Home Android Our Galaxy S20 Ultra review, one month later: Disappointment rising

Our Galaxy S20 Ultra review, one month later: Disappointment rising

Our Galaxy S20 Ultra review, one month later: Disappointment rising

Samsung’s 2020 Galaxy S family includes three devices again, but they’ve all moved a bit up-market from 2019. There’s no “e” variant this year, and the base model S20 starts at $1,000. Samsung understandably favors the top-of-the-line model, the $1,400 Galaxy S20 Ultra. This phone has all the bells and whistles including a Snapdragon 865, 5G (sub-6 and mmWave), and a revamped camera setup featuring a periscope zoom module. With all that hardware, the S20 Ultra has ballooned to 6.9-inches, and it weighs almost half a pound. By attempting to make no compromises, I worry Samsung has compromised the S20 Ultra itself.

Samsung is the uncontested king of the Android ecosystem—even releasing and then canceling the explosive Galaxy Note 7 barely slowed the company down. People care about the Samsung brand, so it can get away with charging a bit more for a phone. A whopping $1,400, though? While the S20 Ultra is a capable device, it won’t knock your socks off the way a $1,400 phone should. Even the new camera array feels like more of the same from Samsung.

Design, hardware, what’s in the box

The first thing that struck me when I started using the Galaxy S20 Ultra was how massive it is. The second thing that struck me was the phone… in the face when I fell asleep using it in bed that first night. Let me tell you, nothing drives home the ludicrous size of this device like dropping it on your face. It weighs 222g, which is almost half a pound. And like all recent Samsung phones, it’s made from slippery glass. Other OEMs have at least experimented with textured or matte glass that repels fingerprints and increases grip, but not Samsung. Using this phone without a case is just asking for trouble.

The camera module also protrudes from the body quite a lot. The phone sits noticeably inclined when you set it down without a case. I would surmise Samsung has given up worrying about camera bulk. Almost everyone will use a case that evens out the back, and again, you’d be crazy to walk around with this slippery $1,400 gizmo naked. Samsung did make one design change I’m happy to see: the buttons are back on the right side where they belong.

You might remember when 7-inch tablets were a thing, and now phones have almost caught up with the S20 Ultra’s 6.9-inch screen. Sure, the bezels on the S20 Ultra are slim, so it’s not as bulky as a Nexus 7. Still, this phone will stretch your pocket and your hands. That said, the display is gorgeous. Samsung has finally shrunken the bottom bezel to the point it’s almost imperceptibly larger than the top, and the hole punch for the front-facing camera is small enough that it doesn’t require an oversized status bar. The colors and brightness are class-leading, which is true of every new Samsung flagship.

The S20 introduces two very positive display changes this year. First, the curved edges of past Samsung phones are gone. That design looked neat at first, but it made the phones prone to accidental touches. The S20 Ultra has a tiny curve at the very edge—it’s more like a 2.5D glass cover than a curved display. The 1440 OLED panel also supports a 120Hz refresh rate, which looks incredible. Doubling the refresh rate makes the UI feel so fluid and responsive that it’s hard to go back to 60Hz.

Unfortunately, the enhanced display smoothness makes the fingerprint unlock feel that much more awkward. Samsung has once again used an ultrasonic sensor in the display. My experience with unlocking the phone has ranged from acceptable to infuriating. Most of the time the S20 Ultra will unlock on the first try, but it always seems to take a beat longer than I’d like. Other times, the phone steadfastly refuses to recognize my fingerprint for reasons unknown, and I have to readjust to scan at a different angle. The speed and accuracy might be nominally better than last year, but it’s still far worse than the capacitive sensor on the S10e.

Don’t expect a lot of extras in the box with this phone. You’ll get the 25W charger, a USB-C cable, USB-C earbuds, and the pre-installed screen protector. I don’t personally like the feel of Samsung’s included screen cover, so I took it off. If you’re worried about the glass, you should get a high-quality replacement.

Software, performance, and battery

The S20 Ultra runs Android 10 with Samsung’s One UI 2.0 skin, and there’s very little here we haven’t seen before. Samsung made a few tweaks like adding Duo to the dialer and integrating Spotify with Bixby Routines. Otherwise, this is the same software experience you’d get on a Galaxy S10 after the Android 10 update. It’s a fast phone, as fast as anything else with the possible exception of the Pixel. Samsung phones have always gotten a bit sluggish for me over time. I can’t say if that will happen this time, but we’ll see.

Samsung defaults to using standard navigation buttons on the S20, but you can switch to either Samsung’s gesture setup or the standard Google version. However, you can only use Google’s gesture nav with the stock One UI home screen—yes, that’s still a limitation after all these months. Samsung’s launcher isn’t awful, but it feels clunky. Simple actions like adding icons or managing folders take more effort than they do on other home screens, and Samsung still hasn’t figured out what to do with the left-most panel. Bixby Home is gone, replaced with a similar feature called Samsung Daily. Like Bixby Home, this is a scrolling list of recommended content and links, and none of it is very good. I would kill for Google Discover as an option.

The S20 Ultra includes all the usual One UI features like the Edge Panel, pop-up view, one-handed mode, and more. It also has the enhanced Link to Windows functionality that debuted on the Note 10+. Although, I don’t care for most of Samsung’s included apps, so they’re just taking up space. There are also numerous settings buried several menus deep that you’ll rarely if ever use, and everything on this phone seems to want to send you a notification.

One decidedly nice thing about the S20 Ultra is that it supports all the current 5G networks. You don’t have to do anything special, provided 5G is enabled on your SIM card. Simply swap your SIM in, and you’ll be able to connect to both sub-6 and millimeter wave 5G. Of course, finding 5G will prove more difficult. I used the S20 Ultra mostly on T-Mobile’s 5G, but I was able to play with Verizon’s millimeter wave, too. In both cases, my experience was identical to the last time I used those 5G networks. T-Mobile’s 5G works in more places, but its barely any faster than 4G—sometimes it’s actually slower. Verizon’s 5G is blazing fast but almost impossible to find even in areas that should have coverage.

One of the reasons this phone is so heavy is the giant 5,000mAh battery. Presumably, the discreet modem required for the Snapdragon 865 uses more power than the integrated LTE-only solutions we’ve had in recent years. The 120Hz screen is also a battery hog. I’ve tested the Galaxy S20 in both 120Hz and 60Hz modes. In my experience, 120Hz mode is good for about six hours of screen time in slightly over 24 hours. That’s not bad necessarily, but it’s disappointing for a 5,000mAh battery. In 60Hz mode, the S20 Ultra gets about 30% more battery life for me.

Cameras

The S20 Ultra’s camera array is the most substantial upgrade over the S20+, which has more in common with the base model S20. The photography experience really has to seal the deal for this $1,400 phone, but it doesn’t get there. I’ve gotten some outstanding photos from the S20 Ultra, but it’s still a Samsung camera with all the foibles we’ve come to expect. I don’t have a lower-tier S20 to compare, but I can say the results here aren’t much different than the Note 10+ despite all the fancy new hardware in that massive module.

Photos taken with the S20 Ultra’s primary shooter have a very “Samsung” quality with excessive edge sharpening and soft textures. This phone has 108MP to work with, but the images are often less detailed than a device like the Pixel 4 with its 12MP sensor. Samsung also ramps up the exposure time when light begins to diminish, which leads to long shutter lag. The ISO also goes higher than I’d expect for a device with a wide aperture and big sensor. I’ve noticed some strange focus issues with both the standard and zoom cameras, too. The S20 Ultra seems slow to find the correct focus, and even tiny moments cause the phone to “hunt” for focus all over again. This results in some ruined photos and videos. The ultra-wide camera has the same processing issues, but it’s less apparent in a wide field-of-view.

The S20 Ultra is the only S20 with true optical zoom in the form of a 4x periscope camera (the big square sensor at the bottom). This phone supports 100x zoom with a combination of optical and AI-powered digital magnification. These extreme zooms don’t look good, and the viewfinder shakes so much that you’ll drive yourself crazy if you don’t use a tripod. The result of Samsung’s processed zoom is virtually identical to a manually cropped image from the primary sensor. Samsung should have just focused on the 4-10x zoom photos, which are solid. See our comparison with the Pixel 4 for more on that.

Left to right: 1x, 4x, and 100x zoom

I don’t take a lot of selfies, but the S20 Ultra sports a 40MP front-facing camera. The cheaper S20 variants only have a 10MP front-facing camera. The S20 Ultra’s 40MP camera picks up a lot of detail, but maybe not as much as you’d expect. Samsung’s processing tends to soften faces slightly. It’s still plenty good for Instagram and video calls.

Samsung has also added support for 8k video recording, which you can see above (note the focus hunting at the beginning). When you avoid focus issues, the S20 Ultra takes great video. The 8K mode is a bit of a gimmick right now because you probably don’t have an 8K screen, but you can edit the video right on the phone. That’s impressive but not a make-or-break feature for most people. You might as well leave the phone in 4K mode, which supports 60fps mode. 8K is locked to 24fps.

Should you buy it?

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

6/10

Probably not. Samsung keeps pushing the price of its phones into the stratosphere, and the S20 Ultra reaches new heights at $1,400. That pile of cash does get you some awesome features like the best, smoothest OLED available right now and 5G support on all carriers. The phone’s build quality is also solid, but I do wish Samsung would try to innovate with materials a bit more.

Most of the things that make the S20 Ultra good are available on the cheaper versions. The camera is the main differentiator, and it doesn’t feel like it belongs on a $1,400 phone. Despite the 108MP primary sensor, most photos look the same as any other high-end Samsung phone from the last few years, and there are some aggravating focus issues. Samsung says it will roll out an update to improve the camera soon, but aren’t we always promised updates to improve the camera? To top it off, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is obscenely large, and I don’t like carrying a slab of slippery glass that barely fits in my pocket. With a case, this phone is over half a pound, making it uncomfortable to use for long stretches.

The S20 Ultra (right) compared to the S10+ (left)

The Galaxy S20 and S20+ have very similar specs, and they’re neither as expensive nor as oversized as the S20 Ultra. I don’t think the S20 Ultra is good enough to justify the upgrade.

Buy it if…

You want the most feature-packed phone possible and price is no object.

Don’t buy it if…

You’re wary of oversized phones and excessively high price tags.

Where to buy:

The S20 Ultra is available from all major carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon). Samsung and Best Buy have Amazon, and B&H if you fancy unlocked.