We’re only two months into 2023 and Samsung is already making its case for Smartphone of the Year with the new Galaxy S23 Ultra.
That’s not surprising, right? Like last year, Samsung is taking the “throw in the kitchen sink” approach with the Galaxy S23 Ultra, treating you with the bounty that is a large and beautiful display, all the One UI software features you could imagine, a generous 5,000-mAh battery, and not two, not three, but four cameras at the rear to help you capture the best shots.
Also: Galaxy S23 Ultra vs S22 Ultra: Worth the upgrade?
So, while the longevity of the phone remains to be tested, my weeklong experience thus far with the Galaxy S23 Ultra has given me enough confidence to say that it’s one of the most complete handsets you can buy this year, if not the most complete — whether you like and need the excessive amount of features or not.
6.8-inch AMOLED with 120Hz (LTPO)
Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy
|RAM/storage||8GB/12GB with 256GB, 512GB, 1TB|
|Battery||5,000 mAh with up to 45W wired charging or 25W wireless charging|
|Camera||200MP wide, 12MP ultrawide, dual 10MP telephoto, 12MP front|
|Connectivity||5G (sub-6 GHz and mmWave)|
Phantom Black, Cream, Green, Lavender
IP68 water and dust resistance
|Price||Starting at $1,199|
A tick-tock design that wins
For a company that’s not shy of flashing never-before-seen phone designs, the latest batch of market-ready Samsung phones hasn’t brought much creativity to the table. The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 looked nearly identical to the Z Fold 3, and it’s safe to say that this year’s S23 Ultra cannot be distinguished from the S22 Ultra if you’re looking from afar. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
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It’s the classic tick-tock strategy, with Samsung keeping its changes iterative to save on costs, research and development, and much more at a microeconomic scale, while you still get a phone that scratches that consumer itch. One of the best phones available, at that.
The S23 Ultra retains the best design traits of its predecessor, like the charmingly bright 6.8-inch AMOLED display that beats the outdoor sunlight and the boxy and presumptuous form factor that makes it just as much of a Galaxy Note as a Galaxy Ultra, all while moving away from some bad habits like the overly curved edges that made writing with an S Pen inharmonious on the S22 Ultra.
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Well, Samsung hasn’t completely gotten rid of the curved-edge display this year; it’s still rounded off on the left and right sides, but the bend isn’t as aggressive as before. It’s looking like the Ultra will be the last Galaxy model to have a curved display, so we’ll see how long Samsung keeps that going.
The funny thing is that the S Pen writing experience is still tainted not by the curved display but by the new larger camera module.
This year, Samsung has added a larger ring design to protect the quad camera setup on the rear, which, when set flat on a surface, causes the phone to rock as you glide the S Pen across the screen.
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This is just me nitpicking a $1,200 phone (or $1,379 for my 512GB review unit), of course, so please take it with a grain of salt. But, while I’m being selective, I really wish Samsung had introduced new S Pen features this year. There are plenty of existing functions with the built-in stylus, like taking screen-off memos, controlling the cameras from afar, and my personal favorite, signing PDFs for review units like this one. However, with the integrated S Pen being a key distinction between the Ultra line and really any other phone, Samsung had every opportunity to widen the gap.
I’d also like to mention that while Samsung is calling the S23 line its most sustainable phone yet, and a good portion of the Ultra’s buttons, internal modules, and ports are made with recycled materials, they all feel great and function without much compromise. The company also enhanced the durability of the S23 Ultra’s display with Corning Gorilla Glass Victus 2, which is both more durable and sustainable than the last version. My big takeaway so far is that while the new Gorilla Glass is more shatter-proof, it’s also more susceptible to micro scratches, so a screen protector will serve you best even if you don’t drop the phone.
Samsung’s made some clever partnerships throughout the years, but the one that shines brightest to me is its most recent activity with Qualcomm. Namely, the custom Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy chip on the S23 Ultra, which is quite possibly the most performant chipset that I’ve tested on any smartphone, besting the performance I got from the iPhone 14 Pro and its A16 Bionic.
More: Why the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy is a big deal
The chipset, an overclocked variant of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 (3.36GHz CPU instead of 3.2GHz) made by TSMC, absolutely flies through the most common tasks like managing email, surfing the web, and video streaming, and is just as capable with more strenuous ones, like playing 60fps games (Genshin Impact, Fortnite, Real Racing 3), 4K video editing, and operating with GPS navigation in the background.
To be fair, last year’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 and Apple’s A16 Bionic were just as competent at those tasks. The difference with the S23 Ultra is how much more efficient it is — I’ve yet to experience any app crashes with the usual suspects of banking and camera-based social apps — and how well it manages heat throughout it all. In one instance, I was able to play a good 45 minutes of Genshin Impact with 60fps locked and barely noticed any overheating problems or throttling. (I’m using the phone without a case.)
Also: Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro: Who did it better?
Clearly, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy was the right call by Samsung and co. The mobile platform brings meaningful improvements to the Galaxy phone experience, while Samsung’s done its part to optimize the S23 Ultra with a larger vapor cooling chamber and more efficient back-end processing. Together, you get a phone that’s powerful enough for any type of user, including mobile gamers.
Before we kick it to the cameras, please allow me to geek out about Samsung finally smoothing out One UI’s animations. For as long as I could remember, there would always be lost frames here and there when closing apps and returning to the home screen that even the 120Hz refresh rate couldn’t save. It was worse if you were on a third-party launcher. From what I’m seeing on the S23 Ultra (running One UI 5.1), animations are much more realistic as to how I’m interacting with apps, whether it’s swiping them outward or opening one from a folder. I love it.
How good are the new cameras?
The real reason why anyone should consider the S23 Ultra, especially when cross-shopping with the other two S23 models, is the camera. Samsung is going big this year, with a new Isocell HP2 image sensor that captures images at a startling 200-megapixel output (pixel binned to 50MP or 12.5MP photos), putting its 108-megapixel sensor of recent years to shame. That’s unheard of with any smartphone camera and brings me back to the days of the megapixel race.
And yes, it’s true: A higher megapixel count does not always correlate with higher-quality pictures. Fortunately, Samsung’s done its homework with the S23 Ultra, and it’s showing the work.
This first comparison demonstrates the S23 Ultra’s zoom capabilities. Technically, the camera can stretch as far out as 100x optical zoom, for which capturing images of the moon seems to be the most practical use case, but its output is just too grainy for anyone’s viewing pleasure. Instead, the 30x zoom is where the money’s at. As I stood two and a half miles away from the Freedom Tower, the S23 Ultra was able to capture an impressive amount of detail of the landmark, from the structural integrity of the antennas to the aviation in the background.
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Now, for a low-light photo captured during an intermission at Madison Square Garden. Besides the spotlights surrounding the Jumbotron, the whole stadium was pitch-black. Still, the S23 Ultra does an impressive job of keeping most of the elements in detail, like the architecture of the ceiling and the crowds of white, orange, and blue shirts. The lights aren’t overexposed, which I’ll credit to the 200MP image sensor that’s able to process more details in dimmer settings, and the phone isn’t trying to make a low-light environment look like it wasn’t one — which most cameras wrongfully do nowadays.
Lastly, a demo of the S23 Ultra’s 3X telephoto. I took the same shot with the iPhone 14 Pro’s 3X telephoto for comparison. While the answer to which photo looks better boils down to your preference between realism and idealism, I’d say that the S23 Ultra does a few things better than the iPhone.
The most obvious difference is how it portrays the colors of the subject. While the colors of the backgrounds on both devices look similar, Samsung applies an extra pop of saturation that makes the flower bloom just a little more. If I wanted to snap a quick picture and share it on social media, I’d feel more at ease with what the Galaxy can capture.
Secondly, the S23 Ultra wins on detail (see the yellow anthers branching out from the petals), keeping most of the flower in focus while smoothly blurring out the background. Altogether, the telephoto lens on the Samsung is as textbook as it gets.
There’s one specific rough patch with the S23 Ultra’s camera that you should know of: shutter lag. It’s an issue that has plagued Galaxy phones for as long as I could remember. The delay between when I tap the shutter button and when an image is captured is still a few noticeable milliseconds longer than on competitors like the iPhone 14 Pro and Google Pixel 7, which makes a big difference when you’re trying to capture images of fast-moving subjects.
It’s not the biggest deal if you’re capturing still subjects like the basketball stadium or flowers above, but I could see this being an issue if you’re a parent who’s trying to snap photos of a child running around or a pet at the park.
More: Our picks for the top Samsung Galaxy phones
As for video recording, Samsung’s made some minor tweaks to the Galaxy camera this year, like adding the option to shoot 8K at 30fps instead of last year’s 24 and a lesser crop needed to stabilize videos. That’s all fine by me because the S22 Ultra’s video recording was already quite good. Even as I’m dialing between different lenses, I don’t notice dramatic shifts in white balance and exposure. I’m less enthusiastic about the 8K video recording. Unless you’re filming movies and want the highest resolution possible, and also have an 8K display to watch the footage, it should be the last reason you invest in the S23 Ultra.
Battery life and charging
Samsung didn’t make any physical changes to this year’s battery and charging capacities, so the differences, if any, mainly stem from the efficiency gains of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy chip. By the numbers, we’re looking at a 5,000-mAh cell that supports up to 45W fast wired charging and 15W of wireless charging. That means that at its fastest rate, the S23 Ultra can go from 0 to 100% battery in a little less than an hour. Not bad, but I’d hoped that by this time around, Samsung would up its speed to compete with other 2023 flagships.
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Fortunately, the S23 Ultra performs when it matters most. On average, I cleared 7 hours of screen-on time before needing to set the phone on a charger. For all the stress tests that I put the Ultra through, including taking plenty of photos and videos, using it as my GPS all weekend, and mindlessly switching between apps, I’m satisfied with those numbers.
The new Galaxy S23 Ultra not a cheap phone by any means, and it doesn’t help that Samsung hasn’t been as generous with its trade-in offers as one might hope, but if there’s any handset that can do it all, it’s this one. The integrated S Pen experience is unique to the Ultra line, 8K video recording is both impressive and excessive, upping the base storage to 256GB (from 128GB) at no additional cost is a practical benefit for every user, and the camera system is more than capable to shoot in any environment.
Is the Galaxy S23 Ultra the best phone you can buy right now? I’d say so. But even if you settle with the smaller S23 Plus for $200 less, you’ll only be missing out on 5 to 10 percent of the features. In fact, if you’re already using a flagship phone from one to two years ago — whether it’s from Samsung, Apple, or even Google — the Galaxy S23 Ultra won’t be a dramatic replacement. But, if you are in the position for an upgrade, I can’t think of a more competent phone to switch to.
Alternatives to consider
Besides the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, you should also consider the following devices: