A couple of weeks ago, I attended Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked event with Moor Insights & Strategy analysts Anshel Sag and Mark Vena, where Samsung released its new line of phones. You can find Moor Insights & Strategy Senior Analyst Anshel Sag’s coverage of the S20 here. You can find my coverage of the S20 lineup here, as well as my review of the Z Flip here.
Last year at the Samsung Galaxy Unpacked event, Samsung released its S10 lineup, where we saw for the first time Samsung’s hole-punch display design and 5G. You can see my full coverage of 2019’s Samsung Galaxy Unpacked event here. The S10 lineup made many firsts and set the stage for the release of the Note10 series later in the year, all while being in the shadows of Samsung’s first foldable device. I don’t think the S20 lineup is dwarfed by the shadow of the Z Flip like the S10 lineup was last year with the Galaxy Fold. In terms of raw specs, the Galaxy S20 is the best of the best for Samsung and for that matter, the industry, with a price to show it.
The S20 Ultra is the most powerful and feature-filled model of the S20 lineup, and I want to give my two-week review of the device. My review unit is an Unlocked S20 Ultra 5G in Cosmic Black with 12 GB of memory and 128 GB of storage and I’m using it on T-Mobile’s sub 6GHz 5G Network in Austin. Net-net, if you are a power user and you were ever considering switching from a high-end Apple iPhone, now’s your chance as I believe the S20 Ultra eclipses every other phone in nearly every enthusiast use case.
A refined Galaxy S design
The S20 lineup is the first generation of Galaxy phones since Samsung’s curved edge technology that Samsung has dialed back the curved edge. After using many Samsung curved displays, I think the S20 Ultra hit a sweet spot on the angle of the curve. It is a big phone and sometimes curved devices make the device more slippery. The slight curve adds a nice touch to the feel of the device, especially since it is Samsung's largest smartphone with a whopping 6.9-inch display.
The back is all glass and leaves a good number of fingerprints which I’m okay with since I used a thin case. Unlike the S20 and S20+, the Ultra only comes in two colors, Cosmic Black and Cosmic Gray which is about as exciting as I get. I think black and gray are too similar of colors to be the only two choices forever, but when I consider the target market, me, it’s OK. The S20 Ultra has everything a consumer could want in a smartphone, especially smartphone enthusiasts, but it makes for an impressive enterprise-level smartphone as well. You can read more about my opinions on the S20 lineup for enterprise here.
I believe Samsung did a fantastic job of taking great design aspects from the S10 line and the Note10 line and making it work for the S20 Ultra. For example, the Note10+ has a 6.8-inch display, but Samsung didn’t make the S20 Ultra squared off like the Note. It kept the round feel of the S series. The front camera isn’t to the right side of the display like the S10, but rather is in the center like the Note10. It is also smaller than the Note10’s single-camera hole. I like the camera hole in the center of the display where it feels planned and not as though Samsung was trying to get rid of the camera by pushing it to the side. The fingerprint scanner under the display is a little snappier than the Note10 which is good to see. Samsung did away with the Bixby button, a design choice I’m glad they made since I found myself pressing the button accidentally more times than purposely.
The camera bump on the back of the S20 Ultra is the biggest I’ve seen on a smartphone, but it’s nothing a case won’t make look better. The $15 Spigen case I use sits flush with the camera bump without making me worry about it breaking if I drop it. With the slight curve and the large camera bump, the S20 Ultra is very case friendly. Literally, the phone begs for a case.
The raw specs of the camera blow away all phones, including the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, out of the water. The four rear cameras consist of a 12MP ultra wide-angle camera with F2.2 aperture, a 108MP wide-angle camera with optical image stabilization (OIS) and F1.8 aperture, a DepthVision camera, and a 48MP camera with 100x Space Zoom and F3.5 aperture.
The S20 and S20+ have an ultra-wide, a 64MP wide-angle and telephoto cameras. The S20+ also has a DepthVision camera, while the S20 does not. The S20 and S20+ also have higher resolution telephoto cameras at 64MP versus the S20 Ultra’s 48MP, but with a lower optical magnification. Additionally, both the S20 and S20+ do not have a 108MP wide-angle main camera, but instead a 12MP wide-angle camera. It’s all a bit confusing, but the easiest thing to know is that the Ultra has the best of everything in terms of sensors and optics.
CNET wrote an excellent review of the cameras that you can find here. I want to go over more of the highlights of these impressive cameras. The 108MP wide-angle camera takes incredibly detailed photos and videos. It uses Samsung’s nona-binning technology to combine 9 pixels into 1 for a more detailed 12MP shot. It is also capable of filming crazy (in a good way) 8k (7680x4320 pixels) video at 30 fps with the ability to snap pictures in 8k along the way. The 48MP telephoto camera uses a cutting-edge folding lens technology for a 10x Hybrid-Optic Zoom that keeps the detail of the shot. Then, using AI multi-frame processing, the camera can achieve a 100x zoom. The 100x zoom isn’t that practical and only usable in certain situations because of blurriness, but I found a sweet spot at 30x zoom. 30X zoom is incredible. I noticed a problem with the focus in certain situations from 3-5 feet but it was momentary. Samsung told me they are working on a software fix and updates. It seems like a software issue that can be resolved with an update. We’ll see.
The front camera on the S20 Ultra is also different from the S20 and S20+. It has a 40MP selfie camera compared to a 10MP camera—a nice unexpected step-up for higher quality selfies and video.
On the other end of the camera features, Samsung introduced new software features that take advantage of these high spec cameras. Night Mode and Hyperlapse take advantage of the cameras’ larger sensors to capture more light in darker shots. Live Focus Video takes advantage of the DepthVision camera to focus in on the shot. The Super Steady mode uses AI motion analysis and an improved anti-rolling stabilizer. The Ultra represents the beginning of the 8K revolution and not perfect, does give bragging rights could be worth it alone.
My experience was mind-blowing and Samsung gives yet another reason to upgrade.
120Hz display a game-changer
The S20 Ultra’s 6.9-inch Quad HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2x Infinity-O display on the S20 Ultra is the best display I have ever seen on a smartphone in every category. I have come to expect this from Samsung as it is, well, the leader in smartphone displays for the entire industry, even supplying Apple many of its dipslays. It is an HDR10+ certified screen, which means I could view the HDR shots I took from the cameras natively. It is big and vibrant and has a max resolution of 3200 x 1440 pixels. As I said before, the hole punch is smaller it never get in the way of me watching media.
It's hard to put into words how big of an experiential difference a 120Hz display makes. Navigation across apps and on the home screen is buttery smooth and, in general, feels snappy compared to the standard 60Hz we see in other smartphones. I think it puts into perspective the quality of the display and the quality of hardware that goes into one of these devices. While other phones did the 120Hz first, none did it like Samsung with WQHD+(3200x1440) and a near bezel-less display. Sure it chews up more battery but that’s what the 5,000 mAH battery is for.
The battery in the S20 Ultra is large. No, it’s huge. The S20 Ultra has an impressive 5,000 mAh battery, and to put that into perspective, that is 700 mAh more than the Note10+.
It supports Wireless Power Sharing, Wireless Charging 2.0, and comes with a 25W charger. A 45W charger is optional for the S20 Ultra as we saw with the Note10+ and that 45W charger was noticeably faster with the Note10+. Make sure you try it out from a 5% charge as this is where the 45W charger shows its prowess versus starting at 50%. The phone is smart enough to know to back off a bit versus charging from a low level.
The one day I only got a full day of usage out of the S20 Ultra, the 45W charger helped and got me up and running quickly. My battery use was with 120Hz refresh rate and constant sub-6GHz 5G. However, I believe both are worth experiencing and keeping, even though they are the differential battery drainers. I believe most users will get over a full day of use.
The S20 Ultra is one of the first devices to have the Snapdragon 865 SoC. Mine had 12GB of memory and 128GB of storage with other models going up to 16GB of memory and 512GB of storage. 16GB of memory is a lot, especially for a phone. To put that into perspective, the iPhone 6s was the first Apple iPhone to offer more than 16GB of storage on its standard model, and it came out a little more than five years ago. It was exciting to see Samsung and other leading innovators put 512GB of storage into its devices, but to see Samsung take it a step further and put 16GB of memory into its flagship phone is astounding.
Most computers come with a standard 8GB stick of RAM. Samsung is putting laptop-level specs into a “tiny” device. I imagine the average user won’t ever use all 16GB of memory right now but it’s there if you need it. For some, like enterprise-level users and DeX enthusiasts, the 16GB of memory can take them to the next step of replacing their laptop with a smartphone.
While all of the S20 devices have 5G, the S20 Ultra and S20+ are the only ones that support all bands of 5G, including the faster mmWave. They support mmWave, SA, NSA, and sub6 bands of 5G. T-Mobile only has sub6 in Austin for now, but I am excited to use mmWave when I travel.
Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra is a beast of a phone. In every category of raw specs, it has outperformed and even set the standard for what a flagship device is for power users. It has the best camera system in any smartphone with features that border professional photography. It has the best display I have ever seen with a 120Hz refresh rate. It has leading-class 5G and laptop-level components. All with the biggest battery in the game.
Net-net, if you were ever considering switching from a high-end Apple iPhone, now’s the time as the S20 Ultra eclipses every other phone in nearly every power use case. I think the iPhone delivers a very consistent experience, is great for my family, and I used to use it as my primary phone when it delivered best on my personal, enthusiast use cases. My primary phone now is the Galaxy Fold and while I still use an iPhone to test experiences with, my daily driver is a Galaxy. For those enthusiasts who didn’t see the experiential value in the Fold value proposition or it just wasn’t the right time, you really need to consider the Galaxy S20 Ultra with its incredible camera (100X, 8K, 108MP, HDR10+), 5G wireless (sub6, mmWave, SA, NSA), display (6.9”, 120Hz), huge battery (5,000 mAH), and PC levels of storage (1TB) and memory (16GB).
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is available for pre-order and goes on sale for $1,399.99 this Friday, March 6th. Between February 21 and March 5, 2020, those who pre-order an S20 device from Samsung.com can get a $100 Samsung credit with a Galaxy S20, $150 Samsung credit with a Galaxy S20+ or $200 Samsung credit with a Galaxy S20 Ultra.