In its black packaging or even on a counter, the new Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra looks like any other modern smartphone. Only after you have picked up the device do you find out that it is the Goliath of phones.
The Ultra is the largest model in Samsung's new three-cell phone range, which was launched last week. There is another difference: a camera with a zoom lens that is said to be more powerful than what was previously included in a phone.
Samsung sent Fortune to Ultra for review on Thursday. Therefore, consider this only as a first impression of it, based on a day of use. We'll be back next week with a more complete review.
Though it's quite expensive starting at $ 1,400, the Ultra may be suitable for people who rely more on their phones than on PCs or laptops. And for serious photographers who want to use a phone camera, it just can't be customized.
Is that an ultra in your pocket?
First, let's discuss the size of the Ultra: it has a 6.9-inch screen compared to 6.7 inches for the S20 + sister phone and 6.2 inches for the regular S20. In fact, the Ultra screen is larger than the 6.5-inch screen of the iPhone 11 Pro Max, along with that of the comparatively small 6.3-inch Google Pixel 4 XL.
Despite its size, the Ultra isn't much heavier than its rivals. At 220 grams (or just under 8 ounces), it's a few grams lighter than the iPhone 11 Pro Max and 27 grams heavier than the Pixel 4 XL.
When the Ultra screen is held in the hand, it can hardly be operated with one hand. I had to use two hands regularly to use the phone. For example, the phone's amazing camera features – more on that later – sometimes required me to hold the phone with my right hand and press the shutter button while adjusting the settings with my left hand. It also slipped out of the back pocket of my pants while I was sitting, a problem I never had with other cell phones.
The best cell phone zoom lens
And that brings us to the cameras that really set Ultra apart from other mainstream phones. On the back of the phone there is initially a huge rectangular camera with four lenses and a flash.
The normal camera has a 108 megapixel sensor, more than any other popular phone. At least theoretically, the Ultra with 12, 16 or 24 megapixel resolution can deliver more details than the cameras of the competition. But sometimes adding more megapixels results in photos with muddy details or subdued colors. Even though the pictures I took with the main lens looked great, it will take more than a day for a judgment to be made on the 108 megapixel sensor.
But it is the ultra zoom lens that really sets the Ultra apart. Most other phones have a zoom lens that allows a subject to be magnified two or three times before software tricks are required to zoom more. However, these techniques usually degrade the image quality.
However, the Ultra has a 10x optical zoom that works incredibly well. The pictures taken by the phone at 10x magnification are clear and detailed, as you can see in this picture of a Mini Wheats cereal box. On the left is a cropped picture of the Ultra. On the right is a similar cropped shot of the iPhone 11 Pro, taken at the same distance with 10x magnification. Software is required to enlarge. The difference is remarkable.
A 10x zoomed picture. The picture of the Samsung S20 Ultra is on the left and of an iPhone 11 Pro on the right.
How did Samsung do it? It was a pretty clever trick.
Samsung has invented a new method for installing the lens. Instead of sticking out of the back of the phone as with all previous phone lenses, the longer and more powerful lens of the Ultra is inserted into the phone and placed on the side. To get the image into the lens, the phone has a prism to reflect light at an angle into the lens.
It's the same principle that allows a submarine skipper with a periscope to see what's happening on the surface of the sea.
In addition to the Ultra's Big League zoom, the phone has software that can be used to improve images even better. According to Samsung, its technology can offer 100x magnification.
When I was sitting in a cafe, I could use the phone to read the shift assignments of employees on a clipboard behind the counter, which was a good 20 feet away. Well, maybe not exactly read. The problem with zooming in 100 times is that the images are a little blurry because it is difficult to keep your hands steady enough. In combination with the loss of detail that results from using software to increase the zoom, the image quality is not particularly impressive.
Ready for better 5G
One of the other signature features of the Ultra – 5G compatibility – isn't ready for prime time yet. Samsung's S20 range is one of the first to connect to all 5G variants available in the United States. These include the super-fast 5G that Verizon offers in some cities, as well as the not so fast type that T-Mobile and AT&T offer have rolled out more broadly (both carriers also sell the super-fast variety, but in limited areas).
It is currently difficult to test how well the Ultra is connected to both 5G types, as neither provider has made both variants available in one place. Stay tuned because that should change soon.
Until then, you only have to be satisfied if you upload your fantastic ultra photos to the good old 4G.
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