Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: This phone packs a punch
Introduction & design
Note: This article was first published on 25 Feb 2020.
Look at that camera bump!
We're fresh off the launch of Samsung's latest flagship Galaxy devices, which means that all eyes are once again on the phone that will undoubtedly be in the running to be one of the best Android smartphones of 2020. This year, Samsung announced three different flavours of the Galaxy S20, with the Galaxy S20 Ultra sitting at the top of the pack.
Samsung pulled out all the stops with the S20 Ultra, packing more memory into it than some notebooks and strapping on a camera module that boasts up to 100X zoom. Of course, you get all the usual upgrades too, such as a faster processor, improved graphics, and a slick 120Hz display. But the fact that I'm talking so much about the hardware under the hood says a lot as well. Despite the generational leap in its name – the S20 instead of the S11– and the Ultra tag, Samsung's new phone is still very much an iterative upgrade on the Galaxy S10 series.
But outside of foldable devices like the nifty Galaxy Z Flip, this could pretty much be said of any smartphone to come out in recent memory. They're very familiar, but they're also slicker, faster, and better. And the Galaxy S20 is nothing if not a supercharged device, boasting beefed-up specifications that are likely to endear it to power users who just want the best. This is also the first properly mainstream 5G phone from Samsung, which makes it seem like we're closer to a wider rollout of 5G than ever.
My editor has a detailed video impressions piece, but for those of you wanting to know every shred of information there is to be known of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, read on after the jump:-
One of the first things you'll notice when picking up the Galaxy S20 Ultra is just how large and heavy it is. This phone has a heft to it that few other devices have, and at 220g, it is only slightly lighter than the iPhone 11 Pro Max. At 8.8mm thick, it is also a bit chunkier than the Galaxy Note10+, and it even has a bigger 6.9-inch display, so this isn't really a device that you can slip into the pockets of your skinny jeans. Similarly, if you want a phone for one-handed texting, this isn't it either.
That said, the S20 Ultra oozes quality at every turn, and the weight gives it a reassuring feel in hand that I really like. Samsung has stuck with aluminum frames on the Ultra model though, and it'd have been cool to see stainless steel used here just like on the iPhone 11 Pro. Nevertheless, the fit and finish of the phone is impeccable, and it gives off an impression of polish that not every device can be said to have.
My Cosmic Black review unit is quite simply gorgeous, and I love that the aluminum sides have been coated black as well to match the rest of the phone. The S20 Ultra also features Gorilla Glass 6 on the front and back, and rear edges curve up to meet the side rails. That's very similar to what you got on the Galaxy S10, and there haven't been any dramatic departures in terms of design language. However, Samsung has gone with less aggressive curves on the display, to the point that it is almost flat. I like this change a lot, since curved edges don't add a ton of utility to phones – in fact, they can even reduce the overall useable area of the screen – and they also don't look significantly better to my eyes. What's more, they make shopping for a good, full-coverage screen protector a real chore.
The lines of the side rails also now cut outwards to accommodate the power button and volume rocker, instead of simply running as a straight line along the entire length of the phone, as was the case on the Galaxy S10. I find the new look a little more modern, and it also allows for thinner aluminum rails along most of the length and the glass back to curve up more.
The other major change is to the front camera, which has been drastically shrunk down from a pill-shaped cutout in the top right corner to a hole-punch shooter in the centre. I appreciate the newfound sense of symmetry and the less intrusive nature of the smaller camera, and it really helps the display feel a whole lot more immersive.
The edge-to-edge display is otherwise uninterrupted by any speaker grille at the top, and audio is instead piped through a tiny slit just above the display. This is similar to what Samsung did on the Note10, and it is almost invisible, so narrow that you won't see it unless you're actively looking for it. This joins another dedicated speaker at the bottom for stereo audio output.
Samsung is also finally ditching the 3.5mm headphone jack on its Galaxy S series phones, and the S20 Ultra has just a single USB-C connector now. That brings it in line with just about every other flagship Android device today, but Galaxy S10 owners will probably be disappointed, especially since the S20 Ultra definitely looks thick enough to accommodate the 3.5mm jack.
There is no 3.5mm-to-USB-C dongle in the box either, which is unfortunate, particularly if you're upgrading from the Galaxy S10. Samsung gives you a pair of USB-C earbuds in the box, but I'm guessing most people will want to use their own. It's not all bad though, as Samsung is bundling the wireless Galaxy Buds+ for free with pre-orders of the phone, and it's likely to continue offering something similar even after pre-orders close.
The S20 Ultra will take dual SIM cards too, in addition to up to 1TB of expandable microSD storage. You'll have to pick between the two, however, since the microSD slot doubles up as a second nano-SIM slot. While the phone does have eSIM support for you to technically support dual phone numbers and still use a microSD card, this is only possible if your telco of choice supports such a feature.
The button layout has been simplified as well, and both the power button and volume rocker now sit on the right. There is no longer a dedicated Bixby button, and I'm glad to see this go, since there's no reason to clutter up the phone's sides with a button dedicated to a smart assistant feature that not everyone will use. To be fair, Samsung did eventually let you remap the button to launch other apps, but I still think removing it is for the best. If you want to launch Bixby now, you just long-press the power button, which is a far more elegant solution; not to mention, voice activation option exists too.
The new position of the power button – or side key as Samsung calls it – is also better, and I'm able to reach it easily when gripping the lower half of the phone. If I'm unlocking the phone using the in-display ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, I can switch much more quickly to access the camera by double-tapping the power button.
However, while the S20 Ultra may look like quite the beauty when it's fresh out of the box, it won't stay that way for long. The glass back is a terrifying fingerprint magnet, and my unit already feels uncomfortably greasy. You'll want to put a case on it so you don't have to keep wiping it down, and also reduce the chances of it slipping out of your fingers when it's all oiled up. This is one heavy phone, and I do not want to imagine it hitting the floor naked, especially with that giant camera module. It'll survive being dropped into the shallow end of the pool though, with IP68 water and dust resistance.
The camera module is another reason why you might want a case for the S20 Ultra. Saying it is big doesn't even come close to doing it justice – it is sprawling, it covers an expanse, and it sticks out a lot. This means considerable unevenness when you lay it on a flat surface, which is why you'll want a case to smooth things out.
Remember when we used to obsess over how much of a camera bump there was? Well, it seems like we're way past that now, and Samsung no longer even cares. But hey, at least the camera bump looks of cool, and people will know it means serious business. "Space Zoom 100X" is also helpfully etched on the back, in case anyone is wondering why exactly it's so big.