Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: Physical: 100? No, it's what's inside that matters more
Oveview, design, handling, display, features, imaging
Note: This review was first published on 17 February 2023.
TLDR: All the upgrades, perks, and changes are within, and Samsung knows that’s what you want.
Look within for value, look beyond for perspective
This would be an extremely short review if we only cared about the physicality of phones between generations. But that wouldn’t do justice to the Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Almost none of its changes are apparent at first glance. However, dig deeper, and you will see that the phone is advanced, if perhaps just slightly more than your typical year-to-year upgrade and slightly ahead of other consumer tech gadgets you might own.
The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra uses LPDDR5X RAM and UFS 4.0 storage (ours being 8GB and 256GB respectively), which are both faster versions of memory than its predecessor. It also uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset, which fared well in early performance snapshots. As a result, you’re getting a much faster phone that translates to speedier day-to-day use, but you won’t know this until you unbox the device and power it up.
Dig even deeper, and you’ll see that the upgraded 200MP primary camera comes with 16-in-1 pixel binning, using its high megapixel count for more practical shooting situations. Samsung also doubled Galaxy S23 Ultra’s OIS angles, widened its 8K30FPS recording angles by another 23°, added adaptive video digital image stabilisation, enhanced its noise reduction technology, and improved 300x Hyperlapse shooting mode. All these translate to more stable, better-lit photos and videos, which benefits photo/video creators at all levels.
Given that the insides matter more, are these changes worth an upgrade? Do new internals confer better overall performance, or are those numbers also superficial? Did anything else happen to its iconic S Pen? Let’s find out.
|Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra|
Korean standards of beauty
As seen here, you’re not going to find many physical differences in Samsung’s new 5G-capable mobile handset unless you hunt down comparison notes against its predecessor. The new phone took what worked and kept them; that includes the basics like having side buttons fat enough to feel tactile and flat ends on the far side to accommodate the S Pen.
However, there are three clues to telling apart the Galaxy S23 Ultra from the S22 Ultra: it offers a flatter display (which is more pleasing to look at), has thicker rims for its larger rear cameras, and a mildly different antenna band placement. If you’re touching both, the angular sides are telltale signs when it’s next to the Galaxy S22 Ultra with round rungs. Without these, the Galaxy S23 Ultra would be indistinguishable from the Galaxy S22 Ultra.
But that’s good because we don’t have to elaborate on how it feels in hand. So if you like a flatter edge, the Galaxy S23 Ultra satisfies that. It also retains IP68 protection against dust and water, so our premium flagship expectations were met.
That said, we did wish Samsung offered greater colour variety as it did with previous Galaxy S series handsets. This year’s crop of four standard colours (not including online-exclusive ones) feels muted. Even the Green option for Galaxy S23 Ultra would be a challenging eye test for colour-impaired users. Lavender is lovely, given that it has the most character of the four, and also breaks away from the different shades of grey with its pink undertones.
As mentioned, all the changes for the Galaxy S23 Ultra are within, starting from the display. Its 6.8-inch panel is technically identical to the previous version (3,088 x 1,440 pixels resolution Dynamic AMOLED 2X with 1-120Hz refresh rate and the same 1,750-nits peak brightness). Still, the reduced curvature and three-level Vision Booster on S23 Ultra offer a starkly improved viewing experience. It’s noticeably less distracting in more varied lighting conditions, and also less likely to catch stray reflections than its predecessor.
The software settings are otherwise the same, with little perks like Eye Comfort Shield, a choice between capping at 60Hz or 120Hz, and increasing touch sensitivity where needed.
The built-in stereo speaker provides decent, serviceable audio that works well for calls, ringtones, and anything needed in a pinch, but a decent pair of true wireless earbuds would be preferable if you’re looking to get more listening done.
Samsung One UI 5.1 – getting a little crowded here
You’ve probably heard that Samsung Galaxy phones use massive amounts of precious storage for system data. It’s a natural consequence of being one of the few phone brands with a truly comprehensive and compatible smart ecosystem across appliances and wearables. That said, there are a ton of repackaged or duplicated stock Android features further tweaked towards the Samsung Galaxy’s preferred style. It would be less annoying if these weren’t sometimes locked behind Samsung Members’ logins.
Fortunately, One UI 5.1 allows you to remove most of the apps you don’t need quickly. Sure, there’s a little bit of bloatware, which we’ve highlighted before. But they’re not as egregious as literal junk app icons or advertisements.
Once you’ve gotten used to your Galaxy S23 Ultra, it’s worth spending a few moments to remove some preinstalled stuff and free up its precious and high-speed UFS 4.0 storage (we got rid of the multiple Store and Shop apps, Samsung Global Goals, and the entire Microsoft suite).
The few One UI 5.1 new additions are helpful. For example, you can blur out your background in video calls, and use Samsung’s timer-based, blockchain-powered Private Share to send files privately to contacts.
Our favourite is the simplified Routines and Modes feature that uses “If” and “Then” statements to automate life’s shortcuts (such as connecting to specific devices once you’re home, turning off your local SIM card once you travel abroad, forcing app syncing and a brief fast-charging when you wake, etc.).
Some shortcuts require proprietary Samsung services like SmartThings for smart home stuff and Samsung Health for exercise-based Routines. Still, it’s convenient and fun to optimise your daily life further. This isn’t exclusive to the Galaxy S23 Ultra, so you can enjoy Routines and Modes even if you bought other models of the S23 series too.
Since One UI 5.1’s design has been relatively intuitive and consistent among Android reskins, we think that Samsung can start looking towards refining even further by decluttering its preloaded software, or combining loose apps and features into a more congruent system. There are many entry points to all its auxiliary services, which can be overwhelming even for true Samsung diehard fans. Instead of preloading all of them, Samsung can consider allowing the user to grab proprietary apps during setup instead of uninstalling apps after getting the phone.
A quick word about S Pen
A core group of phone users that Galaxy S23 Ultra satisfies are adherents of the stylus, a la Galaxy Note fans. Since there were no significant design changes in the Galaxy S23 Ultra, the new Samsung flagship handset is also a true successor to the Galaxy Note like its predecessor.
We’ve also tried out S23 Ultra’s S Pen for good measure, which works great. The several dozens of familiar commands are still around (Air Actions, or using it as a remote control for selfies), with fantastic customisation options to make the S Pen integral to your phone use.
If you’re still holding out on switching from your Galaxy Note, the Galaxy S23 Ultra comes at a great time – you’ve gotten your assurance from seeing the Galaxy S22 Ultra, and the 2023 version repeats that with newer, faster components.
Officially, the Galaxy S23 Ultra should only be compatible with its own S Pen, similar to the S22 Ultra’s deal. However, unofficially, we’ve managed to get the old S22 Ultra S Pen to work on the Galaxy S23 Ultra (by toggling on “use multiple S Pens”), and the S Pen slot in both phones is physically identical – we could keep either S Pen in both phones.
Samsung retained the 12MP ultra-wide camera (f/2.2 aperture,1.4μm pixel size, 120˚ FOV, AutoFocus), the two 10MP telephoto lenses (one with f/2.4 and 36˚, the other with f/4.9 and 11˚), along with its Laser AutoFocus module.
What changed was a bump from its old 108MP primary camera to a new 200MP sensor (f/1.7 aperture 0.6μm pixel size). The increased megapixel count probably means nothing to you if you aren’t looking to print poster-sized copies of your photos, so Samsung gave it 16-in-1 pixel binning to combine its many pixels into 12.5MP shots with “larger” 2.4μm pixels that perform better in low-light conditions. For comparison, the Galaxy S22 Ultra combined nine adjacent pixels into one, giving its 108MP camera the ability to shoot 12MP photos at 2.4μm pixel size.
The real devil is in the details, which even Samsung doesn’t mention in its S23 Ultra’s marketing. The 200MP sensor offers better-lit 50MP stills, improved full-well capacity for better colour reproduction, faster Super QPD AutoFocus and lower shutter lag. And that’s not even looking at its recording perks like 80° FOV 8K30FPS, added stabilisation, and AI-based Noise Reduction. We can understand why it’s simpler to say that your casual shooter can now “take better photos”.
Expert RAW now supports 50MP RAW images for more serious shooters. Hyperlapse mode also comes with 300x, provided you have a gimbal and the patience to get those Milky Way shots.
A quick test image will tell you that Galaxy S22 Ultra owners aren't really missing out on core photography quality offered on the newer S23 Ultra. Samsung's smartphone imaging competency has come a long way and the generational gains you get are getting harder to distinguish with the naked eye. You are more likely to see a greater difference if you're coming from a different smartphone brand altogether. For that, we have more photos showcasing each lens' performance below.
A quick note: all samples are handheld shots to emulate typical smartphone photography situations. Click in to see the original image.
Main camera standard shots (pixel-binned 12MP)
As much as possible, using the default camera settings (whip out of pocket, snap) offers great colour vibrancy, and decent handling over noise, contrast, and detail. It's tough to complain unless you hunt for minor digital artefacts or want a specific type of exposure in challenging scenes. It handles people very well too, and you can make out details like ethnicity or bald spots even at night. Naturally, the night shots require longer shutter times to get a nice photo down, so it's still a challenge at handling moving subjects in low-light situations.
Main camera 50MP shots
The 50MP main camera shooting mode is an alternative if you compromise between having bigger pixels and retaining enough details for larger prints. But, it's not necessary if you're sticking to online or social media use, given that most online platforms would downsample uploaded photos.
Main camera 200MP shots
Like the 50MP shots, 200MP is also an option if you need to print poster-sized stills, but it's also otherwise a nice-to-have feature on your phone. Each photo starts at about 24MB in file size, offering greater detail capture, but also at a cost of having smaller pixel size for capturing light.
Ultrawide offers more angle flexibility, like getting wider field-of-view in narrow alleyways like the first sample above, or gaining a slightly different perspective and fitting more human subjects into the frame. Hygiene factors for ultrawide are typically its fisheye effect handling on top of colour and detail retention relative to its main camera; the Galaxy S23 Ultra does just fine and well within expectations (not picture perfect, but passable and useable).
3x optical zoom
3x optical zoom shots are about closing some distance for slice-of-life portraitures and getting optical-tier quality shots without having to find yourself in awkward spots. The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra's 3x optical zoom lens delivers on these, both day and night. Naturally, night shots are harder because of longer shutter times, but that adds character and realism (depending on what you're going for).
10x optical zoom
The 10x optical zoom is where the rear cameras' overall performance starts showing cracks. You need ideal lighting conditions, shooting scenes, and a pair of very steady hands to get the night shots looking as keen as the day ones. Even then, the main camera's contrast handling and detail retention still blows 10x optical zoom out of the water. This is more for serviceable functionality, if it's for any purpose at all.
Nightography (aka Night Mode)
Night Mode balances different exposures, where low and high exposures are moderated to give a natural, dynamic look in low-light scenes. The cost comes from needing an opportunity to hold the shot for 1 to 3 seconds, so that the camera to capture multiple exposures and process them. It's also why Night Mode may not be great for moving subjects. Definitely use it if you want to capture a static scene with a well-behaved model, especially at night.