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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.
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.
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.
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.)
, 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
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.
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.
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.