Samsung has long been a leader in the smartphone market, sitting comfortably at the top spot as the world’s largest phone maker. Their latest flagship, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, is impressive, but is it too much of a good thing? Options weighs in. 

SINGAPORE (Apr 30): In the competitive world of smartphones, it is little wonder that South Korean phonemaker Samsung remains the king. With a wide range of phones to suit most budgets, Samsung commands a sizable 23% of the global market, shipping 289.1 million units in 2019 alone. It is little surprise, then, that they keep releasing bigger, better, and more expensive flagship phones — like the latest in their flagship Galaxy range: the S20, S20+ and the S20 Ultra 5G.

For review, we had the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, which is the largest of the three at a whopping 6.9 inches and weighing 220g, with a recommended retail price of $1,898 for 128GB storage. Impressive zoom For the two weeks we had the S20 Ultra, several things immediately jumped out at us — for starters, the 100x zoom rear-facing camera. The S20 Ultra uses AI-powered, multi-image processing to reduce quality loss at high zoom levels, so as to achieve “Super Resolution Zoom up to 100X”, and we must admit, it’s really eye-opening.

Zooming in at the maximum 100x from the 13th floor of an apartment block to a building located across the road (about 500m away as the crow flies), we got some impressive clarity in the picture — albeit with some blurring and noise — the building’s signboard was perfectly legible, and we could even make out shapes of people milling about the building. I have my reservations about this function, and recent reviews have shown that this feature has some serious problems, but we’ll get to that a little later.

Performance-wise, there is no doubt that Samsung’s own Exynos 990 chipset (there are variants depending on geographical location) is working hard. For a casual user like myself, the subtleties of benchmarking performance are perhaps a little lost on me, but I have no complaints about how fast this phone feels — super-smooth, with no perceptible lag when multitasking between apps, which is good enough to satisfy me. So for someone who just wants a phone that does what it’s supposed to do — messaging, watching videos on Netflix and YouTube, reading news and social media, even phone calls (although who even uses the phone to call anyone anymore) — there will be no complaints. It’s a lot harder to tell if performance will deteriorate over time (as smartphones are wont to do), as we’ve had it for only two weeks.

Battery life, which is my biggest gripe about any phone, is impressive on the S20 Ultra. It has a 5,000 mAh battery; when fully charged, it squeezed out well over 24 hours of light-to-moderate use of the S20 Ultra. I started my usual work day with the phone at full, using it as my primary phone, and still had 35% battery left at the end of my day. For context, this means relatively heavy use for emails, messaging, calls, listening to music, syncing with my fitness tracker, navigation and watching YouTube videos (ahem, not during work hours, of course).

The 6.9-inch Quad HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X display is stunning — also zero complaints there. What I really like is the 120Hz display, which meant watching HD videos and playing graphics-heavy games were smooth without lagging. Finally, the phone, weighing a (comparatively) heavy 220g, proved surprisingly grippy, and, unlike the Galaxy Z Flip, did not feel like it would slide out of your hands quicker than someone can slide into your DMs. Some reservations Now, we come to my concerns about this phone.

Recently, independent smartphone and digital camera reviewer Dxomark scored the S20 Ultra rather lowly for camera performance. According to their report, the S20 Ultra still suffers from worse low-light autofocus performance than its main competitors, and it takes longer to focus than either the Huawei P40 Pro or even Samsung’s own Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G in its benchmark tests. Personally, I did not notice the poor performance in low-light. In my limited experience, it turned out photos of similar quality to any smartphone camera out there, with the exception of the Google Pixel’s fantastic “Night Sight” mode.

What I did wonder, however, is the purpose of the 100x Space Zoom. While it is an impressive achievement for any phonemaker, will it have any practical use in everyday life? Or is it simply a case of seeing how far they can push the limits of technology? The smaller versions — the S20 and S20+ — have up to 30x zoom, which seems to be good enough, and for $600 and $400 lower respectively.

For the hefty price tag, the S20 Ultra is for the phone-obsessed, who need the latest, best, and shiniest new phone. There is, of course nothing wrong with that, and there is no doubt that the S20 Ultra is worth the price tag. Overall, an impressive effort by Samsung, which, for now, can surely keep its top position in the smartphone market.