Big isn’t always better, but Samsung thinks otherwise. Its Galaxy S20 Ultra is a phone that takes “big” very seriously – it has the biggest screen, it has the biggest camera module and one of the biggest batteries. While doing it also has Samsung’s fastest processor and also the highest amount of RAM found on a smartphone. But does big mean better? No. Not unless you’re a geek. The problem is compounded by Samsung’s own Galaxy S20+ which maintains the balance between big but not being uncontrollably so. If the S20+ didn’t exist, then the Ultra would’ve been the go-to top tier Android phone for most people, but now it is reserved to being a niche toy for the geek brigade. There is something very impressive about the S20 Ultra, yet it’s clearly not for everyone.
One of the reasons the Galaxy S20 Ultra gets its “Ultra” moniker is because it pushes the concept of a smartphone to its extremes. This phone gets a humongous 6.9-inch panel. This is basically the largest screen you can get on a modern smartphone. This equates to a massive phone that’s potentially going to be a pain to carry for most people. It is heavy, doesn’t fit a standard jean pocket easily and doesn’t lay flat on any surface thanks to its chunky camera hump. At the same time, its build quality is immaculate — sturdy thanks to a glass and metal sandwich that’s further secured by IP68 water and dust resistance. It also feels more premium than the S20+.
However, for most people, Samsung’s Galaxy S20+ will be better. Now that there are options like the OnePlus 8 Pro incoming, one even has affordable choices, but for the few who want that massive real estate, there are life changing benefits to be had. For me, the big wide canvas afforded the perfect screen to write. I usually don’t write on the phone. It is an activity mostly reserved for smaller articles, but anything that’s going to be more than 1500 words, is usually written on the iPad or MacBook. The Galaxy S20 Ultra changes that. Google Docs is a delight to use coupled with the really reactive haptic system which makes typing longform fun. Writer’s try it.
Samsung even preloads Microsoft’s Office applications alongside the My phone app, so this becomes an even better productivity beast if your PC is based on Windows. This was something that I was unable to enjoy as I’m a through and through Mac user.
Oh, by the way, this screen is sinfully good. At least, at the time of writing this, it is the best smartphone panel I’ve come across. It’s incredible for gaming, playing Netflix for which it is optimised and generally superb for consuming and creating alike. Its 120Hz refresh rate ensures everything is so fluid. For anyone concerned about the reduced pixel density at the 6.9-inch size – I’d say don’t, unless of course, you have a microscope fetish.
With such gargantuan size, comes a gargantuan battery. The 5,000mAh battery on this phone converts to highly decent battery life. It’s not much better than the Galaxy S20+ but there are improvements to be had, if you are such a hectic user. It helps that this phone gets 25-watt charging out of the box which can scale to 45-watts via USB-PD. This phone also does 15-watt wireless charging and 3-watt reverse wireless charging. Chances are that rarely you will run out of juice on this phone.
This is the fastest Samsung phone I’ve ever tested. While that should be standard issue on what’s the first mainstream flagship phone of the year, what I’m getting at is how fast it feels as compared to a new iPhone which usually tends to be considerably faster than a new Samsung Galaxy S. I’d say the combination of the 120Hz screen with the 240Hz touch sampling coupled with the new Exynos 990 chip, LPDDR5 RAM, all 8GB of it, with UFS 3.0 storage make this phone “FEEL” faster than Apple’s iPhone 11s for most users.
That’s never happened. But that’s also a function of the Galaxy S20 series having these new high-refresh rate panels and the iPhones being stuck on 60Hz screens. That will likely change later this year when there is a new iPhone 12, but for the time being this phone will feel faster even if it is not the fastest around.
However, roll that comparison over to some of the competitor Android phones that are incoming, the Galaxy S20 Ultra doesn’t seem as appetising. The OnePlus 8 Pro for instance, could possibly have a better screen as noted by Display Mate, and also faster performance considering the gulf in the Samsung’s Exynos processors and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 which is going to be there on most Android flagships in 2020. It is not a massive delta — but for those who care, this may become everything as it underpins everything in the minutest ways possible. From the quality of graphics, the fluidity of multitasking and the battery life — everything should be better on the OnePlus 8 Pro. It is a small handicap that Samsung never used to have till 2-3 years ago.
But regardless, this phone is fiendishly fast for most people, even geeks. The performance isn’t what grants its “Ultra” moniker, but beastly technologies that push the limits of physics on a smartphone. The camera module on the S20 Ultra does that so more so than any phone in the market.
This is the first phone in India to get a 108-megapixel primary camera sensor. This is basically the largest sensor that’s ever been on a smartphone. It is further reinforced with a 48-megapixel telephoto camera that does 5x optical zoom, 10x hybrid zoom and up to 100x digital zoom. There is also a wide-angle camera and a time of flight (ToF) sensor which does depth sensing for portrait mode shots. This is also the first phone in the world to have the ability to shoot 8K video.
On paper, this camera array indeed is “ultra” which is why it forms such a huge hump on the back of the phone. Without getting into the technical details of what Samsung is doing with this camera system I can tell you a couple of things –
- The 108-megapixel resolution really converts to massive levels of detail. Especially, when you trigger “pro” mode and just shoot directly in that mode, in editing software like Snapseed, you will be able to pull out so much detail which will just not happen on a normal sensor.
- The hype around the zoom is real. For example, I have a driving distance of 3.6km and a walking distance of 2.6km between the Lotus temple and my house. At 5x zoom I’m able to take relatively usable shots of the Lotus temple from my terrace. It’s insane that one can do that on a phone.
- This zoom comes in more handy if you’re into shooting birds or animals around and about you without startling them by going close. For me, as I’ve 14 dogs, this was lovely. But most people don’t need this.
- This camera system struggles in low-light. The zoom becomes quite useless and it’s an area where phones like the Huawei P30 Pro pull ahead with zoom. The zoom on the S20 Ultra is also very sensitive to movements so only a trained hand can use it properly.
- As good as the zoom is, the regular camera struggles in some basic scenarios. For instance, the focussing distance is problematic as close up shots are blurred from the edges. The phone doesn’t also lock focus consistently.
- The 8K video thing is a bit of a gimmick as firstly the footage is janky, and then it consumes too much space. Instead use 4K video at 60 frames per second. It has the best video output of any Android phone. I don’t expect that to change with the Ultra retaining its supremacy over newer phones like the OnePlus 8 Pro.
For most uses, this is a very good camera. It also gets a very solid night-mode which is now almost as good as the iPhone and Google Pixel. The portrait mode is also highly improved while the wide-angle camera is amongst the best I’ve seen on a smartphone. This is a great camera phone, for some people even the ultimate one, but for most people it’s sibling the Galaxy S20+ or the iPhone 11 will be better.
What hurteles the S20 Ultra back even further is its software. It all starts from the camera app which is packed with features yet has a complex user interface. You really need to know what’s going on and adapt to the quirks of the phone to extract the most out of it. It’s meant for someone with the technical know-how and patience.
This complexity flows through Samsung’s OneUI interface. Even though it is highly improved, it comes with multiple layers of redundancies like three email apps — Gmail, Outlook and Samsung Mail. Samsung is also known to be slow with software updates, but that seems to be changing with this phone as I’ve received 2 updates in a month.
It gets tons of useful preloaded software which is also deeply integrated like Microsoft applications, Spotify, YouTube Premium and Netflix but its UI isn’t the best for the lack of a better word. Most people will find the incoming OnePlus 8 Pro simpler and nicer to use software wise, though Samsung is closer to its competitors than ever before in its own complicated way.
There is no getting around the fact that Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra isn’t for everyone. It is a complicated beast. For some, there will be nothing better than it, but for most, phones like the OnePlus 8 Pro and its own sibling the S20+ will be better especially when you do the math on the price. Those phones are just much better value while not being necessarily inferior.