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.

Pros

  • +

    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

Cons

  • -

    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