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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Review: Powerful, But Lacks Focus

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Photo: Ben Sin

TL;DR version

  • What’s good? Gorgeous, large, ultra-smooth screen that isn’t interrupted by a large notch; cameras are really good at shooting landscape and buildings
  • What’s bad? Camera has auto-focus issues

Last fall’s Samsung Galaxy Note 10 was, in my opinion, the first Galaxy flagship in years to not have a major flaw. Don’t get me wrong, Samsung’s flagships before the Note 10 were all very good, but they usually had a nagging problem or two that only became more glaring as time went on.

The Galaxy S6 Edge and S7 Edge, for example, had a screen that curved so much my palm was always accidentally triggering unwanted touches. The Galaxy S8 had a terribly-located fingerprint scanner that was too high up and off-center. The Galaxy S9 had below par battery life and a design that was a bit dated. Oh, and most of those phones also had the Bixby hardware button, which no one liked.

The Note 10 fixed almost all of that. Great battery life, no weird fingerprint scanner location, no Bixby button, and a design that was leading instead of following. I loved that phone.

The S20 Ultra, which is Samsung’s current top dog phone, mostly keeps the momentum going. It’s really fast and powerful, the bezels are still non-existent, the hole-punch is even smaller, and it has laundry list of features not found in other phones. But it also has one nagging flaw: the camera’s auto-focus is really buggy right now. It’s constantly losing focus in video and when I try to take photos of objects up close.

Fortunately, unlike the S8’s terrible fingerprint scanner or the S9’s mediocre battery life and dated design, this nagging flaw of the S20 Ultra could potentially fixed down the line via a software update (in fact, Samsung has promised one).

I hope so, because I really like the S20 Ultra, but the focusing problems are frustrating.

120Hz OLED in a word: gorgeous

Let’s talk about the good first: the S20 Ultra has a huge 6.9-inch screen that refreshes at 120Hz, and every animation looks so damn smooth. It’s so fluid and zippy and smooth that after a day with this phone, you will not want to return to a traditional 60Hz panel.

I want to add that while the phone’s 6.9-inch sounds intimidating, because of the elongated 20:9 aspect ratio, the phone isn’t too hard to grip securely with one hand — or at least my hand. It’s less wide than an iPhone 11 Pro Max, for example. Samsung’s UI also a useful one-hand mode that shrinks the screen when need, so using this phone with one hand out and about isn’t difficult.

One thing to note is that the S20 Ultra’s screen supports Quad HD resolution, but locked at 60Hz refresh rate. If you bump refresh up to 120, then resolution drops down to 1080p. I’m telling you right now: this is a sacrifice worth making. In fact, DO NOT use this phone at 60Hz refresh rate — you’re wasting your own money if you buy this phone and not use the screen to its full 120Hz potential.

Elsewhere, the phone is powered by a Snapdragon 865, with either 12GB or 16GB of RAM, either is enough. The battery is a 5,000 mAh cell, which sounds huge, but is just about right for a large 6.9-inch screen running at 120Hz. Battery life good but not amazing. It should be enough to last all day for most of you, but not quite for me because I’m a very very heavy user. I’m borderline obsessed with my phone.

Cameras: Samsung swings big

The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s biggest selling point its new camera system, which has been completely overhauled by Samsung. Gone is the 12-megapixel lens with variable aperture used in the last four Samsung flagships. Instead the main camera is a 108-megapixel camera, produced in-house by Samsung.

Let me just say this right away for those who may not know: higher megapixel count does not automatically make a camera “better”. All it means is the photo has more pixels in it, and can be printed at a larger size without losing details.

Now, more pixels can help for a better photo — if there’s enough light. The problem is using a huge megapixel lens in a smartphone body is that there isn’t much room to house a larger image sensor.

And so Samsung’s turned to a combo of software and hardware teamup to address this. The first is the S20 Ultra uses a process called “pixel binning” to combine nine pixels’ worth of data into one. This means the 108-megapixel camera is actually used to shoot 12-megapixel photos once the binning process is complete.

(If you’re trying to calculate how we got to 12-megapixels, well 108 divided by 9 is 12)

Samsung also custom-built an image sensor that is just about the largest in the industry right now — it’s about twice the size of an iPhone 11 Pro image sensor — so the combination of the larger than usual image sensor and the 108-turned-into-12-megapixel camera result in excellent low light ability. The S20 Ultra is so good in low light, in fact, I’ve found that I didn’t really need to use night mode often.

So the main 108 camera is really good in most situations. During the day, colors are lush and really pop. At night, the phone can generate a bright photo even when shooting at night.

Two night shots with the S20 Ultra.
A night sample with the S20 Ultra.

But that large image sensor is also the reason for the focusing issue. Because the sensor is so large, the phone’s camera behaves like a traditional camera with a wide-open aperture (low F-stop), this results in a shallow depth-of-field. So if I’m trying to take picture of, say, a bowl of fruit yogurt. I have to keep the camera at just the right distance, or the aggressive bokeh blur effect will kick it in the background or foreground, which sometimes includes blurring the subject. In the samples below, look at how the back of the yogurt cup and the front of the Z Flip closest to me are blurred. I tried multiple shots and most of them were like this. I did eventually get the focus just right so the Z Flip and yogurt bowl remained sharp, but it took multiple tries.

This problem also pops up in video, as the camera needs to focus hunt more often than any other phone I’ve used in recent memory.

Now this focus problem only kicks in when I’m trying to shoot someone or something standing a few feet in front of me. If I’m taking a photo of, say, a mountain, or a tall building, or a car from far away, then it’s fine. The focusing issues is mostly when I’m trying to take portraits.

Samsung is aware of this problem, by the way, and it says it can be fixed with a software patch. I have yet to receive one on my unit, but will report back when it does. I’m confident Samsung can fix this issue, but the reality is right out of the box, the S20 Ultra’s focusing is wonky.

Zoom lens!

Now, the other big camera upgrade: the S20 Ultra’s zoom lens is a Periscope-style lens used in the Oppo Find X2 Pro (and Huawei P30 Pro), and it can achieve really sharp and clean 10X, 20X zoom. Even 30X solid. But Samsung pushes it further: the phone can go up to 100X zoom, though at 100X it gets quite blurry. 60X is blurry too. But still, the fact you can zoom that far does come in handy. Check out the below samples of the S20 Ultra’s zoom prowess.

From this…
… to this, real quick.

And in the below set, the left image is wide-angle, right image is 60X zoom.

There’s also an ultra-wide angle lens that works great, and a TOF lens (time-of-flight) that acts as a depth sensor. This one is a bit of a gimmick, as Google and Apple have proven you don’t need a dedicated depth sensor to produce credible bokeh effects.

Around the front is a 40-megapixel selfie camera. Personally, I don’t have the face for such large selfies — I have terrible skin — but for good looking people, I’m sure the 40-megapixel selfie cam will be of real use. Samsung’s software also applies a beauty filter to most selfies. Some people hate this unnatural look, others love it. I don’t really care either way. It is what it is.

Below are a few more photo samples taken with the S20 Ultra. If you want to see video samples, please consider watching my video review of the phone on my YouTube channel.

Software: One UI 2.0

The S20 Ultra runs on Android 10 with Samsung’s One UI 2.0 on top. It’s a fine Android skin. It still isn’t as customizable as Oppo’s or OnePlus’s Android skin, but overall One UI is fine —it doesn’t get in the way of Android like Samsung’s software used to.

There is still a fair amount of Samsung bloatware apps, but many of them can be deleted.

The animations of the UI are smooth and fluid, especially at 120Hz. It’s really visually appealing to just see the notification shade being pulled down, for example.

Other bits:

  • The S20 Ultra have very loud and full stereo speakers that make it an excellent movie watching machine
  • The ultrasonic fingerprint scanner is improving, but still slower to register than the optical scanners used in virtually all Chinese smartphones
  • The camera bump is so large it has actually prevented the phone from slipping out of my hands a couple of times. Like the phone would be sliding out of my hands about to drop to the ground but the camera bump hits one of my fingers and gets “stuck”
  • You can lock certain apps in the app overview list now to ensure they are always running in the background and thus can launch immediately. There’s 12 or 16GB of RAM here so you don’t have to worry about these apps eating too much memory

Conclusion: easy recommendation in US and Korea; in Asia, there be competition

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is priced relatively high, at around US$1,400 in most regions. In Hong Kong, it’s slightly cheaper, at a HK dollar rate equivalent to around US$1,280. But since most Americans buy phones subsidized from a carrier with monthly payments, it shouldn’t be a big issue.

In America, I think the S20 Ultra is easily the best Android right now, and there doesn’t appear to be much competition. But in Hong Kong and other Asian countries, the S20 Ultra obviously has stiff competition from Oppo, Xiaomi, and potentially Huawei too. But both Oppo’s and Huawei’s phones aren’t much cheaper nowadays, and Huawei’s can’t run Google apps.

I think as long as Samsung can fix the focusing issue soon, the S20 Ultra is still one of the better options on the market for Android fans. But Samsung, y’all better fix the focusing issue soon.