn’t leaped ahead of its competitors in every situation, at least the S20 Ultra can keep pace and earn a win depending on the scene.

In another comparison against the iPhone 11, the S20 Ultra took a shot of some street art boasting the vivid, almost overly saturated colors Samsung phones tend to prefer, while also capturing slightly more detail of the texture on the wall. Then, in a different shot of a giant pile of matcha up against a Pixel 4, the S20 Ultra captured a nice bright pic with better exposure than what I got from the Pixel 4. However, I will say the Pixel 4 did a slightly better job with white balance and capturing the dark grassy green of the matcha powder compared to the slightly yellow tint you see in the S20 Ultra’s pic.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how much better the S20 Ultra’s Night Mode is, as it turned a rather dark shot in Central Park into a serene low-light landscape. Compared to both the iPhone 11 and Pixel 4, Samsung largely matched its competitors in terms of sharpness and detail, though the S20 Ultra’s pic does succumb to Samsung’s tendency to go heavy on yellow, especially in when it’s dark out.

However, the S20 Ultra’s camera isn’t without its struggles. Sometimes, it’s autofocus takes longer to lock on than you’d expect, and in one Night Mode shot, the S20 Ultra produced a pic that went way overboard on the yellow tones for no real good reason that I can see. To its credit, Samsung says it will continue to improve and adjust the S20 Ultra’s camera, so hopefully things get better before the phone officially launches in a week on March 6th. Stay tuned for updates.

Illustration for article titled Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: Glorious Excess with an Excessive Price
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

When it comes to busting out the S20 Ultra’s 48-MP Spaaaaaace Zoom, there’s a lot of fun to be had and even a bit of silliness. To reach its claimed 100x zoom potential, Samsung combines a 4x optical zoom with some fancy processing to create a 10x “lossless” zoom, and from 1x to 10x, the results speak for themselves. Images are sharp and detailed even when the phone is handheld, and way better than you get from an iPhone 11 Pro or a Pixel 4, which are both limited to paltry 2x optical zooms.

However, when going from 10x to its full 100x zoom, Samsung is simply using digital zoom to crop in and make things look larger without actually enhancing image quality in a meaningful way. So as you go above 10x, clarity and sharpness start to deteriorate. I would say zooming to 25x or 30x is still usable if you don’t mind some fuzziness, but the further you go above 30x, the more your photo starts to look like an impressionist painting. And at 100x you might as well call yourself Claude Monet. For anything above 20x or so, you’re also going to need a tripod, or else you’ll spend so much time trying to hold the camera steady, you might miss your shot completely. And even if you do have a tripod, touching the phone to press the shutter button introduces even more blur into the photo, so it’s best to set a timer instead.

As for the S20 Ultra’s numerous other camera features like Single Shot mode, improved Super Steady Video, and Live Focus photos and videos, while many of them may feel somewhat niche or gimmicky on their own, when you combine everything together, you get the most robust smartphone photo and video toolkit on any handset available right now. And then there’s 8K video recording mode, which is a nice option to have, but since no one really owns 8K displays or watches native 8K content, 8K video is better used as a supplement to 4K content, allowing you to crop in for a tight shot when needed.

And while I’m typically not someone who takes a lot of selfies, I’ve got to give credit to the S20 Ultra’s 40-MP front-facing cam. On previous Galaxy S phones, selfies often made people’s face look a little soft, their skin a little too smooth, as if the phone’s beautification slider was never fully turned off. But on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, things look super crisp, and you’re going to see everyone’s flaws and blemishes in full detail, to the point where you might go back to turning beauty mode on ever so slightly.

Battery and charging: Thankful for that big ass power pack

With a massive screen and 5G connectivity to consider, it’s a damn good thing the S20 Ultra comes with a giant 5,000 mAh battery. On our video rundown test, the S20 Ultra boasts strong battery life, lasting 14 hours and 41 minutes on a single charge, which is just barely down from the 15:09 we got saw on the S10+ last year. That gives you confidence that as 5G becomes more widely available and starts sucking up extra juice, the S20 Ultra will still have more than enough juice to last a full day and then some.

One important thing to note though is that if you do opt to turn on the S20 Ultra’s 120Hz mode (and you really should), I found that decreases the S20 Ultra’s battery life by an hour or two depending on usage. If you’re sitting there scrolling through Instagram feeds or similar things for multiple hours straight, you may suck up a little more juice than normal. But even with 120Hz mode on, I never ended a day with less than 15 or 20 percent battery, even with the phone getting heavy use from 7AM to midnight.

Illustration for article titled Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: Glorious Excess with an Excessive Price
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

On the charging side, the S20 Ultra is the first phone to support certified USB Fast Charging which is nice to see as various groups attempt to consolidate the wide array of fast charging techniques. The phone comes with a 25-watt charger in the box, which was able to take the phone from 5 percent charge to 31 percent charge in just 15 minutes, which should be enough to last nearly another half a day. And if you really want, the S20 Ultra does support up to 45-watt fast charging, though it’s not really a must-have, as it’s only marginally faster than regular using the included 25-watt power adapter.

And like we got on last year’s Galaxy, the S20 supports Qi wireless charging at up to 15-watts, and reverse wireless charging at up to 9-watts, which are both faster than you get from most phones with this capability. (Other phones with reverse wireless charging tend to cap out at just 5-watts.)

Other odds and ends

On top of everything, the S20 Ultra comes with some other improvements like Samsung’s Quick Share tool for more easily sending and receiving files wireless with other Galaxy phones. Unfortunately, because this feature is only available on the S20 line for now, and I don’t have another S20 with Quick Share or Samsung’s new Bluetooth Music Share to really test those features in-depth just yet.

Final thoughts, for now

Illustration for article titled Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: Glorious Excess with an Excessive Price
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Seriously, there’s very little to dislike about the S20 Ultra. It has blazing performance, the best screen on a phone I’ve seen yet, strong battery life, and thanks to full support for the three main types of 5G, it’s as future proof as you can get at the moment (though admittedly with where 5G is at right now, that only goes so far).

There are definitely things that might not sit well for some, like the phone’s massive screen, thick, heavy body, and somewhat plain styling, but how you feel about those will vary from person to person. The S20 Ultra is Samsung doing what Samsung does best, putting class-leading hardware on devices before anyone else. And if Samsung can address some of the quirks with its camera, the S20 Ultra will fully prove it deserves to hang around with other top-tier smartphone cams.

In the end, the only major sticking point about the S20 Ultra is its price. After seeing Samsung list it at $1,400, I feared that Samsung may have priced the S20 Ultra (along with the rest of the S20 family) into a corner after even after spending a lot of time with that phone, the fear remains. The S20 Ultra is overpowered, it’s a phone of glorious excess, but if you don’t want to drop $1,400 on an S20 Ultra (or any other super-premium phone), that’s an eminently logical response. The S20 Ultra is really expensive, and even if you crave one, don’t feel bad about buying something else.

README

  • The S20 Ultra comes with Android 10 and Samsung’s One UI 2.1, which is actually quite nice to use.
  • Samsung’s Space Zoom isn’t really usable at 100x, but it’s great up to 10x, and still passable between 10x and 30x.
  • It looks like Samsung has axed the headphone jacks on Galaxy phones for good.
  • The S20 Ultra supports all types of 5G available in the U.S., so it should work on whatever carrier you have.
  • Samsung’s 6.9-inch 120Hz OLED display is downright mesmerizing.

Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.

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DISCUSSION

I saw someone elsewhere point out that the pricing on ultra high-end phones makes sense when you consider that for many of us, they’re the primary “computer” we interact with. Paying $1k-1400 isn’t entirely outlandish for something with specs that will be easily good enough for years to come.

With that said, from a personal standpoint the pricing of current phones has finally made leasing make sense to me; I prefer owning my things, but as someone who likes to upgrade every year, it makes 0 sense to throw $1000 into the air every time Samsung adds a new camera to the back of their phone. I don’t know stats on what percentage of users lease, but if it’s relatively high, that may be a significant factor into how these phones are priced.