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How Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra can beat the Galaxy S21 Ultra

How is Samsung going to surpass the Galaxy S21 Ultra? I ask this in all seriousness, as the 2021 flagship has remained one of my favorite Android phones alongside the Google Pixel 6 Pro. I’m using it again as I write this, and it’s as spectacular and capable as it was when I first reviewed it at the end of January 2021.

The Galaxy S22 Ultra will almost certainly launch alongside other members of the S22 range on February 9, and perhaps more than any other year before, Samsung really has to go all-out to make the new phone markedly better.

Remembering the S20 Ultra

Remember the Galaxy S20 Ultra? Possibly not, and that’s because despite being technically very capable it had one of the least interesting and most forgettable designs seen on a smartphone. It even came in Battleship Grey, as if Samsung was willfully trying to make it disappear into the background. The Galaxy S21 Ultra was a huge step forward in design and I still think it looks amazing today, especially in the matte black finish.

Galaxy S20 Ultra Riley Young / Digital Trends

The S22 Ultra needs to build on this. It needs to look even better than the S21 Ultra, perhaps by minimizing some of the bulk generated by the massive camera module on the back, yet still retaining its character. The S21 Ultra is very recognizable, and big though the camera module is, the cleverly integrated design has proven to be such a winner this year, it has been copied by other manufacturers since. It became a trendsetter, and Samsung needs to do the same for 2022 with the S22 Ultra.

Interestingly, looking at some of the leaked images and renders, the S22 Ultra may turn into more of a follow-up to the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra in terms of design. There’s something about the squared-off corners, integral S-Pen, and rounded sides in these unofficial images that recall the last Note phone more than the last S-Series Ultra phone. Not all the leaked images agree on the potential design, so we really don’t know what it will look like yet, but we’ll come back to the possible Note similarities shortly.

The rear panel of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/ DigitalTrends

What else would I like to see changed? As much as I love the matte black finish, it has picked up plenty of marks and scratches over the past year even though I haven’t used it every day. Additional durability would be very welcome. Getting the weight down from the S21 Ultra’s whopping 229 grams would also be great, just to make it a little more manageable and pocket-friendly. But as long as Samsung doesn’t play it safe on the design, it won’t matter if these aspects don’t really change.

Even better camera?

Design, and a phone’s attractiveness, are subjective. Many won’t even care what it looks like or what color it is, but where Samsung really does have to impress is with the camera. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera is superb. The Google Pixel 6 Pro only just beat it in a side-by-side camera test, despite the Pixel coming out months after it. The 10x optical zoom feature is almost uncontested, and it remains a fantastic feature that makes the S21 Ultra more versatile than most of the competition.

I sang the camera’s praises in our six-month update on the S21 Ultra, showing how the macro feature using the 10x zoom can take startling shots that aren’t really possible with other phones. The iPhone 13 Pro’s macro mode comes close to matching it, but it’s not quite as seamless or natural to use. The main 108-megapixel camera has a wonderful tone, and the editing suite is comprehensive and easy to use. It’s easily one of the best smartphone cameras I’ve used.

Rumors are all pointing to the Galaxy S22 Ultra having basically the same camera setup as the S21 Ultra, which if accurate, indicates changes will come in the software. The S21 Ultra was very close to the Pixel 6 Pro in our test, showing Samsung’s computational photography expertise isn’t far off Google’s, but experience also shows that it doesn’t always take the subtlest path when it comes to tuning images. Samsung was notorious for over-saturation in its photos and while it toned it down for the S21 Ultra, it’s still present in some of Samsung’s other cameras.

If Samsung is relying on software and not new hardware to update the S21 Ultra’s cameras, it needs to tread carefully. Gimmicks won’t cut it, and neither will nominal software alterations to the tone. I want to see improvements in the wide-angle camera performance especially. It’s following up an excellent camera, and the results need to be really good for it to be worth upgrading.

What’s in a name?

The leaked Galaxy S22 Ultra images and talk of the phone coming with an S Pen makes me concerned there’s a risk of the S22 Ultra having an identity crisis, which may lead to confusion about what the phone really is. It may have an internal slot for an S Pen stylus, and as we’ve already pointed out, the overall design in some leaks is quite reminiscent of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. The Note line effectively ended in 2020, with Samsung seemingly focused on making the Z Fold series its semi-official replacement.

But if Samsung puts an S Pen into the S22 Ultra, rather than offering it as an accessory like the S21 Ultra, then isn’t it a Galaxy Note? After all, the line had blurred between the two so much the S Pen was really the only differentiating feature, and Samsung itself seemed to be unsure why the two needed to exist. If the S22 Ultra has an S Pen, then is it an admission that it made the wrong decision before, when it should have dropped the Ultra in favor of the Note?

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (left) and Galaxy S21 Ultra with S Pen case (right) Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Flagship phones with excellent cameras are more common than flagship phones with a stylus inside the body, and the Note’s uniqueness earned it many dedicated fans. Samsung has repeatedly talked about its loyal fans, and it had to know the S21 Ultra and S Pen accessory would never be a true alternative for the hardcore Noters. If the S22 Ultra is more Note than Ultra, then should it just call it that?

Marketing and identity issues aside, the main concern over the “Noteization” of the Ultra is the eventual price. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra started at a pricey $1,300 at launch, $100 more than the still-expensive S21 Ultra. Put the two devices together, and factor in the mobile industry’s pandemic-related additional costs and the rumors suggesting the S22 Ultra may start at $1,300 seem worryingly accurate.

When is the S22 Ultra coming?

In summary, what we want to see from the Galaxy S22 Ultra is a new, modern design that builds on the distinctive look of the S21 Ultra, lower weight and more durability, an updated camera that isn’t ruined by heavy-handed software tweaks, and a clear identity. Finally, if it’s an Ultra, make it so, but if it’s really a Note, then don’t shy away from saying it.

But then, perhaps if the S22 Ultra ends up being the Galaxy Note 21 or 22 in all-but-name, it’ll be exactly the kind of special feature it needs to truly surpass the S21 Ultra? It’ll be quite the trick if Samsung pulls that off, and we will find out how it has fared when the S22 series is revealed at its Galaxy Unpacked event held on February 9.

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