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Hands on: Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review

We get up close with the new 5G Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and its incredible 108 megapixel main camera

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review
(Image: © Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)

Our Verdict

The jewel in Samsung’s smartphone crown is officially the Galaxy S20 Ultra. It combines a pioneering 108MP Samsung ISOCELL sensor, a Dynamic AMOLED display, manufactured by Samsung and an Exynos 990 chipset - also a Samsung special. While its design doesn’t manage to wow us, therefore, the camera system, complete with a 10x hybrid optical zoom and a 100x ‘Space Zoom’ could make it the most capable camera phone around, and the rest of the specs impress too.

For

  • Innovative camera
  • Stunning display

Against

  • Boring design
  • Expensive

If you’re a fan of big screens, then the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has amongst the biggest around, with 6.9-inches of 20:9 AMOLED display adorning its front. Despite its huge screen size, weighing 220g, it still clocks in at about 6g lighter than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, so shouldn’t be too unwieldy in day to day life. While the phone’s styling is generally all about sleek curves, around the back, there’s one standout feature that commands all the attention - that camera bump. 

The S20-series’s camera system has been totally overhauled, with the Ultra getting a unique setup that delivers over 200MP of combined megapixel clout. Add to that 5G as standard, a giant 5000mAh battery and up to 16GB RAM, and if you weren’t paying attention to Samsung in 2019 - you will be in 2020.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra camera

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)

The S20 Ultra’s camera consists of a main 108MP sensor which employs a technique called nona-binning. This isn’t a shady new way to trash talk Italian nannas, oh no, nona-binning combines nine pixels into one, so despite its sky high resolution, the S20 Ultra shoots 12MP images. The sensor’s effective pixel size for 12MP images is an impressive 2.4μm, and this large combined pixel size is matched with an f/1.8 aperture lens packing OIS, which should make for some stellar smartphone shots. 

Will this be enough to dethrone the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro - two flagships that outperformed the Galaxy S10 Plus in our best camera phones tests? Samsung certainly hopes so, but it isn’t putting all its eggs in the main camera’s basket. 

A 48MP sensor powers its 10x ‘Optical Hybrid’ zoom camera and creates what it calls a 100x Space Zoom with those pixels and optics. Naturally, with such an extreme focal length, you’d need a tripod to grab remotely usable shots, though if you do want to brave a handheld 100x zoom shot, OIS should help things along. Like the S20 Plus, there’s also a ToF sensor, as well as an ultra-wide 120-degree 12MP module with an f/2.2 lens and 1.2μm pixels. 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, with Samsung Galaxy S20 and Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus behind (Image credit: Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)

This quad camera is also amongst the first to shoot 8K video, captured at 30fps. This resolution might seem utterly bizarre and pointless to most, but Samsung’s figured out how to make it make sense. While you’re capturing 8K video, hit the photo shutter release button and you’ll simultaneously capture 33MP stills. That means if you can’t decide between shooting video and snapping high-quality stills, you can do both.

Samsung has also (finally) introduced manual video controls to bring the S20-series up to speed with Huawei and Sony, as well as a new improved Super Steady video mode, as found on the OnePlus 7T and Oppo Reno 2. In addition, a new Night Hyperlapse mode takes long exposure shots to make cityscape time-lapse videos shot in the dark look like they were captured on a premium camera, 

Perhaps the most interesting addition to the camera software of the new S20-series is a Single Take mode. This uses all the cameras on the back of the device, to shoot video across focal lengths for one minute, giving you a portfolio of content to choose your best moments from.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: design

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)

While the S20 Ultra’s design isn’t particularly standout to look at - once you get past its size, it’s still a very premium smartphone. Combining Gorilla Glass 6 and 7003-series aluminum, Samsung has made a slab of tech that feels great. 

Unlike more striking devices like the Huawei Mate 30 Pro, however, with its circular camera surround and two-tone finish, there aren’t any design flourishes around the back and the rectangular camera bump just looks a bit safe. Additionally, as with the rest of the series, its screen is much less curved than that of older Samsung flagships which is an interesting move, making it all feel that bit less edge-to-edge. 

That said, its screen is a thing of beauty, thanks to its QHD+ 3200 x 1440 resolution and Dynamic AMOLED quality. Sharper than any iPhone, it’s also smoother with a 120Hz refresh rate, and with a single punch-hole selfie camera in the top centre, it looks that bit less lopsided than the S10-range. 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: additional specs

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)

Additional specs include 128GB or 512GB storage, microSD card expandability up to 1TB, 12 or 16GB RAM - the latter being a first for phones. It’s also got 5G connectivity as standard in the UK, and an Exynos 990 powering the experience along. As for the phone’s battery, it’s a monstrous 5000mAh, and charges up at a fast, but not class-leadingly fast with 25W speeds.

The S20 Ultra’s ample screen is also coupled with Dolby tuned stereo speakers, which should make it a multimedia powerhouse, and when it comes to biometrics, there’s an under-display fingerprint scanner, which, like the S10, is ultrasonic, so should work in the rain. Speaking of rain, with IP68 water and dust resistance, the S20 Ultra can handle a splash, and that Gorilla Glass 6 screen should be able to hack a scuff or scratch too. 

Inside, the S20 Ultra runs Android, with Samsung’s One UI over the top, and it brings forward all the party tricks the Note 10 did before it, including DeX, Windows link, Samsung Knox and more.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus: early verdict 

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli/Digital Camera World)

You really can’t test out a 10x zoom in a confined space, let alone a 100x zoom. That’s why we’re nothing short of itching to get our mitts on the S20 Ultra in the real world, putting what could be groundbreaking smartphone camera tech through its paces, and finding out if Samsung’s finally delivered the best camera phone money can buy. If it hasn’t, that’s also okay - the rest of the phone looks impressive from our short time spent with it, but for the full verdict check back to Digital Camera World for our full review ahead of the phone going on sale on 8 March. 

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