Tuesday, April 16, 2024
Smart Phones

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: practically peerless


If the Samsung S22 Ultra was the ultimate evolution of a slab-style smartphone, then the Galaxy S23 Ultra is a victory lap — everything that the S22 was and a little extra. 

The S23 Ultra offers a handful of updates and a new main camera sensor. There are no groundbreaking new features. It doesn’t fold in half. Until someone invents radically improved battery technology or holographic displays, that’s just going to be the case for the Ultra for the foreseeable future. 

The other side of that coin is that the S22 Ultra was already really good, and the S23 Ultra is a little better. Performance — delivered by a custom Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset — is whip fast. The updated camera system is capable of stunning feats. And a couple of small tweaks — the phone’s slightly reshaped side rails and screen — have a big impact on the device’s likability.

The phone’s slightly reshaped side rails and screen have a big impact on the device’s likability

That’s all good news. The bad news is that it remains a very expensive device at $1,200, which is a bit more than a $1,099 iPhone 14 Pro Max and a big leap from the Pixel 7 Pro’s $899 starting price. There are some familiar sore spots with Samsung software, like its insistence on including its own app store in addition to Google’s. And although the camera system can produce stunningly good images, it occasionally makes weird choices and comes up with a photo that’s just downright bad.

But if you can stomach the price and the occasional weird photo, then I think you’ll find the S23 Ultra’s maximalism highly rewarding.

Looking at the S22 Ultra and S23 Ultra side by side, you’ll see the slightly different shape on this year’s model — a display with a little less curve at the edges and side rails that are flatter. It doesn’t sound like much, but I think it makes a big difference. It feels much more secure in my fingers every time I pick it up off a table than the curvier S22 Ultra did. I realized I was actually bracing myself for it to slip out of my grasp every time I picked it up, which happened a lot with its predecessor. The S23 Ultra feels more secure as I pick it up but also in my hand as I’m using it, too, which is especially important when you’re writing on it with the S Pen.

This slight flattening makes the S23 Ultra look a little boxier than the S22 Ultra, and you know what? I like it. In the cream color especially, it’s kind of late-’80s chic. I don’t know how else to describe it except for fancy. It feels worthy of a high price tag.

Samsung S22 Ultra and S23 Ultra side-by-side showing bottom of both phones.

The S23 Ultra (right) features flatter side rails than the more rounded edges on the S22 Ultra (left).

All that said, it is still a very big and relatively heavy phone. The screen is still a 6.8-inch 1440p LTPO OLED panel with a top 120Hz refresh rate. It’s lovely to use and basically the same as last year’s. My one complaint is with the embedded fingerprint sensor, which is inconsistent and a beat slower than the one I just used on the OnePlus 11 5G. Thankfully, face unlock is pretty speedy. With both biometric security methods enabled, I found that one or the other worked quickly enough. 

There are, of course, all the other trappings of a high-end phone: a robust IP68 rating for water and dust resistance, all flavors of 5G, wireless charging, fast 45W wired charging (charger not included), and built-in storage of at least 256GB — Samsung doubled the base-model storage this year.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra performance and battery

The Galaxy S23 Ultra uses Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset. Excuse me, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 For Galaxy. It’s a slightly different version of the company’s top-shelf processor that’s a tiny bit faster than the garden-variety 8 Gen 2. 

Compared to the OnePlus 11 5G with the non-Galaxy 8 Gen 2, I could not tell you what difference this makes in practical use. The S23 Ultra simply feels fast. Whipping through recently opened apps feels almost dizzying. There’s nothing I throw at it in day-to-day use that makes it flinch. It comes with 8GB or 12GB of RAM. The unit I tested has 12GB, but either one should stand up to demanding tasks.

The new chipset also runs much cooler than the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 — after downloading Genshin Impact install files for 10 minutes with the loading animation playing (and the phone resting on a heat-insulating couch cushion), it was only slightly warm to the touch. The S22 Ultra was borderline uncomfortable to hold after doing something like that. Gameplay is incredibly smooth, with a barely perceptible hiccup here and there as it loads more area data.

Cream colored Samsung S23 Ultra in hand showing the rear of the phone.

Samsung isn’t afraid to throw lots of hardware at a problem. Case in point: this camera array.

The S23 Ultra has the same 5,000mAh battery capacity as last year, but Samsung claims that battery performance is improved, thanks to the processor upgrade — it’s theoretically more battery-efficient than its predecessor — and some tweaks to the display. Battery stamina does, in fact, seem to be improved over the last generation. The S22 Ultra often felt like it was coasting on fumes at the end of a day of moderate use, and I feel like I can wring a little more juice out of this one. It’s not worlds better, but it gives you a little more breathing room to get through your day.

My typical day includes about four hours of screen-on time, and the S23 Ultra usually got me to the evening with somewhere around 30 percent left. That includes using the always-on display, which puts extra drain on the battery. I tried putting it through the wringer on a day with more intensive activities — navigation, a 30-minute Zoom call, 40 minutes of streaming video, lots of camera use, including 4K video recording — all off of Wi-Fi. That knocked the battery down to about 25 percent by the end of the day. Truthfully, I could have gone a little harder on the phone, but I came down with food poisoning in the afternoon, which put a damper on my ability to use the phone or do anything at all. 

All that is to say you can get through a day of moderate use with the S23 Ultra a little more comfortably, and it stands up a bit better to heavier use. If you plan on doing a lot of processor-heavy stuff like gaming or, I don’t know, measuring every room in your house in VR, then you’ll probably still need to recharge before the day is done. For most of us, this is an all-day battery, with a little more wiggle room than last year’s.

This is an all-day battery, with a little more wiggle room than last year’s

Something that’s becoming more and more important is how well a smartphone integrates into the rest of your digital ecosystem. The S23 Ultra is armed with no shortage of connectivity features, including the much-improved DeX for Windows PC integration, Samsung’s SmartThings app for smart home, and a feature called Smart View to quickly mirror your device to a Samsung TV. 

The latter worked flawlessly on my 2016-era Samsung TV. And despite it being an older model, the TV connects to the S23 Ultra via SmartThings, too. From the SmartThings app on the phone, I have control of all the basic functions of the TV, like volume, channel, and source. At long last, I thought I’d conquered my need to get off the couch and find the remote. Unfortunately, my TV is just old enough to lack support for a crucial feature — powering on via mobile. Looks like I’ll still need that remote after all.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra S Pen and software

The Galaxy Note lives on in the S23 Ultra by way of its embedded S Pen stylus. There are no major updates to the S Pen or its features this time around, though the slightly flatter screen edges are designed to provide more surface area for writing. With the S22 Ultra’s curvier edges, you’re more likely to accidentally run the stylus off the side of the screen as you’re writing.

That happens less often with the S23 Ultra, but I still found at least one instance where the slight curve threw me for a loop. One of the templates in the notes app includes a left-aligned column of boxes to write in, but when I started writing in letters to mark days of the week, I had very little space to work with since the stylus kept running into the curve. I’m hoping for a totally flat display in 2024.

Samsung S23 Ultra standing upright on a table top with S Pen showing a colorful home screen wallpaper.

The S23 Ultra includes Samsung’s S Pen stylus, complete with an embedded silo for storage.

I haven’t been a huge stylus fan in the past, and I still think that most people will rarely use one given the option. But I was more inclined to pop out the S Pen and jot down a note with the S23 Ultra than when I tested the S22 Ultra. At the risk of giving Samsung’s very slight redesign too much credit, I think this is partially because this phone is more comfortable to hold than the last one.

I’m also on a mission to reorganize my life, and I found it genuinely useful to replicate some of my running IRL to-do lists with digital ones pinned to my home screen. Has it made me more organized? The jury’s still out on that one. But it feels like a happy medium between the convenience of an app-based to-do list and the tactile experience of jotting down a note. 

The S23 Ultra ships with One UI 5, Samsung’s Android 13 skin. It’s a pretty light update to the One UI 4 that the S22 series launched with, and it includes new emphasis on setting up modes and routines, as well as more lockscreen customization options. It remains a maximalist experience, with two pages of quick settings in the notification shade by default and Samsung’s own app store, virtual assistant, and web browser alongside Google versions of these things. It’s a lot, and it’s not to everyone’s taste. Personally, I can tolerate it if I spend some time organizing it to my liking when I set the phone up. (Bye, Bixby.) 

Samsung S23 Ultra screen showing One UI version 5.1.

The Ultra ships with One UI 5.1, which is Samsung’s Android 13 skin.

Something that anyone can enjoy about Samsung’s software, though, is that it comes with a great support policy: four years of OS updates and five years of security updates. That’s a little short of Apple, which tends to offer OS upgrades for upwards of five years and the stray security update for much longer, but it’s definitely one of the best policies you’ll find among Android makers.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra camera

The S23 Ultra offers one of the most powerful mobile camera systems money can buy. It comes with both a 3x and 10x telephoto lens, an ultrawide, and of course, that shiny new 200-megapixel main camera. It’s capable of images that I honestly can’t believe I took with a smartphone, especially from the 10x to 30x zoom range. I took a picture of the top of the Space Needle from street level standing over half a mile away, and I can make out details like the elevators and people on the observation deck. That’s ridiculous. 

  • 200-megapixel f/1.7 standard wide with OIS
  • 10-megapixel f/2.4 3X telephoto with OIS
  • 10-megapixel f/4.9 10X telephoto with OIS
  • 12-megapixel f/2.2 ultrawide
  • 12-megapixel f/2.2 selfie with autofocus

But as good as it can be, the S23 Ultra’s camera occasionally turns in a real dud of an image. It can get into trouble turning the saturation or HDR up to 11 once in a while, and unless you’re taking a photo of the actual moon, you should just stay away from the digital 100x “Space Zoom” setting because it looks like pixelated garbage.

The thing to know about the new 200-megapixel sensor is that taking 200-megapixel photos is one of the least interesting things you can do with it. Sure, the option is there. Tap a couple of menu options, press the shutter, and bam — 200 million pixels at your disposal. As long as the lighting is good, you’ll find a ridiculous amount of detail when you zoom into those photos. Images lack the wider dynamic range you’ll get in the standard shooting mode, but if it’s sheer detail you want, then that’s what you’ll receive.

A 200-megapixel image as captured (left) and detail when viewed at 100 percent (right). Holy cats.

But the more interesting way that it works is by combining those pixels into groups and treating them as bigger individual pixels (a process called pixel binning) to improve image quality in less-than-great lighting conditions. In bright light, the sensor uses something called a re-mosaic algorithm to mimic a traditional color filter pattern and use pixels individually and capture more detail. Even when you’re in the default shooting mode, which downsizes images to 12 megapixels, you should see the benefits of all that extra detail capture.

If I’m hard-pressed, I think I see a little more detail in the S23 Ultra’s images compared to the iPhone 14 Pro’s, which uses a pixel-binning sensor with a lower 48-megapixel resolution. But generally, I notice the processing choices that each camera makes more than anything. The iPhone goes for a little harder contrast, while Samsung embraces more saturated colors and brighter shadows, occasionally straying into HDR-gone-wrong territory.

The S23 Ultra (left) tries to bring some blue to the sky while the iPhone 14 Pro (right) lets the highlights blow out.

What the iPhone (or the Pixel, or really any other phone) can’t touch is the S23 Ultra’s zoom capabilities. In good light, photos at the native 3x and 10x settings look very good. In between these two focal lengths and beyond 10x, the phone uses AI-powered Space Zoom to fill in the gaps (read as: to make an educated guess about what’s there).

It does a surprisingly good job all the way to 30x and comes up with images I’m perfectly happy using on Instagram. Would my 30x Space Needle photo look great as an 8×10” print hanging on my wall? Probably not. But it’s well beyond the “good enough” threshold for social media. Digital zoom has come a long way.

The thing to know about the new sensor is that taking 200-megapixel photos is one of the least interesting things it can do

Low-light photos are generally fine, though I saw a couple of weird things happen in particularly challenging situations. In back-to-back portrait photos of my toddler taken at a Mexican restaurant, he looks distinctly orange in one and incredibly pale in the very next shot. Maybe the colored walls and light sources threw the camera for a loop, but whatever the reason, it took the photo seriously off the rails. 

The Ultra completely whiffs on white balance in this frame...

The Ultra completely whiffs on white balance in this frame…

...and goes overboard with saturation in this one.

…and goes overboard with saturation in this one.

A couple of my low-light portraits have a bit of an unnatural HDR look about them, with over-brightened shadows. Forcing night mode on in dim conditions also conjures up a bad HDR look — best to let the phone decide when it’s truly dark enough for night mode.

Otherwise, Samsung’s portrait mode remains one of the best in the game. It’s hands down the winner when it comes to subject isolation and manages to hang on to incredibly fine details like individual hairs. Background blur, especially on the 1x setting, still looks a little too uniform, producing that classic cardboard cutout look. It’s not as noticeable in 3x zoom portraits, which generally look fantastic.

Telephoto portrait mode from the S23 Ultra (left) versus the Pixel 7 Pro (right). Samsung does a better job of isolating individual hairs on the subject’s head.

Video quality is good, too; recording is available at up to 8K/30p, though I stuck to 4K for the most part. Clips in good lighting show nice color and detail. Indoors, I saw a tendency to flatten dynamic range in a way that turns bright whites slightly gray. Bright colors look a little oversaturated, too. But it’s more than good enough to grab clips of a very active toddler, and I didn’t hear any complaints about video quality from his grandparents.

Samsung S23 Ultra sitting on a pile of notebooks on a tabletop.

The S23 Ultra brings a big feature set to the table.

The more I use the S23 Ultra, the more convinced I am: this isn’t just a phone for someone who’s going to use every single feature. It’s a phone for someone who wants to feel like they’re not held back by what their phone can do. Maybe you don’t actually use the S Pen very much. That’s okay, because you could if you wanted to. Or maybe you’re not interested in the telephoto lenses. But they’re there just in case you ever need them for a once-in-a-lifetime shot. It’s the ultimate phone for someone with technology FOMO.

It’s also not the most approachable device. All of those cameras, the deep menus, and, most of all, the steep price tag will put off a lot of people. And unless you really love Bixby, it takes a little fiddling to de-Samsung the software. You probably shouldn’t have to spend the time doing that on a $1,200 phone.

It’s the ultimate phone for someone with technology FOMO

But if you have the patience and the deep pockets, the S23 Ultra makes for an incredibly rewarding experience. It’s an incremental update, for sure. But the S22 Ultra was already so good that the minor improvements on the S23 Ultra put it that much further ahead.

In the US, at least, the S23 Ultra really doesn’t have another Android peer to compare it to. The Google Pixel 7 Pro is probably the closest competition, but it feels like an entirely different experience in comparison. It’s more pleasant to use out of the box, with a strong camera and capable performance. But it lacks all of the optical zoom power of the Ultra, the stylus, and — surprisingly — comes with one less year of Android OS upgrades. It’s a better option if you don’t want to fuss with the software and you don’t care about having the very best of the best. Not to mention, it’s a full $300 cheaper.

Calling your flagship phone the “Ultra” is a bold statement — not that Samsung’s ever been shy about that. This particular “Ultra” wears that title well. It has a deep feature set, top-notch hardware, and an unrivaled camera system. It’s pricey and unapologetically big. For one of the first new mobile devices of 2023, it sets an awfully high bar to clear. If all of that’s not Ultra-worthy, then I’m not sure what is.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge





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