Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: You’ll come for the spec, you’ll stay for the camera

Review: The S20 Ultra is a big beast of a phone, but it can sure take superb pictures

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
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Price: €1379
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Samsung’s flagship smartphone, the S20 Ultra, is a beast of a phone – in all aspects. There’s the size; 6.9 inches makes it one of the biggest phones I’ve handed in a while, beaten only by the Huawei Mate 20 X, which had a monster 7.2-inch screen. It’s a little unwieldy, a fact that was rammed home when I realised I couldn’t fit the phone in the charging dock in my car.

That may seem like a small thing, but it is a convenience that I’ve got used to. As is actually being able to fit the phone in my bag. The S20 Ultra isn’t the biggest phone you’ll come across but it’s certainly a contender, and that won’t appeal to everyone.

Then there's the battery, which clocks in at a huge 5,000 mAh, a necessary feature given the size of the screen and one that you'll be glad of when you kick the display into 120Hz mode. The overall spec – 5G built in, the updated chip, the phenomenal 12GB of RAM, the AKG stereo speakers – is also great. There's a lot to love about the Samsung S20 Ultra.


But it’s the camera that will grab all the attention, and it is this element that Samsung is pushing as the must-have element of the S20 Ultra. It comes with a quad camera array, including a 108-megapixel ultra wide angle lens, and a 100x zoom to get you as close to the action as possible.

How practical is it, though, on a day-to-day basis? Some elements are definitely better than others. Side by side with its main rivals, the S20 Ultra takes excellent photos on the ultra wide, wide and telephoto lenses; they are detailed, with good colour and contrast. Overall, the photographs that came out of the S20 Ultra were impressive. Samsung usually puts a bit of emphasis on the camera quality, so this doesn’t really come as a surprise.

It’s only when you start zooming to 30x that you’ll notice a bit of softness creeping in and that it is harder to frame your shots. Samsung has thought of that, though: when you zoom in at a serious rate, a small shot preview shows up in the corner to allow you to frame your shot more easily, and focus on the right area with your super zoom.

The 100x space zoom is good for a novelty, but it can be a little difficult to use. Imagine the natural shake in your hand you get as you take a photograph, and then magnify it by 100x zoom. I couldn’t really shoot anything worthwhile in that mode; the photos were a little too grainy and soft around the edges to be of any real use.

Single Take is an excellent addition, built for undecided snapper. It takes a mixture of still photos and video, meaning you no longer have to make the choice. Three photos and two video clips miraculously appear in your gallery and you can make your choice.

There’s also the 8K video snap mode that allows you to take stills from your video clips after you’ve shot them, giving you the best of both worlds. One thing to note: 8K mode doesn’t support tracking autofocus to keep your subject sharp even when they move, or video effects.

That impressive camera unit has to go somewhere, so there is a bit of a trade-off on the design. That comes in the form of a fairly sizeable bump on the back. Put a case on it and you will notice it less, but it’s a more prominent feature than some people will like. A case will solve the bulk of that problem, but that will add to the overall size of the phone.

And there is one other supersize element that Samsung won’t be shouting about: the price. The S20 Ultra requires deep pockets or a very good deal with a network that will tie you to an operator for at least two years.

The good

The camera has to be the standout here – as it should be. The 108-megapixel lens, the super zoom capabilities, the extra modes that allow you to shoot video and still images at the same time. Plus the battery is good, provided you don’t get too attached to 120Hz mode; that kills the battery.

The not-so-good

The camera is great but it doesn’t always perform the way you would expect. The 100x zoom sounds good, but on a practical level there isn’t much call for it since the resulting photographs aren’t as clear as you would like.

The rest

The S20 Ultra is what you would expect from Samsung. It has the ultrasonic fingerprint reader built into the display, and, like the S10 before it, it ditches the notch and goes for the camera punched out of the main display. There’s no headphone jack either, so get ready to embrace bluetooth headphones.

The verdict

There’s a lot to love about the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, but don’t get too attached to the idea of a 100x zoom.

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien is an Irish Times business and technology journalist