Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review •

by Ana Lopez

Samsung is the best in large. Big, brash, bold phones at the sink. The company that made the phablet mainstream a decade ago has never given up on big dreams about big phones. Last year, the company took a risk by making the beloved Note line disappear. While I’m sticking with my initial assessment that the Samsung Galaxy S22 Note would have served as a good brand compromise, the justification behind the move made sense.

For starters, there was little daylight left between the Galaxy S and Note lines. From a design standpoint, the two were increasingly difficult to tell apart. The idea of ​​a big phone is more common than new these days, and the addition of S Pen functionality to the former was the final straw. There’s also the simple fact that people just aren’t buying phones like they used to, so combining two similar premium lines made sense.

All this enabled Samsung to put the money where its mouth is with regard to foldables. I admit I had my doubts when the company declared the Galaxy Z Fold the flagship. Promoting it to first place by clearing a note-sized gap in the lineup resolved those questions — even if the jury is still out on whether it’s viable in the long run. Analysts estimate that Samsung’s foldable shipments to date were about 10 million units by the middle of last year. That’s nothing to shake a stick at, and a clear advantage that it’s still pretty much the only game in foldable city.

While Samsung is far from the phone maker in the premium space, the company – along with Apple – continues to dominate the sales charts. Huawei is out of the picture for now, and while a slew of other Chinese companies have happily filled that void, Samsung remains the premium Android smartphone to beat.

Image Credits: Brian Heating

The Galaxy S23 Ultra is the Galaxy Note 23 in every way. It’s more than just a spiritual successor, it’s the product the device almost certainly would have become. And while it’s not the most expensive handset in Samsung’s portfolio (the Z Fold wins that context in a landslide), it’s arguably the highest-end device the company offers. Certainly a starting price of $1,200 qualifies as prohibitively expensive for most consumers.

The good news is that by swapping out some top-line features, you can drop the starting price down to $800 for the S23, which qualifies as a reasonable price these days for a flagship from one of the two major phone makers. As usual, the sacrifices for the entry-level model are screen size, battery (linked directly to screen/phone size), camera and stylus functionality. The 6.1-inch handset is still very much a flagship, and certainly not everyone needs a 200-megapixel camera sensor or what is a 6.8-inch phone.

The $1,000 Galaxy S23+ splits the difference to some extent. The 6.6-inch screen and 4,700 mAh battery are closer to what you get with the S23 Ultra. Again, the main 200 megapixel camera is downgraded to 50 megapixels and the stylus functionality is lost altogether. If you can live without those pieces – as presumably the vast majority of Samsung’s flagship buyers can – it’s not a particularly attractive upgrade, costing $100 more than the entry-level iPhone 14 Pro.

Image Credits: Brian Heating

One of the biggest drawbacks to the Galaxy S line’s inclusion of the Note is that there isn’t much wiggle room for enthusiasts of the latter. For example, there’s no Note Lite in the mix. That’s probably partly due to the fact that stylus-enabled phones remain relatively niche, despite the Note’s success. From a pure numbers standpoint, it makes sense to keep the product around, but maybe not to build an entire line around it.

That means if you want the feature, you need all the other bells and whistles that come with it. Samsung has been offering custom colors in product lines for a while now, but when it comes to mass-producing consumer electronics, custom features are something else entirely. It’s hard to argue that anyone “needs” any of these features, but a good number of premium Samsung device owners have found S Pen-based note-taking extremely useful for their work lives, and you can’t really argue with that .

Notably, all three models have the same Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor. Qualcomm’s latest flagship brings a lot to the table, in terms of upgrades. That starts with elements that are often overlooked, such as faster Wi-Fi thanks to an upgraded radio and Wi-Fi 7. The latter, mind you, is a little bit future-proofed, with the first compatible routers rolling out this year. In the meantime, you can take advantage of Wi-Fi 6 and 6E speeds depending on the network.

As always, the processing power gains are the real headliner. Our S23 Ultra (with 12GB of RAM and 512GB of storage) scored 1434 on the Geekbench 5 single core and 4787 multicore, which was a healthy leap over the previous generation, though the overall scores fall short of what Apple can currently do first. achieve -party silicon on the iPhone. The whole phone experience is smooth. Years of hardware and software evolution have resulted in a well-polished product that is both fast and responsive, switching between apps, playing games and watching videos.

Image Credits: Brian Heating

The design of the phone has moved in a more angular direction this year, moving away from the smooth, rounded corners of its predecessors. That’s something of a mixed blessing. Maybe it’s just me, but the push for perfectly smooth devices is aesthetically pleasing, but they’re – quite literally – harder to hold. On the other hand, there’s a degree to which it feels like Samsung is leaning into the tank metaphor on its high-end device, and those who already have trouble holding a 6.8-inch phone in one hand might have extra here made an effort. It’s an intentional contrast to the rounded S23 and S23+, with a more industrial and – perhaps business-oriented – design.

The S23 line is the first from a manufacturer to feature Gorilla Glass Victus 2, which was announced late last year. That’s some consolation because you’re not the first with the new Qualcomm chipset – although you’ll probably see several (or dozens) of systems running Corning’s latest with it. And why not? Ruggedness should be in the top three or five most requested features among phone buyers. Flagships were once both the most expensive and the most fragile handsets you could buy.

In addition to the improved scratch resistance, the material can withstand a drop of one meter on concrete and two meters on asphalt. Hopefully you’ll never have to test that with your $1,200 handset, but most of us have been there. Before we leave the topic of material, it’s important to highlight Samsung’s ongoing efforts in sustainability. If I were feeling a little more cynical I’d say the best way to reduce e-waste is to get consumers off the every two to three year upgrade cycle, but we both know that’s not how these things work for businesses are constantly looking for new ways to move more volume.

Image Credits: Brian Heating

And marketing interests aside, companies should absolutely be encouraged to reuse materials whenever possible. Much of Samsung’s efforts in that area have focused on making materials from old fishing nets, water barrels and plastic bottles. All told, the phone is made from around 22% recycled material, according to the company’s figures. Samsung also dropped much of the excess packaging material for shipping a few generations ago.

The rear camera layout is intact. At the top is the 12 megapixel ultrawide camera with autofocus, the 200 megapixel wide camera is in the middle and the 10 megapixel telephoto takes the bottom spot. Another 10-megapixel lens with Space Zoom (3x, 10x optical) sits to the left of the 200-megapixel lens.

As always, it’s all about the camera here. For many years it has been the main battlefield on which the flagship wars have been fought. Samsung has largely had it against Apple on that front, although heavy competition has emerged from the likes of Xiaomi and other Chinese companies during Huawei’s absence. Despite the lack of market share, Google has also become a formidable challenger through its masterful combination of hardware and AI-driven computational photography.

The 200-megapixel sensor is the headline – literally and figuratively. Interestingly enough, it seems that the S23 Ultra isn’t the first phone on the market with the super-high megapixel sensor. That honor seems to belong to the extremely competitively priced Xiaomi 12T Pro. Samsung has long been one of the largest suppliers of components for phones from other companies, so that’s no big surprise.

Anyone who follows this sort of thing will be quick to point out that megapixels aren’t everything. That’s true, of course, but the evolution of mobile cameras has made better use of all those pixels. That means using binning to combine information from multiple pixels to create a kind of larger superpixel that can collect a lot more light for sharper images with less noise.

The camera array is truly outstanding. The 200-megapixel sensor doesn’t feel necessary in most settings, but it has its moments. A majority of users will not have much need to record huge full resolution files. If you want the full pro photos, the phone can shoot in RAW, which can be edited with Adobe Lightroom by default.

For the average user, the combination of hardware and software works quite well out of the box. The Ultra performs well in low light and the optical zoom is a life saver. It can go up to 100x, but I usually got around 10x, so as not to degrade the image. Overall, though, it’s one of the best zoom and overall camera experiences available on a handset in 2023.

Image Credits: Brian Heating

As always, the screen is beautiful. The 6.8-inch AMOLED display has a resolution of 3,088 × 1,440, while the S23 and S23+ have 2,340 × 1,080. All three have an adjustable refresh rate of 120 Hz. The Ultra also peaks at an extremely bright 1,750 nits. The largest size of the phone means more room for the battery. With 5.00 mAh, I got through more than a day of intensive use. The 45W wired charging quickly replenishes that when you’re running low.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra is, predictably, a great phone. It’s a true no-compromise Android handset, from the large, bright screen and generous battery to the diverse camera array and S Pen functionality. It is an extremely pricey device that is the true definition of getting what you pay for.

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