Why you can trust ZDNET
:ZDNET independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission.Our process
'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?
ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.
When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.
ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.
A few weeks ago ZDNet Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan and I attended briefings with Samsung to get our first look at the Galaxy S20 lineup and for the past week I've been using a Cosmic Gray 128GB Samsung S20 Ultra 5G as my daily driver on T-Mobile. The phone launches in the US next week and in addition to this review, we will have more articles exploring other features and functions in depth.
A $1,400 starting price is hefty for a smartphone, but as we see $1,000 as a common starting point for flagship phones with people keeping them for two to three years one can justify the price over a longer period of use for a tool that is used daily and is critical to getting work done. Thankfully, Samsung provided a phone that is forward-looking and can almost guarantee its relevancy for this two to three year period.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G offers all you could want in 2020 with 5G functionality across all three bands that makes it a contender for the best smartphone in 2020 as well. It is packed full of the latest mobile technology and is going to take a bit of time to fully explore by various contributors here at ZDNet.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G specifications
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865
Main display: 6.9 inches, 3200 x 1400 pixels resolution (511 ppi), Dynamic AMOLED Infinity-O with 120Hz refresh rate
Cameras: 48MP rear f/3.5 telephoto with 10x optical hybrid zoom, 108MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (120 degrees field-of-view). A DepthVision camera is also found on the back. 40MP f/2.2 front-facing camera.
Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax (2.4/5GHz), Bluetooth 5.0 LE, ANT+, GPS/Galileo/GLONASS/Beidou, NFC
Battery: 5000 mAh non-removable with fast wireless charging. Wireless PowerShare is also available.
Dimensions: 166.9 x 76 x 8.8mm and 222 grams
Colors: Cosmic Gray and Cosmic Black
The two primary focus points of this phone are the cameras and 5G capability. The 48MP and 108MP cameras perform pixel binning (labeled nona binning by Samsung) via a 3x3 (9-in-1) binning process to end up with an effective pixel size of 2.4 micron. This binning process of combining nine noisy pixels into one should enhance low light results.
In regards to 5G, the S20 Ultra 5G supports Sub6 (low-band), mid-band (Sprint is currently using it), and mmWave (high-band) networks so it is a universal device capable of supporting a range of 5G networks. These networks are still in their infancy so it is great to see Samsung providing a phone that is prepared to serve you well into the future. It is also being sold by Samsung as an unlocked model that will work with 5G on all US carriers so that's worth some value right there. This universal 5G model is a first for Samsung.
Larry mentioned after his briefing that the phone was a beast, but since I've been carrying around a Note 10 Plus for the last month or so I didn't think it felt that big when I first saw it. The S20 Ultra is 1.2mm narrower than the Note 10 Plus, but it is 4.6mm taller and 0.9mm thicker with 26 grams of increased weight. However, the massive camera bump on the back that houses the array of cameras is still a bit annoying after a week primarily because it rests at an angle when set down on a table. While a case adds bulk to the overall package, if I owned this phone I think I would still pick up a minimalist case.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra is a gorgeous piece of hardware with minimal top and bottom bezels, no side bezels, and an even smaller hole-punch centered front-facing camera. It supports an amazing full-screen work and play experience with sides that are not as curved as previous S-series devices so you can hold onto the phone comfortably. This design also helps prevent incidental screen activation.
The Super AMOLED display is obviously stunning and again earned the title of best smartphone display. I have enjoyed working with Excel spreadsheets, watching video content, and reading long documents on the massive display with minimal bezels. One new feature, not yet seen on any other smartphone, is the 120 Hz refresh rate on the display. This provides you with a more seamless visual experience, especially when scrolling up and down the display or gaming.
When you toggle from 60 Hz to 120 Hz, display resolution is limited to 2400 x 1080 pixels. For the past couple of years, I've set all of my Samsung phones to this resolution, in lieu of the highest resolution available, in order to have better battery life. I cannot visually tell the difference on a smartphone display above 1080p so anything higher is just a numbers game and means nothing to me. Reports from others testing the phones indicate battery life is impacted when set at 120 Hz, up to three hours for a full charge, but since I'm getting through more than a full day of heavy use with the high refresh rate turned on all the time I don't plan to toggle on 60 Hz.
When placed side-by-side with a Note 10 Plus at 60 Hz, I can see a clear difference in the smoothness of scrolling up and down screens. If you didn't see it in this manner you might not care, but once you experience higher refresh rates it is tough to go backwards.
An ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is positioned under the center of the display. The software has been improved and I find it is faster to unlock the phone, but you still have to press a bit harder than you do with the optical fingerprint scanners. Face unlock is available and while less secure, it is good for regular use when the phone is with you all day.
I am very pleased to see the power/Bixby and volume buttons have been moved over to the right side with nothing on the left side. The Note 10 Plus has the buttons on the opposite side, which has caused me much angst. The stainless steel sides provide a solid feel to the phone as well. It's a hefty device at 222 grams and quite long so it's not going into jeans, shorts, or shirt pockets.
There is a USB-C port on the bottom with a mic and speaker while the SIM/microSD card tray and another mic are on the top. The stereo speakers sound better than the Note 10 Plus, but I still find the iPhone 11 Pro to have better audio output.
The back is really hard to get over. The camera module is huge and protrudes quite a bit, causing the phone to rest on the back at a tipped angle. The Cosmic Gray color is very professional looking and perfect for the workplace. It is glos
sy too, but does a decent job of resisting fingerprints.
The 48MP rear camera with 10x hybrid optic zoom (a combination of hardware and AI) has a camera design similar to what we saw on the Huawei P30 Pro with a periscope arrangement using mirrors and then lenses oriented from left to right under the lower part of the camera assembly. Space Zoom 100x is advertised, but that 100x is pretty useless in practice. It might give you an indication of something far away, but even with a steady hand the result is blurry. We'll try using a tripod and see if we can find some uses for such a crazy level of optical and digital zoom.
There is also a crazy 108MP rear camera as the center camera for standard shots. In the camera software you can choose to capture 12MP shots in 3:4, 9:16, 1:1, or Full screen mode. You can also choose to shoot in 3:4 with 108MP for more detail to manipulate after the shot through the included editor or other software.
The top camera is a 12MP ultra-wide sensor with 120 degree field-of-view support. A 40MP camera is found on the front with a 0.7 micron pixel size.
I included just a couple of photos in this review, but plan to have a more detailed article on the cameras and their performance next week. There is a lot here to test in the way of photography and so far I am not disappointed. Some folks who are further along in testing the cameras state there are some focus issues that I understand Samsung has acknowledged with plans for a software update soon. We'll try to replicate the issues and discuss in the next article. For now, make sure to check out Jessica Dolcourt's article below from CNET.
I ran into some issues with the camera today where it refused to autofocus on a subject and kept hunting around, leading to some serious frustration on my part. Samsung stated, "The Galaxy S20 features a groundbreaking, advanced camera system. We are constantly working to optimize performance to deliver the best experience for consumers. As part of this ongoing effort, we are working on a future update to improve the camera experience."
Thankfully, I live and work in an area where T-Mobile low-band 5G is prevalent. I was able to put T-Mobile SIM cards in this phone and the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren and saw just about the same download and upload Speedtest results. RF reception was also equal between these two phones, which is great since Samsung and OnePlus have proven to be the two best in my testing over the past couple of years. Phone calls also sounded great on the S20 Ultra 5G, as expected from Samsung.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra launches with Android 10 and Samsung One UI 2.1. One UI is a very capable user interface and my favorite non-Pixel flavor of Android. One UI offers a clean user experience with gesture-based navigation options too.
Thankfully, Samsung still includes its own apps, such as calendar, contacts, image gallery, music player, and web browser software. All of these offer more than the stock Google apps, and while others move to purely stock Google apps, there is still a ton of value in these Samsung applications for the enterprise.
The camera interface has been updated to support the various new cameras. If you want to enable the full nona binning functionality you can tap in the top row of the viewfinder and then select 3:4 108MP to get a 12MP shot with more details. Pinching to zoom will also initiate quick zoom buttons for 0.5x, 1x, 2x, 4x, 10x, 30x, and 100x. When the 108MP mode is selected the zoom tops out at 6x.
Single Take lets your press the shutter button once to record 10 seconds of video. The software then uses AI to provide you with time-lapse, forward-backward videos, edited photos (such as black and white), bokeh effects, and more all created from your 10-second clip.
It is also interesting to see that you can start recording a video and then switch between the rear and front cameras without interrupting the video. This could be useful for sharing moments with employees in the field or family on the road.
QuickShare is Samsung's answer to AirPlay for sharing files, but it requires another Samsung phone or tablet to share your files with. I wasn't able to test out this capability with just one S20 on hand.
Video calling in the phone app has always been rather useless with carrier and phone compatibility issues. Google and Samsung worked together to get Duo embedded in the phone and I look forward to trying out this seamless experience. I've made more Google Duo videos in the past week than I have in the past month and am loving this integration.
With the inclusion of all three levels of 5G in the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, Samsung has helped make a compelling argument for the $1,400 starting price. We are just seeing these 5G networks roll out though so the benefits are not yet fully available to consumers. I'm seeing good low-band coverage on T-Mobile, but this variant is focused more on penetration and coverage than it is on speed. This is fine with me as LTE speeds meet my needs and I just want better, deeper coverage.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G sets the bar for specifications in the smartphone world for 2020. There is no other phone available with these high-level specifications and Samsung is asking a lot for that privilege. Enterprise customers will appreciate having the most capable phone available today, especially considering it is future-proof for the next two to three years.
I recently purchased the NexDock 2 and it has been a wonderful DeX companion to the S20 Ultra 5G during my train commute. The Galaxy Watch Active 2 has also served as a decent accessory for this new phone and its clear the Samsung ecosystem has a lot of value, just as Apple has shown appeals to 14 to 16 percent of the smartphone world.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G is a big phone and will not be compatible with everyone. Samsung has two other models in the lineup too and there are very few compromises to pick up one of these models. If you are looking for the best smartphone available right now, it's tough to beat the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G.
Feel free to interact with me here or on Twitter as we work on the other S20 Ultra 5G articles.
Samsung Galaxy S20 first look: All the models and colors up close