Galaxy S20 Ultra: Top camera features finally make sense, but battery life doesn't (ongoing review)

I've had a breakthrough on the real-world purpose of Samsung's 108-megapixel camera and 100x zoom. But my day with the superfast screen left me wanting more.

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Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is the most advanced of Samsung's new phones.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I began this ongoing review of the Galaxy S20 Ultra knowing that Samsung's redesigned camera system and its massive 5,000-mAh battery would make or break the phone. I've spent the past few days testing its 108-megapixel main sensor and up-to-100x AI-assisted camera zoom, looking for reasons to use these over-the-top features in real life. I finally found it.

But during my day out shooting in the atmospheric, coastal city of Monterey, California, the S20 Ultra's battery life also came into question. I'll break both observations down below. But before I do, just a reminder that these are my evolving impressions, which change as new information and observations come to light. They're by no means my final thoughts, so I hope you'll stick around for the rated review and specific buying advice about who this phone is for and if it's worth the asking price.

Remember, too, that the S20 Ultra is the most advanced of Samsung's new Galaxy S20 phones, with the largest screen size (6.9 inches), the biggest battery and the most camera toys compared to the Galaxy S20 Plus and standard Galaxy S20 (scroll to the end for a full specs comparison). It's also the most expensive, starting at $1,400 for the 256GB version (£1,199 for the 128GB version or AU$1,999), compared to $1,000 for the S20 and $1,200 for the S20 Plus.

The core software and hardware features, including a fast 120Hz screen refresh rate, Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor and 5G readiness remain the same for all S20 phones. (The base S20 model is a little more complicated, supporting the Sub-6 type of 5G, except for Verizon.) 

And now, here's my breakthrough understanding about the S20 Ultra's camera, battery and more.

Read more: Our first photos with the Galaxy S20 Ultra's new cameras

How the Galaxy S20 Ultra's camera changed my mind

I admit I was optimistic but skeptical when I started testing the Galaxy S20's two marquee camera features, the 108-megapixel main camera sensor and 100x "space zoom." They skirt the edge of gimmick. But a day spent photographing things I love in a place dear to my heart made me understand the value of these features in a more personal way -- which is exactly the test I was going for.

I spent the day with my mom clambering the same coastal rocks and walking the same paths that I have nearly every year since my childhood. We laughed at overconfident squirrels on the hunt for human food they definitely shouldn't be eating; peered into tide pools filled with hermit crabs and folded-in sea anemones; felt the salt wind whip our faces and watched the Pacific's majestic waves crash upon ocean rock. These are things I naturally want to photograph and share, and so that's what I did.

The promise of the Ultra's 108-megapixel sensor is to give you more detail when you crop into a shot. I initially found that wasn't always the case, depending on what it is you're shooting. First, you have to select the setting or else the camera will take 12-megapixel photos, using a process called pixel binning


A deep crop edited after taking this photo from high above with the S20 Ultra's 108-megapixel camera setting.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Second, I learned that I'd have better luck with photos that weren't too close up. For example, I shot a mid-distance photo of blue mussels spiking a rock. I'd have had to wade in to get close enough for a macro, but taking a quick photo in 108 let me crop in with excellent detail on one cluster or another. To get fine detail on a towering flower planted along the coastal path, a regular old macro shot was more than enough.

I've always said that the benefit of extreme zoom is to close a physical distance you can't overcome to see the thing you want to see -- like the cornice of a palace or a celebrity on stage. The photo may not be frame-worthy, but it's better than having nothing at all. 

In Monterey, the S20 Ultra's 10x, 30x and even 100x zoom, which rely on AI algorithms, were useful for photographing giant cormorants clustered on a rock and a man in a chartreuse kayak paddling far out from the shore. When I left Mom to clamber up a hill of rocks, both zoom and 108-megapixel photos let me photograph her waving from below.

These probably aren't features you'll use every day, but I'm starting to feel that I might use them more than I initially thought.

A few more camera details

  • Samsung said it made the S20's sensors three times larger than those of the Galaxy S10 to let in more light. 
  • Photos are clear, sharp and colorful overall. Here are some test shots from the Galaxy S20 Ultra so far.
  • 108-megapixel images take up far more space, say two to eight times the storage for many shots.
  • Photos taken at 10x and 30x zoom are better quality than 100x zoom.
  • At 100x, the camera's space zoom gets too shaky for clear handheld shots. Use a tripod or monopod, or stabilize it against a surface.
  • Some photos I shot close-up were actually noisier in 108 when I zoomed in (on the laptop screen and the phone screen) than they were taken with the standard photo mode.

Battery life with the 120Hz screen

The Galaxy S20 devices support 120Hz refresh rates on the screen. That means its pixels refresh 120 times a second, twice that of the standard 60Hz refresh rate. The idea is to make everything from scrolling and animations to gameplay liquid smooth. The feature isn't on by default, and it isn't in the quick access bar, so you have to turn it on yourself. Samsung expects you to either use it all the time or never, rather than having you toggle it for gaming and then reverting. The choice, of course, is yours. 

Using 120Hz immediately took a battery toll on the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Granted, I hit the phone hard with three hours of Google Maps navigation to and from Monterey. And I constantly used the phone to photograph and record my surroundings. But I lost power at a higher rate than I'd expect for a device with such an generous battery. After 10.5 hours, I had dropped from 100% to 12%, and still had hours of evening to go. Thankfully, the phone fully charged in under an hour, using the 25-watt charger that comes in the box.

It's hard to say how long the battery would have lasted with the 60Hz refresh rate. Maybe I'd have seen a dip too, but I'm not sure that the extra smoothness from the 120Hz screen is worth battery anxiety for me. Meanwhile, the battery testing continues.

Battery life without 120Hz or 5G: Very good

Straight out of the box, I had confidence that the Galaxy S20 Ultra could withstand most things I threw at it -- at least over 4G data and using the 60Hz default screen refresh rate. (I've already mentioned the apparent battery toll of the 120Hz mode above.)

As for  5G , these faster speeds are known to drain battery reserves faster than 4G, but that's not something I've been able to quantify yet. At this point, the Galaxy S20 Ultra isn't quite calibrated to  AT&T's  5G network, and I've been testing on an AT&T SIM. AT&T and Samsung assure me that by the time the Ultra arrives on store shelves, 5G will be good to go. I also swapped in a T-Mobile SIM card to use all day, but wasn't able to find 5G signal anywhere I was. 

On 4G, the S20 Ultra retained impressive battery reserves even after hours of hotspotting to my laptop, streaming Netflix video, and uploading dozens of photos and video over cellular. I'm not at all concerned about running low. 

Galaxy S20 shines in bright, pastel colors

See all photos

The Ultra's enormous camera bump worries me

Samsung redesigned all of the Galaxy S20 Ultra's cameras and gave its premiere phone the biggest camera array of the S20 devices. The module is inescapably large, about an inch by an inch and a half if I eyeball it, and it rises from the surface. It's unsightly, but more importantly, I worry about protecting the glass over the sensors.

When I set the phone down on its back on a tabletop, or reposition it, I can feel and hear the bump scrape across the surface. If this phone were to fall out of my hands and hit the pavement, that module would probably be the first thing to crack. Unfortunately, I know this scenario firsthand. The same thing happened when the Galaxy Note 10 Plus took a nosedive out of my pocket after I finished reviewing the phone.

I'm counting on a case to make the camera module feel more flush, and better protect it during drops. Broken glass across the sensors can downgrade photo quality.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

The S20 Ultra's camera bump is loud and proud.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Other Galaxy S20 Ultra takeaways

  • Its 6.9-inch screen is bright and brilliant, with Samsung's Dynamic AMOLED 2X tech. Ironically, the screen's pixel density is a tad lower than on the other S20 phones, but without having those review units from Samsung, I can't yet compare them side by side.
  • The Galaxy S20 Ultra feels really heavy (7.76 ounces or 220 grams) and compared to the Galaxy Z Flip I reviewed earlier this week, my hand gets pretty tired holding it while watching video.
  • The cosmic gray color my review unit came in reminds me of modeling clay in the worst way. Buy it in black or get a case.
  • You can feel the edges of Samsung's preapplied screen protector when you swipe the edges of the screen (e.g. when using Android 10's gesture navigation). It isn't the best feeling.
  • I love using the Edge display panel as an apps shortcut bar, and I also love the ability to lock the tab and change its color so I can easily find it no matter which screen I'm on.
  • Design-wise, it isn't as refined as the Galaxy Note 10 Plus, but the stubbier (and less rounded) edges do make it easier to place a cursor at the edge of the screen without my finger falling off the edge.
  • Since the cosmic gray backing isn't as mirrored, fingerprint smudging is less apparent.
  • Benchmarking tests back up my impression that the S20 Ultra handles tasks extremely quickly.
Watch this: Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra's 100x zoom makes snooping easier

Galaxy S20, S20 Plus, S20 Ultra specs

Samsung Galaxy S20Samsung Galaxy S20 PlusSamsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Display size, resolution 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X
Pixel density 563ppi525ppi511ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 2.72x5.97x0.311 in2.9x6.37x0.30 in2.99x6.57x0.35 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 69.1x151.7x7.9 mm73.7x161.9x7.8mm76.0x166.9x8.8mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.75 oz; 163g6.56 oz; 186g7.76 oz; 220g
Mobile software Android 10Android 10Android 10
Camera 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide)12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide), time-of-flight camera108-megapixel (wide-angle), 48-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide), time-of-flight camera
Front-facing camera 10-megapixel10-megapixel40-megapixel
Video capture 8K8K8K
Processor 64-bit octa-core processor (Max 2.7GHz + 2.5 GHz + 2.0 GHz)64-bit octa-core processor (Max 2.7GHz + 2.5 GHz + 2.0 GHz)64-bit octa-core processor (Max 2.7GHz + 2.5 GHz + 2.0 GHz)
Storage 128GB128GB, 512GB128GB, 512GB
RAM 12GB 12GB12GB, 16GB
Expandable storage Up to 1TBUp to 1TBUp to 1TB
Battery 4,000 mAh4,500 mAh5,000 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screenIn-screenIn-screen
Headphone jack NoNoNo
Special features 5G enabled; 120Hz refresh rate; water resistant (IP68)5G enabled; 120Hz refresh rate; water resistant (IP68)5G enabled; 120Hz refresh rate; 100x zoom; water resistant (IP68)
Price off-contract (USD) $999$1,199$1,399
Price (GBP) £799, £899 (5G)£999 (5G)£1,199 (128GB), £1,399 (512GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,349, AU$1,499 (5G)AU$1,499, AU$1,649 (5G)AU$1,999

Published earlier this week and updated frequently with new information.