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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review




The Galaxy S-series defines what the Samsung flagship experience is. Since it’s the first major smartphone launch of the year, it sets the tone not only for Samsung themselves but also for the rest of the industry.

With last year’s S10 series, they introduced a third variant, the S10E — which was like Samsung’s version of the iPhone XR, providing a low barrier of entry. This year, however, they went the opposite way with the S20 Ultra.

It’s like the S20+ on steroids, so much so that it feels like you’re using a Galaxy Note device. It’s huge not only in size but also in the new features it brings. Let’s see what it’s all about.

Design and Construction

At 6.9-inches, it beats out even the Note 10+ as Samsung’s new biggest smartphone. Since this phone is among the direct follow-up to the Note 10 series, it shares some similarities in design. The screen still curves towards the edges, but more subtly compared to previous generations. This allows for thin bezels on all sides. The top bezel achieves this, of course, thanks to the returning punch-hole in the center.

In the hand, however, it feels nothing like the Note 10+. The S20 Ultra has curved corners, as opposed to the boxier shape of the Note 10 series. It’s also slightly heavier and thicker than the Note 10+, which only makes me imagine just how big the Note 20+ will end up being when it launches later this year.

Checking out the back, we get a nice curved glass panel that intersects with the metal frame. This is definitely not the focal point of this portion, though. It’s definitely the huge protruding rectangular rear camera module. It takes up nearly a quarter of the back panel and includes four cameras, including the periscopic telephoto lens.

Moving on to buttons and ports, we get the power and volume buttons on the right. At the bottom, the USB-C port, main microphone, and downward-firing loudspeaker. On top, secondary noise-canceling microphone and hybrid card tray that can accommodate either two nano-sized SIM cards or one of those plus a microSD card up to 1TB

Missing here is a subtle design feature I really liked on the Note 10 series — which was a small cavity leading to the speakerphone. Since the speakerphone/earpiece is thin, that small cavity allowed another pathway for the sound to travel through. This makes all the difference in terms of audio experience because remember, this phone does have a stereo setup.

With the rear camera module being the focal point of the S20 Ultra’s design, I must say that nothing else is special. That’s not to say it’s bad since it does take a lot of cues from the Note 10 series’ design language. It’s just not striking in any way; it’s simply a big phone with a big camera module. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Display and Multimedia

Taking a closer look at the display, we get a 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED screen with a maximum resolution of WQHD+ 3200 x 1440 and a maximum refresh rate of 120Hz. Even though you can only get 120Hz at Full HD+, it’s a huge leap for Samsung, as this indicates that their future flagships will come with a high refresh rate screen as well. Also, the next logical step after that is to have QHD at 120Hz, which sounds very promising.

You also still get the option to drop down to HD+ (1600 x 720) if you want to maximize battery life. The opposite of that is opting for Full HD+ at 120Hz — this will certainly drain your battery faster, but boy does it feel amazing. Ever since high refresh rate screens on smartphones were introduced, I’ve been a big fan. Sure, you won’t get much use out of them for most gaming and media consumption. But mundane use cases such as web browsing, social media, and email suddenly feel so much better when objects on your screen move really smoothly.

However, the WQHD+ mode still has its uses, especially for watching high-resolution videos and creative work. It’s just a nice option to have, as users will probably find themselves using Full HD+ most of the time, for one of two purposes; either to save battery life at 60Hz or to experience next-level smoothness at 120Hz.

No matter what resolution you choose, the screen looks great, thanks to deep blacks, vivid colors, and solid brightness even for outdoor usage. Other features that enhance the experience include HDR10+, blue light filter, and fully customizable screen mode/color temperature.

On the subject of the punch hole compromising your viewing experience, it doesn’t really do that. You can choose a clever wallpaper to hide it, OneUI’s dark mode makes it difficult to spot in menus, and over time you simply get used to it. Also, at 20:9, the aspect ratio is so tall that you still get black bars on the sides to hide the hole when watching videos in full screen.

As for the audio experience, it’s exactly what’s expected of a Samsung flagship. We get a stereo setup consisting of the downward-firing loudspeaker plus the earpiece, and it makes for a powerful combination. The S20 Ultra’s speakers can get quite loud, while still retaining clarity in the mids and highs. Bass is average by smartphone standards, but there’s still a hint of it. I found myself never turning off the Dolby Atmos mode because it just makes everything sound so much better whether you’re using the speakers or a pair of headphones.

Last year, in my Galaxy Note 10+ review, I said it was the ultimate multimedia device. The S20 Ultra’s screen is bigger, but it’s only by a tenth of an inch. The audio is amazing, but not any much better than last year. Therefore, it’s de facto the new ultimate multimedia device — but not by much.

Camera

Compared to the preceding S10 and Note 10 series, the S20 series as a whole gets a lot of upgrades in the camera department. However, this is more so for the S20 Ultra. Both hardware and software have seen improvements.

The rear module consists of a 108MP main wide-angle, 48MP periscope telephoto, 12MP ultrawide, and a TOF 3D camera. Notably missing here is the variable aperture on the main camera that’s been around since the Galaxy S9. I don’t think anybody is complaining about that, as it was a gimmicky feature that didn’t really provide much value to the user.

For selfies, we get a 40MP shooter, which is a substantial upgrade from previous generations of Galaxy flagships. Having a secondary front camera would have probably interfered with Samsung’s design language, but think a wide-angle selfie camera would be worth the trade-off.

Shots from both the front and main rear cameras produce excellent photos in good lighting conditions. In typical Samsung fashion, colors are a bit on the extremely saturated side, but we get a lot of detail and wide dynamic range anyway. Skin tones, while not really natural, look flattering, and the Beauty effect isn’t so aggressive.

A feature heavily marketed for the S20 Ultra is the 100x Space Zoom. I’m gonna say it now, it is gimmicky — at least for me. I’ll admit you do feel really cool, especially the first few times you use it. But in practice, you might not end up using it a whole lot.

It can zoom pretty far, but the resulting image is very soft, washed out, and almost unusable. You will only be able to take decent images in good lighting. For shots of the moon, it’s a bust. Huawei is still the king of smartphone camera zoom.

The ultrawide camera surprisingly isn’t that far off from the main camera in terms of color, at least. Detail certainly isn’t at much, but shots are still very much great.


Checking out Night Mode quickly, it’s nice to see that it’s available for all rear cameras sans the TOF, as well as the front camera. I’m not that big of a fan of Samsung’s Night Mode, as it does more harm than good to the image in most dark situations. For the good, however, it does brighten up shadows, which shows details that would otherwise be pitch black.

As for videos, the S20 Ultra can shoot up to 8K 30FPS or 4K 60FPS with the rear camera, and up to 4K 60FPS with the front camera. 8K video is a huge upgrade, especially for a smartphone. Though most people might not be able to immediately appreciate it due to the lack of an 8K display, the benefit is still there. Viewing 8K videos on a 4K display still produces more detail, as you get roughly four times the data.

However, in practice, it’s a stepping stone in Samsung’s camera evolution. Kinks that require sorting out include poor stabilization and video artifacts.

Most users will be perfectly happy with 4K at 60FPS, or the newly improved Super Steady Mode — which, granted, still shoots at 1080p, but we do get much better results compared to last year’s models.

One new feature I’m really loving from the S20 series though is Single Take Mode. You take an 8-second video using all rear cameras, and almost instantly, the camera AI generates the best images and short videos. It’s not gonna be the best quality, but you surely won’t miss capturing another once-in-a-lifetime moment again.

Performance and Benchmarks

The S20 Ultra we have here is running the new Exynos 990. It’s based on the Exynos 980, which is Samsung’s first mobile platform with an integrated 5G modem. While the Exynos 990 does have a 5G modem as well, it was designed with performance in mind.

Performance is nothing short of blazing fast. Any task thrown at the S20 Ultra will easily be handled by its beefy chipset. The unit we have has 12GB of RAM, which is way more than enough to handle very heavy multitasking. There’s even an option for 16GB of RAM, which I don’t even know how to feel about. I mean, that’s as much RAM as my laptop and gaming PC have!

  • AnTuTu v8 – 497,806
  • 3D Mark SSE – 6,555 (OpenGL ES 3.1), 5,949 (Vulkan)
  • PC Mark Work 2.0 – 10,380
  • GeekBench 5 – 913 (Single-core), 2,746 (Multi-core)
  • AndroBench – 1,527.54 MB/s (Seq. Read), 655.03 MB/s (Seq. Write)

Our synthetic benchmark scores show insane results, all the way from the ~500,000 AnTuTu v8 score, to the 1.5GB/s Sequential Read on our UFS 3.0 internal storage.

While high-refresh-rate screens make your phone feel faster, there’s nothing that can replace a phone that’s actually fast. With the S20 series, luckily, you get both.

OS, UI, and Apps

For software, we get One UI 2.0 on top of Android 10, right out of the box. There aren’t many significant changes from the original One UI, but the intent is still visible. Samsung’s big idea behind One UI was to make it user-centered, allowing us to more effectively interact with the phone.

So for One UI 2, that spirit lives on — but can still definitely improve in the next iteration. For example, I like how app permission requests are now shown at the bottom of the screen, instead of right in-your-face in the middle. But another example, I’m also not a fan of the new camera UI. All the other modes kept in the “More” menu, whereas I prefer being able to swipe to my intended mode — I can do that with just one finger.

That’s a bit of a personal take, I know, but this is software. Either way, I’m very satisfied with One UI, and it’s right up there with Oxygen OS as my favorite Android skins.

In terms of storage, our S20 Ultra review unit comes with 128GB of internal storage. 19.7GB is reserved for system memory, leaving you with 108.3GB. For someone fond of cloud-based services and streaming, this is definitely manageable.

Connectivity and Battery Life

Connectivity options are plentiful with this device. We get dual nano-SIM support, microSD support up to 1TB, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC, USB 3.2 Type-C, and of course 5G NSA and Sub6.

Unfortunately, we were not able to test the 5G capability, as the network infrastructure here in the Philippines is still in development. As such, the 5G functionality is disabled for the meantime according to Samsung. This may indicate the possibility of it being unlocked in the future via a software update.

As for the battery, the S20 gets a 5,000mAh Li-Po battery. Given that this is the beast in the S20 lineup, I don’t think anything less would have been appropriate. I’ve honestly been using the phone at FHD+ 60Hz most of the time, only bumping up to 120Hz from time to time, and only using WQHD+ when watching movies. With this usage, I can easily get more than one day before I look for the charger.

The PCMark Work 2.0 battery test indicates just how much power the 120Hz mode takes away. In the first test at FHD+ 60Hz, we got a result of 13 hours and 11 minutes. At FHD+ 120Hz, it drops down to 10 hours and 15 minutes.

For charging, the S20 Ultra supports up to 45W fast charging, which is great. It’s a premium feature that’s exclusive for the S20 Ultra, though I hope it’s a standard feature when the Note 20 series comes out. We also get Wireless Fast Charging up to 15W, as well as Reverse Wireless Charging at 9W, which kept my Samsung Galaxy Buds+ happy.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has to prove a lot to justify its ultra-high price tag of PHP69,990 (12GB + 128GB). For PHP14,000 more than the S20+, you’re essentially getting a bigger screen, bigger battery, faster charging, a new set of cameras, and the vague possibility of 5G (here in the Philippines at least).

The first three additions definitely justify an increase in price, but the latter two? The S20+’s cameras can basically do whatever the UItra’s cameras can, except the 100x Space Zoom — which is gimmicky at best, anyway. As for the possibility of 5G, again, it’s vague.

One the other hand, despite all of that, you currently can’t find another phone quite like the S20 Ultra. Unless another manufacturer decides to go head-to-head with this device at every specification, we probably won’t see anything beefier until this year’s Galaxy Note series arrives.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra specs:
6.9-inch QHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2.0 display, 511ppi, 120Hz, HDR10+
Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 octa-core 2.8GHz CPU
Samsung Exynos 990 octa-core 2.7GHz CPU
12GB/16GB LPDDR5 RAM
128GB/26GB/512GB storage
MicroSD up to 1TB
Quad rear cameras: 108MP F1.8 (main) + 12MP F2.2 (ultra-wide), 48MP F3.5 (telephoto) + Depth Vision
– 8K video recording, Space Zoom, Hybrid Optic Zoom 10X, Super-Resolution Zoom up to 100X
40MP F2.2 front camera
5G NSA, Sub6
4G LTE Cat.20, 4×4 MIMO, up to 7CA
WiFi
Bluetooth
GPS
Ultrasonic Fingerprint Scanner (under-display)
Face Recognition
USB Type-C
IP68 dust and water resistance
Samsung One UI (Android 10)
5,000mAh battery w/ 45W fast charging, Fast Wireless Charging 2.0, Wireless PowerShare
166.9 x 76 x 8.8 mm
220 g

What I liked:

  • Great display
  • Sleek design
  • Loud, clear speakers
  • Solid performance
  • Good image quality
  • Big battery with lots of charging features
  • One UI 2.0

What I didn’t:

  • Very high price
  • Gimmicky 100x Zoom
  • Night Mode (camera) is sub-par by industry standards



Joey graduated with a degree in Digital Filmmaking from the De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde last March 2017. A filmmaker by heart, he has since put aside cinema to focus on his other passion, technology. PCs, mechanical keyboards, audio, cameras, and gaming are among his biggest tech interests.

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1 Response

  1. Paul says:

    If you need a smartphone with high levels of zoom, Huawei P30 Pro does it too with 50x zoom. Sure it’s only half of the S20 Ultra’s 100x zoom, but it’s also costs like 30k less. The P30 Pro’s night mode is very good too.

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