MANILA, Philippines – When our favorite smartphone brands unveil new products, we usually ask ourselves, “Is it time for an upgrade?” With Samsung unveiling the S20 Ultra, the most expensive member of its new flagship S20 line, we’re once again faced with this same question. However, from my brief hands-on time with the phone, it’s not yet something I can answer with a simple yes or no.
Spec-wise, the S20 Ultra is truly a powerful phone, improving a bit in just about every department from cameras to battery capacity. These iterative upgrades are not necessarily groundbreaking or game changing, but they’re, of course, welcome additions to the overall package. The thing that really holds the S20 Ultra back, for me, is its steep P69,990 price tag and a couple of design decisions that I’m not feeling.
Display and design
First off, the phone’s 6.9-inch screen feels massive when viewing, especially compared to the devices that came before it, making it great for those who love watching videos or playing games. Samsung typically saves big displays for its Note line of phones rather than its S line, but the S20 Ultra seems to be breaking that mold, being about an inch bigger than last year’s Note 10+.
The problem is it’s also thicker, heavier, and much less ergonomic than its two siblings, sometimes making it quite a chore to use for people with smaller hands, such as myself.
The S20 Ultra’s display lets you adjust the screen’s refresh rate to 120 Hz, allowing your screen to refresh content more dynamically. This essentially makes certain actions like scrolling feel buttery smooth. Is it a big deal? You’ll definitely notice the difference when toggling it for the first time, but I would argue that there’s not much of a practical use for it outside of playing games.
While I appreciate having extra screen real estate and having a larger screen-to-body ratio, I’m still not quite a fan of the punch-hole, which is situated at the topmost center of the display. Yes, it’s the most discreet compromise to the typical notch, but I feel there are more innovative ways to accommodate an all-screen display – case in point, OPPO’s experimental under-screen camera. Then again, I guess this all boils down to preference. If you’re not bothered by notches at all, this shouldn’t even be a problem.
Samsung seems to have heard complaints about the dedicated Bixby virtual assistant button found at the side of its older S devices, as it is nowhere to be found in the S20 line. They first took away the Bixby button on mid-2019’s Note 10, and this carries over to their new flagship line, with pressing and holding the power button being the default way to wake Bixby.
Arguably, the biggest selling point of the S20 Ultra is its quad-camera setup, which features a 108MP sensor and periscope lens that support 100x digital zoom. Just from a numbers perspective, it beats the Huawei P30 Pro’s 50x zoom, and the OPPO Reno 10x Zoom’s 60x zoom. But we’ll reserve judgment when we’ve had more play time with the Ultra. As of now, all we can say is it’s a real technical feat.
As was the case with last year’s P30 Pro, it still boggles the mind how something that’s so relatively small can show you an ultra-wide view of tiny houses from afar, and allow you to single out one of those houses and zoom into it.
Usage may vary of course, and one could imagine the creepy applications one could do with this. But the more morally-inclined would of course find use for this in events such as live basketball games (and all you have are cheap nosebleed seats) and concerts. You can feel the power surging in you with this in your hand – just don’t go over to the dark side, and keep in mind that classic Spider-Man quote.
Moving on, there are situations where the camera is good and where it struggles. Shooting with the standard lens – which I think should work perfectly for many everyday situations – produced good results while using the new digital zoom past 4x in areas where there is little to no light produced very fuzzy and grainy photos. Ideally, I think 10x should be the farthest you go when zooming if you still want to maintain picture quality.
What we’d want to test further in the future are its 8K video recording, and just how much the stabilization now compares with the competition. Back in August, the Note 10 touted its video stabilization, but just a few months later, there were some competing models that seemed to show better stabilization.
My next point may come down to personal taste because I’ve had other people and some commenters say that the camera housing is among the nicer ones they’ve seen. But that’s my biggest gripe with it. For one, it’s not very subtle, occupying about a sixth of the phone’s entire back. It also protrudes in such a way that the top half of the phone sort of inclines when laid flat on a surface. Here’s a view of that:
Going back to the question of whether or not it’s worth upgrading to the S20 Ultra, I think that it depends on how important photography and display features are for you. If you’re not after the ability to take high-resolution photos or a gigantic screen, the base S20 model offers a similar premium experience minus all the so-called “excess” of its more powerful sibling.
But, of course, if money is not an issue, then you can’t go wrong with buying a no-compromise powerhouse that has all the bells and whistles of a modern flagship – including 5G-readiness. It’s a little bit disappointing to see that only the Ultra has 5G-readiness now – and even then it’s disabled at launch. But if I were in the market for a ultra-premium flagship now, the Ultra will take precedence over almost anything else including the iPhone 11 Pro Max and the Mate 30 Pro 5G – the former because it doesn’t have 5G future-proofing and the latter because of its lingering Google issues. – with additional reporting from Gelo Gonzales/Rappler.com