Living With the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra

Living With the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra


For the past few weeks, I’ve been using a Galaxy S23 Ultra as my primary Android phone. It’s not a whole lot different from last year’s Galaxy S22 Ultra, which I thought was the most capable phone I had ever used; but the camera system has gotten noticeably better, especially in low light, and as you would expect, it has a new, faster processor. The result is a terrific phone that keeps Samsung on top, particularly in some areas of photography, and that continues to have a number of unique features such as pen support.

With its 6.8-inch screen, the S23 Ultra measures 6.43 by 3.07 by 0.35 inches and weighs 8.25 ounces, which makes it much larger than the regular S23 or S23+, and it has sharper edges. As such, the S23 Ultra does feel like a big phone; it fits in my pockets, but just barely. I’ve always liked big phones, but others may find it too large. It’s pretty much the same size as the S22 Ultra, though a little heavier. The unit I used came in the new green color which is, to my eyes, more of a grey-green sage; other options include cream, lavender, and “phantom black.” It runs Android 13 with Samsung One UI 5.1 software and is powered by a special version of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2.

The standout feature of the S23 Ultra is the new 200-megapixel (MP) camera sensor with an aperture of f/1.7 on the main (wide) camera with what Samsung calls “adaptive pixel,” where it supports multiple layers of binning.

In most situations, when you use the 200MP sensor, the camera system will combine 16 pixels into one, creating a 12MP image. But by just clicking a button on the photo menu, you can switch to capturing 50MP photos (where four pixels are combined into one), or even 200MP photos. The downside is that 50MP and 200MP images take up a lot more storage. When I’ve tried this, I haven’t really been able to tell the difference—all general photos look great—so the default setting makes sense to me. The larger settings are probably only necessary if you intend to create very large prints or zoom very tightly into a picture.

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(Credit: Eric Zeman)

One thing that has generally improved is night photography, where Samsung says the camera system has doubled the angles of optical image stabilization, which particularly allows for sharper, steadier videos at night, especially when you turn on the “super steady” mode. The system also includes a new method for faster auto-focusing, which was especially notable at night. With all of the recent top-end phones, it’s amazing how much better low-light photography has gotten in the past few years.

The improvements in optical image stabilization also seem to have helped in zoom. Like the previous year’s model, the S23 Ultra has two 10MP zoom lenses, one at 3x optical (with an aperture of f/2.4) and the other at 10x optical (with an aperture of f/4.9). I thought last year’s model showed a big improvement over the year before in image stabilization; this year’s is better as well. You can see the results of a variety of shots with the various rear cameras, ranging from a 12MP ultrawide camera to the main 200MP wide camera to the two zoom lenses to various levels of what Samsung calls “Space Zoom”—essentially digital zoom added to optical zoom. Samsung continues to offer what it calls 100X Zoom, though I still can’t say I’ve gotten great results at that zoom without a tripod. Still, the images with a long zoom were very impressive for a phone. It’s not going to replace a camera with a bigger sensor and a real telephoto lens, but for something you can carry in your pocket, it’s amazing.

For selfies, the front camera is a 12MP (f/2.2) model, and you can choose between a tighter or wider angle. It now gives you a single button to choose between natural and warm color tone, though you can choose from a variety of other settings, as well as a number of filters and smoothing options. Of course, you can take video selfies, this year at up to UHD at 60 frames per second.

It continues to have a lot of photo options, including portrait model, with varying degrees of bokeh distance, director’s view, slow motion and super-slow mode, portrait videos, and hyperlapse. This year’s model has more of a focus on astrophotography, though I didn’t really try this much. One feature that has become more buried in the menus over the years is the single-take feature, which takes a variety of shots at once—something I like but doesn’t seem to have found much of an audience.

For professionals, Samsung now offers Expert RAW (through a separate download), which now supports 50MP photos and the front camera; and a Camera Assistant app that gives you even more controls over things like how long the camera preview should be displayed before timing out and a way to get a faster shutter speed.

Of course, the camera is only one aspect of a smartphone, even if it is the one that gets the most attention. The S23 family this year is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 platform for Galaxy, which seems to mean a slightly faster version of the chip. The standard Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 includes an octa-core Kryo CPU with one Arm Cortex-X3 core at up to 3.2GHz, two Cortex-A715 performance cores at up to 2.8GHz, two Cortex-A710 performance cores at up to 2.8 GHz, and three Cortex-A510 efficiency cores at up to 2.0GHz, along with Adreno 740 graphics. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy boosts the top CPU clock speed to 3.36GHz and is also supposed to improve the graphics. The chip is built on TSMC’s 4-nanometer process technology. The S23 Ultra also has a larger cooling system, which should allow the processor to run faster for longer.

On PC Mag’s benchmarks, this tested out as the fastest Android phone to date, notably better than last year’s model, though its CPU performance still lagged behind the latest high-end iPhone. I’m not a gamer, but the phone certainly felt snappy to me.

It also includes a Qualcomm Snapdragon X70 modem, with support for additional 5G bands and Wi-Fi 6E. As usual, the speed of your connection will vary considerably depending on your location and carrier. In tests in New York City and the surrounding areas using the T-Mobile network, I saw 5G speeds with downloads ranging from 29 Mbps to 728 Mbps, and upload speeds between 3 and 106 Mbps, a huge swing.

One thing that seems to have noticeably improved is battery life. The S23 Ultra has a 5,000 mAh battery. It probably accounts for the additional weight in this year’s model, but it extends the battery life quite a bit. I could generally go for two days with normal usage, although of course, if you’re doing heavy-duty gaming or spend a lot of time scrolling through videos, you’ll get shorter battery life. Still, longer battery life is always good.

Recommended by Our Editors

The unit has a WQHD+ 3088-by-1440 display, although the default is FHD+ 2316-by-1080 (which saves on battery life.) This is the latest generation of Samsung’s AMOLED 2X Infinity-O display with a maximum brightness of 1,750 nits and a small cutout at the top for the front-facing camera. The screen offers adaptive motion smoothness up to 120 Hz and looked great. With a maximum brightness of 1,750 nits, it’s brighter than last year’s model and looked good even in bright sunlight. By default, it will run with adaptive brightness, so it won’t be that bright under typical lighting to save battery life.

Samsung continues to have some unusual features, such as its Knox security platform and its Dex system for attaching a monitor (or TV) and keyboard to create a desktop-like experience. These haven’t changed significantly this year.

There’s one other feature the S23 Ultra offers that remains very unusual: it includes an S-Pen stylus, and works with all of the features people who used the Galaxy Note phones became accustomed to, including freeform drawing, the ability to annotate screenshots or drawings, to translate sections of text, and the ability to take a quick Note just by pulling the S-Pen out of the bottom of the phone. For some reason, I needed to download a new version of the Notes application before that worked, but otherwise, it seemed identical to the S-Pen features for the past couple of years.

These S-Pen features remain the biggest differentiator of the Galaxy S Ultra series. I can see where someone who does a lot of drawing, or who needs to annotate documents such as floor plans or schematics, would find this feature alone a reason to pick the S23 Ultra over other devices.

The S23 Ultra offers several improvements over last year’s model, including a better main camera with improved image stabilization and low-light features and a faster processor. These changes still seem fairly incremental, something that’s been true of pretty much all phones in the past couple of years. With a list price of $1,199 for a base model with 8GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage, it’s an expensive phone, but if you’re looking for something with the best zoom I’ve seen in a phone and unique features such as S-pen support, along with great performance and battery life, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra may be the most capable phone on the market.

Here’s PCMag’s full review.

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