Review of Samsung Galaxy S20 | S20+ | S20 Ultra 5G the USA
That’s the most obvious feeling you get when using the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which will be available in March starting at $1,399.99. If there ever was an embodiment of the chip on a tech company’s shoulder, this behemoth of a phone is it. After a couple of years of lagging behind the iPhone and Android competitors in a few key areas, the Ultra is Samsung’s answer. It’s a Statement Phone, aiming to be the most powerful and best phone ever — price and size be damned.
There are many impressive things about the S20 Ultra: the screen, the battery, 5G networking, speed, and more. But the flagship feature is the all-new camera system, which features ultra-high megapixel counts and telephoto zoom in an attempt to kick off the next stage of mobile photography.
Samsung called this phone the S20 instead of the S11 to indicate that it is the first of a new generation, and that might be too revealing. As impressive as the overall phone is, the camera often acts like a first-gen tech product with first-gen tech problems.
GOOD STUFF (Pros)
- Huge, 120Hz screen
- Great battery life
- Quality zoom photos at 10x
- Very good selfie camera
- Main camera softens faces too much
- Main camera hunts for autofocus
- 100X zoom and 108-megapixel photos are mostly gimmicks
- Expensive for the value
The Samsung Galaxy S20 is the Android flagship for people who actually like smaller phones. Thanks to its 6.2-inch display, the S20 is easy to use with one hand, and yet this compact device packs quite a punch.
Just like its bigger and pricier brothers, the Galaxy S20 ($999) gives you a fluid 120Hz display, powerful new camera system with improved zoom and 5G speeds. However, the battery life isn’t the best, and you can’t get this phone on Verizon yet.
We’ll be bringing you our final verdict soon, but check out our hands-on Samsung Galaxy S20 review below, along with our first battery life testing and benchmark results, to help you figure out if this phone is right for you.
Samsung Galaxy S20 review: Price and release date
The Samsung Galaxy S20 has a release date of March 6 and is available now. The Galaxy S20 costs $999 and comes with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage standard. You can’t opt for a model with more RAM or storage but you can add up to 1TB of storage via the phone’s microSD card slot.
The Galaxy S20 is available through Samsung as well as through three out of the big four wireless carriers in the U.S., including AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. Verizon will be offering a Galaxy S20 in Q2 that’s compatible with its mmWave 5G network.
Anyone interested in snapping up one of Samsung’s latest flagships for the least expense possible should have a look at the best Galaxy S20 deals out there before pulling the trigger.
Samsung Galaxy S20 review: Design
The Samsung Galaxy S20 doesn’t look radically different from the Galaxy S10, but there are some welcome refinements. The cutout for the front camera is smaller this time around, and it’s placed in the top center of the display instead of on the right side, so it’s less of a distraction. In addition, the display has less of a curve to it, which I appreciate because there’s less of a chance of accidental touches when you’re just shifting the phone in your hands.
I feel like it’s not a huge deal at this stage, but it’s definitely notable that the Samsung Galaxy S20 does not include a headphone jack. This is the first Galaxy S flagship phone missing this feature, so you’ll probably want check out our best wireless earbuds and best wireless headphones recommendations. If you want to keep it in the brand family, check out the new Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus, which promises 11 hours of battery life.
The Samsung Galaxy S20’s color options are not exciting, at least for now. There’s Cosmic Black, Cosmic Gray, Baby Blue and Baby Pink. I’m partial to the lighter Baby Blue, just because it looks and feels new.
Samsung Galaxy S20 review: Cameras
Samsung has fallen behind the iPhone 11 and Pixel 4 in camera quality, but the Galaxy S20 looks to beat the competition with bigger sensors, a bigger zoom and new features that make it easier to shoot and share. The Samsung Galaxy S20 has a triple rear camera that starts with a 12-MP wide sensor that’s 1.8 microns. The telephoto lens uses a 64MP sensor that’s 0.8 microns and the 12MP ultra-wide camera uses a 1.4-micron sensor.
Why am I rattling off all these numbers? Well, the larger the sensor, the more light it lets in, which should result in brighter and sharper images. By comparison, the Galaxy S10’s wide-angle, telephoto and ultra-wide cameras were 1.4, 1 and 1 microns, respectively. So at least two of the lenses are significantly larger.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 doesn’t have the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s monster 100x Space Zoom, but it does have a more powerful zoom than the Galaxy S10. The Hybrid Optic Zoom goes up to 3x, which is supposed to be a lossless zoom, and the digital zoom goes up to 30x. As you get closer to 30x the camera view gets shaky, but overall this is an improvement on the 2x zoom in the Galaxy S10.
Samsung has already won the “make a bigger phone with a bigger screen than anybody else” game multiple times. That’s not what the Galaxy S20 is all about. The most important new feature is the new camera system. Here, more than anywhere else, Samsung is trying to leap ahead of the competition by using a new kind of technology for smartphone cameras.
The S20 Ultra has five cameras if you count the depth sensor on the back. Most of them feature very high megapixel counts: 40 on the selfie camera, 48 on the telephoto, and a whopping 108 megapixels on the main wide-angle camera. The ultrawide camera is the only one with a more traditional 12-megapixel sensor.
Those big megapixel counts form the core of Samsung’s camera bet. Historically, anything over 16 megapixels or so was a sign that the camera would be bad because more megapixels means they’re more tightly packed on the sensor, and so they can collect less light and end up with more noise. Samsung, however, has a couple of solutions to this problem.
The first and simplest is that the sensor is physically larger than before. The second and more important solution is “pixel binning,” wherein individual pixels are grouped together to act like one bigger pixel. This method has been around on phones before, but Samsung being Samsung is going bigger by combining nine of them. So by default, the 108-megapixel sensor outputs 12-megapixel images — and this so-called “nonbinding” happens directly on the sensor hardware.
Now that we’ve got all that under our belt, how is the photo quality? Mixed.
Let’s start with what’s good.
The thing you often hear about smartphone cameras is that they can take good photos in good lighting conditions, and that’s obviously the case with the S20 Ultra. Samsung’s penchant for cranking up vibrancy holds in good stead outdoors with landscape shots, and it does get good detail and sharpness in those situations.
Samsung is also doing a better job than it ever has with low-light photos. It’s compensating for those 108 megapixels quite well, I think, but its software tuning still can’t hold up to the Pixel 4’s Night Sight mode. The story is similar with portrait mode: Samsung has improved on previous Galaxy phones, but its blur looks more artificial than the iPhone 11 Pro.
Running around the city and taking photos of architecture, plants, landscapes, and art was a blast. I loved the results during the day and night, with results only breaking down when it got super dark. Samsung’s color tuning tends to be a little warmer and yellower than I like, but not wildly so.
The headline feature is zoom, and there’s one more technical detail that matters for that. The telephoto lens on the S20 Ultra is a “folded” lens, meaning that light hits a prism and mirror system that runs it through a kind of periscope before it hits the sensor. The so-called “Space Zoom” allows you to go as much as 100X through a mix of that periscope, taking multiple photos, and sensor cropping.
The result is true optical zoom up to 4X and quite good zoom up to 10X. (Samsung claims it’s “lossless,” but I wouldn’t go that far.) I tested it up against a Pixel 4 XL, iPhone 11 Pro, and a Sony RX100 Mark VII, a high-end point-and-shoot camera with a zoom lens.
The Pixel 4 (which has its own fancy zoom algorithms) maxes out at 8X, so let’s focus on that zoom level. The Sony standalone wins, of course, but when you look at the phones, you’ll see that Samsung’s claims are borne out. It’s clearer and sharper than the Pixel 4, and it embarrasses the iPhone, which is artifact city at this zoom level.
At 30X, I did get decent photos out of the S20 Ultra, but they looked very processed and phone-like. If I were Samsung, I would have stopped there. That’s because, at 100X, images are a splotchy mess; it’s good mainly as a party trick.
Samsung does deserve credit for making a camera interface that wrangles all of these options into something easy to use and understand. I also give Samsung credit for a new mode called “Single Take,” which lets you just hit the shutter and wait while the camera collects enough data to give you a bunch of different camera effects at once. Samsung has a lot of weirdo camera features, and it’s impossible to remember them all, so Single Take just does them for you. The quality isn’t the best, but it’s super fun.
Samsung’s other selling point for the S20 Ultra is that you can take full 108-megapixel photos, allowing you to crop way into specific details if you want. (There’s yet more technical underpinning you could dig into here involving subpixel arrangements and re-mosaicing processes.)
Samsung thinks it’s best for landscapes and suggests that you only use it when the scene is brightly lit. I suggest you don’t use it nearly at all. I’ve yet to take a photo that looked better as a 108-megapixel photo than it did as a 12-megapixel one. On very tight crops, you can see more detail on some 108-megapixel shots, but you can also see enough noise that it’s only a modest improvement over the 12.
Now, the bad part.
The problem arises with faces. Like the iPhone, the S20 Ultra seems to see a face and wants to do a different kind of photo tuning to make sure it looks good. The S20 Ultra brings up shadows on faces and sometimes on the whole scene, it tries to adjust white balance differently, and it smooths out the skin.
None of those are bad ideas in principle, but in practice, Samsung’s algorithms are trying way too hard. The aggressive brightening is ham-fisted. The skin smoothing is out of control in a lot of cases. I don’t know what’s going on with white balance at all. I’ve seen photos go haywire with cyan a lot and sometimes with yellow tones, too. The good news is the S20 Ultra doesn’t fall in the trap of making things worse with darker skin tones, at least.
These effects don’t happen every time with faces, but they happen often enough that it’s troubling. I’ve asked Samsung about it, and other than gesturing to the possibility of a future software update, there’s not really a clear answer for it.
There are no settings to turn off this smoothing on faces. In fact, Samsung’s “Bixby Scene Optimizer” setting tends to make it worse. What’s wild about all of this is that none of it is really necessary. If your subject turns their head 45 degrees, suddenly, the S20 stops doing all three of those things, and the photos come out really good. Similarly, if you switch into Samsung’s “Pro Mode” in the camera app, these problems disappear.
Samsung Galaxy S20 review: Display
While a fast processor helps, the refresh rate of the display can make a phone feel smoother in everyday operation, whether you’re scrolling through webpages or playing games. The Samsung Galaxy S20’s 6.2-inch OLED display has 120Hz refresh rate, which is double the 60Hz rate on the Galaxy S10 and higher than the 90Hz screen on the OnePlus 7T.
Another plus? The Samsung Galaxy S20 sports a new 240Hz touch sensor that’s supposed to be more responsive. When using the phone during our hands-on time, the Galaxy S20 felt pretty fluid, and you can easily toggle between 60Hz and 120Hz in the display settings menu. The bad news is that selecting 120Hz dials the resolution down from quad HD to full HD.
Samsung Galaxy S20 review: Performance
As the first phone with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 processor, the Samsung Galaxy S20 should provide speed aplenty, especially since it’s paired with a robust 12GB of RAM. Samsung is giving you control over how you use this memory, too, as you can assign up to three apps to be stored directly in RAM. The result should be near-instant load times for resource-intensive apps and games.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 comes with 128GB of storage and there isn’t a 512GB model as there is with the Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra. Fortunately, you can add up to 1 TB of storage via the microSD card slot.
The Galaxy S20 performed very well in various benchmarks, including Geekbench 5, which measures overall performance. The S20 hit 3,147 on the multi-core portion of the test, which is the best score we’ve ever seen on an Android phone. The iPhone 11 Pro’s A13 Bionic processor scored an even higher 3,509, so Apple maintains its lead for now.
On the GFXBench graphics test (Aztec Ruins Vulkan test off-screen), the Galaxy S20 reached 1,319 frames (21 frames per second), which beats the OnePlus 7T (1,169). The iPhone 11 Pro notched higher 2,174 frames or 33.8 fps.
To test the Galaxy S20’s real-world performance, we transcoded a 4K video to 1080p after applying an effect and transition in Adobe Rush. The Galaxy S20 took 1 minute and 15 seconds, which is an improvement on the Galaxy Note 10’s time of 1:34. The iPhone 11 Pro needed only 46 seconds.
Samsung Galaxy S20 review: 5G
The Samsung Galaxy S20 supports 5G networks, so you should be able to enjoy faster speeds for surfing the web and downloading content on the go. However, the S20 does not yet support Verizon’s 5G network. That’s because this version of the S20 does not support mmWave technology.
At launch, the Galaxy S20 only operates on sub-6-GHz 5G networks, such as T-Mobile’s. However, Verizon says that it will carry a version of the Galaxy S20 that does support 5G mmWave in Q2.
Samsung Galaxy S20 review: Battery life and charging
Given its 5G connectivity and 120Hz display, the Samsung Galaxy S20 will need a beefy battery to get you through the day. And Samsung has answered the call with a 4,000 mAh battery in this phone. The Galaxy S10 had a 3,400 mAh battery, so this is a fairly big jump.
Unfortunately, the Galaxy S20 endured an average of just 9 hours and 31 minutes while setting to the 60Hz mode across two sessions of Tom’s Guide’s custom battery test, where devices repeatedly load web pages over T-Mobile’s network until they run out of battery.
The phones with the best battery life lasts 11 to 12 hours. The Galaxy S20 Plus lasted a decent 10 hours and 31 minutes and the Galaxy S20 Ultra hit an epic 12:03.
How does the regular S20 compare to similarly-priced flagships? The iPhone 11 Pro lasted 10 hours and 24 minutes on the same test, and last year’s Galaxy S10 managed 10 hours and 19 minutes. The iPhone 11, which costs $300 less than the Galaxy S20, fared even better than both, at 11 hours and 16 minutes.
After the S20 completed those tests, we went back and ran two more, now with the device’s refresh rate set to 120Hz. This time, the phone only averaged 8 hours and 4 minutes of runtime — nearly an hour and a half less than it managed when operating at 60Hz.
Power users or those especially concerned about their device lasting a day or more on a charge will want to have a look at the Galaxy S20 Plus or Galaxy S20 Ultra instead. But with those devices demanding a $200 and $400 premium over the standard S20, respectively, that peace of mind won’t come cheap.
The Galaxy S20 comes with a 25-watt charging adapter inbox that can take the device from empty to 53 percent in a half-hour. It also supports 15-watt wireless charging with compatible stands.
Samsung Galaxy S20 review: Software
The Samsung Galaxy S20 comes with Samsung’s new One UI 2 software, which streamlines the interface to make it easier to jump into your favorite apps, change settings and more. This rides on top of Android 10, which includes great new features like Smart Reply, a dark mode, and better privacy controls.
Samsung is also trying to build better experiences into the Galaxy S20, starting with Google Duo integration. Google’s answer to FaceTime, this video chat app is built right into the phone dialer and contacts apps, and you can video chat with up to 8 people. Plus, you can video chat in full HD for the first time.
Other software features include Music Share for sharing out your Bluetooth connection to your car (so someone else can control the playlist for a while) and Spotify integration with Bixby routines, so the Samsung Galaxy S20 will recommend playlists based on your preference and even the moment of the day.
PERFORMANCE AND SOFTWARE
Because of Qualcomm’s cadence for releasing new processors, Galaxy S phones often have the benefit of being the first mainstream phones with the latest chips for Android. The Galaxy S20 Ultra is no exception. It has the Snapdragon 865 processor, which is a little controversial because it has a separate 5G modem instead of an integrated 4G one.
The S20 Ultra is plenty fast — as fast as any Android phone I’ve used — and given how many pixels it has to render and how quickly, I suppose that’s an achievement. But it doesn’t feel significantly different in day-to-day use than last year’s Snapdragon 855.
Samsung loves winning spec fights, and it’s easy to dismiss most of it as chest-thumping. But there are two that I think will matter for most users: the aforementioned 5,000mAh battery and the 12 or 16GB of RAM. The big battery helps paper over whatever issues might arise from 5G or the high refresh rate screen, and the extra RAM keeps apps from closing in memory. Both are sledgehammer solutions, but I’m not complaining.
The S20 line also has a new feature that lets you “pin” three or five (depending on your RAM) apps to memory so that Android will never close them in the background. It’s a power user feature, but then again, the Galaxy S20 Ultra is clearly a power user phone.
Samsung kept expandable storage around but got rid of the headphone jack. Yes, even in 2020 it’s okay to feel a little sad about the headphone jack, especially since last year’s Galaxy S10 kept it around.
One UI 2 is the name of Samsung’s custom software on top of Android 10, and, as ever, I think it makes some smart improvements on the default interface. There’s an actual screen recording, easier-to-reach content, and a sidebar you can swipe in from anywhere that can contain your calendar, clipboard history, the weather, or other useful widgets. All of that is great.
Unfortunately, Samsung has apparently decided that it no longer needs to exercise restraint in its software additions. After years of paring TouchWiz back to something that felt more like stock Android, Samsung is Samsung again. The left of the home screen is called “Samsung Daily,” and it’s a sad pile of information widgets from companies Samsung happens to partner with. Bixby is still a subpar voice assistant that is mapped to a long press of the power button. The Quick Settings tray is filled with arcane icons labeled with feature names you need a bachelor’s degree in Samsung feature creep to identify.
You can dial all of this back and clean it up, but being forced to do so is annoying for experts like me and will be positively mystifying for people who are new to Samsung.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is a no expense spared, no stop un-pulled kind of phone. Samsung set out to show that it could outdo every other Android phone on the market. A lot of them have been creeping up on the Galaxy: the OnePlusses that beat it to high refresh rate screens, the Huawei’s with their periscope lenses, and, of course, the Google Pixels’ computational photography.
The S20 Ultra is Samsung’s answer to all of them. And for the most part, it’s a very good answer. It’s fast, powerful, beautiful, and has a battery that lasts. It’s also, of course, very expensive: you’re paying for 5G and a big screen in that $1,399.99 starting price, but you will be able to find both of those things for much less money in other Android phones. To me, the main justification for that expense is the all-new camera system.
Unfortunately, all-new is very close to too-new, and the S20 Ultra’s cameras feel like the latter. Samsung’s new hardware for its cameras may give it an edge someday, but right now, it hasn’t fully wrangled all of those pixels with its software. That means that while it’s very competent, it’s also very inconsistent.