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Galaxy S20 vs. Galaxy S20 Ultra drop test: Which one broke first?

Spoiler: They both shattered, just not at the same time. Samsung's biggest and smallest S20 go head to head against the sidewalk to find out how they'll hold up to your everyday drops.

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Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung's new Galaxy S20 phones have better cameras, new colors and an even bigger screen option, thanks to that 6.9-inch Galaxy S20 Ultra. But they still have the same curved glass design, which has proven to be the Achilles' heel of predecessors when it comes to weathering drops. Last year's Galaxy S10 Plus, at least came with a tougher ceramic option, but this year you have no choice but to go with glass. All three models have Gorilla Glass 6 covering the screen, but only the Galaxy S20 Ultra has it on the back as well. The backs of the Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus are covered in Gorilla Glass 5 just like last year's S10s. 

And this year they're more expensive than ever to replace. The cheapest Galaxy S20 costs US$999.99, while the base model of the S20 Ultra costs US$1,399.99. It also has a has a giant camera module on the back that sticks out like a sore thumb and is more exposed during a fall. 

To find out how they hold up to everyday accidents, and which one is tougher, I subjected a brand new Galaxy S20 (pink) and Galaxy S20 Ultra (gray) to a series of drops from different heights onto the sidewalk.

This is the second year in a row in which the phones have included a pre-installed screen protector out of the box. Samsung recommends keeping it on, so that's what we did for the drop test unless specified otherwise. 

Drop 1: Pocket height (3 feet)  

The first drop for both phones was from about hip height, but on opposite sides.

Galaxy S20: The screen survived

I started off with the phone front side down to test the durability of the screen. The S20 didn't land completely flat. Instead it landed on one edge first, then the other before finally settling on the sidewalk with the camera facing up. 

The screen survived relatively unscathed, save for a small scrape on the screen protector by one of the edges. The metal frame on the other hand, had two big dents on the opposing corners where the phone first hit the floor. The pink finish had been scraped off, exposing the silver casing in the biggest dent. 

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Galaxy S20 Ultra: Not so lucky

I decided to go a different route with the S20 Ultra and drop it on its back to test out that thick camera module. 

The phone landed on its back as intended, then did a flip in the air and ended up screen side-up. The screen, which I could see from where I was standing, survived without a scratch, but the back was already broken. 

Two of the four corners of the phone -- likely where it hit first -- were completely shattered, with one long hairline fracture running from top to bottom. I could feel tiny glass particles come loose on my fingers as I assessed the damage. The only corner that didn't break was the top left, the one closest to the camera. The camera module itself was intact, with just two tiny dents on the side of the frame, roughly the size of a grain of sand. 

I then opened the camera app on the phone and clicked through the three different lenses to test it out. The telephoto, wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses all checked out. 

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The damage to the S20 Ultra after the first drop from hip height with the camera facing down. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Drop 2: Pocket height, opposite side

Next I dropped the phone from the same height (3 feet) with the phones facing the opposite side.

Galaxy S20: The back cracked

The S20 hit the floor back side down, exactly as intended, but then flipped over as it bounced and landed backside up. I could see it was already broken without even having to kneel down to grab it. 

The top of the phone where it hit first had the worst damage. It had cracks running along the edge where it meets the metal frame, and wrapped around the camera module on the top left hand corner. I even felt a few loose pieces of glass as I was assessing the damage. It had few scuff marks on the metal frame, and on the frame of the camera module. I also noticed a smaller, circular crack on the bottom left-hand corner. 

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The top part of the S20 after dropping it from hip height with the camera facing down. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Galaxy S20 Ultra: The screen broke on the first try

Next I dropped the phone from the same height (3 feet) with the screen facing down. Though the S20 Ultra landed face first as intended, it didn't fall flat. The bottom-left corner took the impact and sustained most of the damage.

Even the screen protector wasn't enough to keep the screen from breaking. It landed right on the tiny sliver of exposed glass between the edge of the screen protector and the metal frame, causing the glass around it to shatter. At least it prevented the break from spreading beyond the corner of the phone. The metal frame was also significantly beat up and dented at the corner. 

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The corner of the screen on the S20 Ultra cracked despite the screen protector.

Angela Lang/CNET

Drop 3: Eye level (5 feet)

Both phones were broken at this point, but the screen on the S20 was still intact, and I still wanted to see how much more the camera module on the S20 Ultra could handle. I took both phones up to 5 feet and dropped them again. 

Galaxy S20: The screen broke, and the back continued to shatter

Because the back was already broken, I dropped the S20 screen-side-down, which is exactly how it landed: almost flat on its face with a crackle and then flipped over as it bounced. 

This time the screen was not OK. It was shattered underneath the screen protector, and the back of the phone had continued to break, creating a waterfall of broken glass running down the side of the phone. I peeled the screen protector off to assess the damage, and pulled up some glass right along with it. The bottom of the phone had the most damage, with loose shards and a tiny hole that exposed a bit of the OLED screen underneath. It also had a large fracture expanding out from the bottom to the middle of the phone. This phone had reached its drop limit. 

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Angela Lang/CNET

Galaxy S20 Ultra: The camera survived three more drops

At this point, the only part of this phone still intact was the camera module. To test how much more it could handle, I took it up to 5 feet and dropped it again with the camera module facing down. 

This time my aim was lacking. The side of the phone hit first, and it eventually landed screen side up. The back had a new crack above the camera module and a few scrapes on the frame, but the glass on the camera was still intact. 

One more time…

I attempted the drop again and again it landed on its side. This time there was no additional damage to the phone that I could see at first glance, so I went for it one last time to see if it would land on its back. 

Third time's the charm

The phone landed nearly flat with the back facing down. All of the previous cracks had continued to grow and the back was completely shattered around the edges. It looked like it was framed in shards of glass that were coming loose under my fingers. The biggest shocker: Still not a crack on the camera. At least on the outside. On closer inspection I noticed a few specks inside the wide-angle lens. They were so microscopic that I easily could've missed them when I first opened the phone, and they could have nothing to do with the drops. 

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This is what the back of the S20 Ultra looked like after the fifth and final drop. 

Angela Lang/CNET

To test it out, I opened the camera app and clicked through the different lenses again. The camera had some autofocus issues, which again may not have been because of the drop, but otherwise it checked out and was still in working order. 

The breakdown 

The Galaxy S20 Ultra broke on the first fall and even the screen protector was no match against the rough sidewalk, while the camera module held up surprisingly well. The regular S20 lasted a little bit longer, but only by one drop, and the screen still broke at 5 feet despite the screen protector. Based on our very informal tests, it seems like the curved glass is still very much a liability on these phones, especially when dropped on a rough surface (like a sidewalk). So if you've paid over $1,000 for one of these phones, I implore you to put a case on it as soon as you take it out of the box. And while that screen protector may help fight scratches, it won't stop it from shattering if you drop it. 

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