Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: hands-on review & camera samples

Posted: 15 January 2021 2:00 am
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We've had some time to test out the brand new Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Here are our early impressions.

It wasn't much of a secret that Samsung was going to announce its Galaxy S21 range of phones at its very early Galaxy Unpacked event this week. While in prior years it has mostly run Galaxy S phone reveals at or around the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona, this year the company opted to tag onto the end of CES 2021 week for its flagship phone reveal.
Ahead of the Galaxy Unpacked launch, I had the chance to test out the Galaxy S20 Ultra at a Sydney hotel for an hour to get an early feel for the device's pluses and minuses.
That's nowhere near long enough for a full review of course – stay tuned on that score – but it did give me at least an idea of where the Galaxy S20 Ultra was likely to impress – and where I felt it might be a little wanting.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: Upsides

  • Much better design: I did like 2020's Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, but it was a very unbalanced phone, thanks to that very chunky camera bump. Samsung's done some clear work shifting around internal components and opted for a contoured camera bump with much less impact on the balance of the phone. This isn't just an aesthetic matter either – it genuinely did feel better in the hand than the Galaxy S20 Ultra or Galaxy Note 20 Ultra too.
  • Responsive and powerful: Again, I only had an hour and couldn't install apps or benchmark the Galaxy S21 Ultra while Samsung reps were keeping a close eye on me to make sure I didn't do a runner. Still, during that hour bouncing between apps I had no real issues with the apps already installed that I could run. With 16GB of onboard RAM, that should be expected
  • Fancy new camera tricks: Again I was limited both by time and the fact that I couldn't take the Galaxy S21 Ultra for a walk around Sydney to really test out its camera chops. However, what I could test was quite impressive at first glance. For those who like to shoot video, the new director mode, which fires up all rear lenses and lets you pick between them for framing on the fly has some genuine utility in a vlogging age.
    Likewise, the upgraded Single Take feature, which fires off all the lenses for up to 15 seconds did a pretty good job of capturing both stills and video in an intelligent way. I found that 2020's Single Take tended to opt for more video and fewer stills than I'd like, but at first glance Samsung seems to have redressed that.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Sample Photos

    Samsung Galaxy S21
    Samsung Galaxy S21
    Samsung Galaxy S21

    Samsung Galaxy S21

    Samsung Galaxy S21

    The dual zoom lenses also work very well within their optical limits, and pretty well beyond them. Of course, Samsung's still pushing its "Space Zoom" line for the S21 Ultra, with up to 100x optical zoom and the promise of a Zoom Lock feature for sharper pics at extreme zoom lengths.
    To test that out, I sought out a nearby iconic Sydney landmark. Here it is with the ultrawide lens engaged:
    Samsung Galaxy S21
    There's no issue with the 108MP wide lens either.
    Samsung Galaxy S21
    From here, I could have opted – and the AI suggested – that I shoot a 108MP pic, but that limits your zoom range markedly, because the hybrid "Space Zoom" uses that 108MP capacity for much of its zooming work, cropping in as it goes.
    Still, I could take that zoom through to a very close level given how close I wasnt' to the Opera House.
    Samsung Galaxy S21
    Samsung Galaxy S21

    Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

    Samsung Galaxy S21

    Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: Downsides

    • It's still pretty big: A 6.8 inch phone is by definition going to be large, but I also had the opportunity for a little hands-on time with the Galaxy S21+ and even smaller Galaxy S21. The S21 has a 6.2 inch screen, but when you consider that's measured on the diagonal, it makes for a much more easily pocketable phone. That's not where the Galaxy S21 Ultra sits.
    • No S-Pen socket: While the S-Pen isn't something I use on Galaxy Notes to speak of, lots of people do like it, and the fact that the Galaxy S21 Ultra is S-Pen compatible is an interesting blurring of the line between the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note lines this year. There's two big points of difference here, however. For a start, the S-Pen isn't bundled as standard. You'll have to pay extra if you want it, and then you'll need the storage case Samsung has built for it. Unlike the Note lines, all of which have featured S-Pen cavities in their bodies for easy transport, there's no hole in the Galaxy S21 Ultra to achieve the same result. I strongly suspect that a lot of S21 Ultra buyers who are also S-Pen fans are going to lose their S-Pens as a result.
    • Space Zoom still has its limits: Remember that zoomed in shot of the Galaxy S21 Ultra? Well, even though it didn't make much sense in a framing context, I diligently punched the zoom all the way up to 100x to see how well Zoom Lock could handle it. To give it the best odds, I even rested the Galaxy S21 Ultra on the hotel balcony ledge to stabilise it. Side tip: Don't do this on a hot Sydney summer day, because you'll blister the skin on your wrists. Truly, I suffer for the art.
      Anyway, rather predictably, the results aren't great. Samsung did say I was testing out an early preproduction unit, so maybe Zoom Lock will improve this on the finished models. I certainly hope so, because it's not much use for pleasant photographs:

      Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra: Early thoughts

      Samsung's making a bold move pitching its 2021 flagship for at least half the year so very early in the year, so it's clearly got a lot of confidence in the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The story here is so very strongly tied to the camera, because much of what otherwise makes it special can be found in the cheaper Galaxy S21+ or Galaxy S21.
      My own early tests with the Galaxy S21 Ultra's camera do show a fair amount of promise, but I'll need more testing time to come up with a more definite conclusion. Stay tuned.

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