Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Review: A New “Ultra” Measuring Stick For Camera Phones
Exactly one year ago, Samsung launched the Galaxy S22 Ultra, its then-next-generation flagship, and also official confirmation of the death of a lineup, the Note Series. But like clockwork, the Korean electronics giant is attempting to keep the momentum going with the Galaxy S23 Series and more to the point, the Galaxy S23 Ultra.
As the top-of-the-line SKU, the Galaxy S23 Ultra maintains some of the aesthetics of its predecessor but at the same time, Samsung has made some very, very significant upgrades and updates in the camera and photography department.
As with all flagships, the Galaxy S23 Ultra isn’t going for cheap and will run you a pretty penny, even for the base model. The good news, though, is that there is no 128GB variant – Samsung has effectively eliminated that storage capacity from that lineup and that is a sound decision, given the size of the pictures that the phone’s new main camera is capable of capturing.
Second, all versions of the Galaxy S23 Ultra being sold in Malaysia are equipped with 12GB RAM. There is a bare-bones SKU with 8GB RAM but mercifully, that isn’t coming into the country. Not on an official level, at least. But again, the phone’s starting price of RM5699 is clearly and significantly higher than the S22 Ultra when it first hit the market.
Internally, the Galaxy S23 Ultra is driven by the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen2 SoC that is based on an improved version of TSMC’s 4nm process, while the Dynamic AMOLED 2X display’s durability has also been enhanced with Corning’s new Gorilla Glass Victus 2.
So, what’s changed in terms of looks for the Galaxy S23 Ultra, you ask? Well, the short answer is nearly nothing on the outside. Well, I say nearly because despite looking virtually identical to last year’s flagship, there are one or two nuanced differences that sets the phone apart from its predecessor.
The whole “same same, but different” adage couldn’t be more accurate for the Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Firstly, the Galaxy S23 Ultra is slightly bigger and taller than the S22 Ultra. And I really mean, slightly. On paper, the height of the phone is just 0.1mm longer and 0.2mm wider. However, it still retains the same thickness as before. It is also slightly heavier but that is to be expected, given some of the new and otherwise improved hardware that lies within.
On that note, the Galaxy S23 Ultra and its storage have now been upgraded to run on the latest UFS 4.0 standard, meaning that you get even faster transfer speeds and much shorter loading times on hand. More on that later.
Of course, I can’t speak about the Galaxy S23 Ultra without addressing both the phone’s highlight and the proverbial elephant in the room: that massive 200MP f/1.7 sensor which is a part of the larger four-part housing that makes up its main camera. It is obviously an ISOCELL HP sensor but oddly enough, Samsung doesn’t actually specify which one of the hi-res sensors it is. Although, having said that, it is highly likely to be the ISOCELL HP2 that was announced back in January this year, given that its official site lists the sensor as having the same 1/1.3” optical format as it.
It’s not all physical upgrades and bigger parts and elements for the Galaxy S23 Ultra, though. Case in point, the selfie camera has been bumped down to 12MP from the larger and more versatile 40MP that was housed within the S22 Ultra.
The Galaxy S23 Ultra is more eco-friendly, and Samsung wants you to know it.
Another trend that Samsung has been steadily driving forward is just how big on being green the Galaxy S23 Ultra is, compared to the last. From the display to the film coating and glass panel that is attached to its back, virtually every part is conjured up from some form of recycled material or another. Still, on that note, the Korean giant is also continuing the minimalist trend with the phone’s packaging; you get the phone, a USB-C cable, a manual, a SIM pin, and that’s it.
In other words, if you’re in the need of one of Samsung’s ultra-fast charging adapters, that is still an accessory you’ll need to purchase separately.
Beyond that, the Galaxy S23 Ultra also comes with the S Pen stylus, a carry-forward from the Note series that clearly has proven to be extremely useful and a value-adding feature to the S Series. Well, that is also a feature that’s obviously carried forward from the now-defunct Note lineup. Right next to the stylus enclosure is the phone’s USB-C port for charging and physical file transfers.
Let’s start with the display experience of the Galaxy S23 Ultra. Then as now, you’re getting the same Dynamic AMOLED 2X panel with a maximum refresh rate of 120Hz. But unlike the S22 Ultra, the panel on this phone is, as I mentioned earlier, just that much wider and taller than its predecessor, and this is despite the fact that the screen size remains the same at 6.8-inches. Seriously, you wouldn’t even realise it unless it was told to you.
Same gorgeous, vibrant, display with resolution options.
The display resolution of the Galaxy S23 Ultra maxes out at 1440×3088, but in the interest of preserving battery life, I simply leave it at Full HD+ or 1080×3088. Even then, images still look and appear punchy and vibrant, while letters and texts also remain readable.
Internally, the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s Snapdragon 8 Gen2 SoC is by far the most advanced and up-to-date chipset to be deployed globally, and that power shows with this phone, in tandem with the new UFS 4.0 storage speeds. Apps visibly load faster, while interactions such as switching from portrait to landscape mode when watching video are instantaneous and do not suffer from a minute delay as the S22 Ultra did. The same story applies when switching between apps too.
Unfortunately, the Snapdragon 8 Gen2 used in the Galaxy S23 Ultra is slightly gimped and lacks certain Qualcomm-specific features. This deprivation includes the latest Quick Charge technology, along with the company’s aptX codecs. Again, these features have been replaced with Samsung’s own fast-charging solutions, while the lack of support for these codecs is still, in my opinion, a missed opportunity.
On the subject of UFS 4.0, transferring files between the Galaxy S23 Ultra and my laptop also appears to be faster, considering that the new standard can achieve average sequential speeds of 1000MB/s. For context, UFS 3.1 is still limited to 500MB/s average sequential write speeds, which is basically the same speed as a SATA III SSD.
Moving on, there’s the shape and size of the Galaxy S23 Ultra. Once again, the phone looks, feels, and weighs more or less the same as its predecessor, even with the very, very minute changes to the size. That being said and comfortable as it is to hold, I can’t help but feel that the new texture on the back feels a little more slippery at times.
Still on the aesthetics, the Cream colour option that I have in my hands is perhaps one of the more pleasing palettes, simply because it makes the back of the Galaxy S23 Ultra less of a fingerprint magnet. Honestly, we had another unit with the Graphite colour scheme and after passing it around to a few folks, just looked so unsightly.
The S Pen makes a return to the Galaxy S23 Ultra just as with most other aspects of the phone, Samsung didn’t change a whole lot with it. Basically, it’s the same size, same shape, same weight, and same function as before. You can write on the screen in real-time, but that feature is still limited to Samsung’s own keyboard.
The legs on the Galaxy S23 Ultra and its 5000mAh are still long.
As for the battery life of the Galaxy S23 Ultra, there is definitely an improvement here. Do note that I leave the phone’s display resolution at Full HD+ and its refresh rate set to standard. In this configuration, I am still able to get an average of two full days of checking and replying to emails and messages, reading articles, and the occasional Netflix or YouTube video.
Going on a full-on media binge through a combination of movies and videos on Netflix, YouTube, and my private Plex servers, the Galaxy S23 Ultra is able to run for close to 10 hours continuously before reaching single-digit battery life and it starts calling out for the charging adapter. While that is a long time for binge watching, it’s certainly not as long as the 13 hours the S22 Ultra clocked in.
Leaving it on idle (i.e. not doing anything at all with it) while constantly connected to the internet, the Galaxy S23 Ultra is able to hold its own for approximately four days. That is marginally longer lasting than the three hours the S22 Ultra delivered when I reviewed it, but then again, both scenarios were controlled and don’t necessarily reflect a general consumer’s use. After all, I don’t expect someone to leave their phone idle for so many days at a time, not unless they’ve misplaced it or accidentally left them at home.
There is also the gaming prowess of the Galaxy S23 Ultra. Despite not being much of a mobile gamer, playing Call of Duty Mobile on the phone proved to be a relatively enjoyable experience, with the heat generation being just mildly warm in the palm of my hand and the battery consumption hitting around 26% over a couple of hours of gaming. Of course, this is without Samsung’s Battery Bypass feature enabled.
And before you ask: yes, the Galaxy S23 Ultra does still support 45W wired charging but again, the packaging is devoid of such a charger and you’ll have to purchase it separately.
As I said, you can’t speak about the Galaxy S23 Ultra without talking about its new 200MP ISOCELL sensor. So, here we are – if you’re the individual who’s hot and heavy into pixel-peeping, then it’s safe to say that you’re not going to be disappointed.
The 200MP ISOCELL HP2 sensor is one of two game changers but also very predictable.
At that resolution, photos taken are abundant in detail and clarity, to the point that fine materials such as animal fur or textured surfaces are still discernable when zoomed in. That being said, the sensor’s performance also isn’t all that surprising: it’s 200MP. At that resolution, anything and everything captured through it looks good, as well as taking up more space in your storage. One thing to note: on average, one image 200MP image is about 30MB in size, so if you’re a real shutterbug, you’re going to find your internal storage fills up very quickly.
But whether I’m shooting at 200MP or in its default camera settings, the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s main camera module mildly amazes me with the way it handles low-light or near-dark scenarios. Like daytime photography, night time photography on this phone produces some of the least processed and worked-over pictures I’ve seen on a smartphone. That being said, there are times when the HDR or the AI’s post-processing tends to go into overdrive, causing images to look over-exposed, oversaturated, or completely blown out.
The HDR and overcompensation tend to happen in very poorly-lit environments but in some scenarios, it’s a boon for allowing me to tell a better story as to why the picture was taken and when. For another matter, Samsung has definitely improved the bokeh effects on the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s camera; compared to previous S Series flagships, the blurring doesn’t eat in as much from edges with this phone, giving them a cleaner and more dramatic look. Now, to be clear, the problem hasn’t disappeared entirely – that dreadful bokeh edging still rears its ugly head when I go in for some macro shots, even more so when I go in for macro or close-up shots.
Where the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s main camera stands out though is in its zoom photography, at least through its 3x and 10x Optical Zoom lengths. Through the latter, I took a picture of an orangutan – the one you’re looking at is the alpha male of the sanctuary in which I managed to take a picture of him. It was a lucky shot too, as the rangers stationed there said there was a chance the ape wouldn’t make an appearance – from a “safe” distance, and I can still make out the details in his hairs, face, and the fruits that he eats.
That having been said, going beyond the designated Optical Zoom of the S23 Ultra’s main camera and into the digital zoom lengths of 30x and 100x will, not surprisingly, produce some of the worse cases of pixel-binning that I have ever seen, to the point that it looks like some papparazi had tried to take a very unflattering, long-distance shot of their subject, hoping it would still net them a sizable payday.
Expert RAW mode will bring out the professional photographer in you.
Perhaps the biggest enhancement of the Galaxy S23 Ultra by far is the addition of the Expert RAW camera mode. It’s a mode that isn’t included automatically and requires that I download it but Gods above, it is definitely the other game changing factor of the phone. The app is essentially Samsung’s way of letting consumers dive headlong into the world of professional photography for smartphones and once again, if you are a self-proclaimed shutterbug, you may actually enjoy this.
The introduction of Expert RAW on the Galaxy S23 Ultra also officially makes Samsung the second smartphone brand to introduce professional photography functions to users – the honour of being “first” still belongs to Sony’s more recent and revamped Xperia lineup and more specifically, the Xperia Pro-I and 1 IV. I’m talking about the ability to adjust ISO, shutter speed, exposure level, focus points, and white balance. And if you’re shooting in its default 12MP state, it also gives you access the phone’s 3x and 10x Optical Zoom functions.
In my hands, I’ll say this: just as I did with the Pro-I, this mode had me actively seeking out subjects to capture through its lens. Of course, this should come as no surprise but shooting in this mode does cause the phone the heat up very quickly.
To that end, I was consistently snapping pictures in Expert RAW through the 50MP mode, to some really jaw-dropping results, as you can see in the following sections below.
For another matter, the selfie camera of the Galaxy S23 Ultra isn’t all that bad a performer, the 12MP downgrade notwithstanding. Honestly, I’m not as heavily invested in selfies but I can assure you that the end results are still very serviceable, provided you’re in a well-lit environment.
200MP Sample Images
50MP Expert RAW Sample Images
To be fair, there actually isn’t a phone that is able to compete with the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s 200MP camera sensor, in that it is currently the only smartphone that can boast having such a sensor. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Samsung’s latest flagship is without peers. But, in the spirit of keeping our options open, below are just some alternatives that come close, either by virtue of price or even photography performance overall.
iPhone 14 Pro Max
Yes, Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro Max is by no means a direct contender to the Galaxy S23 Ultra, nor is it a quad-camera smartphone. That being said, the phone’s triple-camera main array is nevertheless spearheaded by the 48MP quad pixel main sensor, and flanked by two 12MP telephoto and ultrawide sensors, respectively.
Internally, the 14 Pro Max is powered by the A16 Bionic SoC, which is also based on a 4nm die lithography. Display-wise, you’re looking at a 6.7-inch display with a peak brightness of 2000 nits and ProMotion Adaptive refresh rates.
In terms of pricing, the iPhone 14 Pro Max starts from RM5799 and can go all the way up to RM8299 for the top-of-the-line model.
While the OnePlus 11 does not have the same 200MP as the Galaxy S23 Ultra, it certainly does have a lot of other features to back it up. Firstly, its main triple-camera module was developed in collaboration with Swedish camera brand Hasselblad, and comprises a 50MP Sony IMX890 main, a 48MP ultrawide, and a 32MP telephoto.
It is also one of the next-generation smartphones to run on the Snapdragon 8 Gen2 SoC and Android 13 out of the box, just like the Galaxy S23 Ultra. At current, the brand is only bringing in the 8GB+128GB and 8G+256GB models at RM3299 and RM3599, respectively. There is no news if or when the manufacturer plans on bringing in the models with 16GB RAM and higher internal storage capacities.
The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra marks a milestone in the Korean tech giant’s roadmap. Officially and to state the obvious, it is currently the first and only smartphone on the current market that houses a 200MP sensor in its main camera, allowing users to do photography on a whole new level.
The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra and its new 200MP sensor are unquestionably the highlights for the start of the year.
With a starting price tag of RM5699, the Galaxy S23 Ultra is unapologetically expensive and feels more or less like a repeat performance from the last generation. But that isn’t the case.
At the end of the day, you are forking out a premium not just for a phone with more up-to-date internals, but also for a much better camera sensor, and that’s regardless of the SKU being brought into the country. In conjunction, it’s the first time the “Ultra” in the phone’s namesake feels more deserving than before and in doing so, raises the bar for all other smartphones to clear this year.
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