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Hands on: Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is an attempt to make a phone that doesn’t compromise

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £1199
  • 6.9-inch OLED 120Hz display
  • 12/16GB RAM
  • Exynos 990/Snapdragon 865
  • 5000mAh battery
  • 108-megapixel main camera
  • 40-megapixel selfie camera
  • Up to 512GB storage

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is an attempt to make a phone that doesn’t compromise. It goes all-out for spec domination, comes with a huge 6.9-inch display and 5G, too. It’s expensive, mind; right up there with the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

At a time when phone sales are declining, with fewer folk choosing to upgrade their devices as regularly, it might seem odd that instead of releasing a cheaper S20e model, Samsung is going all out with the S20 Ultra.

With a price ceiling of £1399, this isn’t a phone for everyone – although I think it might be Samsung’s most exciting phone in years.

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Specs and camera

Before delving deeper, let’s just have a quick look at the specs. The list comprises a 108-megapixel main rear camera, 100x zoom, 5000mAh battery, 40-megapixel selfie camera, up to 16GB of RAM, a 6.9-inch 120Hz display and 512GB storage….and breathe. No wonder the price is so high.

Of all these features, it’s the camera that really catches the eye. I’ve never really much been a fan of the cameras on Samsung devices; they always appear to come undone with slightly too much saturation and not enough dynamic range.

The S20 Ultra’s set up includes four rear cameras plus a 40-megapixel selfie shooter around the front. The main camera packs 108 megapixels and an f/1.8 OIS lens. Add to that a 12-megapixel ultra-wide and a 48-megapixel telephoto and you’ve got the most megapixels ever on a Samsung phone. The final asset is a Time-of-Flight sensor (Samsung calls it DepthVision) to aid with 3D blur effects.

This is merely a small part of a story, however. The idea here isn’t to shoot at 108 megapixels, or even 48 megapixels for that matter, but to use all the data collected to create, hopefully, far superior 12-megapixel snaps. For instance, the 108-megapixel camera will combine nine pixels into one much larger pixel, while the telephoto will do the same but with four pixels. This should, in theory, let far more light into the sensor and produce a brighter, more crisp photo. This tech isn’t new – in fact, Xiaomi launched a device last year featuring a 108-megapixel sensor and we weren’t overly impressed by it. Let’s hope Samsung’s interpretation is much better.

Having all that data at its disposal also allows Samsung to add in some new zooming features, or “Space Zoom”. There’s a Hybrid Optic Zoom up to 10x and Super Resolution Zoom up to 100x.

Judging photo quality in an oddly lit demo room is hardly ideal, so I’ll save my real thoughts on the camera for our full review. However, what was immediately obvious was that the sheer amount going on in the camera app almost made it overwhelming. Not every feature works in every mode and there was a lot of jumping around. There was also some lag evident when shooting in full 108-megapixel mode– although this may just be down to the unfinished software. What is certain is the camera proposition here is exciting; how it fares in actual use remains to be seen.

The Ultra can shoot video at 8K 30fps and 4K 120fps (among other options) and there are new “Pro” video options for low-light hyper-lapses. 8K video recording feels like a feature added because it’s supported by the chipset, rather than because it’s a much-requested addition – I can’t see many using it, but it’s nice to have.

One obvious side-effect of such a stacked camera system is the gigantic housing on the phone’s rear. If you found the iPhone 11 Pro’s camera bump egregious, then you’re unlikely to be a fan of what you see here. I don’t mind it too much – pop a case over and it will likely be flush. However, I do find the pointless “100x zoom” labelling ugly – and not something I’d expect from Samsung.

Screen

There are a lot of big specs associated with the display. At 6.9 inches, this is a huge phone; however, thanks to a fairly slim bezel around the ever-so-slightly curved screen, it doesn’t feel too much bigger than, say, an iPhone 11 Pro Max. Like all the displays on Samsung’s flagship devices, the one here is truly stunning. It’s an OLED panel offering up perfect blacks and vibrant colours, and it supports HDR10+ for improved brightness when watching certain videos. Also included is an ultrasonic fingerprint sensor beneath the screen for unlocking the phone.

For the first time, Samsung ups the refresh rates of its phones: the screen here refreshes 120 times a second as opposed to 60. This brings much smoothness to everything from scrolling through your homescreen to playing supported games. Interestingly, Samsung is allowing 120Hz only when the display resolution is set to FHD+; jack it up to its full QHD+ capabilities and you’ll revert to 60Hz. This is a shame, since it feels like you’re not getting the full quality of the display all the time. Battery life appears to be the main reason for this decision; it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that running a QHD+ display at 120Hz constantly is unlikely to be kind to battery life.

Battery life

The battery inside the S20 Ultra is a 5000mAh unit, and it supports fast charging up to 45W and wireless charging, too. That cell sounds big, but there’s a lot going on here and it will be interesting to see whether this device can last as long as the excellent iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Inside the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra sits the high-end silicone you’d expect: Snapdragon 865 (USA) or Exynos 990 (Europe), RAM options at either 12 or 16GB, and storage options up to 512GB with added expandability. This is a completely 5G phone with no 4G option available.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – Early Verdict

There’s no doubting the S20 Ultra is the most exciting of the handsets Samsung has just announced. However, its high price and large footprint mean it won’t be for everyone. Still, if you’re after the best specs, every feature going and all those megapixels to boot, then there’s unlikely to be a better phone for you.

We continually check thousands of prices to show you the best deals. If you buy a product through our site we will earn a small commission from the retailer – a sort of automated referral fee – but our reviewers are always kept separate from this process. You can read more about how we make money in our Ethics Policy.

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