When you hear the term Ultra, you would typically associate that with the best or extreme or loaded. In fact, the term Ultra comes from Latin and it means beyond, so what happens when you slap that term to a product, especially a smartphone? Well, according to Samsung, this will change the photography game and help you create without boundaries. It should also be able to keep up with anything and everything you throw at it, whether it’s leveraging 5G, putting it through extreme conditions, capturing high resolution photos and videos without running out of storage, blistering performance, a battery that can keep up with your demands, and a display that’s revolutionary. Oh, and let’s not forget the Ultra price tag that comes with it. In this case, $1,400 USD for the people who live in the United States and for us lovely Canadians $2,300…for a phone.
I’ve been using the S20 Ultra for the past 10 weeks and I’m still having trouble figuring out who this is for. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of things about the S20 Ultra, but I also have some thoughts and some mini rants because this is the most expensive smartphone that I’ve ever held. Therefore it deserves to be treated with the utmost respect and scrutiny.
First things first, the design is a minor upgrade over the S10 series, but it still looks pretty when you unbox it for the first time. That shine only lasts for about 5 minutes though, because when you start using an extensively without a case it becomes terribly smudged with fingerprints. Let’s also address the elephant in the room, that huge thick camera bump. Listen it might not be the prettiest thing that you have ever seen, but Samsung had no choice because this phone has four cameras. Now if you decide to place the S20 Ultra flat on a table prepare to get used to it making a rocking sound every time you touch it.
Now in a world where we are starting to see the competition come out with unique ways to hide fingerprints, and adding contoured matte finishes to the back to make it look fresh and classy, the S20 Ultra looks dated in my opinion. Perhaps Samsung could give us different colour options like a Ceramic Blue option because the S20+ and the S20 have those options, or a different texture on the back to make it look unique compared to the competition. I really wish they did something different here because to me the S20 series just looks like a copy and paste of the S10 with minor tweaks here and there.
Another thing that I should mention is the size and the weight of this phone. For comparison, it’s about the same size as the OnePlus 8 Pro, but it weighs 10% more at 220 grams. Now that might not sound like a lot, but if you are like me using it one handed lying down on a couch you will definitely experience fatigue, which could result in unexpected disasters like the phone hitting you in the face. Seriously, I miss using smaller phones and this is the opposite of small.
An Amazing Display
Next up is the display and Samsung pulled off something completely out of the ordinary. Previous Samsung phones had curved screens around the edges and I have had numerous issues with palm rejection, which to an extent I was able to address through software setting, but this time they took a step back and went with a flat screen with a gentle curve that’s barely noticeable just to give the phone that bezel-less look. The result of that is that you get better grip when you are holding the phone in one hand, no accidental touches which is awesome, and you can watch content without any distractions from glare that you typically notice with aggressively curved displays. This is exactly what a phone should function like and I am happy that Samsung learned from their mistakes.
The screen spans across 6.9 inches and it is gorgeous. Samsung’s AMOLED technology is one of the best out there and it offers vibrant colours and deeper blacks. It is really sharp too since it features Quad HD+ resolution. However, I really wish it got brighter outdoors like the OnePlus 8 Pro with its peak brightness at 1,000 nits. The most notable improvement over last year’s S10 is the upgraded refresh rate from 60Hz to 120Hz, but there is more to that story. You see for some unknown reason Samsung decided to cap that buttery smooth 120Hz experience at 1080P, and that has caused a bit of controversy over the internet, which they should have expected. Now this is not a chipset limitation because the OnePlus 8 Pro can do both Quad HD and 120Hz at the same time without a problem and it features the same specs as the S20 Ultra.
High Refresh Rate, Low Resolution
The question is what exactly are you giving up here? Well if you are used to watching 1440P content on YouTube or any other platform you won’t be able to do that at 120Hz on the S20 Ultra because you will be limited to 1080P. Now you can just go back to the settings and enable Quad HD at 60Hz, but that completely defeats the purpose of getting this smartphone in the first place. Now does queen resolution really matter for a screen this size? It really depends on how you look at things, you see our eyes have a physical limit when it comes to spotting individual pixels. I personally can’t notice any difference between Quad HD and Full HD on a smartphone, so it might not be a deal-breaker for some of you out there, but there is the other side of the spectrum where people want everything. They are not willing to compromise on screen resolution for refresh rates, because they are paying close to $1,400 for this phone so compromises shouldn’t be a thing. Honestly, I don’t see a point in calling this phone Ultra anymore.
With that being said, I have to give credit to Samsung for delivering that fast 120Hz experience constantly, they haven’t baked any dynamic modes into this phone that switch refresh rates depending on the type of content that you are viewing. For example, on my OnePlus 8 Pro when I’m scrolling through YouTube or Talon (which is my third-party Twitter app) or some other apps, the phone actually tends to lag quite a bit and it almost feels like I’m using a 60Hz display even though the phone is set to Quad HD at 120Hz. When I flip over to the S20 Ultra the refresh rate is constant regardless of the app that I’m using on a regular basis.
Now at this point you might be wondering about battery life, because when you keep adding features on top of features the battery ends up being the victim ultimately. When I switched over to this phone I was getting really bad battery life. How bad you may be wondering? Well it was bad enough that I had to plug it in during the middle of the day, which was definitely not fun or easy, especially in the middle of road trips (this before quarantine, of course). I was averaging 3.5 to 4 hours of screen on time, which was not what I expected from a phone of this caliber. Thankfully, through the magical powers of software updates it kept getting better. Now I’m getting like a 1.5 to 2 days of endurance if I try really hard, which is definitely awesome. Therefore, if you are a power user you don’t have to worry about it, even with the 120Hz mode enabled full time you are just good to go. Samsung made the right call by jamming in a 5,000mAh battery to keep up with that fast screen. By the way, my sample has the Snapdragon 865 SoC, and I am aware that in certain regions where Samsung is offering Exynos SoC models the battery life does tend to suffer quite a bit. If you have the option just make sure you grab the one with the 865 processor because it’s a lot more power efficient compared to the Exynos variants.
Fingerprint Scanner & Charging Methods
The in-display ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is still present on the S20 Ultra, just like the S10. They haven’t made any major improvements here. Honestly, I was really hoping to see Samsung bring something different here, like a secure face unlock system similar to the Pixel 4. I really miss the face unlock feature on that smartphone because it worked every time regardless of the lighting conditions, even in pitch-black the IR tracking was spot on. To be honest though, if you are a smartphone manufacturer thinking of slapping the term Ultra on your phones, you want to make sure that you are bringing something that exceeds your customers imagination, but that’s not the case here. Now with that being said, I haven’t had any issues with the fingerprint sensor, it is fast and reliable. I also love the fact that you can simply unlock your smartphone with the screen turned off, so that’s pretty cool.
Glancing over the rest of the features, it has the IP68 dust and water resistance rating, expandable storage up to 1TB, and Qi wireless charging. Keep in mind that the wireless charging is not as fast as OnePlus’ proprietary 30W Warp Charge. Basically they just brought everything from the S10 to the S20 without making any tweaks. The speakers sound great, you are still getting that stereo imaging with the earpiece and the bottom facing speaker. Call quality has also been excellent, I haven’t heard any complaints from anyone who I’ve been talking to on the other side, and the haptic vibration motor on this phone is amazing. It is way stronger than the OnePlus 8 Pro and I will guarantee you will never miss a notification or a phone call because it’s absolutely amazing. It’s the best I have ever experienced.
Samsung One UI 2.1 Software
Moving on to software, Samsung’s One UI has matured slightly over these past few years, but it still comes with bloatware apps like Samsung Health, Samsung Smart Things, Samsung Internet, the list just goes on. They really want you to get into their ecosystem, but I ended up removing most of them. Now you might not be familiar with the layout above and that is because I have customized it with my favorite launcher, widgets, and icon packs. In fact, if you are interested in a complete walkthrough on how I set up my Android smartphone, I have made a dedicated video covering that which you can check out right here. Ever since I switched from the Pixel 4 I have had to get used to a few things like the fullscreen gesture navigation since Samsung does it slightly differently. Instead of a single bar that you typically find on Android 10 you now have three separate bars, one for going back, one for jumping back to the home screen, and one for recent apps. I was really annoyed by the back gesture because on the Pixel 4 and the OnePlus 8 Pro all you had to do was swipe left to right on any app, but on the S20 you have to swipe up from the bottom left corner to make it work. I’m sure over time you will get used to it, and if you are not a fan of fullscreen gestures you can bring back the dedicated now buttons.
So Many Cameras
Samsung did finally remove the dedicated Bixby button, which is great since I don’t know why that was there in the first place on previous phones. However, Bixby has not disappeared, instead they actually mapped it to the power button. If you hold the power button thinking you’re about to turn off your smartphone, it actually ends up activating Bixby. There is a workaround to this though, if you hold the volume down and power button it will bring up the power off options. Other than that, the software experience has been great. You still have customization options with the widgets and the lock screen. The theme store is still here and I will warn you that most of them are paid versions and quite frankly useless. Personally, Samsung’s One UI is not my cup of tea, I like Oxygen OS from OnePlus and the stock UI that Google offers, but you don’t have to be in the same boat as I am.
Finally, let’s wrap things up with the camera performance. This is where you would expect the phone to shine given its Ultra badge and triple cameras setup… well technically quad camera setup, but I will get to that in a bit. For starters, you get a 12MP ultrawide angle sensor, 108MP standard wide angle, and a 48MP telephoto sensor. The aperture on all three of them is varied and they are all optically stabilized, which is awesome. That fourth camera is a 0.3MP Time of Flight (ToF) depth sensor which helps process live focus or in layman’s terms portrait mode.
Let’s start with the ultrawide. Generally it produces respectable results with good dynamic range, saturation, and contrast, but it seriously lacks detail. Samsung tends to apply a softening filter in the shadows and it over sharpened subjects around the highlights to make up for the detail. Throughout my testing period I have learned one thing from using this camera, if you are using it in broad daylight expect over sharpened photos and in low light expect a super soft filter. Basically, it just can’t keep up with the competition like the Pixel 4. The OnePlus 8 Plus ultrawide angle sensor does a much better job because it has a 48MP sensor, and there is barely any software processing which results in cleaner images. There is just no way to get away from Samsung’s post-sharpening effect, which is really unfortunate. Honestly it looks like a video game render on the S20 Ultra, whereas on the 8 Pro it’s more true to life.
The main 108MP sensor is good, but keep in mind that by default it does pixel bin to produce 12MP images. If you want to take advantage of that full 108MP sensor you need to make sure you go into the settings and enable that option. Keep in mind that it doesn’t remember that setting, so you will have to manually do that every single time when you open the camera, which is definitely annoying. The first thing that stood out to me was the detail you can punch in to retain information, which is pretty cool. I have also noticed that this new sensor has toned back the saturation. In some situations, the picture comes out with too much contrast, which you may or may not like, but generally it does a great job with dynamic range and sharpness. Samsung still loves to apply that sharpening filter and given that this is a huge sensor it does a pretty good job separating the subject from the background. You don’t really have to rely on portrait mode or live focus.
However, if you want to get a close subject in focus you are going to have some trouble there because you will start to notice the fringing on the sides and the bokeh tends to be a little weird. The bokeh is razor thin and that’s because of the F1.8 aperture. That is one of the biggest drawbacks of a larger sensor to be honest. Low light performance here is not the greatest. As I mentioned earlier, Samsung just loves to smooth out details. Speaking of which, for some reason Night Mode ended up being a disaster on my sample. As you can see by this image compared to the OnePlus 8 Pro, it processes the highlights in such an aggressive manner that there is just no hope for restoration here.
The telephoto lens once again conveys the same story, same old post sharpening effect, and in some cases it does mess up exposure. Also, I’m not sure if this is just me, but I’m not a fan of the focal length on the sensor. It crops in too much, especially compared to the OnePlus 8 Pro, but that is a subjective thing. The selfie camera was quite frankly disappointing. As you can see on the image on the right, this phone just straight up applied a beauty filter and my skin tones look way off. Not only that, but the poor sharpening effect emerges once again. Now in certain lighting conditions it does a decent job of reducing all that madness, but overall I’m really disappointed here due to its inconsistent performance.
And then there is the 100X space zoom. As you can see above the results are pretty terrible. I’m not as zoom guy, but you might be if you are a private investigator wanting to capture license plates or if you are investigating someone. But either way, the results and the usefulness aren’t really appealing to me.
Next up we have the front facing camera test on the S20 Ultra. This phone is packed with video recording features and it’s just incredible. The front facing camera can shoot up to 4K at 60 FPS, the rear camera can shoot up to 8K, though I would never really use 8K since I’m perfectly fine with 4K. The video quality coming out of this phone is just insane. The stabilization, the dynamic range, the detail, I would be totally fine shooting video on the S20 Ultra. It’s absolutely great. I think there is no other Android smartphone that can beat this phone in terms of video quality.
What about that 8K video recording feature? Well it’s going to apply a substantial crop to your image, especially when you switch from 4K to 8K, so it’s pretty difficult to frame or compose your shot. I also noticed that the rolling shutter was pretty terrible with some of the clips. The other thing that I wanted to mention is that if you are planning on shooting 8K video, it is going to chew through storage.
And finally, I do want to mention that I’ve been experiencing some glitches trying to play back 8K footage on my Windows PC. I have a GeForce RTX 2080 Ti and it is supposed to handle 8K footage, but for some reason I was having issues.
Alright, I know this has been a long one so I’m going to conclude now. For $1,400 USD the Galaxy S20 Ultra doesn’t have that ‘ultra’ factor that I was looking forward to. There are far too many compromises with this smartphone, and let me list them one by one. First, the design looks dated, especially compared to what the competition is offering. Second, the display can’t push 120Hz and Quad HD at the same time, which is something that the competition can also do. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the display, it’s beautiful, but it’s not up to flagship specs.
Third, the camera performance is not the greatest, especially with that post sharpening effect that the software applies, and yes I did always disable scene optimizer. All of those photos that you saw were taken in auto mode with scene optimizer and all of the filters turned off. It’s basically what the sensors sees. I know I should have mentioned this in the camera segment, but I’m still experiencing autofocusing issues with that main 108MP sensor, even after the latest software update. I just feel like the competition does a better job than this. Listen, if you are in the market looking for a flagship Android smartphone, just do yourself a favor and stay away from the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Samsung were just clearly out of their minds pricing this phone at $1,400 USD. In fact, there is another perfect reason why should disregard the S20 Ultra, it’s the OnePlus 8 Pro. It is $500 cheaper, it has better camera performance, a great display, great battery life, and the design is way sexier. On that note, thank you so much for reading this far, and I hope you were able to take away something from this review.
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