Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Impressions: 108 Megapixels!

Samsung has announced its latest flagship phones: the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20 Plus, and Galaxy S20 Ultra. Technically, Samsung is appending “5G” to the names of those phones, as each one will support 5G in the US and other select markets. They’ll be available on March 6th with prices ranging from $999.99 to $1,599.99, and preorders begin on February 21st.

I briefly tried out all three versions last week, and my first impression is that Samsung wants to make sure there’s no spec that isn’t maxed out: the screens have high 120Hz refresh rates and are bigger than ever, the data comes in at 5G speeds, the cameras zoom farther and rack up megapixels in the hundreds, and even the batteries are bigger.

If you’re trying to make sense of the differences between the three phones, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that, at a high level, all you need to know is that although they mostly share the same guts, there’s a good / better / best cadence to them. The 6.2-inch S20 lacks mmWave 5G and has the lowest-end camera array of the three. The 6.7-inch S20 Plus adds mmWave and better cameras. And finally, the S20 Ultra is unabashedly huge at 6.9 inches, with a camera system that’s as big and complex as nearly any other you can find on a phone.

After a couple of years of other Android phone makers nipping at Samsung’s heels, the S20 lineup is the company’s statement for 2020 that it can still make the best Android phones. Though Samsung will tell you the name jumped from S10 to S20 because it represents a “new foundation,” what it really means is that Samsung is doing whatever it can to make you pay attention to these phones.

That’s probably because once you absorb their impressive specs, these look, feel, and act exactly like the Samsung Galaxy phones you’re already familiar with. Build quality is excellent, the screens are vibrant and massive, and the glass on the back picks up fingerprints like it’s a crime lab investigator.

The new design elements are minor: the hole punch for the selfie camera has been reduced and moved to the center, the camera bump has been extended into a rectangle to accommodate even more cameras, and the headphone jack is gone, making 2020 the first year when every major flagship phone from Samsung won’t have one.

Have you seen a Samsung phone in the past couple of years? If you have, you know what the Galaxy S20 phones look like: big screens, tiny bezels, and a metal rail sandwiched between two pieces of glass. The screens may be a little less aggressive at curving around the left and right of the phone, but if so, it’s a subtle difference. You can get them in a few colors, but unfortunately, the only one that’s available in “cloud pink” is the regular S20.

Each phone has an OLED HDR+ display that supports a 120Hz refresh rate. Interestingly, Samsung says it isn’t bothering trying to dynamically adjust that rate depending on what the screen is doing. It’s just a switch between 60Hz and 120Hz. The company claimed to me that setting it to the higher rate would only cause a 10 percent dip in battery life.

Though these phones will make 5G finally mainstream in the US, I don’t think that’s their most important feature — with apologies to the industrial 5G hype complex. Instead, Samsung is taking a big swing with the camera systems on these phones. Where Apple and Google have been talking up their computational photography chops, Samsung is doing what Samsung does best: throwing more hardware at the problem.

That’s not to say that Samsung hasn’t updated its software for better image processing — it may well have. Based on just a short time with the phones, I can’t really judge that. What I can do is attempt to explain the complicated matrix of camera specs on these phones, all of which are slightly different from one another.


Camera S20 S20 Plus S20 Ultra
Ultra Wide 12MP, 120˚, F2.2 12 MP, 120˚, F2.2 12 MP, 120˚, F2.2
Wide 12MP, 79˚, F1.8 12MP, 79˚, F1.8 108MP, 79˚, F1.8
Telephoto 64 MP, 76˚, F2.0 64MP, 76˚, F2.0 48MP, 24˚, F3.5
Hybrid Optic Zoom 3X 3X 10X
Super Res Zoom 30X 30X 100X
Depth of Field None Yes Yes
Selfie 10MP, 80˚, F2.2 10MP, 80˚, F2.2 40MP, 80˚, F2.2

At a high level, what the table above means is that Samsung is making a big bet on high megapixel counts. If you take a look at the S20 Plus and Ultra, you’ll see sensors of 48, 64, and 108 megapixels. All of these cameras will default to taking 12-megapixel photos by default, though you can go up to the full count if you like.

Historically, if you saw a phone camera with some outsized number of megapixels, that was a very bad sign. It meant that instead of tuning the software to make great photos, its maker threw megapixels at the problem and hoped people would be snowed by the big number on the spec sheet.

Samsung’s contention is that it’s able to use a combination of those sensors, the chips that control them, and its own software to make those high-megapixel sensors do things that other smartphones can’t, like zoom in up to 100 times when taking a photo.

For the S20 Ultra, Samsung went all out and included a “folded” zoom lens, which means that the hole on the back of the phone actually hits a prism that redirects light across the phone to the sensor. It’s the same basic concept Huawei used in the P30 to achieve its zoom last year. That gets the S20 Ultra to 4x zoom. Then Samsung says it can do “lossless hybrid optic” zoom up to 10x though some combination of binning (combining multiple pixels into one big pixel) and sensor cropping. After that, it’s digital zoom up to 100x using similar methods.

It’s not really clear to me how Samsung is going to overcome the problems that typically come with big zoom numbers and high megapixel counts. Low light, for example, is a particular problem when you start racking up the pixels in a sensor.

Samsung says it has solved these problems and more, but I wasn’t able to get a clear explanation of how in my brief time, nor was I able to fully test these features. More answers — including whether Samsung actually pulled it off — will have to wait for the review.

One thing I could test was Samsung’s new camera features. Samsung loves to lade on all sorts of gimmicks into its camera, and it’s impossible to keep them all straight. So Samsung’s new feature solves that problem by using all of them at once. You simply point your phone at a subject, hit the shutter, and wait 10 seconds or so. The camera will capture a small movie, some GIFs, a few stills, a portrait, or other modes. It then presents all of them in a collage where you can pick and choose your favorites. To my surprise, I really enjoyed this feature and could see myself using it.

I’m not sure I’ll use the other big feature on offer: 8K video recording and editing. Samsung says it’s also improved video stabilization, which seems more useful.

Samsung is also famous for throwing a billion confusing features at Android, a habit it has, thankfully, toned down in the past few years. Still, there are a few new things, but most only work with other Galaxy phones. There are two new ways to share files: over Wi-Fi Direct to other Galaxy phones or via a temporary 24-hour download link for anybody.

Although I think precisely zero people will use it, I couldn’t help but smile once I wrapped my head around a new Bluetooth feature. If you have your phone paired to a Bluetooth speaker or device like your car, and somebody else wants to play music on it, you can set your Galaxy S20 as a kind of bridge. The other person will pair to your phone over Bluetooth, then use Wi-Fi Direct to stream to what your phone is paired to. Got that?

In terms of specs, name one, and there’s a good chance the S20 phones will have it. They will all use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, fast charging, wireless charging, Bluetooth 5.0, Wi-Fi 6, and so on. Each phone has 12GB of RAM paired to 128GB of storage by default (expandable via microSD). You can spend more to bring the Plus and Ultra up to 512GB of storage. When you do that on the Ultra, Samsung ups the RAM to 16GB.

The batteries are capacious — all the better to run those 120Hz screens. The S20 has a 4,000mAh battery, the Plus 4,500mAh, and the Ultra 5,000mAh. The Ultra feels thicker and heavier than the others as a result (and the periscope lens also probably adds some thickness).

Samsung called these the S20 because it wants them to be the start of a new generation of phones, but I don’t see a generational gap between the S10 and the S20.

Instead, the Galaxy S20 phones are an exercise in excessiveness. They have every spec you could ask for in an Android phone, but that doesn’t mean they have a lot of major new ideas. There’s just one, actually: Samsung’s major bet on a new camera system. To convince people to upgrade at prices that start at a thousand bucks, Samsung had better deliver.

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