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Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy S23 series: Different enough?
A lot will be written about the new Samsung Galaxy S23 series over the next few weeks, much of it no doubt focusing on just how similar the range is to its predecessors. That fact is indisputable, whether you’re looking at the specs sheet or even comparing last year’s prices (thank goodness).
But just like Apple, Samsung has to tread carefully when tweaking one of the world’s best-known smartphone ranges. We all long for innovation, a phone that feels purely exciting and new. But stray too far and you risk undermining the reason why people like your product to begin with. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that you’re going to have seen most of what the latest models have to offer before. So let’s focus on what’s new in our Samsung Galaxy S23 hands-on.
Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 power
S Pen functionality
Tweaking the visuals
Let’s start with this year’s sole aesthetic change; the rear camera housing is dropped in favor of a floating camera design. That seemingly small difference is the only way you’re going to tell the Galaxy S23 series apart from the Galaxy S22 at a glance. If you’re trying to distinguish the Ultra from last year’s model, forget about it. Still, it’s a welcome tweak that modernizes the phone’s look.
Thankfully, the benefit of minimal changes means the entire Galaxy S23 range remains wonderful to hold and use. The compact-ish standard Galaxy S23 is suitable for one-hand use and slim enough to fit into even the most snug of jean pockets. That said, all three models have flatter sides this generation, which makes for a slightly thicker feel in the hand. The Ultra remains all screen all the time, but the thicker frame is still light enough not to be completely overbearing (until you throw a case on it, at least).
Familiar yet different enough is Samsung's 2023 design ethos.
The Plus model still sits in a weird spot for me. It doesn’t have the sheer screen real estate or advanced features of the Ultra, yet it is almost as large and, therefore, awkward to use in one hand but without the main benefits. Unless you crave the bigger battery and ultra-wideband (UWB) support, the smaller Galaxy S23 really does stand apart for its sheer compactness. Not to mention it’s $200 cheaper too.
Unlike Apple, there’s still a physical SIM slot for US, as well as global customers. Samsung knows how to dodge controversy, it seems. eSIM support is there, but it’s an optional extra feature. Likewise, the Galaxy S23 Ultra remains the only model with S Pen support, which stows neatly in the handset’s bottom left.
Rounding out this year’s cosmetic changes are four Galaxy S23 colorways that now straddle the entire range; Black, Cream, Green, and Lavender. With the exception of Lavender, these colors are all reasonably muted and lack the pop of last year’s Green or exclusive Burgundy options. Personally, I think Cream looks the most striking, while the almost metallic Green is also stunning and would make a nice business-class choice without opting for basic Black.
Still the very best hardware around
You’ll still find a smattering of the latest and greatest mobile hardware across all three phones. Wireless charging, mmWave 5G, Wi-Fi 6E, an IP68 rating, 120Hz variable refresh-rate displays, and Corning Gorilla Glass Victus 2 are all present and correct across the range. The bigger two also have the aforementioned UWB support, which pairs nicely with Galaxy SmartTag Plus Bluetooth trackers.
The Galaxy S23 and S23 Plus should be better than ever with bigger batteries and more storage.
Samsung has changed up the formula in parts though. The regular Galaxy S23 and S23 Plus have larger batteries this year; 3,900mAh and 4,700mAh, respectively. That’s up from 3,700mAh and 4,500mAh last year, helping both phones power through the day that little more consistently. The Plus and Ultra models also start at 256GB storage, ensuring you won’t run out of space in a hurry.
Samsung has also continued its strategic partnership with Qualcomm to bring a Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 “for Galaxy” chipset variant to this year’s range. The headline change is a marginal CPU clock speed boost to 3.36GHz, up from 3.19GHz. There are also unspecified GPU improvements, complete with ray tracing support.
Flipping through the phones’ apps, it’s clear that everyday performance is a solved issue. It will be more telling to see how this year’s flagship handles prolonged gaming sessions. Samsung says there’s a 2x larger cooling chamber this year, which, combined with a more efficient processor, will hopefully consign last year’s throttling issues to the dustbin of history.
Another key change in this generation is the introduction of new Galaxy S23 camera systems. Specifically, a 200MP primary camera found exclusively in the Galaxy S23 Ultra. Using Samsung’s Isocell HP2 technology, this huge megapixel count also promises 16-to-1 pixel binning down to 12.5MP for low-light capture, Dual Vertical Transfer Gate (D-VTG) to reduce washed-out snaps, and Dual Slope Gain for improved HDR imaging.
The TD;LR is it’s more than just numbers here; the S23 Ultra camera packs the latest and greatest imaging tech Samsung has to offer.
That said, while we only had limited subjects to point the camera at in our hands-on time, we can’t say we noticed anything approaching a mind-blowing change here. The 1/1.3-inch sensor is not really any bigger than the last generation, leaving us with incremental improvements rather than wholesale changes to smartphone light capture.
The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra packs the latest and greatest camera tech Samsung has to offer.
In addition, all three feature a new 12MP front-facing camera, including the Galaxy S23 Ultra which previously touted a 40MP affair. That’s an ironic change, given Samsung’s focus on pixel count with the rear camera. Still, based on some sleuthing of likely parts, the result is probably a sidegrade for the Ultra and an upgrade for the rest.
We’ll be able to take a closer look at whether Samsung can pull this technology together with improved selfies, night modes, and object segmentation to produce next-level smartphone pictures during our review.
Samsung Galaxy S23 hands-on impressions: More of what we love
Yes, you’ve seen a lot of this Samsung Galaxy before and certainly shouldn’t rush up to upgrade if you already own a recent model. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Of course, we would have liked faster charging, a revolutionary camera setup, or a groundbreaking redesign, but incremental improvements are just part and parcel of the mature smartphone ecosystem. What Samsung has done here is take what can be changed without much difficulty and cost, and refined it that bit further.
Samsung's Galaxy S23 series stands out as an excellent long-term investment.
Furthermore, that consistency is allowing Samsung to support its products longer-term. The Galaxy S23 series still comes with an Android-leading update pledge of four-year OS and five-year security patches. Meanwhile, eschewing ultra-fast charging might seem less sexy, but it will help the batteries last many years. The company also offers decent trade-in value on older models should you want to upgrade early.
With Galaxy S23 prices the same as last year in the US (due in no small part to the phone’s familiarity), the Galaxy S23 series continues to stand out as a solid long-term investment. Our hands-on time has confirmed that Samsung still knows how to build great phones, even if they’re not going to blow your mind anymore.