Samsung makes a few outlier phones. They show us what can be done with the latest mobile technology, even if doing so means they cost more than most people can afford.
The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip is the most eye-catching of these, but the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra offers similarly cutting-edge elements that won’t eventually let you down. Foldable smartphones are worryingly fragile, even when the Z Flip uses “flexible glass” rather than the plastic film of other foldables.
Three points stand out when you start researching the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, to give it the full official title. It costs more than £1,000, £1399 for the 512GB version, the camera has a “100X” zoom mode and the screen a 120Hz refresh rate. It is impressive, but the S20 Ultra also highlights quite how ahead of the game Huawei was with phones like the P20 Pro and Mate 30 Pro. Still, now Huawei has been exiled from Google services, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra seems the new ultimate Android for the rich and fiscally irresponsible.
Let’s tackle the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera first. It is comfortably the most interesting part of the phone. And the zoom steals the spotlight. This telephoto camera has a mesmerising Tardis-like effect. Look at the lens and it appears to sink further into the case than the 8.8mm thickness would allow. It’s a periscope-style design, where most of the lens elements sit perpendicular to the phone’s back. This is why there’s a big seemingly blank part in the already huge camera lens housing.
Even Samsung has to contend with reality, though. Your first reaction to the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s 100X Space Zoom photos may be “is this a joke?” They look like the kind of image a child might make pushing around an unwanted dinner of mushy peas and baked beans with a spoon. They are vague smudges, clearly bad even from the small view you get from a Tweet or Facebook post.
However, the 100x zoom is the equivalent of the high concept one-liner description of a movie designed to get a cynical executive interested. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera array is excellent, one of the best ever to be put into a phone. That it can’t take good 100x photos is only common sense, after all, when its optical zoom has magnification of 4x.
The experience of using this camera is similar to that of the Huawei Mate 30 Pro. You are given incredible compositional flexibility, with free rein to choose any focal setting from 0.5x to 100x.
Samsung’s work on the actual user experience in this area is also unparalleled. Look carefully and you can see the slight changes in the view as the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G switches between the cameras at 1x and 4x as you scroll freely through the zoom range (presets also available).
When you hit 20x, a little view of the surrounding scene at 5x pops up so you can avoid searching for your subject like someone trying to get to grips with their first telescope. The phone makes great use of what is effectively software stabilisation to make shooting images at 30-100x reasonably easy. Doing so tripod-free with a real 100x optical zoom lens would be virtually impossible.
The only usability issue we’ve found is it’s too easy to accidentally rest part of your other thumb on the screen, which stops you using the zoom presets. It’s one of the perils of a near-border-free screen.
Image quality is also great from 0.5x to 10x, and this is a contender for the best array of camera hardware seen in a phone to date. The main sensor is a 108MP Samsung S5KHM1. It is made for pixel binning, and takes 12-megapixel photos as standard: nine pixels on the sensor make one in the final image. But there is a 108MP mode that captures a lot more detail (not a given for these modes), and is worth using for pretty, well-lit holiday scenes. The ultra-wide camera is a genuine 12-megapixel sensor, but one with 1.4 micron sensor pixels for well above average native sensitivity and good dynamic range. Like the Galaxy S10 series, this ultra-wide is also used for a super-stabilised video mode with judder reduction to rival a GoPro Hero 8 Black.
The focal length versatility of the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s video is arguably even more impressive than in its stills. Not only can you shoot video at any view from 0.5x to 20x, you can switch between 0.5x, 1x and 5x mid-shoot. The transition isn’t the smoothest, but the fact that Samsung manages to switch near-seamlessly between three cameras “live” is impressive.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra will even shoot 8K video. This mode uses a roughly 2x crop and, judging by the slightly wibbly reaction to motion, relies entirely on optical stabilisation for motion smoothing. Most of you will be better off with the 4K mode. But shoot from a tripod or use a phone gimbal like the DJI Osmo Mobile 3 (compatibility TBC) in decent lighting and the results are quite special.
This is an all-time-great phone camera. Just don’t believe any 100x zoom hype. There are a few improvements for Samsung to make post-launch too.
Night image quality is not quite at the level of the Google Pixel 4 or Huawei Mate 30 Pro, but the issue is largely one of consistency rather than quality. Shoot using Auto rather than the night mode and the results vary between very good and uninspiring. Some images have mushy textures and flat dynamics. The multi-second exposure Night mode is much more consistent, but can’t quite handle very, very dark scenes quite as well as Huawei’s best when shooting handheld. A judicious software update or two could fix the consistency issue, and keep the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra up there with the best in all key areas.
So far we’ve only talked about three of the five cameras. The others include an excellent 40MP selfie camera that uses dynamic pixel binning. You get a worryingly clear view of your pores in good light, and the target resolution dips in low light to keep images clean and bright.
The last S20 Ultra camera is a time of flight sensor, which creates real-time depth maps for background blurring in both stills and video. These modes are fun to use, but Samsung does not have the best object outline detection around, which can make complex subjects look unnatural.
Samsung’s other big boasting point, a 120Hz screen, is rather undermined by Samsung itself. The screen refreshes at 60Hz as standard, and you have to wonder how many people will simply leave it like that, not realising the other option is there. (A 60Hz screen refreshes the on-screen image 60 times a second, a 120Hz one 120 times.)
The 120Hz refresh makes Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s menus scroll by more smoothly, and makes the phone seem faster, and faster to react, even if it is something of an optical illusion as response rates of the touchscreen and the display are separate entities. The touch layer of the S20 Ultra reacts 240 times a second, whether the display is set to 60Hz or 120Hz.
Samsung also reduces the resolution at which Android is rendered too. The phone has a 6.9-inch 3200 x 1440 pixel screen, but the resolution is 2400 x 1080. And if the defaults won’t do, you can only choose either ultra high resolution or high refresh rate, not both.
Which makes the greatest difference? High refresh rate. Even if the screen’s render resolution is lower, it is not as if the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra jettisons two million pixels. They still light up, the phone simply upscales a 1080p image, a less costly overhead than rendering a 1440p one all day.
But is either worth it? These higher screen specs are dimmed as standard in favour of battery life, and even with them off the 5000mAh battery’s stamina is less mind-blowing than you might imagine.
We switched to the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra from the Oppo A5 2020, a £180 phone that also has a 5000mAh battery. On a day where we might expect to see the Oppo end the day with around 35-40 per cent charge, the Samsung has 10-15 per cent. The 120Hz does not radically reduce battery life, but does affect it enough to make us worry about the phone not making it ’til midnight.
Samsung does not seem to use whatever secret sauce Chinese companies like Oppo and Huawei apply to make some of their longest-lasting phones careen carelessly through a heavy day’s use. Like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10, battery life is good enough, but not nearly the best around.
You’ll also find more dynamism elsewhere in screen tech. This display is big, bright, curved at the sides and colourful. There’s a “natural” mode if you like more relaxed colour too.
However, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra still has a punch hole, “Infinity-O” to use Samsung-speak. OnePlus, Oppo and Huawei have all made extensive, and successful, use of motorised front cameras. And, contrary to our most pessimistic predictions, they have not resulted in any disastrous product recalls. Most motorised selfie cameras are even quick enough to let you use face unlock painlessly.
The best can even seem just as fast as the S20 Ultra’s in-screen finger scanner. Once again, Samsung uses an ultrasonic sensor rather than an optical one. While perhaps faster than the Galaxy S10’s, it is not as quick as the best optical models, or the rear scanners of even budget phones like the Oppo A5.
But back to the other idiosyncratic choice, Infinity-O. A punch hole is no big issue for games, the most involved of which tend to see your thumb hover the side of the screen anyway. But it is no friend to video. Samsung’s solution is to block off the last part of the display in Netflix, leaving larger horizontal bars when watching movies with a cinematic aspect ratio. Watch similar content in YouTube and you can fill the whole screen, but it leaves a little black hole glaring at you.
Samsung chooses its areas of focus. But we could argue a full-display screen is more meaningful than either ultra-high resolution or high refresh rate. Samsung did experiment with motorised cameras last year, in the mid-range Galaxy A80, but even this was odd. It uses two mechanisms, both lifting the camera up and flipping it around to serve as both front and rear photo-taker. At some point you have to wonder what is wrong with the simple approach we’ve seen elsewhere.
The remaining aspects of the phone are either familiar or not hugely remarkable in a wider context. And that’s fine. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra may be a hyper-premium 5G phone — choose your own phrase for phones so expensive their prices may have once been a part of a comedy sketch — but it is a far more familiar experience to Samsung and Android users than the Galaxy Fold or Galaxy Z Flip.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has powerful stereo speakers, but they are only a little better than those now found on competitive Android phones a fraction of the price. It runs Android 10 and Samsung’s custom UI, which looks and feels much the same as it did last year. Still one of the best bets, alongside the Pixels, for anyone switching from iOS.
This is an IP68 water resistant phone just like the previous models too. And it has a Samsung Exynos 990 processor, although some variants of the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra sold in the US use the Snapdragon 865 instead. This may contribute to the pedestrian battery life as Exynos Note 10+ models were not as long-lasting as the Snapdragon versions.
We also noticed some inconsistencies in the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra’s gaming performance. There seem to be more frame rate jitters in ARK: Survival Evolved than we saw in some previous Snapdragon 855 and 855+ flagships. And Asphalt 9 only became available several days into testing. Conclusions? We’d prefer the Snapdragon 865 version, but optimisation may improve given this is a brand new CPU. The phone is otherwise responsive and largely bug-free.
Normalising insanity is the fashion at the moment. A £1,400 phone? Why not. It’s £1,000 less than the Huawei Mate Xs, and you’re much less likely to break it within a week.
But can the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra justify the cost? Not with its headline-grabbing 100X Space Zoom images. 5G is less notable this year too, particularly as it is available to the entire S20 family. However, the Ultra’s five cameras offer about as much fun as you can have shooting with a phone.
It’s an action video camera, has a great 10x zoom, and makes all this tech seem fairly intuitive. The Huawei Mate 30 Pro and P30 pro have much of this appeal too, and the latter is half the price. But now we can no longer recommend Huawei phones to most UK buyers, this is the top choice for the full travel photography all-you-can-eat buffet. Even if Samsung does need to do some more work on its night images in certain situations.
There is real appeal here over the S20 and S20+ for mobile photography nuts, though. Those phones need to use digital zoom techniques to take even 3x zoom images. Their small armies of cameras are less compelling but the jump in price is not small. You do need to value the added zoom reach, a lot.
When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we earn a small affiliate commission. This does not impact the products we recommend.
More great stories from WIRED
🏙️ A huge Airbnb scam is taking over London
🚙 Thinking of buying an electric car? Read this first
🍅 Why do modern tomatoes taste so bad?
📢 How Slack ruined work