Smartphone innovation comes in waves. From the first iPhone to the first smartphone with a notched display, there’s always been a trend-setting device that sets the tone for the next several years. For the last few years, the major trend has been large, nearly-edgeless displays with at least three cameras.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra aims to set the next bar for smartphone evolution by simply being the biggest, baddest Android smartphone ever. The Ultra is all about big specs with a massive 6.9-inch 120Hz screen, an absurdly high-resolution main camera, the latest 5G radios, and triple digit levels of zoom on another impressive camera.
Of course, all those high-end specs come at a premium: $1,399 to be specific. So, while this phone punches it’s way to the top with all the specs money can buy, it’s another question if those specs are worth the money.
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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – Design and Features
For all the panache around its mega specs, the Galaxy S20 Ultra doesn’t look like an especially fancy smartphone. It follows the metal-and-glass design we’ve seen on Samsung phones since the Galaxy S8 launched in March 2017. And Galaxy S9 owners will find the body lines here very familiar.
Don’t get me wrong though, the build quality of the phone is superb. And weighing in at 220g – surprisingly 24g heavier than the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus – you can literally feel the value of this device in your hand.
However, for such a high price I would have preferred that Samsung tweak the look of its flagship smartphone. At the very least, the Galaxy S20 Ultra could use a reflective coat of paint like the kind found on the brand’s other two premium handsets, the Galaxy Note 10 Plus and Galaxy Z Flip. As it stands, the S20 Ultra comes in the fairly plain Cosmic Gray and Cosmic Black colors – both of which have a very similar finish and look as Apple’s standard iPhone 11.
The most prominent thing you’ll find on the Galaxy S20 Ultra is its massive camera bump, which is now almost the size of three Nintendo Switch game cards laid next to each other. It stands a full centimeter off the back of the phone as well.
The other big differentiator of the Ultra over the regular Galaxy S20 and Galaxy S20 Plus is its much bigger 6.9-inch screen. That’s 0.2 inches larger than the one found on the Galaxy S20 Plus and actually 0.1 inches larger than Samsung’s previous largest handset, the Galaxy Note 10 Plus.
In my average-sized hands, the Galaxy S20 Ultra feels almost too big to handle. Navigating the lower third of the display is doable with just a thumb, but typing or touching anything above that line will require your other hand.
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Aside from being a big display, it’s a fast one too thanks to its 120Hz refresh rate. When enabled, the Ultra simply feels more responsive than slower-screen phones. If you’re a serial scroller like me, you can actually better make out words and images as you’re whipping your way down a webpage or Instagram.
However, in order to enable this high refresh rate mode, you have to lower the display resolution from WQHD+ (3,200 x 1,400) to just Full HD+ (2,400 x 1,080). It’s a real shame you can’t enjoy your display at full resolution and 120Hz at the same time. Meanwhile, both the 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro can keep their even sharper displays running at 120Hz without a problem. High refresh rate mode also chews through battery life significantly faster – but we’ll get more into that later.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – Gaming and Performance
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor inside the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra might not be able to run the display at all of its highest settings at the same time, but it never left me wanting for more power otherwise. This phone is quick and can run two apps in split-screen, thanks to all the available screen real estate. If you really want to multitask like a boss, you can also have a third popup window hovering over everything else.
Of course, using all of the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s 6.9-inch display for full-screen gaming is pretty awesome too. The 120Hz refresh rate made games look smooth and really helped me to perfectly time my 360 spins in Asphalt 9. In Call of Duty: Mobile, the high refresh rate screen also gave me a slight edge over my opponents as I could more smoothly adjust my aim.
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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – Camera
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has a 108MP main wide-angle camera, 48MP telephoto camera, 12MP ultrawide camera, and a depth vision sensor. While that extremely high-resolution sensor might seem like the most impressive part of the phone, it’s actually the folding lens attached to the telephoto sensor that really wowed me. The “Space Zoom” (Samsung’s new branding for this feature) offers up to 100 times magnification for your pictures.
Unfortunately, as cool as it sounds, image quality at 100x zoom is barely usable. At that maximum magnification, images look like a schlocky mess of blurry pixels – and that’s with the best results I could get while using a tripod. However, if you really want to capture something far, far away without having to bring around a mirrorless camera and a big lens, this is a great pocketable option when you’re walking about on a trip.
Best of all, Samsung added a little pop-up window with a wide-angle version of the scene you’re shooting, so you can actually see what you’re pointing your phone at.
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The 30x zoom factor is far more usable. At that distance, images look far less pixelated but they still lack sharp detail as the camera can’t hone focus on far, far away objects. Even more impressive, photos taken with 10x zoom actually look like a shot I would get with a real telephoto lens and camera. The Google Pixel 4 has the only other smartphone camera that I would dare to try zooming that far, and even then you only have an 8x zoom that’s mostly digital enhanced.
Shooting images as if I had a long lens attached to a DSLR or mirrorless camera was one of the Pixel 4’s only saving graces, and Samsung has completely outpaced Google here. Not only does the S20 Ultra give you further reach and allow you to take a tighter shot, you get sharper details too. In the comparison below, you can better make out the stars on the American flag, and the stripes are better defined as well.
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To do this, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra isn’t using a purely optical zoom at 10x. Instead, it’s a hybrid optic zoom that involves up to a 4x zoom lens and digital cropping. It’s an impressive feature, and I hope this is only the start of more manufacturers adding better and more powerful telephoto photography options. It’s incredibly liberating and fun to be able to capture whatever you want, however far away it is.
For portrait photography, the Ultra sits somewhere in between the iPhone 11 Pro and Google Pixel 4. While you don’t get nearly as many of the strangely clipped edges of Apple’s portrait mode, the bokeh still doesn’t look nearly as natural as what Google’s algorithm can spit out.
As for night photography, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra does a great job controlling the bloom on extremely bright objects and raising the exposure around shadows. This phone does an especially good job of retaining lighting hotspots, such as being able to actually distinguish the shape of the light bulb or the lights inside the red lettering on the “Ernst & Young” sign.
That said, I personally still like Google’s composition more as it looks more natural and closer to how I actually see the scene, whereas Samsung’s “Night” mode shots can sometimes look overly edited.
Ultimately, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s greatest strength has to be its wide array of cameras. With all of the focal lengths and camera options available, you can go from capturing a large scene nearby to shooting something several miles away.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – Battery Life
A massive phone needs an equally massive battery, and the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s 5,000mAh battery is exactly that. With that much juice, the phone easily lasted through two and a half days on a single charge without needing to be plugged in once – and I’m not a light user either. I watched an hour of YouTube videos downloaded to the phone on the way to and from work, plus an hour of podcast listening time, reading a fair number of articles, checking social media, and short spurts of mobile gaming. That was with the screen set to its Full HD resolution and 60Hz refresh rate though.
Turning up the refresh rate to 120Hz takes a considerable chunk out of battery life, to the point where I would start getting antsy about it lasting into the morning of a third day. Personally, I think having a faster refreshing screen and all the smoother animations that come with it is a worthy trade off for having to plug in this phone every other day.
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Luckily, it’s pretty easy to switch the phone between 60Hz and 120Hz. And even with the extra drain from the 120Hz display, it still lasts nearly two full days.
Equally impressive, the phone charges up incredibly quickly. Plugging in the Ultra for just 15 minutes got it charged to 25% from completely dead, and another 15 minutes got it up to 55%.
What about the Samsung Galaxy S20 and Galaxy S20 Plus?
If a 6.9-inch smartphone is too much for you, there are smaller options in the 6.7-inch Galaxy S20 Plus or the more pocketable 6.2-inch Galaxy S20. Despite their smaller size, they offer many of the same specs as the S20 Ultra, including a maximum display resolution of 1,440 x 3,200.
All three phones come with the same overall chipset – Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage to start. You can also throw in a microSD card into any of them for more storage. Of course, Samsung’s two smaller handsets don’t offer nearly as big batteries; the Galaxy S20 and Galaxy S20 Plus only have 4,000mAh and 4,500mAh batteries, respectively – which are still pretty big.
The biggest differentiator between the Ultra and Samsung’s two more basic flagship phones is the cameras. Instead of getting a 108MP main wide-angle camera, the S20 and S20 Plus feature a more basic 12MP sensor. However, the two starting models also have a higher resolution 64MP telephoto camera, but only a lossless 3x Hybrid Optic Zoom and up to 30x Space Zoom.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra retails at a starting price of $1,399, while the Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus costs $999 and $1,199, respectively. All three phones come with a base spec of 128GB of storage and 12GB of memory.