Like many of today’s smartphones, Samsung’s new flagship S23 Ultra consistently impresses but rarely surprises. It’s big, powerful and beautifully designed, and after going hands-on with the handset for a few weeks we’re flitting between delight and déjà vu.
Ultimately, how much you’re wowed by it will depend on how familiar you are with the previous model. It’s one of the best Android phones you can buy, but it’s a no-go for anyone with an S22 Ultra in their pocket.
The question isn’t whether the S23 Ultra is a good flagship smartphone. We know it is. But like the iPhone 14 and the Pixel 7, it builds on greatness rather than inventing it. We continue to love the crisp display, built-in stylus, versatile camera system, smooth software and polished glass frame, but we’re not convinced that this iteration warrants an upgrade — at least until stock of its predecessor runs dry.
• Screen size: 6.8-inch
• Resolution: 3088 x 1440 pixels
• Operating system: Android 13, OneUI
• Processor: Snapdragon 8 Gen 2
• Cameras: 200MP wide, 12 ultra-wide, 10MP telephoto
• Selfie camera: 12MP
• Battery: 5000mAh
• Storage: 256GB, 512GB, 1TB
• RAM: 12GB
• Weight: 233 g
• Water resistance: IP68
• MicroSD slot: No
Samsung S23 Ultra design
There’s no chance of getting the S23 Ultra mixed up with any other 2023 flagship phone based on its looks, that’s for sure.
Setting it apart from Apple and Google — and even the other two phones in Samsung’s two other flagships, the S23 and S23+ — is the squared slab-like frame, which is much boxier than any other new flagships. It is slightly larger and heavier than the Pixel 7 Pro, but there’s not such an overwhelming amount of bulk that it becomes a burden — unlike, say, the Galaxy Fold 4.
That said, it’s pretty much identical to the S22 Ultra, which introduced this new design compared to the older S21 model, which had much more rounded edges.
We tested the green version and really liked the muted colour palette. You can also choose from black, lavender or cream, and they all have more sophisticated subtlety than, say, the bright yellow iPhone. The glass back feels premium, although you’ll want to invest in a case to protect it from marks or scratches and to add extra grippiness.
We didn’t find any issues with the button and port placement. The power and volume controls are both within reach, although this isn’t a phone you’ll be able to use with one hand. You’ll need the second hand to pop out the S-pen that slides into the button left of the aluminium case. That’s right: This effectively turns the smartphone into a mini tablet — letting you scribble notes, sketches, drawings and annotations. It’s great to have this option, and we found ourselves using it more than we expected.
Samsung S23 Ultra display
Probably our favourite aspect of the S23 Ultra, like last year’s model, is the high-resolution display. The 6.8-inch panel has gorgeous colours and contrast for watching Netflix or playing games. You’re getting an adaptive refresh rate of up to 120Hz for smooth scrolling on apps, loads of brightness and great haptic feedback when you press down with your fingertips. And while it’s not an improvement — the specs haven’t changed from the prior model — the screen is still one of the best around.
We loaded up the Luke Skywalker hallway fight scene from The Mandalorian and cranked the brightness. Unsurprisingly, given the OLED tech, colours and detail were stunning, with deep blacks of space contrasting against the bright green clashes of the lightsaber. This is how you make a phone screen, and it’s ideal if you’re shopping for a handset for watching shows, whether that’s on a train or sofa.
There’s no notch on the physical panel, which we do prefer over the larger module on the front of the iPhone. The S23 Ultra takes the same approach as the Pixel 7 Pro by placing a pinhole gap for the front-facing camera in the middle of the screen.
It looks neat and was never a distraction on test, although it’s a bit of a shame that there’s no Android alternative to Apple’s innovative “Dynamic Island” to be found on this new flagship.
And unlike Apple, Samsung phones continue to lack full-blown 3D face recognition from the front camera. This means it can be used to unlock the handset itself but still can’t be used to authenticate your banking apps.
Samsung S23 Ultra camera
One of the big changes to the Ultra entry this year is in the camera system. Yes, it now includes a 200-megapixel (MP) wide-angle sensor. And while it’s not the first phone to do so, the results are fantastic, letting you scale and crop without losing detail.
The rest of the system on the new flagship remains the same as last year, however, with a 12MP ultra-wide, two 10MP telephoto lenses and a 12MP selfie camera up front.
Of course, having more megapixels doesn’t mean better picture quality, but it does mean that you can massively enlarge your pictures without seeing individual pixels. We found the S23 Ultra’s images retain lots of small details in bright and low light. Our outdoor shots show accurate colours in buildings and the sky in both sunny and overcast weather, and close-ups have loads of detail.
We are very impressed by the zoom, which is frankly astounding. Seriously, the S23 Ultra zooms by up to 100x with usable results, especially if you take pictures in brighter conditions. Sure, there’s blurriness, but it’s enough to make you think twice about leaving your blinds open at night.
While the camera system impresses, some shots have a fake or over-enhanced look compared to the Pixel or iPhone.
Here are photos we’ve shot using the Samsung S23 Ultra’s variety of lenses. These results are straight from the camera system and have not been edited.
Samsung S23 Ultra software
The S23 Ultra runs a version of the latest Android 13 software, called OneUI 5.1. There aren’t too many unwanted apps and software when you boot it up (Samsung has gotten better at this over the years), and icons are well-spaced and colourful. Our apps download and open very fast, and we had no experience with any software lags or stuttering while testing the handset. However, we did find transferring our data to the handset from a Pixel 7 to be annoyingly slow.
There aren’t many surprises for anyone who has used Android before, but the settings do contain some nice advanced features — including a one-handed mode that creates a small mirror of the display so you can flick around without stretching your fingers. We like that you can boost the brightness of videos to make colours even more vibrant when played on YouTube, and appreciate how you can customise the S-pen. “Air Actions” lets you press on apps without touching the display, and we turned on an alert that plays if the phone senses the stylus is too far from the phone.
Samsung is known for its solid software support, and that applies to this new model. You get at least four years of security and operating system updates, so we expect the S23 Ultra will be completely supported — Android 14 and beyond — until 2027.
Samsung S23 Ultra battery
There’s a capable 5,000mAh battery in the S23 Ultra, and while that’s the same size as last year’s model, it’s now more efficient due to the new processor that’s powering the phone. We found that on moderate use — checking emails, watching YouTube, listening to Spotify and checking social media — it lasted beyond a full day and was often reaching two days without needing to be replenished.
Using a 45W wall charger (which unfortunately doesn’t come in the box, as you only get a USB-C cable with the phone), it goes from depleted to 85% in under 45 minutes and to full in under one hour and 30 minutes. Charge time is similar to the S22 Ultra but total life is better on the new model, which also supports 15W wireless charging.
All in all, we had no complaints about battery life. It was more than enough for how we use our phones, although taking videos or gaming will make it drop quicker.
Samsung S23 Ultra performance
Aside from the camera upgrade, Samsung has thrown into the S23 Ultra a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor instead of the Exynos chip from the previous model.
That probably won’t mean anything to most users, but what it translates to is more speed when loading apps, smoother performance when scrolling through menus and better efficiency in how power is distributed. In plain English: Your phone feels great to use, and it’s far less likely to overheat or suffer from lag.
We like that the S23 Ultra now comes with a base of 256GB of storage (the S22 Ultra starts with 128GB), so there’s more room for keeping your content, documents and files. That’s a welcome addition for photographers or videographers, who will be saving in larger file sizes.
Day to day, we find the hardware and software work really well together. And if you have a set of Galaxy Buds, they’ll pair seamlessly with the phone — much like how AirPods connect to an iPhone. On test, the earbuds appeared and connected in seconds, and we added a widget to the home screen that shows the battery of the buds and the case in real-time.
Samsung S23 Ultra drawbacks
There’s no way around it: The S23 Ultra is a big, heavy phone, so it may not be suitable if you prefer more lightweight and portable handsets like the iPhone 13 mini or the Pixel 6a, or if you have smaller hands.
The design hasn’t been changed since last year (even though it’s still very sleek). And while we appreciate that Samsung makes some smaller improvements under the hood, we aren’t convinced it justifies all the renewed fuss and marketing.
And that’s before we get to the extra £100 onto the base price point. Yes, this is an expensive phone, now starting at £1,249.
Samsung S23 Ultra verdict
Make no mistake: The S23 Ultra is one of the best Android phones that you can buy in 2023. The upgraded cameras and the highly efficient processor are welcome updates to this hulking handset, making it the most powerful that it’s ever been. Pretty much every aspect impresses, with personal standouts being the crisp display and the very premium build quality.
But we can’t shake the fact that, as with 2022’s minor iPhone 14 ‘upgrades’, there have been so few changes from last year’s model offering despite the asking price going up. As long as stock for the Samsung S22 Ultra is still available, we advise saving some money and buying that model instead.
With more than eight years’ experience covering tech at publications including Radio Times, Newsweek and the International Business Times, Jason has extensive knowledge on the latest gear and gadgets – reviewing phones, tablets, laptops, headphones, smart home products and more – and covering the biggest shopping events of the year, including Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day.
For his coverage on cybersecurity in the International Business Times, he won at The Drum’s Online Media Awards in 2017. When not writing and testing the latest gadgets, you’ll find Jason playing the guitar or learning how to parent his new baby.