Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G Review

Posted on March 29, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Hardware, Mobile with 21 Comments

With its latest flagship, Samsung has finally elevated its camera quality to the point where it’s competitive with Pixel, iPhone, and Huawei. But the electronics giant undercuts this and other unique advantages by overpricing the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G to an obscene degree. A handset that starts at $1400 should be perfect. And the S20 Ultra is not perfect.

The goods news? It’s a Samsung, and that means that prices will decline rapidly over time. So if you waited a few months on this purchase—and can wait a few more still—you’ll find that more reasonable deals will be available. And once this handset is available for less expensive prices than, say, the iPhone 11 Pro, things really start to get interesting.

Design

In a market crowded with colorfully attractive competitors with noteworthy designs, the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G is a huge, bland-looking, glass-covered slab whose clean lines are further marred by its ugly and humongous camera hump. Granted, you’d be crazy to use a device this expensive without a case. But its pedestrian looks alone are reason enough for a case too.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Samsung only offers two color choices, Cosmic Black and Cosmic Gray, neither of which is very colorful. If the idea was to make something non-objectionable for businesses, Samsung nailed it.

That said, Samsung’s beautiful display—see below—is wrapped in very small bezels on all sides, and the hole punch camera cutout is curiously nice looking and not distracting, like certain oversized notches. What really sets is apart from the competition, however, is its heft. Thanks in part to one of the largest batteries ever used in a smartphone, the S20 Ultra is both thick and heavy, and it feels very similar in my hand to an iPhone 11 Pro Max. (Amazingly, the iPhone, at 226 grams, is a tad heavier than the 222 gram Samsung. They’re both very dense.)

Display

Most of Samsung’s best innovations in the smartphone space have come from its displays. The firm pioneered the so-called phablet form factor at a time when large displays were openly mocked by competitors and customers before quickly being embraced by both. And it has led the charge in more recent years to curved display edges and now folding displays.

With the Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung continues its leadership position in displays: This handset includes the best-ever display use in a smartphone, or perhaps in any device. We’ll get to the why of that in a moment. But as big, at least to me, is that Samsung has stepped back a bit from one of its innovations, and for a good reason: Instead of utilizing an easily damaged curved display as with previous flagships, the S20 Ultra 5G’s display is essentially flat, with just the most subtle of curved side edges retained for a comfortable feel. Combined with Gorilla Glass 6 (front and back), the result is a display that should be as durable as it is pretty to look at.

And it is pretty to look at. This 6.9-inch monster boasts a Quad HD display at 511 pixels-per-inch and is powered by HDR+ for lush, rich colors. But thanks to its size and tall 20:9 aspect ratio, it’s almost impossible to use single-handed. And that’s true even for me: I’ve inadvertently selected items in the lower right corner of the display many times while trying to use it single-handedly.

Regardless of the size, the quality of this display is astonishing and immediately obvious, and I’m pretty sure I gasped audibly the first time it booted into its colorful default Home screen. But here’s the interesting bit about that: While the display is capable of 120 Hz—double the normal 60 Hz refresh rate—and utilizes a 3200 x 1440 native resolution, Samsung down-tunes both to preserve battery life. The out of the box S20 Ultra experience is Full HD+ (2400 x 1080) at 60 Hz. And it is still incredible.

So incredible, in fact, that I never permanently changed it, after experimenting with both the higher resolution and the higher refresh rate, both of which are configurable in Display settings. I suppose gamers, in particular, would find the faster 120 Hz refresh rate useful, assuming games support it. And there are minor advantages for scrolling and other animations. But for most people, the defaults probably make sense.

(I’m a bit surprised Samsung doesn’t dynamically enable 120 Hz mode in certain conditions, as I believe OnePlus does. Perhaps this will be an addition in a future version of One UI.)

Out in the world, the display continues to amaze. At the gym, where I used wireless Samsung Galaxy Buds+ earbuds until the Coronavirus hit, the movie-watching experience on the elliptical was particularly good and superior to that of other phones I’ve used there. And out in broad daylight, the display is always visible and usable, and it adapts quickly as the conditions change.

Hardware and specs

The Galaxy S20 is fully loaded with all of the high-end components that one should expect of a 2020 flagship, and then some. U.S. configurations like the one I purchased are powered by an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 and Adreno 650 GPU, 12 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of fast UFS 3.0 storage. There are 256 GB and 512 GB storage upgrades at purchase time, and if you purchase the latter, your RAM is upped to 16 GB. But anyone can upgrade the storage later to an additional 1 TB via microSDXC. Performance, as you would expect, is excellent, and in a month of usage, I never noticed a single slowdown, hitch, or issue.

Connectivity is also about as complete as can be, and thanks to the addition of 5G networking capabilities, this handset should be future proof for years to come. The S20 Ultra 5G supports the full range of available cellular networks, dual-band Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0, and NFC. I wasn’t able to test the handset’s 5G capabilities, of course.

The S20 provides stereo speakers, which sound great and offer solid stereo separation in both movies and music. But there’s no headphone jack, if that kind of thing still bothers you.

With its mammoth 5000 mAh battery, the S20 Ultra 5G delivers on battery life in a way that no other smartphone does. I could get almost two full days of use out of this thing, assuming I didn’t change the resolution or refresh rate (the latter of which can impact battery life by up to 30 percent, apparently).

This kind of battery life is admirable. But so too is its “super fast charge” capabilities, as Samsung calls it: The firm provides a 25-watt charger in the box, and that delivers over 50 percent of charge in just 30 minutes. And if that’s not good enough, it supports up to 45-watt fast charging too. The S20 also supports 15-watt Fast Wireless Charging 2.0, but I wasn’t able to test that.

Finally, the S20 Ultra 5G supports reverse wireless charging, too. This means that you can place a device that supports wireless charging, like those Galaxy Buds, on the back of the handset while it’s face-down and charge them. (You need to enable Wireless PowerShare in the notification shade first.)

Cameras

It’s impossible to ignore the S20 Ultra 5G’s humongous rectangular camera bump, a protrusion so visually distracting that even adding a case doesn’t help all that much. (That said, a case will at least even out the bottom of the device so that it doesn’t rock to the right when used on a table.) But that’s fine. Because hiding underneath that massive schnoz is a multi-lens camera system powerful enough to challenge the best in the market.

From a specs perspective, the S20 Ultra 5G’s camera system sits at the apex of the smartphone industry. There’s a 108 MP (!) wide-angle lens with optical image stabilization (OIS) and pixel binning, a 12 MP ultra-wide lens, and a 48 MP telephoto lens with OIS with 10x “optical hybrid zoom,” plus a 0.3 MP Time of Flight (TOS) lens for depth effects. The front-facing camera features an incredible 40 MP wide-angle for some reason.

The reality is only slightly less impressive: The ultra-wide lens lacks OIS and that “optical hybrid zoom” is, well, just hybrid zoom. Worst of all, the S20 Ultra 5G’s most-touted feature, the so-called Space Zoom, is not nearly as impressive as Samsung made is sound. Yes, you can technically zoom to 100X but the quality is terrible, like a watercolor painting of what you’re trying to capture. When you’re out in the world just using the smartphone normally, you’re limited to about 10X zoom for acceptable shots. Otherwise, your natural hand shaking amplifies so badly at higher zoom levels that the shots are unusable.

Bethlehem Steel Stacks, .5X (ultra-wide)

Bethlehem Steel Stacks, 1X

Bethlehem Steel Stacks, 5X

Bethlehem Steel Stacks, 10X

Bethlehem Steel Stacks, 30X

Bethlehem Steel Stacks, 100X

But that’s OK: This camera still zooms a bit better than the Huawei P30 Pro, and so it offers the single-best zoom experience in smartphones. I particularly like how easy it is to select different zoom levels. In addition to three on-screen buttons for selecting ultra-wide (.5X zoom), wide (1X), and 5X zoom, the Samsung camera app provides a selection of zoom presets—.5, 1, 2, 4, 10, 30, and 100X—whenever you select one of those buttons. And you can also pinch-to-zoom to any level in-between. It’s nicely done.

Cemetery, 5X zoom

Cemetery, 10X zoom

Cemetery, 30X zoom

Cemetery, 100X zoom

Beyond that, the day-to-day camera experience is likewise excellent. Like many modern smartphone, Samsung provides a bewildering array of still and video modes, but rather than make the UX more complex and confuse the user, the camera provides a simple carousel of four main choices—Single Take, Photo, Video, and More–with the more esoteric options hiding under More. But you can also edit the carousel, so if you use Pro, Night, or Live Focus modes, or whatever, a lot, they can be up-front and center. Smart.

Food and drink shots

Most people will just want the stock Photo and Video modes, of course. And they won’t be disappointed: As before, Samsung edges into the overly-saturated world of HDR photography, but the results are less dull than a typical iPhone shot and don’t edge anywhere into “fauxtography” like Huawei does. I think they’re just right.

If you do like HDR-like effects, you can enable that from the viewfinder

But even a beginner can tinker. In addition to the flash, timer, aspect ratio, motion photo, and filters options that appear on-screen during photo-taking, Samsung provides a blue Scene Optimizer toggle that’s enabled by default. If it senses that you’re framing a shot of food or drinks, it will optimize it accordingly (for Instagram in that case, I’d imagine). But you can toggle it off or, when it has detected something it can optimize, lock it into a particular optimization.

Ultra-wide shot, night

Overall, I feel that Samsung has nailed the camera experience this time. But there is one more thing to discuss here.

Flowers

I’ve seen reports that the newest Samsungs have an auto-focus problem. I guess I’ve experienced this, but this issue is typical for many smartphones these days, and on the S20 Ultra 5G, it’s been no worse than, say, auto-focus in the P30 Pro, which often requires a bit of tinkering. I’ve long felt that these problems are a side-effect of handset makers adding more and more AI capabilities (like the Scene Optimizer) to their camera systems evaluating every scene in the viewfinder in real time. In any event, Samsung has issued a fix since first releasing the S20s. Given the complexity and sophistication of this system, you can expect further fixes and improvements.

Security

Someday, you’ll be able to purchase a Samsung flagship with fast, accurate, and secure facial recognition and a fast, accurate, and secure in-display fingerprint reader. But today is not that day.

Instead, the S20’s two primary means of authenticating are an ongoing annoyance. As a result, I’ve found myself frustratingly resorting to typing my PIN far too many times. This is, perhaps, this smartphone’s Achilles Heel.

That both of these technologies have been essentially perfected elsewhere is, of course, the real problem. Apple sets the standard for facial recognition with Face ID, and while some Android solutions are as fast, none are as secure. And OnePlus, most notably, has just about perfected the in-display fingerprint reader, most recently in the OnePlus 7T.

Software

Samsung, like OnePlus and Huawei, replaces the default Android launcher and user interface with one of its own making. But I like Samsung’s One UI, as it’s called, better than other custom Android interfaces, and I even like it better in many ways than the bland stock Android launcher that Google provides. It’s the only Android interface that rivals the design consistency that Apple provides with iOS, but it is also much more attractive and usable than Apple’s offering.

If you’re coming from another phone, some aspects of One UI will take a bit of getting used to. For example, the All Apps screen scrolls from left to right and not up and down, so you’ll find yourself back at the Home screen if you scroll down to see more apps, as is typical in Android. And you can organize All Apps non-alphabetically, and in folders.

There are more profound changes, too, including the edge UIs that Samsung still uses, and the integrated support for themes, which Google is only now starting to support similarly, albeit only on its own phones and not in stock Android. But the thing I like most about One UI is its design. It is, by far, the prettiest of the Android user experiences, and its squircle icons are so visually appealing I try to emulate them on other Android handsets with custom icon sets.

But there is a dark side to Samsung’s dreams of owning the whole experience: The S20 Ultra 5G, like other Samsung flagships before it, is weighed down with far too many Samsung apps and services, many of which are redundant. So in addition to Samsung replacements for basic system apps like Calculator, Calendar, Clock, Contacts, and others, Samsung ships an incredible array of apps, many backed by services, like Samsung Notes, Samsung Pay, Samsung Global Goals, AR Zone, Bixby, My Files, Samsung Health, Samsung Members, SmartThings, and many others. It just goes on and on.

You can ignore these apps in different ways; using folders is a time-honored trick with which iOS users are perhaps painfully familiar. And yes, many can be uninstalled. But the net effect of this bundling is that the Samsung experience seems to boil down to “more is better.” And that’s more than a bit contradictory with One UI’s elegant appearance. Ultimately, Samsung’s users—like Apple’s—are just pawns in its corporate aspirations.

So my advice here is the same as it is on iPhone: Ignore the handset makers apps and services as much as possible and use cross-platform and widely-available third-party options instead.

Pricing and availability

There’s no way around this: The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G is expensive. Too expensive. It starts at a wallet-busting $1400, and you can spend hundreds more upgrading the storage. Plus, you’ll need a case. The S20 Ultra 5G isn’t a purchase, it’s a commitment.

Recommendations and conclusions

Despite some frustrations with its mediocre biometrics, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G is so good that it played a role in my recent decision to abandon Google’s Fi network for a more standard wireless carrier that would make moving off Pixel easier. Indeed, if it weren’t for my wife, a long-time Samsung user who is currently using a three-year-old Galaxy S8+, I’d switch to the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G myself.

Given this, I recommend the S20 Ultra 5G with two caveats: Wait until the purchase price comes down, as $1400 is an absurd price for a smartphone, even one you hope to use for at least three years. And be sure you can live with its frustrating facial recognition and in-display fingerprint reader solutions. Sometimes they work well, but too often they don’t, and this is the type of thing that will wear on you over time.

Beyond those issues, the S20 Ultra 5G is nearly perfect. The display, performance, battery life, and user experience are all top-notch and the camera system truly rivals the best that Apple, Google, and Huawei have to offer.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Excellent camera system
  • Gorgeous edge-to-edge display
  • Top-shelf performance
  • Excellent battery life
  • One UI is more attractive and modern than stock Android
  • 5G support helps future-proof purchase

Cons

  • Frustrating facial recognition and in-display fingerprint reader
  • Far too expensive (but that will change)
  • Samsung crapware
  • No headphone jack

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Comments (23)

23 responses to “Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G Review”

  1. Avatar

    ronh

    Thanks Paul, nice review.


    Camera quality has increased compared to my Note 9

  2. Avatar

    Michael Sorrentino

    My biggest issue with Samsung devices is the inability to move pre-installed apps, of which there are many, to external micro SD storage. I have a Galaxy tablet that always has storage issues because many apps cannot be moved to external storage such as all of Samsung's apps, Microsoft is another offender in this regard they don't allow apps to be moved to external storage. Why exactly does the Xbox Game Pass app have to be kept on internal storage?

  3. Avatar

    JH_Radio

    I'm blind and so have an S10+ here. and let me tell you the in display finger print reader, for one thing it takes entirely too long to unlock the phone. for another , yeah it kinda sucks. I tried a Sony with a rear mounted fingerprint reader and let me tell you that thing is beyond fast. Yeah, I don't like the in-display finger print reader much. and half the time the screne reader says "No match found." ugh. Although its still faster than entering my pin, when it works. which sometimes it takes 3 or 4 times. they seriously need to fix that. the iPhone TouchID works every time but not this in display Samsung thing.

  4. Avatar

    steam960

    While android jocks may be excited by the looks, I'm suspiciously wondering if this phone is being used by Samsung and Microsoft as a test bed for the next Windows phone running Windows 10X for business. Its specs and performance look a lot like those of my HP Elite X3.

  5. Avatar

    wright_is

    That is pretty much the same conclusion I have come to with the S20+ (I started a thread on it over at TWiT:

    https://www.thurrott.com/mobile/android/233683/samsung-galaxy-s20-ultra-5g-review

    • The camera is good, but forget the zoom, it is lousy above about 4x. The optics are on a par with my old Huawei, but the AI isn't so stupid or overly aggressive, meaning the shots look more natural - the Huawei camera app has a tendancy to blow heads up, making them look like nodding head dolls)
    • The battery is as good as the Mate 10 Pro (at least 2 days of use), not a surprise as they are both 2,500mAh.
    • The display is great, although it doesn't feel as "space aged" as the S10 in the hand, because it isn't as curved. But the lack of the curve actually makes it more usable.
    • I find the OneUI to be a little disappointing after EMUI, but I've grown to get used to it. Maybe I'm used to Windows square tiles, but I find the hard 90° corners of EMUI better than the rounded corners, but I don't really notice it duing use.

    As you say, far to expensive.

    I did remove as much of the Google and Samsung crapware as possible on day one.

    I use the Buds+ most of the time and I've been using USB-C headphones for over 2 years, so the lack of a headphone jack doesn't bother me.

  6. Avatar

    SAPaleAle

    I keep seeing the S20 fingerprint scanner issues and how they are similar to the S10 rangle issue. I must me one of the lucky ones as I have never had an issue with the S10+ scanner

    • Avatar

      bleeman

      In reply to SAPaleAle:

      Same here. I've got the Note 10+ and have never had any issue with the fingerprint scanner. I use it all the time for various apps. As for the phone itself, the face scanner works like a charm so I don't use the fingerprint scanner to open the phone, just my various apps that I've setup fingerprint scanning on.

    • Avatar

      wright_is

      In reply to SAPaleAle:

      My wife has given up on the fingerprint scanner on her S10. It work maybe 1 in 10 attempts. She works in a industrial kitchen and is constantly washing and disinfecting her hands and the phone simply doesn't recognise her.

      Since SARS-CoV-2, I've been washing my hands more often and disinfecting as well and the recognition rate on the S20+ is also down. It is very slow anyway, but I probably have to try 2 - 3 times on average to unlock.

      My old Mate 10 Pro has a reader on the back and you barely need to brush it and the phone has unlocked, with the S20+, I have to hold my finger on the screen for over a second sometimes.

      That, plus no haptic about where to place your finger to unlock makes the whole experience less user friendly. With the Mate, I could pull it out of my pocket, my finger would naturally fall into the hole where the reader is and it would be unlocked by the time I looked at it.

      With the S20+, I have to look at it, double tap the screen, or press the power button, look for the fingerprint symbol, press my finger against it and wait. That is a huge step backwards in user friendliness.

  7. Avatar

    jhearn

    Spot on review. Your getting good at this.


    Samsung S20 Ultra early adopter.

  8. Avatar

    Winner

    Paul, does it still have that darn Bixby button?

    Did they move the left side buttons to the right side (finally)? I think I read that somewhere.

    How is the night mode in the camera compared to Night Sight and others?

    • Avatar

      Paul Thurrott

      No, there's no Bixby button. And yes, all the buttons are on the right. I don't use Night mode all that often, but it doesn't appear to be much different from the Note 10+; whether that's good or bad depends on what you're looking for. But Huawei, Google, and Apple handle it better, in my opinion.
    • Avatar

      wright_is

      In reply to Winner:

      The Bixby button is no more. All the buttons are on the right now. The first thing I did was to remove or disable as much Bixby as I could. It has never disturbed me.

      The night mode is fairly good, I've done a lot of pics. If you are a TWiT listener, check out the Photos of the week threads for the last 3 weeks and you will see several night photos from me there (big_D).

  9. Avatar

    Jim Lewis

    If one doesn't need the latest and the greatest, in the 2022 to 2023 time range (before the coronavirus pandemic), Bluetooth Low Energy Audio (BT 5.2) will become available in smartphones and other devices, which will open up a world of communication possibilities, e.g., multicast in public places, much longer battery life on a charge for wearables, etc. So when one might be spending $1K and up for a great phone, it might be worth the wait.... If one goes to the Bluetooth .COM website, one can read all about it.

  10. Avatar

    Jorge Garcia

    I personally feel that iPhones still make people too orange, Samsung's phones still make things too greenish-yellow, or faded, or flat (hard to for me to describe well), and Pixels can make things too blue...sometimes garishly so. Then the Huawei P40 comes along and in my opinion, finally nails the color space (and ALL the night shots)...but that amazing camera is unfortunately strapped onto a phone that is unfit for human consumption. Sigh.

  11. Avatar

    madthinus

    I read that the phones are currently discounted on Amazon and Best buy.

  12. Avatar

    StagyarZilDoggo

    A 222 kg phone - I guess it's really built like a tank. Or it's just 222 g.

    This is how NASA crashed the Mars Climate Orbiter you know... ;-)

  13. Avatar

    Sir_Timbit

    Considering how pricey this is, is Samsung still providing only two years of updates?

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