The Galaxy S20 Ultra is fabulous and frustrating in equal measure
The best isn’t cheap, but it’s hard to recommend the S20 Ultra thanks to its $1,400 price tag.
Galaxy S20 Ultra review
- Hardware and design
- Software and performance
- Battery life
- 5G for everyone
- Should you buy it?
Another year brings us another Samsung device, and like every one before it, it aims to up the ante and set a benchmark for its future rivals to follow. In the case of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the benchmark is a phone that aims to offer everything, but also charges more dollars than ever before: 1,400 of them to be exact.
What happens when you take one of the top-selling phones from last year — which started at $1,000 — pack it full of new specs, and increase the price by 40%? You get the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, which is eyewatering not just down to the price, but because of the sheer amount of features it comes packed with.
Of course, all the features you could wish for — including both types of 5G and a 5,000mAh battery — mean this is a big phone in the literal sense. Is the Galaxy S20 Ultra too big, however? Does a phone that seemingly offers everything actually deliver?
Let’s unpack this, and more, in our Galaxy S20 Ultra review.
At a glance
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Bottom line: The Galaxy S20 Ultra gives you everything you could ask for but charges a pretty penny to do so. It’s the biggest and best in so many ways and features everything you need including 5G support, a gorgeous display, and a monstrous battery. The camera system is the best that Samsung has ever made, and while there are a few inconsistencies in Samsung’s execution, this is a fantastic smartphone.
- Fantastic display
- Feels incredibly premium
- Great specs and performance
- Extremely enjoyable camera system
- Zoom camera is really good up to 10X
- 120Hz refresh rate affects battery life
- In-display fingerprint sensor is below average
- Too big for most people
- No headphone jack
- Extremely expensive
$1,400 at Samsung
Galaxy S20 Ultra Hardware and Design
First, the industry used Mega to signify a larger device. Then, they used Pro and Max. That wouldn’t be the best way to describe the Galaxy S20 Ultra, however — this phone is one of the biggest and most feature-riched ever made. It’s the phone designed for those who want it all. As a huge tech nerd, it’s a phone that hugely appeals to me, on paper at least.
Instead of taking things away, the Galaxy S20 Ultra gives you everything. There’s support for both types of 5G, an incredible processing package, four cameras including an incredible 100X zoom (lots more on that later) and that large 5,000mAh battery. All of that comes at a big price — and no we’re not talking about money here for once.
|Category||Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G||Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max||Galaxy Note 10+ 5G|
|Dimensions||6.57 x 2.99 x 0.35 inches
166.9 x 76 x 8.8 mm
|6.22 x 3.06 x 0.32 inches
158 x 77.8 x 8.1 mm
|6.39 x 3.04 x 0.31 inches
162.3 x 77.2 x 7.9 mm
|Weight||7.83 oz (222 grams)||7.97 oz (226 grams)||6.98 oz (198 grams)|
|Screen size||6.9 inches||6.5 inches||6.8 inches|
|Battery||5,000 mAh||3,969 mAh||4,300 mAh|
Yes, this is a really big phone, but I’m not here to complain about the size. After just over a week with it, I am fairly comfortable with the much larger size, but it is definitely not a one-handed phone. More often than not, I’ve got two hands wrapped around it, if only to stop myself from dropping it.
Regular, Plus or Ultra — there’s a Galaxy S20 for everyone.
For a lot of people, the S20 Ultra will be too big and that’s OK. The regular Galaxy S20 and Galaxy S20+ are much more friendly in the hand (although both still on the larger side), and pack a lot of the same features you’ll find the Ultra. More importantly, the feature-to-price ratio is almost the same on all three models, so whichever you go for, you’re getting a lot of bang-for-your-buck. The strategy is incredibly smart — although it’s a shame not to see an ‘e’ lower-priced variant this year. Whether it’s the regular, Plus or Ultra, there’s a Galaxy S20 to suit everyone.
Is it worth getting the S20 Ultra over the S20+?
Samsung’s design is fairly boring, and definitely missing the wow factor offered by the Aura Glow color option for the Galaxy S10 and Note 10 series. It’s a bit stale, and unlike the Galaxy Z Flip, which offers a shimmering and iridescent finish, you have the choice between black or gray here. This is an even bigger shame considering the pleasant Cloud Blue and Cloud Pink color options available in the Galaxy S20 and S20+. Sure, Samsung probably didn’t want to repeat the Aura Glow finish, but even offering the Best Buy exclusive S20+ Aura Blue color would have been a welcome option.
The new single front-facing camera has been centered, which isn’t distracting when you’re watching a full-screen movie. The front glass also doesn’t curve as much as before, which helps prevent mis-touches and makes Android 10’s side-gestures a joy to use.
It’s incredibly well-built and feels like a premium smartphone.
Packing four sensors, a prism, and an extra-large zoom lens into the camera results in a huge camera bump. It adds a couple of millimeters width to a smartphone that’s already one of the thickest phones out there. It’s reminiscent of the Nokia Lumia 1020 with just how big and vertical the cut out is, although Samsung’s leather case does help to minimize the camera bump (and add some welcome color).
Although it lacks the wow factor, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is well built. Unlike most larger-than-life phones, Samsung’s craft results in the perfect marriage between fit, finish, and materials. It’s big and bulky, but the Galaxy S20 Ultra feels like a premium smartphone. Samsung knows how to build great phones, and the Galaxy S20 Ultra feels as premium as the phones that came before it.
Galaxy S20 Ultra Display
If you’ve had a Samsung smartphone before, you know what I’m about to say: Samsung has raised the bar yet again. The Galaxy Note 10+ was already the best screen on a phone, and the Galaxy S20 Ultra elevates this to another level. It sets the benchmark for everything you could want from a screen; so much so that there’s not a single negative thing I can say about it.
At 6.9 inches, it’s marginally bigger than the Galaxy Note 10+ but shares all the same traits with one major improvement. The biggest change to the entire Galaxy S20 range this year is the new 120Hz frame rate option, which doubles the refresh rate to make motion impressively smooth.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra sets the benchmark for phone screens, and there isn’t a negative thing I can say about it.
It’s mostly noticeable when scrolling through feeds or playing games, but there are little parts of the phone where it’s obvious, such as opening apps, pulling down menus, and sliding in the Edge screen. My eyes aren’t amazing and I couldn’t see a huge difference between 60Hz and 120Hz, but based on the comments from other reviewers, I seem to be in the minority here.
The 120Hz option is only available with the display set to FHD+. Dropping down to 60Hz allows you to set the resolution to QHD+, which has been my optimal way of using the Galaxy S20 Ultra. The knock-on effect to battery life by using QHD+ and 60Hz is significantly lower than the impact of the 120Hz refresh rate (more on that later).
Regardless of which option you pick, the key takeaway is you have options. You can set it to 60Hz and either FHD+ or QHD+ resolution, or bump it to 120Hz with FHD+ resolution. Either resolution looks perfectly fine on this large engrossing display, and while I prefer setting my phone screens to QHD+, you’ll be absolutely fine with the default resolution of FHD+.
Galaxy S20 Ultra Software and performance
Powered by a Snapdragon 865 with 12GB of RAM, the Galaxy S20 Ultra delivers exactly what you hope for: excellent performance. Regardless of what I was doing on the phone, it didn’t skip a beat. Samsung now lets you keep three apps open in the RAM, but I never found a need to do so. Simply put, the S20 Ultra can handle anything you throw at it.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra can handle anything you throw at it.
For those who want to be even more future-proofed, there’s also a 16GB variant with 512GB of storage, vs. the 128GB base storage. Considering the file sizes involved with the 108MP photos and 8K videos (more on those below), it’s disappointing Samsung only put 128GB of storage in the base model, although you can expand it up to 1TB using the microSD card slot.
I particularly like the One UI 2 software, which is built on Android 10 and was rolled out as an update to the last two generations of Samsung flagships over the past few months. By upgrading the Galaxy S9, Samsung has already made those users comfortable with the software on their (likely) next smartphone. It’s a smart tactic and one that should help to familiarize users. It’ll also negate a major concern for people upgrading and help them to learn something new.
Like the Galaxy Z Flip, Samsung has also integrated Duo directly into the dialer, meaning you see a video call button right next to the regular call button when calling someone who has Duo installed. When I first signed up for Duo a few weeks ago, 413 out of 2013 contacts (~20%) had Duo installed, so you won’t use it all the time. That said, video calls are great, and they’re in 1080p even on mobile data.
Making Duo easy to use could be the secret to making it wildly successful.
Duo doesn’t miss a step, and I was fairly impressed by how stable the service is, especially over an LTE connection. More importantly, it’s so effortless to use. This integration allows Google to pre-install this on tens of millions of phones and means that Duo has the potential to finally offer a platform-agnostic challenger to FaceTime.
Much like the Galaxy Note 10+, there’s no headphone jack on the Ultra (as if that even matters anymore), but there’s still solid speaker quality. The speakers sound fantastic on the Ultra, with the down-firing loudspeaker and tuned-up earpiece delivering plenty of volume. It’s far too easy to cover the down-firing loudspeaker, however, especially when holding the phone in landscape with two hands, but it’s loud enough for you to hear notification sounds. More importantly, the haptics engine is fantastic and the vibration motor is as strong and reliable as last year’s Galaxy smartphones.
One downside to the Ultra is that it features the same weak fingerprint sensor as the Galaxy S10+. I’ve had considerably more luck with the fingerprint sensor than everyone else, which is to say that it’s not great, but it’s also not terrible. One thing is certain: It’s vastly inferior to the optical sensor used by virtually all other smartphone makers.
That said, Qualcomm revealed a vastly superior second-gen at its Snapdragon Summit in December, and it’s a shame that Samsung couldn’t include it or switch to an optical sensor. Instead, we’re left with a slightly repositioned sensor that’s well below average, and one of the biggest disappointments in a phone that’s so good.
The little touches make One UI 2 a joy to use.
Beyond that, smartphones are getting larger and as Samsung delves into future Galaxy Fold-like foldables, I’d love to see some improvements to the One UI home launcher. The smaller grid size for the homescreen is still 5-by-6, which leaves a lot of space that’s visually nice, but could be better used. That option has been present since the first One UI when screens were half an inch smaller. A taller screen means more real estate, and while multitasking is great on the S20 Ultra, some of the core experiences need to be updated.
Regardless, I really enjoy One UI 2. I remember when Samsung’s software wasn’t very good, and One UI has become my favorite interface. It’s clean and a lot of the interface has been simplified, but it’s still mighty powerful. Things like Edge lighting, great multi-tasking, the Edge screen, and even the SamsungOne font are the little touches that make One UI 2 a joy to use.
Galaxy S20 Ultra Battery Life
The Galaxy S20 Ultra has a monstrous 5,000 mAh battery, which, on paper, should deliver incredible battery life. It’s not that simple as the battery life you experience varies wildly, and depends on whether you’re using the display in 60Hz or 120Hz mode.
Out of the box, the display is set to 60Hz and FHD+ resolution, and in this state, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is an absolute battery champion. During my first few days with the display set at 120Hz, I was able to use it for roughly 14 hours per day with about 4-5 hours of ‘screen on time’ during the day. Most of those days were fairly long days, however, requiring a quick top-up before heading out for the evening again.
The switch to 60Hz revealed exactly why the 120Hz refresh rate isn’t enabled out of the box: it destroys the battery life. Testing from Tom’s Guide shows the difference, as the phone took a three-hour (or 25%) hit in their browsing test. In my actual usage, there was a roughly 20-30% drop in battery life compared to the 60Hz mode.
That said, if you are close to a charger all day or your usage isn’t particularly high, the 120Hz mode could still work for you. I love the look of the 120Hz, but given the boost in screen-on-time to over six hours (with battery to spare), it was a fairly easy decision.
Switching to QHD+ resolution doesn’t have a huge effect on the battery. In actual usage, I never had a single issue getting a full day of usage out of the S20 Ultra with the display in 60Hz mode and set to QHD+. Ultimately though, the S20 series has a display setting that’ll keep you happy and hopefully, Samsung can add some sort of ‘dynamic’ refresh rate to maximize the balance between new features and long-lasting battery life.
Regardless of how long the battery lasts, charging back up is fast, like seriously fast. It takes 30 minutes to jump from 1% to 60%, with a full charge taking a further 38 minutes or so. With charging speeds of 73.52 mAh per minute using the 25W charger in the box, it’s incredibly rapid and probably one of the fastest charging phones. It can presumably charge even faster though, as it supports a 45W charger.
Galaxy S20 Ultra Cameras
It’s been a long time since Samsung made a huge leap forward in its cameras, but the S20 Ultra definitely raises the bar, even against the other Galaxy S20 phones. Samsung has thrown the kitchen sink here, with four cameras, an extra-long zoom lens and prism, 8K video recording, a new single take mode, and a lot more.
On paper, the Galaxy S20 Ultra has all the hardware it needs to be successful. In actual usage, it’s an exercise in frustration. The Galaxy S20 Ultra can take incredible photos, and often it delivers on this promise, but it will leave you feeling frustrated.
Look at the S20 Ultra specs and one thing probably jumps out at you — the 108MP main camera. It’s the biggest in a Samsung phone ever, and the company has been fairly smart in how it uses it. Rather than output images at 108MP by default (it’s an option, albeit one you probably don’t want to use), the S20 Ultra uses nona-binning to combine nine pixels into one large super pixel. The result is a pixel size of 2.4um, one of the largest ever on a smartphone.
While the sensor is much better, and the photos are definitely improved compared to last year, they still bear the hallmarks of a Samsung camera. The algorithm boosts the saturation resulting in visually stunning photos that aren’t truly reflective of the scene. It also heavily over sharpens, and Samsung’s beauty mode still loses facial structure and details.
That said, I personally like the way that Samsung boosts the saturation in its processing. Like most people, I share my photos to Instagram or show them off on my phone. In both of these scenarios, Samsung’s photos look the most visually appealing, which means they serve their purpose. It won’t be for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed the way Samsung processes photos on its previous phones, you’ll love most of the photos from the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
That’s because while a lot of the photos I took were great, quite a few were not. For example, Samsung’s Night mode can take great-looking photos, and the auto mode does a stellar job, but the phone will equally deliver photos that are not as good. This inconsistency is the biggest drawback with the Galaxy S20 Ultra — it can take amazing photos, but you never know if it is going to.
Telephoto (Space Zoom) camera
It’s a marketing gimmick, but Space Zoom does bring the whole world a whole lot closer. However, in the wrong hands, it could also be creepy.
Thanks to the 48MP telephoto camera and prism inside the big camera bump, the S20 Ultra offers up to 100X zoom. It uses a combination of hybrid and optical image stabilization to offer 10X lossless zoom. The 100X zoom isn’t that usable, but the ability to zoom fairly long distances discreetly could pose concerns.
Another great example of the @SamsungMobileUS #GalaxyS20Ultra Space Zoom! I legit can’t see the MetLife building name with my own eyes, at least without really squinting!
Ultra wide, 10X, 30X, 100X. Rested on a ledge for stability at higher zoom. 100X pretty impressive! pic.twitter.com/3fyEb2eANt
— Nirave 尼拉夫 (@nirave) February 24, 2020
Much like the Mate 30 Pro, tapping the zoom button instantly takes you to 5X zoom, which often brings you closer than you like to your subject. Samsung lists all the different zoom levels in a small overlay that appears when you tap any of the three zoom options (0.5X for ultra-wide, 1X for regular and 5X for telephoto). It’s quick to disappear again, meaning I often found myself having to tap the zoom icon and reset the shot so I could adjust.
Putting a telephoto camera on a smartphone isn’t new; Samsung is firmly playing catch-up here, but it has pushed the zoom to a new level. I’ve been using Huawei smartphones for the past couple of years, and the quality of the S20 Ultra at the 10X zoom raises the bar and makes taking photos very enjoyable.
Even in low light, the zoom is capable of taking really good photos, and Night mode works at up to 5X zoom level. The photos you capture look no different to those from the larger sensor, and the zoom can even take photos with a lot of natural bokeh. Yes, the viewfinder is far too shaky at the higher zoom levels and you lose a lot of quality once you go beyond 20X zoom, but having a powerful zoom allows you to get really creative with your photography.
Ultra wide camera
I’ve really enjoyed the ultra-wide camera on previous Galaxy phones. Often, it’s the most reliable of all the manufacturers and the photos look fairly good. Although it’s taken a backseat to the main camera this year, the ultra-wide still remains a reliable shooter.
In daylight, the quality of the photos isn’t that far off the quality of the main camera, while in low light the smaller sensor and f/2.2 aperture hamper the camera’s abilities. Most importantly, the ultra-wide is a key part of what makes the camera so versatile and enjoyable.
Live Focus and color point
I absolutely love the Color point effect in the Live Focus mode, which is an advanced version of the portrait mode effect found on other phones. Using a combination of the sensors, it takes the incredible natural bokeh produced by the camera and turns it into artistic effects.
I’m not that artistic as a photographer, and I often don’t even edit most of my photos. I love Color point as it gives me artistic-looking photos straight out the camera. It does this by prioritizing whichever part of the photo you select and desaturating the rest of it.
It can often take a few attempted shots to get a near-perfect photo, but when it’s right, Color point is one of my favorite photo effects.
Front facing selfies
The front-facing camera has a new 40MP sensor that lets you either shoot at full-res or uses pixel binning to output 10MP photos. Selfies are fairly decent in good lighting conditions but are let down in lower light conditions. Night mode does work well, although it’s definitely not on par with the Pixel 4’s Night Sight mode.
Despite dropping the secondary front-facing camera from last year’s Galaxy S10+, the S20 Ultra’s selfie portrait mode can take photos with a ton of precise focus. Not every selfie with portrait mode is going to be great — the inconsistencies in the camera continue here — but it can take fabulous looking photos.
8K and all the other video trimmings
A highlight feature of the new camera system is 8K video recording, which can then be edited and uploaded to YouTube directly from the phone. It sounds great, but you won’t really want to use it. There’s nowhere to playback this glorious 8K content, and it has monstrous sizes to boot.
8k low light video test @SamsungMobile #GalaxyS20Ultra. 1.81GB file for those wondering.
I try to test in real life, and the average person will usually use their phone to record video in a karaoke bar of their friends singing.
Thanks to @chrisvelazco @hayatohuseman @DaniThayy! pic.twitter.com/PL0pjjCw8V
— Nirave 尼拉夫 (@nirave) February 24, 2020
The bigger issue is that Samsung has a real problem with autofocus while taking a video, especially in low-light. The company has said it’s aware of the issues and plans to release an update, but as it stands 8K is more of a gimmick than a useful feature.
That said, it’s a nice way to preserve valuable moments, such as a wedding, in as high-definition as possible in case you want to view them in the future, especially as 8K is likely to be common to most TVs by the end of the decade.
The only camera you need
For far too long, I’ve used Samsung phones not because of the camera, but in spite of it. That’s not to say that Samsung made bad cameras, but the company didn’t attempt to innovate to the level of Huawei and BBK Electronics (parent to OnePlus, OPPO and Vivo).
The Galaxy S20 Ultra changes this, and for the better. Throughout the entire range, you get smartphones where Samsung has put a lot of thought and attention into the camera. Not enough to solve the inconsistency in the camera — which isn’t overly surprising as this is Samsung’s first next-gen smartphone camera — but enough to make it the only camera you really need.
It’s been a long time since I was excited by a Samsung camera.
Despite its faults, the S20 Ultra offers the versatility I’m looking for. Large pixels, huge sensors, and just about every feature you could wish for. It’s been a long time since I was excited by a Samsung camera, but the Galaxy S20 Ultra has me excited to see for the photography possibilities on future Samsung devices such as the Galaxy Note 20, and Galaxy Fold 2.
Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G for everyone
The Galaxy S20 Ultra has been my first real experience with 5G in the U.S. Since late last year, I’ve owned the Galaxy Fold 5G which doesn’t work with US carriers, and while I experienced it in certain locations, this is my first real experience living with 5G. The result has been a mixed experience, much like 5G as a whole.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra supports both main types of 5G used in the U.S.: mmWave, which Verizon supports and other carriers will eventually launch, and Sub6, which all other carriers support and Verizon will eventually launch. See what I mean?
Using the S20 Ultra with Verizon 5G isn’t the full-on experience I was hoping for, far from it. As it uses mmWave, Verizon Ultra wideband 5G (UWB as it’s displayed on the phone) works in very specific locations, and only outdoors (or in a moving car in that exact area). It’s only available on specific street corners and lasts for a couple of blocks. While better than other cities, it definitely leaves a lot to be desired.
That said, the inner geek in me lights up every time I see UWB on my phone. The speeds vary widely, with a low of 461 Mbps and a high of a massive 1.961 Gbps. The latter is ludicrously fast, but I found it by going deep into Verizon’s 5G map to find a specific street corner in Greenpoint. The only time I didn’t intentionally travel to test 5G was when I picked up 5G UWB in Battery Park and achieved speeds of 1.6 Gbps.
While UWB is very spotty, the speeds are much much better than the low and mid-band Sub6 networks used by the other carriers. (Sprint does have 5G UWB as well, but it’s not available in NYC). When using Sub6, you’ll see the 5G symbol a lot of the time, but my tests on T-mobile in NYC yielded much slower speeds around 150 Mbps.
Someone ask for mmWave 5G? Here’s the true #5G speeds I’ve been waiting for! @verizon #Verizon5G@SamsungMobileUS #GalaxyS20Ultra
All I can say is Wow!! 🤯 pic.twitter.com/byOSZ2JthT
— Nirave 尼拉夫 (@nirave) February 21, 2020
In the U.K., I’ve used EE’s Sub6 5G network, which consistently delivered 200Mbps+ speeds in the entirety of a two-mile radius, with a peak of 462Mbps. All that to say that 5G can be useful, but the practical applications of it are not the reason to buy a 5G phone.
Regardless of which carrier you choose, the S20 Ultra has 5G for everyone. Of all the 5G phones sold in the coming months, the Galaxy S20 series will make up a large portion. With the Ultra, you have a phone that supports every 5G network now, and will continue to be more useful as the networks mature.
Galaxy S20 Ultra Should you buy it?
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is a strange smartphone. On the one hand, it’s the most feature-packed device I’ve ever used, and on the other, there are parts of it that will leave you feeling frustrated. It’s equal parts fabulous and frustrating, and in trying to achieve everything, the S20 Ultra lacks the usual finishing touches we’ve become accustomed to from Samsung (although a lot of these can be fixed in future software updates).
The S20 Ultra is arguably less perfect than previous Galaxy flagships, but you do get a lot of bang for your buck.
Ultimately, the price tag makes this a hard phone to recommend. However, if you want the large battery, the imaginative camera, and a hefty phone that screams quality, and money is no object, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is a great overall phone that’s also future-proofed.
If the Galaxy S20 Ultra doesn’t scream buy me to you, I’d pay attention to the regular S20 and the S20 Plus, with the latter proving to be the ideal balance of price and features. Both share the same core identity and features as the Ultra, including a telephoto, main and ultra-wide camera, as well as all the zoom features you truly need. Whichever Galaxy S20 you end up buying, you won’t regret it. They’re already shaping up to be the best phones this year.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
$1,400 at Samsung
This is a phone that’s packed with tons of features but at a cost. It’ll be too big for some people, and the few shortcomings are frustrating, but if you’ve always wanted the phone that can do it all, look no further than the Galaxy S20 Ultra.