Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G review: Speaking the language of overkill

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G
  • Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G
  • Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G
  • Expert Rating

    4.25 / 5

Pros

  • Capable camera
  • Empowering software
  • Flagship features

Cons

  • Bulky form-factor
  • Autofocus issues
  • Inconsistent battery life
  • Expensive price
  • 2D Face Unlock

Bottom Line

As far as flagships go, Samsung’s latest stands tall but it doesn’t stand alone.

Would you buy this?

  • Price

    $ 1,999.00 (AUD)

Should You Buy The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra?

Even if it falls short of being the iPhone 11 Pro-inspired paradigm shift that it so obviously aspires towards, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is still a spec-beast of a phone that shows Samsung still has what it takes to be competitive in the high-end Android smartphone arena.

It’s more than a good phone. It’s a great one. However, it’s not perfect and when you’re playing with the price bracket and profile that Samsung are, that detail derails the pitch somewhat. There are people out there who are going to love this thing, but for those who balk at the idea of spending $2000 on a phone, S20 Ultra remains something of a hard sell. 

Fold or no fold, I can’t see Samsung’s latest converting many skeptics. Still, If you’ve been waiting for Samsung to deliver something that can compete with the iPhone 11 Pro, Google Pixel or Huawei’s finest, this is probably the phone you’ve been holding out for.

For more about our smartphone review process, click here.

Price when reviewed

In Australia, the S20 Ultra starts at an RRP of $1999. There’s also a more expensive version of the device, which features 512GB of on-board storage, available at an RRP of $2249.

For more on S20 Ultra pricing, click here.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (2020) full review

If you’ve been waiting for Samsung to deliver something that can compete with the iPhone 11 Pro, Google Pixel or Huawei’s finest, this is the phone you’ve been waiting for. 

The Galaxy S20 Ultra features the sharpest and brightest smartphone screen Samsung has made to date. It also touts the same degree of IP68 water resistance found in last year’s S-series flagships plus an in-display fingerprint sensors, up to 512GB of storage and 12GB of RAM. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

Of course, the conversation here really begins and ends with the camera

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra features a quad-lens rear camera that combines a 108-megapixel main (wide) lens, a 48-megapixel telephoto lens and a 12-megapixel ultra wide lens to push these capabilities even further. The front-facing camera on the S20 Ultra has also been bumped up from 10-megapixels to 40-megapixels. Of course, as devices like Google's Pixel phones have shown, the number of megapixels doesn't matter nearly so much as how you use them.

The tech here is impressive but immature. The camera bumps found on last year’s Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro seem more innocuous by comparison and the well-documented autofocus issues ultimately hold the S20 Ultra back from what it could be. It’s less of a elegant leap forward and more of a tipsy streetwise skip in the right direction. 

That sounds bad. Or at the very least, worse than it actually is. Ultimately, despite some messiness, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is a premium phone that ticks all the boxes and sets a new personal best for Samsung in terms of technical capabilities. 

Whether or not that’s good enough to justify the price-tag is a dicier proposition. This is one of the most expensive phones you can buy and while it does a good job of selling itself as one of the best phones you can buy, it rarely inspired as much endorsement from me as much as it did respect. 

Samsung finally made the photography-focused smartphone I knew they could, but many of the accomplishments made here are undercut by the sense that they’re late to the party.

Price

In Australia, you can buy the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G for $1999. There’s also a more expensive version of the device, which features 512GB of on-board storage, available at an RRP of $2249.

You can also buy it on a postpaid plan using the widget below:


Design - Look, Feel, Features and Camera

At a glance (and for multiple reasons), the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G speaks the language of overkill. Both literally and metaphorically, the S20 Ultra sells itself as a device where more is more and there's never too much of a good thing.

Of course, depending on who you are, that ethos might not be a bad thing.

To begin with, there’s the physicality of the thing. Even by the standards of the present big phone era, the S20 Ultra is a bonkers large piece of tech. In fact, it’s the largest premium smartphone in the entire S20 range with a whopping 6.9-inches of screen width. That’s larger than even the largest of last year’s Note devices - though when held in your hands, it comes across as noticeably slimmer in terms of physical width.

In addition to being quite formidable when it comes to form-factor, the Galaxy S20 Ultra also features the sharpest and brightest smartphone screen Samsung have made to date. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

Immediately comparable to the QHD+ displays found on last year’s Note10 and Note10+, the Dynamic AMOLED screen here rocks a refresh-rate that can be cranked all the way up to 120Hz. Doing so does hit the battery life and lowers the resolution, but it remains a compelling enhancement that puts the S20 Ultra in line with fare like the Pixel 4 and the newly-announced Oppo Find X2 Pro.  

In terms of button layouts and durability, there’s not much to report here in the way of changes. All three new Samsung devices - the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra - feature the IP68 water resistance found in last year’s S-series flagships and in-display fingerprint sensors. For more on in-display fingerprint sensors, click here.

Of course, while the conversation about the Galaxy S20 Ultra starts with the screen, it doesn’t take long for things to pivot around towards the quad-lens camera array on the back of the device. 

More so than even 2018’s Galaxy S9 and S9+, this year’s Samsung flagships are the brand’s most photography-centric smartphones to date. Where previous models have accentuated and emphasized design or software, the S20 Ultra goes all-in on the camera.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra specifically features a quad-lens rear camera that combines a 108-megapixel main (wide) lens, a 48-megapixel telephoto lens and a 12-megapixel ultra wide lens to push these capabilities even further. 

There's also a Time-of-Flight sensor in the mix and a 40-megapixel selfie shooter on the front of the device. This makes for much better selfie shots but it doesn’t make for radically different ones in the way that a dual-lens setup might. Annoyingly, the S20 Ultra is only capable of 2D face unlock rather than 3D biometrics - which would be more secure.

All told, this recipe leaves you with something not dissimilar to Huawei’s P30 or Oppo’s Reno 5G. You get 5x optical zoom, 10x hybrid zoom, 100x digital zoom and an ultra wide-angle lens for up-close photography. 

Ultra-wide angle S20 Ultra sampleCredit: Fergus Halliday
Ultra-wide angle S20 Ultra sample
Wide angle S20 Ultra sampleCredit: Fergus Halliday
Wide angle S20 Ultra sample
5x zoomCredit: 5x zoom S20 Ultra sample
5x zoom
10x zoomCredit: 10x zoom S20 Ultra sample
10x zoom
30x zoomCredit: 30x zoom S20 Ultra sample
30x zoom
100x zoomCredit: 100x zoom S20 Ultra sample
100x zoom

If the S20 Ultra’s chunky-camera bump is a toolbox, then it’s at least an generously equipped one. It ticks all the boxes. You get plenty of options to play with. And, autofocus problems aside, the S20 Ultra’s camera certainly feels powerful. The device’s primary rear lens captures plenty of light and detail and the additional optical zoom (previous Samsung phones have traditionally capped out at 2x magnification) provides a lot of extra flexibility when it comes to composition. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday

The photos I took with this camera during a recent trip to Ukraine are some of the best - or at least my favorite - shots I’ve taken with a smartphone since the Mate 20 Pro. Unfortunately, I was a little frustrated at just how many great shots ended up spoiled by the poor autofocus or clumsy post-processing here. For more S20 Ultra camera samples, check out our recent feature on taking the Galaxy S20 Ultra to Chernobyl.

Predictably, long-distance zoom shots were a highlight. I was pleasantly surprised how perfectly usable shots at even 10x zoom were, though anything beyond that is more novelty than nirvana. Frustratingly, I was not able to replicate the same kind of handheld moon photography allowed for by the P30 Pro, nor was I able to pull off anything close to the Pixel 4’s astrophotography

Credit: Fergus Halliday

That being said, the S20 Ultra does have one...interesting camera mode that it’s competitors don’t.

Called Single Take, this turns the AI-capabilities of the S20 Ultra into something of a digital camera person. You hit record and move the viewfinder around, then the S20 itself will create up to 10 photos or videos based on what it sees. It’s a neat inclusion, since it does a good job of surfacing the many, many Samsung camera settings you’ve probably forgotten about. Still, I wish it was a little more ambitious as a feature and could be used for more than ten seconds at a time.

While I am impressed that Samsung have finally begun to catch up to Chinese brands like Huawei and Oppo on this particular front, the lateness with which they’ve done so does diminish the magic a little. It’s been approximately twelve months since Huawei’s P30 Pro dazzled me. I’ve seen this trick before and as much as the S20 Ultra shows that Samsung has what it takes to make a smartphone that’s on the same level, it’s never quite outruns the detail that it’s ultimately their first attempt at doing so. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday
Credit: Fergus Halliday

Simply put: the tech here is impressive, but immature. The camera bumps on the back of last year’s Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro are seeming more innocuous by the day. Worse still, the S20 Ultra’s autofocus doesn’t always play along. 

At higher zoom settings especially, I’d often be fumbling with the camera to get it to get anything usable out of it - even after downloading and installing the software update Samsung rushed out in the wake of reviews scrutinizing the S20 Ultra’s camera performance.

The only thing more frustrating than taking a shot using the combined power of the S20 Ultra's quad-lens array and then finding out later that the focus wasn't right is having it happen repeatedly. Of all the signs that this is Samsung's first phone with this kind of technical ambition, this proved the most revealing - or at least memorable - one.

It's a similar story with the 8K recording that S20 Ultra's camera is capable of.

You can do it but, despite being footage being capped at 30FPS, it feels like the handset absolutely struggles to perform. I'd frequently lose frames and, since things like tracking autofocus are disabled when recording in 8K, the utility of this function ends up being much more limited than you'd expect.

Is the S20 Ultra’s advanced camera kit a necessary step forward for Samsung? Absolutely. 

Is it their best smartphone camera to date? 100%. 

Does it put them at the front of the pack? Not quite. 

They’re now in the same ballpark as their competition but, even if they fix the autofocus problems, the S20 Ultra left me feeling like Samsung still has plenty of catching up to do before they can rightfully call themselves the frontrunner.

Performance - Specs, Software, Benchmarks and Battery Life

Specs

  • Processor:  Exynos 990

  • Operating System:  Android 10 with OneUI 2.0

  • RAM:  Up to 16GB

  • Storage: 512GB

  • MicroSD slot: Yes

  • Headphone Jack: No

  • Fingerprint sensor: Yes, in-display

  • SIM: Dual-SIM + eSIM

  • Battery:  5000mAh

  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 5, Wi-Fi 6, 5G

  • Rear Camera: 108-megapixel main (f/1.8) lens + 48-megapixel telephoto lens (f/3.5) + 12-megapixel ultra wide lens (f/2.2) + Time-of-Flight sensor

  • Front-Facing Camera: 40-megapixel (f/2.2) wide angles

  • Dimensions: 166.9 x 76 x 8.8 mm

  • Weight: 222g

Software 

As far as unique killer features go, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra doesn't bring much to the table. 

Spotify now integrates with Bixby and Bixby Routines. YouTube will support 8K video content uploads directly from the S20 over 5G. There's also Forza game coming to the Galaxy store and additional integration with Samsung devices and the Netflix app.

Credit: Fergus Halliday

None of these are as eye-rolling as something like AR emojis might be. However, all the same, they don't really make that strong of an argument for why you should choose Samsung over other Android manufacturers on their own.

That being said, 2020’s Galaxy S20 devices are Samsung’s first flagships to ship with OneUI 2.0. This is the latest version of Samsung’s take on the standard formula and while it’s a little different from last year’s iteration, it hits a lot of the same, compelling notes. 

The camera app has been redesigned to better incorporate the new things that it’s capable of doing. The lock screen is a little more legible and notification-friendly. The drag-down shortcut menu has been expanded to accommodate more icons. 

Despite the nomenclature, this feels like OneUI 1.2 more than it does a fully-fledged follow-up. Still, everything that worked about OneUI last year works here. 

Navigating between apps is fast and responsive, so long as  you don’t accidentally trigger Samsung Pay. If you’re a power-user who lives and dies on the ability to customise Android to be whatever they want, you might run afoul of some of the odd restrictions here but, as far as the out of the box experience goes, the moment-to-moment experience of using the Galaxy S20 Ultra is hard to beat.  

Benchmarks

Under the hood, the Galaxy S20 Ultra comes equipped with the same Exynos 990 CPU found in the rest of the S20 range. You also get 12GB of RAM and up to 512GB of on-board storage plus a microSD slot. 

The sum total of those specs is predictably impressive, but without any devices running on Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 865 at hand, it’s difficult to assess just how competitive the S20 Ultra is in context. It also didn’t help that most of our usual benchmarks simply failed to run on the S20 Ultra. 

  • PCMark (Work 2.0): 10185

  • 3DMark SlingShot Extreme (OpenGL): N/A

  • 3DMark SlingShot Extreme (Vulkan): N/A

  • Geekbench CPU (Single Core): 519 

  • Geekbench CPU (Multi Core): 2531

  • Geekbench Compute: N/A

We’ll update this chart when we have more 2020 flagships to compare the S20 Ultra against but in the meantime you can see how it fares against last year’s flagships. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

While the above does reflect the generalised high-performance of the S20 Ultra against last year’s flagships, it also shows the gulf between what Samsung’s house-brand CPU can offer and the numbers users can get out of Apple’s A13 Bionic processor or even the Snapdragon processor found inside the Galaxy Fold

Overall, the performance here remains in the realm of flagship phones but, for those keeping score, the notion that Exynos comes second place to Snapdragon continues to be true.

Battery Life

Echoing the steps that Apple took to shore up the battery life of last year’s iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, Samsung’s 2020 Galaxy S-series devices feature significantly larger batteries than their 2019 counterparts. In the case of the S20 Ultra, that means that buying the biggest smartphone in the range gets you a 5000mAh battery. 

At the time of writing, that leaves the S20 Ultra with a larger battery than the best that the rest of the Android crowd - Google, Huawei, Oppo - can muster. 

Anecdotally though, this spec-bump feels like it only barely covers up the hit to battery life that 5G connectivity demands. On days when I used the S20 regularly and with medium power-saving enabled, I’d reach the end of the day with closer to 30% battery remaining.

On more casual days, things cruised close enough to 50% that I wasn’t too worried about “forgetting” to charge the S20 Ultra overnight and skating through to the next day. 

I will say, however, that based on my extensive time with the Note10+, I suspect that this battery performance might be more variable than first appears. 

Credit: Samsung

When I first reviewed the phablet, I found I sometimes struggled to get through a regular day. Returning to it months later, I found the Note10+ frequently able to deliver much closer to the two days of usage you’d hope it would. 

Software updates and battery optimization tech likely played a role here but the point I’m trying to make here is that while the S20 doesn’t quite deliver the exceptional battery performance that its spec-sheet might suggest it would, my experience with the last Note flagship has me hoping that Samsung might tighten up the results here as well. Time will tell. 

Like the Galaxy Note 10+, the S20 Ultra supports super-fast charging via USB Type-C of up to 45W. When it comes to wireless charging, the S20 Ultra supports Qi chargers with wattage of up to 15W. It also supports reverse wireless charging of up to 9W. 

The Bottom Line

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is a spec-beast of a phone that shows Samsung still has what it takes to be competitive in the Android space even if it fails to be the iPhone 11 Pro-level paradigm shift that it obviously aspires towards.

With a mantra of more equals better that stretches from the smaller details all the way up to the biggest of big picture decisions, it’s overkill in every sense of the word. This is the best camera that Samsung has ever put in a smartphone. If getting that is your goal and money is no object, the S20 Ultra is obviously the device for you.

Of course, in other ways, the S20 Ultra is continuation of what began with the S10. At a fundamental level, Samsung’s vision for what a flagship smartphone ought to be remains messy. The Galaxy S20 Ultra is a necessary escalation of what the company has previously offered but, for as much as things change, other aspects of the experience remain the same.

Few are going to pick up a luxury-grade powerhouse of a smartphone like this one and come away disappointed. However, the attention given to the camera this time around only serves to highlight the differences between where Samsung and their rivals are at.

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is a great phone that ticks all the boxes and sets a new personal best for Samsung. It’s defining quality isn’t that it’s the only phone with a camera like this. It’s just the only Samsung phone with a camera like this.

As far as flagships go, Samsung’s latest stands tall but it doesn’t stand alone.

Credit: Samsung

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