Galaxy S20 worth the upgrade? That depends on Samsung’s camera and battery life

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera performance could make all the difference. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

“Whoa. This is the Galaxy S20 Ultra?” I was so surprised, I said it aloud. Tuesday at Samsung’s Unpacked event was the first time I was able to see Samsung’s biggest and baddest Galaxy S20 device with my own eyes. Due to unfortunate circumstances outside of my control, I had to skip the typical journalist briefing session. So it wasn’t until I held the S20 Ultra on Tuesday at Samsung’s Unpacked event that I was able to form my first concrete opinion.

The S20 Ultra is a massive, heavy phone with a hulking camera module that reminded me of The Rock. CNET Senior Editor Lynn La went even further, calling the array “chonky” and grotesque”

And this $1,400 phone truly feels like a ton of bricks. The black glossy version I handled didn’t look nearly as refined as the Galaxy Note 10 or even as last year’s Galaxy S10 (now pleasantly discounted!). If I hadn’t known the backing was made of glass, I wouldn’t have immediately been able to tell. I turned on the 120GHz screen feature and noted the smoother scrolling. Nice, but for me, nonessential. I picked through the settings submenus, waiting for a thrilling new feature to jump out.

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It was beginning to dawn on me — the MVP features that will make or break the Galaxy S20 Ultra aren’t ones you can test in an artificially lit demo room, no matter how spacious. The quality of those completely redesigned cameras and longevity of the Ultra’s 5,000-mAh battery can only be tested using the phone in the real world. And that will take time. (The same is true of 5G speeds, but since those are only as good as the network strength wherever you live, I’ll give it a pass for now.)

Dissecting the S20 Ultra’s eye-popping camera specs is simple enough in theory. There’s a 108-megapixel camera, 100x “space zoom” and 48-megapixel “folded zoom lens.” It was easy to point at the nice props around the room, like a tray of fancy yogurt parfait and journalist friends to quickly gauge how well each camera feature performed. That’s fine (and necessary) in a closed demo space, but you don’t really know how good the photos are until you start taking pictures of scenes in the real world.

Camera value doesn’t come down to the image quality alone, either. You also have to factor in how easy it is to use the feature correctly, edit photos and share them. For example, after testing the “Single Take” mode that captures up to 10 photos and four videos with a single button press, I was starting to get a distinct impression that using this mode means you might spend a lot of time deleting all the extra shots you don’t want.

Testing the zoom feature is especially important. As I pointed the S20 Ultra around the room and dialed in on 30x, 50x and 100x zoom, I wasn’t immediately impressed with what I saw. But I also wasn’t pointing at anything meaningful, like a decorative cornice on a palace, an egret wading in the ocean or a dazzling performer on stage. 

Comparing the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s zoom capabilities to those of the Huawei P30 Pro will be essential, as well. That phone’s periscope lens uses a similar technology to create 5x optical and up to 50x digital zoom. I remember being impressed by its ability to capture far-off objects more faithfully than not. The same goes for the Pixel 4 and 4 XL’s “super zoom” sensors.

Battery life is the final ingredient here. 5,000 mAh is about the biggest capacity around, but we also have to factor in how many resources the phone’s enormous screen really uses, how 5G might change the battery equation (that will vary by network) and how much the 120Hz screen usage could also drain battery life compared to the standard 60Hz screen settings.

I’m excited to learn the answers to these questions. Pretty soon when someone asks me if the Galaxy S20 Ultra is worth the money, or worth an upgrade from the Galaxy S10, I’ll have a clear answer to tell them.

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