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Samsung Galaxy S24 series hands-on: I did not expect this model to be my favorite

The display, the feel in the hand, the Galaxy AI features that aren't locked to the most expensive model; this is the Galaxy S24 variant that I'd personally buy.
Written by Kerry Wan, Senior Reviews Editor
Samsung Galaxy S24 models
June Wan/ZDNET

About a week ago, amid all the CES craziness, I took an Uber to a discrete, back alley building in downtown Las Vegas. My Uber driver asked me what I was doing so far away from the strip, seeing my CES badge hanging down my neck and no other journalist in sight. I couldn't say.

Also: Every product Samsung announced at Unpacked 2024

Because for the next two hours that day, I was picking up Samsung Galaxy S24 phones, big and small, feeling the difference between aluminum and titanium, snapping photos at 5x, 30x, 100x, and listening to product experts pitch the latest and greatest AI features. Oh, how I wish I had an AI tool to summarize all the things they said.

By the time my demo session was over, I was left feeling cautiously optimistic about Samsung's newest smartphones. Two hours of testing was never going to be sufficient for a review's worth of buying advice, but I still had plenty of things to say. Now that the curtains have lifted at Samsung's Unpacked event today, here are my initial thoughts on the latest Galaxy handsets.

The Galaxy S24 is still the compact king

Samsung Galaxy S24 - Galaxy AI
June Wan/ZDNET

I've come to terms with the fact that small phones will never be the same, not with the increase in digital consumption and the desire to fit as much information as possible on one screen. Big phones sell, and the upward trajectory in screen size is not without reason. But in today's world, the Samsung Galaxy S24, with its 6.2-inch display, is as good as the compact form factor gets. 

That's been the case since the Galaxy S21, but it's easy to forget how comfortable these phones feel in the hand when we're often drawn to the flashier, more powerful Plus and Ultra models. I'm guilty of that. 

Also: Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5: Three features I love (and two that I still wish for)

It helps that the new Galaxy S24 models are flatter, boxier, and grippier than their predecessors. Having flat edges means there's more surface area for your fingers to press against when holding the phone. This difference was most noticeable when I held the devices up for photos and videos.

I also found the smaller footprint of the standard Galaxy S24 beneficial for using the new Circle to Search with Google feature, an AI search tool that requires you to long-press the home button situated on the bottommost area of the display. Performing this gesture typically requires some degree of finger gymnastics or angling your phone forward -- making it prone to slipping out of your hand. There was never a sense of panic with the smaller Galaxy S24.

The Plus size has my name on it (and probably yours)

Samsung Galaxy S24 Plus and Ultra

The Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra in Titanium Violet (left) and the Galaxy S24 Plus in Marble Grey (right).

June Wan/ZDNET

There's an appeal to the "just good enough" Samsung Galaxy S24 Plus model. It's not too big, not too small; just decently sized for both casual consumers and power users. I also really dig the new colorways. When asked which was my favorite, I had a difficult time giving the Samsung representative a straight answer. You can't go wrong with the clean, beige-white finish of the Marble Grey, but the Cobalt Violet is enticing with its blend of bluish-purple hues.

Also: Samsung is giving Galaxy S24 a display upgrade you'll either really love or never notice

What truly sets the Galaxy S24 Plus model apart for me this year is its display resolution and its price. For the first time, Samsung has equipped the Plus variant with a QHD, 1440 x 3088 resolution display, putting it in the same tier as the Ultra. That's a major upgrade if you watch movies and videos on your phone, edit photos and videos, or read pages of text like this because everything simply looks sharper.

The new Galaxy AI features, which I'm sure Samsung will spend a healthy amount of time talking about during its Unpacked keynote, will be available across every Galaxy S24 model, meaning you'll feel less FOMO this year if you don't opt for the Ultra variant. And with a $100 price bump to the Ultra, the $300 price gap between it and the Plus model makes the latter the more sensible pick for me -- and probably for you, too.

So, who should buy the Ultra?

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra
June Wan/ZDNET

Did Samsung shoot itself in the foot by further distancing the Plus and Ultra models this year? Possibly, but I still believe there's an audience for the more expensive option. Because when consumers want the best thing they can get, there's no guiding star better than a premium price tag. Fortunately, with the Galaxy S24 Ultra, you're not necessarily getting less when paying more.

Also: 3 reasons why the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra is worth it (even after the price bump)

I called the Galaxy S23 Ultra the best phone of 2023, and the newest model sees improvements in all the right places, from processing power (Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 and 12GB RAM at the base level) to the larger cooling chamber to a more capable 50MP telephoto lens with 5x optical zoom. I gave the camera system a spin and found it plenty capable of capturing subjects at a distance. Heck, the S24 Ultra can even scan QR codes with its 50x digital zoom.

Surrounding the Galaxy S24 Ultra is a new titanium frame instead of last year's aluminum, and I'm conflicted about the change. For one, the material makes the device feel lighter in the hand, noticeably grippier, and more durable. Everyone can benefit from those gains, whether you slap a case on the device or not. I'm more so worried about the long-term conditioning of the material, which, based on experiences with the iPhone 15 Pro series (that also uses titanium), can have its color coating scratched off over time.

If you're a potential buyer of the Galaxy S24 Ultra, I'd recommend one of the lighter colors for a cleaner look that will likely hold up for a longer time.

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