Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Review

Samsung’s new Galaxy S23 Ultra is arriving worldwide on February 17th. This new high-end device builds and iterates on Samsung’s long-standing Ultra series, replacing the Note series. For those who are still looking for a larger device with premium functionality, the Galaxy S23 Ultra is worth considering. This is especially true if you’re accustomed to using the S-Pen for productivity.

I’ve always been a fan of Samsung’s Galaxy Note series. Though, over time, it felt like the company’s more buttoned-up parent device to the S-series. The renaming and reimagining of the device, transitioning over to Ultra made the device feel more within the family of the standard Galaxy S devices.

The new Galaxy S23 is no different in this way. It maintains the core improvements Samsung introduces this year. However, Samsung isn’t shying away from integrating some impressive camera functions. Though, the improvements on battery (or lack thereof) and a pricing model starting at $1,649.99 are aspects worth considering prior to an upgrade.

That said, the cost of investment comes with an impressive 200MP sensor, capable of shooting 8K video. Shutterbugs will also have access to an Expert RAW mode. Samsung also includes a slew of other productive features as well as entertainment perks, making the S23 Ultra live up to its name. However, aside from camera upgrades, Samsung isn’t bringing any meaningful changes to the Ultra line. In fact, by comparison, the S23 Ultra is nearly identical to the S22 Ultra with the odd exception.

Out of the box

Samsung is once again pursuing a sustainable future when it comes to the design and packaging of the Galaxy S23 Ultra. The new phone and its box have been made using a variety of recycled materials.

For instance, the packaging is made up of 100 percent recycled paper. Samsung also touts that recycled paper is used for the film that covers the front and back of the smartphone. The device itself also maintains the company’s sustainability efforts. Samsung’s new high-end smartphone is made up of 12 internal and external components all using recycled materials including discarded fishing nets and water bottles.

The packaging itself is minimalist for good reason. To no surprise, Samsung once again only includes a USB-C cord and a SIM card removal tool with the S23 Ultra. The company does not provide a power supply unit or headphones. This is now the norm so it’s not to be expected these days but still worth pointing out.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra maintains the overall design aesthetic of its predecessor. In comparison to the S22 Ultra, this year’s model still provides a 6.8-inch Curved Dynamic AMOLED display. Plus, the screen offers 1,440 x 3,200 pixels, a 20:9 aspect ratio, 120Hz VRR, HDR10+, and 240Hz Touch Sampling.

All this is to say that it’s business as usual when it comes to the screen from a point-by-point spec breakdown. From its internal, the S23 Ultra is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, a notable improvement from last year’s S22 Ultra. It comes with either 8GB or 12GB of RAM. Storage options include 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB. This year, Samsung is dropping the 128GB option. This is likely due to the average file size of photos and 4K-8K video now require.

A real looker

I’ve long been a fan of the design and size of the Ultra series. Samsung thankfully left the S22 Ultra’s design untouched when adopting it for the S23 Ultra. The 6.8-inch AMOLED display spans the body of the device. It features Gorilla Glass Victus 2 on the front and back. This is a nominal upgrade from Gorilla Glass’ Victus+, which Samsung used on last year’s model. I’ve long used the Ultra line but have been comfortable with Apple’s Pro Max line for iPhone.

This is to say that I feel comfortable holding a larger device for sustained periods of time. The S23 Ultra and its 234g weight are slightly heavier than the S22 Ultra’s 229g. However, it still comes in lighter than the iPhone 14 Pro Max, which sports a weight of 240g.

Aside from how the phone actually looks, the display itself is quite stunning. Once again, Samsung delivers a multimedia powerhouse backed by its display. The smartphone supports 120Hz which is more than sufficient for watching YouTube videos, Netflix, or playing the odd mobile game. I very much enjoyed my time using the S23 Ultra to watch episodes of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson or keep up with my daily obsession which is Marvel Snap.

The mobile hit and sensational game support 60FPS which the smartphone is able to support with no problem. However, with a strong refresh rate, it can’t be ignored that the market is shifting towards 144Hz. Samsung’s S23 Ultra is as premium as it gets from a price tag perspective in Canada. It’s a shame that for one reason or another, it’s still capped at 120Hz.

Productivity perks remain

I have to admit that every time I used Samsung’s Ultra line I force myself to use the S Pen. It’s not that I dislike the little accessory. It’s just that it rarely fits into my lifestyle. That said, I did pop it out from time to time to jot notes down or use it to scroll. Having the built-in S Pen will once again enrich someone’s time with the smartphone. It may not be me, but I can objectively see how using it to snap photos or use Air Command features, the S Pen can be of great use.

Beyond the S Pen, the S23 is a snappy, functional smartphone. I found the mix between the performance of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 to be excellent. On paper, the processor provides an estimated 40 percent increase for the GPU and NPU. It’s marginally different than the market chip found elsewhere. However, its performance is slightly better as it’s a custom chip for Galaxy.

Whether I was scrolling through social media, writing a quick note in a doc or flipping between apps for work, everything worked without a hitch. If you’re using Google Meet, you can enable other users to jump in and co-edit documents which can be a nice perk. Additionally, if you have a Galaxy Book, Samsung enables Instant Hotspot, which enriches the ecosystem. This can be especially helpful for those shooting photos in RAW and bringing them to the Exper Raw app seamlessly.

A shutterbug’s dream

For many looking into the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, the obvious point of interest is the camera. Samsung once again avoids a camera bump surrounding its rear camera array. However, the lenses still don’t sit flush with the smartphone. Therefore, if it is out of a case, the phone may sit on one of the sensors when placed on a desk or table. There’s also the possibility of it rubbing a certain way within a pocket.

Aside from that, it’s a sleek design and I appreciate Samsung’s commitment to the vertical landscape of its camera. This year, the S23 Ultra’s camera array features what’s possibly the best camera suite available on Android. a 12-megapixel lens f/2.2 ultrawide lens, a 10-megapixel f/4.9 10x telephoto lens with OIS, and a 10-megapixel f/2.4, 3x zoom telephoto with OIS.

S23 Ultra v. iPhone 14 Pro Max

However, beyond all of this, it’s the new 200-megapixel lens that Samsung aims to be the showstopper. Touting a 200-megapixel camera can sound like a marketing tactic when in actuality it doesn’t provide much for the user. However, that’s not the case in the slightest. Samsung uses a technology referred to as pixel binning to take 16 pixels and group them together to create larger pixels for smaller images.

These smaller images are composed of 12 megapixels in size. The result of this can produce better resolutions and additional details to a picture. Other devices on the market do offer some sort of bin tech to help bolster the camera. On the Samsung S23 Ultra, the power of the 200-megapixel lens behind its primary camera is turned on via a button within the Camera app. The colours produced in each photo are usually quite vibrant. Even in low lighting, the S23 Ultra is capable of producing some great shots.

A lens for every occasion

Beyond a 200-megapixel camera, the S23 Ultra’s 10x and 3x telephoto lenses are a lot of fun to play around with. Between the two, I believe the 10x still holds up incredibly well and is impressive to use. It’s able to grab a stunning amount of detail without compromising much-desired quality.

I think objectively speaking, Samsung has found and held onto that magic sauce that makes its 10x and 3x camera so special. Getting ahead of it, yes, the 100x zoom is back. Yes, it still looks like a mess of pixels and noise. In contrast to the 200-megapixel camera, having 100x zoom on the box was a marketing buzz push and I still can’t wrap my mind around why Samsung continues to push it.

Where the S23 Ultra suffers is when looking at the front-facing camera. This year’s premium model from Samsung offers a meagre 12-megapixel selfie camera. I call it meagre only because its predecessor offers a 40-megapixel front-facing shooter and was a highlight not only for myself but for other users. The reasoning for this downgrade is unknown and is kind of a letdown when I look at side-by-side spec breakdowns.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the quality dip is a deal breaker. I found that the selfie camera is still able to produce great shots in well-lit environments. Though, between its capabilities and that of the iPhone 14 Pro Max, I truthfully would waiver towards Apple’s offering for selfies. Though, there is a bit of a trade considering this is the first Galaxy phone to support 4K video at 60FPS on the selfie camera.

Speaking of video, the device’s main camera array supports video recording of up to 8K. I’d be hard-pressed to be convinced to shoot in 8K personally. For most of my time spent with the S23 Ultra, I played around with 4K. I found natural light settings to be the best for video. In low-light or outright dark environments, I feel as though the device attempts to overcompensate for the brightness, leading to blown-out lighting. But overall, it’s a very solid video recorder for content creators or those wanting to capture a perfect moment.

A better battery means more fun

The conversation around the S23 Ultra’s battery is an interesting one. On paper, it supports a 5,000mAh battery, the same as its predecessor. However, it’s how Samsung has optimized the phone that plays into its improvements. For instance, the company has claimed that the integration of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 has greatly benefited the overall performance of its battery. In addition, improvements made to the display are also going a long way toward longevity.

On average, I found myself using about three to four hours of onscreen time per day with the S23 Ultra. With a combination of doom-scrolling Twitter, going through TikTok, answering emails and watching YouTube videos, I typically ended the day with about 30 percent.

Now, my testing period is only a fraction of the time most people will end up using their own devices. But so far, it seems as though Samsung’s claims of an improved battery as true. In terms of charging, the S23 Ultra does support 45W wired charging. I’ve found that I was able to get from a totally depleted battery to 50% in roughly 30 minutes. A full charge usually fell short of an hour in total which was great.

Final thoughts

The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra offers best-in-class performance and camera capabilities when looking at the Android market. It’s likely that most will look to compare it to Google’s Pixel 7 Pro. An argument can be made that they are comparable.

However, it stands to reason that the S23 Ultra will provide a much better user experience straight out of the box. With an impressive suite of camera options, the S Pen integration, and solid battery life, Samsung’s premium phone is worth considering, even with its starting price of $1,649.99.

However, when stacking the S23 Ultra up against its predecessor, there’s very little reason to upgrade. Samsung once again prioritized a new camera feature over meaningful device upgrades means most who have the S22 Ultra aren’t missing all that much.

If you’re already happy with your camera and the battery is still getting you through the day, there’s little reason to run out and upgrade in the near future. While I’m walking away very impressed by the S23 Ultra, I’d love to exist in a world where a new phone’s shiny upgrade isn’t solely driven by its camera.

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