Samsung's really trying to get your attention away from the competition here with its claims of 100x zoom. Ignore that, and focus on actually functional features, and you've got a phone to be proud of. Surprisingly large, hugely powerful and the camera is impressive too. Just... forget about the zoom.
Wild-ass zoom claims
That 108MP camera
Powerful as heck
Price (is definitely a factor)
We’ve had Samsung’s Big New Thing™ for a couple of weeks now. After the initial excitement of seeing the Galaxy S20 Ultra, large, live and in action, how has Samsung’s newest star held up? That’s the question we’ve come here to answer today. If you want the short answer so you can bugger off and do some more ‘work’ at home, here it is: the S20 Ultra is hugely powerful but you’re paying for features you don’t really need (and which don’t really work, if you’re human).
Still reading? Yeah, you should be. It’s impossible to sum up a smartphone like this in a sentence, or even a paragraph. Okay, maybe a paragraph but then you’re just taking our word for it. We all know only politicians who get by on people not asking inconvenient questions get away with that. In the real world, you have to back up your words. And here are ours — Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra is an awesome phone but its not essential to your life.
Built to not melt
Samsung’s S20 Ultra starts at R27,000 — that’s not a small amount of money. Sure, if you have enough in reserve it’s pocket change but then you don’t care what a review says. If you’re actually thinking about what you’re spending your cash on, quality matters. And there’s no denying the quality here. There’s just… less of it.
Take the screen, for example. This is one of Samsung’s best entries ever — that OLED panel begs to be stared at. The darks are amazing, colours just pop out at you. Samsung’s made sure of that. If it was a snake, it would have hypnotised and eaten us long ago. That’s what a 1,440 x 3,200 Dynamic AMOLED screen’ll do to your brain — this is 6.9in of the best smartphone screen we’ve seen in just about ever. It’s framed by Samsung’s trademark metal edging and then there’s the rear — which looks good but feels hollow. Seriously. Tap it with a fingernail and you can feel the gap behind it. Bugger.
Samsung usually outfits its handsets with solid glass backs. Here, we reckon there are other considerations at work. Samsung’s handset contains a lot of high-end tech and that stuff’s warm. Still, it’s a wrench. We get it, but it’s still unexpected. It doesn’t matter, in the long run. The included clear-plastic case is gonna pop on there the moment you open the phone and should only come off when you’re cleaning it. The blasted device costs almost R30k. Look after it.
By the power of Greyskull!
So we’re not thrilled with the build, even though Samsung’s handset is still far better put together than some members of the S-family (anyone remember the S5 and back? Anyone?). That’s fine, Samsung’s got its reasons for what it did — unlike Kenneth from high school who still hasn’t apologised for what he did. That just wasn’t warranted. Ah well… how’s the rest of the phone?
We’re glad you asked. We were gonna tell you anyway but we’re still glad you asked. It just seems more polite, you know? The Galaxy S20 Ultra features the same internals as the S20 and the S20 Pro — an Exynos 990 and at least 12GB of RAM — meaning you can take this assessment for the so-called ‘smaller’ models as well. Unless you’re using the 512GB storage version of the Ultra with 16GB of RAM (which we… er… weren’t), obviously. If that’s the case, consider the following but add extra awesome.
The S20 Ultra, with its Exynos 990 and 12GB of RAM, is in all likelihood more powerful than your work PC. We didn’t run any numbers or benchmarking apps on their handset because… well, we didn’t have to. No average user, doing average things, is going to slow this handset down. A huge majority of high-end users will be unable to do it either. In fact, it’ll only be folks actively trying to slow down Samsung’s S20 Ultra who will manage to do so — and it’ll to take some doing. Is there such a thing as too much power? You don’t have the tasks needed to ding the S20 Ultra’s performance.
Samsung’s really been hyping its camera for the Ultra and it’s easy to see why. It’s perhaps the most fully-featured camera we’ve seen in a so-called ‘regular’ smartphone to date (we’re not counting anything that contained an actual bloody camera — Samsung’s come a long way since the Galaxy K Zoom).
The claims made about the S20 Ultra’s skills are largely true. The absurdly high megapixel count for the main sensor (Samsung’s own 108MP creation) makes for hugely detailed shots. But the camera doesn’t shoot this way by default — you’ve got more sensible options at hand and have to opt to take pics with the giganta-camera. Part of the reason for this is the file size — each image is between 25 and 40MB, depending on your subject. That’s a little impractical to upload to Insta over a data connection.
But it’s a neat feature, not least of all because you can zoom in on a subject and pull out other, equally detailed (but smaller) pics from the main image. And you can do this multiple times over the same image, cropping large, detailed rectangles out of a single oversized photo. That’s… actually a pretty cool feature. As is Single Take, which leverages the phone’s absurd amount of power to take several types of image and video with all of the rear camera sensors at once. Samsung’s in-phone AI then suggests the best of the lot to you, while serving up everything else so you can pick whatever else you’d like to keep.
Of less use are Samsung’s claims of 100x Space Zoom. Yes, the phone’ll zoom in on a target up waaaay off in the distance. But it’s about as useful as arms on a bird — an interesting idea when it’s just an idea but bloody useless in practice. You’re never going to use the touted feature other than to say “Hey, my phone can zoom up to one hundred times” to people who don’t have the S20 Ultra. You won’t mention the chromatic aberration that plagues those images, and that’s assuming you can hold your phone still enough to actually get a clear shot. Stick to the lesser zoom levels, from Samsung’s 30x Hybrid zoom on down to the 1:1 ratio. Your camera roll will thank you.
There’s another cool feature on the camera side that bears mentioning: The ability to shoot 8K video, which in itself is a little useless. You don’t have an 8K screen at home, unless you’ve got in excess of R100,000 to buy one of Samsung’s high-end TVs. Even if you do, you’re probably not going to watch your 8K phone-shot video on said TV. The big deal is the ability to yank 33MP images out of your 8K video at any point, called Video Snap. Rather than hoping to snag the best shot you can, you can just film your target and pull frames at your leisure.
There’s a lot of power behind this phone, in every area. The screen, processor, RAM allocation, camera and video specs are all way about what you’d normally expect from any smartphone. They’re more than you’d expect from many laptops, even. And all of this tech needs to be powered.
And powered it is, by a Lithium-polymer batter — all 5,000mAh of it. You’d think this would be enough. You’d think incorrectly. Samsung’s phone is a beast and beasts need to eat. Even though this is one of the biggest batteries you’ll find in a smartphone that doesn’t double as a battery pack, it’s still a race to the end of the day.
Thank goodness for Samsung’s fast charging, which supports up to 45W. If you’re using the right wireless charger, you’ll get 15W. Long story short, charge the Ultra with a cable and it’ll top up to usable in no time at all.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Verdict
Samsung’s newest phone has all the power you could hope for from a smartphone, and then some. If you’re in the market for the best-specced Android pretty much ever, this is the handset for you. But you’ll need to pay the price — and R27,000 or more is a whole lot of money to spend, especially right now. Make no mistake, this is Samsung’s best phone to date. It’s not without its flaws but its faster and more powerful in just about every department. Only the battery life (and they really, really tried to mitigate it) and the gimmicky zoom claims hold this one back. Whether you’re comfortable dropping almost R30k on one right now… that’s something that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the phone itself.