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From the Editor's Desk: Samsung severely under-delivered on the Galaxy S20 Ultra's 100X Space Zoom

Galaxy S20 Ultra
Galaxy S20 Ultra (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Samsung made huge strides in camera quality with the Galaxy S20 series, to the point where in many situations the S20 Ultra is taking photos directly comparable to the Pixel 4 XL. Putting aside little quibbles around the details of how the photos look, I'm really loving what this camera is capable of, and I don't feel like I'm using an inferior camera like I did with the S10+.

I think the Galaxy S20 Ultra's camera is great, and its zoom capabilities are a big part of that.

And it's not just about the 108MP main camera; a big part of my enjoyment is the quality of zoom shots. I've had my Galaxy S20 Ultra for a couple of weeks now, and I really enjoy incorporating zoom shots into my regular use of the camera. But something I figured out very quickly is how little I want to use the super-long zoom options. After my testing period, where I specifically found situations to compare the various zoom levels, I haven't once had the desire to zoom past 30X. And rarely even hit 20X.

Why's that? Well, because the quality of the photos after 30X is trash. There's no sugar coating it. Once you go beyond 30X, the deterioration in quality is so rapid that it becomes not worth the trade-off. Shooting at 30X and getting a half-decent photo is possible if the scene is extremely bright and you have a steady hand or tripod; 50 or 70X produces "a photo" and nothing more. 100X is frankly laughable. There isn't a single photo I have taken at 100X that is worth anything more than proving that it can take a 100X photo, let alone be a photo I'd actually want to save. Each and every one is blotchy and soft, with fidelity along the lines of a watercolor painting from the 1800s.

If you just think about the physics of it, it's no surprise photos after 30X are garbage.

And if we just think about the physics of it, the low quality makes sense — and is basically impossible to overcome. Yes this is a gigantic camera sensor by smartphone standards, and the 4X optical zoom already required a huge camera bump and periscope lens arrangement just to make it fit. But when all you have is 4X optical, the amount of digital cropping required to make it all the way to 30X, to say nothing of 100X, makes it so you can never take a high-quality photo. If Samsung put another 108MP sensor behind this 4X lens it'd help a little, but it still wouldn't make 100X feasible. These photos are always going to be bad.

The unfortunate thing here is that the S20 Ultra's zoom system is really valuable. The default "telephoto" zoom level of 5X takes shots with almost no loss in quality compared to the main camera, including in low light scenes, and actually has great natural bokeh for portraits. It can take excellent shots at 10X that are unmatched by any other phone. It's even capable of getting really good pictures at 15X, depending on the conditions. I've taken dozens of wonderful zoom photos, as you can see below, but not a single one was taken past 10X.

Samsung let its marketing message take precedence over the phone's actual capabilities.

The issue here isn't that the entire zoom system is worthless. The problem is Samsung's marketing message taking precedence over the phone's actual capabilities. If Samsung would've stopped the camera's zoom at 30X, I'd have zero complaints; heck, it could've even topped out at 50X and I wouldn't make a point out of this. The problem is, it didn't. It printed "SPACE ZOOM 100X" on the camera housing, and lets you jump straight to 100X in the camera app. Even though nobody should bother using it.

But "100X" looks a lot cooler in an advertisement. "100X" looks cool printed across the back of the phone. Not "30X" — so Samsung shipped it. Samsung didn't just over-promise by a little, it over-promised by a ridiculous amount. And it unequivocally under-delivered on the zoom capabilities of the Galaxy S20 Ultra. And it's a shame, because the zoom really is useful, and S20 Ultra owners will enjoy it — they're just going to be disappointed that the phone doesn't at all do what it claims to be capable of.

-Andrew

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

35 Comments
  • If the 100x zoom is trash, what’s the point of buying the S20 Ultra? That’s its selling point, after all. I’m glad I didn’t spend $1400 for garbage photo quality BTW, Pixel 4 XL is down $250 right now. You can get Pixel photos for half the price of the S20 Ultra.
  • Yeah but you still have to put up with the rest of the Pixel which is too big a compromise. Awful battery, no wide angle lens, OK photos, no one handed mode etc etc
  • Ta-rue! Do do dp da-da do.
  • You honestly thought a digital zoom was the selling point of the camera? I knew it would be junk long ago. Still getting a much larger and better sensor, 8k video, and an optical zoom better than most any phone to date among other things.
  • Pixel photos... Noise-fest. So, ALL you were planning to do with the S20 Ultra was shoot 100x zoom shots, huh...?
  • Because the S20 Ultra has 10x optical zoom with no digital degradation. The S20+ is 3x optical. Big difference there even before you get to the digital AI.
  • Today's 100x gimmick leads the way to tomorrow's 100x standard-bearer. No innovation came out-of-the-gate ready to stand the test of time (please no one say "Apple...").
  • 1. Larger screen
    2. Larger battery
    3. To flaunt the fact you dropped $1400 on a phone
  • I always thought the Galaxy S20 Plus was better value for money. I'm waiting for the Note 20 Plus to come out in August but don't have high hopes of anything major differentiating it from the Note 10 Plus.
  • Please do not post trash like this again. Name one DSLR Camera that can zoom 100X. The fact that you can do it with a phone that is at the edge of what I would even consider paying. Pair that back to 4x - 30x this is amazing. Did Samsung push the advertising yes but please tone down the rhetoric. Let's see what everyone else does with there new releases for 2020 before making such statements. It is way to early.
  • Well, I'm not a camera guy, bit I'm gonna say LITERALLY any DSLR with a sufficiently large lens attached (up to and including actual telescopes).
  • It's a digital crop, most any DSLR will give you better results if you crop the image yourself. You can also buy a camera for as little as $200 with better zoom and image quality. The 100x zoom exists for marketing and nothing else.
  • As I noted in the article, there's value in this zoom system up to about 20X or in some cases 30X. Samsung deserves plaudits for getting that zoom right. But that doesn't at all justify Samsung trying to sell this phone as having 100X zoom — the photos at 100X are terrible. Any DSLR or modern mirrorless camera can easily offer you 100X zoom, but it of course requires a large lens — which just shows you why Samsung acting like it can offer it on a tiny sensor and lens is absurd. The results speak for themselves: every 100X photo looks like garbage.
  • My digital camera has a fixed Lens has a 63x OPTICAL zoom. It blows the doors off any phone on the market. Phone cameras are for posting in tag am photos. My cameras are for creating images to be used as art.
  • We have several DSLR cameras, but one bridge camera that I keep handy has 60x optical zoom. It's faster to just grab it out of the bag than switching lenses. However, I would not so easily dismiss a superb phone camera. The U12 Plus camera captures more detail than the Note 10+ or iPhone Pro Max, and there's been a number of times it's done better than some of our Nikons.
  • As MKBHD mentioned, think of it as a speaker. You don't put it on max volume because the quality gets affected at that level, but it's so good on the lower levels. Same thing with this camera. Thanks to the existence of 100x zoom, the 30x is good and the 10x is great. It would be stupid for Samsung not to market the space zoom, and it is actually good as a scope.
    What Samsung did makes business sense.
    This article is just a filler episode.
  • Well, first off, quality is 100% not the reason I don't use my speakers at full volume. Secondly, high end speakers don't actually tend to be marketed primarily on how many decibels they'll pump out.
  • I like 100% max volume all the time. Crystal clear 27,480 watts of total RMSMF POWER. No distortion at all. I'm a professional audio listener. It's what I do. I have taken several moonshots with a 110 camera and they were far better than anything htc could do. They back to making rotary phones now???
  • The issue with the speaker analogy is that you expect your speaker to at least get close to 100% volume before totally falling apart into over-blown mush. This camera realistically can't produce a usable photo past 50% of its advertised zoom level — and doesn't take good photos at anything beyond 30%. On the other hand, I regularly use my phone's speakers at 70-90% volume and they perform just fine.
  • I have to agree with Andrew all the way here. Although I don't use my speakers at anywhere near full capacity, they can run at 100% (2816 watts RMS) with zero distortion. What Samsung did was advertise something that results in garbage. Take a shot of the moon at 100x zoom, and you will get a blob for your $1400. I took a moon shot with a $300 camera (Nikon B700), and you can see the individual shadows on the craters. Heck, I held a $12 plastic monocular to the camera of my two year old HTC and got a better photo than Samsung's official moon shot. I can post them if you want.
  • That's why I bought the base S20. I wasn't going to carry around a brick of a phone knowing the 100x zoom would or could only be a gimmick on a cell phone. Plus it's still way too early for mm wave 5G so why spend the extra money. If Samsung goes any bigger on the S30 next year I will reevaluate my loyalty to the brand.
  • You're so right. I knew the S20 and the plus would be the real Samsung flagships. The Ultra is basically a plus model with gimmicky marketing added in to grab the headlines. It's WAY too expensive and Samsung has to know its also too big for most people. I also agree that the 100x zoom is a party trick at best.
  • Yes, never mind the much larger display... Or the much higher potential for serious updates to the camera.
  • Updates to camera???? LOLOLOL
  • I really wish you guys would actually give some coverage to the S20/S20+. I so sick of hearing about the Ultra. And it's not just AC, it's pretty much every phone nerd blog.
  • We've reviewed the S20+ on its own, and published dozens of articles comparing the different models.
  • Have you not seen all the "Everything you need to know" articles on the s20?
    You know, the ones(actually all of them) that have loud intrusive ads that scare your partner so bad they s h i t the bed??
    Yeah those...
  • I went on a shoot with my new Ultra yesterday, on a party cloudy afternoon along San Francisco Bay.I'm thrilled. The article's focus on the 100x Zoom's failures is just stupid click bait (which I fell for). This is a serious camera upgrade along with amazing screen, battery, 5G, 16GB/512GB w 512GB SD card expansion. Worth every penny (I paid 899, with a 700 tradein on my Note10+ (which has an inferior, albeit still very good camera)).
  • Ok, it can be pretty good to 30x, has ultrawide as well. 120hz beautiful screen, etc. WGAF about the marketing? Anyone spending the dime needed for the ultra knows 100x photo quality zoom is impossible from glass+digi magic. Hell, what amount of glass is needed with a traditional camera to get a good 30x photo? Exactly. Decent outdoor photogs also know having longer reach for spotting is useful.
  • We need to remember that not everyone buying a new phone, even a high-end and expensive phone, is going to do the deep research to see what the phone is actually capable of. This is why companies run advertisements — people make buying decisions based on very limited information and time researching the phone. Samsung is claiming you can shoot at 100X, and it's effectively a lie.
  • Here's the bottom line for me after 6 days with the S20 5G. The cameras are excellent! I currently have a Note 10 plus, Pixel 3a and a Mate 10 Pro to compare it to and I prefer the shots from my S20. The 865 screams with 12 gigs, screen is beautiful and almost flat 👍 and it is very comfortable to hold & use. I hated using my Note 10+ because it's just too damn big for me. (9" hand span). Actually, now is the bottom line. Battery technology just isn't ready for 5G & 120Hz screens if you want to use both and not worry about battery drain. I have a strong T-Mobile 600Mz 5G signal at home and combined with the 120Hz screen setting my battery takes a 30 to 35% hit which for me is not acceptable. In reality the S20 should have had a 5,000mAh battery, S20+ 5,500 and the Ultra 6,500 and that would just get them to acceptable levels. That means more cost and thicker and heavier phones which I definitely don't want. Here I sit with my S20 switched to LTE and the screen on 60Hz trying to decide if it should go back, leaving my N10+ in a drawer waiting for the next trade and continue using my alltime favorite phone the Pixel 3a. Just my 2 cents!
  • People just complain just to complain at this point. The fact that you can even take pictures from a smartphone past 10x is amazing. I have gotten some great shots with my S20 ultra that I would have had to use an actual professional camera to get and couldn't believe I was using a smartphone to do it. I am very happy with the camera and have absolutely no regrets buying it.
  • Have had this device now for 6 days. Its wonderful! Space zoom... well duh.. its not crazy impressive image wise at 100X.. but do a 2X 4X 5X 7X 10X 15X 20X.. its pretty freaking remarkable to be honest. I can't wait for updates, refined software and XDA guys to do their Thang !!
    Should it be "perfect "out of the box, especially at $1400?. Maybe. Has any of us True real "Android Guys" ever been super satisfied right out of the box.. orbhave we always loved our favorite device's after they settled in for a bit and... for the power user (I argue thats who this phone is for) we truthfully and honestly enjoy the entire notion that we get an Android device... and some amazing developers will make it even better.. sometimes even mind boggling. My first HTC evo4G or even better EvoLTE or LGG3.. amazing!! Support and upgrades through the process of root and custom roms. Can or will we root our S20ultra... ? Probably not.
    Development with certain tweaks internally through Samsung or Developers at XDA.. like for example GCAM with pixel nightshot let alone GCAM amazing processing?
    It will happen because folks understand there is far superior hardware in the S20ultra vs and pixel phone.. So grab the software secret sauce and truly tweak this device like any truly pioneer Android flagship before it (list above-mentioned)... and those of us who have this device will truly appreciate what is available. Let alone.. Dex, gaming.. etc.. with tweaks included in those areas as well. .
    I'm convinced this phone could play Red Dead Redemption 2 if there was a way to do it... We should all take a second and really appreciate what is possible with this phone before trashing it so quickly..how spoiled we've become. Lol..
  • I surely don't need 100x zoom, but I'd be happy with more than 8x that the Pixel can do even if it costs a bit of photo quality. 15x or 30x would be amazing.
  • I haven't read another article regarding this information, however I'm guessing it has do with the Chip and modems , but I've been Experiencing and documenting Significant download and upload speeds on my network which is Sprint oddly enough. And I mean huge upgrade I've even seen a 5G connection but, I can Google where I live and it mentions nothing about that being available quite yet.(St.Louis) 200 down and 20 up.. not crazy 4g, but.. not terrible either.