Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G Review

Does 108MP result in an Ultra camera?

by David Phelan
Tech Review

68

Recommended
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G Review
SRP: £1,199.00

What is the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G?

Each Spring, Samsung reveals its latest Galaxy S phone. For the first time ever, it has changed the number of the release by not one but ten. So last year’s Galaxy S10 is followed by the new S20. You didn’t miss a decade, but Samsung is suggesting a huge step forward.

It’s a trick Huawei employed a couple of years ago, when the P10 was replaced by the P20 (and is about to reach P40 in the coming weeks, just two years later). There are several phones in the range, from the Galaxy S20, via the Galaxy S20+ to the top-flight S20 Ultra 5G, which is what we’re concerned with here. There is also a 4G version of the S20 Ultra, but this is the version with all the bells and whistles.

Although there are elements common to all the phones, such as the industrial design, the Ultra stands out because of its size, remarkable cameras and long battery life.

Design

It’s pretty big: the display measures 6.9 inches. I know, that’s a seven-inch phone we’re talking about. It feels big in the hand, though the curved edges front and back help to make it more comfortable to hold. Comparing it to the largest iPhone, the iPhone 11 Pro Max, it’s a little taller and not as wide. It’s also fractionally thicker, apart from one corner.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (5G)
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G - isometric view

That’s the top-left corner as you look at the phone from behind, which houses the frankly enormous camera unit. The camera bump itself takes up a lot of space (four lenses and a flash, plus some big-font lettering that reads Space Zoom 100X). But it’s the height of the bump that really surprises you. When Apple launched its latest phones, some thought the bump would be enormous but Apple cleverly used a much less-raised bump with lenses protruding above, effectively shrinking the perceived size.

 

It’s the only misstep design-wise in a great-looking phone – assuming you believe that big is beautiful.

This, though, is enormous. It has one specific effect: if you’re typing a text in landscape orientation, you probably can’t put it on the table as it rattles and wobbles around as you touch it. It also means that when it’s lying on a flat surface and is in vibrate-only mode, then it makes a small racket when a call comes in, for instance.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (5G)
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G - camera block

It’s the only misstep design-wise in a great-looking phone – assuming you believe that big is beautiful. The S20 Ultra is an opulent device with a glossy finish and a solid, reassuring feel to it. The design choices tend to the safe rather than the funky, but the result is handsome and businesslike, especially with the demure shades Samsung has plumped for: Cosmic Black and Cosmic Grey.

The phone also boasts strong water-resistance, IP68, so it can rest in water 1.5 metres deep for 30 minutes without damage. There’s also a big battery on board, delivering full-day life even with the faster refresh rate active.

Of course, this phone is wireless-chargeable and, like the S10, all of ten numbers but just one year ago, this new flagship has Wireless Powershare. That means you can hold another wireless-chargeable phone against the S20 Ultra and it will recharge the other phone. This is platform-agnostic so it can recharge an iPhone 11 as readily as another Samsung. Just how often you’re going to want to share your phone’s battery with someone else is anybody’s guess.

But if you have AirPods Pro or Samsung Galaxy Buds+ in-ear headphones, well, you can charge those, too, which is a more likely real-world use for Wireless Powershare, perhaps.

Display

Samsung has opted for a 120Hz display, designed so that everything looks smooth, even down to elements you barely notice normally, like scrolling fast through menu lists with not a trace of judder. The display looks sensational, though if you choose to set it to its full 120Hz refresh rate, it has an effect on the battery, be warned.

 

This is easily Samsung’s best screen yet.

On the other hand, why choose a phone with an advanced display like this and not use it? It’s very sharp, with a 511 pixels per inch resolution and Samsung’s routine excellence with OLED screens ensures that this is a detailed, contrasty, colourful screen. It’s compatible with HDR10+, and though this is not a 4K display – only a couple of phones have such high-resolution screens, like the Sony Xperia 1 – it looks tremendous.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (5G)
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G - front view

Watching video defaults to leave the top part of the display dark because that’s where that small-but-visible camera sits. However, you can pinch to zoom the playback area to full screen, and to be honest, that little black circle isn’t that intrusive

The 120Hz resolution is only available if you set the screen to Full HD+ resolution, 2400 x 1080, which rather less than the 3200 x 1440 QHD resolution that is the full resolution of this display. But if you choose that, the display reverts to 60Hz.

This is an all-screen phone. The bottom bezel is always the one to look out for, it’s always bigger than the one at the top and can unbalance the look. Here, top and side bezels are impressively thin, uniformly so, and the dreaded chin is only very slightly wider. This is easily Samsung’s best screen yet.

The other noticeable thing about the display is the tiny camera aperture that peeps out near the top. This is now centrally placed, not off to the side as on previous models, and it really is barely noticeable, or at least, you soon get used to it being there. It’s a smaller hole than on previous Samsung phones, for a start, and there’s only one of them unlike some earlier Galaxy handsets which had two cameras looking out of the screen at you.

 

The display looks sensational, though if you choose to set it to its full 120Hz refresh rate, it has an effect on the battery, be warned.

There’s a nice detail here: when you use the front camera to unlock the phone using your face, you know it’s doing so because a tiny white line circles the lens.

Facial unlock is fast, by the way, and if you don’t like it there’s also the option of a fingerprint unlock instead. Like the Samsung Galaxy S10, this uses an in-screen sensor. This fingerprint sensor is invisibly buried in the display. It’s also pretty nippy, and unlocks the phone with a pleasing ripple animation under your thumb. 

Camera

The biggest innovation in this large handset is the camera system, all those lenses clustered on the large, lumpy oblong on the back, plus the selfie camera mounted in the display.

There’s a Time-of-Flight camera which grabs depth information quickly, making it useful for immaculate portrait effects, judging effectively what is subject and what background, and separating the two accordingly.

There’s an ultra-wide camera with 12MP resolution which is the equivalent of 0.5x the optical zoom of the main sensor. The third camera is a periscope, that is, the light is reflected along the inside of the camera, allowing a greater optical zoom equivalent than would be possible, even in a phone as thick as this. It’s a 48MP sensor with the equivalent of 4x the zoom of the main sensor.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (5G)
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G - Rear camera

But it’s that main sensor which is the main event.

All of this year’s Galaxy phones boast a significant step forward photographically, but the Ultra lives up to its name with a remarkable 108MP sensor. That’s not a typo. You’ll know that sensors can only be a certain size on a device as slim as a phone: too big a sensor and the light won’t cover it all unless the lenses were a lot further away.

So, those 108 million pixels must be really tiny, right? Well, yes, just 0.8 microns, even though the sensor itself is one of the biggest in a smartphone: 1/1.33in. But Samsung’s trick is nona-binning. Which means that nine of those tiny microsites cluster together to behave as one, reducing the resolution to 12MP, but with much bigger effective pixels, the equivalent of 2.4 microns each, Samsung says.

 

This is a great cameraphone and one of the best around, even if it’s not the ground-breaking photographic revolution the specs might suggest.

This is certainly a very good camera, but if you were expecting something that knocked blew other cameraphones out of the water, well, it might not quite be that. Shooting at 108MP resolution was certainly good for cropping in to shots to get just the right result. But for much of the time, the results weren’t much better than other cameraphones.

Comparing images to, say, the iPhone 11 Pro Max, and there was nothing in it. In fact, although the Apple phone has a 12MP sensor, it has the sublimely good taste of Apple’s photo engineers. Sure, Apple’s pics have a lot of image processing but it’s so well done that the end results look great.

That’s not to say this is disappointing, though the 108MP could lead you to believe this is completely a new level of photographic excellence.

At the base of image on the camera app are three icons, each with a number of trees. Three trees indicates a panorama, and switches to the ultra-wide camera, showing 0.5x as the default zoom level. The twin trees in the middle use the main sensor (1x) and the single tree on the right flips you to the telephoto lens, marked as 5x zoom here, and which obviously uses a bit of digital zoom combined with the telephoto default level of 4x the main lens. From here you can zoom in and in, finally resulting in the 100x zoom promised on the back of the phone.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (5G)
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G - rear view

These 100x images are almost useless, though they’re certainly a novelty. At this level, the images are grainy and blocky. Sure, you can see right into a window on a house scores of feet away better than you can with the naked eye, but the images, as your neighbour may be glad to learn, don’t show very much.

On the other hand, Samsung has a clever system for taking these super-zoom shots. As you zoom in, a panel opens in the corner of the display showing what you’re looking at from a different level of zoom (around 4x zoom) so you can work out exactly what those blocky bits are.

Night mode, an increasingly sophisticated feature on smartphones, which shot to maturity with the iPhone 11 last September, is very good on this phone and invoked automatically. It works well in photos and even better in videos. 

Speaking of video, this phone can shoot in 8K resolution at 24 frames per second. Well, we’ve got used to shooting at 4K at full 60fps, so a move to 8K isn’t unexpected. As with 4K shooting, it’s something you can’t actually see on your smartphone as – apart from the Sony Xperia 1 – there aren’t any mainstream phones with 4K displays.

If you have an 8K TV, then you can play back your high-resolution video there. At 24fps, it isn’t perfect video, but it’s a welcome first step and will doubtless presage other phone manufacturers following suit. How soon before shooting 8K at 60fps is commonplace?

There is a cool feature called One Take. Use this and as well as taking still photos from different lenses, it will shoot short video clips and create images using filters. It means you end up with a little gallery of stuff by holding the camera aloft for a little longer (10 seconds for the full range of pictures). I found there were often surprise images I was glad the phone’s AI had opted for, though the filter images were almost always black-and-white versions of other shots.

The front-facing camera, a 40MP sensor, is excellent. It automatically takes 10MP photos by default but uses smarts to automatically recognise multiple subjects and adjust accordingly, for instance.  

This is a great cameraphone and one of the best around, even if it’s not the ground-breaking photographic revolution the specs might suggest.

Performance

Performance, as you’d hope, is mighty fast with no dawdling for, well, anything. It comes in 4G and 5G variants so you can opt for more future-proofing with 5G.

The phone includes capabilities for the fastest mmWave speeds which are very fast indeed but only work over short distances. Such frequencies are not widely available yet, certainly not in the UK, so the phone also has sub-6 frequencies which though not as fast are more commonplace and work over longer distances.

 

Performance, as you’d hope, is mighty fast with no dawdling for, well, anything.

In practice, the phone is fast and responsive, and if you’re able to get super-fast connections, the phone will rise to the occasion.

Battery

The battery life is certainly enough for a good day and more. It’s perhaps not quite as long-lasting as something like the iPhone 11 Pro Max, simply because of the refresh rate of the super-large display. But there’s little battery anxiety, and the usual advice to charge each night still applies.

Verdict

The Good

  • Remarkable camera
  • Great screen
  • Strong performance

The Bad

  • Too big for some
  • Camera may be overkill

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G Review

This is a dazzling phone. It’s big and powerful, with some of the most advanced components yet seen on a smartphone. For many people it will be overkill. There are other phones which are more affordable (this one starts at £1,200 for a model with 128GB storage) and almost as advanced.

Its size will put some people off, but the gorgeous, huge display is an enticing and attractive part of the phone’s appeal.

Recommended

Scores

Design

.
.
8

Usability

.
.
8

Display

.
9

Call and Signal Quality

.
9

Operating System

.
.
8

Email, Browsing, Calandar, Contacts

.
.
8

Media support

.
9

Camera

.
9

App support and functionality

.
9

Build Quality

.
9

Value for Money

.
.
.
7

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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