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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: This phone packs a punch

By Koh Wanzi - 18 Apr 2020
Launch SRP: S$1898

Display, audio & software

Display

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

The Galaxy S20 Ultra features a large 6.9-inch Infinity-O display that is HDR10+ certified. This is to date the largest screen from Samsung so far, at least compared to its existing Galaxy S and Note devices. The flexible OLED panel is made by Samsung itself, and according to DisplayMate's testing, it's able to achieve a peak brightness of 1,342 nits, which is really, really bright. That said, Samsung rates the screen as capable of achieving a maximum brightness of 1,200 nits, in addition to offering 100 per cent coverage of the DCI-P3 colour space. 

Needless to say, these are all rather impressive numbers, and the display doesn't disappoint in person. The S20 Ultra is definitely bright enough for use outside, and unless you're standing in direct sunlight, the screen should remain very readable. Contrast is excellent, with deep blacks and detailed highlights. Colours are really vivid too, but you'll have the option to select the "Natural" screen mode if you prefer something more, well, natural looking. The latter mode tones the colours down somewhat so they don't pop as much, but I think most people will be pretty happy to stick with the default, especially if you're going to be using the phone outdoors a lot.

Samsung Galaxy S20

Samsung will also let you adjust the white balance of the screen in Vivid mode, so you can set the colour of white that you prefer. For instance, if you feel more comfortable with a warmer looking screen, that's possible here. There's a simple slider ranging from cool to warm, but there are also more advanced controls for tweaking each of the RGB channels.

The tiny hole-punch front camera is a big step up from the Galaxy S10, and it makes the display look a lot more seamless and immersive. There is still the option to hide the cutout by adding a black bar across the entire area, but I'm not sure why anyone would do this since the screen looks stunning as it is. That said, it could still come in handy if certain apps are not playing well with the cutout.

The display resolution sits at a crisp 3,200 x 1,440 pixels, which translates to a pixel density of 511ppi – slightly better than the Galaxy Note10+ – and a 20:9 aspect ratio. However, the most significant upgrade is probably its support for a high 120Hz refresh rate, which makes everything from scrolling to pulling down the notification shade appear super smooth. And when combined with the 240Hz touch screen polling rate, the phone just feels really slick and responsive. Mobile gamers will presumably appreciate the lower touch latency as well.

Samsung Galaxy S20

However, there are still some caveats, and the 120Hz refresh rate is only supported at the FHD+ resolution of 2,400 x 1,080 pixels. Fortunately, there are otherwise no weird brightness limitations as on the Pixel 4, which only runs at 90Hz when the screen is above a certain brightness level. Samsung probably did this because of battery life, but it'd still have been nice to have the option to have both a high refresh rate and resolution, at least on the S20 Ultra with its massive 5,000mAh battery.

The FHD+ resolution gives a pixel density of 381ppi, but while this seems markedly lower, it really isn't all that noticeable. What's more, the S20 Ultra actually ships to you at FHD+ by default, and you'll need to change the settings yourself if you want to go up to 1440p.

The ultrasonic fingerprint sensor at the bottom has been upgraded too, and it now features a bigger surface area and improvements to accuracy and speed. So far, I've had no issues with it, and it appears more sensitive as well and requires less force. Compared to regular in-display optical sensors, these are more secure. They read the ridges on your thumb in 3D, instead of just taking a picture, and should work even when your finger is wet or dirty. However, there's still a noticeable delay when using it to unlock the phone, but only when compared to something like Apple's Face ID or the Pixel 4's Face Unlock. 

 

Audio

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

The stereo speaker setup is reminiscent of the one on the Note10 phones, comprising one speaker at the bottom and another that pipes sound through a minuscule slit above the display. These are tuned by AKG, and they get pretty loud, enough to fill a small room. However, these are still a far cry from standalone portable speakers, and they're still generally lacking in body and bass. Vocals come through with acceptable clarity though, and they're good enough for things like movie dialogue. 

 

Software

The S20 Ultra comes bundled with Samsung's new One UI 2.1 software update, which is based on Android 10. Visually, there are few major changes compared to the previous version, and the biggest adjustments come in the form of Android 10's more fine-grained permissions, such as the ability to only allow an app to use your location when you launch it. 

Samsung has also incorporated Google's implementation of Dark mode into the new update, and while its own UI still looks the same, it does mean better support for third-party apps and widgets.

You do however get some small tweaks to the UI that make it a little more polished. For instance, the lock screen is now smarter and can detect dark and light areas of your wallpaper and change the text colour to be more legible. This means no more white font on a white background, which is great. 

One UI 2.1

Some stuff has been shifted around in the notification shade too, and the clock and date are now aligned to the left, instead of sitting in the centre. There are more quick toggles on display at once too, and you now get a 4x4 grid, instead of the default 3x4 grid previously. This change isn't necessarily for the better though, since it does make one-handed use more difficult as you now have to reach higher to hit the first row of toggles.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Elsewhere, you get a nifty built-in screen recorder, which Samsung first debuted on the Note10. This means you no longer have to download third-party apps, and it can even record audio played on the phone and even sounds picked up by the microphone. There is a dedicated quick toggle button to let you start recording, and a toolbar will also pop up after you take a screenshot, with the option to easily capture the entire length of a long page. 

That aside, another update I really like is the addition of new gesture navigation controls, where you swipe up from the bottom to go to the Home screen, and inwards from either side to go back. To view your recent apps, you just swipe up from the bottom and hold. You can also adjust the back gesture sensitivity to suit your preferences. 

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

This is based on what Google introduced on Android 10 and its new Pixel launcher, and it's a big improvement over Samsung's previous gesture system, which involved swiping up from different areas along the screen's bottom to go Home, back, or just see your recent apps.

I definitely recommend going into the settings and switching from the default navigation buttons to the new gesture control system. It's very intuitive and easy to get used to, and you free up more screen real estate by getting rid of the navigation buttons.

Finally, the power button is now a virtual one that lives next to the settings icon in the notification shade. That's mostly because Bixby is now accessed by holding down the side key that would normally serve as the power button. Fortunately, you can change this in the settings and still call up the power off menu by holding the side key down.

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9.0
  • Design 9
  • Features 9.5
  • User-Friendliness 9
  • Performance 8.5
  • Value 7.5
The Good
Bright edge-to-edge 120Hz display
Large 5,000mAh battery
Great camera with standout features
One UI 2.1 adds far more intuitive gestures
eSIM support
The Bad
Large and thick camera bump
Very expensive
Headphone jack is gone
Glass back is a fingerprint magnet
128GB internal storage could be limiting
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