The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is a true groundbreaker that defines what we’ll be doing with our phones, and with 5G, for the next few years. It’s incredibly expensive at $1,399.99 and up, but its hardware promises to age well as a three-year investment, and some of its features will undoubtedly beat even the next flagship iPhone. But while the hardware makes this the first phone we’re confident recommending for 5G well into 2021, connectivity and camera problems bring the Galaxy S20 Ultra back down to earth. We suspect many of these issues will be ironed out before the phone hits store shelves on March 6, and we’ll reevaluate it then. But considering you can order it now, we simply can’t recommend you spend $1,400 on the phone as is.
Design: It’s A Huge Deal
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is massive, at 6.57 by 2.99 by 0.35 inches and 7.76 ounces. It’s actually slightly narrower than the Galaxy Note 10+ and the iPhone 11 Pro Max, and lighter than the iPhone. But its edges are less tapered than the Note 10+ or the Galaxy S10+, making it feel thicker in your hand, and it has a giant camera patch on the back. Available in black or gray and made of shiny yet surprisingly fingerprint-resistant glass, it’s quite slippery, and trying to take pictures with it is a very two-handed experience. The phone will be even bigger when it’s in a case.
I find phones this large off-putting, but you can’t deny you’re getting your money’s worth. The Ultra is literally the most phone possible right now, with the most screen, the most battery, the most processor, the most megapixels, and the most RAM. If you’re a little overwhelmed, as I am, you can go for the smaller Galaxy S20 or Galaxy S20+, but you’ll have to give up the flagship 10x lossless zoom you get here.
Samsung did away with the dedicated Bixby button, so now the only buttons are for power and volume. Sadly, Samsung also finally did away with the headphone jack, so you’re stuck with using USB-C headphones like the included AKG buds, or Bluetooth headphones. The single nano-SIM card slot pops out of the top edge and includes room for a microSD card.
The S20 Ultra has the same Qualcomm in-display fingerprint sensor as on the Galaxy S10 series, but with a year’s more software experience than when the S10 launched. That means better performance and accuracy, but it still has a small target area and requires a definitive, on-center finger press. Face recognition is also available for unlocking your screen, along with the old-school PIN, pattern, and password.
Display: A Major Refresh
Samsung’s OLED screens were already very good. The S20 Ultra’s 6.9-inch, 3,120-by-1,440 screen is, predictably, a little better than the last one. Dr. Ray Soneira of DisplayMate Labs says it’s 14 percent brighter than the Galaxy S10’s display, with other measurements coming out similar to other leading smartphones. When using it at full brightness in full sunlight, there’s a visible difference between the S20 Ultra and a Galaxy S10e.
One thing that stays consistent, and might surprise you if you’re not a Samsung user, is the company’s typical color oversaturation. The screen’s native Vivid mode has very punchy colors, much more so than you see especially on iPhones. A lot of people like that, but you can turn it off if you want. There are a lot of screen options. You can turn down the resolution for better battery life, or change the white point and screen gamut.
The most talked-about display feature is the new 120Hz screen, with 240Hz touch support. That refreshes the screen twice as often as on previous Galaxy phones and iPhones.
Gamers will feel the 120Hz. In our benchmarks, I found that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chipset is capable of rendering the GFXBench T-Rex scene in 1080p at 120Hz, so well-programmed games will feel more responsive with the new screen mode. I find it most useful, though, for scrolling. On a standard 60Hz screen, fast scrolling in news apps tends to “tear” a little, with lines appearing to skip or deform as they fly up the screen. 120Hz makes this smoother.
Does it feel smoother than 90Hz? I’m not sure. The OnePlus 7 Pro line has a 90Hz refresh rate, which I also find smoother than 60Hz. 120Hz should be smoother than 90Hz, but I have to say, in practice the effect is subtle.
Right now, you can only activate the 120Hz mode with the screen at 1080p resolution. But XDA’s Max Winebach says that Samsung will release a software update enabling the 120Hz mode with the full screen resolution.
Chipset and Software
The Galaxy S20 is the first US phone to use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 chipset. I’ve done a rundown of the Snapdragon 865’s main features here and have a full story on Galaxy S20 benchmarks here. If you’re curious about the nitty-gritty details of the Snapdragon 865 SoC, I suggest you read AnandTech’s coverage here.
The 865 will be the chipset in all of this year’s flagship Android phones. Qualcomm promises 20 to 25 percent better performance than last year’s 855, and on raw CPU measures like Geekbench, it delivers. But the Snapdragon hasn’t been strictly about performance for a few years now. It’s a complicated system-on-a-chip with components like an image signal processor and DSPs designed to enable specific new features we see in the S20, like 108-megapixel and 8K video capture, and the ability to do lossless 10x zoom with only a 4x lens.
I tested the $1,399.99 S20 Ultra with 128GB of storage and 12GB of RAM. There’s a version with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage for $200 more. You should spring for that model if you intend to take a lot of 8K video. While you can store photos and 4K video on a microSD card (I used a 400GB card, which worked fine), the card’s write speed is too slow for 8K. At 580MB per minute, you can fill a 128GB model’s 100GB or so of free storage using about three hours of 8K video.
Samsung still delivers a heavily altered version of Android, and if you buy a carrier unit, it will have plenty of bloatware. That means Android version updates tend to come later to Samsung phones than to, say, Google Pixel phones.
There are a lot of features in Samsung’s new One UI 2.0 for Android 10 that you’re unlikely to notice, but they’re useful. Link to Windows shows notifications on your Windows PC, while DeX lets you easily access data and applications on your phone from your PC. Focus Mode temporarily disables apps you find distracting. You can lock three apps into RAM (five on the 16GB unit) to keep your game from restarting when you tap away, and you can sign into multiple accounts on social media apps at once.
A Big Battery for a Big Phone
Part of the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s massive size is its massive battery: 5,000mAh, the largest I’ve seen on a mainstream Samsung smartphone. (The two smaller models come with smaller batteries—4,500mAh on the Galaxy S20+ and 4,000mAh on the Galaxy S20.)
We use Wi-Fi video streaming to test battery rundown. With the screen in 120Hz 1080p mode, we got 12 hours, 4 minutes of rundown time, which is just terrific. With the screen changed to 60Hz 1440p mode, it tracked to about the same amount.
This probably comes down to the nature of our testing. The video we use isn’t 120fps, so the screen isn’t consuming the extra battery it would need to do the 120 refreshes per second. For what it’s worth, I think that makes an interesting point about the power consumption of high-refresh-rate screens—most of the things you’re doing don’t use the high refresh rate and won’t consume the extra power. I’ve had a bear of a time running this phone down over the past few days to get it ready for charging tests.
I’ve been seeing and hearing results from other reviewers that point out the range of things that can impact battery life. If you’re on a network with lousy reception, for instance, you’re going to get a lot less battery life. The same is true if you’re constantly gaming or using GPS driving navigations without the phone plugged in.
The S20 Ultra comes with a 25-watt charger and supports 45-watt USB-C PD charging. With the 25-watt charger, I got to 44 percent in 20 minutes and 100 percent in an hour, which is excellent. With the $50, 45-watt Samsung charger, I got to 48 percent in 20 minutes and 100 percent in an hour. That’s just strange.
The S20 series also supports wireless charging and wireless reverse charging, so you can charge your earbuds or watch on the back of your phone.
4G and 5G: Great on Paper
I’ve never seen a phone with as big a difference between specs and practice as the Galaxy S20 Ultra. On paper and in hardware, this phone has all of the 4G, 5G, and Wi-Fi features you need for the next two years. In practice from February 20 to 24, however, it was a complete mess.
The Galaxy S20 is the first phone I’ve seen that makes a really good argument for 5G—but it makes the argument on uploads, not downloads. The S20 captures really large files. Its 108-megapixel photos are 20MB each. 8K videos are 580MB a minute.
US carriers’ 5G networks aren’t delivering great upload speeds now, but they will in the near future. Verizon’s 5G in New York still uses 4G for uploads. But when we tested true 5G uploads on Verizon’s network in Providence, RI, they were triple 4G speeds. That’s what you need for these high-megapixel images. The Galaxy S20 has the right hardware to take advantage of those capabilities when they become real.
First, the good news: The S20’s basic LTE RF reception, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi 6 are on point. I got very good speeds from the Netgear Wi-Fi 6 router in PC Labs, and LTE connectivity dueled it out on signal strength with other leading smartphones. There’s nothing noticeably better about the S20’s 4G LTE than the S10’s—the major changes are in 5G.
The US model of the S20 has a single, physical, nano-SIM. There are international dual-SIM models, and I’ve heard rumors about eSIM support, but eSIM isn’t available on my test device. This is a major missed opportunity for Samsung. eSIM lets you easily add a second line to your phone, either for global roaming or for personal/work line use, and all the latest iPhones have it.
There’s not much to say about voice quality and such. This is something Samsung locked down a long time ago, and the S20 doesn’t introduce any issues.
Samsung’s new dialer has two features worth noting. There’s a video call button that triggers a Google Duo call if your interlocutor has Google Duo. There’s also a buried Places tab in the dialer that opens up a weirdly ad-laden tab suggesting nearby businesses you’d like. You’d never know it was there if I didn’t tell you, but it’s an unfortunate reminder that sometimes Samsung just won’t leave software well enough alone.
5G by Carrier
I’m going to run down what I saw with the S20 Ultra carrier by carrier. The major carriers have very different 5G networks, and it turns out that at the moment they have very different Galaxy S20 Ultra support. They should all work with unlocked S20 Ultra phones—at least, eventually.
AT&T has the most complicated 4G network in the US; it took until the Galaxy S10 generation for phones to be able to take advantage of all of it. The carrier looks on track to have the same issue with 5G. It’s going to have low-band 5G, currently covering about 50 million people and not much faster than 4G; mid-band dynamic spectrum sharing, which it will introduce later this year; and high-band millimeter-wave, which it currently has in 35 cities but won’t say exactly where.
This is confusing. What you need to know is that the S20 Ultra should be able to handle all of it, especially the tricky handoffs between low-band and high-band 5G. So far, the S20 Ultra and the S20+ are the only phones that can do this. They’ll have significantly better performance than any other device, improving as the year goes on.
There’s one upcoming feature they’re missing, but it’s not that important for 2020. AT&T will start switching from a “non-standalone” to a “standalone” 5G network at the end of 2020 and into 2021. That will lower latency and improve 5G coverage. No phone released before 2021 will be able to handle AT&T’s approach to standalone, AT&T tells me.
In practice, AT&T advised me not to use my S20 Ultra review unit on its 5G network. From what I understand, the carrier can’t get it to authenticate on the high-band 5G. So obviously I can’t recommend the S20 Ultra for AT&T users yet.
On paper, the Galaxy S20 Ultra and S20+ are the first phones to handle all of Sprint and T-Mobile’s upcoming three-level layer cake of 5G, including T-Mobile’s slow, low-band “nationwide” 5G, Sprint’s mid-band, and the high-band that T-Mobile currently has installed in seven cities. This is a big deal, especially for T-Mobile users in major cities, where the phone should be able to slide between low-band and high-band 5G for the best possible performance.
In practice, however, the phone is missing a key software component. I compared the Galaxy S20 Ultra with the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G McLaren in more than 200 tests over three days, on low-band 5G, high-band 5G, and 4G. The OnePlus performed better than the S20 on low-band 5G, which means across most of T-Mobile’s nationwide network. The S20 can hit some better speeds in the few places it can find high-band. The S20 also kept dropping connections to one speed-test server I used.
The OnePlus phone recently received a software update to accelerate low-band 5G performance, especially on uploads, but the S20 doesn’t have that software. It can run that software, the device just doesn’t have it yet.
In a low-band-only neighborhood—like 99 percent of T-Mobile’s 5G coverage so far—I averaged 59Mbps down and 29Mbps up on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, compared with 65Mbps down and 41Mbps up on the OnePlus.
In a mixed, low-band and high-band environment with relatively low-quality high-band sites, the two phones matched average speeds overall (both averaging about 82Mbps down), but the OnePlus was slightly faster more of the time (when the tests were on low-band).
In an area with known, good high-band sites, the Galaxy S20 scored a 454Mbps down speed that the OnePlus couldn’t match, but the two phones were otherwise basically on par.
In short, there’s no advantage for the Galaxy S20 Ultra over the significantly less expensive OnePlus phone on T-Mobile’s 5G network right now. Hopefully that will change.
Verizon’s 5G network currently relies on high-band, millimeter-wave 5G in 34 cities. The S20 line will bring a critically important new feature: dynamic spectrum sharing. This will let Verizon slowly turn its 4G airwaves over to 5G, starting in mid-2020. It’ll accelerate toward the end of 2020 when iPhones with 5G DSS likely come out. I anticipate that by the end of this year, performance on Verizon 4G phones will start to decline, and the S20 series and the new iPhones will be noticeably faster.
Verizon hasn’t turned DSS on yet, so I tested the S20 Ultra on Verizon’s millimeter-wave 5G network in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Ultra’s new X55 modem doesn’t bring any new features to Verizon’s current network beyond last year’s Note 10+ 5G; the phone is using the same QTM525 5G antennas as the Note, and I found performance to be pretty much the same. I got around 650 feet of distance from Verizon’s cell sites, with speeds topping 1Gbps in good circumstances and more frequently in the 300 to 500Mbps range.
Not convinced? The chart below represents a little walk I took around the cell site at 10th Street and University Place in New York. Look at the speeds when I stepped into the two-block-wide 5G bubble, then out of it.
There are five main submodels of the Galaxy S20 Ultra and S20+, with different 5G frequency bands. While they all have similar 4G bands and capabilities, they will typically not work on 5G networks across regions. So no, you can’t use a European dual-SIM Galaxy S20 on T-Mobile’s 5G network, and you can’t use a US unit on British 5G networks. For more detail on this, see my in-depth story on the different Galaxy S20 models.
Camera: America’s First Ultrazoom
The S20 Ultra’s flagship features is its 100x zoom, which is really 10x, which is really 4x. Let me explain.
On the back of the phone there are four cameras. There’s a 12MP 0.5x camera, a 108MP 1x camera (which defaults to 12MP using nine-pixel binning), a “48MP” 4x camera (which creates 12MP images using quad-pixel binning), and an infrared time-of-flight sensor. Between 4x and 10x, the phone combines the 4x camera with a cropped shot from the 108-megapixel 1x camera to create a supposedly lossless, zoomed 12-megapixel image. Any level above that involves heavy digital zoom; the phone suggests that you go to 30x and then to 100x.
You hear 100x zoom and you think spy cam. That wasn’t my experience, however. At 30x or above, things are just too hard to focus on—everything’s too tight, too shaky, and too sharpened to be of much use. At 10x, things still look good. 10x is the perfect zoom to grab a shot of a small thing on the street without stooping down, or an architectural element or piece of art from across the road. 10x lets you catch your kids playing, from a safe distance, without interrupting them. Concert stages, in general, look great at 10x. If you’re getting this phone for its camera, get it for the 10x.
You can also take shots in 108MP mode, at up to 6x of zoom. The idea is that you don’t have to think about your zoom beforehand; you’ll crop after. That said, it’s good to think about the zoom before. Below is a pixel-by-pixel comparison of a 5x zoom shot versus the 108MP at 1x. I’m not impressed with the quality of the 108MP shot.
I ran into some disturbing software bugs while trying out the camera. Focus pulsing is the most annoying; sometimes the focus just doesn’t want to lock, or only locks after clearly trying out a few different focal lengths for a second or two. That can be enough to lose a shot. This happened to me most often when trying to focus on something close to the camera; the focus would switch to the close-up object, then to the distance, then back. It also happened in low light time and again.
At short distances, the depth of field can be extremely shallow; you can take a photo of a cup a foot away, and have the front of the cup in focus but the sides not in focus. An ideal software bokeh situation would put the whole cup in focus, and the background out of focus.
There are a lot of camera modes here, including super slow-mo, hyperlapse, filters, and silly settings that add augmented reality creatures or avatars to your shots. The most innovative is Single Take Mode, which has you take 10 seconds of video of something—usually someone doing some sort of antic—and then slices and dices it into cropped shots, filtered shots, a sped-up video, a forward-and-back
“boomerang” video, and other very 2020 internet gimmicks. It’s great for adding a little of that Tik Tok aesthetic to your world if you have no idea how Tik Toks are made.
Samsung still needs work to catch up with Apple and Google on low-light performance. The S20 Ultra has a night mode that combines a bunch of frames for a brighter image. At the moment, it’s set very aggressively—by default, the phone often wanted me to hold it still for five to seven seconds, which is a lot. I have shaky hands, so my night mode images from the S20 Ultra aren’t particularly good. They’re bright and colorful, but sometimes blurry, even when compared with the Note 10+.
Nothing in the US zooms like the S20 Ultra does. Abroad, the Huawei P30 Pro and the Oppo Reno 10x both promise 10x lossless zoom, but neither phone is available in the US. So the S20 Ultra easily destroys any other US phone in that regard.
For various zoom levels, I compared the S20 with the Galaxy Note 10+ and the Huawei P30 Pro.
At 1x, the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s 12-megapixel daylight shot is similar to the Galaxy Note 10+. Both show more saturated colors than the P30 Pro.
At 5x, the Note 10+ is clearly digitally zoomed and indistinct. The S20 is better, but it’s insufficiently stabilized to deal with my shaky hands, and as a result there’s some blur in the image. The P30 Pro images looks best of all.
At 10x, the Note 10+ image is soft and indistinct. The S20 Ultra and P30 Pro look sharpened, but I’d judge the S20 ahead by a nose in terms of naturalism.
At 30x, both the S20 Ultra and the P30 Pro look digitally zoomed, but the S20 looks oversharpened.
Nothing looks good at 100x; everything is soft and way too oversharpened. But that might also be because there is no way I can hold my hand still enough for the 100x mode.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is the first US phone to record 8K video, thanks to the Snapdragon 865 chipset. It won’t be the last. 8K videos can be recorded at up to 6x zoom, while 4k videos can be recorded at up to 20x zoom.
Zoom is the reason for the season here. 8K video is a 4x zoom on 4K, and a 16x zoom on 1080p. With file sizes at 580MB/minute, it’ll be hard to get these multi-gigabyte videos off your phone. So the phone comes with a basic video editor that lets you clip, dynamically zoom, and attach titles and such to your videos, then upload them to YouTube in 8K. But chances are you won’t be uploading in 8K; Google Photos mostly deals with 4K video, while TikTok is 1080p.
8K recording gives you latitude to crop and zoom after the fact. There’s a considerable amount of image stabilization added, and it works pretty well.
Should You Buy the Galaxy S20 Ultra?
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is full of unmatched hardware innovations. It genuinely takes camera capabilities to a level never seen before in the US. Its spec sheet promises that it’ll keep up with 5G improvements for at least another year. At the moment, however, it has significant bugs.
I’m writing this on February 25, 10 days before the phone hits store shelves on March 6. I’ve reviewed more than 1,000 phones over the past 15 years, and I can guarantee you that there will be major software updates to the Galaxy S20 Ultra between now and launch.
The phone’s problems with AT&T 5G will almost certainly get worked out. The T-Mobile issues are a little hazier, but should be solved by April. I’m most concerned by the camera software bugs, and by things in the camera software that aren’t bugs but are just bad choices, like the night mode issues. Those can be fixed, but they might not be.
I am not a betting man, but I would bet that these bugs are going to be fixed. If they are, the S20 Ultra could become an Editors’ Choice, as it’s the only phone out there with 10x lossless zoom and the combination of low-, middle-, and high-band 5G capabilities. For now, though, the phone isn’t an Editors’ Choice, and we don’t recommend you spend $1,400 or more on it. Instead, wait until March 6 and see what Samsung sorts out. We’re just as curious as you are, and will update this review accordingly.