Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra: A big phone that takes amazing photos

February 21, 2020, 12:00 AM UTC
samsung galaxy s20 ultra phone
Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra phone has an amazing 10X optical zoom lens.
Aaron Pressman/Fortune

In its black packaging, or even set on a counter, Samsung’s new Galaxy S20 Ultra looks similar to any other modern smartphone. Only after picking up the device do you realize that it’s the goliath of phones.

The Ultra is the biggest model in Samsung’s new three-phone lineup, unveiled last week. It also has another distinction: A camera that comes with a zoom lens that’s supposed to be more powerful than what’s has been included in any phone before it.

Samsung sent Fortune an Ultra to review on Thursday, so consider this to be merely a first impression of it based on one day of use. Next week, we’ll be back with a more complete review.

Though it’s rather costly, starting at $1,400, the Ultra may be good for people who depend on their phones more than PCs or laptops. And for serious photographers who want to use a phone camera, it simply can’t be matched.

Is that an Ultra in your pocket?

First, let’s discuss the Ultra’s size: It has a 6.9-inch screen compared with 6.7 inches for its sister phone, the S20+, and 6.2 for the regular S20. In fact, Ultra’s screen is bigger than iPhone 11 Pro Max’s 6.5-inch screen along with that of the comparatively tiny 6.3-inch Google Pixel 4 XL.

Despite its size, the Ultra isn’t much heavier than its rivals. At 220 grams (or just under 8 ounces), it’s a few grams lighter than the iPhone 11 Pro Max and 27 grams heavier than the Pixel 4 XL.

When held in the hand, though, the Ultra’s big screen is nearly impossible to operate with one hand. I regularly had to use two hands to use the phone. For example, the phone’s amazing camera features—more about those later—sometimes required that I use my right hand to hold the phone and press the shutter while using my left hand to adjust the settings. It also tended to slide out of the back pocket of my pants while I was seated, a problem I’d never had with other phones.

The best phone zoom lens

And that brings us to the cameras, which truly differentiate Ultra from other mainstream phones. To start with, the back of the phone has an enormous, rectangular camera bump with four lenses and a flash.

The regular camera has a sensor with 108 megapixels, more than any other popular phone. Theoretically, at least, the Ultra can provide more detail than competitors’ cameras with 12, 16, or 24-megapixel resolutions. But sometimes adding more megapixels results in photos with mushy details or muted colors. Although the pictures I took with the main lens looked great, it will take more than a day of testing to render a verdict on the 108-megapixel sensor.

But it’s Ultra’s zoom lens that truly sets the Ultra apart. Most other phones have a zoom lens that can magnify a subject two or three times before requiring software tricks to zoom more. But those techniques usually degrade image quality.

The Ultra, however, has a 10-times optical zoom that works incredibly well. The pictures the phone takes at 10-times magnification are clear and detailed, as you can see in this shot of a Mini Wheats cereal box. On the left is a cropped picture from the Ultra. On the right is a similar cropped shot from the iPhone 11 Pro taken from the same distance at 10-times magnification, which relies on software to zoom in. The difference is striking.

A 10 times zoomed image. The picture from the Samsung S20 Ultra is on the left and from an iPhone 11 Pro on the right.

How did Samsung do it? It used a rather clever trick.

Samsung invented a new way to install the lens. Instead of protruding from the back of the phone, as all phone lenses have in previous phones, the Ultra’s longer and more powerful lens is tucked inside the phone and placed sideways. To bring the image into the lens, the phone has a prism to reflect light into the lens at an angle.

It’s the same principle that lets a submarine skipper use a periscope to see what’s happening on the ocean’s surface.

In addition to the Ultra’s big-league zoom, the phone comes with software to enhance images even more. Samsung says its technology can provide the equivalent of 100-times magnification.

Sitting in a coffee shop, I was able to use the phone to read employee shift assignments on a clipboard behind the counter a good 20-feet away. Well, maybe not exactly read. The problem with the 100-times zoom magnification is that the images are somewhat fuzzy because it’s difficult to hold your hands still enough. Combined with the loss of detail that comes from using software to increase zoom, and the picture quality is underwhelming.

Ready for better 5G

One of the Ultra’s other signature features—5G compatibility— isn’t quite ready for prime time. Samsung’s S20 lineup is among the first to be able to connect to all of the various flavors of 5G available in the U.S. That includes the superfast 5G that Verizon offers in some cities as well as the not quite so fast type that T-Mobile and AT&T have rolled out more broadly (both carriers also sell the superfast variety, but in more limited areas).

Currently, it’s difficult to test how well the Ultra connects to both kinds of 5G because none of the carriers have made both flavors available in one location. Stay tuned, because that should change soon.

Until then, you’ll have to just be satisfied uploading your amazing Ultra photos on good old 4G.

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