Review, Smartphone

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: First-Generation Troubles

The Samsung Galaxy S20 series marks a new chapter for the Korean company. More specifically, this range-topping model of the lineup, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Not only is it the biggest Galaxy S series device so far, it also sports the phone maker’s most ambitious camera system yet.

While the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s quad camera setup is impressive – it can take some amazing shots – it also falls short in areas you wouldn’t expect Samsung would; something you would expect from first-generation tech. On top of that, with its steep asking price, the S20 Ultra is not for everyone.

Specifications

Display6.9-inch QHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X (3200 x 1440)
ChipsetSamsung Exynos 990 2.73GHz octa-core
GPUMali-G77 MP11
RAM12GB
Storage128GB, expandable
Camera (rear)108MP f/1.8, PDAF, OIS
Periscope 48MP f/3.5 (telephoto), PDAF, OIS, Hybrid Optic Zoom (10x)
12MP f/2.2 (ultra-wide angle)
DepthVision (ToF)
Camera (front)40MP f/2.2, PDAF
Battery
5,000mAh
Dimensions166.9 x 76.0 x 8.8 mm
Weight
220g
OSOne UI 2.1 based on Android 10
Connectivity5G
LTE
NFC
Bluetooth 5.0
WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax (2.4/5GHz)
USB Type-C
PriceRM4,999

Hardware wise, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is very well-equipped. The quad camera system is sophisticated, it has a large 5,000mAh battery, it is IP68-rated, there’s 5G connectivity, and the Exynos 990 can keep up with any given task. Whether it’s multitasking or gaming, expect this chipset to deliver excellent performance.

That being said, there is one piece of hardware that doesn’t quite fit in: the 128GB internal storage. While it’s not particularly small, you’d expect at least 256GB of storage for a phone at this price point. You can use the microSD card slot for further expansion, but more native storage would’ve been much better.

Design

There’s no denying that the Galaxy S20 Ultra is Samsung’s sleekest-looking device yet. The tiny Infinity-O hole-punch cutout at the top of the screen doesn’t look all that distracting, the bezels surrounding the display are quite minimal, and the screen now has much more subtle curves on either sides, which make for a more ergonomically-sound device.

However, I do have one gripe with the new curved display: the palm rejection isn’t great. Throughout my time with the S20 Ultra, the phone would occasionally register taps from my palm just slightly touching the edge of the screen. Needless to say, this can get annoying quick.

But there is one easy way to solve this issue. Once I’ve slapped on the casing that comes with the S20 Ultra, it’s not as easy for my palm to touch the sides of the display anymore. Does this solve the problem? Yes. Could it have been avoided entirely if it had better palm rejection? Definitely.

Given that this is a RM4,999 device though, I would highly recommend protecting it with a casing as soon as possible.

On the back of the S20 Ultra, there’s the curved glass panel, which makes the phone quite comfortable to hold. However, I’m not a huge fan of the equally huge camera module on the back of the phone. On top of that, the whole module protrudes out of the back panel quite a bit. I haven’t seen or felt a camera bump this noticeable for a long time.

Anyway, as a whole, the Galaxy S20 Ultra feels like a premium, high-end smartphone with excellent build quality. It’s also quite a heavy phone, tipping the scales at 220g. I like the extra heft, but some folks may not be a fan of this.

User Experience

One UI 2.1 on the Galaxy S20 Ultra feels very polished and intuitive to navigate around, and this has been the case with the software experience of Samsung smartphones for the past couple of years. I’ve been using this phone for well over a month now, and never did I encounter any major software issue.

This really speaks volume for how far Samsung has come when it comes to software, and to date, I still think One UI has one of the best always on displays. At a glance, I can see if there are any missed calls, messages, or notifications from any given app. The best part is, it just works. I didn’t have to fumble around the settings page for it to show notifications from specific apps and what not.

While the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s software experience is great, the same can’t be said of the ultrasonic fingerprint sensor under the screen. Just like its predecessor, it’s a finicky sensor that has trouble recognising my fingerprint consistently. It does feel a tad more accurate, but it’s still not quite as quick or seamless to use as, say, the OnePlus 7 Pro‘s optical fingerprint sensor.

But let’s move on to something more positive: the gorgeous 6.9-inch QHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X display with a fast 120Hz refresh rate. Thanks to the high refresh rate, every single motion on this screen looks extra smooth, giving the impression of an even faster device.

Even if I’m just casually browsing through the home screen, or playing a mobile game that supports 120Hz, there’s a noticeable difference. In fact, when I switch back to 60Hz, it feels like the phone is “stuttering,” even if it’s not at all. Really, the extra frames afforded by the 120Hz refresh rate improves the user experience quite a bit.

Of course, we can’t ignore one of the biggest limitations of the 120Hz mode on the S20 Ultra: this high refresh rate is only limited to 1080p. If I change the resolution to native 1440p, the refresh rate can only be set to 60Hz. Personally, I don’t find this to be a big issue. It’s not easy to tell the difference between 1440p and 1080p resolution on a screen this size.

As for the Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen itself, it’s fantastic. After all, Samsung is one of the biggest display makers in the industry, and it only makes sense for its range of smartphones to feature some of the best screens in the market. The S20 Ultra’s display have vibrant colours, wide viewing angles, deep, true blacks, and as far as I can tell, the white balance is calibrated wonderfully well too.

What about performance? As expected, the Exynos 990 powering the Galaxy S20 Ultra can deliver excellent processing power. No matter what I throw at the phone, it can handle any given task effortlessly and seamlessly. The phone is unfazed even when I’m multitasking with different apps or playing games like PUBG Mobile at maxed out settings.

Battery life of the Galaxy S20 Ultra is, for the most part, more than good enough for most users. On average, the 5,000mAh battery can return between five to six hours of screen on time, which is really quite good for any given smartphone. I’m quite a heavy user too, and I enabled the 120Hz mode at 1080p along with the always on display activated to get this level of battery life.

I’m confident I can get even better battery life if I set the display’s refersh rate to 60Hz, but I wasn’t able to test this before the movement control order (MCO) is in effect in Malaysia. Any battery life estimate I get in this period wouldn’t reflect actual real life use, which is why it’s not included in this review.

Charging rate of the S20 Ultra is quite respectable as well. Within 30 minutes of charging with the in-box charger, the battery percentage got up to about 60% from completely empty.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoy using the Galaxy S20 Ultra as my daily driver. It’s fast, the software experience is pleasant, the Dynamic AMOLED display is stunning to look at, and it has above average battery life. Now, let’s move on to the phone’s most troubled hardware: camera.

Camera

When the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s quad camera system was unveiled on stage, it shows a lot of potential. The 108MP sensor promises an incredible amount of detail, the 48MP telephoto lens is lauded for its 100x zoom, and to top it off, Samsung already proved itself when it comes to mobile photography. So then, it has to be a good camera system, right?

Unfortunately, the reality is not quite as picturesque.

For one, since launch, the Galaxy S20 Ultra has received numerous updates to improve the camera performance. That’s good, because it shows that Samsung is actively improving the camera of its flagship smartphone. However, it also shows a lack of refinement in the first place.

Anyway, after the slew of updates it received, the S20 Ultra’s quad camera system certainly got better. One of the most noticeable improvements is much faster autofocus. Before this, it takes quite some time for the phone to lock in focus, and it had a tendency to hunt for focus too.

While the autofocus performance definitely improved after the updates, it’s still not quite as seamless for the S20 Ultra to lock in focus at a moment’s notice – something that is expected of a Samsung flagship. I’ve compared the autofocus performance between the S20 Ultra and the one-year-old Galaxy S10+, and the latter is noticeably faster.

It’s also worth noting that the S20 Ultra’s 108MP primary sensor has very, very shallow depth of field. Basically, close-up shots will be affected the most by this: the area that is in focus will be quite limited in tighter shots, so what you end up with is an image that is only focused on a small area.

Granted, this is an inherent trait of larger sensors like the one in the S20 Ultra, and you can always use the telephoto shooter instead if you want sharper close-up shots right? Well, not really. As is the case with other smartphones with multiple camera sensors, the telephoto lens simply cannot match the image quality of the 108MP camera.

Beyond this issue with close-up shots, the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s quad camera configuration can deliver in other areas. The 108MP main sensor takes good-looking shots with subjects that are a certain distance away (I leave it at its default setting to output 12MP images), wide angle snaps are handled very well by the 12MP ultra-wide shooter, and the 48MP telephoto camera – which kicks in at 4x zoom – can take great-looking images too.

Okay, but what about the much highlighted 100x zoom capability of the S20 Ultra? Yes, you can achieve that level of zoom, but the results are often a blurry mess; even at 30x zoom things don’t look particularly great. But keep it below 10x, and you’ll be very happy with the results.

The 100x zoom may be a gimmick – and let’s be honest, it sounds great on paper – but there’s no denying the fact that the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s telephoto sensor can take some impressive shots. Perhaps even better than most smartphones in the market now.

All in all, except for the iffy autofocus performance and the 108MP sensor’s shallow depth of field, I do enjoy shooting with the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Could it have been better? Of course, but this is Samsung’s first attempt at a new camera system in quite some time. With some refinement here and there down the road, I’m sure this quad camera array can really shine; just not right this moment.

Competition

Retailing at RM4,999, the Galaxy S20 Ultra sits at the top of the price range for flagship smartphones. Granted, its price has gone down since launch, even hitting the RM4,439 mark during big sales. Still, even at this price point, it has a number of alternatives, and most of them are more affordable too.

OnePlus 8 Pro

What was once a brand that offers flagship smartphones at an affordable price point has steadily risen in both cost and refinement. The OnePlus 8 Pro is the Chinese company’s latest offering, and it impresses in a number of areas. For one, the range-topping model with 256GB of storage and 12GB of RAM retails at RM4,099 – that’s RM900 less than the S20 Ultra’s official price tag, which also offers only half the amount of storage at 128GB.

For that kind of money, the OnePlus 8 Pro comes with an equally fast 120Hz 6.78-inch 3168 x 1440 Fluid AMOLED screen, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chipset, a rather promising quad camera system (48MP f/1.78 main + 48MP f/2.2 ultra-wide angle + 8MP f/2.44 telephoto + 5MP f/2.4 colour filter), as well as OxygenOS, an arguably cleaner version of Android compared to Samsung’s One UI.

Naturally, the S20 Ultra does have its fair share of advantages over the OnePlus 8 Pro. Its zooming performance is most definitely better, thanks to its periscope-style telephoto lens that can get closer to further subjects. On top of that, the S20 Ultra should have better battery life too: its 5,000mAh battery is markedly more generous than the OnePlus 8 Pro’s 4,510mAh cell.

Samsung Galaxy S20+

If you still want a big and vibrant screen, Samsung’s software experience, as well as a fuss-free camera, then the Samsung Galaxy S20+ is a great alternative. It has a similar 120Hz 6.7-inch 1440p Infinity-O display as the Galaxy S20 Ultra, it offers the exact same software experience, and its camera system, while not quite as far-reaching, doesn’t suffer from any autofocus issue or shallow depth of field.

But the best reason to get the Galaxy S20+ over the S20 Ultra is its price advantage. Right now, you can easily get the S20+ well below its RM3,999 launch price. If you look hard enough, you can even get it for as low as RM3,239 on a good day. That’s well over RM1,000 of difference compared to the Ultra, even at its discounted price.

But what are you missing out by going with the S20+? Well, the S20 Ultra still offers a more sophisticated and versatile camera system (even though it has its own issues), along with better battery life. After all, you’re paying a lot more money for this range-topping smartphone.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra impresses in many areas, but it also falls short in a number of vital aspects. Its camera performance isn’t what we’ve come to expect from Samsung, the screen has finicky palm rejection, and most of all, it is an expensive smartphone. In a price-sensitive market like Malaysia, any device at this price point has to have little to no flaws to really succeed.

Unfortunately, the Galaxy S20 Ultra isn’t quite there yet: it has one too many first-generation troubles. While the hardware of the quad camera system is very impressive, the overall refinement of it leaves much to be desired. That really is the Ultra’s biggest shortcoming, which is usually not something you’d have to worry about with a Samsung flagship.

But is the Galaxy S20 Ultra a flagship smartphone worth buying? Yes, it is. The screen quality is excellent, it’s a fast smartphone with an equally fast 120Hz display, and the camera can still shine even in its current state. I’ve never used a smartphone that can deliver this level of zoom performance until now, and that’s an amazing feat.

As with all new technology, the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera needs some time to fully mature. As it stands, there is still room for improvement, but it’s entirely possible the camera performance will only get better in time through software updates.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra may not meet the lofty expectations set by Samsung, but the continued improvement of the phone’s camera does show the Korean company’s commitment to deliver better user experience. This level of support is not something you get from all phone makers, and Samsung deserves commendation for it.