The Galaxy S20 Ultra has lots of features that look better on paper
At $1,400, Samsung’s new phone offers powerful specs and overhyped camera features
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is a spec monster. Samsung’s newest foldable phone runs the latest Snapdragon 865 processor, supports 5G, offers up to 16GB of RAM, includes a huge 6.9-inch 120Hz screen, and has an ample 5,000mAh battery. Even the cameras look great on paper: It has a 108-megapixel sensor, 100x zoom and 8K video recording.
The beefy specs and new camera tech make the S20 Ultra look very impressive. But if you’re considering spending the US$1,400 to pick one up, you might want to hold off.
After a week of using the S20 Ultra, I found myself just thinking Samsung’s super-premium flagship was just... normal. I have complaints about the size and weight, and I have many concerns about the overhyped camera features.
If you’re looking to upgrade from an iPhone or last year’s Android flagship, this phone is going to feel outrageously priced. The much-hyped camera features are part of the justification for that price, but you probably won’t use them much in real life.
But there are still some good things about the phone when considering whether it’s the upgrade for you. Let’s start with the screen.
Pro: A huge 6.9-inch 120Hz display
The S20 Ultra has a 6.9-inch OLED display with a 120Hz refresh rate. While this is becoming more common in premium handsets this year, it still refreshes twice as much each second as the iPhone’s 60Hz screen.
The higher refresh rate makes UI animations and scrolling through Facebook and Instagram feeds look especially smooth. The experience is deeply satisfying, and I think you’ll have trouble going back to a 60Hz screen after using it. This is especially true if you play games like Pokémon Go that take advantage of the faster refresh rate.
The screen’s Quad HD resolution is also super crisp at 3200x1440 pixels. But you can’t have both sharpness and smoothness at the same time: 120Hz is only supported at 1080p.
This means Samsung is forcing users to choose between a high resolution or high refresh rate. I was fine with the lower resolution if it meant keeping that buttery-smooth refresh rate.
Another positive with the display is Samsung’s OLED panel. The company is known for its displays, and you can see why on this phone. The display gets very bright and has vivid colors and deep blacks. It looks great for everything from Netflix to scrolling through social media.
And like previous Galaxy phones, the S20 Ultra has a hole-punch selfie camera. But this time it’s in the center of the display instead of off to the side. I personally preferred the camera on the side, where it was less distracting on previous models.
Con: It’s a big and heavy
I normally like big phones, but the S20 Ultra is the first one I don’t feel comfortable with. Even using the phone with two hands feels cumbersome, and it’s not easy to get used to.
Speaking of heft, there’s a significant difference in weight when compared with other smartphones. The phone comes in at 222 grams, or just under half of a pound. And much of that weight feels concentrated at the top, making it uncomfortable to hold for too long.
The build quality is still good, with stainless steel on the sides and glass on the back. But it picks up fingerprints and dust very easily. It’s also slippery to hold. You might have to deal with some accidental touches on the screen, too, because of the thin bezels and curved edges.
The most annoying aspect of this phone, though, is that it’s just boring to look at. Nothing about the S20 Ultra is visually interesting. You can get it in either black or a dull gray color. The back also has a large camera bump, making it hard to use on a flat surface. But putting a case on the phone solves this.
Con: 108-megapixel photos and 8K video take up lots of storage
The S20 Ultra can shoot 108-megapixel (12,000 × 9,000) photos and 8K video (7,680 × 4,320) at 24 frames per second. But super high resolution doesn’t mean better shots. It does help for cropping, but that’s not necessarily worth all the storage space these photos and videos will take up.
The average file size of a 108-megapixel photo is about 20MB. That’s about five times more than a regular 12-megapixel shot.
Worse, shooting a 90-second 8K video takes up almost 1GB of storage. If you have the 128GB model, that storage can fill up fast. You also need a more powerful computer to process and edit the high res files, especially for 8K video.
One advantage of 8K video, though, is being able to extract high-res stills. Each frame of a 8K video is a 33-megapixel still image. So you can shoot an 8K video and pick out your favorite frames to save as high-resolution photos.
This is the only advantage in shooting 8K video on the S20 Ultra. To really take advantage of 8K video, you need an 8K TV, which few people have.
In day-to-day use, you are most likely to take pictures at the default 12 megapixels. And when you shoot video, it will probably be 4K/1080p video. It’s nice to have the option to use higher resolutions, but storage isn’t the only consideration there.
The phone doesn’t have any stabilization for 8K video. So if you’re using it to capture high-res stills later on, you have to be careful about getting stuck with blurry images. One solution to this is using a tripod, but that’s another inconvenience. And don’t forget that 8K video is stuck at 24fps, unlike the 30fps or 60fps you can get with 4K.
Con: 100x zoom is a blurry mess
So how about that crazy zoom you can get on this thing? Well, you can zoom in to 100x if you really want to… but you won’t. Just look at this photo.
The optical zoom on the S20 Ultra is only 4x. Then you get a hybrid zoom up to 10x. Beyond that, it’s all digital zoom. Taking it to the maximum 100x -- which Samsung calls Space Zoom -- isn’t pretty.
At 10x hybrid zoom, the pictures are actually quite good. The quality gets noticeably worse after that.
There’s also no image stabilization when zooming over 10x, so it’s hard to avoid getting a blurry shot at 100x zoom unless you have a tripod. But even then, I find it very difficult to focus on the subject and get sharp zoomed photos.
If you really do want to zoom, though, the UI for it is quite good. You can either pinch-to-zoom or tap different preset levels to go straight to a specific zoom. The app gives you the choice of 2x, 4x, 10x, 30x and 100x zooms. You can also tap 1x to go back to the normal view or 0.5x for a wide shot.
When you zoom over 10x, a viewfinder pops up in the top corner, like a picture-in-picture view. So while you are looking at the big picture of zoomed-in pixels, the smaller view shows the full shot with a crosshair showing what part of the scene the camera is zoomed in on. This makes it much easier to aim the camera when the zoom is so dramatic.
Pro: Quickly capturing photos and videos with a tap
Samsung’s new Single Take feature really amazed me. This is a new camera mode that takes a variety of photos and videos with a single tap of the shutter button. It’s a neat option for capturing a scene with a lot of movement.
When you tap the shutter button with Single Take on, the phone captures both pictures and videos with different lenses and filters. It even creates a boomerang-style video and panorama shots. All of these shots are saved under one entry in the phone’s photo album.
Single Take might sound gimmicky, but it's actually a nice feature for quickly capturing a moment with friends and family.
Pro: Night mode is surprisingly good
On most phones, the night mode in the camera apps makes shots look too bright and unnatural. I’m happy to say that isn’t the case with the S20 Ultra. Shooting in Night mode gave me some great photos. And more importantly, the shots still look like they were taken at night.
When you’re shooting in low light, the camera app suggests turning on Night mode. This mode will adjust the exposure time based on how dark it is. The Pro mode will let you set the exposure time manually, but you don’t get this option in Night mode.
When testing on the beach, I had five to seven seconds of exposure for most of my shots. When I set the phone on a tripod, the exposure time extended to 28 seconds. It’s especially nice that Samsung lets you use night mode with all three lenses and the selfie camera.
But Night mode does have a few issues with autofocus and white balance. Sometimes shots look more yellow, especially when it’s dark out. Autofocus also takes longer in darker conditions, which can result in out-of-focus shots.
I also compared the Night modes on the S20 Ultra and iPhone 11. The two shots below were taken while holding each phone in my hand, and each got four seconds exposure.
Personally, I prefer the S20 Ultra shot for its more accurate white balance. It also has sharper details if you look closer.
Pro: Ultra wide and 4x zoom
You can get some great pictures out of the S20 Ultra’s ultra-wide and 4x optical zoom lenses. The ultra-wide camera is capable of capturing very sharp details with low distortion. The auto HDR performs well, as you can see here with the sky and buildings accurately exposed.
Photos shot with the 4x optical zoom also look sharp and clear. It has the same image quality as 2x zoom photos from most smartphone cameras. S20 Ultra gives you that extra zoom without losing any detail or sharpness.
I also noticed the S20 Ultra tends to produce more contrasty images than other phones. Color balance in particular seems to be a strong point. But Samsung still seems to prefer to process images to make the colors appear more vivid. It’s great for photos of food, but it might not suit everyone’s tastes.
For those keeping track, shooting at 1x or 2x on the S20 Ultra uses the standard wide lense. Anything above that uses the telephoto lens.
Pro: No more camera shakes with Super Steady
I also spent a lot of time testing video recording. Samsung says there’s better stabilization with Super Steady, and it’s not wrong. I’m honestly amazed by how steady video looks with this feature turned on.
Super Steady offers gimbal-like videos, but it’s sadly not supported at 4K. The maximum settings you get with Super Steady are 1080p resolution at 30fps. The lower resolution doesn’t matter to me too much. Given the choice, I’d prefer better stabilization over higher resolution.
But the best way to see how this works is on video, so go watch the video review for more.
Pro: Reverse wireless charging is useful
Reverse wireless charging isn’t a new feature for Samsung, but it is for me. This was my first time using it, and I surprisingly like it.
Samsung calls the feature Wireless PowerShare. When you turn this on in the notification panel, the phone turns into a wireless power bank for other devices. This let me charge my iPhone by placing it on the back of the S20 Ultra. But a full charge can take longer than an hour.
Since the S20 Ultra has a 5,000mAh battery, it’s sufficient to provide some extra juice for other phones or wireless headphones. Of course, holding phones back-to-back is a bit awkward, so you’ll probably want to be at a table when you’re using this feature.
Pro: Battery life
The S20 Ultra’s 5,000mAh battery is massive compared to most other phones. In my daily usage, I was consistently ending 15-hour days with 20% left on the battery.
This is from about five or six hours of screen-on time. My average use includes web browsing, social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, and some casual games like Pokémon Go and Mario Kart. On one day of heavy use when I was shooting a lot of photos and videos, I still had 10% left by the end of the day.
Your results may vary, of course, depending on what apps you use. But for the vast majority of people, this is an all-day smartphone. For some it might even be a two-day device.
While the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has plenty of whiz-bang features, they’re each flawed in some noticeable way.
You get a 100x zoom, but the pictures it gives you are a mess. You can shoot 108-megapixel photos and 8K video, but it eats up your storage too quickly. You get a high refresh rate of 120Hz, but only if you limit the display to 1080p resolution.
The phone also gives you 5G… except that the odds are that you don’t have 5G where you live right now.
As a photographer and filmmaker, I wouldn’t use the S20 Ultra to shoot high-resolution photos and videos. The image quality won’t be as stunning as what I get from my mirrorless cameras. People who really need that kind of resolution should probably be looking at other hardware, too. If I were shooting with only the S20 Ultra, I would stick with the default 12-megapixel photos and use Night mode when for low light.
In the US, the base model of Galaxy S20 Ultra ships with 128GB of storage and 12GB of RAM for $1,400. This is a really expensive phone. And if you want to max out the storage to 512GB and with 16GB of RAM, you’re looking at $1,600. That’s ultra-premium laptop territory. Most people would be better off with the Galaxy S20 or S20+. Others would be fine with a 2020 flagship from one of Samsung’s many Chinese competitors.
I picked up the Oppo Find X2 for its 120Hz display and Quad HD resolution. The phone’s video stabilization and 5x zoom also offer similar results at a much more affordable price.
If you really need a 100x zoom, you’re much better off picking up a dedicated camera like the Nikon Coolpix P1000 or the Canon PowerShot SX70 HS. It will give you much better image quality and save you some money.