Samsung S20 Ultra 5G REVIEW
Samsung takes a huge punt by launching its super-dooper, mega-expensive flagship phone in a time of crisis. PAT PILCHER assesses its worth.
Launching a super-expensive flagship model right now in a time of worldwide crisis is either a gutsy or foolhardy move by Samsung. Tightening global economies are seeing consumers keeping smartphones longer and wanting more for less.
My Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G review covers this first big brand flagship product to land in New Zealand in 2020, and extra-long model names aside, it’s a beast. It packs a whopping 108MP rear shooter, 12GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and a stunning 6.9-inch 120Hz capable OLED display. As impressive as these specs may sound, I wanted to see just how the S20 Ultra stacked up in the real world.
As its name suggests, the S20 Ultra is the high-end variant of Samsung’s Galaxy S20.
With no folding screens and other fancy pants features immediately apparent, you’d be forgiven for wondering just why the S20 Ultra warrants such a steep sticker price.
First and foremost (if you are a Vodafone customer), the S20 Ultra is fully 5G capable. Then there’s the frankly bonkers and super impressive front and rear camera modules. Around the front is a gigantic OLED screen that delivers peeper pleasing pixel goodness at 120hz.
So, are these bells and whistles enough to justify the steep sticker price?
Packing four rear cameras and a 40-megapixel selfie shooter on the front, the photography credentials of the S20 Ultra deliver stunning results. The rear shooter has a 108-megapixel sensor and an f/1.8 lens complete with optical image stabilisation. If that isn’t enough to get a geeks heart rate up, Samsung have also included a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera, plus a 48-megapixel telephoto shooter. It’s a bonkers number of megapixels and the largest ever to be crammed into a Samsung phone.
But (there’s always a but), the devil is in the detail with these cameras. Shooting a 108MP image isn’t practical – it’d generate huge raw files and even compressed Jpeg images would still be sizeable. If you shot 108-megapixel photos they’d fill up the S20 Ultra’s storage before lunchtime. In fact, even the 48 megapixels sensor doesn’t shoot 48MP images. Instead all those image sensor elements collect data, which is combined, into superior 12-megapixel photos. This sees the 108-megapixel camera combining nine pixels into one pixel, and the 48MP telephoto shooter combines four pixels into one pixel. The theory behind this is that it results in a brighter, snappier photo.
You can also choose to shoot in 108-megapixel mode (one of the many shooting modes available), but capturing all that image data is slow. I found that 108MP images captured just didn’t look as good as the 12mp images.
The review unit also got an update that tweaked the autofocus system. Before that, I sometimes during my Samsung S20 Ultra 5G review I found I had to wait for it to lock onto a photographic subject, which meant missed photos when photographing fast-moving subjects such as pets. Since the update, this has become a non-issue.
Samsung appears to have also taken notice of the zoom capabilities in Huawei’s P30 Pro, and added a much-improved version of what they call “Space Zoom” on the S20 Ultra. It uses a periscopic series of mirrors and lenses, which confers the S20 Ultra with an impressive ‘optical’ and digital hybrid zoom that can go all the way up to 100x.
As bonkers as 100x zoom is, the reality is that without a tripod, focussing and reducing movement is tricky bordering on impossible with fast-moving photographic subjects. That said, when using just the capability of the optical zoom (a still impressive 10x), I captured photos that would’ve been considered impossible with a smartphone camera not so long ago.
The rear shooters on the S20 Ultra take excellent photos. There’s lots of detail, and colour reproduction feels a whole lot more balanced than with earlier Galaxy phones. Another side benefit of using such a mahoosive image sensor is that you can capture great depth-of-field without resorting to bokeh modes (which are available). Often, I found when shooting up close in straight photo mode that I could focus on an object and the background would blur, delivering stunning results.
I did find when shooting photos of people that the S20 Ultra sometimes over-processed skin details, which resulted in smoothed out skin and gave people an android-like look.
Night shooting is another area where the S20 Ultra excelled. Pictures I shot outside in the evening looked great. Highlights looked natural and not overblown, and colours were accurate. About the only issue I found was focusing, which was slower at night – something the P30 Pro also struggled with).
It isn’t all just still photography with the S20 Ultra though. It’s 8K video capable too. Capturing 8K video is done via the telephoto sensor. Video footage I shot (at 30fps) was pin-sharp. Of course, the gotcha here is that you’ll need an 8K capable display to get the most out of it.
“The S20 Ultra’s camera is a super potent beast that takes mobile photography to the next level”
All told, the S20 Ultra’s camera is a super potent beast that takes mobile photography to the next level.
Once you power on the S20 Ultra, its stonking 6.9-inch screen is almost hypnotic. It’s also a real palm stretcher and makes the already big Note 10 seem smallish, and the iPhone 11 Pro Max seem almost like a compact novelty phone.
I liked the way the display curved slightly around the phone’s edges. And the small hole-punch in middle of the top didn’t detract from the feeling that the S20 Ultra was pretty much an all-screen device. Given its parentage, it’s no accident that the OLED panel is a stunner – especially when you switch the display refresh rate to 120Hz. Doing so means the display refreshes twice as fast.
This gives on-screen content a silky smooth, almost painted on quality. For gaming, shooting videos or even using the browser, the difference is palpable. Words can’t do it justice. You need to see it to really get why it is stunning. Everything feels smoother and dare I say it, faster too.
A key factor figuring in this is its touch response, which has been upped to 240Hz. Because of this, the S20 Ultra’s display feels super responsive.
While it has a massive 5000mAh battery, I did find that enabling 120Hz mode saw battery life drop from just under two days to just under a day. That said, the OLED screen delivered brilliantly bright pixels. HDR support also meant the S20 Ultra is a perfect option for Netflix addicts.
Design-wise, the Galaxy S20 Ultra looks a whole lot like previous Galaxy devices when viewed front on. While the design is inoffensive, it doesn’t feel all that exciting. This seems odd for Samsung given they’ve led the design innovation charge in the smartphone game for so long. The S20 Ultra is available in two colour options, grey and black. With Huawei, Oppo and others offering phones done out in sexy metallic and gradient colours, these options seem a trifle dull.
That said, the review unit I tested was exceptionally well built. In hand it felt very upmarket and expensive, offering a balanced heft that many competing phones simply don’t have.
“In hand it felt very upmarket and expensive, offering a balanced heft that many competing phones simply don’t have”
The one design feature that I struggled with was the rear camera module. Because it doesn’t sit flush to the S20 Ultra’s chassis, the phone wobbles when you set it down on a table. Slipping on the bundled silicon case did help to avoid this, but given the steep sticker price, it’s an annoyance I feel shouldn’t exist.
Another important consideration is that Samsung has killed off the 3.5mm headphone jack and moved to an ultrasonic under-display fingerprint sensor. While I prefer faster and more accurate capacitive fingerprint sensors, the under-display offering on the S20 Ultra recognised my dabs around 90 percent of the time. Last (but by no means least) on the design front, the S20 Ultra is IP68 rated so it can take a dunking.
Under the hood, there’s also a tonne happening. The beating heart of the S20 Ultra is an Exynos 990 CPU, which comes with a healthy 12GB of RAM along with 128GB of storage. It’ll also support up to 1TB MicroSD cards.
The S20 Ultra ran smooth and felt responsive no matter what apps and tasks I threw at it. Any games installed from Google Play ran with the highest graphics settings, and there were no lags, glitches or stutters. Apps also opened instantly.
The Ultra is also a 5G phone. It’s a good job that it supports 4G, 3G and 2G networks as there is no 5G coverage where I live. In central Wellington, Vodafone’s 5G coverage seemed both spotty and only about as fast as 4G in most situations. For those who are located where there is no 5G, you might want to ponder your options as you’ll be paying a lot more for capabilities that are of no use to you yet. It’s an indication of telco hype is not yet quite living up to reality.
“The S20 Ultra ran smooth and felt responsive no matter what apps and tasks I threw at it”
When it came to battery life, I was both impressed and disappointed. With 60Hz refresh running I could squeeze two days of moderate to light use before reaching for a wired or wireless charger, which is impressive. With 120hz enabled, battery life slumped to under a day with moderate use. Not good. That said, one handy trick that often wrung out an extra few hours of battery life was dropping screen resolution back to FHD.
When I did run out of charge, the bundled wired fast charger got me from 0 to 100 percent in just over an hour. This is nothing to sneeze at considering it’s a whopping 5000mAh battery being charged. Qi wireless charging (15w) is also supported as is reverse charging where the S20 Ultra can act as a wireless charging pad for other Qi-compatible gear.
Samsung S20 Ultra 5G Review – Summary
The S20 Ultra is a no-compromise phone that takes no prisoners. Samsung hasn’t cut any corners, and a lot of boxes get ticked. The large battery delivers, the cameras and display are both bonkers, and its internal specs are hard to beat. It might command a steep sticker price, but if you are after a hot rod do-it-all phone, my Samsung S20 Ultra 5G review finds the S20 Ultra is a worthy contender.