In the new Samsung Galaxy S20 family there's an obvious champion, the phone that wants to beat all phones, delivering super specs in all areas.
With a name like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, it's clear that this is top of the pile. It's Samsung throwing down the gauntlet to the rest of the industry and daring them to mount a challenge. The camera figures are designed to unsettle Huawei, the RAM and display designed to give OnePlus something to thing about.
But it's also a gamble: a phone is more than just its specs, so will the Ultra win hero status?
A bold design
- 166.9 x 76.0 x 8.8mm, 220g
- Grey or black colours
- IP68 protection
Samsung described the S20 design as a new chapter in innovation. There was a tease to this design with the earlier release of the Galaxy S10 Lite, choosing to accentuate the cameras rather than hide them.
Of the new Galaxy S20 devices, it's the Ultra that really makes a statement with a huge section given over to the camera. With Space Zoom 100X emblazoned on the back, Samsung isn't messing around - it wants you to know that this device is all about that camera.
We initially thought it might be a little overzealous, but having compared the Ultra to the S20+ and S20 models, we can't help feeling that the Ultra is the better looking. It comes across as more purposeful, as though this was the phone that Samsung wanted to design, with the others just dropping into place.
It's big, but not overly wide, with Samsung's choice of a taller display meaning that this phone is the same width as the OnePlus 7T Pro, although it's a little heavier at 220g. Some of us thought the OnePlus 7T Pro was a little on the big side and that's a challenge that Samsung will face too - while we think that most will take to the Galaxy S20+, the Ultra could be a little too big for some. It's bigger than the Note 10+, for example.
Finished in serious black or grey colours, it comes with IP68 protection, but the feel of this phone is as premium as the S20 and S20+ - while it's obviously a bigger deal, the feel is very much the same. We like the efficient use of space, with bezels pushed back to the edges and a neat punch hole for the front camera, escaping the need for silly notches.
Galaxy S20 Ultra display
- 6.9-inch AMOLED, Quad HD+
- 120Hz at 1440p, 60Hz at 1080p
This phone is going to be all about the display, because that's what it delivers with a massive 6.9-inches on the diagonal. A shift in the aspect ratio makes this taller, without swelling sideways, although it's not quite the tall skinny phone that the Xperia 1 is (Sony's phone is about the same height, but has a smaller display overall).
It's also packed with resolution, with Quad HD+, 3200 x 1440 pixels, and it's an AMOLED display as awesome as you'd expect from Samsung. Colours pop, there's deep blacks, it's going to be a great display for watching movies thanks to the size.
Samsung is also introducing 120Hz refresh rate across its Galaxy S20 phones, but there's a catch when it comes to that. The faster refresh rate is only available at 1080p, so you need to choose a lower resolution to get that smoother display. If you stick to the full resolution, you'll only get 60Hz.
Let's just talk about this for a while. The default resolution on Samsung phones is Full HD+, so it runs at 1080p unless you go and switch it up to Quad HD+. We suspect a lot of people never make that change and in reality, it's rare that you need to use the top resolution - in many cases the detail it brings isn't hugely important.
However, in this bigger size, this is going to matter a little more than it does in the smaller S20 devices. At the same time, there's an argument around faster refresh rates and whether they actually matter. Although being pushed by manufacturers as must-have features, we found that in many cases with the 2019 90Hz displays, it didn't make much difference to the overall experience. In many cases, things like games run at 60Hz anyway, so this may not actually be the huge issue that some will likely make it out to be.
First impressions of the display are really good. We've not had the chance to really see the different refresh rates working with a range of content and we've not had this phone in direct sunlight - but we'll be sure to update when we do.
A pixel-packed camera story
- 108MP, 0.8µm, f/1.8 OIS main camera; 12MP pixel combining
- 12MP, 1.4µm, f/2.2 ultra wide
- 48MP, 0.8µm, f/3.5 OIS telephoto; 10X Hybrid Optic Zoom, 100X Super Resolution Zoom
- 40MP, 0.7µm, f/2.2 selfie; 10MP pixel combining
So this this what you really came for. The rest of the phone is just a big phone, right? Samsung is throwing everything at the numbers game, putting resolution above everything else.
The big story here is the 100X Super Resolution Zoom, so we'll start there. With 100X emblazoned on the rear of the phone, this is obviously a key talking point, with a 48-megapixel sensor and a periscope type arrangement, allowing a longer focal length. Samsung is claiming 10X Hybrid Optic Zoom, as well as stabilisation, telling us that the prism in this camera can move to compensate for some handshake.
You're presented with the photo modes in the camera viewfinder, able to tap from normal to wide or out into the zoom, offering equivalent focal lengths of 0.5, 1.0, 2.0, 4.0, 10, 30, 100x. Naturally the 0.5 here is the ultra-wide angle, while the 1.0x is the main camera.
You can tap through the focal lengths or you can pinch to move through them, although the reality of such extreme zoom soon shows itself. You can't handhold this and even on a tripod, we had to wait for tiny movement to stop so we could see the image at 100x. Even when it does stop bouncing around, it's not exactly a great result.
So, while the 100x headline feature might draw some gasps from those reading the spec sheet, we're not convinced it's going to be practically usable. Of course, we need to use it more widely to determine if it's worth enduring with and exactly where the sweet spot is both for handheld and in terms of quality. The other thing to consider with the telephoto lens is that it's f/3.5 - can isn't going to let in as much light as the other lenses.
Moving from one huge number to the next, Samsung is using a 108-megapixel sensor for the main camera, but unless you deliberately choose to change the settings, you won't be taking 108-megapixel photos, you'll be taking 12-megapixel photos. Like other high resolution sensors, it will combine pixels to do so. Samsung argues that this boosts it from the native 0.8µm to a huge 2.4µm per pixel, although we'll have to test whether this system brings any real benefit over a conventional 12-megapixel sensor.
Let's just make this clear: having more pixels doesn't make for a better camera, it's what you do with them. The iPhone 11 Pro, for example, doesn't have massive resolution and neither does the Pixel 4, but both have excellent cameras and much of that comes down to AI and processing
In truth, without getting the S20 Ultra out on the real world and testing it in a full range of environments, it's hard to judge exactly how well these cameras will perform.
Outside of the big numbers, there are some interesting features, with a new Single Take mode that will snap content from all the cameras, letting you move the phone around and capture a moving scene. You'll then be delivered a gallery of images, some still, some as video. It looks like a clever way to capture content without you having to choose which camera to use.
Yes, there's also 8K video capture which can be shared to YouTube or sent to an 8K TV, which you're unlikely to have. But, in Samsung aiming to give you the biggest numbers, this fits the bill entirely.
Finally you come to a 40-megapixel front facing camera. Again, it's a clear play to resolution, then giving you a 10-megapixel combined image with the equivalent of 1.4µm pixels.
There seems to be a lot to talk about with this camera and we guess that's what Samsung wants. But ultimately, the numbers are almost irrelevant - it all depends on how consistent it is, how well it works in low light and how accessible it is. Huge resolutions don't be default mean a better camera and there's going to be a lot more testing we need to do before we can reach any sort of definitive conclusion.
S20 Ultra core hardware
- Exynos 990 in the UK and Europe, 5G
- 12/16GB RAM, 128/512GB storage + microSD
- 5000mAh battery
In the UK and in Europe you'll be getting the Samsung Exynos 990 with 5G, supported by 12 or 16GB of RAM. What's all that RAM doing? We're not sure even Samsung knows, but in a word where specs sell, the big numbers story continues. Other regions might get a different load-out of core hardware, but Samsung's argument is that using its own hardware leads to better optimisation and performance. We're sure that argument will be tested ad infinitum.
Despite offering everything you can think of, Samsung didn't include a 3.5mm headphone socket on this phone, a lone USB Type-C offering physical connectivity. There's wireless charging and reverse charging, with a huge 5000mAh battery.
That's a huge capacity, bigger than the S10 5G of 2019 or the Note 10+. Samsung has always favoured bigger batteries in bigger phones and in the past this has often lead to these bigger devices performing much better than smaller models. That might be the case for the S20 Ultra too, but it's worth noting that all the Galaxy S20 devices have a decent battery capacity. Again, it seems that Samsung is leaving nothing to chance.
There's an under-display fingerprint scanner for security, which we didn't get the chance to test.
Galaxy S20 software
- Android 10
- One UI 2.0
There's little extra to say on the software experience at this point, except that these phones launch with the latest version of Android. The interface that Samsung layers over the top - One UI - is now in its second generation and there isn't a huge change from the previous version that we can see at first glance.
However it's worth saying that over the past few years, Samsung really has emerged as dominant in offering the customised Android experience, with a UI that's cleaner and less bloated than many of its rivals - especially from the likes of Xiaomi or Huawei (if indeed they get back on the Google Android side of things).
We're be talking about software a lot more when we've spent enough time with the S20 Ultra for a full review. First impressions are that everything is fast and smooth - exactly as you'd expect.
It's clear that with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung wanted to create a champion. A phone it could throw into any arena and make sure it had specs that no one would want to question. But that's perhaps a flawed logic - big specs don't automatically mean the best phone, so this is something of a gamble - as this camera system is so radically different to Samsung's previous approaches.
But there's no questioning the great display, the efficiently crushed bezels and that neat punch hole camera. There's a lot to test and learn about this new phone: it's certainly going to turn heads with its spec sheet, but the real challenge will be delivering on those huge promises.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra will be available on 13 March.