I upgraded recently from last year’s Galaxy S22 Ultra, and the S23 Ultra is everything the S22 Ultra should have been, and then some.
Last year’s Galaxy S22 Ultra wasn’t a bad phone, but it fell short of my expectations. Though I really liked the design — it was a throwback to the Galaxy Note10+ which I was hugely fond of — I found myself having to deal with regular stutters and poor battery life. That was already supposed to have been “resolved” last year, given that the S22 Ultra variant sold in Singapore came with a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor for the first time in many years, instead of Samsung’s in-house Exynos chips which are typically less performant. Unfortunately, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor in last year’s S22 Ultra fell short of expectations, with it being manufactured on Samsung’s problematic 5nm process instead of TSMC’s, something that would later be remedied with the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 which came out later last year. Despite a hefty 5,000mAh battery, I often found myself with battery envy, having to recharge my phone two to three times a day. Lugging around a power bank was all but a necessity.
This year, the S23 Ultra comes with a newer Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor built on TSMC’s 4nm and is a variant “specially designed” (marketing speak for “overclocked”) for Samsung phones. With my phone plan up for recontract, I did the math and figured that I could essentially upgrade my phone at no cost (after trading in my S22 Ultra), while paying $15 less a month for the next 24 months. While I went with white for the S22 Ultra, I decided to revert to black this time round as I found it tough to find matching cases for a white phone.
From the outside, the S23 Ultra looks virtually identical to its predecessor, although there are subtle differences. The sides are a little squared off and the screen a wee bit less curved, which supposedly makes the phone easier to handle. In practice, the difference is most notable without a case on. With a case on, it depends on the design of the case. For example, with the Spigen Liquid Air, the sides are still rather curved and not very nice to hold. In contrast, the phone is much easier to handle with the Ultra Hybrid case or Ringke’s Fusion case.
The weight of the S23 Ultra has also increased by a couple of grams. Although the S22 Ultra is already a heavy phone to begin with, the few grams of difference is rather noticeable. This is compounded by the fact that certain S23 Ultra cases, such as the Spigen Ultra Hybrid, have also gained in weight (about 49g vs 43g for the S22 Ultra version), perhaps due to the redesigned camera cutout on the S23 Ultra version.
Like the S22 Ultra, the S23 Ultra maintains the same camera arrangement. While the camera rings on the 3x telephoto lens and the laser autofocus module remain the same size, the camera rings on the other three cameras lenses have been enlarged a wee bit. Given that the main camera’s sensor is just a tiny bit larger than that of the S22 Ultra (with a slightly larger aperture to boot) and the other two camera sensors and lenses remain unchanged, the size increase is probably just for marketing reasons (and perhaps so they can sell more cases?).
The main camera’s sensor, though, has been upgraded to a 200MP module. Of course, the number of megapixels doesn’t necessarily matter — but more on that later.
Other than that, the processor upgrade is noticeable. While I would experience occasional bouts of stuttering with the S22 Ultra, the S23 Ultra is almost completely smooth, except for some scrolling stutters in Firefox on certain websites (probably more of a Firefox optimisation issue).
As mentioned above, the S23 Ultra looks virtually identical to the S22 Ultra, unless you look very closely. This isn’t a bad thing, I guess, since the S22 Ultra, in my opinion, looked amazing. Samsung’s designers probably thought the same thing. The back panel is fashioned out of matte textured glass, which looks and feels really nice in the hand, though it’s a bit of a fingerprint magnet. Apart from the SAMSUNG logo and the IMEI number (which I had photoshopped out) etched on the back, the back is free of any superfluous branding or wordings (remember the tacky “100X SPACE ZOOM” inscribed on the Galaxy S20?).
The sides of the phone, like last year, are fashioned out of “armoured aluminium”, and on the black version, there’s a dark grey tint to it. Unfortunately, due to the elastic phone loop (inspired by this) which I use, I ended up scraping a bit of the paint within two weeks. Ouch. Opt for the cream colour to minimise such issues.
Specs wise, the display on the S23 Ultra appears to be identical to that of the S22 Ultra. Having tried a couple of units of S23 Ultra and comparing them to the S22 Ultra, I do feel that the quality of the screen is, on average, a little worst than the S22 Ultra.
My first S23 Ultra came with a slight shadow or “mura” near the status bar area, as though some of the status bar icons were burnt in. The second unit I got had slight colour uniformity issues where on a white screen, the sides had a bit of a red tint while the centre had a bit of a green tint. My subsequent units were better, but never reached the uniformity of the S22 Ultra. Viewing angles on the S23 Ultra are also slightly worst, too, with an overall green hue appearing as soon as you tilt the screen a little.
That said, on the whole, the screen is still one of the better displays in the market. While I had thought that the quality control on the panels used for Samsung’s flagship series have improved considerably (I used to have issues such as bright pixels, dust under screen and very severe colour uniformity issues), they seem to have taken a slight step back this year.
The star of the show, according to Samsung, is the new 200MP imager on the main lens. My first reaction was to scoff at the number — won’t 200MP be useless on such a tiny camera sensor?
As it turns out, the main camera captures excellent images in day time, although you have to switch to the 50MP or 200MP mode to appreciate the full prowess of the camera.
First, let’s compare a shot taken in 12MP mode, with the S22 Ultra on the left and the S23 Ultra on the right.
At a glance, the S22 Ultra appears to churn out punchier photos, while the colour tone on the S23 Ultra appears a tad more natural. Viewed on a mobile screen or a tablet, I would prefer the S22 Ultra’s output, while at full size, the S22 Ultra’s output appears to be a tad too oversharpened and the S23 Ultra’s output is preferable. That said, neither shot impresses at 12MP.
Where the S23 Ultra shines, however, is in full-res mode.
Viewed at 100%, the S22 Ultra struggles to deliver, with very noisy output even in daytime. Granted, sized down to a resolution that’s more reasonable (say 24MP), the noise is not that distracting, but there are areas where noise is still noticeable, such as the horizontal lines on the apartments on the right.
Meanwhile, the S23 Ultra is capable of producing very clean images at 200MP and with minimal watercolour painting effect. It’s almost like magic.
That said, the main camera lens on my phone is perhaps a tad decentered, as images on the extreme right of the frame appear slightly blurry at times. Another unit I tried had better sides, but the mid-right of the frame had a bit of astigmatism. You can’t have everything, I guess.
While on the initial firmware, you had to hold your phone still for about a second for 200MP shots to be captured successfully (otherwise, you’ll get a watercolour painting), with the latest firmware released a couple of days ago, 200MP shots can be automagically captured within half a second. It’s amazing. That said, it appears that there is some over-sharpening happening in the new firmware, resulting in some slight “watercolour effect”, although it’s only noticeable in certain areas and prominent mostly at 200MP.
The S23 Ultra also has a 50MP mode, which produces a pretty clean shot as well, even when viewed at 100%, except at the extreme right edge. See below.
Overall, the photos taken by the main camera in daytime, especially in 200MP mode and resized down, gives even dedicated cameras a run of their money. Here’s a comparison shot taken by my Sony A7 Mark III with Sony G 24-105mm f/4 lens:
Meanwhile, here’s a comparison with the Olympus E-PL7 with the kit 14-42mm lens:
Viewed at equivalent resolution, the S23 Ultra appears to be sharper. Hence, for daytime, landscape photography, the S23 Ultra can be a good substitute for a dedicated mirrorless camera.
Here’s another shot at 200MP (click the link below and open image in a new tab to see at at fullsize). I think this phone has just made dedicated cameras with 1″ sensors like the Sony RX100 redundant, at least for daylight photography.
While there’s some slight smudging in certain areas with the current firmware (it’s a pity, as the launch firmware fared better in this regard), the overall quality is still more than acceptable. Zoom out to, say, 24MP and you have a pretty nice image.
That said, landscape shots are challenging at night at 200MP. Here’s a 100% crop, which is serviceable at best:
Zoomed out to 12MP, however, and it looks quite a bit better, although you do see some noise artifacts near the lit areas. That said, it’s still a massive improvement over the S9+ I had five years ago.
Here’s another example of a night shot. Resized to 24 megapixels (the same as my A7III), it looks pretty great for the sensor size
A 100% crop at 200MP, however, shows the image sensor unravelling. That said, a 12MP shot taken at night from a camera from five years ago would probably look like this too.
The camera doesn’t seem to handle very bright light sources very well; instead, there’s a “haze” to images. Some post-processing should clean things up, however.
Here’s some other shots at 200MP. Overall, it’s a very respectable camera and I am definitely impressed.
While you have to hold your camera for about half a second (on the new firmware) to take 200MP shots as the phone presumably captures multiple shots and then combines them, the phone processes them very well. Here’s a shot at the recent IT Show (resized from 200MP to 12MP). Even with people moving and all, the resulting photo is free of “ghosting” artifacts.
Moving on, the ultrawide module is pretty decent and comparable to the S22U.
So is the 10x telephoto module, which produces very similar results. The S22 Ultra has a tendency to over-sharpen things, while the S23 Ultra photos have a slight ‘haze’ to them.
What’s the purpose of a 10x telephoto lens, you say? I find myself using the 10x lens not so much for taking photos, but to zoom in on text which I could otherwise not be able to see with my bare eyes. For example, just yesterday, I used the 10x telephoto lens just to confirm which streetside carpark I was at. Previously, I had also used this function in IKEA to zoom in on the menu at the counter 😉
The 3x telephoto and 10x telephoto lenses have an actual resolution of 10MP, yet they output 12MP photos. Despite the slight extrapolation, output quality remains acceptable.
Lastly, here’s a shot with the 3x telephoto lens. Looks good too.
As with previous Samsung cameras, the main camera is sometimes used even in 3x and 10x zoom modes when in low light conditions. However, you can disable this feature in the settings if you wish to.
Performance and Battery Life
This is where the S23 Ultra truly shines. For years, I’ve bought a new Galaxy phone hoping at an increase in battery capacity would result in greater battery life. Each year, I’ve been sorely disappointed. Not with the S23 Ultra, though. I can now get through a work day without needing a top-up. Though, you might struggle a little bit if you use the camera and GPS functions a lot — on one such day, I still managed to get through the day, but with just 5% battery left at the end of it.
Charging speed is decent, but definitely not as fast as many Android phones on the market today. There was a bug which I experienced with an Anker charger where, if battery life was low, the phone would “restart” charging once charging speed hit 40W. Other chargers generally worked fine though. The issue is also that the phone starts charging very slowly once the phone’s temperature reaches past 37 degrees, which is quite a common occurence here in Singapore.
The phone is generally smooth, too, something which I cannot say about the older S22 Ultra, which had a little bit of a stutter. Compared to the Pixel 6a, which is my current spare phone, the S23 Ultra is light years ahead. Surprisingly, even installing updates are a breeze with the S23 Ultra — on older Samsung phones, you would be looking at 30 minutes of downtime. With the S23 Ultra, updates take barely 10 minutes to install.
Even coming from last year’s S22 Ultra, I find the S23 Ultra to be a noticeable upgrade. It’s everything the S22 Ultra should have been. If you’re upgrading from an older phone, it’s probably a no-brainer decision. If you’re coming from another Android phone or an iPhone, the S23 Ultra is probably one of the best (if not the best) Android phones you can get today. Samsung’s One UI is reasonably refined these days and monthly security updates are now pushed out very quickly. Samsung has also addressed many of the pain points from previous devices such as sluggishness, battery life and image quality. Perhaps the remaining thing left to be addressed is charging speed.