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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: the superphone that's a little too massive

Samuel Gibbs Consumer technology editor

Samsung’s new Galaxy S20 Ultra superphone is packed to the brim with chart-topping features, including 100x zooming, 108MP cameras, a ginormous screen and 5G.

The £1,199 S20 Ultra leads an important new lineup of 5G-as-standard smartphones from Samsung, which looks to make the technology a normal part of mobile life rather than an expensive add-on for early adopters.

But in 2020 5G alone isn’t enough to stand out, so the S20 Ultra has a smorgasbord of stats and features that, on paper at least, make it unbeatable.

First is the sheer size of the thing. It has a 6.9in QHD+ display, which is practically the size of a tablet. It is 222g in weight and 76mm wide, which is right at the limit of what I can handle. The 166.9mm length makes it difficult to pocket without injuring yourself or the phone when you sit down.

The glass is slippery when cold or put on the sofa, but the phone is so big I can’t see many using it without some sort of case or a handle.

The screen’s 120Hz refresh rate is twice the standard 60Hz, and faster still than last year’s OnePlus 7 Pro and Pixel 4. Animations and scrolling through lists, sites and other content is so much smoother at 120Hz that it’s difficult to go back to 60Hz, even if that limits the resolution to FHD+.

Flip the phone over and you’ll find the super-sized lump containing four cameras and a flash in the top left corner. It’s big, sticks out miles and you can feel it with your fingers when you use the phone.

Specifications

  • Main screen: 6.9in QHD+ Dynamic Amoled 2X (511ppi)

  • Processor: Samsung Exynos 990 (EU) or Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 (US)

  • RAM: 12 or 16GB of RAM

  • Storage: 128, 256 or 512GB (UFS 3.0) + microSD card

  • Operating system: One UI 2.1 based on Android 10

  • Camera: Quad rear camera: 108MP wide angle, 12MP ultra-wide angle, 48MP telephoto, depth sensor; 40MP front-facing camera

  • Connectivity: 5G, dual nano sim, USB-C, wifi6, NFC, Bluetooth 5 and location

  • Dimensions: 166.9 x 76.0 x 8.8mm

  • Weight: 220g

Great performance and good battery life

The S20 Ultra is the first smartphone to ship in Europe with Samsung’s latest Exynos 990 processor. In the US it has Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 instead. Both variants come with 12 or 16GB of RAM, which is more than most laptops.

Performance all round was brilliant. Snappy, responsive and smooth, even with graphically intensive games. Like everything else, the battery is supersized in the S20 Ultra, with a capacity of 5,000mAh, which is about 1,000mAh bigger than the one in the iPhone 11 Pro Max or OnePlus 7T Pro, and bigger than the 4,500mAh battery in the S10 5G.

Battery life ranges from an excellent 42 hours on 4G with the screen set to FHD+ at 60Hz, to 40 hours with that upped to 120Hz, and a solid 38 hours on Vodafone’s 5G with 120Hz active. The S20 Ultra will get through even the heaviest of days without needing a charge.

Fully charging the S20 Ultra took 70 minutes with the included power adapter, but closer to two hours with other 30-45W USB-C chargers. Fast 15W wireless charging and 7W wireless power-sharing is also available – great for charging your Galaxy Buds+ or other Qi-compatible phones from the back of the S20 Ultra.

Sustainability

Samsung does not rate the battery in the S20 Ultra for a set number of charge cycles (which is typically 500) but does provide a one-year warranty. Despite being rated as difficult to repair, Samsung says the device is generally repairable and that the battery is replaceable, by authorised service centres at costs likely to be in excess of £200.

Samsung offers trade-in and recycling schemes for old devices. It did not comment on the use of recycled materials in its smartphones.

One UI 2.1

The Galaxy S20 Ultra runs the same version of Samsung-customised Android 10, called One UI 2, as the Galaxy Z Flip.

One UI has become one of the best implementations of Android, particularly for big-screen smartphones, because it treats the top of the screen as an information display section and the bottom – the bit you can actually reach with your thumb – as a place for all interactions.

You have to use Samsung’s apps to really take advantage of it, but broadly it works very well. You can also do split-screen multitasking, have apps float over other apps (not just video), duplicate messaging apps such as WhatsApp so you can have two accounts on one phone, quickly manage two sims from the notification shade, and a plethora of other features.

One UI 2 defaults to the traditional three-button Android navigation bar, but Android 10’s new gesture navigation system makes using the super-sized screen easier.

Samsung guarantees only two major Android versions from release. It provides monthly security updates for its devices but does not commit to a particularly length of support, instead listing the current support status of handsets on its security site. Other models such as the Galaxy S7 Edge from 2016 are currently receiving only quarterly security updates.

Apple supports its iPhones for approximately five years, including security and full iOS version updates. Google offers about three years of security and version updates for its Pixel line, while OnePlus offers two years of software plus another year of security updates.

Samsung has recently made great strides, but you will still likely have to wait in the region of three months for major version Android updates to appear after Google releases them. £1,199 is also a lot of money to pay for a phone that is only guaranteed updates for two years.

Camera

The massive lump on the back of the phone contains Samsung’s new quad-camera system: a large 108MP wide angle, 12MP ultra-wide angle, 48MP telephoto with periscopic 4x optical zoom and a depth sensor. There’s a 40MP front-facing camera poking through a small hole in the screen too.

Samsung’s camera system has taken a big leap forward over the last year, after lagging behind competitors from Apple, Google and Huawei. The quartet of cameras allows you to smoothly zoom from ultrawide angle (0.5x), through the wide angle (1x) and out to 4x optical zoom, then on to 10x hybrid zoom. From there you’re into what Samsung calls “Space Zoom”, which is essentially a digital zoom on top, taking you all the way to 100x magnification.

The 12MP ultrawide camera produces some really good shots in most lighting conditions, excellent for creating a fisheye effect close up or for capturing more of a cityscape in one shot.

The main 108MP camera shoots 12MP photos by default, combining nine pixels on the sensor into one pixel of final image, in a process known as pixel binning. The resulting photos are great, striking an excellent balance of detail and low noise, although occasionally a little over-sharpened on full crop, even in the kind of middling light of British homes where previous Samsung cameras struggled. Samsung’s dedicated night mode is good but not quite on the same level as Night Sight on the Pixel 4, taking considerably longer to take the same shots.

The live focus portrait mode is improved too, but given that the wide-angle camera takes images with plenty of natural bokeh, I found I didn’t need to use the artificial mode. The camera app has the usual array of beautifying and smoothing features, if that’s your jam.

The camera can also shoot full 108MP shots, but I found that most of the time the 12MP mode produced better images. It’s nice to have the creative option, though, as you can crop right into a 108MP image for a closeup without using a zoom.

The zoom is the star of the show though, rivalling the previous zoom king, the Huawei P30 Pro, which uses a similar periscope lens system for a 5x optical zoom. Shots at 4x optical zoom are best, but push it to 10x and, while not quite lossless, the images are very good indeed, blowing everything but the P30 Pro out of the water.

Zooming to 30x, images are still very good, while Samsung’s 50x zoom beats Huawei’s equivalent from a year ago. The 100x headline figure isn’t really worth using except as a surrogate pair of binoculars, as images are full of artefacts. It’s also worth noting it is very difficult to hold steady at 100x, despite Samsung’s excellent picture-in-picture aiming box that pops up to help hit the target over 20x magnification.

The S20 Ultra also captures very good video, arguably the best on Android. It will shoot up to 8K video, consuming upwards of 10MB a second in the process, but stabilisation and effects are limited to 1080p.

The 40MP selfie camera shoots 10MP images by default, again using pixel binning, and produces some of the very best, most detailed shots I’ve seen on any selfie camera.

Ultrasonic fingerprint scanner

The S20 Ultra has the same ultrasonic fingerprint scanner embedded underneath the screen as the S10 and Note 10 series of smartphones, but it performed slightly better in my testing.

Land your clean, dry finger on the correct spot on the screen and the phone unlocks pretty fast. It also worked better once I removed the included screen protector and re-registered my fingerprints. But it’s neither as fast nor as forgiving as the best in-display fingerprint sensors used by OnePlus in the 7T Pro, nor Face ID on the iPhone 11 or Face Unlock on the Pixel 4.

Observations

  • There’s a set of Samsung’s excellent AKG earbuds in the box, this time with a USB-C cable as there is no headphone socket.

  • Samsung has significantly improved the haptic feedback vibrations, bringing them up to a level with Google’s, but not quite as good as Apple’s.

  • The notification vibrations sounds particularly violent when the phone is flat on a desk due to it resting on the large camera lump.

  • For some reason the phone insisted on opening the sim manager in the settings menu each time the phone rebooted.

Price

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is available in black or grey, costing £1,199 with 128GB or £1,399 with 512GB of storage, shipping on 13 March.

For comparison, the Galaxy S20 costs £799, the Galaxy S20+ costs £999, the Galaxy Note 10+ costs £999 and the Galaxy Z Flip costs £1,300; the Google Pixel 4XL costs £829, the OnePlus 7T Pro costs £669 and the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max costs £1,149.

Verdict

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is Samsung’s superphone to conquer all superphones. Everything pushed to excess.

That excess is great when it means a massive battery, future-proofed 5G and a camera that’s leagues ahead of where Samsung was a year ago. The combination of great main, ultra-wide and 4x optical cameras, with a 10x hybrid zoom, is so flexible and fun to use. Even at zooms of 30x you get pretty good pictures, and 100x zoom can substitute for binoculars in a pinch.

But all that excess also makes the phone far too big: I can barely fit it in my pocket and I wouldn’t be comfortable using it as my own phone without some sort of ring or Popsocket on the back.

It’s also incredibly expensive: £1,200 is a lot of money for a phone, particularly one only guaranteed to receive two years of updates from release, but then you can easily spend that on an iPhone. And despite all the features and finesse, the massive black slab looks positively boring next to the Galaxy Z Flip.

There’s no doubt that the Galaxy S20 Ultra is one of Samsung’s best phones to date. I just wish all that camera was squeezed into something considerably smaller and cheaper.

Pros: 120Hz screen, 5G, great and flexible camera, long battery life, microSD card slot, dual sim, One UI, wireless charging and powershare, fast performance

Cons: absolutely massive, very expensive, no headphone socket, ultrasonic fingerprint sensor not as good as competitors

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