Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: ULTRA enough? (video)

Let’s face it, the last time the name Ultra was slapped onto a phone, it was more of a dumpster fire than anything. Sure, HTC had some good intents for the U lineup, but there wasn’t anything Ultra about it. Specs were late, the camera was meh, and the phone was just a behemoth for no valid reason.

This is not the case of calling a phone Plus or Pro, which do get tossed around a lot. Ultra means that your product is not just great, but has to be great to an extreme. So what does a product need to be to achieve such levels? It can’t just be another device “without compromise,” that’s what flagships should be for. It can’t be another foldable because even those are still an experiment. A device named Ultra needs to be better than the best at everything, and it might just be that the time has come.

This is the Galaxy S20 Ultra, what Samsung dubs as the phone that’s gonna change photography, and which they believe is Ultra enough for you to shell the price of a high-end computer to prove it. Lucky for you, that’s what we’re here for, and after spending a couple of weeks testing this phone, I think I have a good enough idea of what it is, and what it’s not.

My colleagues and I have had some crazy arguments over what the S20 Ultra replaces. Some feel this is the direct successor to the Galaxy S10+, and some of us disagree. I think a fair relation would be to call this the follow-up to the Galaxy S10 5G, but with a set of camera specs that make it hard to be compared. This is sort of like the times of the Lumia 1020, which was a phone so ahead of its time, that it’s still hard to find a match for it today in certain ways. Let me begin this video by telling you what I like about this phone, and it starts with what you get.

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If there’s one thing ultra about this phone, it’s the internals. At the time of this video there is not one more powerful smartphone. We’re talking Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, options for 12 or 16 gigs of RAM, 128 and up to 512 gigs of storage, expandable. Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5, an insane 5,000mAh battery, and support for 45W power delivery if you buy the extra adapter, 15W wireless charging, and 9W wireless power share, which is even faster than what iPhones are able to support. Like seriously, this is the kitchen sink phone. There are no buts here. 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

All that actually opens up the second reason why this phone is Ultra, and it’s that 5G at the end of the name. I like the fact that contrary to other 5G attempts last year, this phone supports any flavor of 5G you have, in a way that seems to not require much carrier intervention. The review unit we received is unlocked, and I spent the first few days on T-Mobile’s low-band, and then the rest of the period on Verizon’s crazy fast mmWave, and all I needed to do was swap SIM cards. I can’t guarantee that this will be your experience, but mine did prove to be quite versatile,… though, more on the experience of these services in the next section.

The third reason this phone is Ultra, is that we have, yet again, a best in class display. At 6.9-inches diagonal, Samsung’s second generation Dynamic AMOLED is the largest I’ve used on a flagship, and the obsessive trimming of the bezels achieves a crazy 90% screen to body ratio. Switch on 120Hz, and the experience just spoils you. Scrolling around anything is so buttery smooth that you’re gonna have a hard time going back. At this setting, Games automatically support 240Hz touch sampling, and once you match this with some very loud dual firing speakers, I’d say this is as good as it gets from a content consumption perspective.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

And sure, we know all this is limited to Full HD+, but if you do the pixel density math, I’d say the faster refresh is more valuable. It’s even shocking that Samsung nearly did away with the curves on the display, but I find it to be a necessary change if you plan to handle this phone with ease.

And then the final cherry topper in this Ultra pie is battery life. I never thought Samsung could pull this off, but man, I’ve spent all this time using this phone at 120Hz, 5G on different carriers, with a permanent a connection to my Galaxy Watch Active, and the usual interaction with Samsung’s new Galaxy Buds+, and I couldn’t kill this phone in a day. I’m not gonna call it legendary, but I’ve been ending the day at a 40% average with all the stress I gave it, so I’d say great endurance is also part of this complete package

Mixed

But alright, even all the perfection in Tony Stark’s Ultron Program had its short comings, and as Ultra as this phone seems in paper, we all know that implementation is really what separates experimentation from what some call Pro Grade, and this is where I’m mixed.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

I usually start my videos telling you how much I like the hardware, but in this phone, that’s kind of a chore. In typical Samsung fashion the build quality is great, but this is a large and chunky phone. I know I’ve said I prefer size if the functionality serves a purpose, and such a large spec sheet does make the heft logical, but man, even weight distribution on this phone is tough, and the only two color options seem really uninspired if you ask me.

At first I debated why such a large camera hump, and then I realized that such a crazy and complete camera system has never been done before. Let me put this to you in perspective: The 108 megapixel primary camera sensor is second only to the 1-inch sensor on the legendary Lumia 1020. The sensor on the 48 megapixel telephoto is larger than the primary die on game changers like the Huawei P30 Pro.

The 12 megapixel sensor of the Ultra-wide is also comparable in micron size to even the latest iPhones. This camera is a beast! In numbers it would even be a mistake to compare it to anything else out there, but let’s face it, numbers are only as good as the results. 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Having such a large primary sensor allows for things that don’t require software, like natural bokeh if you get close enough to your subject, and this phone excels at it, but then I think that’s the reason why it struggles to focus every now and then. During the day, like with most flagships, you’ll have no complaints. Samsung is no longer oversaturating images. Instead I love how most photos are really balanced in color and contrast, and if anything I’d ask the company to fix its view finder because dynamic range is far better on the end results than on what you see while taking the shot.

I love that the Ultra-wide is now far less distorted than before, and I actually like that the camera meters and adapts based on to the focal length as having the same contrast isn’t always ideal when zooming into a subject. Let me just be clear that all photos up to 10X are completely usable and provide some crazy detail. I’m just not a fan of the phone making the jump to 5X directly, instead of the more common 50mm equivalent at 2X. Also, that 100X space zoom is completely useless, so please ignore the bragging rights on the camera hump.

I like that Samsung’s night mode also supports all focal lengths, even if these are limited when shooting in that mode. I do feel the results give the Pixel 4 a good run for its money, but stay tuned for that comparison to give you more detail.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

I do love portraits and selfies on this phone, but I had to disable a ton of automatic beauty modes to achieve it, and these are settings you have to dig deep for. Once those are off, dynamic range is well preserved, subjects are not overly separated, and skin tones are also portrayed well.

Now, video is one of those sections where I’m kind of mixed because even if colors and stabilization are really good, the lower light becomes, the more you’ll be exposed to warping and weird over-sharpening. The fact that this phone can do 8K is fantastic, but I do feel software needs a bit more tuning to improve autofocus in this particular mode. Probably what I’m most shocked about is how well this phone does selfie video, which could be a play of just how large the sensor is. There’s just an insane amount of data being pushed, and I do love that you can switch between cameras while you record, so this might just be a great pick for a phone you can VLOG with.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Now, how about if we switch back to that conversation about 5G. One of the major selling points for this entire lineup is that these are all 5G phones, and yet I feel it’s only fair that you understand that at the moment, this is more a promise than a product. If you decide to go the T-Mobile route, you’ll get the most ubiquitous 5G, but that’s the low band flavor, so call it more like LTE++ if you look at speeds.

If you were to do Verizon, well, I’ve gotten a crazy 1.5 Gigabits down on my speed tests, but so long as I find where to get those speeds, and that’s all outdoors by the way, which is not where you wanna be in this winter, and which means you’ll spend 99% of your time on LTE. Like look, I get it, 5G is here, and it’s had far less growing pains than LTE had back in the day, but if you thought you’d buy this phone for its 5G reality, I’ll be the first to lay your expectations more into the fact that you’ll have future-proof hardware.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

I wish I could say the same about future-proof software, but that’s another reason I’m mixed about Samsung phones. This is not a product you’ll buy for timely software updates. The company has been doing a far better job with updates since the Galaxy Note 9, but that still means you’ll wait months to see whatever new features Pixels will have.

That said, I’m one of the weirdos that doesn’t really care about stock Android for anything other than updates. I honestly feel Google has lagged behind in key functionality features that I actually enjoy about using a Galaxy phone. I do care about Secure Folder to keep my work accounts separate. I do value the edge menus and the app pairs to have my favorite forms of interaction available to me at a glance. Heck you can’t even schedule night mode on a Pixel, which Galaxies have been able to do since before Android 10. One UI now feels much smoother at 120Hz, so my advise is that regardless of what you hear from die-hard Android fans, you don’t dismiss using this phone based on stock services that Samsung addressed years before Google did. 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Don’t Like

And even if I thought there was no such thing as something I didn’t like about this phone, there actually is, and it’s the price. I mean sure, a camera system this powerful has never been done before, and sure this phone is 5G in all flavors. Thing is, everything else this phone excels at, has actually already been done before with the ASUS ROG Phone 2. It may not be the best looking product to compare the Ultra to, but if you’re into the whole 120 Hz OLED, or an even larger 6000 mAh battery, you can get that on the ROG for almost $1000 less. Let that number sink in.. $1000 less.

To Conclude

To conclude, I have to admit that this is probably one of the most complex reviews I’ve ever done, but for all the wrong reasons. See, if you’re acquiring the most powerful beast of a phone that money can buy, it should logically also feel like if you’re getting the best product available in the market.

With the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, the best numbers are here, but I can’t say I feel that way about the implementation. And hey, if we’re fair, the hardest part about giving you an Ultra smartphone is achieving those numbers, so that part is done. If you were to buy this phone right now, you literally are buying the most powerful and complete flagship there will be, and what’s missing can all be fixed with software updates and tuning.  




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