Everything about the Galaxy S20 Ultra looks and feels like a monstrosity. Here's our full review of Samsung's most ambitious conventional phone ever.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra isn’t meant for everybody. It isn’t Samsung’s best new flagship phone either (even though it is its most powerful phone). And yet, it is important that it exists today.
The top-end Android smartphone segment isn’t what it used to be a few years ago. With the likes of HTC, BlackBerry, Sony (and even LG) out of the picture, buyers looking for a no holds barred Android phone have only one brand that they can look up to, that’s Samsung, and the Galaxy S20 Ultra is the only Android phone that can offer that experience today. Which is why, only the “pros” will get it.
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Everything about the Galaxy S20 Ultra looks and feels like a monstrosity. It’s like Samsung went to Walmart or something, bought the whole store because it wasn’t totally sure how much (of a thing) would be enough, and got some more stuff on the way back, just in case. Since there’s so much to cover, let’s just dig in without further adieu.
Design and build quality
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is bigger (6.9-inch), thicker (8.8mm), and chunkier (220g) than the Galaxy Note 10+. But despite its “monstrous” proportions, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is still a typical Samsung smartphone at heart. Of course it looks nice and premium, with its glass and metal sandwich design, but more importantly, it has an even distribution of weight which means that it never really overpowers you, or better still, you get used to all that heft quickly.
The all-round design is familiar, with Samsung opting for evolution rather than revolution, which is okay for a product of its class. The same is true about the build materials. I am not particularly happy with the “limited” choice of colours that the Galaxy S20+ comes with, because that’s a more mainstream phone meant for all sorts of buyers. The same black, gray and blue that looks boring on a Galaxy S20+ works like a charm on the Galaxy S20 Ultra since this is a phone designed for the executives and CEOs who would rather choose smart and sophisticated over crazy over-the-top flamboyance. BlackBerrys used to do that once, but the Galaxy S20 Ultra looks and feels just as right for the boardroom.
With the Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung has also perfected the art of bending the screen (at the corners) to just the right amount. Samsung is credited for introducing “dangerous” curves in smartphone displays but truth be told, they serve(d) no real world purpose apart from aesthetics. The Galaxy S20 Ultra display has enough curvature that it looks pretty, but not so much that it entails image distortion and accidental touches. A flatter display (relative to last year’s Galaxy S10+) also gives your hands some breathing space to hold onto which is necessary considering how big the whole thing is.
It’s a very balanced phone, the Galaxy S20 Ultra, but that camera bump on the back, that’s just hard to ignore. Like it or not, it’s something that you will have to live with, should you buy it. If the answer is yes, you might want to put a case on this one because that bump is prone to scratches and scuffs if you’re not careful enough.
At 6.9-inch, the Galaxy S20 Ultra literally towers over any other phone in the market today. The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s “monstrous” screen size means, you’ll have to be absolutely sure about what you’re getting into. The advantages of such a tablet-bordering screen are many, but pocketability is surely not one of them (unless you have deep pockets, no pun intended). Samsung has the Galaxy S20+ (6.7-inch) and Galaxy S20 (6.2-inch) for those looking for something more compact.
In addition to flattening that display, Samsung has also stretched it out further on all sides and when paired with a centrally positioned (Galaxy Note 10 like) punch hole cutout, the Galaxy S20 Ultra entails a package that’s virtually all screen and no bezels (there’s still a hint of chin at the bottom though). Samsung has put every inch of screen real estate to good use so buyers looking to invest in a 6.9-inch phone can make the most out of it.
The other big thing about the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s display is that it is capable of rendering images 120 times per second, like the iPad Pro, which means buttery smooth scrolling and fluid animations (over conventional 60Hz or even 90Hz). There’s a limitation in that you can run the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s display at 120Hz at 1080p+ or FHD+ resolution only (even though the phone can peak QHD+). Samsung says this is to preserve battery life, which is well and good, but a phone of its class should have left that decision to the end users.
As for quality, you simply can’t go wrong with a Samsung AMOLED at this point of time. The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s screen gets very bright, has excellent viewing angles, and punchy often oversaturated colours (you can tweak that in settings by the way). It’s in fact best in class. The Galaxy S20 Ultra also supports HDR10+ content.
What does leave you asking for more, somewhat, is the phone’s ultrasonic in-display fingerprint scanner. It’s a wee bit more convenient and even faster than the one on the Galaxy S20+ (I believe it’s got something to do with the Ultra’s bigger screen) but it surely can’t hold a candle to the iPhone’s Face ID or optical in-display readers seen in competing Android devices.
Performance and battery life
Core hardware is where things get a little tricky, so to say. As if like clockwork, Samsung has once again chosen to launch its most high-profile product with an Exynos processor in India. The Galaxy S20 Ultra in India is powered by an 8-core Exynos 990 processor. This is paired with a Mali-G77MP11 GPU and 12GB of RAM. The Galaxy S20 Ultra in India further comes with 128GB of storage (expandable). The version sold in the US, for instance, has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, up to 16GB RAM and up to 512GB storage.
You wouldn’t notice the performance and efficiency advantages of a SD865-based Galaxy S20 Ultra over the Exynos 990 version so much in isolation, and chances are that buyers looking to invest in one wouldn’t even care about it. But the problem is that the Galaxy S20 Ultra is Samsung’s most high-end phone globally, but not so much in India. The Galaxy S20 Ultra in India is not as powerful (or efficient) as the version that’s sold in the US. India doesn’t get as many RAM and storage options either. Also the fact that there are now cheaper phones with SD865 and equivalent amount of RAM and storage, doesn’t help Samsung’s case either.
Does that mean it is a slow phone? No. It’s very fast and very smooth, but surely not the fastest or smoothest phones around. Does it heat up? Yes, but then, every other phone heats up today. The Galaxy S20 Ultra is quick to cool down, so it all works out well in the end. But efficiency also translates into battery life (good or bad) and I am afraid that’s where Samsung’s phone fails to live up to its “monstrous” credentials.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra has a 5,000mAh battery, the biggest that Samsung has ever shipped in a high-end Galaxy phone. Battery life is good (especially if you choose to play nice and spend your days mostly running the phone’s display at 60Hz) but it’s not stellar. Our video loop test gave us 9 hours and 58 minutes on the Galaxy S20 Ultra (set at 120Hz) which is just about alright, if not downright disappointing.
The phone supports 45W fast charging but Samsung, for some reason, is bundling a 25W charger in the box. It takes just under an hour to fully charge the Galaxy S20 Ultra (from 0-100%) with the bundled fast charger. The phone also supports 15W fast wireless charging and 9W reverse charging.
For years, Samsung resisted the camera megapixel wars letting its Dual Pixel PDAF technology do much of the talking. It even toyed around with the concept of variable apertures, which was sheer genius for a smartphone. With the Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung is doing something very different. It’s starting from scratch. This starts with the specs. Here’s the technical low-down:
— 108MP main sensor with PDAF that’s sitting behind an f/1.8 aperture lens with OIS (no variable aperture)
— 48MP periscope-style telephoto sensor with PDAF sitting behind an f/3.5 lens with OIS capable of 4x optical, 10x hybrid and 100x “space” zoom (and of course, all the pit stops in between)
— 12MP ultra wide-angle sensor sitting behind an f/2.2 lens
— Time-of-Flight sensor for 3D depth sensing
— 40MP front camera
That’s a lot of specs. So let me simplify them for you before we dive into image quality. Firstly, megapixels don’t make a good camera (phone) but that does not mean good hardware is a bad thing. Hardware is a great enabler but you also have to understand pulling it off in a smartphone form factor is not easy, else everybody would be doing it. These high-resolution sensors are available for anybody you know. It’s what they do with those sensors through software that makes or breaks a phone camera.
Let’s talk about Samsung’s approach for a minute. The 108MP sensor that it is using for the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s primary camera is in-house. It is the first-generation Isocell Bright HM1. The Galaxy S20 Ultra isn’t the only phone with this sensor though. Xiaomi’s Mi 10 also has it. But because Samsung actually made the sensor, you expect big things from it. Not only does it have the highest resolution, it is also the largest (0.8um) sensor available for phone cameras today.
That’s a lot of fire-power especially for low light photography, but then, it’s also a phone camera sensor and the absence of a variable aperture lens means it comes with many limitations (relative to an actual camera or even last year’s Galaxy S10+). How you perceive them will depend on your requirement, though unlike traditional cameras, a smartphone camera is supposed to be a jack of all trades since you can’t swap lenses here.
The biggest takeaway is the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s shallow depth of field. Put simply, prepare for some high-quality “natural” bokeh in your photos, without the need of triggering any dedicated mode (same reason why I find the Ultra’s ToF camera literally useless). Subject isolation is just spot-on. But what if you don’t want a bokeh shot? What if you want more stuff in your frame? Well, there’s nothing you can do about it without extra effort like manually moving your stuff around. That’s a lot of work for something so basic. The problem is accentuated when you want to shoot sweeping vistas. The Galaxy S20 Ultra can shoot great landscapes, but not without its fair share of hiccups. You have to be patient with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, is what I have found after using it at length, which can be rewarding yes, but it is so unlike conventional smartphones that are supposed to be a point and shoot affair.
The same is true about the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s 48MP telephoto camera. It’s one-of-a-kind which makes it very interesting. The sensor is large and high-resolution kind alright but Samsung is also using a periscope setup (like we’ve seen inside a few Huawei and Oppo phones already) here which gives it a lot of breathing space (akin to an actual camera in a way) to enable (among other things) its hyped 100x space zoom theatric that serves no real world purpose. The rest of it is what makes the Galaxy S20 Ultra zoom camera really worth it. The phone really shines between the 4x (optical) and 10x (hybrid) range producing some of the most impressive zoomed shots seen in any smartphone today, period. Even 30x (digital) photos are serviceable with a tripod. If you’re looking for a phone specifically for this, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is the phone to buy.
The ultra wide-angle camera is pretty basic when compared to the rest of the package. It’s the same deal as the Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20.
Let’s jump on to the image quality now. I have already detailed some of the big advantages and disadvantages of the Galaxy S20 Ultra cameras, so you know what you’re getting into, and what to expect. The Galaxy S20 Ultra has good cameras across the board (even the ultra wide-angle is nice and handy) capturing a good amount of detail and vivid (often oversaturated) colours in all lighting conditions. It’s a step up, yes, but in some ways, it’s also hallmark Samsung. In tricky and low light, Samsung’s software favours all-round brightness rather than detail, so more often than not photos turn out overexposed with crushed shadows (with less detail). These photos may end up looking dull and lifeless. Night mode helps pull out some details from the shadows (while also brightening well-lit areas further) and it is one of the best implementations around, but Samsung’s algorithms need some fine tuning now with the iPhone picking up drastically on this front.
The main camera shoots 12MP photos by default though you’re also free to take 108MP photos. These photos are slightly warmer in comparison and obviously take up a lot of space.
The 40MP front camera outputs 10MP selfies which look nice, though Samsung’s hallmark smoothening continues — you’ll be better off switching AI off.
For videos, the Galaxy S20 Ultra can do 8K 24fps videos which sounds fantastic on paper, but absence of any stabilization entails rolling shutter (jello effect) even more so because it is a big (and heavy) phone. Plus, the file size is “huge.” Samsung says you can pull high-quality photos out of your 8K capture and you can, the question is, how many would do that beyond the initial run. The same is true for Samsung’s Single Take, a feature that lets you shoot multiple stills and short video clips simultaneously using all of the phone’s rear cameras from different vantage points.
4k (30, 60fps) videos are great though with good detail and generally well-balanced audio. Still, if you’re looking to take a lot of videos, the iPhone 11 Pro Max is the phone to buy.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra as an everyday phone:
- The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s massive screen and powerful hardware mean it’s a nice vessel for Samsung’s Dex which means that you can turn the phone into a pocket computer that you can then mirror on any monitor. It’s a phone designed from ground up for corporations and working professionals.
- Software inside the phone is Android 10-based One UI 2.1 which makes a lot of sense on it. Samsung’s One UI and large screen phones are a match made in heaven and this is something that’s best highlighted by a phone like the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Everything’s fast and fluid. Plus there are a lot of features, some very useful, thrown in for every kind of user.
- The Galaxy S20 Ultra comes with high-quality dual stereo speakers that get really loud without any distortion at peak volume. Stereo separation is good too. Sadly, there’s no headphone jack.
- Phone calls made with the Galaxy S20 Ultra are of excellent quality. The dual-SIM phone supports dual 4G VoLTE. There’s no 5G option in India.
- The Galaxy S20 Ultra is also IP68-certified for water and dust resistance.
Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra?
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is Samsung’s most ambitious conventional phone ever. The reason why I call it conventional is because Samsung also has phones like the Galaxy Fold and Galaxy Z Flip in its portfolio now which are far more ambitious. That’s possibly one reason why Samsung had to shake things up with the Galaxy S20 Ultra in the first place. The phone seems all about making a point that there’s still a lot that Samsung can pull off from its default Galaxy and while phones like the Fold and Flip are indeed the future, the Galaxy S (and even Galaxy Note) are here to stay.
Ok, Samsung has made its point loud and clear but should you buy the Galaxy S20 Ultra? Well, it would depend on what you want out of your purchase. If you want the best specs on an Android phone and budget is not a constraint, you should get the Galaxy S20 Ultra. It’s the only “logical” alternative to the iPhone 11 Pro Max for those who like to splurge much. For everybody else, the Galaxy S20+ is Samsung’s best new value flagship phone in the market today.
- Best in class display
- Good performance
- Impressive camera credentials
- Loud stereo speakers
- Big and bulky
- Fingerprint reader needs work
- Cameras work well for “specific” use cases
- India gets Exynos