Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 1-week review: All about the optics

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Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra is a content creator’s dream. Its is smartphone that pushes the boundaries on a number of fronts. Its gargantuan size may deter a lot of people from buying it but quite frankly, it has the tendency to grow on you. Its other big changes come in the display and camera department. But how much of a cohesive experience has Samsung put together for its new flagship?

* Please note that the below opinions are for a device which has pre-release software and a lot might change over the next few weeks through OTA updates *

Design – Flashy no more

We have come to expect Samsung flagships to ship with unique colours. With last year’s Galaxy S10 series, there was something about its Prism White finish. And following on for the Galaxy Note10 series, it was all about Aura Glow. Unfortunately, Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra in particular is only available in Cosmic Grey or Black, which are both rather muted colours in comparison. As mentioned earlier, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is no small device. But because of its narrow and long design, its 222g weight feels well distributed. To add, there is its 8.8mm thickness which may seem ridiculous on paper but over daily usage, it serves well to help you hold onto the otherwise slippery phone.

Over the last few days, the bigger form factor of the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has not bothered me too much

Being a flagship, you get all the bells and whistles. Corning’s Gorilla Glass 6 protection on both the front and back, with an aluminium frame. The power and volume buttons are also solid and we are glad there is no extra Bixby button on the device, a welcome change from the Galaxy S10 series. You also find the Type-C USB port, microphones, the hybrid dual-SIM tray, a slightly faster in-screen fingerprint scanner and speakers in their regular positions. To toughen up the phone, it has IP68 water and dust resistance up to 1.5m in depth for 30 minutes.

Using a case would not only protect the device but also eliminate the camera bump

Just, the camera island is something that has not yet grown on me. I am not a fan of its placement and would have preferred a cleaner setup perhaps in the centre. The obvious disadvantage to this is also the bulge it comes with, on top of the phone’s already thick build. This cause the phone to rock on a surface but a simple way to avoid this is to use a protective case, even if it is the one provided out of the box. That way, you can also make the phone less slippery in the hand.

Display – Super Smooth

With a 6.9-inch Dynamic 2X Super AMOLED Infinity-O panel, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is not short on display real estate by any means. Gone are the curved edges we typically see on Samsung flagships for flatter ones and that is a great change. It makes content on the edges more accessible and does not necessarily sacrifice immersion. With a 3,200 x 1,440 pixel QHD+ display and HDR10+ to add, multimedia looks fantastic. Colours are rich and you can customise the display’s colour tones to your own preference. While the Vivid preset gives you the best saturation in colours, Natural is what you would choose for the most realistic colours. Rounding up the multimedia experience are the phone’s Dolby Atmos powered stereo speakers, flanking the display. They are tuned by AKG and over the Galaxy S10+, they are a lot richer and fuller.

The Infinity-O style display in its flat form is great

But the biggest change in the Galaxy S20 series’ display technology is its 120Hz refresh rate. This can only be enabled at FHD+ resolution, which is in my opinion the biggest negative to it. The higher refresh rate makes a notable difference with elements feeling extremely natural and smooth. And once you get accustomed to it, switching back to 60Hz is difficult. But is the higher refresh rate worth the sacrifice in resolution? Yes, to an extent.

Be it 60Hz or 120Hz, the phone feels snappy and responsive

As someone who is scrolling through news feeds regularly, the kick in refresh rate is worth it. But when it comes to browsing webpages, this could mean slightly less sharp text, which is a drawback that does not bother me. But for movies to TV shows, the QHD+ resolution is definitely worth switching to from Samsung’s default FHD+ that the phone ships with. So far, there has not been any talk of a software to update to enable a higher refresh rate at QHD+ resolution but we are hoping for one in the coming months. The ideal goal would be for a variable refresh rate which jumps resolution when needed (like when watching videos) and drops it when not necessary.

Optimised Hardware and Software

While Galaxy S20 series smartphones in the United States ship with arguably the more powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 octa-core processor, global markets get Samsung’s in-house Exynos 990. This too is a 7nm+ octa-core processor clocked at 2.73GHz and comes alongside its Mali-G77 MP11 graphics card. Of course, there is also native 5G support on the smartphone but we will put that to the test more extensively in the days to come.

With a bigger panel, I found myself relying on Samsung’s Edge panel a lot

On AnTuTu benchmark, combined with the phone’s 128GB of UFS 3.0 storage and 12GB of RAM, it can muster up a score in excess of 500,000 points. We have also put the phone to the test in real usage cases to find out exactly how its speed differs from the competition. Otherwise, during daily use, the phone did not cause any issues of note. Just sometimes, the phone would stutter in certain applications such as Instagram but that was quickly fixed by restarting. And in Adobe Rush, I’ve noticed the phone lag when loading multiple 4K clips to edit video.

All of this hardware is backed by Samsung’s One UI 2.1, running on top of Android 10. Compared to any other Samsung smartphone of late, the software feels the same. There is not much of an overhaul and we think Samsung has worked on fine tuning it further with this iterative upgrade. It does come with its fair share of motions, gestures and features such as in-built screen recording which I found useful. Samsung’s Edge Panels are also handy considering the large footprint of the phone but one thing I could not get used to is the phone’s gesture navigation. So for me, it is still three-key navigation.

Camera – Zoom into space

Arguably, one of the most talked about features of the Galaxy S20 Ultra is the camera unit. It is a quad-camera 108MP setup on the back with a modest sounding single 40MP camera in comparison on the front.

Samsung’s revamped the camera with a major upgrade

Besides the 108MP wide camera, you also find a 48MP periscope sensor with 10x hybrid zoom, a 12MP ultra-wide camera and a 0.3MP depth sensor completing the array. We have tested the camera in a number of scenarios so far and results, especially in daylight are outstanding. The camera’s natural shallow depth of field and HDR processing is second to none. The 108MP also makes a difference when it comes to picture quality but the sacrifice here is the lack of dual-pixel auto focus, which is evident when taking close up pictures. Zoom performance from the Galaxy S20 Ultra is good and at up to 30x zoom, pictures are usable but going further to 50x and 100x, the feature is more a novelty. One thing is certain though, the 100x definitely lets you see more than what you would be capable of seeing with just your eyes.

As for video, shooting 4K on your phone is so 2019. It’s all about 8K with the Samsung S20 series. With the video recording beast, the dynamic range part stays true. Accompanied with dual-OIS, footage at both 1080p and 4K is stable. But Super Steady mode adds a different dimension to this, with extremely stable footage even when running. Although, when using Super Steady mode on just wide angle and not ultra-wide, the sensor does suffer a bit in terms of quality which is something that may need to be addressed. There is also a new 8K video mode on the Galaxy S20 series, which in all fairness does capture more quality but at the expense of poorly stabilised and warped footage. But this is just the start of 8K video on smartphones and we are sure to see it improve over time.

For night time photography, the phone is more than capable too. There is a new night mode animation baked into camera which is a neat touch. But so far, night mode has felt inconsistent. It has the tendency to capture some beautiful images but let you down in other situations. Samsung has recently addressed this and with pre-release software on the phone, we can give it the benefit of the doubt. We should see the software update roll out when the phone ships on March 6 and once we receive it, we will test to see the improvements.

Battery and Charging

One of the major driving factors behind the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s large form factor is battery. Inside, you find a 5,000mAh cell which is bordering insane for a smartphone. Thus far, we have tested the phone at FHD+ 60Hz and FHD+ 120Hz and both settings seem to hit about 6 hours of screen on time. You can easily make it through a 10-12 hour day with no worry. Using the camera extensively will see these number drop.

Battery life is the best when using the phone at 60Hz, either at FHD+ or QHD+ resolution

Fortunately, the phone ships with Samsung’s Super Fast Charging 25W brick. With it, the phone recharges from 0-100 per cent in just over an hour. There is also support for 15W wireless charging and 9W reverse wireless charging, which is great. For those who truly cannot wait for their phone to charge, you could even opt for a 45W charger sold separately. However, in the real world, this drops recharge times by only 10 minutes, which may not be worth the investment.

Our take so far

While we have had the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (with pre-release software) for just over a week, a lot of its features have become second nature. Be it relying on zoom to take photos, that large 120Hz panel or the 5,000mAh cell. Samsung has done a great job when it comes to feature set and has offered so much so that even Galaxy S10+ users may want to upgrade. A lot though, also rests on Samsung’s upcoming software update to fix pre-release issues. Once that is available, we will follow up with our final verdict.