Etched on the back of Samsung’s new phone, the Galaxy S20 Ultra, are the following words: “Space Zoom 100X.”
Space Zoom! Sadly, you can't zoom in and see all the galaxies far, far away, but you can zoom in on a subject up to 100X in the camera app. Naturally, it’s the first thing I tried when I briefly got my hands on Samsung's new high-end phone. Boy, was I disappointed—unsurprised but disappointed nonetheless. Just because you can zoom in all the way to a seemingly infinite degree doesn’t mean you should. The results resemble a crayon drawing from a 5-year-old more than they resemble a photograph.
Dial the S20 Ultra down to 10X zoom, though, and it's a different story. I snapped a pic of a plant on the other end of a room and the S20 Ultra managed to keep it looking pristine. With exceptions from some Chinese phone makers like Huawei and Oppo, most smartphones with zoom lenses offer only 2X optical zoom, which I always thought fell a little flat because they don't put you significantly closer to the subject compared to the standard lens. Sure, you can zoom in even further than 2X on one of those phones, but you'd be using digital zoom, which reduces the quality of the image.
That's what's happening with the S20 Ultra's 100X zoom, but at 10X, the quality is great, and the possibilities seem endless. You can snap a clearer shot of your son at a recital, despite sitting at the back of the room; or take better photos of the concert stage, even if you've got balcony seats. Unfortunately, there's a high price for this new feature: The phone costs $1,400. Samsung has two other new phones, the Galaxy S20 ($1,000) and S20+ ($1,100), but you don't get the same level of zoom on those.
All three are packed to the brim with the latest tech, from 8K video recording and 5G connectivity to 120 Hz screen refresh rates. I'd be remiss not to mention another phone that Samsung has teased that looks a good deal more interesting—the Galaxy Z Flip. It flips! It folds! Alas, I haven't had a chance to spend time with the foldable phone yet, but we expect to get a closer look now that we know it exists.
Last year's Galaxy Note 10 had an irresistible Aura Glow color that to this day looks magnificent. It was the talk of the town! To follow it up, Samsung's bold new colors for the S20 Ultra are, er … gray and black. I'm not quite sure what went wrong there, but the colors are a little bland; even the Cloud Blue and Cloud Pink colors for the smaller S20 don't pop as much as I'd like.
Otherwise, these phones don't look drastically different from last year's Galaxy S10 range, outside of bigger screens and rotated camera modules. The S20's screen measures 6.2 inches, the S20+ is 6.7 inches, and the S20 Ultra feels mammoth-sized at 6.9 inches. Seriously—I have big hands, and I had trouble wrapping my palms around the Ultra. The regular S20 is much more comfortable.
The bezels have been shaved down even further than last year in order to fill more of the phone with the screen. Also, there's now a hole in the top-middle of the display for the selfie camera that's similar in style to the front camera placement on Samsung's Note 10. But what's most exciting about the screen is something you'll have to see in person to appreciate: A 120 Hz refresh rate. Most smartphones have 60 Hz screens, which means the display refreshes 60 times per second. Go higher to 90 Hz or 120 Hz, like on the Google Pixel 4 or the iPad Pro, and you'll feel a difference, especially when you're scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. It's not groundbreaking (the Razer Phone 2 did it first), and it's not particularly useful, but it's a quality-of-life upgrade that makes using the phones a little nicer. I'm all for it.
There is a catch. To conserve battery life (and they each have beefy batteries), you can only use 120 Hz at the 2,400 x 1,080 screen resolution; you're locked to 60 Hz if you try to use the screen's highest resolution of 3,200 x 1,440. Sensible, though a little disappointing.
All the Megapixels
Know what's not sensible? 100X zoom. Digitally zooming in this much will rarely give you an image worth sharing, especially without a tripod—it's hard to avoid a blurry photo; hand movements and vibrations make it so much worse. You'll only find 100X zoom on the S20 Ultra, but the S20 and S20+ can go up to 30X zoom with the 64-megapixel zoom lens (it still doesn't look the best). On those phones, it's best to stick to the 3X optical zoom, but I did find myself craving the 10X zoom from the Ultra. It's hard to go back after seeing what 10X can do.
All three phones maintain three core cameras: The main lens, an ultra-wide-angle, and a telephoto, though the S20+ and S20 Ultra also have a depth-sensing camera for better augmented reality effects. Perhaps more important, the phones are all using larger image sensors, which helps pull in more light when in darker environments. Samsung said it's the first time it has reengineered the camera since the Galaxy S7 from 2016, hence why there's no more variable aperture on the phones.
The S20 Ultra's main camera packs a whopping 108 megapixels, which means your high-resolution photos will take up more storage space but will also be overflowing with detail. In low light, the camera can use a process called pixel binning, which combines nine pixels into one to absorb more light, producing a brighter 12-megapixel photo. It reliably snapped nice-looking photos in the area I was in, but I hardly had a chance to give the cameras a proper test.
New in the camera app is a mode called Simple Take, which lets you point the camera at a subject, and with the help of artificial intelligence, the camera snaps a bunch of pictures when it thinks there's a nice moment à la Google Clips. You'll end up with a variety of photos, motion photos, GIFs, and a video from which to choose your favorites. It's a bit gimmicky, but it works surprisingly well—perfect for when you want to emulate sitting in a photo booth with your friends.
Speaking of gimmicky, the S20 range can shoot 8K video. Yes, you heard that right. I got a 4K TV only two years ago, but already Samsung wants me to film 8K videos and share them on an 8K Samsung TV (which, for the record, costs around $2,700 for the smallest, low-end model). Too bad. I don't have one, so I couldn't see what these videos look like on the larger screen. But most people don't have an 8K television either, which is why this falls a little flat for me.
But, if you must shoot in 8K, you can upload the videos to YouTube in their full resolution or downscale them to either 4K or 1080p. There are also improvements to video stabilization, which looks great from the brief videos I recorded during my time with the phone, and there are a host of other new video features. But like testing the stills camera, I'll give them a closer look in the final review.
Then there's 5G. Now, I want to commend Samsung for making the first 5G phones that work on multiple carriers. Last year, 5G phones were locked, so a Verizon 5G Galaxy Note 10 couldn't work on T-Mobile. With better interoperability, buying a 5G phone makes a little more sense. The Galaxy S20 supports sub-6, which means it can connect to the low-band and mid-band 5G networks from AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. There are different flavors of 5G, and you can read about it all in our 5G guide, but to put it quickly, sub-6 is the type that has slightly faster speeds over 4G and relatively broad coverage.
The S20+ and S20 Ultra, however, support both sub-6 and millimeter wave (mmWave). The latter flavor of 5G is available from T-Mobile and Verizon. It's the kind that delivers dramatically faster speeds (think a gigabit per second), but its range only goes as far as a city block or two, and it doesn't work indoors (yet). Carriers are slowly deploying these different versions of 5G throughout the US, so all of this doesn't matter if you're not in a 5G-supported area. (You can find a coverage map from each carrier's respective website.)
Even if you're in a 5G city, coverage is often limited to certain areas, so you'll most likely still be on 4G LTE most of the time. Also, you might need to upgrade your data plan to be able to access 5G networks. If you want to buy the S20 for other reasons, go ahead, but I wouldn't recommend upgrading from a perfectly good phone for the sake of 5G at the moment.
You'll be seeing a blitz of advertising over the next few months with the words "Space Zoom," "5G," and "8K," but these aren't good enough reasons to spend four figures on the Galaxy S20 lineup. What is? It boils down to the cameras and battery life, though they're going to have to blow me out of the water before I recommend a $1,400 phone. Samsung also said it's discounting its Galaxy S10 lineup, so if you're in a state of shock over the price of these new phones, consider something from the S10 line, or one of the excellent phones in our Best Cheap Phones guide.