Samsung generally launches two variants of the Galaxy S series every year, the regular one and a Plus variant. This year however, we had the Ultra as well. It made sense considering Samsung would need a device to showcase its 108 MP camera module – its highest ever MP count smartphone camera. We had reviewed the Xiaomi Mi 10 5G earlier, which also had a Samsung 108 MP sensor inside. The Galaxy S20 Ultra also comes with an ultra price tag, starting at Rs 97,999.
So, is this smartphone worth it or should you just opt for the regular Samsung Galaxy S20/S20+? We shall find out in this review. But before we get to reviewing the phone, let’s get a handle on the specs on this monster of a phone.
Display: 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED with 3200 x 1440 pixels w/ pixel density of 511 PPI
Chipset: Exynos 990 (2x 2.73 Ghz Mongoose M5 + 2x 2.5 GHz Cortex A76 + 4x 2 GHz Cortex A55)
Graphics: Mali G77 MP11
RAM + Storage in GB: 12 + 128; 16 + 512 GB
(Device under test: 12/128)
Expandable storage: Yes
Primary Camera: 108 MP camera with f/1.8 aperture, 1/1.33-inch sensor, OIS (Samsung ISOCELL Bright HM1 sensor)
Secondary cameras: 48 MP periscope telephoto camera with f/3.5, 1/ 2.0-inch sensor, OIS, 4x optical zoom and 10x Hybrid zoom + 12 MP Ultrawide camera with f/2.2 + 0.3 MP TOF sensor with f/1.0
Selfie Camera: 40 MP camera with f/2.2 aperture
Battery: 5,000 mAh
Software: Android 10 (7 July 2020 patch) with OneUI 2.1 skin
Colours: Cosmic Gray
Samsung delivers excellent cameras overall, but there are some noticeable flaws
Let’s begin with the highlight of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which is the 108 MP camera and its promise of 100x Space Zoom. Let’s just start off with one basic fact: 100x space zoom is academic. It’s a fabulous marketing term, but there is not one usable image you can get from the 100x space zoom. It’s noisy even in daylight, and good luck trying to keep the frame steady when shooting 100x, handheld. Optical zoom is only limited to 4x thanks to the 48 MP telephoto camera. The 10x hybrid zoom combines image information from the primary 108 MP and 48 MP telephoto cameras. Up to 10x, you get usable images. Above this, the other zoom levels are just talking points. Yes, it is worth praising how you can go from 0.5x wide-angle to 100x space zoom, but in real-world use cases, you won’t bother going beyond 30x zoom. The image sample examples below highlight this amply. You won't bother with 100x zoom after the first few days.
Before we go further, what exactly is the ‘Periscope’ telephoto lens? Generally, zoom lenses have light pass through them and hit the sensor in a straight line. With Periscope telephoto, instead of hitting the sensor directly, light actually gets bent as it passes through a mirror and prism and then hits the sensor. The technology is derived from periscopes used on submarines which let people under water see what’s above water as light bounces off a set of mirrors and prisms before it hits the eyes. Using this philosophy on smartphone cameras helps design thinner zoom modules.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Flickr Album:
Samsung uses its ISOCELL Bright HM1 sensor for the primary camera. By default, the S20 Ultra will give you 12 MP images using the pixel binning process. As the S20 Ultra combines nine pixels into one large pixel, it terms this pixel binning as ‘nonabinning’. Okay then. You will need to select the “3:4 108 MP” mode to get full res 108 MP images. This will remove the on-screen zoom buttons. But use this mode only where you need to capture small details in complicated scenes such as landscape photography, and be mindful that using this mode in low light mode will also amplify noise. I noticed that even when shooting some daylight images, shadow areas showed some softness when I saw the image at actual size. You will get much sharper images if you use the regular 12 MP image. Not to mention, each 108 MP image will be upwards of 25-30 MB in size. The S20 Ultra offers expandable storage, so you can add in up to 1 TB with a microSD card if you so wish.
Daylight images are excellent and there are no issues with centre and edge sharpness using the primary camera. With the ultrawide camera, you notice a drop off in the sharpness around the edges and it’s certainly the least impressive camera. Inspecting the images at 100 percent crops, I did notice the textures around the edges getting smooth.
The image processing when it sees faces in the frame is a bit off, I felt. I noticed smoothening and a slight reddening of the face, which was strange, as I had no beautification modes on. Maybe it’s something that needs to be checked with a software update. During our S20+ review we faced similar issues.
Low light images are impressive on the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. While the ‘Night’ mode delivers noticeably better images than the native camera, the annoying aspect of the ‘Night’ mode is that it adds a whole unnecessary level of brightness to the image, which wasn’t there in the actual scene. And after every image capture, processing take a few seconds. Best to use this mode judiciously ― for instance, on a well-lit street post sundown, it’s just better to use the native camera over the ‘Night’ mode. Just look at the images below. The photo on the right had ‘Night’ mode on, but it produced horrible colours despite keeping things sharp. The native photo on the left was noisy, but retained the colours. This over-the-top processing for night-time images leads to unreal pictures. If you like that kind of aesthetic, you’re in luck.
The S20 Ultra can shoot up to 8K resolution videos, but just like the 100x space zoom, this only looks great on paper. 8K videos have no real utility at the moment, where there is no way to really enjoy them and if you are thinking about editing them, well, you need to have exceedingly powerful machines to do that. Samsung claims that you can extract 33 MP stills from the 8K footage, but you need to ensure that you are shooting this mode on a tripod, as even a slight movement will produce slightly blurry output. The 33 MP still I extracted from footage shows noticeable purple fringing, while not being totally sharp.
The camera offers a 4K recording mode at 30 and 60 FPS. But turn on ‘SuperSteady’ mode to get stutter-free footage, and the video resolution gets dialled down to Full HD. This is baffling. The Apple iPhone has been offering 4K at 60 FPS with stellar image stabilisation since the iPhone X - a two-generation old phone. A smartphone priced close to a lakh without stabilised 4K video is confounding. This factor itself gives the iPhone 11 series a huge advantage over the S20 Ultra. The Full HD footage was good, and I noticed focus hunting only while panning. SuperSteady mode produces really good stabilised footage. Video quality is among the best on Android smartphones. As the light levels drop, the softness of the footage begins to increase and so does the focus hunting. On the whole, I liked the video camera on the S20 Ultra, but it’s a bummer that 4K footage is full of stutter due to the lack of stabilisation.
The ‘Single Take’ mode on the S20 Ultra lets you shoot a variety of images and formats offered by the camera in a single 10-sec burst. I found it a bit gimmicky, but it’s great to play around with if you are not sure how you want to capture a scene. One good thing for those who trip on the Boomerang feature of Instagram is that it captures 3-4 sec of such videos in the Single Take mode, at times even with music on. After the image is shot, you are presented with 3-4 images and some videos or GIFs to choose from. You can add a crown over the image or video which you want to show up as the best shot. Images in the gallery with a circular symbol showing at the bottom left hand corner of the image thumbnail are the ‘Single Take’ albums.
On the front, the S20 Ultra sports a 40 MP selfie camera with an f/2.2 aperture. It captured good-looking selfies outdoors. The selfies taken indoors do come out well, but have a bit of softness about them when you pixel-peep. Even when shooting against light, the camera is able to capture ample details on your face. The live focus mode on the Samsung has nothing on the Portrait mode of even the Pixel 3A XL.
Build and Design: Massive slab of glass with the largest camera module
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra will easily stand out in the crowd thanks to its unique design. A large part of that goes to the huge camera module which houses not only the cameras, flash and focussing sensor but also the 100x space zoom branding beside the telephoto camera. This detailed camera module protrudes out quite a bit from the plane of the rear and as a result, its edges attract a lot of fine dust particles, which are difficult to get rid of quickly and of course, the phone wobbles when facing up. Both the front and the back of the S20 Ultra are protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 6, which makes for a sturdy package.
Thankfully, despite the glossy back, the phone wasn’t as much of a smudge magnet as one would have expected. Any smudges collected are easy to wipe off. The back curves around the edges leading to a better grip. The 6.9-inch display is mostly flat, with only the slightest curve around the edges. It’s nothing like that found on previous-generation Galaxy flagships. Thanks to the 20:9 aspect ratio, the width of the phone is easy to manage. Samsung has gone with an in-screen fingerprint sensor, so it eschews the need for face scanner. There’s only a selfie camera on the front of the otherwise end-to-end display. Even the earpiece speaker appears as a slit atop the display.
While the left-hand edge is clean, the volume rocker and the power/standby button is on the right hand side. At the base, you have the USB Type C interface in the centre, with a speaker grille on its right. At the top edge, on the left-hand side is the hybrid SIM card slot. There is no 3.5 mm audio jack on the phone, but Samsung bundles an AKG in-ear headset with USB Type C interface.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra comes with IP68 dust/water resistant for up to 1.5 m submersion for 30 mins underwater. Now while the device is just 8.8 mm thick, thanks to the curved edges on the back, it feels massive. One-handed operation is impossible, and it also weighs a heavy 222 grams. It’s a solidly-built device. The phone comes with a transparent silicone case which, when snapped on, aligns with the protrusion of the camera module.
The display is gorgeous: skip the WQHD+ and opt for 120 Hz FHD+ resolution instead
One generally associates large displays with the Samsung Galaxy Note series, but with the Galaxy S20 Ultra sporting a 6.9-inch display, things are entering Note territory. It’s a massive display and definitely not meant for one-handed use. On many occasions, reaching out to the corners while trying to adjust the phone single-handedly resulted in sore thumb muscles. So, unless you have Hulk hands, you will most likely be using two hands while using the phone.
Coming with a 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED display, the S20 Ultra has a maximum resolution of 3200 x 1440 pixels. But under the display settings, you can set the display to either HD+ (1600 x 720 pixels), FHD+ (2400 x 1080 pixels) or the max WQHD+ (3200 x 1440 pixels) as well as have the refresh rate at 60 Hz or 120 Hz. For the purpose of this test, I kept things at FHD+ and 120 Hz. If you want the highest of resolutions, you will have to forego the 120 Hz refresh rate; only 60 Hz is available. It’s a bummer to not have 120 Hz refresh rate at the highest resolution, but I am assuming that would really hit overall battery life. However, even at FHD+ resolution, I did not face any issues with the sharpness of the display - 381 pixels per inch is still plenty sharp. WQHD+ is great if you are reading text on the S20 Ultra, but for most other purposes the FHD+ display with 120 Hz refresh rate is an optimal solution.
The display is as you would expect from a Samsung flagship - it ticks all the boxes. It’s amply bright, the blacks are deep, contrast is really good and thanks to HDR10+ support, it was a pleasure to enjoy supported Netflix and YouTube content on this display. The punch hole selfie placed in the centre does not interfere when you are viewing videos or playing games. Unless you are using apps in the full screen mode, the selfie camera isn’t a bother. Sunlight legibility for the display is good, although during the testing phase, most days were overcast. There is fairly little to complain about the display quality.
Performance is top-notch, although the phone does get warm; OneUI 2 is a good interface
We have reached a point with flagship devices where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pick flaws with the overall performance. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra sports the top of the line Exynos 990 chipset (the Snapdragon 865 variant is only available in the USA) paired with a Mali G7 MP11 GPU. Benchmark numbers on Geekbench 5, PC Mark for Android and 3D Mark are comparable to the Snapdragon 865 SoC-sporting smartphones. When compared to the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, the Geekbench score is slightly lower. But at Tech2 we like to think that benchmark numbers are just an indicator, and mean fairly little in real-life use case scenarios.
The S20 Ultra, with its powerful internals and an optimised OneUI 2, makes using the phone a smooth operation. I would go for the 120 Hz refresh rate even at the cost of a slightly lower resolution. Honestly, you can’t tell the difference unless you are really observing the phone very closely. The sheer joy of using a 120 Hz refresh rate on such a brilliant display is unmatched. Also, 12 GB RAM also lets you store up to three apps in the RAM, so that even when you close all the open apps, the three with the lock sign will remain visible.
Heating issues do crop up every once in a while. It is easily noticeable when you are shooting with the camera. Now. most of the days I was shooting, the conditions were overcast and the sun wasn’t shining as much as I would have liked. But even in those conditions, you could feel the area around the camera module warming up quickly. Shoot a Single Take image or a video with the steady mode on, and you will know what I mean. But as soon as I was out of those apps, the phone cooled down as though nothing had happened. At no point did the camera app shut down nor did it lead to any anomalous behaviour. Even gaming warms up the back of the phone, but without the risk of shutting down the app.
I liked that the display wasn’t noticeably curved around the edges, which automatically led to fewer unwanted palm presses. This is something which I had experienced a lot with the Note 10 last year. Palm rejection is quite good.
Call quality on the phone is excellent. And while the phone supports 5G, it’s pointless as there will be another generation of Samsung flagship updates before 5G even starts to work in India. Audio output of the S20 UItra is quite good. You can easily watch a video or listen to audio without earphones indoors, as the volume is quite loud. Samsung has bundled AKG in-ears with a Type C interface, which come with a braided cable and have decent sound quality.
The in-screen fingerprint scanner is still a bit of a hit-and-miss. In many instances, I would get instructions to press harder, or it just wouldn’t unlock the phone despite multiple presses. With a bit of moisture on the fingers, sometimes the phone unlocks and most times it doesn’t. It definitely needs a lot of optimisation, as this is the only ‘slow’ aspect of this otherwise powerful flagship.
OneUI 2.0, the Samsung skin atop Android 10, is quite a good experience when compared with the earlier skins that Samsung would force down our throats. One thing I really appreciated was Samsung asking me which apps I would want on my phone at the first boot. There were tonnes of Samsung apps which you can opt out of if you don’t want them. That’s the way to go instead of installing random system apps which can’t be uninstalled. Yes, I am looking at you Xiaomi, Realme, Vivo ― who use the same UI tactics on expensive phones as the ones used on their budget devices. But then, you enter Quick Menu tab by swiping down and you are presented with as many as 30 options to turn on/off. The other complaint I had was the jumbo size of apps in the app drawer, despite having a choice to adjust the grids on the home screens.
Battery takes a hit with high-end gaming, otherwise can last well over a day
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra houses a 5,000 mAh Li-Po battery and it comes bundled with a 45W charger to enable fast charging. As it’s the top-of-the-line Galaxy S-series device, it also comes with support for wireless charging and can be used to reverse wirelessly charge accessories such as true wireless earphones, or other smartphones which support wireless charging with the Qi standard. Reverse wireless charging is capped at 9W.
Thanks to the 5,000 mAh battery, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra lasted around a day and a half on regular usage when the resolution was FHD+ with a 120 Hz refresh rate. With the WQHD resolution, I got around a day on regular use. When I say regular use, I mean two emails on sync, Telegram and Slack being on, 30-40 photos per day, an hour of podcasts and an hour of video viewing. Gaming and camera shooting hits the battery particularly hard. I played Call of Duty for around 30 mins and while the experience was excellent, it used up 10 percent of the battery. If you are planning to game for long hours, expect the battery to drain out within a day. Battery life could have been better, but with the bundled fast charger, I didn’t find it to be too much of an issue. If you are not going to do a lot of gaming, you can easily extract over a day’s battery life from the S20 Ultra. I got an average of 6 hours plus of screen on time.
Samsung’s OneUI offers multiple battery saving modes to play around with such as ‘High Performance’ mode; ‘Optimised’ mode (the mode under testing); ‘Medium Power Saving’ mode and ‘Maximum power saving’ mode. If you don’t know which mode is right for you, you can select the ‘Adaptive’ power saving mode, which will detect which power mode will save more battery life, and select it accordingly in the background.
Charging is quick, and it took a mere 70 minutes to go from 0-100 percent. Even a 20-minute charge can give you around 35 percent battery, which is good enough for a few hours of use, in case you are in a rush.
Verdict and Price in India
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra starts at Rs 97,999 which is a steep price compared to the regular S20 series. It’s still less than the Apple iPhone 11 Pro series of smartphones. So, for the verdict, I’ll just keep things short and simple and answer the questions that you may have in mind at this stage.
- Should I buy this phone? If you have around Rs 1 lakh set aside, sure, why not?
- Do I really need to buy this phone? No, the regular S20/S20+ are great phones as well.
- Is this phone a good value proposition? What qualifies as "Value for money" for me may be different than your estimation, so there is no one answer to that. Objectively speaking, you can get top-of-the-line Android smartphones such as the OnePlus 8 Pro (Review) for half this price. The question remains, are you fine with letting go of the bragging rights of a 108 MP camera phone which has 100x zoom?
- Is the 108 MP camera worth it? The camera on the S20 Ultra is great and offers good video output as well. But, if you are buying this solely for that ‘100x Space Zoom’ feature, please don’t.
- Is this better than the iPhone 11 Pro Max? Yes and no. There are many areas where the iPhone 11 Pro Max is better than the S20 Ultra (such as video camera, low light photography, battery life) but the S20 Ultra offers a gorgeous display, a variety of camera options to play around with, storage expansion and more. Samsung and Apple are arch-rivals and each have their strong and weak points. If you are in the Apple ecosystem, you will most likely go for the iPhone 11 Pro Max (Review) over this. If not, the S20 Ultra makes for a good choice. It’s not a black and white answer.
- Should I buy this or wait for the Galaxy Note 20 or the new iPhone? We’ll have to wait until we test those devices. Future devices will always have some improvement over the current generation, but where do you draw the line on waiting in a market where flagships are being launched every other month?
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