Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra full review

What to do with a phone like the Galaxy S20 Ultra? Samsung’s biggest phone yet is a specs monster that cranks everything up to 11 - and camera zoom all the way to 100. But all that power comes at a price - both literal and metaphorical.

While fantastic in many circumstances, the camera setup has some obvious weak points that make photo quality inconsistent, and battery life on the international model is poor despite a huge cell. Samsung is asking you to compromise on size, design, battery, and price all for the sake of souped up specs and a camera that still just isn't the best around. That's a trade-off I don't think many people would - or should - make.

Price and availability: How much!?

It probably goes without saying, but the S20 Ultra isn’t cheap. Starting at £1,199/$1,399 for 128GB storage and jumping up to £1,399/$1,599 for 512GB it actually costs even more than Samsung’s new Galaxy Z Flip foldable at full spec, and is cheaper only than the Galaxy Fold out of the Korean giant’s current lineup.

You might be more tempted by the regular S20 or S20+. They start from £799/$999 and £999/$1,199 respectively, and offer almost all the same specs as the Ultra in smaller form factors - it’s only really in the camera where the Ultra pulls apart.

Depending on spec the Ultra is actually pricier than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which starts from £1,149/$1,099 (though with only 64GB storage) and is comfortably more than almost every Android rival. And with top spec flagships from other brands available for hundreds less, Samsung has an even harder time than ever convincing people to pay its premium.

To be blunt, at this price point this phone either needs to be damn near perfect, or it needs to excel so fantastically in one or two areas that it justifies the omissions elsewhere. The S20 Ultra just isn’t quite there.

Design and build: Chief of chonk

The first thing you need to know about the S20 Ultra is that it’s big. Like, really big. A heckin’ chonker of a phone.

You might like big phones. You might be used to an S9+ or S10+, or maybe even one of Samsung’s Note phones. This is bigger than any of them.

And not just in terms of the gargantuan 6.9in display, interrupted only by a hole-punch camera, now smaller and central . I mean sure, that’s an enormous screen (bigger even than the 6.8in panel in last year’s Note 10+) but razor thin bezels take the edge off - literally - and the decision to cut the curves and return to flatter edges keeps the big display easy to use.

The problem is more that the S20 Ultra is thick. And heavy. It feels out of proportion, especially compared to the sleeker S20 and S20+, and unbalanced thanks to the sheer weight of the camera module at one end.

And we’ve got to talk about that camera module. Setting aside the specs for now, the Ultra’s quad camera setup is an eyesore. It takes up a huge chunk of the phone’s rear, sticks out a mile, and the decision to plaster ‘Space Zoom 100x’ on the back of a £1400 phone is almost unconscionable.

Despite being so large there apparently still wasn’t space for a headphone jack, which has been squeezed out across the S20 line. The dedicated Bixby button is gone too, though by default a long press on the power button now activates him instead - something you can change, fortunately.

Throw in the fact that the only colours available on the Ultra model are grey or black - despite flashier finishes being available on the cheaper models - and it’s clear that this phone is an almost pure expression of form over function. It’s not pretty, but it gets the job done - but is just getting the job done enough at this price?

Camera: Too much but never enough

Let’s talk camera. This is clearly where Samsung’s focus lies, as it’s just about the only area where the Ultra’s specs diverge in a big way from the other S20 phones.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra camera test

At the heart of the rear setup is a 108Mp f/1.8 (dropping the variable aperture tech Samsung has used for the last couple of years) shooter that serves as the main lens. By default shots aren’t taken at 108Mp, but instead the phone uses pixel binning to combine nine pixels into one (‘nona-binning’ in Samsung’s terminology) to generate crisper, more detailed 12Mp photos with enhanced dynamic range.

Photos are, broadly speaking, great. Between the high pixel count and the sheer size of the sensor, the Ultra’s camera can produce phenomenal levels of detail and deep, vivid colour without veering too far into the over-saturated aesthetic you’d get from the likes of Huawei (though I'd still tone the saturation down a touch if I could).

If you prefer you can switch to taking full 108Mp shots. These take a second to process, so run a little slower, and file sizes range from 30-50MB per shot. It’s a credit to Samsung’s pixel-binning tech that for the most part you won’t be able to tell the difference though, and the main benefit to the high-res photos is the freedom to crop in without losing much crispness or detail - not something you’re likely to need too often. The downside is that the dynamic range is definitely worse in the 108Mp photos, so in most cases I'd recommend sticking to standard shooting.

That 108Mp main sensor is joined by a 12Mp ultra-wide that holds its own surprisingly well against the main lens, together with a depth sensor and arguably the phone’s main selling point: a 48Mp telephoto lens.

If you’re in the US this may be the first super-zoom smartphone you’ve been able to pick up, though those of us elsewhere in the world have seen similar tech already in the Huawei P30 Pro or Oppo Reno 10x Zoom last year.

Like those two phones before, Samsung’s ‘Space Zoom 100x’ actually hinges on a 5x telephoto, which can be cranked up to 100x thanks to extra digital zoom. This is, to be blunt, a shameless gimmick. You do not need 100x zoom and you will not like the photos you take at 100x zoom, not least because without a tripod your hands will never be steady enough to get the shot you want.

Still, as tech gimmicks go it remains a very impressive one, and the 100x max zoom does surpass Huawei and Oppo’s previous limits. And at 5x zoom the lens excels - there’s some loss of vibrancy and colour depth (to be expected with an aperture of f/3.5) and it struggles a little with moving targets like animals, but the detail it can capture is remarkable.

So the S20 Ultra camera is great. When it works.

You may have heard that early samples of the phone had a few photographic flaws, which actually caused me to delay publishing this review while Samsung got me a new handset with a patch that fixed a few.

First up, you can discard any reports of aggressive skin smoothing - this was clearly a software issue, and the patch fixes it entirely, so by the time you get the phone it shouldn't be a problem. 

The other common problem was with the autofocus, and I have more mixed news there. At first the autofocus was incredibly slow, sometimes taking a few seconds to find a focal point. It's sped up, and is now only slightly sluggish, but pretty much as you'd expect.

Unfortunately, the fix highlights one flaw that Samsung can't really fix: this is a rubbish camera for macro photography. This is likely a result of the move to the larger 108Mp sensor, which introduces a natural bokeh effect. That's very welcome most of the time, but the naturally shallow depth of field means photos of close subjects tend to look soft compared to the usual flat focus other phones produce.

You might think you don't often take close-ups, but the problem isn't restricted to super-close macro photos - even photographing a plate of food for Instagram tends to leave bits of it in focus and other parts fuzzy. I'd expect more from a phone this price, and I imagine many others would too.

Other camera tricks are fine if not remarkable. Night mode is improved by the larger sensor, but Samsung’s algorithm game is still behind Apple and Google’s, especially when it comes to handling mixed light sources, so the results are good but still not the best around despite the hardware improvements, especially when it comes to white balance. The option to do night-time hyperlapses is also a fun tool that few of us will ever use more than once.

Single Take is a handy feature for the indecisive among us, letting you capture up to 10 seconds and then using an algorithm to generate a few short videos and photos from different lenses, in theory getting the best moments all at once. It actually works very well, with one caveat: it slaps some aggressive stock music on top of all of your videos, getting in the way of any audio you might have actually wanted to capture.

Fortunately the S20 Ultra is better on regular video, shooting 4K at 60fps and even 8K at 30fps. You almost certainly don’t need to shoot in 8K (the file sizes are monstrous, and what are you even going to watch it back on?) but the fact that a phone can do it, and do it pretty well, remains mind blowing. I can't show you though, because YouTube won't let me upload an 8K video sample anyway - yet further proof that the rest of the tech world just isn't there yet.

You can also jump directly between the front and back cameras while shooting video (though not 8K, to be clear) letting you seamlessly jump between filming yourself and something else - a vlogger’s dream no doubt.

As for that selfie camera, there’s just the one, but it’s an f/2.2 40Mp sensor (a big jump from the 10Mp on the other S20s). Samsung still cheats a bit by letting you switch between ‘regular’ and ‘wide’ within the camera app, but this is really just a choice between using the full lens and a cropped version.

Either way, shots look great (besides suffering the same skin softening problems as the rear camera). There’s a narrower colour range than from the rear lenses, but impressive detail - though we’re surely hitting the upper limit for selfie cameras here, as no-one needs to see my close-up pores in any more detail than this.

Display: Big and beautiful

If the camera is the biggest draw in the S20 Ultra, the display is a close second.

I’ve already mentioned the sheer size - 6.9in for the forgetful - but it’s a phenomenal display beyond that, and perhaps the best in any smartphone right now. The Super AMOLED panel caps out at 3200x1440, supports HDR10+, and can display at a refresh rate of 120Hz.

If you’re not sure what 120Hz refresh rate means, it’s essentially how fast the display loads new images (read our refresh rate explainer for a more detailed breakdown. A faster refresh rate means smoother scrolling, more fluid animations, and the potential for higher frame rates while gaming. Most phones have 60Hz displays, and a few - like the latest OnePlus models - have 90Hz. Samsung isn’t the first to add 120Hz (that was the Razer Phone) but it is the first to put such a fast display in a mainstream, non-gaming device.

The results speak for themselves, and the S20 Ultra is as beautiful from the front as it is an eyesore from behind. The panel here is bright and vivid, with deep contrast, excellent viewing angles, and all the benefits 120Hz brings. The choice to rein in the curved edges pays off too, increasing usability enormously while leaving just enough of a rounded edge to look the part.

Now for the caveats. First up, you can actually get the same panel - albeit smaller - in the regular S20 or S20+ (with the same resolution, so you should actually get superior pixel density in the smaller phones). So as great as this screen is, bear in mind that you don’t need to grab the Ultra model to take advantage of it.

The other major caveat is that the two top features - 3200x1440 resolution and 120Hz refresh rate - are incompatible. This is presumably in an effort to save the battery (more on that next) as both are major power draws, but if you crank up the refresh rate to full you’ll have to drop the resolution to 2400x1080, and vice versa.

Essentially you’ll have to choose between smoother animations or higher resolution imagery (or just drop both down to conserve power further). Either way you’re unlikely to be unhappy though, and while the option to combine the two might be appealing, the potentially battery impact would not be.

Battery: Exynos strikes again

So yeah, let’s talk battery. It isn’t good, despite the generous 5,000mAh capacity.

It’s worth pointing out that I’ve been reviewing a model with Samsung’s own Exynos 990 processor. That’s what ships in most parts of the world, though the US and a select few other markets get S20 phones with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chipset, and from talking to North American reviewers it sounds like those models might have better battery life.

As for mine, I’ve seen all-day battery life, but not by much. Most days I’ve used the S20 Ultra it’s been on about 20% when I go to bed, after anywhere between 3 and 5 hours of screen-on time. That’s fine, but it’s really the bare minimum for a new phone, and I worry that after 12+ months of use it might not make it to the end of the day any more.

The big caveat is that this is using the 120Hz refresh rate, and switching down to 60Hz (while leaving resolution down at FHD+, not max) does seem to help, though not by as much as you’d think - I’d estimate it saved me 10% or so across a full day’s use at most. That reinforces the sense that the issue here is less the display and more the power-hungry Exynos chipset - echoing similar issues with the S10 series.

Of course, some will say that if you care about battery you should turn down the refresh rate, lower the resolution, switch off 5G and more. Those trade-offs might be worth it for some, but for my part I think it defeats the point of spending over a grand on a top-of-the-line flagship if you then have to turn half the features off in order to keep it running.

It helps that charging is fast. Samsung ships a 25W wired USB-C charge with the Ultra, which was capable of taking my phone from empty to 56% in half an hour. It’s actually capable of charging even faster - 45W - but you’ll have to buy the more powerful charger separately. It’s also capable of 12W wireless charging - the same speed as last year’s S10 phones.

5G: Future-proof

5G is one of the other headline features - it’s technically in the phone’s full name after all - though I’d still hesitate to consider 5G alone a reason to upgrade.

Our Exynos model only supports sub-6 frequencies - the type currently used in European infrastructure - though the US Snapdragon models also support mmWave, which makes them a bit more future-proof.

I’ve been testing the S20 Ultra with a Vodafone 5G SIM, and while 5G speeds are impressive coverage still isn’t widespread enough - even in central London, where our office is - so it remains a challenge to actually find a 5G connection.

That will improve of course, and so there’s an argument for getting a 5G phone now so that you’re ready for when the networks get better in a year or two’s time, especially since almost every new flagship this year will have 5G support.

Essentially, don’t count the 5G support against the Ultra even if you are a skeptic, but don’t think of it as a key reason to make the upgrade.

Specs and performance: Ultra fast

As for the rest of the specs, they’re predictably monstrous. The aforementioned Exynos 990 (or Snapdragon 865) is joined by 12GB or 16GB of fast LPDDR5 RAM, and 128GB or 512GB of storage.

The phone is whip fast, and comfortably handles anything you can throw at it. That’s reflected in our benchmark scores too, which are among the fastest we’ve ever recorded - though I still can’t help but wonder if the Snapdragon variant would be that little bit faster.

The phone comes in single SIM and dual SIM variants, and each supports MicroSD cards up to 1TB. Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0, and NFC round out the connectivity features, while from a security standpoint you get the same face unlock and ultrasonic under-display fingerprint scanner as in last year’s Samsung flagships.

Software: Same ol', same ol'

The S20 Ultra ships with Android 10 - the latest version of Google’s operating system - along with Samsung’s One UI 2.

After last year’s overhaul the company has been more conservative from a software standpoint this year, and the main additions are handy sharing features that will only work with other Samsung Galaxy users.

Quick Share is essentially AirDrop for Galaxy phones, while Music Sharing lets friends connect to your Bluetooth speaker through your phone without worrying about fiddly pairing processes, but both are exclusive to other recent Samsung devices, so they’ll only help if all your friends grab Samsung phones too.

Power users will enjoy a feature that lets you lock up to three (or five, on the higher RAM model) apps into memory so that they always open quickly, and right where you left them (as if I need anything to help me spend more time on Twitter). Most people won’t care, but then I guess this phone isn’t for most people anyway.

The only other major software addition is Spotify integration into Bixby routines, which is great news if you’re one of the three people who uses Bixby routines and also has a Spotify subscription.

Verdict

The S20 Ultra is not a phone that most people should buy. It’s too expensive for most people to afford, too big for most people to want, and too ugly for the remaining few to ever want to show off.

Still, it’s a phone packed with technical achievements, not least in the camera, which at its best is capable of outclassing every competing flagship, even if it’s maddeningly inconsistent and struggles in closeups.

The 120Hz refresh rate is the crowning jewel to what might be the best display on a phone right now, but the hit to battery life makes it bittersweet - a problem exacerbated by Samsung’s continued insistence on shipping its inferior Exynos chipsets in handsets outside the US, leaving them with reduced battery life and hamstrung performance.

If the camera is the only thing you consider when buying a phone the S20 Ultra makes a compelling case for itself, but for everyone else it just goes a few compromises too far.

Specs

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: Specs

  • Android 10 with One UI
  • 6.9in Wide Quad HD+ (3200x1440) Dynamic AMOLED 2X
  • HDR10+ support
  • 120Hz refresh rate
  • Exynos 990 or Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 octa-core processor
  • 12/16GB RAM
  • 128/512GB internal storage
  • microSD card slot (up to 1TB)
  • 108Mp, f/1.8, OIS rear camera + 12Mp ultra wide, f/2.2 + 48Mp Tele, f/3.5 + depth sensor
  • 40Mp, f/2.2 front camera
  • Embedded Ultrasonic Fingerprint scanner
  • 2D Face Recognition
  • 11ax dual-band Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX
  • GPS
  • NFC
  • 5G NSA/SA/DSS over Sub-6 or Sub-6 & mmWave (Snapdragon only)
  • USB-C
  • 5000mAh non-removable battery
  • 45W wired charging (25W charger included)
  • Fast Wireless Charging 2.0
  • Wireless Powershare
  • IP68 dust & waterproof rating
  • 166.9 x 76.0 x 8.8mm
  • 222g

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