In the new Samsung S20 family there's an obvious champion, the phone that Samsung wants to beat all phones, delivering super specs in all areas: the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

With a name like 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 think about.

So what does the super-spec, super-expensive phone really offer, and does it justify that bump in price?

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A bold design

  • Dimensions: 166.9 x 76.0 x 8.8mm / Weight: 220g
  • IP68 weather-resistant protection
  • Finishes: Grey or black options

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, even if that bump does gather dust around the edges, so never quite looks as good as it does box fresh.

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. We thought the OnePlus 7T Pro was a little on the big side, so that's a challenge that Samsung will face too - while we think that most will take to the Galaxy S20+, the Ultra will be a little too big for some. It's bigger than the Note 10+, for example.

Having lived with the S20 Ultra, there's definite heft to it, but that's going to happen with a display that's this big; if you want a smaller phone, Samsung has options for you, but the weight does seem to be climbing.

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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+ resolution (1440 x 3200)
  • 120Hz at 1080p, 60Hz at 1440p
  • High dynamic range: HDR10+

This phone is 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 the Ultra 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 means that everything happens on the big screen and it's great for movies and games, because there's so much of it.

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It's also packed with resolution, colours pop with loads of vibrancy and there's deep blacks. It's capable of huge brightness and generally it's well balanced both indoors and out.

Samsung is also introducing 120Hz refresh rates across its Galaxy S20 phones, but there's a catch when it comes to that. The faster refresh rate is only available at 1080p resolution, 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 - which is the default.

Now, some might hanker for that 120Hz display, but we've not found a huge difference compared to the 60Hz. It's not supported by all games, but even firing up games that do support 120Hz, we didn't notice a massive difference. The 120Hz also uses more battery life, so while it's a headline feature, we don't think it's as big a deal as some make it out to be. Some might see the differences more clearly than others though.

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That equally applies to the resolution. There is a difference in the detail that the display can render at the resolutions it offers (HD+, FHD+, QHD+), and while it's easy to spot the difference between HD+ and FHD+, you need much keener eyes to find anything to worry about at QHD+ - by that point you're talking about really fine details, which some people won't even be able to see. For us, the lack of QHD+ 120Hz isn't an issue, because we think for a huge number of people, it would mean the display pushing detail that many won't notice anyway.

Technical stuff aside, the screen comes with a factory-fitted screen protector that will keep scratches at bay, but because of the curve to the edges of this screen, you can catch your finger on the protector. That's a trade-off you'll have to make - remove the protector for a smoother experience for your fingers, but risk scratches appearing over time. The screen protector will also get ripples under it in pressure spots, which sort of spoils the effect, so we think it's better to remove it and then just be careful.

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The last word goes to the display's polariser - this seems to be randomly aligned, so if you wear polarising glasses, the colours of the S20 Ultra display will all be all over the place.

A pixel-packed camera 

  • Triple rear camera:
    • Main: 108MP (12MP by pixel combining), 0.8µm pixel size, f/1.8 aperture, optical stabilisation (OIS)
    • Telephoto: 48MP, 0.8µm, f/3.5, OIS; 10X Hybrid Optic Zoom, 100X 'Super Resolution Zoom'
    • Ultra-wide: 12MP, 1.4µm, f/2.2
  • Selfie camera: 40MP (6.5MP pixel combining), 0.7µm, f/2.2

The Galaxy S20 Ultra camera is what a lot of people are going to be talking about - the 108-megapixel sensor, 8K video capture, and 100X zoom - because it sounds too good to be true. And in some ways it is, because you really have to read between the specs. Let's start with that main camera.

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The default mode for photos is 12-megapixels, rather than the 108-megapixels that the sensor offers. To get to this figure, the sensor combines nine pixels in a group and that's what you'll be shooting with most of the time. You can manually choose the 108MP mode and you'll get more detail from it, although the colour balance is slightly different to the 12MP mode.

It's pretty good as a camera, giving nice bright shots in daylight, but also making significant gains in low-light performance thanks to a night mode. Samsung was lagging behind here compared to the likes of Huawei and Google, but the S20 Ultra is a much more competitive offering in dark conditions, but results can lose sharpness when things are a little gloomy because it tends to smooth everything down. That avoids the image noise that high ISO rivals can get, but sometimes it means you don't get as much definition or detail.

The natural saturation of the photos from the main camera can cause it to struggle with reds - a rich red flower loses detail because it's over-saturated; a basement with red mood lighting again loses the grip on detail - while rivals like the Huawei P30 Pro give a less saturated result that doesn't pop so much, but ultimately contains more detail. You'll also see boosted blues in skies from Samsung, and not always realistically, particularly when using the scene optimiser.

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The night mode is offered when scenes are quite dark and you have to select it deliberately, then it will switch to a long exposure, with the same sort of day-to-night trickery that you get from the Pixel. It's not the most realistic result, i.e. it doesn't always look like the scene in front of you, but it will give you a shot you might not otherwise be able to get. There can be some nice side-effects too - the blurring of a fast flowing river gives that ethereal long exposure look, for example.

However, the main camera also has a very shallow depth of field. This results in subjects that are closer to the lens often not being fully in focus. Get close to a flower and you might find the edges are blurred. Get close to a cup and only the front is in focus. You can get around this by switching to the zoom camera and using the 4x option (you'll have to step back), which many cameras force you to do by refusing (or, really, being unable) to focus at a given close-up distance.

As the smaller f/3.5 aperture from that zoom lens helps lead to a better degree of in-focus area in closer subjects, this is what you'll need to default to. But as this is only really a solution for good light conditions, because the sensor isn't as capable overall as the main camera, that feels kind-of wrong: you shouldn't have to switch to a different lens to take a simple photo when using a phone camera.

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If you're taking pictures further away this issue doesn't arise and it's in those situations where the S20 Ultra really performs at its best. It captures lots of detail in good light, offering that range of ultra-wide camera and the zoom, with a number of easy steps you can click through - 0.5, 1, 2, 4, 10, 30, 100x - switching through the lenses. The periscope zoom lens is used from 4x upwards and you generally get good results up to 30x. By good we mean something you'll be happy to share. In reality, it's around the 10x mark that things are perhaps the best - sharp, with plenty of detail you'd otherwise not be able to get, a good balance of colour, and easy to shoot without too much handshake.

Sadly, the headline 100X Space Zoom is just a gimmick; even when the phone is mounted on a tripod for stability the results aren't great. Finding the subject you want is incredibly hard, too, because even the slightest movement of the phone is a huge swing at the end of that zoom - although at 30x and 100x you get a picture-in-picture preview to let you see what you're looking at, thankfully. The zoom is poor in low-light conditions, too, so it's best to stick to the main camera - although there's no avoiding that the zoom is fun, even if the top level is completely oversold.

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Returning to that main 108MP camera, having a bigger-than-average sensor means you can use that for zooming and cropping, without losing detail. This works rather well and there's a lot more detail in the photos than you get from the 12MP version. Effectively you can't zoom in on 12MP shots without it becoming pixillated, but you can on the 108MP shots. Is that useful? Sure, everyone likes detail, but in many cases if sharing on social media, those details won't matter - unless you go looking for them by zooming. The files are also 10 times larger, at about 30MB a piece, but there is a useful crop tool in the gallery to produce these new images from your 108MP originals. 

The results from the telephoto lens up to 10x are generally better at capturing small or distant detail than the main 108MP sensor. For example, you can take a 108MP photo of a restaurant from across the street, zoom in on the menu but the print is too indistinct to read - with the zoom you can take a photo of the menu itself and it's perfectly legible. These sorts of roundabout arguments will perhaps only occur to those with a real interest in photography, while for the casual user the point-and-shoot results are essentially competitive with rivals and make for an interesting camera loadout. But there's gimmicks and shortcomings which feel like they come about because Samsung wanted to claim a lot of headline specs.

The front camera is a huge resolution at 40MP, but the default is a 6.5MP photo, which delivers pretty good results (Samsung's specs say 10MP, but we've got no photos at that resolution from the front camera). The night mode also works on this front camera, although we'd say it's not as good as the Google Pixel phones in this regard as the foreground and background separation isn't as precise around the edges. Rather than presenting a "portrait" mode it's "live focus" instead, which is ok - but only ok. 

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There also seems to be quite a lot of smoothing happening on the main camera when it comes to faces. The camera loves to find a face and focus on that, but high points seem to get smoothed out, even without any modes turned on to do that. Taking a picture of this author's bearded face results in smoothed cheeks and forehead, rather than the slightly grizzled skin that's actually there. There's also live focus on offer on the main camera, but given the camera's naturally shallow depth of field, it does pop out portraits without needing it - but don't let us dictate the styles you want for your photos. 

On the video front the headline feature is 8K capture. That will need 600MB of storage per minute of capture and you lose a lot of the advanced features, like the video stabilisation or the focus tracking it purports to offer at other resolutions. In fact, some of the advanced capture options only apply at 30 frames per second (30fps) and as soon as you move to 60fps you start losing options. We've captured 8K video but can't natively view it on anything, so we do wonder if 8K video is going to be relevant in the lifetime of this phone. While 4K is becoming commonplace in homes, we can't see 8K in that position for a number of years at least. Again, it feels like a bit of an oversell.

S20 Ultra core hardware and battery life

  • Exynos 990 in the UK and Europe, 5G; Snapdragon 865 in other regions
  • 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 connectivity, supported by 12GB or 16GB of RAM. In other regions, like the USA, you'll get the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865. What's all that RAM doing? We're not sure even Samsung knows, but in a world where specs sell, the big numbers story continues. We've had the Exynos 990 version for testing.

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Despite offering everything you can think of, Samsung didn't include a 3.5mm headphone socket on this phone, instead offering a lone USB Type-C connector. If you're looking for a flagship level phone with a 3.5mm headphone socket you might be more interested in the Sony Xperia 1 II, which sees the return of that legacy connection. 

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has stereo speakers on it, offering Dolby Atmos - a virtualised effect to widen the soundstage - and the quality overall is pretty good. There's plenty of volume and we've found those speakers great for gaming - it's unlikely that you'll cover both with your hands, as you can with some lesser phones. 

Overall the performance of the Exynos 990 is every inch that of a flagship device. Everything is smooth and happens at pace and there's no problem firing up the latest games and playing those at top settings - driving that great display.

Then we come to the battery life. There's a huge 5,000mAh battery in the phone (that's around 30 per cent capacity more than many, to give a ballpark figure), but it's also under great demands, pushing that big display and ensuring that the flagship performance is always on tap.

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Indeed, the battery life is poor when you push the phone and through the exploring and testing phases of living with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, we found ourselves charging more than once a day. The camera seems to push those demands, perhaps a by-product of trying to do so much with so many pixels. 

But take a step back and things get better. After about six days of use, the Galaxy S20 Ultra battery performance settled and became more realistic. On lighter days you can get more than 24 hours of life from it, especially if you let the phone manage the power, switching to optimised mode. When we used the phone lightly through a day, we didn't charge overnight and still had 30 per cent battery left the following morning.

With all things, the battery performance depends on how you use it - and Samsung always wants to push more pixel and more brightness than many rivals. That can mean that on heavy days of gaming or using the camera a lot, you'll drain it much quicker. That's the sense we get from it: it will last a long time, but when you wind up the performance features, the battery drains quickly to that point that you'll really feel it.

There's an under-display fingerprint scanner for security, which is very much the same experience as on the previous iterations of these handsets. We've had a few misreads of our fingerprints, but generally it's fine, although not as fast as the older rear-mounted scanner or the Google Pixel 4's face unlocking.

Galaxy S20 software 

  • Android 10
  • One UI 2.0

Samsung's One UI 2.0 will be familiar to anyone who has used a recent Samsung device, presenting the same overall look and feel to other One UI devices from the past few years. As before, it's loaded with functions, too numerous to cover in any detail here, but we've pulled together a much larger software tips and tricks that will have you covered.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is smooth and fast in use, an easy phone to live with from a software point of view. We still maintain that Samsung's skinning of Google's Android operating system is better than big rivals like Huawei (as it was, before the US forced Google Services to be pulled) or companies like Oppo or Xiaomi that offer cheaper flagship rivals. There's some bloat that comes from Samsung offering its own version of apps - a browser, messaging app, calendar, etc - but many can be ignored and most can be removed.

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One area where Samsung clearly doesn't know what it's doing is to the left of the homepage. Swipe right from the left edge of the screen and you're offered something that's now called Samsung Daily. It was Bixby Home, it was once Upday, it's been Flipboard before that. In its latest guise it begs for a range of permissions to serve you information from other services. It's been a sort of wasteland in Samsung's user interface for a while, and we wish it just offered Google Discover like the Pixel does, a service that's actually useful.

What Samsung does offer is huge customisation - you can change the camera modes you're offered, you can reprogramme the side button, you can tweak the quick settings icons your shown. There's loads on offer - as there is on other Samsung devices - which brings a feeling of consistency. The Ultra doesn't feel hugely different to previous big Samsung phones, like the Galaxy S10 5G. That's a good thing, but it also means that if you pick up a cheaper Samsung device, you're really not missing out. In that sense, the Galaxy S10 Lite or the Galaxy S20 give you pretty much the same overall software experience.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra sets out to be the best phone you can get. Glance across the spec sheet and there's loads that screams out at you - 12GB RAM, 100x zoom, 108-megapixel camera, 120Hz refresh rate on that massive 6.9-inch display.

But the result is a phone that feels like it's trying too hard; it feels like the specs have been dictated by those online screaming for big specs, having never experienced them in a phone.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is a great phone, but it's great because of the Samsung experience: the software is smooth and refined and loaded with features; the display is great to use day-in day-out. 

The camera, ultimately, shoots for the stars and falls short. You might expect this to be the best camera on the market because of the specs - but it's not market-leading in all areas. Yes, the zoom is good to a point - but it still oversteps that point and goes beyond useful. And the battery life can be surprisingly short when you're pushing this phone, especially from such a large capacity.

That, sadly, in the context of the high price, does make you wonder what you're getting for your money. The Galaxy S20 Ultra sets out to be the best phone but, in many ways, it isn't.

This review was first published as a preview on 2 February 2020 and has been updated to reflect its full review status

Alternatives to consider

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Huawei P30 Pro

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There's no doubt that the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra was designed to slay the Huawei phone. While Huawei has some difficulties of its own (and not insignificant), the P30 Pro offers a great camera experience, good battery life, a great display and better value for money.

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Samsung Galaxy S20+

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Yes, the biggest rival to the S20 Ultra may well be Samsung's regular Galaxy S20+. The smaller phone offers many of the same great features, a different camera set that's potentially more attractive and it's more affordable too.