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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is one of Samsung’s biggest Android phones, and at launch was its most daring sales pitch: you could own the world’s most advanced 5G phone with massive camera specs… if you’re prepared to spend more money than ever on a non-foldable smartphone.

The Ultra is designed for early adopters, and three things stand out: it has a massive 6.9-inch display with next-gen fluid-scrolling tech that will stretch your hand; five cameras to capture 108MP photos, 40MP selfies and 8K video, and 5G antennas with peak speeds 66 times as fast as 4G LTE.

It’s a nice jump from the Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus cameras, although issues with inconsistent autofocus and overexposure kept the Ultra from being the best camera phone even at launch. Even with a camera software update, we still find the Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus to be better in most non-zoom scenarios.

And now there’s a new max-sized, max-specced phone out there: the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. This actually has a marginally smaller 6.8-inch screen, but it has even more power, better camera performance, and support for Samsung’s S Pen stylus. It’s undeniably the better phone then, but will also likely cost you even more than the S20 Ultra does currently – though notably the S21 Ultra’s launch price is lower than the S20 Ultra’s was.

You might also want to consider the Samsung Galaxy S21 or Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus – phones which are upgrades in some ways and downgrades in others.

In any case, back on the subject of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, while the cameras are inconsistent, they do shine for far-off subjects. The 48MP telephoto lens allowed us to get up close and personal thanks to an impressive variety of zoom lenses. It far surpasses the 2x optical and 10x digital zoom of previous Samsung phones, and the limited 8x digital zoom on the Google Pixel 4 – although 100x zoom snaps were hardly Instagram-worthy, 30x zoom looked fine on a tripod.

 

Samsung’s ‘single-take mode’ helps you answer an everyday question: should I take photos or a video?

Take both. Its new ‘single-take mode’ captures a variety of shots over a 10-second span: photos, ultra-wides, portraits, hyperlapse video, regular video, and so on. It kept us out of the settings menus and in the moment, plus you can also clip 33MP photos from video, which proved handy.

 

The S20 Ultra has a monster spec list: 12GB or 16GB of RAM and 128GB or 512GB of internal storage kick things off.

There’s also a huge 5,000mAh battery for pulling down battery-intensive 5G signal, although we found it could only last more than 24 hours in 4G mode. Then there’s the in-screen fingerprint sensor from the previous year’s phones, but it sadly is the first S phone without a 3.5mm headphone jack.

It’s impossible to justify the Galaxy S20 Ultra price for everyone – even those who bought the S9 Plus or S10 Plus, and intended to get the next ‘big one’ from Samsung.

For others, though, the word ‘upgrade’ means a completely different thing: they want a phone that pushes new boundaries, and they don’t mind if that pushes the price tag further into Galaxy Z Fold 2 territory.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is Samsung’s own version of Tesla’s ‘Ludicrous Mode’ in its electric cars, and even if the camera is a bit overhyped and inconsistent at the moment, early adopters will love showing off how its cameras go from 0.5x to 100x zoom real quick.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra release date and price

  • US, Australia release date: March 6, 2020; UK release date: March 13
  • 128GB + 12GB of RAM: $1,399 / £1,199 / AU$1,999
  • 512GB + 16GB of RAM: $1,599 / £1,399 / AU$2,249

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra release date was March 6, 2020 in the US and Australia, and March 13 in the UK, alongside the S20 and S20 Plus.

The S20 Ultra launched at a staggering $1,399 / £1,199 / AU$1,999, which is more than any non-foldable smartphone we’ve tested in the past – and that price is just for the version with 128GB of internal storage and 12GB of RAM.

If you feel like you may need 512GB of onboard storage and a mind-boggling 16GB of RAM, the S20 Ultra price jumps to $1,599 / £1,399 / AU$2,249. Sadly, there’s no 256GB version in between, which most people who shoot video may want.

Some good news, though: you’re not going to need to max-out the storage, given our ever-accelerating move to the cloud and the fact that 5G connectivity will allow you to easily pull down remotely stored data.

Plus, all models of the S20 have a microSD slot for expanding the storage by up to 1TB in case you do hit the built-in capacity.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 series has also now landed though, and that may be a suitable alternative for you to to the Galaxy S20 Ultra. The new Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra offers a slight spec upgrade and better camera performance, but has a lower launch price of $1,199 / £1,149 / AU$1849.

Of course, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra can now sometimes be picked up for less than it cost at launch. For example, at the time of writing we’ve found it on sale in some UK stores for £1,025. We can’t find the same discounts in the US or Australia, but we’d expect it will be reduced soon, especially given that its successor is now available.

Display and overall size

  • 6.9-inch AMOLED display with fluid-looking 120Hz refresh rate
  • 120Hz option only works at Full HD+ to save battery life
  • This is a tall phone, though not as wide as the 6.8-inch Note 10 Plus

Samsung’s 6.9-inch display will push the boundaries of your fingers’ reach and your thumb’s dexterity, yet it won’t feel much bigger than the S10 Plus – its width is actually a tad smaller than the 6.8-inch Note 10 Plus and 6.7-inch Galaxy S10 5G.

 

It’s just that the Galaxy S20 Ultra is noticeably taller, not wider, expanding to a 20:9 aspect ratio. You can still grip it with one hand, and shove it in a deep-enough jeans pocket – just know that you’ll have to operate it with two hands to comfortably touch all corners of the display. It’s big; just not as big as its 6.9-inch screen suggests.

We found the Super AMOLED display to be bright and pixel-dense at its 3200 x 1440 QHD resolution, yet also look perfectly fine at the default Full HD+ resolution. The lower resolution saves battery life and – spoiler – it’s the only resolution at which you can experience the 120Hz screen refresh rate; that’s not QuadHD-compatible yet.

That’s okay – we tended to favor Full HD+ with 120Hz turned on rather than dialing the refresh rate back down to 60Hz. Samsung matches pure gaming phones like the Asus ROG Phone 2 and Razer Phone 2 with this refresh rate, and the screen fluidity makes playing fast-paced games, and even just scrolling through Instagram, feel nicer.

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