Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra hands-on: An obscene price for an obscenely good phone

Update: After extended time with the final device, we’ve published our full Galaxy S20 Ultra review. You might’ve thought the camera would be the best feature. Right now, it’s not. Read the full review to find out why.

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is the biggest of the new S20 range, and also the best. But two things will stop you from automatically buying it. Small hands, and a small budget. This is a big, expensive smartphone. At the minimum you’ll spend $1,400 to get the S20 Ultra, making it among the most expensive Galaxy S phones ever made.

I spent an hour with the Galaxy S20 Ultra ahead of its official launch, and definitely fell for its charms. Here’s why.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra size and display

This is one of the most surprising aspects of the S20 Ultra. The name — Ultra — makes it sound gigantic, and the knowledge it has a 6.9-inch screen also makes you expect a hand-stretching mega-phone for giants. Yet while it’s technically larger than even the Galaxy Note 10 Plus (yes, really), it’s not that big.

Samsung has refined the shape of the phone to make it more manageable than you expect. The phone is heavy at 220 grams, but has a marginally larger footprint than the S20 Plus.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra held in hand
John Velasco / Digital Trends

While the Note 10 Plus is chunky, the S20 Ultra feels lithe and sleek, yet the screen is even bigger at 6.9-inches. It has a 120Hz refresh rate and looks beautifully colorful and bright, as we expect from any Samsung.

Remember the Galaxy S6 Edge, with its eye-catching but uncomfortably sharp screen edges? The S20 Ultra’s design is the antithesis of that. It didn’t feel sharp against my palm, it was easier to grip, and I doubt it will cause the fatigue felt when holding phones like OnePlus 7T Pro for long periods of time. The S20 Ultra always felt secure in my hand.

back of Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra held in hand
John Velasco / Digital Trends

Samsung has made strides in haptic feedback. The taps and vibrations feel responsive and reassuring under the tip of your finger, and have worked into new areas of the phone, including the camera.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra design

Two aspects of the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s design leap out; the camera bump, and the colors available. Both will split opinions.

By bringing the Note 10 Plus out in a striking aura glow color, Samsung did the right thing. It gave the productivity-led phone some personality. The S20 Ultra, however, is available in black or cosmic grey, while the S20 and S20 Plus can be had in pink or blue. It’s a shame the S20 Ultra is forced to wear its suit all day, without even a flashy tie.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra held in hand
John Velasco / Digital Trends

Then we come to the camera bump. Samsung calls it the phone’s “signature design element,” and it’s hard to argue. If you think the Pixel 4 or iPhone 11 Pro look “challenging,” the S20 Ultra will send you running in horror. The camera bump is massive and ungainly. However, if you (like me) acclimated to the iPhone and the Pixel, it’s not obscene.

It’s a blight on an otherwise conventionally pretty phone, but the tech it stores inside means you’ll learn to live with it.  Samsung knows the protrusion may cause concerns over damage to the lenses, so the module is covered in Gorilla Glass 6, just like the rest of the S20 Ultra’s body. The other S20 phones make do with Gorilla Glass 3 over the lenses.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra camera quality

The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera is a lot of fun to use. It’s the only S20 phone with an incredible 108-megapixel, f/1.8  camera, a piece of Samsung tech only seen on the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 so far.

It’s joined by a 12-megapixel f/2.2 ultra-wide lens and a 48-megapixel telephoto lens, plus it has a time-of-flight sensor which the other models don’t have. The selfie camera 40-megapixels, way above the 10-megapixels on the other two S20 phones, plus the camera records 8K resolution video, has a hybrid optical 10x zoom, and a crazy 100x zoom feature. These figures separate the S20 Ultra from every other flagship phone available now.

I was only able to take a few photos inside during my short hands-on time with the S20 Ultra. Shoot in 108-megapixel mode (activated using a shortcut at the top of the screen) and pictures are full of detail that can be leveraged by cropping the photo down. Whether you use it regularly is another thing. The standard camera will be just fine in most situations.

The software and hardware needed to make 100x zoom possible in a smartphone are impressive. The optics are set sideways inside the body, complete with a special prism that could only fit in the S20 Ultra’s larger body. But like 108-megapixel shooting mode, full zoom won’t be something you use often. The effect was lacklustre in my short test. Maxing the zoom to 100x left me with blurry, unusable photos.

Results were better when I was sensible with the zoom. It uses a clever combination of hybrid optical zoom and artificial intelligence to generate photos. At 10x, and even 30x, the image steadies itself well, with a handy  “picture-in-picture” to show you the entire scene.

The  photos I took did reveal obvious digital artifacts at high zoom levels. Realistically, I think anything up to 10x zoom can be used on a regular basis, and with the phone in standard 12-megapixel mode. 10x zoom photos looked good, with similar image tuning and saturation to the Note 10 Plus.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra camera software & video quality

I also like Samsung’s new Single Take mode. It’s designed for when you fumble about deciding whether to shoot video, or take a photo. The Ultra S20’s A.I. software can create a still, a short GIF-style clip, and more, all on its own. You can then edit and save each individually.

This feels like a feature many will find very useful. It worked well for me, creating a unique GIF-style clip from an otherwise simple video.

That’s all before you dig into the improved Super Steady video mode, the cool Night Mode Hyperlapse feature, and 8K video recording. The need to record video at such a resolution won’t be of interest to many at the moment, considering how much an 8K TV costs.

Still, to make it slightly worthwhile here the phone, has the option to capture 33-megapixel stills from the footage, and also downscale it to 4K or 1080p for easy sharing. The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera made me want to try out all the features straight away, and that’s exactly the reaction I wanted.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra price and availability

The Samsung S20 Ultra starts at $1,400. Pre-orders go live on February 21 ahead of the March 6 release date.

Conclusion

You gain the best of everything with the S20 Ultra. It has 5G, an incredible camera, a massive screen, and a quite astonishing 16GB of RAM. The only reason to consider the smaller, simple $1,000 Galaxy S20 is if you’re restricted by budget, or find the big S20 Ultra too large to hold. I don’t know why anyone would choose the $1,200 S20 Plus at all.

The S20 Ultra is a no-compromise S20 phone, and you’re going to have to be prepared to pay for it. The phone is $1,400, so it has a massive price tag to go along with the massive camera bump. That’s $200 more than the 512GB Galaxy Note 10 Plus, and $300 more than the cheapest Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max. Samsung is the master of the so-called ultra-premium segment at the moment with the $2,000 Galaxy Fold, and the full 16GB/512GB Galaxy S20 Ultra will soon join it as a device for the rich.

While the S20 Ultra is expensive, the other S20 phones feel like a compromise once you use the S20 Ultra. That’s going to put a strain on your wallet.

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