This story is part of Samsung Event, CNET's collection of news, tips and advice around Samsung's most popular products.
Fans of Samsung's Galaxy Note should worry no more. The company's giant, stylus-equipped phones live on in the form of the Galaxy S22 Ultra. The new handset, which starts at $1,200 (£1,149, AU$1,849) and goes on sale Feb. 25, is the Note sequel we never got last year, with a sharper design. It inherits the Galaxy Note's most distinct qualities, such as the S Pen stylus that you can store inside the phone. Plus, it has the same characteristics that the Note and Ultra shared in the past, like a giant screen and a more sophisticated camera.
This fresh coat of paint makes the Galaxy S22 Ultra feel like a big departure from the Galaxy S21 Ultra -- at least on the outside. But on the inside, the S22 Ultra is just a modest upgrade compared with its predecessor. It has a newer chip, a camera that performs better in low light and faster charging than the S21 Ultra, but is otherwise mostly the same. Still, it's a welcome upgrade for Galaxy Note fans who haven't gotten a new option in more than a year.
- S Pen is included with the phone and there's a slot for storing it
- Great low-light photography
- Closer zoom than most competing phones
- Distinct design
- Camera is mostly the same as Galaxy S21 Ultra
- Battery life isn't as long as the S21 Ultra
With that in mind, I'd only recommend upgrading if you have a phone that's older than the Galaxy S20 Ultra or Note 20 Ultra, both of which launched in 2020. If you're trying to decide whether the Ultra is worth buying over the S22 Plus, the S Pen, larger screen and extra telephoto lens should be your deciding factors. Many of the other benefits of the S22 Ultra -- like the upgraded processor and better low-light camera -- are available across all three new phones.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra is a Note clone, but that's a good thing
To say that the Galaxy S22 Ultra looks like the Galaxy Note would be an understatement. During the course of writing this review, I accidentally typed "Note" instead of "Ultra" more times than I can count. The Galaxy S22 Ultra has the same harsh, angular edges that Note fans are familiar with, which gives the phone more of a notepadlike feel.
In this regard it's an improvement over last year's Galaxy S21 Ultra, which in some ways felt like a larger and heavier Galaxy S21. I'm glad Samsung found a way to make its top-of-the-line phone stand out a bit more.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra, like its predecessor, is the largest phone in Samsung's Galaxy S lineup. It has a 6.8-inch screen like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, while the Galaxy S22 Plus has a 6.6-inch display. The standard Galaxy S22's screen measures 6.1 inches, making it about the same size as an iPhone 13. The new Ultra is also slightly wider than last year's phone, which can make it a little challenging to use with one hand. It's around the same width as Apple's iPhone 13 Pro Max, although the Samsung's screen is a hair larger.
Samsung also says the screens on the Ultra and the Plus are its brightest yet. I haven't seen a noticeable difference when using the S22 Ultra alongside the S21 Ultra. But it certainly feels luminous enough even with the brightness set to just about 25% or less.
Samsung's new phones also have a new display feature called Vision Booster, which adjusts the screen depending on your surroundings and makes it more visible in bright scenarios. I noticed that websites with white backgrounds felt a little easier on the eyes and didn't seem to have as much blue light as on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, much like Apple's True Tone feature. But the phones felt equally easy to see in direct sunlight with my sunglasses on.
The S Pen is a nice bonus
What really makes the Galaxy S22 Ultra feel like a Galaxy Note replacement is the inclusion of the S Pen. Samsung says it has improved the S Pen by reducing its latency, meaning it should be better at predicting where you're going to scribble next. It's been a while since I've used an older S Pen model, but the Galaxy S22 Ultra's feels very responsive and smooth.
I've been using it to write down reminders and to-do lists so far, and it feels almost like writing on paper. The overall experience feels just like the Galaxy Note. Simply pop the S Pen out of its slot, and the S22 Ultra will pull up the Air Command menu, which includes S Pen-friendly apps like S Note.
However, editing a Google Doc with the S Pen can still be awkward. When I tried using the handwriting-to-text tool in Google Docs, I noticed that words weren't spaced properly unless I tapped the space bar after each word, which doesn't feel natural when you're handwriting.
That said, the S Pen is still useful for jotting down quick thoughts since the phone can serve as a notepad even when the display is off. That's not new -- the Galaxy Note supported this functionality too -- but it's appreciated nonetheless. During the course of writing this review, I've used the S Pen to write down quick impressions and thoughts when away from my computer, which has been helpful. You can also mark up screenshots and documents with the S Pen, which may be useful for those who need to review documents on their phone.
But I'm still questioning how valuable the S Pen is now that many people have likely shifted to hybrid or remote work. When testing Galaxy Note phones in the past, I found the S Pen came in handy for scrawling quick notes during a meeting or interview. But now most meetings happen virtually via my laptop, where I have a full keyboard in front of me for taking notes.
So far, the S Pen seems like a "nice to have" feature rather than a necessity. But considering Samsung hasn't raised the price of its Ultra model compared with last year's S21 Ultra -- which didn't include an S Pen -- I'm totally fine with that.
A better low-light camera
Like last year's Galaxy S21 Ultra, the Galaxy S22 Ultra comes with a 108-megapixel main sensor, a 12-megapixel ultrawide sensor and two 10-megapixel telephoto lenses. But Samsung says it's made some under-the-hood improvements that should make the S22 Ultra better at snapping photos in dark scenarios and processing detail.
As far as low-light photos are concerned, the Galaxy S22 Ultra delivers for the most part. But this is the only meaningful difference in terms of camera performance between the Galaxy S22 Ultra and the Galaxy S21 Ultra. I noticed slightly more detail and contrast in the S22 Ultra's photos overall, but I had to look closely to pick out these differences.
Since the camera specs sound very similar on paper, you might be wondering what makes the S22 Ultra better at taking low-light photos. Samsung says it's because of a new feature called Adaptive Pixel, which is on all three new Galaxy S22 phones. It allows the camera to combine the resolution from its main sensor with a process known as pixel binning, which blends data from multiple pixels into one giant pixel to improve brightness. Pixel binning isn't new to Galaxy phones, but the ability to fuse it with higher resolution from the main sensor is.
That improvement is reflected in the low-light photo samples from the Galaxy S22 Ultra shown below, particularly when it comes to photos of people. It might be difficult to see at this size, but there's more detail in the S22 Ultra's photo than the Galaxy S21 Ultra's.
Galaxy S22 Ultra
Galaxy S21 Ultra
Even though the S22 Ultra focused well on the subject in the photo above, I did notice that it sometimes struggled to focus on still objects in the dark. You can see an example of this in the photos of Funko toys below, which are slightly out of focus. (That being said, I still think the S22 Ultra's camera produced better color).
Galaxy S22 Ultra
Galaxy S21 Ultra
The Galaxy S22 Ultra also performed decently well against competitors like the Google Pixel 6 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro in dimly lit scenarios, although Apple's phone is definitely Samsung's closest rival. Both phones can produce impressive details and color even with little lighting. But the iPhone 13 Pro sometimes had punchier colors than Samsung's phone, and was also able to focus more clearly on still objects in the dark. I thought the Galaxy S22 Ultra produced brighter and bolder low-light photos than the Pixel 6 Pro. The S22 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro were also both pretty close when it came to recording videos in a dark room. The iPhone's video was a little sharper than the Samsung's, for example, but it also had a yellowish tint, unlike the Galaxy S22 Ultra's footage.
iPhone 13 Pro
Pixel 6 Pro
Take a look at the photos in the gallery below to see more photos taken with the Galaxy S22 Ultra and how they compare with photos taken with the S21 Ultra.
We Put the Galaxy S22 Ultra's Camera to the TestSee all photos
Zoom is Samsung's biggest camera advantage, but that's not new
Like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the S22 Ultra has up to a 10x optical zoom, giving it a big edge over rivals when taking photos from a distance. The Pixel 6 Pro, by comparison, has a 4x optical zoom, while the iPhone 13 Pro can zoom in optically up to 3x. The Galaxy S22 and S22 Plus also have a 3x optical zoom.
Take a look at the images below to see the difference. As you can tell, the S22 Ultra is capable of capturing a much closer perspective than the Pixel 6 Pro, S22 Plus and iPhone 13 Pro.
Galaxy S22 Ultra
iPhone 13 Pro
Pixel 6 Pro
The Samsung also has more to offer when it comes to digital zoom, considering it can zoom in at 100x. The Pixel 6 Pro maxes out at 20x, while the iPhone 13 Pro can zoom up to 15x digitally and the S22 Plus has up to a 30x digital zoom. That being said, the 100x zoom isn't usually very useful since it's not very crisp and can be difficult to focus.
In terms of general camera performance, Samsung also says the Galaxy S22 lineup is capable of processing four times as much data. I noticed this most in Portrait Mode photos, which had better contrast than the S21 Ultra's images.
Galaxy S22 Ultra
Galaxy S21 Ultra
The S22 Ultra also beats the Pixel 6 Pro when it comes to zoomed-in Portrait Mode photos, in my opinion. Although the Pixel 6 Pro may have had better detail, the background was more heavily blurred and didn't look as natural as the Samsung's. Plus, the Samsung's zoomed-in portraits had much better detail than the Pixel's. But overall, I still thought the iPhone 13 Pro provided the best mix of detail and color accuracy of the three phones.
iPhone 13 Pro
Pixel 6 Pro
Samsung also has an app called Expert Raw for pro photographers who want to capture more data and have more control over elements like ISO, shutter speed and white balance. But that app isn't exclusive to the Galaxy S22 Ultra, so anyone looking to take advantage of that extra control could still use it on the cheaper S22 phones.
As for video improvements, Samsung says the new phones should be better at framing multiple people, up to 10 people in a shot, and adjusting the zoom level accordingly. I briefly tried this when taking a video of my husband during the workday, and the camera zoomed in to frame him once it detected him as the subject. I imagine this could be useful for capturing moments like surprise parties or sporting events.
The bottom line is that the S22 Ultra's zoom performance is still the biggest characteristic that sets it apart from the competition as well as from Samsung's cheaper phones. The most noticeable upgrade Samsung has added to the S22 Ultra compared with its predecessor is to low-light photography. Portrait Mode photos also look better, but the difference isn't as noticeable. All told, the S22 Ultra feels like an upgrade that refines elements that were already there, rather than adding something wholly new.
Battery life and performance
The Galaxy S22 Ultra runs on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor in the US and Samsung's Exynos processors in some other regions. But Samsung says there shouldn't be any noticeable differences between the two.
So far, using the Galaxy S22 Ultra has felt as smooth as you would expect from a high-end smartphone. Apps launch quickly and swiping between home screens and settings menus feels fluid. Part of this is also likely thanks to the screen's ability to boost its refresh rate up to 120Hz, a feature also found on Samsung's cheaper S22 models and last year's S21 lineup.
But any phone that costs $1,200 should be capable of these things. The value that new processors bring to smartphones comes down to the new features they power, particularly when it comes to camera performance. Samsung, for example, has said that its camera refinements are thanks in part to the Galaxy S22 lineup's new processor. Google similarly says its Tensor processor brings machine learning enhancements to Pixel 6 phones that improve translation and other capabilities.
Still, if you're interested in general performance, see below for the Galaxy S22 Ultra's benchmark results. The results roughly match the Galaxy S21 Ultra's in tests that measure both general computing in everyday tasks and graphics. The S22 Ultra also scored lower than the iPhone 13 Pro in the general computing test but higher in the graphics processing benchmark.
As far as battery life goes, don't expect to see any improvements here. The Galaxy S22 Ultra comes with a 5,00-mAh battery like its predecessor and lasts for about a day and a half of everyday use. That's about the same as the S21 Ultra, based on my colleague's review. That's not bad, but it would have been nice to see an improvement.
The S22 Ultra also didn't perform as well as comparable phones during CNET's battery test, which involves putting the phone in Airplane mode, setting the brightness to 50% and playing a video on repeat. It lasted for 18 hours, 11 minutes, while last year's 21 Ultra kept going for 22 hours, 57 minutes. The Galaxy S22 Plus barely outlasted the S22 Ultra at 18 hours, 38 minutes during the same test.
It's important to note that I had the refresh rate set to 120Hz for both phones during this test, which is turned on by default. You can get longer battery life by lowering the refresh rate to 60Hz. You should also remember that battery life will vary depending on many factors, including settings such as screen brightness and which apps you're using. We've asked Samsung about the Galaxy S22 Ultra's battery life and will update this review accordingly. We also plan to run the battery test again in both 120Hz and 60Hz mode in the near future.
Should you upgrade?
The Galaxy S22 Ultra is mostly an iterative update to the S21 Ultra, but wrapped in a new Galaxy Note-inspired look. It has the standard upgrades you'd expect from a next-generation phone -- such as a newer processor -- but is otherwise very similar. This feels like an update really aimed at Galaxy Note fans, especially those who may have passed on the Note 20 Ultra and are looking to upgrade from a phone that came out more than two years ago.
The inclusion of the S Pen and better low-light photography are the most noticeable improvements by far. If you already have an S21 Ultra, there's no need to upgrade since you can always buy an S Pen separately. Since Samsung hasn't raised the price of the S22 Ultra since last year, I don't mind the two phones' many similarities. I only wish Samsung had improved the S22 Ultra's battery life.
If you own a Galaxy S20 Ultra, the biggest changes you'd get with the S22 Ultra are an additional telephoto lens, the S Pen, a processor that's substantially newer and better low-light photography. Note 20 Ultra owners, meanwhile, will also see a bigger leap forward in camera performance, considering Samsung's last high-end Note only has one 12-megapixel telephoto lens and a 5x optical zoom. The S22 Ultra also has a slightly larger battery than the Note 20 Ultra.
That might be worth an upgrade for some people, but where you really start to see a difference is when upgrading from older phones in the S10 generation and earlier. Not only does the S10 Plus run on a much older processor, but it also lacks the 108-megapixel main camera Samsung began putting in its high-end phones starting with the S20 Ultra.
If you're trying to decide between the S22 Plus and S22 Ultra, the biggest considerations should be screen size, the S Pen and the camera's telephoto lens. Those are the major elements that set this phone apart from Samsung's 6.6-inch Galaxy S22 Plus. Yes, the S22 Ultra has a higher-resolution main camera lens, but the S22 Plus still takes great photos that are almost just as good as the Ultra's in some cases.
All told, the S22 Ultra is the Galaxy Note upgrade we never got last year. It doesn't push things forward in a major way compared with last year's Ultra, so it's only worth upgrading if you have a phone that's at least two years old. But since Samsung isn't raising the price, I'm alright with that.