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Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review: Ultimate reinvention?

, Former reviews editor · ·
Review An assessment or critique of a service, product, or creative endeavour such as art, literature or a performance.

(Pocket-lint) - For those who lamented the absence of Samsung's Note series in 2021, there's a new Galaxy to sate your appetite: the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. Just one look at it and you'll likely be seeing double, for this top-tier handset looks a lot like the Note that never was.

It's entirely different to the Galaxy S22 and S22+ models in the range, because principal to the S22 Ultra's design is the integration of an S Pen stylus. That's right: not only is this larger-scale flagship compatible with the pen, it comes with a little one stowed right in its body.

But does that make the Galaxy S22 Ultra the ultimate reinvention for Samsung's series, or does it simply feel misplaced within this particular line-up? We've been using an S22 Ultra as our daily device for over a week of testing to see whether it's the ultimate Android offering.

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Our quick take

The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra stands apart from the rest of the S22 series as an altogether different offering. Indeed, its integration of an S Pen stylus, plus its whole visual style, makes it more like the Galaxy Note that never was.

Many will see that as a positive, especially if you're all about that stylus, but others may simply want the larger screen real-estate and curved edge visual appeal and will never use the S Pen's skills at all (the latter being the camp we fall into). That's the thing about the S Pen: you can embrace it or ignore it as you please.

We think the S22 Ultra's design - especially around the rear cameras - is a great visual evolution, while its other key features - being largely an echo of the earlier S21 Ultra - confirm that this isn't a complete reinvention for the series, more a well-considered refinement.

But it's undoubtedly a masterclass in refinement. Ignoring the questionable battery life and behind-the-curve charging speeds, it's the design and highly accomplished cameras here that will really sell this flagship. Sure, you'll have to pay big bucks for the pleasure, but it's an investment worth making.

4.5 stars - Pocket-lint recommended
For
  • Bright and punchy screen with adaptive refresh rate
  • Distinctive camera design is eye-catching - and it's very capable too
  • Integrated S Pen stylus is great (but not everyone will use it)
Against
  • Battery life is questionable
  • Software not entirely bug-free
  • Not everyone will want the built-in S Pen stylus - this is S series not a Note after all
  • No microSD card expansion
  • Pricey
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To look at the Ultra is entirely different to its Galaxy S22 and S22+ cousins. First up, it's the largest model of the three, giving it significantly more stature. Its screen edges are also curved, unlike the other models in the range, giving it a distinctive style that really stands out.

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In many regards it looks a lot like the earlier Galaxy Note 20 Ultra front-on. Flip the S22 Ultra over, however, and its rear design and camera arrangement is a totally different take for Samsung. The numerous lenses positioned towards the top corner portion of the handset are deeper set within the body than before, ditching any sort of enclosure arrangement, allowing them to exist more freely.

All that helps the lenses avoid protruding to excess - a long-time complaint of earlier handsets - but they're certainly not flush to the body, so you can still expect some 'desk wobble' when the Ultra is laid flat on a desktop. Dust gathers around them pretty quickly, too, but that's probably to be expected.

Still, we think it's a neat-looking arrangement that allows for your colour finish of choice to shine through between the lenses' positions. Our pictures show off the Phantom Black - probably the most subdued of the four available - but there's also a white, green or burgundy option to pick from. There's no pink gold option as you'll find in the S22 and S22+ though (not that we think it'll be missed all too much).

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Unsurprisingly there's no 3.5mm headphone jack to be found in the Ultra, while storage capacity is selected at purchase rather than being expandable via microSD after the fact. That's pretty much the standard for any flagship these days, though, but at least there's both Corning Gorilla Glass Victus+ and IP68 dust-and-water-resistance to further add to the durability. After a week of use - and we've not been using a protective case - and there are no untoward markings.

All in all, the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra's design makes us reflect on the Note Ultra of old, which is a positive, but it's the refinement and individuality around the rear camera design that really helps it stand apart from the competition. Too often we see flagship phones opting for giant protrusions or massive circular emblems, so this more 'open' approach brings its own aesthetic success.

That the Galaxy S22 and S22+ models' displays are flat - they just have rounded corners that cut into their screen real-estate a touch - means the S22 Ultra's use of a properly curved-edge panel continues to help it stand apart from the crowd.

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Whether you like the idea of a curved panel is a whole other matter, though, with many manufacturers opting for flat (or at least flatter) panels these days. The reasons are numerous: curved panels cause contrast and colour to fall off; are more prone to accidental touch; and with the use of a stylus there will be an inevitable lesser useful area towards the edge.

All that said, however, we've been living with the S22 Ultra long enough to know its curved-edge display doesn't present any such issues. Samsung's software is really smart at avoiding accidental touch. If anything the curve adds enhancements, such as Edge Panels, an almost hidden tucked-away tab that you can swipe in from the outer edge to quickly display your most used or a customised selection of top apps. Plus, as this is an 6.8-inch panel, those softer curved edges are just more comfortable to hold.

The display as a whole has some other eye-popping features, such as the 1750 nit maximum brightness. That's about as high as you'll find in any flagship phone, ensuring colours from the AMOLED panel are really punchy, whites extra bright and clean, yet blacks are as deep and rich as you could wish for. There's ample resolution, too, with QHD+ giving a pixel density that's around the 500ppi mark - again, really high by any standard, but an absolute sponge when it comes to draining the battery life.

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Samsung hasn't gone overboard when it comes to refresh rate, offering a dynamic 120Hz panel, so the device can automatically adjust whether the handset is refreshing what's on its screen once every second or 120 times every second - it all depends on whether the content needs that additional cycling to appear visually smoother. If the Korean company had busted out 144Hz or 165Hz refresh rate we suspect the benefit would be negligible and impact on battery life nothing but negative.

Speaking of battery, there's a 5,000mAh cell on board, which is the kind of capacity you'd expect for a flagship of this scale. There's also 45W fast-charging and less fast wireless charging (at 15W).

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However, what you might not expect is what else is under the hood: Samsung has deployed its own Exynos 2200 processor in the S22 Ultra in more regions than is typical (including the UK and Europe - the USA gets Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 instead).

There's no doubting the power on offer here, but the affect on battery life isn't great. Indeed, it's the reason we didn't rush out a full review of this phone. On our first day of use the battery life was poor, not even delivering a full day of use. However, Samsung's software learns to put apps to sleep and you can provide permissions per app that can help mitigate the battery running down so quickly (keep an eye on Facebook, as a prime example - we don't use it anyway and it's an absolute sap on battery for sake of unnecessary background running).

A few days in, however, and while the S22 Ultra's battery life isn't the best going, it'll push through a full day of use no problems - and that's with some gaming, an hour of live Zwift tracking, an hour or more of Bluetooth connectivity, and all our usual activity. A little patience and perseverance will get you there thanks to the built-in and adjustable software details saving the day - but only just.

It's also therefore a bit disappointing that the fast-charging here is only 45W wired and 15W wireless. There are heaps of competitors with charging speeds far quicker, some by almost three times in wired terms, even more in wireless terms. We know that Samsung is cautious around battery and fast-charging technology (the Galaxy Note 7, in 2016/17 had issues), but it's now simply a step behind the competition here.

However, not all aspects of the software - it's Samsung's One UI 4.1 over Google's Android 12 operating system - are quite perfect. Google News feed, via a left-to-right swipe on the homescreen often blacks out and causes the phone to freeze up, requiring further unlocks to get going again. We've also visited some websites through Chrome browsing and had unexpected crashes. No idea what's causing this kind of interaction, because it's no one specific site.

Otherwise, in general, Samsung's One UI is perfectly adept. It still adds its own Samsung Store front through which its integrated apps - Browser and such like - will automatically update, but you'll rarely to never need concern yourself with this detail. Navigation is smooth, layouts are customisable, the app drawer functions a little differently to some competitors, but it's not got the frustrations of, say, a Xiaomi or Oppo launcher in causing notification or app limiting issues.

A big part of the S22 Ultra regards its S Pen integration. So you may find it a major surprise that the stylus has largely remained in its stowage for much of our review time. Yikes. This is going to be a personal preference thing, but we just rarely have use for it. While it's the one thing that really defines the Ultra over the other two S22 models and, as we alluded to up top in relation to the now deceased Note series, we're just not convinced its a core S series feature (yes, we know the S21 Ultra also had compatibility).

We can flip that position on its head though: if you're a Note user clinging onto an older handset and desperate to upgrade then, for sure, the S22 Ultra will be the device to step in and take over that you've long been waiting for. The S Pen's variety of options - including Notes, Smart Select, Screen Write, Pen Up, Translate - presents a bunch of features that will be really useful for such users. Plus the latest generation stylus provides a really fluid feel when interacting with the screen, quickly jumping into action with the software the second its released from its stow. 

We've detailed the rear camera design from a layout and visual perspective already, but what are the lenses here all about? Well, if you're an S21 Ultra user already then the first read might seem disappointing because all four camera sensors deliver the same resolution.

The key difference? The S22 Ultra's main sensor, at 108-megapixels, is 23 per cent larger than the outgoing model. Larger pixels means better light gathering properties, which ought to mean improved quality from the main sensor. There's also a new 'Super Clear Glass Lens' designed to reduce flare. Otherwise the core make-up of the S22 Ultra's camera doesn't advance forward, with no added resolution for the zoom lenses.

Where Samsung is keen to show-off the S22 series' advances is in various modes. There's Stereo Depth Map to improve software-derived background blur. There's 16-bit raw capture with a separate Expert Raw camera app to edit the files (DNG, which can be opened in various other software outfits). Auto Framing will detect faces and zoom in, adjusting as more enter the frame, including in video capture. There's even an updated Pet Portrait mode, again with better background blur.

All of which sounds, well, 'fun', but we don't think those are genuine core features that people will use all of the time. But no matter, because fortunately the S22 Ultra's cameras are all-round exceptional in general use, whether in daylight or darkness.

A big appeal is how straightforward and well integrated everything is. Sure, there's various Pro modes and settings to play with, but if you don't want to tweak such things you can just dive into the app, pinch to zoom with ease and get great results. There's optical stabilisation in the right places, decent autofocus, and a night mode that'll automatically kick in as needed without you even needing to think. When the shutter clicks over you can physically feel it, too, which adds an air of 'proper camera' about this handset.

It's really in zoom where the S22 Ultra excels though. The mixture of lenses ranges from an ultra-wide 0.5x, to the main lens, up to a 3x zoom, then on to a 10x zoom. As these are all optical, not digital at this point, the results depend on the combination of lens, sensor and processing. Which, credit to Samsung, is all very good indeed. Check out our little ultra-wide through to 10x zoom steps above (on our faithful cow butter dish, oh yes) and you'll get an idea of how well that zoom translates.

Better still, the zoom is very adept when it comes to close-up focus. Often a 10x optical zoom would struggle with close focus, but not so here. That adds real additional functionality with purpose. Even the main lens is super when it comes to particularly close-up shooting, negating the very need for a macro lens (which so many competitors lump thoughtlessly onto their products) and delivering pretty spectacular results.

Low-light conditions are no struggle either. When shooting handheld longer exposures the optical stabilisation does a smashing job at holding everything nice and steady. Then the processing kicks in, which is where a bit of extra 'magic' is added to shots - you'll be able to see night scenes suddenly spring out of their shadows in real-time on the phone's screen, presenting a much broader dynamic range and colourful pop to proceedings. Night Mode is certainly adept.

Sure, the results may be largely similar to the earlier S21 Ultra, but when that camera setup was in such high regard, we can see why there's largely an echo of that repeated in the S22 Ultra - albeit in an altogether neater design arrangement.

To recap

The Ultra is a total departure for the Galaxy S22 series, integrating a little S Pen stylus, which makes it rather like the Note that never was. Many features aren't hugely different to the outgoing S21 Ultra, however, but this handset is all about refinement - from that punchy curved edge display to the distinctive rear cameras arrangement - and there's no denying the quality of the cameras on offer here.

Writing by Mike Lowe.