It seems too good to be true: a smartphone with a 108-megapixel camera and a 100x zoom.
In part, it is.
I’ve tried Samsung’s new flagship phone, the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Although I salute Samsung for its ambition, it’s clear from first impressions that it’s limited in the quality of 100x zoom or 108-megapixel photos that it’s capable of.
I mean this when comparing it to a standalone camera. Compared to other phones, this may be the best cameraphone yet released on the market.
But I’ll start with what gives it its headline branding - those unbelievable camera specifications.
From my brief shots with it, the 100x zoom feature is not something you can reliably use indoors. The room I tried it in was bright enough, but mostly from artificial light. At 100x zoom, the images were grainy and blurry. To be fair, I would have been astonished had it been any other way. The laws of physics simply don’t allow for such a tiny zoom lens to provide crystal clear imagery except in bright daylight.
So much for the outright quality metrics: what really counts is how it compares to other flagship phones.
I’m very familiar with the current standard-bearer for cameraphone zooms, Huawei’s P30 Pro with its 50x zoom. Outdoors, this is genuinely incredible: I’ve posted footage before from a football stadium where I was able to pick up stabilised, high definition footage of the Irish president’s pre-match handshakes with team players.
Samsung insists that the zoomed footage on the S20 Ultra will best the P30 Pro’s. This may well be true: the sensor size on the S20 Ultra hits a new high for smartphones at 1/1.33. To put that in lay terms, it’s about three times as big as a normal smartphone’s sensor (including the iPhone 11 Pro).
This is a very, very big deal - sensor size is critically important for the quality of photos, especially in low light. This is why Canon and Nikon “full frame” cameras generally produce higher-grade images in moderate light than some mirrorless cameras with smaller sensors. It is also why cameras such as ‘medium format’ Hasselblads, with sensors even bigger than those Canons and Nikons, cost upwards of €5,000 each.
Nevertheless, sensor size isn’t the only thing that counts. So we’ll only be able to really verify which system is better after extended testing.
As mentioned above, the 100x zoom isn’t the only camera trick that the S20 Ultra has. Its main camera can create 108-megapixel photos. The benefit of such a high megapixel count is that you can supposedly zoom in to a part of the photo and still see a huge amount of clarity and detail. Thus, you can cut out (or ‘crop’) that bit and it would be as if you were much closer, taking a normal photo. (This is again why ‘medium format’ Hasselblads and Fujifilm GFX models are so expensive: their huge sensors allow for massive megapixel photos, which can then produce astonishingly detailed landscape and portrait photos.)
In practice, the early results from this 108-megapixel mode are less dramatic than the theoretical promise. The 108-megapixel shots we took on this phone at our hands-on session were good, but again subject to the medium-grade light in the room. So when I actually zoomed right in on the photos to see what 108 megapixels actually delivers in terms of resolution, there was a fair bit of fuzzy ‘noise’ and image aberration. Again, this is not surprising: there is much more to a clear, accurate photo than just megapixels.
The S20 Ultra doesn’t include a macro lens, but it does have a good third ultrawide lens.
The camera array on the back of the S20 Ultra sticks out a bit, although Samsung points out that with a case, it becomes flush with any flat surface it’s placed on.
There is one other feature that the S20 Ultra has which, while it sounds like a leap forward, will be useless to almost everyone. It has 8K video recording. Obviously, you will only be able to really see the entire resolution of this on an 8K television, of which there are almost none in Ireland. What’s more, most agree that it’s not even possible for the human eye to detect any difference whatsoever between 4K and 8K on a screen under 65 inches. So in terms of recording a video for social media (YouTube actually facilitates 8K now), it’s a giant waste of your phone’s storage (8K videos are gigabytes in size) and your data allowance, as virtually no-one will be able to tell it’s an 8K video. To be fair, there is one associated feature on the phone which could be useful -- an ability to take a 33-megapixel still snap from an 8K video you shoot.
While the cameras are clearly the headline news for this phone, the S20 Ultra’s 6.9-inch display raises the bar for the industry, too. It’s a 120hz display, meaning that it is super-smooth to scroll on. It’s not something that’s very obvious immediately, but you definitely notice it after a while. It’s a little like going from ‘HD compatible’ to ‘full HD’. The gorgeous, bright 511ppi Amoled screen is also HDR10+ certified, meaning that it’s about as good as you can get for crisp colours and dark blacks. This is now the benchmark for smartphone screens.
The battery, too, deserves a mention. This is a whopping 5,000mAh battery, far larger than almost any other battery on the market. Together with the 7nm processor, this is set to become the long life king among smartphones.
Although this first-impressions review has focused mainly on the S20 Ultra, Samsung has also released two ‘regular’ flagship phones, the 6.2-inch S20 and the 6.7-inch S20 Plus. Like the S20 Ultra, both come with 5G connectivity as standard.
Other than the screen sizes, the differences are mainly in the cameras and the battery sizes.
The ‘basic’ S20 has a standard, zoom and ultrawide camera, but not a depth sensor for portraits, something the other two models have. Its battery is 4,000mAh, still relatively long lasting for a handset this size. It is also only available in a 128GB storage option and it is the only model that comes in a 4G-only version, as well as a 5G version (which costs more).
The S20 Plus has the same three rear cameras as the S20 but also a depth sensor. Its battery is 4,500mAh and it’s available in both a 128GB and a 512GB option.
The S20 Ultra has the higher-specification cameras, bigger battery and comes with an additional 256GB option, as well as 128GB or 512GB.
Here’s what the new Galaxy S20, S20 Plus and S20 Ultra phones cost in Ireland. Samsung says that they’ll be available through every major operator and in standalone shops like Carphone Warehouse.
Galaxy S20 4G (128GB) - €929
Galaxy S20 5G (128GB) - €1,029
Galaxy S20+ 5G (128GB) - €1,129
Galaxy S20 Ultra (128GB) - €1,379
Galaxy S20 Ultra (512GB) - €1,579
Pre-orders for the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra begin today (February 11th). A limited number of pre-orders for the Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra will be eligible to claim a pair of wireless Galaxy Buds+ (€179). Customers who avail of the pre-order will receive their device three days early.