Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review – Bigger At A Cost

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is not a phone for everyone. This is obvious from its price tag. For most people, the S20 and S20+ will suffice. The comparatively smaller number of people who are willing to cough out that extra bit of money will obviously want the best of the best in everything. And in that regard, the S20 Ultra duly delivers.

Samsung is betting big numbers on the S20 Ultra. Some of the biggest in the current smartphone market, in fact. Snapdragon 865 (though we in Malaysia are getting the Exynos 990-powered model), up to 16GB of RAM, a camera with 108 megapixels lens and 5,000mAh battery among others make the S20 Ultra the highest-specced smartphone you can buy at this moment before Samsung’s rivals dish out their competing flagships. But should you?

The big numbers start at the display. At 6.9-inch, the S20 Ultra is even bigger than the Galaxy Note10+, a first for a Galaxy S series device against Samsung’s phabet line. There’s a centered hole punch selfie camera on the display that we have seen from last year’s Galaxy Note phones but it is smaller this time around, which is always a welcome news. I do not need to tell you the display quality. It’s the best, period. For years, Samsung has consistently aced the display department on their flagships and no other displays can really claim to be of higher quality. But for this year, Samsung has made the best even better. They have added 120Hz refresh rate support, a highly-desirable feature that should be finding its way to all other major flagship phones releasing this year and the next.

120Hz is the current maximum refresh rate that smartphone displays can output. It doubles that of the standard 60Hz animations that we have been seeing on our smartphones for years and years. By default, the S20 Ultra’s display is set at 60Hz out of the box and you have to crank it up to 120Hz in the settings. Once you do, you will be greeted by a level of animation smoothness that is just delightful to see as it is to interact with. And once you get used to it, it will be hard to go back to 60Hz. Alas, there are a few reasons to do so. At 120Hz, the screen resolution drops down to 1080p and there is no way to enable both 120Hz and 1440p (WQHD+) to run together. Also, the battery will be taking a hit when the high refresh rate is enabled. The two reasons may be enough dealbreakers for some but if you are willing to look past these shortcomings, 120Hz is the way to go. It is the only way to enjoy using Samsung’s latest phones to the fullest. It should also be noted that 120Hz display is also a feature on the S20 and S20+.

While we are still on topic, let’s turn to battery for a moment. 5,000mAh battery capacity is above average but certainly not the biggest on record. Anyway, its been awesome. I have not been able to kill it in one day and I’m looking at over five hours of screen on time on a consistent basis with the display on 120Hz all the time. It’s heartening to know that I can squeeze even longer periods out of the battery if I keep things at 60Hz.    

In lieu of the huge display, the form-factor is suitably thick and hefty. There are several changes to the design elements on the S20 Ultra over its predecessor, like the simplification of the physical buttons which are now all positioned at the same right side. The ones on the S10 phones are all over the place with its power button placed annoyingly high up at the side for some reason. Thankfully, those minor quirks are all fixed here and like the Note10, the controversial Bixby button is gone. All good until you flip the phone over and the giant camera bump is staring right back at you.

The camera bump wouldn’t be much of a source of frustration if we are only talking about it being an eyesore but in my case (and it could be yours too) it actually hinders my enjoyment of using this phone. My fingers keep hitting the camera bump when I’m holding the device in normal usage and it is an issue I never have before with any other phone. It is uncomfortable and annoying. For such a premium high-end phone, this design situation is not a good look.

Now this much is clear if you are getting this phone – you get the best of the best performance. There’s no doubting Samsung when it comes to the performance of their flagship devices. But that also means it is harder to tell them apart performance-wise. How do you quantify smartphone performance? Yes, you can point to all the numbers churned out from benchmark tests but numbers do not really mean anything in day-to-day usage. Most, if not all, people will hardly be able to tell the differences. Neither can I. The S20 Ultra will feel blazing fast, but so does the S20+ and S20.

However, there’s one clear advantage in having more RAM. In Malaysia, the S20 Ultra comes in the 12GB RAM variant, significantly more than the 8GB RAM found in the S20 and S20+. You can take advantage in the abundance of RAM by keeping apps of your choice to always run in the background which is a new feature by Samsung. You can “pin” up to three apps (the 16GB RAM variant lets you pin up to five) that you use the most in memory for instant access. If you do a lot of constant app-switching throughout the day, this feature will come in very handy as it minimises waiting time for apps to load. Less waiting, more time doing.

Back to the camera bump, no doubt this would be a major reason to get the S20 Ultra over its more affordable siblings. As unflattering as it looks, the huge bump is needed to include all the advanced camera lenses Samsung is introducing in their latest flagships, no less the Space Zoom camera that is hyped up a lot. A camera that is able zoom up to 100 times on a subject. Impressive? Sure. Usable? Not so sure.

Like the Oppo Reno 10x Zoom and the Huawei P30 Pro that set the “zoom benchmark” before this, the S20 Ultra’s Space Zoom gets a lot of people talking at first but also quickly falls off the radar. We hardly see anybody boasting about how much their smartphones’ camera can zoom, do we? Once again, it leans more towards the fun factor category rather than a feature that most people will find very useful. At max 100x zoom, the resulting images are a blurry mess. Still, I won’t deny that some people may find it handy in certain situations, such as zooming in to read the words on a faraway sign.

Normal mode
30x Zoom
100x Zoom
Normal mode
30x Zoom
100x Zoom

What is far more useful though is the new Single Take feature Samsung is introducing in all of the S20 variants. Single Take takes the hard work out of capturing multiple photos and videos in different formats and presentations by doing everything with just a press of the shutter button. The feature offers up to fourteen different styles of photos and videos you can choose from. It works well and is fun as it is useful. I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar feature starts popping up in other branded smartphones in the near future.

On the video-recording side, the S20 Ultra is certainly one of the best in the smartphone business. The fact that it can record 8K videos could be a game-changer in the industry, though it comes with a heavy caveat that a minute-long video will easily eat up 600MB of your storage. If you plan on taking a lot of 8K videos, be prepared to spend extra on a microSD card. It is a pity that the S20 Ultra variant in Malaysia only comes with 128GB of base storage.

Not long after the phone was released a few weeks ago, there were a lot of talk of it having issues with its autofocus. More specifically, the S20 Ultra’s camera had trouble locking in on its subject. Samsung has since issued an over-the-air update fix and I’m happy to report that my review unit doesn’t exhibit any such issues. Autofocusing was fast and accurate on most occasions that I tried.   

Samsung’s first “Ultra” device is certainly over-the-top, and all the big numbers make for very attractive readings for people constantly on the chase for the latest and greatest. But big numbers come with a big price tag too. Of course, there have been far more expensive phones over the years (not counting all the foldable ones) but the S20 Ultra reaching the RM5,000 territory means it is way out of reach for the average consumers. For those who can afford, it comes back to the question posed in the opening remarks of this review – should you buy it?

The case against the S20 Ultra being the one to get is that the S20 and S20+ aren’t too far behind. As mentioned throughout the course of this review, many of the must-have new features on the S20 Ultra can also be found on the two devices – things like 120Hz display, same chipset and same camera software features. You are essentially paying extra just for the bigger numbers, and they may not necessarily translate to a dramatic uptick in performance. The S20 Ultra’s bulky form-factor is also something that needs to be considered.

If cost is no barrier and you just want the most complete and powerful Android smartphone there is at the moment that is also 5G-ready for the future, the S20 Ultra will ably fulfil that. Otherwise, the S20 and S20+ would appear to be the better overall buy while delivering an up-to-par experience.

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