Galaxy S20 Ultra review: Camera is amazing but battery life and design aren’t

There’s no denying that the Galaxy S20 Ultra is one thing daring. Something particular. It exists to point out off its digicam options. There’s the 108-megapixel sensor, capturing scenes for detailed crop-ins that invariably make you say “wow!” Then there’s the 100x zoom lens that reveals lettering, faces and architectural particulars you’ll be able to’t see from afar with the bare eye. And the gorgeous 40-megapixel selfie digicam that will not spare your emotions if you flip off magnificence mode.

Like

  • Boundary-pushing cameras
  • Bright, sharp, colourful photographs
  • Strong battery life on default settings

Don’t Like

  • Feels thick and heavy
  • Protruding digicam bump
  • Uneven battery efficiency
  • Overpriced for nonessential options

The most superior (and costly) new flagship undeniably pushes boundaries. Samsung needs you to see these photos and crave this phone. Facing the iPhone 11 Pro, Pixel 4 and Huawei Mate 30, the world’s largest phone-maker is taking part in to win. Does it succeed? Yes… and likewise no.

On paper, the S20 Ultra is unbeatable. It has that insanely colourful 6.9-inch edge-to-edge show. An huge 5,000-mAh battery. Plus all of the waterproofing, quick charging and reverse wi-fi charging you’d anticipate from a top-tier Samsung phone.

But in my real-world exams, the Ultra would not play just like the all-around famous person I need it to be, particularly for $1,400 (£1,199, AU$1,999). Its pictures is generally very good, however unignorable {hardware} and software program drawbacks dampen my enthusiasm for the gadget as an entire.


Angela Lang/CNET

I by no means received over my distaste for its thick, heavy design. And I am unable to ignore its uneven battery efficiency, particularly when the superfast display screen refresh choice — which makes scrolling, animations and a few content material liquid-smooth — seems to slash battery reserves.

Despite the S20 Ultra’s digicam prowess, I discover myself reaching for the extra refined Galaxy Note 10 Plus and extra attention-grabbing Galaxy Z Flip foldable phone. For me, the Ultra is just much less enjoyable to make use of.

Here’s one other conundrum. Without with the ability to absolutely take a look at the S20 Ultra side-by-side with the cheaper, smaller Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus, it is arduous to say which one is the “best” general. Samsung despatched journalists the S20 Ultra for overview first, main with its priciest mannequin. The three phones share core software program and {hardware}, however they’ve totally different digicam specs and battery reserves. 

At the time of penning this overview, the S20 and Plus are nonetheless days away from occurring sale. I am unable to but converse to how efficiency compares, however I can say that the S20 Ultra leaves the door open for the usual Galaxy S20 ($999) or S20 Plus ($1,199) to be the smarter purchase for many.

Comparisons with the opposite S20s and with prime rivals such because the iPhone 11 Pro Max and Google Pixel 4 XL are nonetheless to return. For now, I’ll depart you with my Galaxy S20 Ultra highs and lows. If you are on the fence about shopping for Samsung’s priciest mannequin, my recommendation is that this: wait. The greatest S20 for you might not be fairly so Ultra.

Learning to like the S20 Ultra’s 108-megapixel digicam setting

First issues first. The Ultra’s 108-megapixel digicam is its most fascinating function. It guarantees wildly detailed images with vivid shade that you may crop for optimum element. 

You will not take most of your photographs in 108 (let’s name it 108 for the sake of simplicity). This is a pictures setting you need to select, and these photographs take as much as eight instances the quantity of cupboard space as a default photograph, at the least in my expertise. In computerized mode, photographs resolve to 12-megapixel photographs.

What? How? Through a long-extant idea referred to as “pixel binning,” each 9 “pixels” turns into a superpixel. The concept is to make photographs brighter and sharper by making every of the 12 “pixels” bigger and subsequently in a position to attract in additional mild. In concept, extra mild means higher photographs.

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I shot this utilizing the 108-megapixel setting and cropped in near see the element.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I used to be largely impressed with photos I took in 108, particularly as soon as I realized this mode’s candy spot. Some photographs taken in 108 made photographs unnaturally saturated and flattened shadows and particulars — each when considered on the phone and on the computer.

Mid-distance and far-away photographs produced extra detailed imagery after I cropped in, however I received loads much less element when making an attempt to make use of the setting too shut up. If you need to simulate a macro, getting as shut as you’ll be able to to the middle of a flower, fascinating knot of wooden or model brand is simply as more likely to introduce extra picture noise, not much less, if you crop in tight or zoom in on the phone or laptop display screen.

But use it with the mindset of “shoot now, edit later” and chances are you’ll end up ecstatic with the outcomes. You can (and may) try some of my favorite sample photos.

Again, I would not suggest utilizing 108 for each photograph, however if you do — like after I grabbed that photograph hanging out the automotive window, or when you do not have time to get nearer to the factor you need to shoot — chances are you’ll end up pleasantly shocked.

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Main digicam setting, no zoom.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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Main digicam setting, 100x zoom.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

100x zoom grew on me, nevertheless it is not important

I really feel the identical means about Samsung’s 100x “Space Zoom” as I do about 108. A mix of optical and digital zoom, it is a cool software if you want it, however I’m undecided I’d yearn for it if it did not exist. Or quite, I might, simply not usually. 

Over the previous few weeks, I’ve described 100x zoom because the pictures software you want when you’ll be able to’t bodily get near your topic. So you might use it to seize the element of a domed roof a whole lot of toes above you, or a performer dozens of rows away on the stage. 

In one testing instance, I used zoom to seize the drama of waves spectacularly crashing towards the rocks. In one other, the stoic face of an ocean kayaker battling the uneven sea.

Samsung’s try is spectacular. Image high quality sometimes is not good at such excessive distance, however that is not what the function is for. It’s there to get an image you in all probability would not in any other case get. If the topic issues to you, you will be happier to have it than not. My favourite zoom photographs have been sometimes at 4x, and generally 10x or 30x relying on what I used to be making an attempt to point out.

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A uncommon San Francisco day that was clear sufficient to see the Golden Gate Bridge. 


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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I nearly misplaced the S20 Ultra to the ocean whereas stabilizing the phone towards the pier to get this 100x zoom shot.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I despatched a 100x zoom photograph of birds to an avid birder buddy. She flipped when she noticed it, impressed that I used to be in a position to give her sufficient element to determine the species. That’s a win, even when it did take many makes an attempt to maintain the phone nonetheless sufficient to middle on the immobile flock.

That relentless jumpiness is essentially the most maddening facet of 100x zoom. To actually get the item positioned in body, you will want a gentle hand, persistence or one thing to brace the phone towards, like a railing or bench. I nearly fumbled the phone into the San Francisco Bay when it slipped from my grasp whereas making an attempt to stabilize it towards a pier. 

Even with a tripod, I needed to dig deep right into a nicely of persistence I scarcely possess to seize a photograph of a flag flapping excessive within the air and a number of other blocks away.

100x zoom is cool to have for those who’ve received it, nevertheless it’s arduous to call it vital function.

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The Ultra is the biggest, thickest and heaviest of the Galaxy S20 telephones.


Angela Lang/CNET

The solely place the S20 Ultra digicam falters

Camera high quality is superb general, with sharp element and wealthy shade. Photos have been a pleasure to shoot, and I feel the information that I’d get so many nice photos spurred me to take extra of them than I usually would possibly.

Night mode was additionally nice. I’m thrilled that Samsung added a countdown clock so you know the way lengthy to carry the gadget nonetheless when taking a photograph with this setting (three seconds). 

My one criticism is that in redesigning the cameras, the focal lengths seem to have modified in a means that makes true macro mode inconceivable. I think that is what the emphasis on 108-megapixel pictures and zoom attempt to overcome. I may get fairly shut to things, however after I leaned in sufficient to see these tremendous particulars, macro mode by no means kicked in. 

Instead, I may see photographs blur out of focus the nearer I received. Backing as much as take the shot after which cropping in gave me higher outcomes. This is not essentially dangerous, nevertheless it meant I needed to retrain myself to make use of the digicam.

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This was the closest I may get to the flower earlier than the digicam misplaced focus. I’d need to both zoom in or shoot in 108 and crop for larger element.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Single Take mode is not a slam dunk, however it may be helpful 

Samsung has been speaking up a function referred to as Single Take, which shoots a set menu of as much as 10 photographs and 4 movies when you choose the mode then press and maintain the shutter button. The extra you progress round, the extra various your photographs and movies develop into.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it — this mode is a gimmick. Most of the time, I do not love the photographs it takes utilizing AI algorithms and my digicam roll winds up affected by photographs and movies I do not need or want. Nine instances out of 10, I’d quite compose the photographs myself.

However, there’s one time it does come in useful: if you solely have one alternative to seize a second and also you need to get as a lot out of it as you’ll be able to. But you continue to must assume to pick out Single Take, after which bear in mind find out how to use it for the very best outcomes.

Examples the place I had success:

  • A avenue performer I occurred to see in a sq..
  • Wild floor squirrels crawling over individuals who ought to undoubtedly not have been feeding them individuals meals.
  • A gifted bartender making and pouring an extravagant cocktail that unfurled smoke into my glass.

I nonetheless wound up deleting a bunch of the Single Take photographs and movies, however there have been sufficient that I may use to get my level throughout. Still, not a cause to purchase the S20 Ultra, Galaxy Z Flip or different S20 phone that has it inbuilt.

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My favourite photograph from many makes an attempt capturing with Single Take mode.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

8K video recording is cool, however would not matter

The S20 telephones all seize movies in 8K decision. These recordsdata are big. Samsung says each minute shot will take up 600MB of storage. You even have to face alarmingly distant out of your topic to suit it into body. 

8K video is the longer term, however there are few platforms out there proper now, like TVs (even Samsung’s) and social media websites, the place you’ll view the content material. YouTube has technically supported 8K video since 2010

The principal profit is about the identical as 108 photographs. It’ll allow you to retain element when cropping right into a video. This offers you the identical impact as zooming in. I attempted it on a number of movies I shot. Samsung made enhancing 8K video straightforward on the S20. It’s additionally straightforward to drop the decision down sufficiently small to share on, say, Twitter, which permits movies of as much as 1080p. 

It’s good that edits and determination adjustments create a brand new file that does not overwrite the unique footage. You can tweak to your coronary heart’s content material. 

Here’s extra on the pros and cons on the Galaxy S20 and why it’s important to the future of phones

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Shooting 8K video will take up a whole lot of storage, quick.


Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung’s 120Hz display screen: Ultrafast battery slayer

In addition to the digicam, the Galaxy S20 telephones have a standout function within the 120Hz display screen. This quantity refers back to the display screen pixels refreshing 120 instances a second, which doubles the usual velocity of 60 instances a second, or 60Hz.

Flagship telephones from OnePlus and Google, and gaming telephones from Razer and Asus, all have 90Hz or 120Hz refresh charges as an choice, particularly one which’s supposed to make scrolling and gameplay a lot smoother.

I’m an atrocious gamer, however I may instantly inform the distinction with the 120Hz display screen turned on. Even wiping out at practically each activate Riptide GP2: Renegade, I nonetheless managed to return in first place towards a bunch of recreation bots, on a more durable degree than I’d ever tried (cough, degree 2, cough). 

It felt as if time slowed down. I used to be Neo in The Matrix, dodging bullets by manipulating my environment. I used to be a time bandit, and it felt good.

Unfortunately, preserving 120Hz on full-time additionally drained battery like a thirsty vampire. One day, I went from 100% to 15% in a mere 9 hours, admittedly after heavy use that included three hours of Google Maps navigation. Another day, battery life drained from 100% to 12% in 10.5 hours after use that included tethering to my laptop for an hour and streaming Netflix for 3 hours. But preserving the phone on 60Hz gave me higher than all-day life no matter what I did.

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Unlike the S20 and S20 Plus, the S20 Ultra would not are available in full of life colours (simply black and grey).


Angela Lang/CNET

On 4G, the S20 Ultra is a 5,000-mAh battery beast

With the display screen on its default mode, I received the all-day longevity I anticipated from the S20 Ultra’s huge 5,000-mAh battery. For reference, the Galaxy Note 10 Plus has a capability of 4,300 mAh and lasts me from 6 a.m. via 2 a.m., with extra to spare. I do not even get nervous till I’m right down to at the least 12%. 

By comparability, the S20 has a 4,000-mAh capability and the S20 Plus is available in at 4,500 mAh.

In CNET’s looping video drain take a look at of a 1080p video on 120Hz in airplane mode, the battery lasted 24 hours, which is dramatically totally different than my real-world expertise. This video take a look at is not the very best instance as a result of the video itself would not play again at 120 frames per second, so I think it is not triggering the display screen’s doubled refresh price, which can have an effect on battery life. We have extra lab exams to return that can higher simulate real-world efficiency. 

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The Galaxy S20 Ultra can wirelessly cost different equipment, like these Galaxy Buds Plus.


Angela Lang/CNET

Tom’s Guide additionally discovered that the S20 Ultra’s 120Hz took off three hours of battery life from its standard testing protocol, in comparison with operating the identical take a look at at 60Hz. With 120Hz engaged, the Ultra’s 5,000-mAh battery lasted simply over 9 hours in a steady 5G drain take a look at. 

I’ve to notice that each one my real-world testing occurred over 4G, although the S20 telephones are all 5G-ready. (Buyers within the UK and Australia should pay further for 5G variations of the telephones.) AT&T, my standard service, wasn’t carried out with 5G certification on the time of testing, however the community says it will likely be by the point the Galaxy S20 telephones hit the market on March 6. 

A SIM card T-Mobile supplied by no means related to the 5G community the place I used to be in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. We’ll observe up with 5G testing from New York, so we are able to consider if and the way 5G would possibly have an effect on battery life.

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You can actually see the module rise from the floor.


Angela Lang/CNET

S20 Ultra design: Thick and heavy

The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s options are its principal draw, however you’ll be able to’t focus on them with out acknowledging what it is like to truly decide up and use the gadget. True to its identify, the Ultra is massive. And heavy. And, for my fingers, unwieldy. 

With a 6.9-inch display screen, a 7.76-ounce (220-gram) heft and thicker sides than the extra lithe Galaxy Note 10 Plus, the S20 Ultra is a pocket-busting, arm-tiring phone. Coming off every week with the Galaxy Z Flip (which has the same peak, however a slimmer construct and lighter weight), the Ultra is a cumbersome brick that might do some critical harm if utilized in self protection.

Some of my coworkers appreciated the softer rounding on the perimeters, and I can see why. A much less dramatically curved display screen makes the perimeters really feel much less pointy, and retains your finger from sliding off the aspect of the edge-to-edge show. But it additionally makes the phone really feel thicker, and my fingertips have been extra conscious of the perimeters of Samsung’s built-in plastic display screen protector than they have been on the Note 10 Plus. 

I recognize that the Ultra by no means slipped off my nightstand and that finger grease is much less obvious. What I did not like was the fixed feeling that the Ultra at all times was on the precipice of toppling out of a pocket and crashing to its doom. I ought to notice, although, {that a} colleague stated it match into all his pockets besides the one on his shirt. 

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That huge digicam bulge is why you want a case

The thick, heavy construct makes the phone extra of a drop danger, particularly with that protruding digicam bump on the again. It exists as a result of Samsung redesigned the S20 Ultra’s digicam sensors, which makes the whole module bigger. 

I do not fault the corporate for that, nevertheless it does imply that for those who drop the Ultra with no case, the glass alongside the again is extra more likely to break, and damaged glass can downgrade your photograph high quality. I sadly know this firsthand from the time my Note 10 Plus overview unit misplaced an argument with poured concrete. Wide-angle and portrait photographs have by no means been the identical.

A case will remedy the sensible issues. I’ve tried two that Speck kindly despatched me. They stand up from the floor only a hair over the digicam bump, which makes that module primarily flush with the phone. 

The two instances I attempted additionally make the phone really feel bulkier and heavier. If you are shopping for a $1,400 phone, a case is value the associated fee to guard your funding. But it additionally compounded the issue of the Ultra being thick and unwieldy to make use of.

A minor criticism in regards to the colours: I want Samsung had made the S20 Ultra flashier than the Cosmic Gray and Cosmic Black selections. I received the gray mannequin to overview, which to me appears to be like like putty or modeling clay. Beauty is within the eye of the beholder, however the shade design crew and I are clearly on totally different wavelengths.

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A case may give the Ultra a shot of shade and likewise degree out the digicam bump so it will be much less more likely to break for those who drop the phone.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Processor, storage, Android 10 and every part else

Headliner options such because the digicam and battery outline the Galaxy S20 Ultra, however there’s much more occurring beneath the hood. In the US at the least, all of the S20 telephones run on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 processor, which was quick in benchmarking exams. In some areas, you would possibly get Samsung’s home Exynos chipset.

I loved utilizing Android 10 and Samsung One UI 2, which made the S20 really feel recent, together with darkish mode and little finds all through, reminiscent of setting a heat, cool or impartial shade tone for selfies. 

Samsung additionally added enjoyable tidbits: I appreciated turning a Spotify music right into a morning clock alarm (and thank goodness for brand new alarm sounds) and dialing Google Duo’s video chat app straight from the phone dialer. These are cool additions, however not why you’d purchase a Galaxy S20 within the first place. 

I additionally wished to attempt Quick Share, which is Samsung’s reply to Apple’s AirDrop. It allows you to simply zip photographs and recordsdata from phone to phone. But there is a catch: The gadget you are sharing with must be one other Samsung mannequin, and it additionally has to have the Quick Share function, which implies, proper now, you’ll be able to solely use it with one other Galaxy S20. I have never been in a position to take a look at this but, however will be capable of attempt it out when the S20s I’ve ordered arrive.

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Your excellent Galaxy S20 phone won’t be the Ultra in any respect.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Who the Galaxy S20 Ultra is for right this moment — and do you have to purchase it?

After I get an opportunity to overview the Galaxy S20 and S0 Plus, I’ll be capable of provide you with some sensible recommendation on which S20 to purchase. That’s troublesome to evaluate proper now, for the reason that telephones all have barely totally different digicam programs and battery capacities. 

I want I have been so blown away by the Galaxy S20 Ultra that I may inform you with out hesitation that that is the mannequin you need. After every week of concentrated testing, I’m undecided that is the case. 

Photography fanatics will little question have a blast incorporating the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s 108-megapixel setting and 100x zoom into their repertoire, however for most people I discuss to, these further settings are academically attention-grabbing, however under no circumstances sought-after.

$1,400 is a truckload to spend on a phone. If the lighter, smaller $1,000 variant winds up taking photos which can be practically pretty much as good, the argument for the Ultra will quickly diminish.

Galaxy S20 vs. S20 Plus vs. S20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S20 5G Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus 5G Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G
Display measurement, decision 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X 6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X
Pixel density 563 ppi 525 ppi 511 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 2.72×5.97×0.311 in 2.9×6.37×0.30 in 2.99×6.57×0.35 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 69.1×151.7×7.9 mm 73.7×161.9×7.eight mm 76.0×166.9×8.eight mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.75 oz; 163g 6.56 oz; 186g 7.76 oz; 220g
Mobile software program Android 10 Android 10 Android 10
Camera 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (ultrawide) 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (ultrawide), time-of-flight digicam 108-megapixel (wide-angle), 48-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (ultrawide), time-of-flight digicam
Front-facing digicam 10-megapixel 10-megapixel 40-megapixel
Video seize 8K 8K 8K
Processor 64-bit octa-core processor (Max 2.7GHz + 2.5GHz + 2.0GHz) 64-bit octa-core processor (Max 2.7GHz + 2.5GHz + 2.0GHz) 64-bit octa-core processor (Max 2.7GHz + 2.5GHz + 2.0GHz)
Storage 128GB 128GB, 512GB 128GB, 512GB
RAM 12GB 12GB 12GB, 16GB
Expandable storage Up to 1TB Up to 1TB Up to 1TB
Battery 4,000 mAh 4,500 mAh 5,000 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screen In-screen In-screen
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack No No No
Special options 5G enabled; 120Hz refresh price; water-proof (IP68) 5G enabled; 120Hz refresh price; water-proof (IP68) 5G enabled; 120Hz refresh price; 100X zoom; water-proof (IP68)
Price off-contract (USD) $999 $1,199 $1,399 (128GB), $1,599 (512GB)
Price (GBP) £799, £899 (5G) £999 (5G) £1,199 (128GB), £1,399 (512GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1349 (4G), AU$1,499 (5G), AU$1,499 (4G), AU$1,649 (128GB), AU$1,899 (512GB) AU$1,999 (128GB), AU$2,249 (512GB)



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