Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: The phone you want, but don’t really need

Nimish Sawant
·11-min read

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.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Tech2/Nimish Sawant
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Tech2/Nimish Sawant

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Tech2/Nimish Sawant

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.

Specifications

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

Samsung S20 Ultra (4)-1280
Samsung S20 Ultra (4)-1280

The Galaxy S20 Ultra also comes with an ultra price tag, starting at Rs 97,999. Image: Tech2/Nimish Sawant

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 crap. It's a fabulous marketing term, but there is not one usable image you can get from the 100x space zoom. It's a noisy mess even in daylight. And good luck trying to get the frame steady when you are 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. Till 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 wouldn't bother with 100x zoom after the first few days.

Ultra-wide to 100x marking
Ultra-wide to 100x marking

Ultra-wide to 100x marking

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.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

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.

Samsung S20 Ultra (5)-1280
Samsung S20 Ultra (5)-1280

Daylight images are excellent and there are no issues with centre and edge sharpness using the primary camera. Image: Tech2/Nimish Sawant

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 ۥ 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.

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 ۥ 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?

 

Also See: Amazon Prime Day sale to go live on 6 August: Best deals on iPhone 11, OnePlus 7T, Galaxy M21, more

Amazon Prime Day 2020 sale to begin on 6 August: Best deals on OnePlus 8 Pro, iPhone 11, Galaxy M31 and more

OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z Review: Great battery life, good value for money, average sound

Read more on Mobile by Firstpost.