Samsung's out to wow you and if you've been away from the upgrade game for a while, it absolutely will. The Galaxy S23 Ultra is the company's greatest phone to date. We kinda say that every year but it's always true. The only hiccup is if you jumped on board the Galaxy S22 Ultra train in 2022. In that case, this incredible crop of hardware is something you're already pretty familiar with.
Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra is the company’s headliner for 2023. There’s a tiny chance that Samsung will release a better device but you might as well expect Eskom to sort itself out without any further complications. It’s… super unlikely to happen. In Samsung’s case, that’s okay. We’re going to stop talking about Eskom now, however.
The S23 Ultra is the newest ‘Note’, for fans with memories that long. It’s a massive and massively-powerful smartphone. It ships with an S Pen stylus built into the body. It’s got Samsung’s most high-performance camera in any device, ever. But if you’ve got it sitting side by side with the Galaxy S22 Ultra, you’ll find yourself mistaking one for the other with alarming frequency.
Attack of the Clone
That’s because, design-wise, the phones are more or less identical. Samsung has made some changes to avoid accusations that they simply copied last year’s homework but they’re incredibly minor. A band along the top edge has changed location, the camera sensors on the rear have gained a thicker border, and the edges are slightly rounder. There’s also an incredibly minor change in the phone’s dimensions — its length was altered by 0.1mm and the width by 0.2mm. Of these four design changes (and there are only four), perhaps only the first was essential.
Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra remains a great-looking device, for all that there’s only a microscopic difference to its predecessor. That design was great and it’s fine sticking around for another annual cycle. But given how much you’re expected to pay for one (R31,000 is a lot of money, pre-order incentives notwithstanding), a little more creativity at the drawing board wouldn’t have been amiss.
Still, the S23 Ultra oozes a sense of premium. Its quality is tangible. There’s a reassuring solidity to the phone itself. The new Gorilla Glass Victus 2 panel offers a similar impression. There’s no escaping the fact that this is Samsung’s best phone this year (that doesn’t fold in half).
Arithmetic of Awesome
We’ve been saying for ages that it’s hard to see where Samsung could possibly go with its displays. The answer is: not far. Last year’s Ultra and this year’s model are, spec for spec, identical. Same size (6.8in), same refresh rate (120Hz, adaptive), same resolution (1,440 x 3,088), same peak brightness (1,750 nits). That’s only a problem if you own the Galaxy S22 Ultra. If you’re upgrading from any other smartphone, you’ll be impressed with the visual fidelity the Galaxy S23 Ultra offers. Heck, even if you’re used to the S22 Ultra, it’s no hardship to stare at this thing for hours at a time. Netflix is particularly enchanting, thanks to HDR10+ support.
It’s backed by Samsung’s best performance to date as well. Part of this is the customised Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor, which has a slightly higher clock speed than other processors in the lineup. This early in the year, we haven’t seen anything to compare it to so we’re stuck taking Samsung’s word for it but there’s no denying that the device is blisteringly fast. Our review unit was a 256GB/8GB model but South Africa only seems to be getting the 256GB/12GB and 512GB/12GB models this year. In other words, as fast as our Galaxy S23 Ultra was, the version you’ll grab at retail will (probably) outperform it in terms of multitasking. But no matter which version of the phone you own, you’ll find that the camera outdoes anything you’ve seen from Samsung.
Going big(ger than last year)
In 2022, the big deal with Samsung’s camera was the 108MP main sensor. For the Galaxy S23 Ultra, Samsung’s opted for an even larger one. 200MP is the number being thrown at you and it’s a very good number indeed. Provided you’re fine with incredibly detailed 12,240 x 16,320 images that clock in at 34MB each, obviously. Don’t expect to upload too many of these to Twitter and retain the sparkle they display on an excellent AMOLED screen.
Samsung’s massive sensor also uses 16-to-1 pixel binning, because that high megapixel count is mostly a marketing exercise. In addition to ginormous photographs, it’ll also produce smaller but more detailed images in low light. Daytime pictures are vibrant and detailed, almost without exception, and Samsung’s chops at night benefit from loads of software assistance in addition to the pixel-compiling tech made possible by that main sensor.
The rest of the camera lineup hasn’t changed at all, though. This means that, while the phone is capable of up to 100x zoom (which you should never use), it’ll work best at its 10x optical zoom limits. 30x digital zoom returns interesting results if you’re patient but nobody’s ever patient anymore.
The other major change? A 12MP selfie camera replaces the 40MP sensor from 2022. The results are arguably better than the larger sensor.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra verdict
If you’re considering the Galaxy S23 Ultra, you’re probably after the power, the camera, or the stylus. Odds are you’re only reading reviews to reinforce how right your opinion is. Yes, yes. Well done. You’ve got your sights set on Samsung’s best smartphone to launch in 2023 (barring some sort of technological miracle). Especially eager Samsung fans find themselves in a strange position, however. Yes, this is the best phone from the company but if you already have the last one, it’s considerably less compelling to own one of these at launch. That’s the problem with making things too well. Eventually, you run out of headroom. That hasn’t happened here but Samsung’s getting awfully close. So yes, treat yourself to a Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra and you’ll probably be immensely pleased. But if you already own an S22 Ultra, you don’t… really… have to.