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Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra revisited: The good and the bad, six months later
For years now we’ve seen Samsung launch two versions of its Galaxy S flagships — a regular model and a Plus model. That changed in 2020 when Samsung one-upped the Plus model with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Theoretically, this was the best of the best — the king of all phones.
The very launch of such a phone was a gutsy move. How would consumers take to spending a ton of cash on a phone with few compromises? Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic squashed Samsung’s hopes for big sales. Now that the dust has settled, the question remains: is the Galaxy S20 Ultra worth its price?
Our original review: Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review: Too much of a good thing
In this Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review revisited, I’m going to discuss what’s held up about the phone over the past six months. I’m also going to point out some of the things that I haven’t enjoyed about the phone over this time. I’ve been using the Galaxy S20 Ultra on and off since it launched, so I have a pretty good grasp on its pros and cons.
Ultimately, I intend to answer the big question: should you buy a Galaxy S20 Ultra today?
The good stuff
In a word, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is awesome. It’s not without its flaws — which I’ll get to in a bit — but the phone is still pretty incredible if only for the audacity of its existence. Here’s what’s held up well over the past six months.
Overall, the Galaxy S20 Ultra still sits near the top of the totem pole when it comes to raw specs. Sure, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus has come along, which is technically better than the non-Plus version in the Galaxy S20 Ultra. There are also 2020 phones with bigger batteries and higher refresh rate displays. As a full package, the past six months haven’t significantly dented the Galaxy S20’s reputation as a specs beast.
In my time using the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, I haven’t once felt that it wasn’t powerful enough. It’s handled everything I’ve thrown at it, even faring incredibly well with my emulator tests. If nothing else, Samsung has earned the “Ultra” moniker when it comes to specs, and it will likely stay that way for quite a while.
Our objective battery tests here at Android Authority placed the Galaxy S20 Ultra within the top ten of every device we’ve tested in our mid-year Best of Android comparison. It lands in the top ten in three metrics: overall battery life, battery life mixed testing (Wi-Fi, video playback, etc.), and wired charging speed (mAh/min). Keep in mind that it doesn’t hit the top slot in any particular category but landing in the top ten of all three is terrific.
The battery life on the Galaxy S20 Ultra is good enough that I don't even worry about it.
Subjectively, I never worry about battery life on the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Anytime I take it out of my bag to do something it’s always ready to go. I don’t really think about charging it. Every now and then I’ll notice the battery is low and throw it on a charger, but this happens very infrequently since I’m not using it as my daily device. Basically, the battery life on the Galaxy S20 Ultra is so good that I literally don’t even think about it.
As with battery life, the Galaxy S20 Ultra sits comfortably in the top ten of all our display testing categories. It doesn’t have the overall best display of the year so far — that honor goes to the OnePlus 8 Pro — but it’s still pretty incredible.
The display also has a 120Hz refresh rate. This makes everything you do on the phone look as smooth as silk, albeit only at Full HD resolution and not the full Quad HD the device is capable of. Since the launch of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, I’ve also been using the ASUS ROG Phone 3, which has the option for a 144Hz refresh rate. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between those two, so I’d ignore the number disparity. However, I absolutely can notice a difference between a 120Hz display refresh rate and a 60Hz refresh rate, and the Galaxy S20 Ultra slays in this regard.
Samsung’s Android skin known as One UI is one of the best available. Samsung takes the “kitchen sink” approach by including an option for nearly everything you could ever want to do. This might be overwhelming and chaotic for some — I certainly think so — but you can’t dispute the power and control it gives you.
Since the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung has delivered a major update to the Android skin known as One UI 2.5. This brought the Galaxy S20 Ultra some of the best features of the just-launched Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Samsung has also committed to delivering three years of Android upgrades, which means we should expect Android 11, Android 12, and possibly even Android 13 to land on the S20 Ultra.
Simply put, the software experience on this phone has few rivals. Yes, One UI is a bit bloated for my personal taste, but I am more than satisfied with its smoothness, features, and dependability.
The not-so-good stuff
Many would argue that for the price of the Galaxy S20 Ultra there should be zero flaws. However, in the real world, nothing is perfect, and even something as mighty as this phone comes up short. Here’s where I feel the Ultra model needs work for the inevitable Galaxy S30 series.
For my day-to-day usage, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra camera is terrific. It’s fast, accurate, and I’m generally pleased with every photo and video I capture.
However, this phone is hella expensive and the camera is probably its biggest selling point. That should mean that the camera should be perfect — and it’s not.
The biggest complaints about the camera revolve around focus and zoom. To be blunt, focus on this phone is bad. Period. If you’re very close to the subject of the photo you’re going to have a hard time getting it to focus. Even when you’re at an ideal distance you will inevitably face problems. For a phone that costs this much, I shouldn’t have these issues.
Similarly, the 100x zoom here — branded as Space Zoom — is all but useless. Once you get past a certain threshold the clarity of your photo looks awful, making the entire system pointless. The fact that Samsung left Space Zoom out of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra should be all the proof you need that it wasn’t up to snuff.
Samsung spent so much time figuring out if it could that it didn't stop to think if it should.
Finally, the ability to record video in 8K is also overkill. For starters, 8K video takes up massive amounts of storage space, which is a problem. You don’t really notice the difference in quality because the phone’s display isn’t 8K and the other screens in your life likely aren’t either. This might be more useful years from now, but today, it’s nothing interesting.
Regardless, I want to reiterate that the camera experience here is overall great. It’s just not perfect, and that’s not good enough when you consider the Google Pixel 4a delivers incredible footage at a literal fraction of the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s price.
The in-display fingerprint sensor in the Galaxy S20 Ultra is fine. It gets the job done. However, the in-display fingerprint sensor of my OnePlus 7 Pro — which is nearly a year older than the Galaxy S20 Ultra — is better. Much better. Ultimately, it all comes down to Samsung’s choice to use ultrasonic fingerprint sensors instead of optical ones.
Now, the fingerprint sensor gets used a lot on phones these days. Every time you unlock it, every time you want to use Google Pay or Samsung Pay, every time you need to open LastPass — the list goes on. You start to notice if you find that a lot of the time the sensor doesn’t work with your first try or appears to delay a few milliseconds before working properly. You especially notice when literally every non-Samsung flagship you use with an in-display sensor — regardless of price — works better, too.
Samsung really needs to accept that ultrasonic is just not the way to go, but it’s too late for that with the Galaxy S20 Ultra. It is what it is.
Not long after the debut of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, I wrote an entire article about how its size and weight are a huge burden. Obviously, those two aspects of the phone haven’t changed for this Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review revisited. The phone is massive in size and incredibly heavy, making its usability lower than you’d expect.
Of course, there are plenty of people out there who like enormous phones and don’t care how much they weigh. For those people, this won’t be an issue. For me, I don’t like using the S20 Ultra for long stretches of time because it starts to hurt my hand just holding the thing. That’s why I only used it as my daily for about a week — my wrists started to hurt.
Once again, this is a personal thing for me, and I fully accept that my opinion could run contrary to that of other folks. Just trust me, though. If you think your current phone is bulky, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is likely bigger and heavier.
When the Galaxy S20 series landed, it was hard to be impressed with how the phones looked. In particular, the camera module on the S20 Ultra just isn’t aesthetically pleasing. Pair that with boring color choices and pretty much no design flourishes anywhere else on the phone, and you have a pretty boring affair.
Once again, this isn’t something that will make or break your desire to own the phone. In my experience, very few people put so much emphasis on phone design that it strongly sways their opinions. However, when you’re spending this much on a phone, you want it to look good. People would be pretty upset if they bought a Lamborghini and it came in beige.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review revisited: Should you still buy it?
If you’re in the market right now for a crazy expensive phone that pulls out all the stops, you probably shouldn’t buy the Galaxy S20 Ultra. The only reason I say that is because we now have the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, which is a better phone. It fixes a few of the flaws I mentioned here — notably the camera and design — while bringing over nearly every single strength I mentioned. The only thing you’d really be missing out on is battery life, as the Note 20 Ultra’s battery isn’t as big. Check out our full review of the Note 20 Ultra for more.
Six months later: Do you think the Galaxy S20 Ultra is still a good buy?
The Note 20 Ultra also has a lower MSRP than the S20 Ultra — $1,299 for the former and $1,399 for the latter. In other words, you get almost everything the S20 Ultra offers, a few of the things it’s missing, and even save some cash at the same time.
Also read: Here’s everything new in Samsung One UI 3.0
However, if you aren’t interested in the Note 20 Ultra for whatever reason, the S20 Ultra is still a good investment. It’s unbelievably powerful, lasts for ages on a charge, has a good camera, and will receive software updates for years. It will also continue to be a powerhouse for a long time as 6G isn’t coming down the pipeline any time soon and smartphone processors aren’t making substantial leaps in power next year, either.
The bottom line is that this Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra review revisited shows that the phone is great — but “king of all phones” it is not.