Last year, Apple came up with a new range of iPhones. Gone was the Plus branding for the bigger iPhones that packed in similar specs with bigger batteries.
Apple launched not just a new iPhone 11 aimed at the masses, but also two new ‘Pro’-branded models. Mimicking its laptop lineup (MacBook Air and MacBook Pro), we now had an iPhone that was made for the Pros. They packed in colour accurate displays, triple cameras and the ability to record almost cinema quality video. And the phone, as per our review of the iPhone 11 Pro, did deliver on all fronts and got even better after the Deep Fusion update.
Next up was Samsung’s turn. Samsung retained the Plus branding with Galaxy S20 and the S20+, and went with a new product, the Ultra. On paper, it packed in 100X Space Zoom, 4 cameras at the back, including a 108MP sensor, along with a massive display and a huge battery. At ₹97,900 (12GB + 128GB storage), it’s the third most expensive smartphone in Samsung’s arsenal after the Fold (₹1,73,835) and the Z Flip (₹1,15,890). But at the given price, it’s still cheaper than an Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max that, in India, is priced from a hefty ₹1,17,100 for the base 64GB variant. The 256GB model is priced at ₹1,31,900.
So, is the Ultra worth its sky high price tag? Let’s find out.
Does it look any better?
The simple answer here is no! It looks like the rest of Samsung’s new Galaxy range, which mainly consists of bezel-less curved edge displays with hole-punch cameras. In fact, it’s only available in a flat grey finish that looks a bit too bland (dare I say, boring). If you thought Apple had a massive camera bump protruding from the back of its iPhone 11 Pro, you will pass out looking at the rounded rectangular camera island that is raised from the rest of the flat back on the Ultra like a plateau from a plain.
But, at the same time, it does give the smartphone a more serious and intimidating look when compared to the baby pink and blue finishes of the other S20s. So, if you are looking for something fancy, pay up and pick a Z Flip and don’t mess with the pros!
Will the display blow my mind?
Yes it will. With a higher than usual QHD+ resolution, this is Samsung’s biggest (non-folding) Dynamic Amoled display on a smartphone. It gets bright enough to hurt your eyes, which also means that it’s bright enough to be clearly visible in broad daylight. Despite its 6.9in expanse, it’s mighty sharp given that QHD+ resolution, so text looks crisper and details in images look clearer. More importantly, it also packs in a 120Hz refresh rate, which is gaming talk for a faster display. How does it help? Well, simply put, it refreshes the contents of the screen twice as fast as a regular smartphone display. And with this, the interface or software of the smartphone appears to work faster and feel fluid. No, it won’t make your streaming flicks look any better, but games will appear less blurry, especially if you play the fast paced ones like Real Racing 3.
That 120Hz branding, however, comes with a catch; it can run at 120Hz only at FHD+ resolution, which is not the native resolution of the display. It’s also a battery hog at 120Hz and will cut down the screen-on time by about 3 hours.
Is the 108MP camera a gimmick?
Definitely not! The Ultra has the most flexible camera setup available on any smartphone so far. But as with every camera-oriented smartphone, there are a few hiccups.
The phone features a quad camera setup, which consists of a 108MP primary camera that shoots 12MP binned images, a 48MP telephoto (with 4x optical zoom) that gets you binned 12MP images, and a 12MP ultrawide camera. The fourth camera is a TOF 3D sensor that’s used to check depth.
Image shot at 10x zoom (resized)
Image shot at 4x zoom (resized)
Image shot at 1x zoom (resized)
The images shot in daylight come out vibrant and bright. They are a bit saturated in a more matured way that actually makes the image look better. At times, though, the ‘Samsungy’ colour processing does creep in, getting you oversaturated blue skies. If you love pixel peeping, you will be surprised that while the images look fine, the details are not really what you would expect from a monstrous 108MP sensor. And this becomes a problem when you shoot people, as the camera will automagically skip on the details when you are shooting indoors or in shadows, leading to smeared textures. Indeed, the processing could do with a touch of sharpness and definition.
Obviously, some of this is down to software and processing, so I’m banking on Samsung to improve this with new software updates.
1x zoom macro vs 2x zoom
Macro shots are quite difficult with no dedicated mode, and when you do shoot one (from 10cm away), the background is often out of focus, leaving you with a tiny spot to focus on. A trick to overcome the limitations of the camera lens, is to shoot at 2x zoom as shown in the samples below.
There’s a fun Single Take mode that creates clips, GIFs and photos from a single scene. But it’s only useful when there’s movement, else your GIFs will be a bit too steady.
The advertised 100X Space Zoom will not let you capture the stars (let alone the moon), but you can capture a great amount of detail till about 30x, after which images gradually keep turning into oil paintings all the way till 100x. The images shot at 10x still pack an impressive level of detail. At 30x, the photos still look great (albeit oversharpened) provided you don't pixel peep.
Using the zoom presets is like playing a game of Ludo. You have to go all the way around the board to get home. To get to 4x (native optical zoom) from 1x, you need to tap on 5x (three trees), which opens a submenu that lets you tap on 4x preset. And once you click a photo, you will need to tap on the 3 main presets to access the submenu again. You get it?! Not really convenient.
Pinch to zoom is a bit fidgety and will usually force you to settle at 10.1x instead of 10x or 3.9x instead of 4x because it is hard to both hold the heavy phone (220g) and fidget with your index finger and adjust that virtual dial even with haptic feedback.
However, the important bit here is that it can shoot at 100x, which also means it can help you shoot things you cannot see. And this alone makes that ‘100x zoom’ tag worthy of bragging rights.
Auto mode vs Night mode in dim lighting
In low or dim lighting, the details again take quite a hit. Samsung’s aggressive image processing may make your photos noise-free during the day, but in low light, there’s a lot more work to be done here. Textures are blotchy and not really kind of what I expected from a smartphone that features a 108MP sensor. At times, the autofocus system is also a bit unsure about what it wants to lock on, so it’s best to tap to focus and avoid the risk of getting a soft focussed image.
You can click some great photos after sunset using the Night Mode, which works wonders with colour accuracy and exposure. But then again, it too depends on the availability of light. Street lit shots come out nice, but take this into a darker area and things get really noisy. Overall, with the Night mode, the details may not be as refined as you would get from a Google Pixel 3XL, a Huawei P30 Pro or even an iPhone 11 Pro Max.
You can shoot at the native 108MP resolution, but you will end up with massive file sizes that would fill up the 128GB of storage mighty quickly. Samsung has equipped the Ultra with a microSD card slot (that takes up the second SIM slot), and it accepts 1TB memory cards, but that’s reserved for another headlining feature called 8K video.
The 40MP selfie camera does a great job with selfies. In daylight, there’s little to complain about the sharp looking photos. Regular photos in low light look quite bad. Luckily, you can use the Night mode with the selfie camera and the results come out quite clean, with a lot of detail but a tad bit flat. As for the edge detection, both for selfie portraits and regular portraits, it is a bit too aggressive where some images end up looking like cutouts. For best results, reduce the blur level.
The phone shoots good quality 4K 60fps video with a steady framerate, plenty of detail and saturated colours. Super Steady makes its way here too and works as expected, keeping the frame rock-steady. Like with photos, you can also zoom into video when shooting, but only up to 10x, and the details will vary depending on the recording quality chosen. 8K can be shot at 24 fps and it’s quite heavy given that a 45 second clip results in a 400MB file. Now, you might be imagining smooth cinematic video, but this is one feature that does not work as expected. The footage is a bit jittery and not really usable with a cropped frame, which easily makes the 4K 60fps option a more reliable one. Samsung’s done a fantastic job with video (and it even gets you a manual video mode); it’s as good as it gets on the Android side of things, but it’s nowhere close to what the iPhone 11 Pro can manage.
How good is that 5000mAh battery?
That’s both a yes and no, and it’s indirectly linked to the refresh rate of the display.
Since the phone forces you to choose, you can get more than a work day’s usage (9-16 hours) at the native QHD+ display resolution at 60Hz with that 5000mAh battery, which is the norm for a premium smartphone. Reducing the display resolution to FHD+ at 60Hz gets you a whole day, from the time you wake up till you go back to bed. But you will still be hunting for a charger when you're back in bed and about to start streaming your daily dose of Netflix.The 120Hz refresh rate literally draws you into the dark side. Once you have switched it on, everything feels superfluid and the phone generally feels faster thanks to the flawless animations and transitions. It all feels fine, until you realise you are running out of juice. Yes, the 120Hz feature is not for the road warriors as it can suck up to 2-3 hours off your battery time. Play games like Call of Duty: Mobile (with no hiccups whatsoever) for half an hour and low battery anxiety starts to kick in. Luckily, Samsung has included a 25W charger in the box, which can surprisingly juice up this 5000mAh battery in a little over an hour! So you can give in to the dark side after all.
A couple of other things
The 2D face unlock, although quick, will fail at times, depending on the lighting conditions. The fingerprint reader has improved but is again not as fast as the competition. The audio quality sounds phenomenal and the dual speakers do a fantastic job whether it's gaming or even binging on Netflix.The handset handles any game you can throw at it and that too at the highest graphics settings. The only time the phone warms up is when shooting photos, and with extended use outdoors, it can get uncomfortably hot.
So, who’s it for?
So here's the deal. Over the past two years, we have been spoiled by DSLR-like photography first with the Google Pixel 3 and then the Huawei P30 Pro. These smartphones have pretty much set the standard for regular photos, portraits, landscapes and the Night mode.
At the 1 lakh rupee price point, you expect a smartphone to feature a perfect camera, or pack in a folding display, or be an Apple iPhone (like it or not, Apple fans will pay up).
And at ₹97,900, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is none of that. The camera software, despite several updates, still needs a lot of work. This is Samsung's first attempt with a massive sensor and a zoom lens, so it's expected that future software updates will improve the camera's performance, but right now after two camera-oriented updates (last updated on April 8), we have still to see that 108MP magic in terms of sharpness and details.
Still, for ₹97,900, you do get top-end hardware with crazy multi-tasking capabilities, a camera that can shoot photos at 100x zoom and battery life you can bank on. Oh, and let's not forget that gorgeous 120Hz display! So, if you are fine with the camera samples posted above and don't care about the finer details, it may still be the top droid to buy right now... until something better makes its way to India.