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Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: the best, most complete Android phone yet

The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra lying on a large rock.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra
MSRP $1,199.00
“The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is the most complete, most versatile Android smartphone you can buy. It's a big purchase in more ways than one, but it'll last you for years.”
Pros
  • Incredibly powerful processor
  • Versatile telephoto zoom camera
  • S Pen adds value
  • Water-resistant and durable
  • Long software update commitment
  • Many interesting features to explore
  • Large, bright, detailed screen
Cons
  • Wired charging is complicated, and only 45W
  • Big and heavy

Before reading this review, there are a few things I want to suggest. Don’t get caught up in the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra’s admittedly high price tag; instead, think about the value it represents. Don’t get overwhelmed by its astonishing ability or extensive feature list, but consider the things it can’t do. Don’t think of it as “more of the same” compared to the Galaxy S22 Ultra either, as you’ll miss the things that mean it’ll stay usable longer.

I know that’s a lot of “don’ts,” but there’s a reason I’ve pointed them out. It’s because the Galaxy S23 Ultra can do pretty much everything you want today, next year, and almost certainly for a few years after that, too. When you know this, it’s only the things it can’t do that will matter — and believe me, it’s a very short list indeed. Join us as we go into detail in our full Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review.

About our Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review

Our Galaxy S23 Ultra review is based on many weeks of regular use since the phone was released. We tested three different models throughout that time. First, one review model supplied by Samsung in the U.K. was used by Andy Boxall, which was subsequently returned and replaced with a retail version purchased from Samsung’s online store. The other is being used in the U.S. by Joe Maring. All three are unlocked versions of the phone.

I (Andy Boxall) revisited the Galaxy S23 Ultra at the end of November 2023 and updated our review accordingly, plus added a new section right below covering how it operates today. The score remains the same, and it’s still a recommended buy. We’re also still using the S23 Ultra regularly.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: 9 months later

The back of the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

The thing that struck me most about the Galaxy S23 Ultra in November 2023 is that it doesn’t seem to have aged at all. If you told me it was released yesterday, I’d believe you and would give it the same breathless review as I did in February. The prompt update to Android 14 and One UI 6 definitely helps, as does the fact the S Pen and the brilliant, fun 10x optical zoom continue to be unique in the market.

Over the past months, we’ve shown how the camera can take incredible photos in the right hands and how much difference there is between it and a $450 phone like the Samsung Galaxy A54. Returning to it only emphasized that it has lost none of its camera magic, not even when compared to the latest Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max. The camera isn’t perfect, but it’s so versatile and capable in most environments you’ll quickly forgive it should it get something wrong.

Samsung will replace the Galaxy S23 Ultra in early 2024 with the Galaxy S24 Ultra. This inevitable change may make you stop and think if the S23 Ultra is worth buying today, and although we’d say if you can wait, it’s probably worth it, there’s no reason to dismiss the S23 Ultra if you aren’t bothered about having the latest model. It’s excellent all round, and you won’t regret buying it today.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: design

Someone holding the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends / .

I came to the Galaxy S23 Ultra from the OnePlus 11 and spent the first few days adapting to the difference between the two. The OnePlus 11 is slim, light, and very “holdable,” and the S23 Ultra really isn’t any of those things. If you’re coming from a phone that isn’t nearly 9mm thick, 78mm wide, and 233 grams in weight, you’re really going to notice how much of a handful the S23 Ultra is.

It’s not unmanageable, but there is a period of adjustment involved unless you’re already using the Galaxy S22 Ultra or an iPhone 14 Pro Max, which are the closest analogs to the S23 Ultra’s size.

You will get used to the S23 Ultra’s size and weight, but if you’ve got small hands, the width and thickness make singlehanded use very difficult, which is far harder to overcome. It’s a consideration that’s mostly unnecessary on phones like the OnePlus 11, iPhone 15 Pro, or even the Galaxy S23 Plus. If this is going to be your first massive smartphone, before you buy it, go and hold one first and see if you think it’ll fit into your lifestyle. Some folks may never adjust to the S23 Ultra’s size, and for them, the much smaller and more pocketable Galaxy S23 will be a better fit.

Samsung hasn’t really changed the design of the Galaxy S23 Ultra over the S22 Ultra. It’s still that familiar all-business look, with curved sides to the chassis and the screen, tiny bezels, and five circular camera modules on the back. It’s not especially eye-catching, but this will be part of its appeal. There’s a maturity to the simple stylishness of the S23 Ultra, and the device itself is instantly recognizable too. It’s not going to be mistaken for an iPhone 15 Pro Max or a Google Pixel 8 Pro.

A person holding the Galaxy S23 Ultra and taking a photograph.
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

The build quality is superb, it’s incredibly substantial, and it should be very durable too. The S23 Ultra has an IP68 water-resistance rating, Gorilla Glass Victus 2, and Samsung’s latest Armor Aluminum chassis material. The weight means putting it in a case will protect it in the event of a fall onto something hard, but there’s a degree of reassurance that comes from Samsung’s commitment to durability that’s missing from many of its competitors.

This also applies to Samsung’s use of recycled materials, and its lengthy software update commitment, which, when combined with the durability and performance of the phone, adds up to it being a device you’ll be happy to keep for years. It used to be fine to keep a phone for two years if you were keen on mobile tech, but this is a three-or-more-year device.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: colors

All four colors of the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Andrew Martonik / Digital Trends

There are eight different color options for the Galaxy S23 Ultra. The standard Phantom Black, Lavender, Cream, and Green models are widely available, but if you order directly from Samsung you can choose one of four exclusive colors. These are Lime, Graphite, Red, and Sky Blue. If you do opt for one of the Samsung-only colors, you may have to wait a little longer for delivery.

We started off using the green Galaxy S23 Ultra, and it’s certainly attractive. Green is an on-trend color for smartphones, with everything from the iPhone 13 Pro to the OnePlus 11 tackling the tricky shade. Samsung didn’t go for a bright or forest green, toning it down for a subtle look when it wasn’t in the right light. It stood out a little more when the light did hit it, but it’s hardly an attention grabber.

Step forward with Samsung’s exclusive colors. These really will grab attention, as they’re far brighter and more eye-catching. I chose the Sky Blue model, which took a week longer to ship than a standard colored model, and am very pleased with my choice.

I considered the red model but preferred the Sky Blue model’s chrome finish on the chassis to the red version’s black finish. The blue is still quite subtle, taking on a paler, almost silver color at certain angles. If you can handle the long wait, you won’t be disappointed with one of Samsung’s exclusive colors.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: camera

The Galaxy S23 Ultra's camera module.
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

The headline feature is Samsung’s own ISOCELL HP2 200-megapixel camera. It’s joined by a far more conventional 12MP wide-angle camera with a 120-degree field of view, plus a pair of 10MP telephoto cameras for a 3x and 10x optical zoom. The camera is also equipped with optical image stabilization (OIS) and laser autofocus, plus a Super Resolution Zoom with recommended levels of 30x and 100x digital zoom.

It’s possible to shoot photos at the full 200MP resolution; just be aware that these take up at least 40MB of space on their own, compared to the more usual 4MB to 7MB 12MP shots the camera takes by default.

Here’s the most important thing you need to know about the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s camera: the reason to buy it is not the 200MP camera, but its incredible zoom capabilities. They are transformative and make the camera so much more versatile than what’s on any other phone available today. The quality of the 3x and 10x zoom is excellent, but now the 30x zoom is catching up. And although the 100x still isn’t great, it’s much better than ever before. The Galaxy S23 Ultra’s telephoto cameras take photos that are impossible to replicate on any other smartphone, at least with the same quality. You’ll have a lot of fun taking amazing zoom photos with the Galaxy S23 Ultra.

The main camera takes brilliant photos, but you won’t really know it’s a 200MP camera. Shots have a vibrant, exciting tone, with strong colors and masses of detail. I like the overall atmosphere the camera creates, which straddles the line between realism and hyperrealism very effectively. Most of the time, the colors are amped up by just the right amount, but it can slip into oversaturation when faced with reds and blues in some situations.

It takes considerably brighter photos than the iPhone 14 Pro and exposes more detail in the shadows too, but this comes at the expense of a natural color palette. The camera also produces shots with a very different atmosphere. I’d call them more instantly shareable, but that won’t be deemed a good thing by everyone. Comparing the Galaxy S23 Ultra camera to the Google Pixel 7 Pro, one of our favorite camera phones, was a real eye-opener; the Galaxy S23 Ultra has stolen the Google phone’s crown. It also tied with the much newer Apple iPhone 15 Pro’s camera in this test, showing it hasn’t lost any of its ability since launch.

You can also download Samsung’s Expert RAW app from the Galaxy App Store, which unlocks the camera’s potential to take professional-level images in RAW format that are ready to be edited in apps such as Adobe Lightroom. Lightroom is the default editor for the app, but it requires a subscription to use all of its features. Pay through the app, and Lightroom Premium costs $5 per month, and it comes with an extended two-month free trial.

I wasn’t convinced it would be worth it, or that you wouldn’t need a lot of expertise to use it effectively, but I was wrong. The Lightroom for Samsung app adds a great deal to the overall camera experience, and retains that all-important hands-on approach to editing images that’s disappearing due to the use of AI. I’m definitely not an expert with Lightroom, but the easy tutorials have given me enough confidence to adjust my photos so they look better to my eyes.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra’s versatility makes it really desirable, and I feel confident I will be able to take any photo I want with it — and that’s something other phones can’t quite provide. It’s also still the only phone you can buy with a 10x optical zoom, and even when other phones get close to that figure, the quality is often lacking in comparison. It’s a superb camera phone.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: video recording

The Galaxy S23 Ultra's camera module on the Sky Blue version.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

I continue to adore the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s camera for stills; it’s so incredibly versatile that I rarely feel it can’t capture the shot I want. But what about the video performance? The Galaxy S23 Ultra can record video at up to 8K resolution at 24 frames-per-second (fps), or at a more reasonable 4K at 60fps. It also has many special modes, including slow-motion, Hyperlapse, and Portrait video.

You’ll have to be mindful of storage space shooting at higher resolutions. A minute of 8K video takes up about 620MB, while 4K resolution fills almost the same amount of space at 550MB on average. If you do this regularly, and start shooting 200MP stills, too, then it’s easy to see how quickly 256GB of storage space would be filled. It’s worth considering the 512GB version or even more if you want to take a lot of video.

But what does the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s video actually look like? To find out, I took the phone with me on a short trip away and made a point to shoot as much video as possible, instead of mostly taking still photos as usual. You can read my complete article on what it’s like to use the S23 Ultra as a video camera, with several examples of performance — plus you can see one of the videos from it above. I really enjoyed using the S23 Ultra’s video mode, as it repeats all the still camera modes, giving you a lot of versatility. It can’t beat stills for me, personally, but there’s no question it’s just as powerful if you prefer it.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: performance

Playing a game on the Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Powerful isn’t a strong enough word to describe the incredible ability of the Galaxy S23 Ultra. We’d already been impressed by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 in the Iqoo 11 and the OnePlus 11, but here — in its custom “Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 For Galaxy” guise — it’s an absolute monster. I’d love to say I have pushed the phone to its limits, but I don’t think I’ve come close. I play games, use apps, make calls, use Bluetooth and Samsung DeX, take 200-megapixel photos, and shoot some 8K video. Even with all of that, the S23 Ultra just shrugs it all off.

Playing Asphalt 9: Legends for 30 minutes doesn’t cause any noticeable temperature increase apart from a tiny bit around the top edge, but nothing that you’d call hot, or even that warm. Recording a 15-minute Hyperlapse video caused the phone to heat up more around the camera module –not so it was burning, but definitely hot to the touch. Apps start and refresh in seconds, and even Google Maps grabs a signal and loads the local area faster than other phones I’ve used. When you start noticing little things like that, it means the entire system is incredibly smooth and fast.

Powerful isn’t a strong enough word to describe the incredible ability of the Galaxy S23 Ultra.

My review model has 12GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage space. There is an 8GB version available, but it’s probably worth getting the higher specification one if you’re planning to keep the phone for a while. Internal storage is also an important consideration. A single 200MP photo is at least 40MB, and a minute of 8K video is often close to 600MB. That’s before you’ve installed any games, and some of the top games today can take up to 10GB alone. Do think about the 512GB model if you intend to keep it for a while.

This time, Samsung hasn’t made an Exynos version of the Galaxy S23 Ultra for global markets. I’m extremely glad, as I can’t see any way the almost overwhelming ability of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 For Galaxy could be beaten. Buy the Galaxy S23 Ultra, and be safe in the knowledge you’ll have to work pretty hard to reach its limits.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: screen and software

A video playing on the Galaxy S23 UItra.
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

That’s 6.8 inches of Super Dynamic AMOLED screen you’re looking at on the front of the Galaxy S23 Ultra, and it’s even bigger than the massive iPhone 14 Pro Max and Pixel 7 Pro. It’s enormous, and has the brightness to go with its size. Peak brightness is 1,750 nits, and even walking around Manhattan on a (surprisingly) sunny February morning, Section Editor Joe Maring could still see the screen perfectly. I’ve had no problem seeing the screen, either. It’s easily comparable to the iPhone 14 Pro’s similarly bright display.

Watching Disney+ and Amazon Prime, the screen’s vibrant colors and deep blacks are immediately obvious, and the sheer size of the screen makes it more immersive than you’d expect from a mobile device. I love the wide viewing angle too, so even when the phone is flat on a desk, video still looks excellent and just like you’re watching it straight-on.

Screenshots taken from the Galaxy S23 Ultra showing various functions and software features.
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

Star Wars: The Clone Wars looks amazing, with tons of detail on show. The audio is great too, with centralized dialogue and expansive music, plus a pleasing amount of depth. When playing games, though, your palm does tend to cover the lower speaker unless you hold the phone “upside down” when the buttons get in the way and are less natural to press.

Android 13 with Samsung’s One UI 5.1 software was installed when the phone launched, but it has since been upgraded to Android 14 and One UI 6. We’ve got a review of the latest software here. I find it takes time to get the best from One UI as it’s quite feature-dense, and you really have to work to find many of the best or most helpful ones. For example, did you know you can change the lock screen clock, notification layout, and add filters to the wallpaper? To find these capabilities, you have to tap and hold the screen when the phone is locked, rather than it being an option when the phone is unlocked.

Screenshots taken from the Galaxy S23 Ultra showing various functions and software features.
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

None of the additional features are pushed at you, though, so it never feels overwhelming, and you don’t get the impression you’re underutilizing the device. As you explore and find new features, the good news is they mostly work very well and are rarely gimmicky. Samsung’s DeX system is a good example, as the phone can be connected to a monitor or PC to provide a big-screen PC-like experience. I wouldn’t use it very often, but it’s very effective when it is called into action.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra’s software features work very well and are rarely gimmicky.

Samsung provides one of the longest commitments to software updates in the industry, with four years of major OS updates and five years of security updates too. It’s another crucial aspect of the device’s longevity, and a reason to buy and keep using your phone for years to come. However, Google has gone one step further with the update commitment for the Google Pixel 8 series, which will receive new software until 2030.

I always make a core set of adjustments in One UI when I set it up, and once they’re done, the software looks and works just as I like. I’d put it up against Android on the Pixel 7 in terms of speed, and although it’s not quite as simple to use as Google’s version, it’s more intuitive and fun than OxygenOS 13 on the OnePlus 11. It’s reliable, attractively designed, consistent in its look, and almost always logical to use.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: S Pen Stylus

The S Pen's menu on the Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Andy Boxall / DigitalTrends

The Galaxy Note series has been retired, and the top S Series phone has taken its place; hence you’ll find the S Pen stylus hidden in a slot on the bottom of the phone — another reason this is a big smartphone. It’s securely held in place, and the tiny internal battery powering the Bluetooth is charged while it’s docked, ensuring it’s always ready to go. the pen is thin and relatively short, but I find it comfortable to hold and scribble notes. I’m no artist, though, and the stubby length may not be comfortable enough to craft any masterpieces.

It’s as multifunctional as you could expect from a stylus, providing ways to clip images and text, translate text, take notes, sketch, and even make use of it as a remote shutter button for the phone’s camera. There’s no question it’s well-engineered and is more versatile than a passive stylus, but whether you use it regularly or not depends on your eagerness to take handwritten notes or sketch on your phone.

I don’t find many opportunities to use the primary features very often, but I do like one feature a lot. When you remove the pen while the phone is locked, you can scribble endless notes on the black screen. Press the side button to erase a word, and tap Save to store the note in Samsung Notes. It’s incredibly responsive, very fast, and the palm rejection is spot-on. Jotting things down on your phone like this is seamless and really fast.

It’s not just lock-screen notes that are fast — it’s the whole thing. Use the instant translation feature by hovering the S Pen over the top of the text you want to translate, and in less than a few seconds, it appears in a pop-up box. If you use it on Twitter, it’s faster than the platform’s own translation system. The S Pen is not a reason to buy the Galaxy S23 Ultra on its own, but it is a great piece of added value. You may not use it all the time, but when you do, its speed and precision are outstanding.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: battery and charging

The Galaxy S23 Ultra's charging port.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

The Galaxy S23 Ultra does not come with a charger in the box but does come with a USB Type-C-to-Type-C cable. The phone supports Samsung’s fastest 45-watt charging technology, which requires either a Samsung Super Fast Charging 2.0 charger or a compatible charger from another brand that supports both it and the USB Power Delivery PPS standard. It makes charging the Galaxy S23 Ultra at its fastest speeds a little confusing if you’re a newcomer, so you want to make sure you choose the right charger when going to buy one.

Obviously, Samsung wants you to buy its own charger, which costs around $30, but others are available if you search. I’ve used the Anker 313 GaN charger, which is compatible with both Power Delivery PPS and Super Fast Charging 2.0, and it charged the phone in 63 minutes. It’s not as fast as the OnePlus 11, but very few phones are, and an hour is acceptable for a battery of this capacity.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra’s battery is more than capable to keep you going.

I’d like it to be a little simpler to work out which chargers and cables will be compatible. If you charge it using a charger that’s not compatible with Samsung’s technology, it’s a lot slower. A regular charger takes around 100 minutes to fully charge the battery, and that’s not great. I do like the way it shows the estimated charge time on the lock screen, helping you plan ahead, and it also tells you what kind of charging system is being used. For example, it does state if Super Fast Charging 2.0 is active.

Battery usage page on the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Joe Maring / Digital Trends

Once it is fully charged, it’s capable of lasting for more than two days with moderate use, and a lot of its ability comes from the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2’s increased efficiency. Watching a 30-minute YouTube video drains the battery by just 2%. Roughly the same time using GPS drains a similar amount of energy too.

Even on more intensive days, the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s battery is more than capable to keep you going. On a day with over an hour of playing Marvel Snap and browsing Twitter, then watching YouTube videos for 45 minutes, plus regular use of Google Chrome, Reddit, Duolingo, and more, the S23 Ultra ended a nearly 16-hour day with 5 hours and 20 minutes of screen-on time and 24% battery still remaining.

Add in 15W wireless charging and reverse charging for accessories like the Galaxy Buds 2 Pro, and the Galaxy S23 Ultra is very nearly the complete package when it comes to charging and battery life.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: price and availability

The back of the Galaxy S23 Ultra, showing its green color.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

The cheapest Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is $1,199 and comes with 256GB of storage space. If you want 512GB of storage space, the phone will cost $1,379, while the most expensive 1TB model costs $1,699. It comes in Green, Cream, Lavender, or Phantom Black colors, but if you order from Samsung, there’s an additional choice of Red, Lime, Graphite, or Sky Blue colors.

In the U.K., the same colors are available, and the 256GB Galaxy S23 Ultra costs 1,249 British pounds. It’s 1,399 pounds for the 512GB version and 1,599 for the top 1TB model. You can buy the Galaxy S23 Ultra directly from Samsung’s website, at retailers like Amazon and Best Buy, or from your favorite wireless carrier.

The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra next to the Google Pixel 7 Pro.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

This is an expensive smartphone, especially if you choose the 1TB model. The price puts it in competition with the Apple iPhone 15 Pro Max and Samsung’s own Galaxy Z Fold 5. If you simply can’t justify spending so much, take a look at the Galaxy S23 Plus, which has a large screen and the same processor, or the OnePlus 11. OnePlus’ latest phone has the same processor and battery capacity, plus the camera and screen are both excellent. It’s a very good value at $699. The $999 Google Pixel 8 Pro is another good choice if you want to spend less and prioritize camera performance over device performance and battery life. And if you’re OK sacrificing some screen size and battery, the regular Galaxy S23 is a phenomenal choice.

Before spending less, though, do consider the longevity of the device and how long you see yourself keeping it. The Galaxy S23 Ultra is so powerful and has such a versatile camera, mega battery life, impressive durability, and long-term software support that it will likely outlast many other devices, purely because of its outright ability. If you want to spend once and keep your new device for years and years, the Galaxy S23 Ultra may be the better bet over the long term.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: verdict

The Galaxy S23 Ultra sitting on a table and showing its home screen.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

What can’t the Galaxy S23 Ultra do? It’s not quite as fast to charge as the OnePlus 11, and it’s not going to fit comfortably in all hands or pockets — but that’s about it. There’s a real pleasure in using a phone that puts ability ahead of gimmicks and keeps a sensible, yet stylish and recognizable design over needlessly changing it up to try and attract buyers. The Galaxy S23 Ultra is Samsung at its most confident, and it’s the sensible, mature buying decision for anyone wanting the pinnacle of Android performance and ability. It’s a combination that makes it one of the best phones of the year.

What it’s not is daring, or especially forward-thinking. Head over to the Galaxy Z Fold 5 for that, as the Galaxy S23 Ultra gives you the best that’s available now, without compromise, and doesn’t try to push the envelope or be the next big thing. It’s the current big thing, and because it’s not advancing the fundamentals over what we’re used to seeing already, it’ll stay relevant and usable for more people over many years.

Only the iPhone 15 Pro or Pro Max come close to being this confidence-inspiring, as other top-tier Android phones are often thwarted by software woes, performance that’s good but never outstanding, and try-hard designs that can limit appeal. You’re going to pay a lot of money for the Galaxy S23 Ultra, but it’s worth every penny, and in three or even four years’ time, when it’s still a great phone, you’ll look back and see what good value it actually was.

Andy Boxall
Andy is a Senior Writer at Digital Trends, where he concentrates on mobile technology, a subject he has written about for…
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