Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: Too much of a good thing

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

Android Central Verdict

Bottom line: Samsung went all-out with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, skipping concerns over size and price to just give you the biggest and best in all aspects. You get absolutely everything in this phone, with a glorious display and the highest-end specs. The new camera system is easily Samsung's best, and battery life is exceptional.


  • +

    Huge high-quality display

  • +

    Classic Samsung design and build quality

  • +

    Incredible specs and performance

  • +

    Extremely crisp main camera shots

  • +

    Zoom camera has real use up to 15X


  • -

    In-display fingerprint sensor is slow and often finicky

  • -

    Will be too big and heavy for some

  • -

    Battery suffers badly with 120Hz enabled

  • -

    Extremely expensive, but still has shortcomings

  • -

    No headphone jack

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I've been through this so many times before. Samsung rolls out a new flagship phone. It's undeniably better than its last flagship phone. And it's once again more expensive than its predecessor. The Galaxy S20 Ultra takes that formula to an even higher level, with an absolutely massive screen and an all-new camera system that's a step above Samsung's other Galaxy S20 models. And the price? A big one: $1400.

But following up on a Galaxy S10 series that was pretty conservative, it's good to see Samsung really going for it with a super-high-end "Ultra" model. This is supposed to be the one for the enthusiasts, the fans, the nerds who all want the biggest and best Samsung can offer, no matter the cost. Honestly, it's pretty much the playbook the Galaxy Note series has followed.

Let's break down how well Samsung executes on the promise of an ultra flagship phone, and how the S20 Ultra manages to differentiate itself in 2021 following the introduction of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the latest and greatest Samsung flagship.

Galaxy S20 Ultra Price and availability

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Bader

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Samsung released the Galaxy S20 Ultra on March 6, 2020. It set the tone for Samsung's new three-tiered flagship strategy, with an uber premium device at an uber premium $1,400 retail price. While it's still one of the more costly phones available right now, there are ways you can pick it up without going completely broke.

As we've seen with release after release, Samsung is known to offer steep discounts on its devices all throughout the year. Right now, you can pick up the S20 Ultra for $1,100 — $300 less than when it debuted 15 months ago.

On January 14, 2021, Samsung introduced the successor to the Galaxy S20 Ultra — the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It also anchors the S series lineup at the top of the feature set and highest price point, but the S21 Ultra starts off $200 more affordable than the S20 Ultra did.

Galaxy S20 Ultra Hardware and design

Galaxy S20 Ultra

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Let's get to it from the start: yes, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is massive. I spent several paragraphs discussing its size in my initial hands-on writeup. But this isn't at all to complain about the size of the phone, because there's no need to — if it's too big for you, you can simply buy a Galaxy S20 or S20+. This is more of a word of caution: don't just buy the S20 Ultra for its larger battery and improved cameras thinking that it's roughly the same size as the S20+, because it isn't.

The S20 Ultra is massive, by all measures. You need to be ready for that.

The S20 Ultra is the biggest and heaviest phone you'll find this side of the ASUS ROG Phone 5, and that's not good company when it comes to ergonomics. It's about 18% heavier than the S20+, and the weight combined with its considerable height and width can make it unwieldy. I mostly managed it fine, but I also have large hands — many people may have to two-hand this one or use some sort of a PopSocket or phone ring. Moving on.

I would say that Samsung's design is a bit old and lacking new ideas, but the Galaxy Fold and Galaxy Z Flip exist to fight that notion. Samsung can do new and interesting things with hardware, but it doesn't have to deploy it in its Galaxy S lineup — it's far better off making iterative improvements and refining what's already been incredibly successful for several years.

There's almost nothing about this design that stands out. But it is executed perfectly.

And that's what we have here. Viewed from the front or sides, there's nothing new or visually interesting. If it weren't for the massive camera protrusion on the back you wouldn't be able to tell which of the last five generations of Galaxy S this phone belongs to. It's the typical big panes of glass — now Corning's latest Gorilla Glass 6 — with a solid metal frame between. The glass has Samsung's usual tight curves on both sides, though it's more pronounced on the back.

The front glass doesn't actually curve as dramatically as with previous devices, though the effect of providing an "infinity" edge is the same because it has shrunk the screen bezels even further. And I appreciate it, because it makes Android's side gestures easier to use. Add to that the new single front-facing camera cutout that's centered, and there are even fewer visual interruptions to enjoying this screen.

The size of the camera bump is an annoyance physically, and in what it does to the vibration sounds.

Just because this isn't particularly exciting design doesn't mean the execution isn't great. Samsung's fit and finish is top-notch, the materials all come together perfectly and it feels solid — more so in the S20 Ultra than the other models considering its size. Assuming the phone isn't too heavy for you, the heft translates well to a feeling of quality.

The only blind spot in the design is a practical one — in two senses of the word. The rear camera housing is huge, because it has to be for four distinct camera sensors and one extremely large zoom lens that uses a prism to even fit in this size. But even in this thicker-than-most phone, the camera bump sticks up a couple of millimeters further and is wide and tall even in the proportion of this wide and tall phone.

It's so big that it makes the phone rattle horribly loud on any flat surface when it vibrates, even when I turn the vibration way down. It also sticks out enough to actually get hung up on the edge of my pants pockets. This phone deserves a case, if for no other reason than to minimize how much that camera bump sticks out.

Galaxy S20 Ultra Display

Galaxy S20 Ultra

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Samsung's last top-end display, in the Galaxy Note 10+, was already a pristine example of everything we wanted from a phone screen. And then, Samsung one-upped itself with the Galaxy S20 Ultra. I couldn't find a single negative mark on this screen. It's exceptional in brightness, colors, viewing angles, reflectivity and every other part of the display experience that matters.

This is an exceptional display, and you get more of it than on any other Samsung phone.

The Ultra's display is ever-so-slightly larger than the Note 10+, at 6.9 inches, making it Samsung's largest ever smartphone display. But this isn't all about marginal improvements in qualities and size, it has one massive advantage in that it doubled the refresh rate to 120Hz, which is the latest frontier of display smoothness. By doubling the refresh, every single bit of motion on the display is impressively smooth.

You obviously notice it the most when scrolling through feeds and lists, but it applies subconsciously to every bit of movement and every animation — opening apps, pulling down the notification shade, sliding in side drawers and everything else. It's just pleasing to the eye, and you're quickly spoiled by it in a way you don't realize until you go back to a 60Hz screen. Obviously your eyes re-adjust to 60Hz in a similar way, but I just love the look of 120Hz anytime I have it on.

The 120Hz mode is only available at the default FHD+ resolution — if you want to max out to the full capabilities of the display at QHD+, you drop all the way back down to 60Hz. But that in itself is a fine trade-off; even if you're sticking to 60Hz, I don't see a reason to up the resolution. I know my eyes aren't what they used to be, but I cannot tell that this phone is running at "only" FHD+ resolution out of the box.

Galaxy S20 Ultra Software and performance

Galaxy S20 Ultra

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

When it comes to high-end phones, it's just a given that software performance is going to be exceptional. With a Snapdragon 865 and 12GB of RAM, there wasn't a single moment of hesitation or even a suggestion of a slowdown in anything I did with the phone. Samsung now lets you "lock" three apps into memory so they won't be closed, but I didn't even find this necessary considering how much memory is on tap and how quickly apps re-open. You're going to be able to throw anything you want at this phone for the next two years without issue — it's incredibly over-built.

Complete Galaxy S20 series specifications

Performance will never be an issue on this phone, no matter what you need to do.

While the S20 Ultra launched with One UI 2.0 out of the box, it made the switch to One UI 3.0 running Android 11 at the start of 2021, and the software itself should be immediately familiar to anyone that has used a Samsung phone in the past. There are a few new features and tweaks to the UI, but this is the same software that's been sent out in an update to the last two generations of Samsung flagships, and that's generally a good thing. Samsung's software still suffers from feature bloat and duplicate apps, but it's fully manageable if you're willing to get in there and turn off or tweak everything you don't want. And at the same time, it's done a really great job of integrating Android's new features.

Samsung has also integrated Google Duo video calls directly into the dialer, meaning you get a seamless video call button right next to the regular call button when dialing someone who has the app. Better yet, video calls are 1080p, which look great. I'm constantly surprised by Duo's ability to keep video quality high even on mobile data, and having it integrated into the dialer rather than in a separate app is a huge improvement — this sort of thing is just a feature, not worthy of a separate app.

With all of the focus elsewhere, we can't forget that the headphone jack is now gone.

The Galaxy S20 series may have lost the headphone jack, following in the footsteps of the Note 10+, but it still retains solid speaker quality. Like its previous phones these aren't equally-sized stereo speakers, but the combination of the down-firing loudspeaker and over-driven earpiece provide good enough separation and plenty of volume — though at the higher levels you feel a fine rattle in the back of the phone that's jarring. On the other hand, you get no rattling from the haptics engine, which is solid for force-feedback in all interface actions. I just turned down the intensity a few clicks from default, and was very happy with the haptics.

The only part of the daily experience that's a major issue is the fingerprint sensor. This is the same sensor as the Galaxy S10, which is to say it's not good. I gave the Galaxy S10 a break for its slow and inconsistent fingerprint sensor given it was early in the life of in-display sensors — but in the last year things have gotten a lot better and Samsung has to be called on using inferior technology here. The sensor is slow to respond, whether it's accepting or rejecting a print, and the recognition area is really small. Thankfully it's been moved up slightly to be easier to reach naturally, but it's still a weak point of this hardware and a baffling decision when there are much better components out there.

Galaxy S20 Ultra Battery life

Galaxy S20 Ultra

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

With a super-efficient Snapdragon 865 platform and huge 5000mAh battery, the S20 Ultra should have exceptional longevity compared to the Galaxy S10+. But there isn't a single answer to "how's the battery life on the Galaxy S20 Ultra?" — because it heavily depends on whether you're using the display in 60Hz or 120Hz mode.

As I made abundantly clear, I love the look of the 120Hz mode. But now I know why it isn't turned on by default: it wrecks the battery life on this phone.

120Hz mode looks amazing, but absolutely destroys your battery life. It's a shame.

With 120Hz turned on, I saw a 20-30% reduction in total battery life over the course of the day, and makes your battery life dramatically more dependent on how much your screen is on. With just 3 hours of "screen on" time in a day, 120Hz doesn't have an outsized effect on battery life and you can make it through a day fine. But if you step up to 4 or 5 hours ... you're not going to finish the day without charging. With 120Hz enabled, and 5+ hours of screen time while shooting our review video, I hit 10% battery in just 12 hours multiple days in a row. That's downright bad for a battery this large.

Further testing from Tom's Guide shows just how much the switch hurts battery life, with their browsing test (which keeps the screen on the entire time) taking a 3-hour, or 25%, hit when switching to 120Hz. And for what it's worth, in their testing the S20 Ultra, even at 60Hz, was weaker than the S10+ with its 18% smaller 4100mAh battery.

After days using the 120Hz mode, and loving the screen but hating the battery life, I reluctantly switched back to 60Hz and saw an immediate change. All of a sudden it started performing just like my Galaxy S10+ did: battery life was predictable, and long. Four or five hours of screen time was no problem, and still left me with 20% battery at the end of a long day. It's an unfortunate trade-off to have to make, but I'll be using my S20 Ultra in 60Hz mode so that I can use it without thinking about battery life whatsoever.

Battery life wasn't great out of the box, but Samsung rolled out an update to fix the issue.

Thankfully, these problems were fixed a few months after the S20 Ultra made its way to retail shelves. Samsung rolled out an update to enable dynamic refresh rate on the device, and that has led to a dramatic increase in battery life over the course of the day. Nowadays, it's pretty straightforward to get a full day's worth of use — averaging around five hours of screen on time — with the refresh set to 120Hz.

Charging back up is a quick endeavor even with this big battery. The in-box charger gets the phone from 1% to 60% in just 30 minutes, and takes only another 35 minutes to get the rest of the way to 100%. That's great considering this isn't even the maximum charge speed the phone can take — you can speed it up further with a 45W charger. And of course you can charge slower on a wireless pad, which in itself is still pretty quick if you go with one of Samsung's own chargers.

Galaxy S20 Ultra Cameras

Galaxy S20 Ultra

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

The sheer size of the S20 Ultra goes hand-in-hand with its cameras — Samsung had a ton of room to work with, and even still it had to introduce a huge camera bump. That's because the S20 Ultra's camera set is even an upgrade over the standard S20 and S20+, with a 108MP main camera, 48MP telephoto camera with up to 100X hybrid zoom, and a 12MP ultra-wide camera (same as the S20) to complete the set.

Main camera

This is clearly a massive leap forward in sensor technology for Samsung, dropping a system it was using for years in favor of a dramatically larger sensor that's able to use 9-to-1 pixel binning for a huge effective pixel size to output 12MP shots. It's capturing substantially better low-level data and dramatically more light, which translates into better photos than the last generation.

This camera has excellent fundamentals, but also a bunch of Samsung's historical camera quirks.

But there's a problem: it still feels like it's passing that data through very similar processing. These still very much look like "Samsung" photos, with all of the typical Samsung quirks and features — the effects of which are simply reduced by the fact that it's starting with a great big sensor.

Samsung still loves to aggressively sharpen photos, which often makes things look great but sometimes goes overboard and crushes details into a blotchy and rough mess — and the problem is made worse in low-light photos. In indoor scenes it still over-smooths faces to an unnatural state, though I found it to be great with skin in good natural lighting. I have particular distaste for Samsung's approach to HDR, which feels stuck in the past. There's little subtlety to the way HDR processes photos; it's either off or fully on. You so often get over-saturated colors, blown-out highlights, over-brightened shadows, and bright halos in any shot with a sky.

Night mode goes overboard with processing, but thankfully auto handles low-light shots well.

In low light, Samsung's Night mode can produce real winners, but that's the exception and not the rule. For the most part it takes so long to capture — between 5 and 20 seconds in my experience — that it's impossible to hold your hand steady enough to get a crisp shot. And it typically results in a photo that has blown-out brightness and an overly-warm white balance. Thankfully auto mode does surprisingly well in low light, taking balanced shots with just the right amount of brightness and good colors while retaining super-sharp lines and details.

But just like daylight shots, you can get the occasional swing-and-a-miss with a super-blurry or over-sharpened subject that isn't worth saving. Low light photos are hard, and even though the specs of the camera sensor should let Samsung take best-in-class low light photos it still isn't up to the consistent levels of performance Google has set. Some early Galaxy S20 Ultra users have had issues with auto focus constantly searching and not being able to lock on a subject, and though I haven't seen the issue beyond a few isolated cases Samsung has already said it plans to release an update to address the problem.

I want to love this camera, because it takes amazing photos, but its inconsistency is frustrating.

The camera is ultimately very frustrating, and I'm being hard on it here because I want to love it. Because I can both take amazing photos that easily match, or even beat, the Pixel 4 XL ... and then also take complete stinkers that I wouldn't even save in my gallery, let alone share. Look at that gallery of photos above. Every single one is a great photo that I'm incredibly proud of and don't hesitate to share. Colors, detail and dynamic range are all excellent, and this camera generates incredible natural bokeh.

But you don't see all of the photos I took before and after that were lackluster or downright trash. For all of Samsung's camera issues in the last couple generations of the Galaxy S series, they were incredibly consistent: I knew what I was going to get, and knew where its shortcomings were. With the S20 Ultra the shortcomings are a moving target, and I don't have as much confidence that I know what I'm going to get when I hit that shutter button. The ceiling is incredibly high, but the floor is also incredibly low for an expensive top-end phone.

Telephoto (zoom) camera

You can get great 5-10X zoom shots that have the same characteristics as the main camera.

The S20 Ultra's massive "Space Zoom" lens offers optical 4X zooming in front of a 48MP sensor, offering "lossless" 10X zoom and an aggressive digital crop thereafter. That tells you most of what you need to know here: this camera can take really good shots at up to 10X, and then things drop off precipitously when you go beyond that.

After getting over the initially jarring effect of the "telephoto" button taking you straight to 5X, I really enjoyed shooting zoomed shots with this camera. The quality doesn't match the main sensor, but the new perspective offered from the tighter field of view is worth the trade-off. Anywhere between 5-10X I took really solid shots that I enjoyed, and even though they have the same mixed bag of issues I mention above, there's no other major shortcoming of the zoom shots. Even low-light and indoor shots were good at 5X, and the zoom lens still produces fantastic bokeh if you set it up right — though the one wrinkle in both of those situations is a long minimum focal distance, about three feet.

I was able to take a few shots at 20X and even 30X in perfect lighting conditions with subjects a good distance away that I liked, but there's a clear drop-off in quality that shows you took a highly cropped photo. The full extension to 100X has zero use, as it looks like you've recreated the scene using LEGO blocks, so don't let Samsung's branding or marketing sway you there. But if you ignore all of that high zoom stuff, and just focus on the quality at lower levels, Samsung's absolutely doing things right here.

Ultra-wide camera

I'm very happy to see Samsung keep the ultra-wide camera around while it focused so heavily on zoom this year. The camera has improved from last year, too, in a notable way. In good lighting, ultra-wide shots don't look far off the quality of the main camera, which is high praise for a sensor playing second fiddle. In low light you're let down by the smaller sensor and f/2.2 aperture, which is to be expected, but at least the shots in good-to-mixed lighting don't fall flat.

Having the freedom to shoot everywhere from this ultra-wide all the way up to 10X zoom makes the S20 Ultra an incredibly versatile camera system.

Front-facing camera (selfies)

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

The new 40MP front-facing camera lets you take full-res 40MP shots if you really want them, provided you're shooting in perfect lighting, but otherwise you're best off sticking with the 4-to-1 pixel binning to 10MP shots. Selfies are good anytime there's enough light, so you'll always do well outdoors and during the day.

The only issue comes in low light, where the camera still falls flat as you'd expect for a tiny front-facing sensor. In dark indoor environments or at night outside, selfies turn into a grainy and blotchy mess. Nothing can match the Pixel 4's use of Night Sight on the front-facing camera, it seems.

No matter the scenario, there are a few things you can do to really take the best S20 Ultra selfies. Turn off the beauty mode, which way over-softens facial features. Turn on the 2-second timer, so you can press the shutter button and then steady your hand before the shot is taken. And turn on the screen flash when taking a low-light shot — it's annoying, but it really helps this little sensor.

Video (8K, 4K, and stabilized)

Short section here, because Samsung hasn't made as big of leaps in these areas as it has in the others. On the video front, the big move is to 8K 24 fps video, which is great for marketing but completely unnecessary for anyone to use in the real world. The number of people with a TV that can play back 8K is so tiny, this is no more than a tech demo. Thankfully you can also get really good 4K 30 or 60 fps video, as well as 1080p 30 or 60.

The "Super Steady" video stabilization has been improved to add roll stabilization, and while it's incredibly smooth for situations where you're walking, riding a bike, in a car (passengers only!) or tracking an object moving in one direction, I actually saw it regularly drop frames and stutter when trying to pan around or move back and forth in multiple directions. Funny enough, the regular stabilization shooting at 1080p 30 or 60 was nearly as smooth, with zero dropped frames. (I've contacted Samsung regarding this issue.) And when you turn Super Steady off, you get back the ability to use the ultra-wide camera and zoom up to 20X. So I'd rather stick with basic 4K or 1080p for video here.

Using 5G can be frustrating

Verizon 5G speed test

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

This review is applicable to anyone using the Galaxy S20 Ultra on any carrier in the world. But with expanding 5G networks, the combination of which carrier you're on and where you live can make a big difference in your phone experience. That's why I found it fitting to provide my latest observations of 5G in a section separate from the rest of the review.

Source: Verizon (Image credit: Source: Verizon)

I've been using Verizon in New York City, and it's been incredibly frustrating. Verizon's mmWave 5G network, despite the intense spending on billboards, online ads and commercials, is tiny. On one hand it's impressive that Verizon is being so transparent about its coverage that it can give you down-to-the-street coverage maps (opens in new tab). But the reality is that when your coverage map has to be that granular, that's not "coverage."

Verizon has 5G you can measure in patches of a few hundred feet long certain blocks in the city. Disparate streets, intersections, parks, and plazas. The situation is better in some other cities with fewer obstacles and infrastructure issues than NYC, but it's still not particularly rosy. The coverage is ultimately limited to outdoor areas, and hyper-localized to where Verizon can pepper the area with several mmWave antennas. And even when you are in a 5G coverage area, simply which way you're facing, even standing in the exact same spot, can make a difference of 30% in your download speeds.

I shouldn't have to go stand on a street corner to 'find' 5G — and that's what's required on Verizon right now.

After a couple days regularly seeking out 5G, I just stopped caring. I never had a 5G connection surreptitiously when I wasn't expecting it — the only time I ever had it was when I went looking for it. I checked the coverage map, walked to that specific street corner (remember, always outdoors) and stood there as I saw the network indicator switch from LTE to UWB ... and ran a speed test to make sure it's working. There's nothing I want to be doing standing on a sidewalk in NYC that requires 5G speeds — even if they are anywhere from 500Mbps to 1.5Gbps in my testing.

Obviously the situation will be slightly different based on where you live. And could be entirely different if you're on T-Mobile's wide-reaching (but much slower) Sub-6 5G network. But the hit-or-miss nature of Verizon's 5G network at this point has been a reminder that I need to think of this phone as an LTE device for now, with a 5G radio that's ultimately dormant and set to be utilized perhaps 18 months from now. That's a nice bit of knowledge to have, as it's an expensive phone you may hold onto for 2-3 years, but right now it's not a factor one way or the other in my recommending the phone.

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Galaxy S20 Ultra Should you buy it?

Galaxy S20 Ultra

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Samsung went all-out on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, and set itself an extremely high bar by pricing the S20 Ultra at $1400. And for the most part, it delivered on its promises.

Samsung went all-out on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, and delivered in so many ways.

The hardware feels every bit worth the money, and there's no doubt that the specs have what it takes to handle anything and everything you want to do on a phone — both today and two years down the road. It has all of the hardware features you want, an incredible display, and no-concern all-day battery life. The cameras are also a big step forward for Samsung, with the ability to match Google's quality in a variety of lighting conditions, plus a good wide-angle camera and high-quality zoom shots. And the only thing you gave up from last year was a 3.5 mm headphone jack.

But there are shortcomings here, and it's hard to be forgiving at this price. The S20 Ultra is absolutely huge, and that's going to immediately rule it out for many people. Its 120Hz display mode is wonderful, but it is limited to FHD+ and you miss out on using it with QHD+. And the cameras, while capable of amazing photos, are less consistent and still stumble more often than I'd like. And for this advanced and expensive of a phone, I shouldn't have to deal with last year's bad fingerprint sensor technology or just 128GB of storage.

4 out of 5

This is a phone for the biggest phone enthusiasts, who care about having more no matter the cost.

The question of "value" is always a funny one, because each of us has a different idea of what an appropriate price is for a phone. But no matter what, if we just look in real terms of how much phones have cost up to this point and compare it to the S20 Ultra's $1,400 starting price, this thing is expensive. Purchased on a typical carrier financing plan, it'll be nearly $60 per month. If price is a factor for your phone purchase, you should be looking at the standard Galaxy S20 or S20+ instead.

But for some, price doesn't mean as much as what you can do with a phone. And the Galaxy S20 Ultra enables you to do a whole lot. It's Samsung's best Android phone, and what it's capable of is impressive. Like many Galaxy Notes before it, the S20 Ultra isn't going to be the phone that appeals to everyone; it's the phone that appeals to the enthusiasts who want more and are willing to handle the trade-offs.

Galaxy S20 Ultra Changelog, May 2021

This review was initially published in March 2020 and was updated on May 31, 2021 with the following changes:

  • Added references to the Galaxy S21 series
  • Mentioned that Samsung rolled out a software update to fix battery life in 120Hz mode
  • Included details on One UI 3.0
  • Added a 15-month later review detailing how the phone holds up in 2021

Galaxy S20 Ultra 15-month later review

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Bader

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Samsung's flagships tend to do well even after several years of use, and that's no different with the Galaxy S20 Ultra either. The phone is still just as incredible in 2021, and even with the introduction of the S21 Ultra, you don't get the sense that the S20 Ultra is obsolete. That's down to the fact that Samsung really hasn't changed much over the course of 12 months; the S21 Ultra has the same cameras, and maintains roughly the same design and hardware with a few upgrades.

That makes the S20 Ultra a very enticing option in 2021. The hardware is still going just as strong as day one, and that display continues to be one of the best of any phone today. Samsung fixed battery inconsistencies shortly after the launch of the S20 Ultra, and the result is that you can use the phone at 120Hz and get a day's worth of battery.

The S20 Ultra continues to be a fantastic phone in 2021, but ads continue to be an issue.

If there is one issue with the hardware, it would be the in-screen sensor. The ultrasonic module just has no business being this slow, particularly on a flagship. Samsung should have realized that it wasn't a workable solution following the issues with the S10 series, and to not do so makes the S20 Ultra suffer.

As for the camera, the issue with autofocus is down to the laser sensor, so you will still see some inconsistencies there, but for the most part, the S20 Ultra takes photos that look amazing on the first try. This is one of the things that Samsung changed in 2021 with the S21 Ultra; it uses a new autofocus module that doesn't have the same drawbacks.

But the biggest point of differentiation for Samsung in 2021 is around the software. One UI 3.1 offers a modern interface with plenty of new features, and Samsung will deliver three years of platform updates to the phone. The S20 Ultra already made the switch to Android 11, and it should get the Android 12 build sometime later this year and Android 13 before the end of 2022.

When you're paying over $1,000 for a phone, you want to be able to use it for at least three or four years, and that is entirely possible with this device. Samsung is also guaranteeing four years of security updates, outmatching even Google in this area. Of course, things aren't all rosy on the software front; the S20 Ultra has a lot of bloatware to contend with, and Samsung is getting even more aggressive in terms of ads within the interface.

Although Samsung isn't the only brand to roll out ads on its devices, it is the only one to do so on flagships. Samsung needs to address this problem, and do so fast. Aside from the issues with ads within the interface and the annoying in-screen module, the S20 Ultra is a stellar showing in 2021.

Andrew Martonik

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

  • The s10series will not have the success of the the s10series, why? These prices are getting out of hand? The Ultra, 1400.00 bucks plus tax and a case 1500.00 yikes, plus the base model a g-whizz, yikes?
  • "Too much of a good thing." That's the best way to summarize the Ultra, and the other handful of reviews out there basically state as such. Personally, I still can't believe the $400 jump in price Samsung brought to the table this year to get their best camera system and how they didn't even attempt bringing any of it to its "less-expensive" models. It'd be like Apple starting the iPhone 11 Pro at $1000 and then saying you have to get the Max for $1400 to get the new triple cam setup or Google starting the Pixel at $800 and charging you $1200 to get the XL with its secondary lens. People would have lost their shi*. It's a ripoff imo, and I don't like it.
  • This phone is definitely an exercise in excess. At the least Samsung should have offered the 90Hz refresh rate instead of 120. This phone was never gonna be mass market. Many of the people who frequent this site are technically brilliant but idiotic as hell. I'm sure those folks will love it.
  • They're not idiotic . They just overestimate the value of changes in specs and performance of whatever phone is the new kid on the block compared to its predecessor.
  • Or some us value a fantastic device and have the money for it. Some of us want the best, and I dare you naming a better device.
  • Brilliant - 0 Idiotic - most
  • I'm just here for the ads
  • Hello anyone,
    I NEED to know IF this Samsung will actually get notifications in a timely matter! I currently use a Galaxy S8 Active on AT&T and timely notifications have been non-existent since I bought it! I have went through many forums and did many things to cure the issue only to be bombarded with notifications when I wake the phone! It is, and has been, annoying as all get out! Each upgrade android wise has made the issue worse too, so, before I think about another Samsung I want to know I can get notifications, especially weather alerts, while they matter!
  • That would be more a carrier issue, since they're responsible for the network.
  • Buy your phones unlocked and the updates come from the manufacturer, not the carrier which takes much longer.
  • Notifications not updates.
  • You need to manually turn off the Doze setting via ADB thru a USB connection. Been having to do it for 2 years now on a Pixel.... It's a Google issue
  • You need to turn off battery optimization for the apps you need faster notifications from. Go to settings and use search to find an option called "optimize battery usage". Then find the apps you need to have instant notifications and untuck optimization.
  • I would market this towards parents of kids still in school today. I just left my kids school program. I had my Sony a6000 with the 50-200mm zoom lens and I was ready...except I forgot I took out the SD card to edit on the laptop and didn't replace it with another one. Silly So i had to rely on my OnePlus 7 Pro which did admirable but the whole time I was just thinking about how good the zoom on the Ultra is and how if I had that phone I wouldn't have bothered carrying my camera with me anyway. I mean it's not like they have programs every month but when you need it it's on the phone and that's one less thing you need to remember to bring with you. My phone filled in nicely but it would have been nice to capture those moments with my camera or better zoom. I wish Samsung had at least put the periscope zoom lens on the S20+.
  • Great review and spot on regarding 5G and camera limitations, two items that are supposed to justify the pricing, but don't. My first time around in a long time not upgrading. Still love all my Samsung stuff ( S10, Active Watch 2, TVs, Tablets, etc.), just not even close to seeing making a jump to any model of S20..
  • I'm shocked at how honest this review was. A rarity these days.
    But good job and when I played with the phone I noticed that the camera was very hit and miss too. Well i will wait for the P40 Pro as that camera sounds pretty special too and they have the capability to pull it off too
  • I wasn't going to... Not a chance... Only fools preorder and pay full price... And this phone in two years is what I should buy... But I ordered a Defender case & tempered glass screen protection, & will go preorder through my carrier after work... I'm paying full price up front so I can keep my cheap unlimited plan here in Canada. I would have bought direct from Samsung to get a bajillion air miles, but Samsung was sold out of the 512GB internal storage version... Yep, go big or go home. I don't need to replace my Note 8, but it's getting replaced... I'll put in away as a, heaven forbid, back up.
  • This "fool" preordered and got $600 trade-in for my S10+ that I bought for half price, last year. This "fool" also used $200 credits to get accessories.
  • Oh, your one of those fools... Lol
  • So does the natural bokeh only come on the Ultra or does it happen on the s20 and s20 +?
  • Keep in mind I only had a few minutes with each of these tethered in the Best Buy display. But when I took a photo of my hand, I was surprised to see a very nice natural bokeh.
  • Natural bokeh occurs on any phone with focus capabilities. The closer an object is, the shorter the focal plane is, and anything behind or in front of that focal plane will be blurred because it is out of focus. Here's an extreme example using manual focus on an HTC U12, and a more typical natural bokeh effect from a U11. Except for Google Photos reducing the quality, both photos are exactly as they came out of the phone.
  • A tax on stupidity.
  • And when will 6.0 in Bluetooth be available 🤔
  • I have no interest in upgrading my headphones for simply a new Bluetooth standard... But sure, maybe the new standard should have made it into this phone... M I doubt it will be in a NY phone this year.
  • Did manage to preorder the 512GB internal storage version from Samsung Canada.... But expecting a 4 to 6 week wait. I did save $400 buying from Samsung ($2215 Canadian vs $2610 through Bell Canada), plus airmiles earned.
  • Does the S20 ultra SIM tray support dual nano-sim ?
  • I like the zoom, and 10x optical plus a decent 30x hybrid can be pretty useful. I expected the 100x to be garbage, and it is, lol. STILL waiting for full res samples. Of course the screen is going to perfect (aside from the hole), and persons buying the Ultra won't have it long enough for the screen to start getting murky and greenish. 120Hz is cool, but I'm disappointed in the battery hit. I'm one of the unfortunate people who can tell the difference between FHD and QHD, but maybe that's because LCD's are sharper and it's more noticable. The times I've tried downgrading to FHD, even if I forget I switched, my eyes hurt sooner than expected when reading. Size? Yeah, that's huge. I have a Plus phone, and it's downright sevelte compared to this honker. I would hate to run with that in my pocket... I would probably have bruises. And that camera hump? It looks like a second phone stuck to the back with foam tape, and I wanna peel it off!
  • I suppose to trade my s10plus for s20ultra.. I stop upgrading after I see the price on top 699 trade my s10plus.. that price too god dam hot..I'm sure Samsung **** in the pant this year pushing the price way to high.. don't copy Apple.. make something affordable like s10e ....maybe s20e for 699 compete iPhone 11.. maybe u can sell a ton of them.. high price turn off people upgrading.🤯
  • Apple charges you $1,200 and then gives you 4-5 years of support and has an amazing store and authorized service center ecosystem to support you and your device. Apple is giving you a lot more for that investment than Samsung. The price, when you factor in the complete experience and support factors, aren’t even comparable.
  • They aren't blowing me away these photos at all. Nothing that i have not seen before in smartphones and doesn't really better anything else top tier out there except the zoom range. The night shot with the city and trees is a blurry mess
  • Yeah, I noticed that too. I get better night shots than that with phones that don't even have a night mode.
  • I agree. These photos could've come from the S7 edge based on the blurry mess.
  • Having made new camera features of the Galaxy S Ultra the linchpin of its media campaign it's so disappointing that Samsung have fallen short of expectations. For this phone's price the S Ultra is "a major major major FAILURE" 😠. (Shout out Flossy Carter). I'll most likely skip buying this year's Galaxy Note 20 Plus.
  • tech blogs have a turned into the critic from ratatouille, some cats even look like him. Besides Floss called this a quad major, because he isn't trite and his predictability is based on branding instead of some nasally premeditated ******** sesh. its ok to like things, go watch somm if you want to see true deliberation in criticism
  • I like Flossy's reviews, even if they are on the long side. His style is hilarious, but I did cringe when he didn't know how HTC Edge Sense worked, and thought the "long squeeze" was a "HARD squeeze"! I thought that phone was gonna explode in his hands!
  • Question. Why do some phones get "no headphone jack" as a negative and others do not? Like what is the consensus? eg Pixel 4XL didn't get a demerit (lol) for it but this did
  • Pixel owners are too grumpy to listen to music! Just kidding, lol, but it more likely depends on what the author's brand preferences are. A phone will get called out for a feature or a missing feature, and a different brand that does the exact same will be given a pass. Although I love his video productions, Mr. Mobile is notorious for this.
  • I listened to the ac podcast about this device and them dudes are grumpy af lol. Andrew postulated that what people were saying was anecdotal and that he needed hands on time to formulate...what exactly? Empirically based, academically peer-reviewed research with proper citations? Lol, like cmon bruh what are you Gru?
  • Dude, I'm sitting at my desk laughing at the thought of Gru doing a phone review`, accent an all! Thanks.
  • so buy a $1,000+ phone that has 120hz, set it back to 60hz for better battery life, so it can behave like the S10 you upgraded from....
  • Not everyone is experiencing battery drains on those settings. Look at other reviews and you will see some are getting great battery life on 120hz.
  • Literally no one is getting "great battery life" on 120Hz. A higher refresh rate kills the battery and this has been proven time and time again.
  • Ricky_tc - I'd say some are getting acceptable battery life at 120Hz. MrWhosTheBoss just uploaded his battery test a couple days ago, and the S20 Ultra came in second to last. Only the Pixel 4 was worse.
  • So you think the only difference between the S10+ and S20U is the refresh rate? Got it
  • Why do you need a 8k tv to see the benefit of 8k recording, but no one says that about photos that can have a resolution higher than 8k? Just 16 megapixels for example is roughly 4608 x 3456 and it looks better on my phone screen than an 8 MP photo.
  • Dropped the ball on the "massive" camera improvements, lock it to 60Hz for decent battery life, and $1400.00+tax for a Whopping 2 years of software support. Lol 😂, Nope.
  • Can anyone comment on how the camera does with things like pets? I stopped using the Note 10+ because all I ever got with my pets were blurry photos. Does the S20 resolve this issue? I have a hard time justifying the price already, but if the camera can't do something the iPhone can do, it's useless to me.
  • It's funny that I can't find action shot samples from the S20. Google searches bring up action photos, but none of them from the S20. It can't be that hard. I took some photos today of one of our kids playing with others on a playground merry-go-round, and some of the kids were running with their hair flying in the air. There was no motion and everything was sharp, and this was with HDR turned on (f/1.8, 1/1826 sec, ISO 90). But, that was on an HTC with shutter speeds up to 1/8000 sec. So, I'm wondering if Samsung is having trouble gathering light, or if they are just giving too much priority to ISO. I don't have our Note 10+ handy to look at the image data right now because our son has it.
  • Good review. I'd get one if I weren't still paying for my $1200 Note9 from 2018.
  • Ouch. I picked up my 512gb Note9 a year ago for £550.
  • =$704 US. Which is why Android phones are a bad investment. Just picked up a Pixel 4 for $399 US. Worth double 6 months ago. :D
  • Never used a phone with high refresh rate yet but I was looking forward to it on the Ultra. I value all day battery life too much though so looks like I'll be only using the 120hz when it's plugged in or when I know I'm at least near the charger. Hopefully they add a 90hz option too as a middle ground
  • Dude, you're reading a review from someone who I'd bet carries a Pixel 4XL daily. And they bring up battery as an "issue." I have only used the Ultra about a week and have had the Pixel 4XL since launch and lemme tell you, to complain about this phones battery (based on how long it will last, NOT mah, because we're talking real life use) while using a Pixel is laughable at best. That john loses battery life in 10's of percent just sitting there AND the only app I had on it were the preinstalled (work phone.)
  • Not having a headphone jack is no longer a negative. It's a common thing now, and usb-c headphones are being provided with the phone. Why isn't the onus on headphone manufacturers to ramp up usb-c products? We're all moving towards wireless audio products for better or worse, so it's even less of a concern. I really wanted the US to get an S20 version without 5G, but we're having it forced upon us when the network isn't ready for reliable use yet. While Verizon's 3G is faster when it works, I'll take AT&T's slower 5G because of its reliability. The consistent user experience is more important than making sure you have a line of site to the antennas.
  • I have microphones that I have to figure it how to use when I podcast with my phone or shoot short film content. The "headphone" jack is about more than headphones for me.
  • You can use the headphone adapter for that. I use a Dayton Audio iMM-6 microphone on my HTC, and it just plugs in and works with all my apps, including the stock camera app and Filmic Pro.
    Just letting you know in case you wind up with only a USB C headphone jack.
  • A very detailed review. In my experience a high refresh rate makes no difference to your user experience and the extra battery life is more useful. This is from having the Razer phone for a year.
  • Ah.... Preorder.... I revisited my Samsung account, and cancelled my 512GB S20 Ultra... It's a great phone, but it's obvious the first Gen camera set up has first Gen issues.... And we know 5G will nevrr be everywhere like 4G.
  • Still nothing wrong with my Note 8...its in mint condition and it's specs still hold up well... Maybe in a couple more years...
  • This thing is supposed to be about its cameras and the pictures look only okay. They look like they could've come from the S7 Edge a few years ago. Why would I pay $1400 for a phone with mediocre cameras when I can spend $400 less and get better phones with better cameras?
  • like a Pixl 4 @$399?
  • I love it! BUT... Why when recording video at the higher rates does Samsung always disable ISO and other features on the camera ? Even at 4k 60fps they disable so many features. Does Apple? Also.. You can't use the Highest resolution for the screen and keep it at 90 or 120mhz refresh rate. Why?
  • Well, Apple does disable EIS when shooting 4k @ 60fps, but most of the other features remain intact. There are two reasons Samsung would not have 240Hz at QHD.
    The first reason is that the battery would take an even bigger hit.
    The second is that the screen controller may not be ABLE to keep refreshing 4,608,000 pixels 240 times per second. Almost nobody can tell the difference between 60Hz and 90Hz on a smartphone, even when they are told what the difference is. So it's sort of a wasted effort.
  • Sammy, Sammy, the fact you push the envelope but come up short...every time. What's the point of 120Hz if battery life sucks? Whats the point of 100X zoom if it looks like shyt? I'll just wait until September when I can get this puppy for $700 US. Ohhhhh..iPhone 12 release date. Hmmm....
  • 120 jz still has good battery life, just because it's not as good as 69 hz doesn't mean it sucks. 100x zoom is never going to be used for zoom pictures, but you can use it to help see things you ordinarily wouldn't be able to see. Why does the S20/S20+ have 30x zoom? It's terrible too. Why does the iPhone have zoom? Any software zoom is not great, even Google's (considered the best) isn't perfect.
  • Amazing such authority on Android, doesn't mention there is already camera updates coming out and the phone hasn't even hit the market. Samsung is going to treat this phone with tons of love and respect. (this will be my first Samsung phone)
    And I just got email showing its shipped and on the way.
    16 RAM
    512 GB
    all in.. So we'll see.
    BEST PART.. I can factory reset my LG V30 and set it up as a perfect device for what it does best, media. Use it for the DAC and mics. Will be my side-kick for all the creative work on the new S20 Ultra!
  • It's got a first Gen camera that's got first Gen problems that should not exist in a $2200 (Canadian) phone. I'm content to wait until the camera tech is mature, etc, etc.... Granted, it depends where you are upgrading from... Myself, from a Note 8... I can wait... Seriously, a few more years. And 5G? Lmao, so much hype.... It will never be everywhere like 4G because it can't be...... I almost bought it... I can afford it... But preordering is such a dumb, dumb waste of cash. Why can't you wait a few months? Zero self control?
  • There's really nothing the S20 Series can do that'll improve my experience over what I'm already using, at least not at our Canadian pricing. Vowed to never spend over 1K for a device having little to complain about where we sit now. Can easily live w/o QHD and high refresh rate displays, speed in terms of SoC's/RAM isn't an issue for me since 2016/17, storage has been ample, battery life too is good since majority of my devices already 4000 mAh. Bottom line is that we are not suffering one iota staying where we are. My 2018 device's camera's are stellar as is our 2019 device's. Sammy's shooters unlikely to improve upon our experience all that much.
  • They said the same thing about 4G.
  • The primary difference in coverage is that 4G coverage is measured in miles. 5G coverage is measured in feet. 5G, at least for sub-millimeter where you get the real speed, can never match the coverage of 4G because the frequencies have poor travel and very poor building penetration.
  • Samsung’s overall philosophy regarding how they process images and control the camera (long exposure times, yellowish white balance, Aggressive noise reduction and sharpening, etc.) is a problem. Also, this phone has 2013-era auto focus. It’s really slow, and a camera update won’t fix that. Samsung keeps throwing hardware out there when they really just need better developers.
  • Yeah, time for an upgrade. Have LG V30 that's having some charging port issues and some cracked corners. She's still moving along, but I'm also tired of having last Aug security patch, and to this very sec android 8.0.0 on my "flagship device" from 27 months ago. So yes here in the states the economy is great and I've been saving for something like this. Getting a good deal w Sprint and willing to give Samsung a shot for their "flagship device". I'll trade it for the next iteration as you mentioned in a few years and get probably half the value back in trade in. So, yeah. I'm excited!
  • Would really like to see Samsung add a 90hz option to the phone, get that smoother display with less of a battery hit and add QHD for 120hz as well so those that want it all can have it; why not, it's the everything phone, so give it to us! I'd use it on 120hz all the time regardless, but when I know I'm going to go through a lot of juice and not be around an outlet I can crank it back down to FHD+ and 60hz to extend battery life which on a 5000mah battery should be phenomenal. Would also like to know if 5G can be disabled like we were able to do in the early days of 4G/LTE to conserve power? If so, this could be a battery life king! Looking forward to getting it, only thing I'm not sure about is if I can deal with how chunky it is, sure, it's narrower than my Note 10+ (but that's a negative to me as I prefer wider phones), but it's taller and quite noticeably thicker (holding my Note 10+ up to it at BB made my Note 10+ look small, which is crazy cause this is already a huge phone).
  • Sales are 50percent less than the S10 series, why? Is it the virus or are they too expensive? With no 20e at 75o.oo & your base model at 1,ooo dollars is that the culprit? These phones are for the tech geeks not the average Tom, Dick or Mary? I predict within 60days the prices will drop like a lead balloon? Yikes....
  • I think the battery thing is being over played tbh but the camera issues, which I spoke about in the forums a few weeks ago are real. I cancelled my preorder because it hadn't even processed yet and the whole $1600 thing really started to sink in. You can get a sick laptop for that price. Listening to the Vergecast a sage piece of advice was given by some vets in Nilay and Dieter which was never buy tech on the promise of software updates fixing things. It was something I already knew, but helped solidify the choice to cancel the pre order.
  • Well, I just picked up a Nikon D700 to add to our collection. It's a bridge camera (better than a point and shoot, not as good as a DSLR), but it has 60x pure optical zoom and cost me $321 USD. Makes a good alternative to 10x optical zoom for $1400. 😉
  • Last comment ever on the ultra... Where I laugh is reviewers losing their minds over the size of it... Compared to my Note 8.... I checked in store... It's just a tiny bit bigger. Granted, I've got large hands, I'm 6'2"...whatever... But no, this phone isn't somehow an ungodly monster.
  • Truth. AndroidCentral has re-entered the bucket of crabs era yet again. There are a few dudes here that would be happier (I mean this sincerely) to create a fork of AC called Google Central and focus on Google's in house products the way Rene does Apple products over at iMore. MKBHD killed it with his review. It didn't feel like a whine fest, he states and honestly comes across as understanding that his perspective is one guy's opinion and what he did most accurately was address the techblog-o-spheres nonstop crying about "muh 100X" focusing instead on how no other smartphone camera on the market can shoot as well from as far as the Ultra. He touched on the negatives that everyone is familiar with (Samsung processing of images) and kept it moving. I was listening to the AC PodCast and had to shut it off half way through. Two grown ass men saying things like "i shouldn't have to search for 5G." Then go out and build it Andrew. Go out and build a next gen cellular infrastructure that covers the continental united states. Get the contracts, deal with the physics issues, zoning laws, permits, leases, work crews, regulations and "slap er up rill quick like." Or accept that these things necessitate progressive steps. Besides 5G is going to be far more important to infrastructure and IoT than it is your cell phone. I digress, but for real, this release has been like an episode of Angry Joe talking about loot crates and thats far more annoying than a camera saying space zoom on it.
  • I disagree. You sound more like Angry Joe, to be honest. Do you work for Samsung? This phone basically throws huge MP and Pixel Binning into a Galaxy S20, with a slightly bigger screen and bigger battery, then asks you to pay the price of a superior entry-level DSLR more for it (over an S20). 5G is what it is. Not worth caring about for at least another year (or more). The phone has issues focusing on targets, which is one of the most basic things we expect from a smartphone camera. The Auto Focus performance on this phone is worse than a Galaxy S4/Note 3 from 2012. It still uses Samsung's heavy-handed image processing. Terrible Saturation, too warm White Balance, Skin Smoothing even with Beauty Mode off, boosts in Contrast, and massive amounts Noise Reduction and Sharpening. A $1,400 phone should put putting out the most true to life images possible, as a default. It should not be slapping a bad filter on every image you take. The software completely removes any advantage the hardware should have over other devices. It's just bad. I do think they should have compromised and provided 90Hz in both QHD+ and FHD+, instead of 120Hz in only FHD+, but I don't consider that major. The design of the phone is subpar. The camera hump is ridiculous, and the phone is very top-heavy. It's just not a great design. I do hate that they got rid of the Iris Scanner, because I prefer hand-off biometrics to "invisible," non-tactile in-display fingerprint scanners with tiny registration surfaces. I'd prefer a notch and intelligent scan to this. Once you get used to your phone just unlocking by simply looking at it, going back to using a FPS (esp one like this) feels bad.
  • People are tiring of these huge devices. I think that’s the issue. Before we needed them because it was the only way to get great battery life, but that is no longer the case in 2020. Now we need them just to not have a camera module cover half of the phones backside and create a usability nightmare, lol.
  • Just got my S20 Ultra and was pretty disappointed. The size of the phone is ok but it is top heavy
    and the camera bump extends too much. I didn't think the speed of the phone was improved
    over my Pixel 4XL, the battery life was pretty bad even using the 60hz refresh. I personally didn't
    see that much an improvement in picture quality either vs. my Pixel 4XL. This is all IMHO and
    I am sure way off from others. I just can't justify this kind of money for something that isn't that
    much better than what I already own. I am returning it.