Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra is the largest, and most capable, of Samsung’s Galaxy S20 line and perhaps the most capable phone overall on the market. It offers the latest processor, longest zoom camera, and a host of other features designed to make it a step above last year’s Galaxy S10 family and the other Android phones on the market. Living with it over the past few months, I’ve found that the phone probably does the most of any phone I’ve tried, though there are still a couple of ways in which it doesn’t quite live up to its promises.
The S20 Ultra has a 6.9-inch display, and while the front is nearly all screen with tiny bezels, it still makes for a large phone. It measures 6.5 by 2.99 by 0.35 inches and weighs 7.76 ounces, making it over half an inch longer and a quarter-inch wider than the standard S20 with its 6.2-inch display. It’s notably bigger than last year’s Galaxy S10+ and even bigger than the Galaxy Note 10+ (which measures 6.38 by 3.03 by 0.31 inches and weighs 6.91 ounces.) For comparison, the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max measures 6.20 by 3.06 by 0.30 inches and weighs 7.97 ounces, so while the S20 Ultra is notably longer, it’s also lighter. I could fit it in my pocket, but it’s tight, and not helped by the rather large “camera bump.”
Of course, it has a gorgeous display, but these days that’s just expected on flagship phones. It defaults to Samsung’s Vivid color mode, which certainly makes colors pop, though you can choose a Natural setting instead, or adjust the color balance the way you want it. I’m pretty happy with the Vivid option. Following in the current style Samsung has adopted, there’s a small hole near the top of the display for the front-facing camera. I’ve gotten pretty used to that.
The S20 Ultra is capable of displaying 3,200-by-1,400 pixels (WQHD+), though it defaults to 2,400-by-1,080 (FHD+) because it uses less battery and makes the phone feel faster, because in the higher-resolution mode it’s pushing around more pixels. In practice, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. Another option lets you boost the refresh rate to 120Hz (compared with the standard 60Hz), and that does make more of a difference.
Animations and scrolling are noticeably smoother at the higher refresh rate, though there seems to be a bit larger hit to battery life. It looks great when scrolling long web pages (pages that keep adding things to the bottom of the screen are becoming more of the norm these days). And I can absolutely see gamers using that mode (along with a 240Hz touch screen), though I don’t usually play many games on my phone.
Performance and Design
The phone I used had the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, which has four ARM Cortex-A77 cores with the highest clocked to 2.84GHz and four 1.8GHz Cortex-A55 cores, along with Adreno 650 graphics. (In some parts of the world, Samsung uses its own Exynos 990 processor instead, but North American models all use the Qualcomm one.)
The model I used had 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, though Samsung has a model with 16GB and 512GB if you need even more of each. (And you can still add storage through a microSD card slot that is part of the SIM slot, a nice feature). One new feature is LPDDR5 memory, which Samsung says offers 30 percent faster data access speeds while using up to 20 percent less power.
Add storage through a microSD card slot.
In any case, it certainly felt fast. With all that memory, I found I could switch applications or browser tabs with almost no lag. If you want, you can “pin” three applications (five with the 16GB version) in memory, so they are always open, which eliminates the loading time. It did feel slightly faster than the Note 10, but then again, most phones today feel quite fast.
On the design side, the phone has only two buttons—a power button and a volume rocker, both on the left bezel. Because it no longer has a dedicated “Bixby” button, I no longer found myself accidentally calling up Samsung’s assistant (which actually has improved over the years, but still isn’t as good as Google’s at answering questions.) You still can say “Hey Bixby” if you want it, or “Hey Google” for the Google Assistant.
Samsung got rid of the headphone jack.
The fingerprint reader remains located under the screen, and I find this year’s version to be a bit more accurate than last year’s model. Of course, you can also continue to use a passcode, or face unlock (although Samsung’s version isn’t as secure as you would like).
One big change this year is that, following the lead of so many phones, Samsung got rid of the headphone jack. It comes with USB-C earbuds that aren’t bad, or you can use Bluetooth headset. While I typically use Bluetooth, I miss the easy connectivity of the traditional jack.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about the S20 Ultra though is the camera system. All of the S20 phones have new cameras, and the S20 Ultra has the most extreme of the lot, with four rear-facing cameras, and a claim that it can display up to 100x resolution. That’s a bit misleading, though overall I did get some very good-looking pictures from the phone.
The most interesting camera is the “telephoto” one, which uses a 48-megapixel, f/3.5 sensor with a 24-degree field of view. What makes this stand out is that it uses a prismatic lens system that sends the light sideways through the phone to allow for 4x zoom using the full sensor and a cropped view that provides a 10x lossless zoom. Because the company also offers an extra 10x of digital zoom, Samsung says this results in a “Space Zoom” of up to 100x.
The main (wide-angle) camera is a 108-megapixel, f/1.8 sensor that normally combines nine pixels into one shot to give you a 12-megapixel image. This offers a 79-degree field of view, and uses a 1/1.33-inch sensor, notably bigger than the sensor used in the S10 (even the S20 and S20+ have 1/1.76 sensors), so it works better in low light.
The S20 has a 40MP front-facing camera with a ‘hole-punch’ design.
The phone also has an “ultra-wide” 12-megapixel, f/2.2 camera with a 120-degree field of view, which I find very useful. (Samsung wasn’t the first with ultra-wide cameras, but it added this for the S10, and I still like it a lot.) Finally, it has a rear-facing depth-sensing camera.
On the other side, it has a 40-megapixel, f/2.2 front-facing camera with an 80-degree field of view that works through a “hole-punch” design with the camera in the center top of the “Infinity-O” display. Typically, this will bin four pixels together to give you a 10-megapixel image.
In practice, I thought the photos I took with the S20 Ultra looked quite good, but the 100x claim comes across as fiction. No real photo I’ve taken that attempts that degree of zoom looks very good—I see definite fuzziness and artifacts from the phone trying to sharpen the photos. But, photos with a 10x zoom looked quite good, and even those with up 20 or 30x didn’t look bad, if you can hold the phone steady enough. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s still better zoom than the other flagship phones I’ve tried so far.
Here are some shots showing off the zoom, ranging from the ultra-wide angle shot to 1x, 10x, 30x, and 100x space zoom. As you can tell the last couple of shots aren’t great, but it still lets you capture a great variety of pictures.
S20 Ultra with ultra-wide shot
S20 Ultra 1x zoom
S20 Ultra 5x zoom
S20 Ultra 10x zoom
S20 Ultra 50x zoom
S20 Ultra 100x zoom
The biggest downside of the S20 Ultra camera system compared with the S10 is that autofocus is not as fast. A software update improved this a bit, but it’s still not as fast. It’s not bad, but it’s not the best I’ve seen.
I found the night mode was notably better than the S10, but still not up to the quality I’ve seen on the high-end phones from Apple and Google.
A night shot of Grand Central, taken before the pandemic.
A photo of the night sky using night mode.
Perhaps my favorite change to the camera is that Samsung redesigned and simplified the camera interface, and added a new mode called “Single Take.” When you start the app, the main screen gives you four choices: single take, photo, video, and more.
S20 Single Take
The photo and video modes are the standard modes you would expect for most people, while Single Take mode will capture a series of images and short video clips up to 10 seconds using multiple cameras, and then uses what Samsung describes as AI to pick the best shots. This typically includes a short video, and ultra-wide, live focus, and often black-and-white photos.
This is important because it saves you the time of choosing the right mode. You can then easily save or share just the actual images you want to from the multiple shots captured. It’s an improvement in that it lets you capture image more quickly. (Note, though, that you give up a lot of control. You can’t do things like zoom in with this mode. But it should be great for capturing something quickly for Instagram or TikTok.
Under the More option in the camera app, you will find all sorts of other shooting modes, including panorama, the night mode, hyperlapse, live focus, super slow motion, live focus video, and of course a professional mode, which gives you more control. Samsung continues to offer a great deal of choices. For instance, I find the slow-motion modes work quite well. Live Focus is Samsung’s answer to Portrait mode, and lets you control the amount of bokeh in the background. It works pretty well, and now that includes working in video.
Speaking of video, the big new feature is the ability to capture video at 8K, 24 frames per second, and share this resolution video via YouTube or by casting to an 8K TV. Capturing images at 8K worked well, and is pretty simple to do, but I didn’t have an 8K TV, so was limited to watching at 4K resolution. While I can see where professional videographers or marketers would like to capture video in 8K, because it gives you more information when you cut or crop the images, most people will be better off taking 4K or even 1080p video. These take up a lot less storage, and on screen, it’s hard to see the difference.
The phones default to 1080p, and I find the videos it takes look quite good. You can also switch the aspect ratio, from the default 9:16 to full screen (9:20) to a square video. And there are improvement to the “super steady” feature for smoothing video shake, and a night hyperlapse feature.
The Gallery app lets you look at your photos and videos, and more importantly, edit them. The photo editor has the basic cropping and filtering you would expect, as well as an ability to add stickers. The video editor lets you trim the videos, add titles, and apply filters (although if you have 8K video, this will convert them to 4K).
One unusual feature is the ability to pull out a single frame from an 8K video and save it as a 33-megapixel (7,680 by 4,320) still image. This may well be the best reason to use 8K video today, and it’s great to be able to do all of this editing on device.
5G (For What It’s Worth)
The S20 family includes a 5G radio, so 5G has become just a part of the flagship phones, rather than being relegated to a niche market. The S20 Ultra supports both sub-6GHz and mmWave bands (which offer substantially faster communications, but much shorter range).
I used a model on T-Mobile, which doesn’t have a lot of mmWave service. Because of the lockdown, I’ve only been able to test it in the suburbs, where I do find a lot of 5G, presumably low-band, but speed is unremarkable. (I’ve seen 5G connections with upload speeds between 30 and 88Mbps; a Verizon-based Note 10 was usually about the same speed in the same locations while only running LTE.) Interestingly, I’ve gotten much faster speeds on “LTE+,” up to 194Mbps.
The promise of 5G is not only faster speed, but more stable, more reliable coverage; and lower latency. It should be better for video conferencing, and there’s a new version of Google Duo included, but the 5G coverage isn’t enough for me to test that yet.
The S20 also has a number of specific business features, including Samsung Knox for better security, and a new function that lets users access FTP servers with their FTP credentials or network drives in the office and see the results in the My Files app. My guess is this will be mostly used in situations where an enterprise owns the device.
It continues to offer the unique Dex functionality, where you plug in a monitor, keyboard, and mouse (typically through a dongle with an HDMI connection and USB port) and use your S20 more as you would a traditional PC.
Dex now has a new split-screen mode, so you can see two applications side by side, which I thought was quite interesting. It’s still not Windows or macOS, but it’s useful, particularly when using the Microsoft Office applications (which come on the device). And there are updated credential management and embedded Secure Element (eSE) functions.
Overall, in most respects, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is the highest-end, most capable phone I’ve tested, with a price tag to match, listing at $1,399. The camera system has some weaknesses—other phones have faster focusing or better low light performance—but also some features that are unusual and quite useful. The 100x zoom claim is a little misleading, but the real 10x zoom is the best zoom I’ve yet seen on a phone. 5G for now remains more of a nice to have than a requirement, but it’s nice to have a bit of future-proofing. And the business-specific features, such as DeX, set it apart. The only big feature it lacks is stylus support, which Samsung keeps for its Note phones. Others may find it a bit too big, but I like large phones (although this is about as big as I can handle).
I am not sure most people really need to spend this much on a phone, but the S20 Ultra is the phone to consider if you want the most of everything. For more, check out PCMag’s full review and the video below.