Galaxy S20 Ultra: Top camera features finally make sense, but battery life doesn’t (ongoing review)

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is the most advanced of Samsung’s new phones.

[Tutorial] Facebook [Deutsch] [HD] - YouTubeSarah Tew/CNET I began this ongoing review of the Galaxy S20 Ultra knowing that Samsung’s redesigned camera system and its massive 5,000-mAh battery would make or break the phone. I’ve spent the past few days testing its 108-megapixel main sensor and up-to-100x AI-assisted camera zoom, looking for reasons to use these over-the-top features in real life. I finally found it.

But during my day out shooting in the atmospheric, coastal city of Monterey, California, the S20 Ultra’s battery life also came into question. I’ll break both observations down below. But before I do, just a reminder that these are my evolving impressions, which change as new information and observations come to light. They’re by no means my final thoughts, so I hope you’ll stick around for the rated review and specific buying advice about who this phone is for and if it’s worth the asking price.

Remember, too, that the S20 Ultra is the most advanced of Samsung’s new Galaxy S20 phones, with the largest screen size (6.9 inches), the biggest battery and the most camera toys compared to the Galaxy S20 Plus and standard Galaxy S20 (scroll to the end for a full specs comparison). It’s also the most expensive, starting at $1,400 for the 256GB version (£1,199 for the 128GB version or AU$1,999), compared to $1,000 for the S20 and $1,200 for the S20 Plus.

The core software and hardware features, including a fast 120Hz screen refresh rate, Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor and 5G readiness remain the same for all S20 phones. (The base S20 model is a little more complicated, supporting the Sub-6 type of 5G, except for Verizon.) 

And now, here’s my breakthrough understanding about the S20 Ultra’s camera, battery and more.

Read more: Our first photos with the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s new cameras

How the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera changed my mind
I admit I was optimistic but skeptical when I started testing the Galaxy S20’s two marquee camera features, the 108-megapixel main camera sensor and 100x “space zoom.” They skirt the edge of gimmick. But a day spent photographing things I love in a place dear to my heart made me understand the value of these features in a more personal way — which is exactly the test I was going for.

I spent the day with my mom clambering the same coastal rocks and walking the same paths that I have nearly every year since my childhood. We laughed at overconfident squirrels on the hunt for human food they definitely shouldn’t be eating; peered into tide pools filled with hermit crabs and folded-in sea anemones; felt the salt wind whip our faces and watched the Pacific’s majestic waves crash upon ocean rock. These are things I naturally want to photograph and share, and so that’s what I did.

The promise of the Ultra’s 108-megapixel sensor is to give you more detail when you crop into a shot. I initially found that wasn’t always the case, depending on what it is you’re shooting. First, you have to select the setting or else the camera will take 12-megapixel photos, using a process called pixel binning. 

A deep crop edited after taking this photo from high above with the S20 Ultra’s 108-megapixel camera setting.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET Second, I learned that I’d have better luck with photos that weren’t too close up. For example, I shot a mid-distance photo of blue mussels spiking a rock. I’d have had to wade in to get close enough for a macro, but taking a quick photo in 108 let me crop in with excellent detail on one cluster or another. To get fine detail on a towering flower planted along the coastal path, a regular old macro shot was more than enough.

I’ve always said that the benefit of extreme zoom is to close a physical distance you can’t overcome to see the thing you want to see — like the cornice of a palace or a celebrity on stage. The photo may not be frame-worthy, but it’s better than having nothing at all. 

In Monterey, the S20 Ultra’s 10x, 30x and even 100x zoom, which rely on AI algorithms, were useful for photographing giant cormorants clustered on a rock and a man in a chartreuse kayak paddling far out from the shore. When I left Mom to clamber up a hill of rocks, both zoom and 108-megapixel photos let me photograph her waving from below.

These probably aren’t features you’ll use every day, but I’m starting to feel that I might use them more than I initially thought.

No zoom, 10x, 30x, 100x #GalaxyS20Ultra

— Jessica Dolcourt (@jdolcourt) February 23, 2020 A few more camera details

Samsung said it made the S20’s sensors three times larger than those of the Galaxy S10 to let in more light. 

Photos are clear, sharp and colorful overall. Here are some test shots from the Galaxy S20 Ultra so far.

108-megapixel images take up far more space, say two to eight times the storage for many shots.

Photos taken at 10x and 30x zoom are better quality than 100x zoom.

At 100x, the camera’s space zoom gets too shaky for clear handheld shots. Use a tripod or monopod, or stabilize it against a surface.

Some photos I shot close-up were actually noisier in 108 when I zoomed in (on the laptop screen and the phone screen) than they were taken with the standard photo mode.

Battery life with the 120Hz screen
The Galaxy S20 devices support 120Hz refresh rates on the screen. That means its pixels refresh 120 times a second, twice that of the standard 60Hz refresh rate. The idea is to make everything from scrolling and animations to gameplay liquid smooth. The feature isn’t on by default, and it isn’t in the quick access bar, so you have to turn it on yourself. Samsung expects you to either use it all the time or never, rather than having you toggle it for gaming and then reverting. The choice, of course, is yours. 

Using 120Hz immediately took a battery toll on the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Granted, I hit the phone hard with three hours of Google Maps navigation to and from Monterey. And I constantly used the phone to photograph and record my surroundings. But I lost power at a higher rate than I’d expect for a device with such an generous battery. After 10.5 hours, I had dropped from 100% to 12%, and still had hours of evening to go. Thankfully, the phone fully charged in under an hour, using the 25-watt charger that comes in the box.

It’s hard to say how long the battery would have lasted with the 60Hz refresh rate. Maybe I’d have seen a dip too, but I’m not sure that the extra smoothness from the 120Hz screen is worth battery anxiety for me. Meanwhile, the battery testing continues.

So turns out you CAN run down a 5,000mAh battery pretty low in 9 hours. It’s easy! at 8:30am + 3 hours driving navigation, + nonstop photo and video + 120Hz screen refresh rate – 5G (4G only for me) #GalaxyS20Ultra

— Jessica Dolcourt (@jdolcourt) February 23, 2020 Battery life without 120Hz or 5G: Very good

Straight out of the box, I had confidence that the Galaxy S20 Ultra could withstand most things I threw at it — at least over 4G data and using the 60Hz default screen refresh rate. (I’ve already mentioned the apparent battery toll of the 120Hz mode above.)

As for 5G, these faster speeds are known to drain battery reserves faster than 4G, but that’s not something I’ve been able to quantify yet. At this point, the Galaxy S20 Ultra isn’t quite calibrated to AT&T’s 5G network, and I’ve been testing on an AT&T SIM. AT&T and Samsung assure me that by the time the Ultra arrives on store shelves, 5G will be good to go. I also swapped in a T-Mobile SIM card to use all day, but wasn’t able to find 5G signal anywhere I was yesterday. 

On 4G, the S20 Ultra retained impressive battery reserves even after hours of hotspotting to my laptop, streaming Netflix video, and uploading dozens of photos and video over cellular. I’m not at all concerned about running low.