Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra is as exciting as it is outrageously expensive
- Silky-smooth 120Hz screen
- 100x ‘Space Zoom’ is impressive
- The first phone with 8K video recording
- Samsung’s priciest (non-folding) phone yet
- Pre-release camera quibbles
- Brutish design
My summary says it all, really, but there’s no getting around it: the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, despite only launching at the beginning of 2020, is already this year’s best flagship Android phone. However, no matter how exciting it may be – it has the most zoomable camera we’ve ever seen and a 120Hz screen – it actually costs more than the ludicrously expensive iPhone 11 Pro Max.
That’s certainly not ideal if (like me) you’re still paying off your credit card debt in the Christmas shopping aftermath, but if you do somehow manage to cough up the funds, I can’t see there being many better Android alternatives as we begin to settle in to the new decade.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: What you need to know
Galaxy Fold and Z Flip notwithstanding, the S20 Ultra is Samsung’s most expensive smartphone to date. It’s not like we weren’t warned beforehand – the leaks made sure of that – but now that Samsung’s premium-tier flagship has been let loose, it’s safe to say that the rumours failed to soften the blow.
Naturally, the Galaxy S20 Ultra represents the next era of flagship Samsung smartphones. It’s the first with a 120Hz screen (rather than the usual 60Hz); the one with a 108MP camera; supports 8K video recording and has up to 100x zoom – which is the furthest we’ve seen on a smartphone camera.
Along with the rest of the S20 lineup, the S20 Ultra is also the first Galaxy phone to be powered by Samsung’s latest flagship Exynos 990 mobile chipset, or the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 equivalent if you happen to live outside the UK. It also comes with support for the 5G network as standard.
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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: Price and competition
If I haven’t already hammered the point home by now, Samsung’s most feature-rich smartphone to date is also its most expensive. The ‘basic’ model with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of expandable storage costs £1,199 SIM-free, with contract prices starting at roughly £75 a month.
If you really want to pull out all the stops and instead opt for the top-end model, which includes an arguably unnecessary 16GB of RAM and double the storage, then be prepared to pay £1,399 for one. As far as I’m aware, this particular model is only available SIM-free, and is currently out of stock at the time of writing.
Huawei also has its hat in the plus-sized flagship ring, although its offerings are far less tempting as of late. The Huawei Mate 30 Pro – which only recently launched in the UK at a reduced price of £900 – doesn’t come with fully-supported Android and lacks Google’s first-party apps such as YouTube and Maps. Huawei’s newest smartphone, the upcoming P40 Pro, is expected to follow a similar path.
If any of these prices are too much of a strain on your wallet, then there are two other Samsung flagships to consider this year. There’s also the regular Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus, which differ in size and lack some of the fancy features such as the 108MP camera and 100x zoom, but cost a little less. The Galaxy S20 Plus is £1,000 SIM-free, or £59/mth, and the S20 is £800 SIM-free, or £35/mth.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: Design
Of course, it isn’t entirely about how much the S20 Ultra costs, and besides, if you’re craving the very pinnacle of smartphone achievement, such a device is never going to come cheap in the first place.
Naturally, the S20 Ultra looks and feels just like a four-figured smartphone. The side bezels are slightly slimmer than before, the pinhole notch that houses the 40MP selfie camera is slightly smaller – shifting to the top centre of the screen – and the display is absolutely massive this year, measuring 6.9in across the diagonal.
Elsewhere, you might have noticed some design changes on the back of the phone. Rather than neatly arranging the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s plethora of cameras in a tidy horizontal line like last year’s phone, this time around we have a rather chunky rectangular camera arrangement in the top left corner.
Unfortunately, as there are so many cameras, this section does take up the majority of the space on the back of the phone, and also protrudes quite a bit, so the Galaxy S20 Ultra does wobble about when it’s placed on a flat surface. The many, many cameras, along with the larger capacity battery and bigger screen, also contribute to the overall weight of the device, which tips the scales at a wrist aching 222g.
Colour-wise, the Galaxy S20 Ultra looks rather drab compared to its vibrant siblings, and can only be picked up in either ‘Cosmic Grey’ or ‘Cosmic Black’ in the UK. A smart move on Samsung’s part, however, is the removal of the dedicated Bixby button on the left edge. I certainly never pressed it intentionally in the past, although the phone’s Bixby functionality is now activated with a long press of the power button instead. Irritatingly, if you did want to turn the phone off, you now have to hold the power button and volume down at the same time.
If you were hoping for the 3.5mm headphone jack to miraculously make a comeback, then I’m afraid I have some bad news. It’s about time to invest in a decent pair of Bluetooth headphones – I recommend the Galaxy Buds+ – or give in and listen using your trusty wired headphones through a USB Type-C to 3.5mm audio adapter.
Speaking of which, the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s USB Type-C connector supports charging speeds up to a rapid 45W, although disappointingly Samsung only supplies a standard 25W charger in the box. Finally, the top-mounted SIM slot can house two SIM cards, or just one and a microSD card up to 1TB.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: 120Hz display
Okay, it’s time we discuss the first of Samsung’s new additions in more detail. Samsung has finally included a 120Hz screen in one of its handsets, doubling the usual 60Hz rate, which raises the prospect of ultra-smooth gaming and silky-smooth scrolling. So far, high-refresh-rate screens have been limited to mostly gaming-centric devices, such as the Asus ROG Phone and Razer Phone, so it’s nice to see such screens begin to make an appearance on more mainstream handsets. Though this does affect battery life somewhat, which I will discuss later on in this review.
Still, the benefits are instantly noticeable as soon as you unlock the phone. Navigating the UI and the phone’s settings menu is instantaneously fluid and responsive – which is almost certainly aided by the healthy amount of RAM and beefy new processor. It isn’t just native apps that feel the benefit either, as many third-party applications such as Chrome, Twitter and Facebook also support the enhanced refresh rate.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all apps on the Play Store support the 120Hz screen, and few of the games we tested actually support frame rates above 60fps anyway. There’s also another caveat, in that the phone’s native WQHD+ resolution doesn’t support 120Hz, so you have to dip the refresh rate down to a bog-standard 60Hz if you want the higher resolution. For me, it’s an easy choice: smoother is nicer than sharper on a screen this size.
As for the quality of the screen, this is one of Samsung’s Dynamic AMOLED panels – first seen in last year’s Galaxy S10 – with a native screen resolution of 3,200 x 1,440 and a sharp pixel density of 511ppi. As usual with Samsung phones, there are two screen modes to choose from, although I found the ‘Natural’ setting was the most colour accurate during my testing, with a 98% sRGB gamut coverage, a total volume of 104% and an average Delta E of 2.35.
According to our display colourimeter, the S20 Ultra’s screen is pretty much faultless, aside from a slight discrepancy with oversaturated dark red tones. Contrast – as you’d expect from one of Samsung’s AMOLED screens – is a perfect infinity:1, and the screen is capable of getting plenty bright, peaking at 667cd/m2 with a torch shining directly on the ambient light sensor.
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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: Performance and battery life
As I mentioned earlier, all three Galaxy S20 phones are the first to be powered by Samsung’s newest top-end mobile chipset, the Exynos 990. This processor is built using a 7nm fabrication process and uses a complicated heterogeneous architecture, in which four energy-efficient Cortex A55 cores – clocked at 2GHz – take care of everyday business, while a further two 2.5GHz Cortex-A76 cores and two 2.73GHz custom Mongoose M5 cores do the heavy lifting.
I told you it was complicated. What this means is that Samsung is able to deliver higher levels of sustained performance, which roughly translates to superior processing speeds in our testing. As you can see, in the Geekbench 4 CPU benchmark, the Galaxy S20 Ultra provided a 21% increase in multi-core performance when directly compared with last year’s Samsung flagships: the Galaxy S10 Plus and Note 10 Plus, which both used the Exynos 9820.
In fact, there’s currently no Android phone on the market that’s any faster than this. I say Android because Apple’s A13 Bionic – which powered the iPhone 11 lineup – still has everything beat. Not that you should worry though, as the S20 Ultra is powerful enough to handle absolutely anything you care to throw at it, and then some.
Likewise, the new Mali-G77 GPU proved more than capable of running a selection of the best-looking games on the Google Play Store. You won’t encounter any problems when engaging in frantic firefights in Call of Duty Mobile, or tending to your farm in Stardew Valley, that’s for sure. The results below are at native resolution (WQHD+) with 120fps switched off, in order to keep things consistent:
As for the S20 Ultra’s battery life, the good news continues. It lasted a total of 22hrs 12mins in our looped playback test, which switches off all data connections and plays a handful of scenes from Spider-Man 2 at a standard screen brightness of 170cd/m2. Switching on 5G will have a major impact when it comes to stamina, and in my real-world testing I found that the 120Hz refresh setting drained the battery quite considerably, although I still managed to get more than a full day’s worth of heavy use on a single charge.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: Software
Equally impressive as the phone’s performance and battery life is the simplicity and general responsiveness when it comes to the software. The S20 Ultra is running Android 10 with Samsung’s own One UI 2 launcher overlayed on the top. We first saw One UI make an appearance on last year’s Samsung flagships – which replaced the heavy-handed TouchWiz launcher of previous phones – but this new version brings a handful of subtle interface changes which improve the experience to different degrees.
Among other things, One UI has been updated to help boost notification readability on the phone’s lock screen, adjusting the text colour in relation to whichever background wallpaper you have selected. The layout of the notification drawer has also shifted around a bit, with the date/time icons taking up less space in the top-left corner.
Of course, it’s still very much the same sort of experience as last year, and a couple of my previous criticisms have carried over to the S20 Ultra. I’m not a fan of how chunky the app icons are by default – the size can be adjusted in the phone’s settings – and Samsung still insists on pre-installing the phone with its own apps, which can’t be removed. It also took a long time for some security updates to reach last year’s Samsung phones, which is worth bearing in mind this year.
However, I still think One UI is a wonderfully elegant experience and while I’d still rather have stock Android – or Google’s own Pixel launcher – One UI 2 is simply a pleasure to use and is so far removed from TouchWiz that it feels like I’ve stepped forward in time ten years.
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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: 108MP camera, Space Zoom and 8K video
It might be a bit of an ugly duckling, but the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s new camera specifications are second to none spearheaded by a 108-megapixel (f/1.8) camera – the only member of the S20 family to have this. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen one of Samsung’s own Isocell Plus sensors on a smartphone – the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 pipped Samsung to the post last year – but until recently you’d need to spend at least £10k on a camera with a 100MP sensor. As far as I’m aware, the cheapest 100MP camera is the medium format Fujifilm GFX100.
With more megapixels comes greater potential for detail capture, of course, and the images that the S20 Ultra is capable of capturing are nothing short of exceptional. Colour rendition is sublime, and while the auto mode oversaturates the images to varying degrees, nothing I’ve tested previously can match the S20 Ultra in terms of sheer detail capture.
You might have caught wind of a few pre-release camera problems, most notably when it comes to laggy focus-finding and poor viewfinder quality, but thankfully these issues seem to have been fixed in a recent OTA software update, which arrived on 1 March.
Of course, we need to address the fact that the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 also uses a 108MP sensor, but costs a fraction of the price. However, the Xiaomi uses the older Samsung S5KHMX sensor, while the S20 Ultra uses an S5KHM1. You might assume these are related going by the names, but they’re actually not the same pieces of hardware.
The sensor in the Xiaomi uses pixel binning to combine four pixels. This means that you capture 27MP images from the 108MP sensor, but when the pixels are combined you’re effectively getting four times the light-gathering per pixel. The Samsung version, on the other hand, combines nine pixels via a ‘nonabinning’ method. Combining these nine pixels gives you 12MP images from the 108MP sensor, but should result in 9x the light gathering.
This means that the S20 Ultra has the advantage when it comes to low-light conditions, and it really shows in testing. Comparing the two, the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s low-light pictures have greater contrast and manage to soften the highlights more effectively. The Xiaomi also doesn’t benefit from the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s abundance of new camera features.
As you might have guessed from the headline, Samsung is really pushing the S20 Ultra’s zooming capabilities. Samsung calls this new feature ‘Space Zoom’ which is a combination of optical and digital techniques to zoom into the frame up to 100x magnification. That’s absolutely bonkers – beating the Huawei P30 Pro’s 50x hybrid zoom – and Samsung says this is perfect for taking pictures of the moon and star clusters, as the heavily-marketed name implies.
In order to demonstrate this, we visited London’s South Bank and aimed the camera at various landmarks. In the below video, we stood on the Golden Jubilee bridge and captured pictures of Big Ben from 687m away at varying zoom levels, ranging from the wide-angle camera to 100x zoom. As you can see, it’s very impressive when you find out how far you can zoom into the frame:
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is also the first phone to record 8K resolution video. You need an expensive 8K TV to view it, but it’s nice to see that 8K recording is starting to make its way to smartphone cameras. It’s worth noting, however, that the file sizes are much larger than regular 4K or 1080p footage.
It’s no surprise that the quality is magnificent, but the recording options at 8K resolution are very limited. There’s no focus tracking, no optical or electronic stabilisation – a tripod or gimbal is essential – and footage is recorded at only 24fps.
Of course, the 108MP sensor isn’t the only camera at your disposal. There’s also a 12MP (f/2.2) ultra-wide camera, as well as the aforementioned 48MP (f/3.5) telephoto zoom lens and what Samsung calls a “DepthVision” sensor, which is just a silly name for your run-of-the-mill depth sensor.
The best thing about all this camera stuff? Well, there’s a new shooting mode called “Single Take”, which uses all of the cameras simultaneously. Simply tap and hold the recording button, film some interesting stuff, and you will get a nice collage at the end of it, including wide-angle stills, boomerangs, slow-mo video and artsy monochrome images.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: Verdict
Phew. For once, there’s plenty to talk about with a new Samsung flagship, and I’m sure there are a few things I’ve missed out. There’s certainly room for me to discuss the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s network capabilities – it supports all 5G standards including mmWave – but this review is already bulging at the seams in its current state, so I’ll add to it at a later date.
Instead of waffling on for much longer, I’d like to close things out by simply saying that the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is the most impressive Android smartphone that’s ever been released. Not only is it remarkable in its approach to offering new features, but the entire experience is so well refined that Samsung barely places a foot wrong.
The one and only critical stumbling block for the Galaxy S20 Ultra is the price, which, as I’ve mentioned a few times in this review already, is more expensive than the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Let’s face it, the S20 Ultra finds itself well out of reach of most wallets, but with more base storage (and the option to expand via microSD), a larger screen, huge 108MP camera sensor and 8K video recording, I certainly know which phone I’d buy on the back of a lottery win.
|Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra specifications
|Octa-core Samsung Exynos 990 (2×2.73GHz, 2×2.5GHz, 4x2GHz)
|3,200 x 1,440
|108MP (f/1.8), 48MP telephoto (f/3.5), 12MP ultra-wide (f/2.2), depth sensor
|Dust and water resistance
|3.5mm headphone jack
|USB connection type
|128GB, 256GB, 512GB
|Memory card slot (supplied)
|microSD (up to 1TB)
|Yes (shared with microSD)
|167 x 76 x 8.8mm
|Android 10 (One UI 2)
Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra is as exciting as it is outrageously expensive