Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Long-term Review: Throwing reason out the window
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is a beast among smartphones. It has powerful internals, a big and beautiful display, a massive camera array, and much more. In pure numbers, including price, it’s almost impossible to find a phone that comes even close to matching it. It’s the best, biggest, and most expensive conventional glass slab smartphone Samsung has ever made. I would go as far as to say it’s the best smartphone I’ve ever used, which is no surprise. That leaves the question, is it worth buying the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra? In this review, I’ll try to answer that.
Everything about this phone, from the software to hardware to performance to the battery life is the best I’ve ever seen, no competition. But these things by themselves do not tell the whole story. I’ve been using the Galaxy S20 Ultra for about two months now, so I have a lot of thoughts on the device after long-term use. Before we dive head-first into the review, let’s see how it compares with the other Galaxy S20 devices.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Series Specifications
|Specification||Samsung Galaxy S20||Samsung Galaxy S20+||Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra|
|Dimensions + Weight|
|Software Version||Android 10 with One UI 2.1||Android 10 with One UI 2.1||Android 10 with One UI 2.1|
|Audio||Stereo speakers and earphones sound by AKGSurround sound with Dolby Atmos technology (Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus included)||Stereo speakers and earphones sound by AKGSurround sound with Dolby Atmos technology (Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus included)||Stereo speakers and earphones sound by AKGSurround sound with Dolby Atmos technology (Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus included)|
|Colors||Cosmic Grey, Cloud Blue, Cloud Pink||Cosmic Grey, Cosmic Black, Cloud Blue||Cosmic Grey, Cosmic Black|
|Starting Price (US 5G)||$999||$1,199||$1,399|
Hardware: The numbers game is real
The hardware on this phone is basically the best you will be getting this year. Samsung really played the “big numbers = good” game with this phone. All the numbers on the spec sheet are pretty large, and there are many of them. It’s got a 5,000 mAh battery, a 108MP rear camera, 40MP front camera, 100X zoom, 5G, 45W charging, 120Hz display, $1,400 price tag, and more. It’s all about those numbers and it all adds up.
The phone is thick, with dimensions of 166.9 x 76.0 x 8.8mm. If you include the camera bump, it ends up being ~10mm. It’s also heavy, weighing in at 222g. The Ultra uses aluminum instead of stainless steel, which feels like a peculiar oversight. The reason I say this is because my Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra slid out of my pocket and fell about 11 inches, getting a nice dent in the process. If Samsung had used stainless steel, this wouldn’t have been an issue. It’s a $1,400 phone, so Samsung should be using the best materials on the device, no excuses.
The front and back of the phone are glass, Gorilla Glass 6 to be precise. The front has the 6.9″ Dynamic AMOLED display with a resolution of 3200×1440 and supports up to 120Hz, though Samsung locks the 120Hz mode to 2400×1080 in the software. While Samsung hasn’t officially commented on why they do this, it has unofficially been claimed to be because of memory and battery. I would have preferred to see 120Hz at full resolution as an option at least, even if they choose not to enable it by default out-of-the-box. If OPPO and OnePlus can do it, why can’t Samsung?
On the back, you will obviously see the absolutely massive camera setup. This massive setup houses a 108MP camera, a 48MP periscope camera, a 12MP ultra-wide camera, a TOF sensor, a microphone, and an LED flash. These six components fill up this massive setup. I’ll get to more camera related stuff in the later parts of this review. Just know, this camera bump is big, thanks to the large sensors and the sheer number of them.
Throughout the body of the phone, there are several holes with various functions. On the bottom, there are three main holes: the speaker, the USB-C port, and a microphone. On the top, there is a SIM/Micro SD card slot and another microphone. On the right side, there’s a set of volume rockers with a power button under it. The buttons are clicky and satisfying, as all buttons should be.
Inside the phone, there are a lot of chips and antennas. I decided to pick up the base model, so it has 12GB of LPDRR5 RAM and 128GB of UFS 3.0 storage. If I would have gotten the higher storage size, I could have gotten 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM and 512GB of UFS 3.0 storage. Other than RAM and storage, the hardware stays the same across the Galaxy S20 Ultra models (in the United States). There is a 5,000 mAh battery that easily lasts a day, and maybe even two. The 45W Super Fast Charging 2.0 fills up the phone fast. The Snapdragon 865 is blazing fast and the 5G thanks to the X55 modem is, well, basically useless right now. The ultrasonic fingerprint scanner is fast and accurate. The device is sealed and has IP68 water and dust resistance. It has basically everything you could want in a phone. I can’t think of many, if any, improvements that could be made to a phone launched in early 2020.
Design: The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is Thick
The design of the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is what I would call a “classic Samsung design.” It is unmistakably a Samsung phone, for better or for worse. The front has a small hole punch centered at the top. It’s about the same size as the notification icon so the notification bar hasn’t consequently been enlarged. The sides are rounded off, unlike the boxy Galaxy Note 10. The back is glass and has a nice big camera bump popping out of it.
The back of the phone is pretty basic if you ignore the giant camera bump. The phone comes in 2 colors: Cosmic Black and Cosmic Gray. Both colors are pretty boring so I decided to throw a skin on mine, and it helped with both the grip of the phone and made it more interesting. In the top left corner is the stovetop, also known as the quad-camera setup. This
stovetop camera bump is pretty thick as well. If you aren’t using a decently thick case, you are going to get some serious wobbling on a table. I’ll get a bit more in-depth into the cameras in the camera category, but it’s clear that Samsung dedicated a lot of physical space to this camera.
The right side of the phone is where all the buttons can be found. There is a volume rocker with a single button under it. That button is what Samsung calls the “side key.” This is because it isn’t only a power button or Bixby button, but rather it acts as both. By default, long-pressing it opens Bixby while a short press toggles the display on and off. The glass on the phone wraps around the slightly thicker aluminum border where the buttons are.
The top of the phone has a SIM card tray and the second of the three microphones. On the bottom, we have the USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C port and a speaker. The bottom of the phone is also the location of the fabled third microphone.
You might be wondering how it feels to hold and use the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Well, let me say it feels chunky. At first, I enjoyed the chunkiness. It felt thick and sturdy in the hand. Over time, that thickness gets tiring and leads to a lot of hand fatigue. I don’t want to hold a really heavy, thick phone all the time. I want something that’s thin and light, but still big. Unfortunately, that’s not possible with all the choices Samsung has made for this phone. The camera is too thick, the battery is too big, and the display is too large. It’s just not a comfortable phone to use over long periods of time. The Galaxy S20+ is a lot more comfortable to use and handle, and I would argue that it is the best-designed phone in the S20 series.
Display: I’m not mad, just disappointed
As the beginning of this category says, I’m not mad about this display. It’s a fantastic display. I’m just disappointed by it. Look, this is the best display I’ve seen on the phone. Samsung’s color calibration remains my favorite and the low reflectivity and high brightness make it a joy to look at. It’s just that refresh rate.
You might be wondering what I mean about the refresh rate since the phone does have a 120Hz panel after all. The high refresh rate itself is a really good improvement. It makes everything feel much smoother and faster. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has a 3200 x 1440 120Hz panel, but Samsung just thought it was a good idea to throttle the display in the software. Instead of being able to use full resolution 1440p at 120Hz, they decided it would be a great idea to run it at FHD+ 120Hz only. That means 2400 x 1080 at 120Hz.
Most people cannot tell the difference between 1440p and 1080p on a panel like this. But that isn’t an excuse to not even allow an option to run it at full resolution and high refresh rate at the same time. OnePlus and OPPO were able to do it on their phones which have similar specs. Keeping that in mind, there is absolutely no reason for Samsung to not allow it at all. This omission doesn’t make the display bad, but it does add on to the disappointment. Samsung claims it helps battery life, but I would still prefer an option to choose for myself. Battery life is good on the OPPO Find X2 Pro and OnePlus 8 Pro with smaller batteries, and the S20 Ultra would have done just fine too.
Other than this disappointment, the display is really good. It once again looks like Samsung just glued a piece of paper to glass. It looks fantastic. The colors are great and the display is bright. I have absolutely no complaints about the colors or brightness of this display. It is the best of the best, or at least pretty damn close to the top spot. Everything about this display is very pleasing to look at.
Something else worth mentioning on this phone is the touch sampling rate. The touch sampling rate of this phone is 240Hz. That means the display is going to check for touches 240 times a second. This is a huge improvement over the 60Hz touch sampling of earlier Samsung displays. While this doesn’t seem like a huge deal, it does make the phone feel more responsive and snappy. This is an overall good improvement and makes the phone feel faster than it otherwise would.
All in all, this display is really good.
Performance: Blazing fast
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is one of the fastest phones on the market thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865. There are no frame drops, no app loading lag, nothing of the sort. It is like any other modern flagship: fast as it should be. To be honest, I don’t feel it necessary to run through a bunch of benchmarks because I feel it really shines in real-world performance. Just know that benchmarks show how the phone performs when pushed to its maximum, but is not to be construed as the final metric in judging a phone’s performance and overall experience.
What I’m doing here is simple: I’m running these benchmarks on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, iPhone 11 Pro Max, and LG V60. This is so you can see what the difference is between two Snapdragon 865 devices and Apple’s latest flagship phone. The settings will be the same with the same apps across the devices.
Geekbench is the go-to CPU benchmark ever since Geekbench 5 was released with an emphasis on AI, AR, and ML.
Next up is AnTuTu, which tests pure CPU and GPU performance along with usage tests like scrolling and HTML5. AnTuTu also separates each category into its own number. You get a score for memory, GPU, CPU, and UX. The higher, the better.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has UFS 3.0 storage with faster theoretical storage speeds than the Galaxy S10 series. Honestly, these speeds don’t matter that much. You won’t notice much of a difference between the devices. Still, I know people like to compare minor details between devices, so here are the AndroBench results for the three phones.
3DMark is also a great way to test GPU power. If a phone scores well here, you won’t have to worry about it handling any Android game.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra handles it very well, as expected. According to 3DMark, it outperforms over 99% of phones. I threw the newest iPhone in there because people love to compare iPhones to Android phones, and as you can see, the GPU on the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra beats the iPhone by over 1700 points.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is one of the fastest phones you can buy. It should easily last you two years without any massive slowdowns, more so if Samsung continues to remain good with software updates to its flagships. In the past years, Samsung had a rough history with their phones slowing down over time, but that is mostly figured out by now. I haven’t had a Samsung phone slow down in the past few years. It should be good to last you through the two years of Android updates, and beyond!
Camera: Mo’ pixels, mo’ nuance
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra invites polarizing opinions, as it manages to be good and bad at the same time. Sometimes, the results from the camera blow away the competition, while at other times, they really are not worth their salt. The redeeming trait of the camera is that it does offer consistency in the times when it is bad, and when it is good. So you can get into a situation knowing the results that you can expect, which helps give you an opportunity to adjust for a better click.
In the Google Photos album linked below are a few more pictures than posted. They are also uncompressed. Feel free to check them out to really tell how the camera really performs for yourself!
So let’s start with the bad: moving objects, pets, and people. Samsung phones have never been good with these three things. Moving objects are always blurry and pictures of them are unusable. Pictures of pets and people are usually super soft and have weird skin tones. There are even some other issues where the images have insane artifacts in them as shown by my friend Ben Schoon from 9to5Google. Below are a few different portraits taken of me on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, judge as you will. I do find the pics to be a bit saturated and my skin is a bit soft. It’s just not the best portrait shots I’ve ever seen from a phone. I will say, the live focus bokeh does look good and the edge detection is great.
What the phone is really good at is basically everything else. I love the landscape and product photos from this phone. The natural bokeh is incredible for taking good-looking pictures of phones. The landscape pictures are saturated enough and accurate enough that I can’t really complain about color accuracy and at the same time, enjoy the picture. It does all around well and I like it.
The ultra-wide is also really good. Samsung’s ultra-wide is one of the best ultra-wide cameras on the market. The only phone camera that’s even close to being better is the Huawei P40 Pro ultra-wide, but that isn’t as wide, so you get less of the scene in your photo. On the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the colors are classic Samsung, vibrant, and saturated. The details are good and there is very limited distortion. All around, I would say the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has one of the best ultra-wide cameras you can get.
Last but certainly not least is the zoom camera. Samsung markets this as “100X Space Zoom.” Will it really let you zoom into space? I mean, technically I guess but it’s basically useless. A lot of reviewers say anything under 30x is usable, but I say that’s pushing it. 10x is really the only “ok” zoom level. 100x zoom is nothing but a marketing gimmick that renders objects in the photo to appear as a singular color blob with zero details. Samsung should have considered capping it down to 50x or 30x and let people actually click usable photos.
The selfie camera is actually one of the areas Samsung has outshined the competition this year. The 40MP selfie camera is one of the best selfie cameras I’ve seen on a smartphone, only being outdone by the Pixel 4 XL, of course and the Huawei P40 Pro. Either way, there is minimal smoothing of the skin and every selfie looks very crisp. When you take a picture, it normally takes a 6MP or 10MP pixel binned picture depending on the angle, but there is an option to take a full 40MP photo. It has a lot less processing and generally looks a lot better than the 6MP or 10MP counterparts. Below are a few I took using both live focus (Samsung’s marketing term for portrait mode) and no live focus.
The video quality is pretty good. It supports 4K 60fps out of the front and rear camera, 4K 30fps out of all 4 cameras, 8K 24fps out of the main camera, and a few other settings here and there. It also has a feature called Single Take which will let you move your phone around and it automatically edits the footage into clips and shots. The microphone quality is, as usual, really good. I have no complaints about the camera. One can still debate the usability of 8K video in early 2020, but as a feature, it’s there, and having this option to use/not use the feature is great. Below is a clip testing the various 4K modes:
The overall camera situation the Galaxy S20 Ultra is in a weird spot. The camera is very good in certain scenarios, but it isn’t in several others. This makes it a hard phone to recommend specifically for its camera, even though that’s what Samsung want’s you to buy the phone for. For a device with a giant camera array and the camera being what Samsung is mainly showing in its marketing material, it’s really not living up to that hype. Samsung might want to switch the marketing material to show off more of that gorgeous display instead of that camera bump and do the actual talking points more justice.
Software: Good ‘ol One UI
The last time I reviewed One UI was when it launched in beta for the Galaxy Note 9. This was over a year ago. Just based on time, it seems like it’s probably a good idea to re-review it, right? Well, no. There are essentially no differences in the two versions of One UI. A few UI tweaks here and there, but that’s about it. One UI is still good and the UI is designed to be intentional with the size of the phones. It all around feels great. Now, let’s talk about some of the new features Samsung added with the S20 series.
The first and one of the more advertised features is Single Take. Single Take will let you pan your phone around for about 10 seconds and the camera will record a video. It will then go through and automatically edit out clips and still shots from that recording. It will track what’s in the frame and edit specific things at specific times. I’m not sure who it was made for or what the purpose of it was besides marketing, but it’s there.
Next is Quick Share. Quick Share is basically AirDrop. It lets you send files between two different Galaxy phones almost instantly and without any special codes or whatnot. It shares them fast and is pretty reliable. This did launch as a One UI 2.1 exclusive, and it still is. One UI has rolled out to the S10, Note 10, and Galaxy Fold series with a software update and launched on the Z Flip and S20 series. That’s not a huge amount of devices, but we hope to see the list grow further. Future Samsung phones will launch with it, so its usefulness should increase in the future. I would have still preferred this to be an app you can download on any Android phone instead of being exclusive to Samsung phones.
Lastly, one of the cool and actually useful features is Music Share. It lets someone connect their phone to yours to play music through a Bluetooth speaker connected to your phone. This is the 2020 version of passing the aux. I haven’t found a time to use it since I’m social distancing and none of my family uses Samsung phones, but I’ve tested it with my own devices and I can see how useful it can be. I’m a fan of it. Below is a demo to show the limits and usage of how Music Share actually works.
I think Samsung’s software is one of the best on any modern phone. It has a good design, the features and UI feel like they were meant for the phone. It’s an all-around fantastic and those new features are really good reminders that even what is good can improve and get better with time. I hope One UI 2.5 or One UI 3 brings even more improvements I couldn’t even think of now.
Verdict: The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is overpriced and expensive but worth it
Normally, I don’t like to separate price from the final thoughts section of my reviews. With the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, however, it’s difficult not to do. The Galaxy S20 Ultra is a $1,400 phone. That is a lot of money. Nobody’s wallet is happy to spend $1,400 on a phone, and trust me, I could hear the screams coming from my wallet after pre-ordering. Here’s the thing: if I felt like that price wasn’t worth it, I could have returned my Galaxy S20 Ultra, not written this review, and lived my life $1,400 wealthier. But I didn’t. I kept the phone because even though it’s probably not worth $1,400 to everyone, it’s good enough to me that I’m willing to pay what Samsung is asking.
Should we, as the tech community, be at Samsung’s throat about this price? Maybe. It’s insanely high for a normal, conventional glass slab phone. Hell, the Galaxy Z Flip cost $20 less than the Galaxy S20 Ultra and it’s a more charming and fun device. Some people will argue there is no reason to spend over $500 on a phone, and maybe for some, that’s true. The cameras, performance, display, and battery life will all be good enough on those devices. The Galaxy S20 Ultra isn’t about good enough. It’s about the best phone a power user can get and it’s going to cost you a lot to get that.
If the price still seems too high, you should get the regular Galaxy S20 or Galaxy S20+, or even a OnePlus 8 Pro. Those are considerably cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. At the time of writing this review, the Galaxy S20 is available on Amazon for $1,000, the S20+ is available for $1,200, and OnePlus 8 Pro is at $899. If you were to get a Galaxy S20 instead of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the $400 you save could be spent on a 1TB Micro SD card, 2 wireless chargers, some cases, a second 25W wired charger, and still have some money left over. If I were a reasonable man, I would have done that instead. The differences between the devices aren’t worth $400.
If you are interested in one of those cheaper alternatives, I’d highly recommend checking out Idrees Patel’s Galaxy S20+ review. He got the Exynos LTE variant, but the usability is similar. I have a Galaxy S20+ as well, and I’d say it’s probably the S20 you should buy. It checks all the boxes and keeps a few hundred extra dollars in your wallet.