As usual, Samsung is issuing the first major new smartphone models of the year, and I’m once again jumping on the treadmill. Here we go again.
The goal, as always for me, is to figure out whether Samsung has finally caught up with the best smartphone camera systems in the market, a milestone it has always missed, though recent efforts have come close. This year’s entries, however, in particular the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, which has the best camera specs on paper, arrive at an auspicious time: Last Fall, Apple inexplicably launched itself into the camera quality upper-tier with its new iPhones, embarrassing Google, in particular.
And really, it’s all up in the air right now. I happen to prefer the recent Huawei flagships when it comes to camera quality—I still take a P30 Pro with me when it matters—but that firm’s troubles with the U.S. have undermined its viability here. Google, a long-time leader in this arena, coughed up a hairball in late 2019 when it went with two lenses instead of three, leaving its users without an ultra-wide option. And Apple. How can we explain Apple? It was a distant non-contender until this past year, but now it’s absolutely in the running.
This left Samsung—which still sells more smartphones than any other firm despite Huawei’s 2019 surge and Apple’s fourth-quarter sales heroics—in a tough spot. Its recent flagships take great pictures … sometimes. And not always in all conditions. So while I was impressed with some of the photos my Note 10+ took, many left me flat. It just isn’t as reliable and consistent as my Huawei and Google handsets, despite having some advantages over both.
Anyway. Samsung announced the Galaxy S20 line in February, and it allowed customers at that time to “reserve” a spot in a non-existent line so that they could preorder a device starting today. The real point of that reservation was so that we could see how the pricing would break down. And while these new handsets, in particular the new Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, are quite expensive, Samsung is offering tremendous trade-in values for current customers, and it is handing out hundreds of dollars in credit so that they can also pick up Samsung accessories for free at the time of purchase.
As you may recall, I recently revisited the Google Pixel 3a XL, but that came about because I had pulled a few unused phones out of a drawer and started charging them and updating them, and I was struck anew by the incredible quality of the Note 10+ display. At that time, I figured I could reevaluate some of the 2019 flagships I was no longer using to see how they stood up to the Pixel 4 XL I normally use (and, truth be told, am generally underwhelmed by, aside from the camera). I originally intended to start with the Note 10+, but ended up going with the Pixel 3a XL for a variety of reasons.
There’s a side-story to the Note, too. My wife is currently using a Samsung Galaxy S8+, and while it’s still working OK for the most part, it’s getting a bit long in the tooth, and it’s been experiencing some slowdowns and glitches. She’s already reset it once, but the cycle is repeating, and she asked me about the Note 10+ a few months back. I told her to wait for the new Galaxy S20 announcements, figuring that she could get one of those, or the Note, whichever made more sense.
This is all a long explanation for why I just spent about $1400, of course.
I’m going to evaluate the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, especially it’s camera. And while there is a small chance that this thing will so completely blow me away that I’ll switch, I don’t honestly see that happening. The more likely outcome is that I’ll pass this phone along to my wife when I’m done testing it. Or that I’ll return it and she can have the Note 10+.
But the Samsung trade-in and special offer values are rather incredible. A 128 GB Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G costs $1399.99 at launch, but Samsung is offering $700 for the Note 10+, dropping the price to about $700. The company is also handing out $200 in Samsung credit, which allowed me to grab a set of Galaxy Buds+ wireless earbuds and a case for the new phone, for free.
Granted, you can also save hundreds of dollars by waiting: Samsung’s phones are infamous for regular price drops and sales, and in a few months, I have no doubt that the pre-trade pricing will hit or even fall below $1000 for this model. But I think it makes sense to jump now and see how it goes.
In case it’s not obvious, I went with the most expensive model because of its camera system, which includes a 108 MP wide-angle camera lens, a 48 MP telephoto lens, and a 12 MP ultra-wide lens, plus a 3D time-of-flight sensor and a 40 MP front-facing camera. It features 10x optical zoom (really hybrid) and 100x digital zoom.
Those are ludicrous specs, but we’ll need to see how this performs in the real world before we get too excited. As always, I am hopeful but realistic. And for once, I’ll pay attention to the early reviews. This is too much money to waste.