It looks the same as last year?
Very much true. Looking at both S22 Ultra and S23 Ultra, even at a close distance, you could be forgiven for thinking they are the same phone. Samsung has opted to keep the front and back design the same this year, and along with it has ported the aesthetic to the rest of the S23 line-up, which now ditches the chunky camera bump in favour of a baby S23 Ultra design, you can finally tell they are the same family, but with rounded corners.
In the hand is where the S23 Ultra feels different to the S22 Ultra. Thanks to the flatter side frame, and less curved edges of the AMOLED display, I find that the new model feels a bit more comfortable and has a more reassuring grip. The boxier design now reflects more of what the old Note series ended up like before that line was axed.
The other more subtle difference is that the side buttons, whilst still in the same position, are slightly flatter and more satisfying to press. The S22 Ultra's thin buttons always felt a bit sharp in comparison. A nice ergonomic upgrade for sure.
This year, a few new colours are on the table, we have the online exclusive colours, which no longer need an additional four weeks to be delivered. There is Sky Blue, Lime, Graphite and Red, which is the one I opted for. In the flesh, the red looks like burnt orange, or under sunlight, salmon. It has a petrol-like gleam as light plays on the surface. It's a very nice colour to look at and isn't as deep a red as the official marketing images show.
Then there is Green, Lavender, Cream and Phantom Black. Samsung says all of the colours consist of natural dyes embodying "Earth tones", as well as the use of recycled materials. Looking into a bit more detail I found out that this is just a bit of PR speak. here's what Samsung's fine print says about the use of natural dyes and recycled materials:
"The S Pen inner cover located within the S Pen slot contains a minimum of 20% ocean-bound polyamide (PA). The front and back glass contain an average of 22% recycled content. The back glass deco film contains a minimum of 80% recycled content. The above measurements are based on weight. Dyes for anodizing the metal frames are made of 10% natural dye." - Samsung.com
The other change for 2023 is the S-Pen, not the specs of it, but more the aesthetic. While the S22 Ultra came with an S-Pen body colour that matched the online exclusive colour purchased, the S23 Ultra's exclusive colours do not have a matching S-Pen, and instead, you get a black S-Pen body. The clicky top only changes colour to match the middle frame, which is either silver or black. It is nice to see that the frame itself remains matte black, as I am not a fan of the normal colours which have a glossy frame finish which does show fingerprints and smudges.
|Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 (4nm)
|Battery & Charging
|5000 mAh, non-removable, 45W wired (65% in 30 mins), 15W wireless, 4.5W reverse wireless charging
|6.8", AMOLED 2X, 120Hz, HDR10+, up to 1750 nits
256GB 8GB RAM, 256GB 12GB RAM, 512GB 12GB RAM, 1TB 12GB RAM - All UFS 4.0
|Rear camera 1
|Wide: 200 MP (Samsung ISOCELL HP2 ), f/1.7, 24mm, 1/1.3"
|Rear camera 2
|Ultrawide: 12 MP, f/2.2, 13mm, 120˚, 1/2.55"
|Rear camera 3
|Periscope 10x telephoto: 10 MP, f/4.9, 230mm, 1/3.52"
|Rear camera 4
|3x telephoto: 10 MP, f/2.4, 70mm, 1/3.52"
|12 MP, f/2.2, 26mm, Auto-HDR, HDR10+, 4K 60fps
|Adobe DNG format RAW (10-bit/12-bit supported)
|Up to 8K 30fps, 4K 60fps, 1080p 960fps, HDR10+, 360 degrees sound (using wireless Bluetooth headset), OIS, EIS
|Dual Nano SIM, eSIM, WiFi 6e, Bluetooth 5.3, USB-C 3.2,
|Qualcomm 3D Sonic Gen 2
|Dolby Atmos stereo speakers tuned by AKG supporting 32-bit/384kHz
|One UI 5.1 (Android 13)
|Size & Weight
|163.4 x 78.1 x 8.9 mm (6.43 x 3.07 x 0.35 in), 234 g (8.25 oz)
|Gorilla Glass Victus 2 (front & back), IP68, Armour aluminium frame,
|Galaxy S21 onwards, Samsung offers 4 years of major Android updates + 5 years of security updates.
|£1249 (256GB), £1399 (512GB), £1599 (1TB) // $1199 (256GB), $1379 (512GB), $1619 (1TB)
On paper, the specs are closely reminiscent of the S22 Ultra, too, but there are some key differences, especially with the camera specifications. At first glance, you might be fooled into thinking that Samsung has just slapped a 200MP sensor into the new model and called it a day. In practice, this is certainly not the case.
The new sensor has more refined pixel binning. It is not about shooting at 200MP, because just like the S22 Ultra's 108MP sensor, shooting at this maximum resolution you lose some key features that would otherwise be available in normal mode, such as being able to switch lenses.
The S23 Ultra also has a 50MP mode, a middle-ground that still produces excellent results, but at much smaller file sizes and less time to process the final image. You still have some of the restrictions noted above, but on the upside, HDR capture is possible in this mode, so you could benefit from using this for higher-resolution images where you know you will be cropping in on the details.
The 16-to-1 pixel binning is worth talking about in order to understand why this matters. For those who may not be aware, here is how Samsung describes the new pixel binning tech dubbed "Tetra2pixel".
Both S22 Ultra and S23 Ultra output a final 12MP image by default, so the same resolution and similar file sizes, yet the S23 Ultra is able to capture more detail, is sharper across the whole frame and can be edited further in software if desired thanks to the extra dynamic range the new sensor affords; especially in low light which Samsung claims can be as low as 1 lux to focus in, or the equivalent of a single candle in a dark room.
For reference, the S22 Ultra's 108MP sensor does 8-to-1 pixel binning. To better visualise how these numbers translate into real-world images, look at the handheld night-time photo I shot below during a walkabout. The S22 Ultra is on the left, S23 Ultra is on the right.
Qualcomm's Gen 2 chipset has the Adreno 740 graphics processor built in. This GPU supports modern technologies like hardware ray tracing. I'm not a mobile gamer at all, but I went on a hunt to see if I could grab a copy of a game using modern engine technologies.
Currently, there are three games in development for Android that support ray tracing, Arena Breakout (Tencent Level Infinite), Justice Mobile (NetEase Thunderfire Studios), War Thunder Edge (Gaijin Entertainment).
I installed Arena Breakout Beta on the Play Store at a whopping 2.1GB+ download and gave it a go. No problems worth mentioning, the game felt like it was running at 60fps. I did however note that the graphical settings, possibly due to being beta, could not be maxed out, it auto-lowers some settings.
Samsung's Game Booster utility which is available when you launch a game was quite useful at displaying remaining battery life estimates and you can increase or decrease this by setting the game priority.
Next up, Geekbench achieved some nice results, even in the Light performance profile which adds a few more hours of battery life/screen on time (more on this later).
Standard performance mode:
Light performance mode:
The GPU performance is essentially the only thing that differs between both performance modes. I noticed no difference in usage when in Light mode. The Galaxy S22 Ultra did not provide a Light mode, only "Optimised" and "High" modes, so it is nice to see that focus on efficiency has been implemented with the new series without sacrificing the user experience.
As we are talking performance, the fingerprint sensor remains the same Qualcomm 3D Sonic Gen 2 from last year. This sensor boasts very quick reads and reliable accuracy. Samsung did not need to change anyhing here because the S22 Ultra already had a solid reputation in this area. I have yet to have an issue with scanning accuracy, regardless of whether my hands were hot, cold, dry or wet.
The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 SoC is a much more efficient chipset than previous versions. Not only that, but it is also more powerful as it is, and Samsung's custom version comes slightly overclocked out of the box. When this news broke, many online feared that this would result in worse battery life, some claimed that Samsung was chasing performance numbers once again, but this could not be any further from the truth.
The fact is that this new chipset, combined with the LTPO2 AMOLED display and software refinements, has resulted in battery life that puts the Galaxy S22 Ultra to shame. Keep in mind that both phones have the same 5000mAh battery. Take a look at my direct comparison, with both the Light and Standard performance modes against the S22 Ultra's first full charge that I recorded last year.
Not only has the screen on time dramatically increased but the background and active app power usage has decreased. I have installed the exact same apps and use the phones the exact same way on the same mobile and Wi-Fi networks for reference. This sort of battery life takes me back to the Sony Xperia Z3, a phone that could consistently get 2 days from a full charge, although not quite catch the 9 hours screen-on time of the S23 Ultra when pushed hard.
I no longer need to take day trips out with battery anxiety. I use the camera a lot when travelling and only carry a slim power bank capable of charging 3500mAh, not a full charge but merely a top-up when needed on the S22 Ultra. For me, the S23 Ultra is a game changer.
I also noticed that using Wireless Android Auto is less power-hungry than on the S22 Ultra. The phone gets less hot, and even in my pocket for quick drives, the phone does not heat up to the point where it closes apps down to stop the heat generation as I discovered once when driving with wireless Android Auto on the S22 Ultra.
I have yet to mention charging, and for good reason. It remains unchanged from the S22 Ultra. We still see 15W wireless charging, and 45W wired using a PPS-compatible wall charger. Those who don't want to buy the expensive Samsung charger can buy something like an Anker 313 on Amazon. The only slight refinement in charging worth mentioning is that charging to 70% takes just 30 minutes from empty, which is exactly the same as the Galaxy S22 Ultra. Only the 10 and 20-minute charge times see a slight improvement in percentage, but nothing to write home about.
With all this in mind, then, I see no reason the average user could not achieve a 2-day battery life when in the Light performance profile mode. Best of all, nothing is sacrificed either, which is a bonus!
Let's get the 200MP elephant in the room out of the way first. Yes you can shoot in 200MP, but as a photographer myself who has used the S22 Ultra since launch for all styles of photography, I would recommend not using these high-resolution modes in most instances. The exception with the S23 Ultra is that the 50MP mode has HDR capture to some degree, as well as detail retention when viewed 100%.
Below I will now show an example of the default 4:3 mode which is 12MP, 50MP and 200MP in a low-light desktop setting with only overcast window light coming in from the right, typical of what the vast majority of people will experience on a day-to-day basis. Notice that the 12MP example has the best exposure balance due to using the 200MP sensor's binning capabilities to best effect, and as a result, the HDR is just more balanced.
|Auto @ 12MP
|Auto @ 50MP
|Auto @ 200MP
The first thing I wanted to try out was the Samsung Expert RAW app which is available from the Galaxy Store, this has been out for some time now, but with the increased dynamic range of the S23 Ultra's main sensor, I knew that RAW files would be much easier to reclaim lost detail in both highlight and shadows, and in a way feel more like how I process my DSLR RAW files.
These were processed in Lightroom Mobile, which on the S23 series is a special edition designed for Galaxy it seems. It integrates with the Expert RAW app by offering a button in the image preview that imports and loads a captured shot directly into Lightroom Mobile.
I also wanted to make sure that a similar dynamic range was possible on the ultra-wide camera (left image) as well, and I am happy to report that both ultra-wide and main cameras offer a similar dynamic range. Both examples are available to view in high resolution in the gallery at the end of this review.
Zoom quality at 4K 30fps is also very good. There is a lot of detail retained, especially in the highlight areas that the S22 Ultra would often overexposure, even in low light shadow areas we see plenty of detail. Below is an example of a night clip I shot down at the local waterfront as a large cruise liner sailed past. Notice the detail retention as the camera zooms in, and how clean in general the image is (ignoring some YouTube compression!).
New to the S23 Ultra is HDR in 4K video up to 60fps, but sadly at the time of writing, 4K 60fps does not support changing lenses whilst recording, you must pick a lens and then hit record, but not during. Once a lens is picked and recording has started, you have limited digital-only zoom. This could be fixed with a software update as Samsung has done similar in the past. Nevertheless, 4K 30fps is perfectly usable in low light and is very clean and detailed as shown in the clip above.
Other reviews said that if you already have an S22 Ultra, then the S23 Ultra may not be a worthwhile upgrade. This might be true for some people, but as an owner of both, I have seen the big benefit of doing the upgrade, and that is battery life. It just so happens that the camera is much better too, especially in low light.
For many people, then, an S23 (not just the Ultra) is a no-brainer. We finally have a Snapdragon Galaxy flagship available in all markets - And it's a good one. The Ultra sees a genuine 2-day battery life for moderate users, whilst heavy users can easily get through a whole day without having to enable the additional power savings modes. The new Light performance mode does not sacrifice performance in any area I could notice, and with that comes a boost in battery life as well.
It feels like all the complaints we had for the S22 Ultra have been refined to be better on the S23 Ultra, and if history repeats itself, then the camera will just get better and better with updates over the coming months as this is what happened with the previous Galaxy S flagships as well.
The software experience remains like before, although now at One UI version 5.1, which was recently rolled out to the S22 series as well. The same baked-in Samsung apps from last year make a return to the S23 series. And just like before, I had to disable Game Launcher, Chrome, and Microsoft OneDrive, as I do not use these and they cannot be uninstalled, only disabled.
Some features of One UI 5.1 are exclusive to the S23 series, however, such as long pressing on an image, video or GIF in the gallery and being able to cut out people, animals and objects using AI:
The only real sticking point for a lot of people will be the price of these new phones. A starting price of £1249/$1199 is a huge sum of money for a phone. I remember when the top tier model of any given flagship used to be around £850, this wasn't that long ago... Thankfully various interest-free payment plans exist and Samsung has a trade-in scheme that offsets the cash outlay, along with the usual discount codes available online as well. So maybe the eye-watering cost isn't as high when these are factored into a purchase.
To conclude then, the S23 Ultra is a superb phone with a battery life that has exceeded expectations, plenty of camera improvements, especially in low light, and subtle ergonomic changes that improve usability. Yes, the design is the same as last year, but it is unobtrusive, inoffensive, and fits the phrase 'form and function' nicely. For once, all the models in this generation of Galaxy S line look like they are from the same family, and that is a good thing.
In terms of negatives,I've touched on things like not being able to switch lenses when recording 4k 60fps right now, which is the sa,e limitation on the S22 Ultra, so it would be nice to see a software update that allows this on the new cameras. Everything else remains similar, just refined and enhanced in one way or other. Call quality, speakers, overall OS performance all feel similar just as I would have expected, given that both are flagship models released not even a full year apart from each other. The main focus gains come in the form of battery life and camera quality, and for some, that is what matters most.