Samsung Galaxy S20 worth the upgrade? It depends on the camera and battery life

Commentary: The S20's two most valuable features are a waiting game.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Director, Commerce & Content Operations
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).
Expertise Content strategy, team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Samsung, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
Jessica Dolcourt
3 min read
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

The Galaxy S20 Ultra's camera performance could make all the difference. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

"Whoa. This is the Galaxy S20 Ultra?" I was so surprised, I said it aloud. Samsung's Unpacked event was the first time I got my hands on Samsung's biggest and baddest Galaxy S20 device. Due to unfortunate circumstances, I had to skip the typical journalist briefing session, so it wasn't until I held the S20 Ultra earlier this week that I was able to form my first concrete opinion.

Here's the first, but least important of the bunch: The S20 Ultra is a massive, heavy phone with a hulking camera module that reminded me of The Rock. CNET Senior Editor Lynn La went even further, calling the array "chonky" and grotesque".

Picking through submenus looking for thrilling new tools to jump out, it dawned on me. The Galaxy S20 Ultra's MVP features distill down to those completely redesigned cameras, the longevity of the Ultra's 5,000-mAh battery, and to a lesser extent, 5G. You can't truly get a grip on any of these in an artificially lit demo room, no matter how spacious. 

Understanding if the S20 Ultra is worth buying or worth upgrading from will take time, for sure, but I have opinions.

Dissecting the S20 Ultra's eye-popping camera specs is simple enough in theory. There's a 108-megapixel camera, 100x "space zoom" and a 48-megapixel "folded zoom lens." 

It was easy to point the intense zoom camera at the nice props around the room, like a tray of fancy yogurt parfait and journalist friends, to quickly gauge how well each camera feature performed. That's fine and necessary in a closed demo space, but you don't really know how good the photos are until you start taking pictures of scenes in the real world.

Camera value doesn't come down to the image quality alone, either. You also have to factor in how easy it is to use the feature correctly, edit photos and share them. For example, after testing the "Single Take" mode that captures up to 10 photos and four videos with a single button press, I was starting to get the distinct impression that using this mode means you might spend a lot of time deleting all the extra shots you don't want. That was confirmed with some casual shots I took with Single Take on the Galaxy Z Flip foldable phone.

Galaxy S20 shines in bright, pastel colors

See all photos

Testing the zoom feature in real life is especially important. As I pointed the S20 Ultra around the demo room and dialed in on 30x, 50x and 100x zoom, I wasn't immediately impressed with what I saw. But I also wasn't pointing at anything meaningful, like a decorative cornice on a palace, an egret wading in the ocean or a dazzling performer on stage. The benefit to zoom at that magnitude is closing the distance through technology when you can't get your body close enough to frame and take the shot.

Comparing the Galaxy S20 Ultra's zoom capabilities to those of the Huawei P30 Pro will be essential, as well. That S20 Ultra's periscope lens uses similar technology as the P30 Pro to create 5x optical and up to 50x digital zoom. I remember being impressed by Huawei's ability to capture far-off objects more faithfully than not. The same goes for the Pixel 4 and 4 XL's "super zoom" sensors.

Battery life is the final ingredient here. 5,000 mAh is about the biggest capacity around, but we also have to factor in how many resources the phone's enormous screen really uses, how 5G might change the battery equation (that will vary by network). Turning on the 120Hz refresh rate option is also expected to considerably drain battery life compared to the standard 60Hz screen settings.

I'm excited to learn the answers to these Galaxy S20 Ultra questions in the coming weeks when a review unit arrives. Pretty soon when someone asks me if the Galaxy S20 Ultra is worth the $1,400 price, or worth an upgrade from the Galaxy S10, I'll be able to give a clear answer. For now, it's simply: Wait and see.

Originally published earlier this week.