Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: Too much more for most

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Great battery, so-so 5G

Samsung has loaded the S20 Ultra with a 5,000mAh battery—its biggest ever, and a sign that it’s finally ready to push the limits of battery capacity after the Galaxy Note 7's exploding-battery debacle.

The S20 needs it. With 5G active and 120Hz motion smoothness flipped on, I was barely able to make it through a full day of heavy use. With the 120Hz refresh off, WQHD on, and 5G enabled, I was able to last a good part of a second day, which is iPhone 11 Pro Max territory. Benchmarks topped 10 hours in both cases, but 120Hz zapped more than three hours of use, so you’ll definitely want to consider whether it’s worth it to you. The bundled 25W charger fills up the Ultra in about an hour and a half, but it also supports 45W charging—if you have the right charger. I tested numerous 60W chargers and none of them worked, so you'll probably need Samsung's proprietary one

galaxy s20 ultra buttons Christopher Hebert/IDG

The buttons on the S20 Ultra have all been moved to the right side. 

The same goes for 5G. While all S20 phones sold in the United States will have a 5G modem, you can opt to turn it off in settings, which will give battery life a slight uptick. That’s obviously something you’ll want to do if you’re under an LTE plan, but even if you have subscribed to T-Mobile’s or Verizon’s 5G plan, the benefits might not be as great as you’ve been led to believe.

While it’s well-documented that Verizon’s mmWave 5G speeds are stupid fast, they’re limited to very small pockets around the United States. I tested the S20 Ultra using T-Mobile’s network in Connecticut, and my mileage varied. Even when my S20 Ultra said it was connected to a 5G network, my speeds were often lower than my Pixel 4's on Verizon’s LTE network. Occasionally I topped 100Mbps, but none of it felt transformative or any better than LTE.

galaxy s20 ultra light Christopher Hebert/IDG

The S20 Ultra isn't available in any funky colors, but even in gray, it cuts a striking figure.

Even if you don’t take advantage of the 5G modem now, you can be assured that the S20 Ultra will be as future-proofed as it can be, for as long as you hold onto it. With support for both mmWave and Sub-6GHz 5G, 12GB of RAM, a fast processor, speedy storage, and an insanely great display, the S20 Ultra is primed for years of solid performance.

An Android skin worthy of praise 

It’s not just the hardware that’s future-proofing the S20. For the first time since I’ve been testing Galaxy phones, I’m confident that Samsung will keep the S20 line as fresh as possible with regular and timely updates. Exhibit A: It’s March 3 as I’m writing this, and my S20 Ultra already has the March Security Update, the third straight month that one of my Samsung phones has gotten an Android update earlier than my Pixel 4 has. That’s a huge accomplishment and hopefully a sign of things to come with Android 11 later this year.

One UI has completely transformed the Samsung smartphone experience from a so-so skin to one of the best user interfaces Android has to offer. The S20 family ships with One UI 2, and while it’s very much an iterative update, the new features it brings—including an expansion of dark mode and the adoption of a proper back gesture—are as smart and thoughtful as they are on the Pixel 4.

One UI 2 is a bona fide contender for the best Android overlay of the year, and far and away the most creative in the Android world right now. If Samsung can deliver One UI 3 at or around the time Android 11 drops, there will be very few remaining reasons to buy another Android phone.

A great camera with caveats

While there are plenty of reasons above to justify the S20’s Ultra surname, the camera is the biggest. Inside that huge bulge is an array of large, powerful sensors and lenses that can do more than any other smartphone camera ever made.

galaxy s20 ultra lens Christopher Hebert/IDG

The S20 Ultra's zoom isn't quite DSLR-quality, but it's the closest a smartphone has ever been.

Like the rest of the S20 Ultra, the camera is on the absolute cutting edge of available components. You’re unlikely to find another smartphone that bests it on paper. Like the S20+, the Ultra has four rear cameras, and they're all different:

S20 Ultra

Camera 1: 12MP Ultra Wide, f/2.2
Camera 2: 108MP Wide-angle, f/1.8
Camera 3: 48MP Telephoto, f/3.5
Camera 4: DepthVision (time-of-flight)


Camera 1: 12MP Ultra Wide, f/2.2
Camera 2: 12MP Wide-angle, f/1.76
Camera 3: 64MP Telephoto, f/2.0
Camera 4: DepthVision (time-of-flight)

Whether those S20 Ultra specs actually make a difference in your day-to-day picture-taking is another story. There’s a 108MP sensor that most people will never turn on. There’s a 100X zoom that most people will never need. And it can record in 8K, which most people will never—well, you get the idea.

galaxy s20 ultra 100x zoom Michael SImon/IDG

The various preset zooms on the S20 Ultra, clockwise from top left, 1X, 10X, 30X and 100X, show how incredible the telephoto lens is.

While the 108MP sensor obviously stands out on the Ultra, the telephoto lens is the real star. Samsung’s claims are true—it can reach up to an insane 100X—but you’re unlikely to use it at that distance very often. As you can see above, the pictures it captures aren’t really ones you’ll want to display. Plus there's the creep factor: I was able to see clear across my wide yard into my neighbor’s kitchen window. Still, when you see just how far it can go, it’s pretty mind-blowing.

galaxy s20 ultra pumpkin comp Michael Simon/IDG

These three photos taken by the S20 (left), iPhone 11 (center), and Pixel 4 XL (right) are so similar, I had a hard time remembering which was which.

The S20 Ultra is even more impressive when you zoom out. While 2X or 3X optical zoom is pretty standard for premium Android phones, Samsung says the S20 Ultra has a 10X “lossless” zoom that combines 4X optical and 6X digital zoom with AI to reduce the noise you'd normally get with digital zoom. It’s quite good: Photography purists will still see some telltale digital smartphone artifacts at 10X, but it’s an excellent first step, and the quality should improve with steady updates.

galaxy s20 ultra dark comp Michael Simon/IDG

In challenging lighting, the S20 Ultra (left) performed admirably, retaining detail that the Pixel 4 lost (right) and preserving low lights that the S10 blew away (center).

Speaking of improvement, Samsung has put a good deal of work into its night mode, and the effort shows on the S20 Ultra. Most of the heavy lifting is done by the ISOCELL Bright HM1 image sensor that powers the 108MP lens—night mode shots are using 9-to-1 nona binning to turn 0.8μm pixels into 2.4μm—but Samsung’s maturing algorithm deserves some credit too. On the S10, night shots were largely overexposed, but there’s much more nuance on the Ultra. Shadows and highlights are preserved, and in some shots, I actually preferred the S20 Ultra’s night mode to the Pixel 4's. The new countdown interface that’s built into the shutter is extremely clever and the best implementation I’ve used so far.

galaxy s20 ultra portrait Michael Simon/IDG

The S20 Ultra's rear camera does an excellent job with portraits (left), but the selfie cam tends to smooth over perceived blemishes, like my son's freckles in this shot.

Samsung also continues to make strides with portrait mode. Even without a second selfie cam like the S10+, edges are crisp, and wisps of hair are recognized. The rear camera excelled thanks to the time-of-flight sensor, though the aggressive AI tended to smooth faces a bit too much with the selfie cam.

The S20 Ultra camera’s other claim to fame is 8K video recording, which you can capture at 30 fps. You’ll need a lot of space for it—every minute will eat up about 600MB of storage—and some of those clips might need to be reshot. That’s because of a bug that messes with the S20 Ultra’s autofocus. Samsung has supposedly rolled out a fix for it in Korea, but my device, which has already gotten the March update, hasn’t received it yet (or if it has, it’s not fixed). The autofocus issue affects photos as well, but it’s more apparent in videos, where tapping the screen to focus manually is more of a nuisance.

galaxy s20 ultra pics Michael SImon/IDG

The S20 Ultra's 108MP lens handles color and detail remarkably well, even if you're not shooting with every pixel.

I hope a fix will be available soon, because it’s a nagging issue on an otherwise amazing camera that can take truly excellent photos. Pictures were constantly a bit more saturated than on the iPhone or Pixel, as is Samsung's tendency. Despite the autofocus issues, however,  more often than not I snapped a great pic with the Ultra. I particularly liked Samsung’s new Single Take feature, which uses Ai to offer up a smattering of different shots and compositions. It's downright delightful at times.

galaxy s20 ultra space zoom Christopher Hebert/IDG

Space Zoom on the Galaxy S20 Ultra is far out.

Far more concerning is how the S20 Ultra's size affects the photography experience. The S20 Ultra is so big that taking it out of my pocket, launching the camera, pointing it at my subject, and tapping the shutter button took several seconds longer than it did on other phones, simply due to the phone and the bump’s tremendous size. It’s a fact that people who really want a 108MP camera and 100X zoom are going to have to deal with, and it should definitely factor into your buying decision.

Should you buy a Galaxy S20 Ultra?

There are three types of people who should spend $1,400 or $1,600 on the top-of-the-line Galaxy S20 Ultra:

1. Samsung fans who will pay anything to have the latest and greatest handset.
2. Smartphone photographers who need the latest and greatest camera.
3. Influencers who have enough money to afford this phone

That’s basically it. Anyone else should look at the S20+, which has many of the same features and specs minus some of the camera stuff, or even the S10+, which received a permanent $150 price cut.

Don't get me wrong: The S20 Ultra is a great phone, definitely in contention for the best Android phone ever made. But for most people, it’s just too much phone for too much money.

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At a Glance
  • The Galaxy S20 Ultra is a technically superior phone with an incredible camera, but its size, price, and overkill make it hard to recommend.


    • Incredible processor, battery, and RAM
    • Absolutely gorgeous display
    • One UI has become one of Android's best overlays


    • Big, heavy, and awkward to hold
    • Extremely expensive
    • Camera is excellent but has some annoying bugs
    • 100X Space Zoom is impressive but not very useful
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