Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review: Is there too much focus on the camera?

A new 200MP sensor is sure to raise the bar for photography — but it still comes at a hefty price

Samsung unveils new Galaxy S23 series

Samsung unveils new Galaxy S23 series
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Last year, Samsung released the Galaxy S22 Ultra, which came with a 108MP camera sensor. But that wasn't enough, so the world's biggest mobile phone manufacturer decided to add more pixels — lots more.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra comes armed with a 200MP sensor, raising the bar in the premium segment with an obvious attention on one of the smartphone world's biggest, if not the biggest, focal points.

"We've doubled down our efforts on the premium segment," Fadi Abu Shamat, head of the mobile experience division at Samsung Gulf Electronics, told The National.

"And the camera is by far the only permanent key setting factor or key selling point."

Samsung reported dwindling sales as of late, and was even displaced by Apple in the fourth quarter of 2022 in terms of market share, 19 per cent to 23 per cent, Counterpoint Research said in its latest industry update earlier this month.

Despite those, the South Korean tech major still delivered more devices than any other company, shipping about 256.9 million phones last year, good for a more than 21 per cent share of the entire market in 2022, the study showed.

Galaxy S23 Ultra versus S22 Ultra: what's the difference?

SPEC SHEET: SAMSUNG GALAXY S23 ULTRA

Display: 6.8" edge quad-HD+ dynamic Amoled 2X, Infinity-O, 3088 x 1440, 500ppi, HDR10+, 120Hz

Processor: 4nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, 64-bit octa-core

Memory: 8/12GB RAM

Storage: 128/256/512GB/1TB (only 128GB has an 8GB RAM option)

Platform: Android 13

Main camera: quad 12MP ultra-wide f/2.2 + 200MP wide f/1.7 + 10MP telephoto f/4.9 + 10MP telephoto 2.4; 3x/10x optical zoom, Space Zoom up to 100x; auto HDR, expert RAW

Video: 8K@24/30fps, 4K@60fps, full-HD@60fps, HD@30fps, full-HD super slo-mo@960fps

Front camera: 12MP f/2.2

Battery: 5000mAh, fast wireless charging 2.0, Wireless PowerShare

Connectivity: 5G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.2, NFC

I/O: USB-C; built-in Galaxy S Pen

SIM: single nano / nano + eSIM / nano + nano + eSIM / nano + nano

Colours: cream, green, lavender, phantom black; online exclusives: graphite, lime, red, sky blue

Price: Dh4,949 for 256GB, Dh5,449 for 512GB, Dh6,449 for 1TB; 128GB unavailable in the UAE

If you run through our compilation of the specs of both the Ultra versions of the Galaxy S22 and S23, the most noticeable changes are the shift to an exclusive chipset from Qualcomm and the 200MP camera. Other than that, everything else has basically stayed put.

Save for very few minor details, the Galaxy S23 Ultra bears the same physical identity compared to the S22 version. Samsung, however, has said that it had slightly reduced the S23 Ultra's curves to make room for a tad more of display.

Is this the beginning of an "identity" for the Galaxy S series? We're all for that, if only to stand out against an ocean of competition and similar-looking smartphones.

A good example is Apple's iPhone, which built its repertoire by using an easily recognisable design, sticking to the same aesthetics for a good number of years instead of having a new look each year.

Performance: fastest in the Galaxy

As mentioned above, the entire Galaxy S23 line-up globally uses an exclusive Qualcomm chipset the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2. The processor itself has a "For Galaxy" branding.

This is a good move, as Samsung has received criticism over the years for using its own Exynos chips in a good chunk of its devices, which has led to varying complaints, from underperformance to overheating issues. Samsung promises substantial performance bump-ups across speed, graphics and machine learning.

The company has pointed out that Microsoft and Google have helped on this front, as well as in using the cloud better, to help users in productivity.

Meanwhile, the S Pen is back in its new home. The Note-era holdover does not have any significant upgrades.

Despite all the mundane-sounding descriptions, here's what we can say: The Galaxy S23 Ultra is fast — really fast. It's the quickest we've experienced in the Galaxy line-up by far. This will be an advantage for users, particularly workaholics.

Camera: Focused at the night

Two hundred megapixels. On a smartphone. As if 108MP wasn't enough. The general rule is that that more pixels you use, the more detailed photos should be, and Samsung is touting that.

Samsung has been using pixel binning, which is basically grouping together megapixels to produce smaller, clearer images, as well as bring in more light — similar to those found in the iPhone and Google's Pixel.

There is no question about how the Galaxy S23 Ultra performs in well-lit situations, so we went ahead and tested it out at night at our favourite spot to snap photos.

Another holdover feature is Space Zoom, which can go up to 100x. Again, this is a novelty; even with a tripod or a very steady hand, don't expect clear shots.

We wonder what Samsung is planning with Space Zoom, as it's been there since the Galaxy S20 Ultra two years ago. More importantly, does anyone actually use it? It won't produce those photos you may want to post and boast on social media. There are very few reasons we can think of.

Battery lasts longer

In our run with the Galaxy S22 Ultra last year, the device lost 6 per cent in our standard one-hour YouTube-at-full-brightness test. With the S23 version, Samsung was able to improve that by a notch, as the new device gave up only 5 per cent. Just to be sure, we repeated it a couple more times, and we still ended up with the same results.

Samsung's phones have always had tough batteries, especially as of late. From a full charge at the start of a work day, a reasonably good amount of mixed use — work, camera, video, surfing, games — still left us with about 45 per cent of battery at the end of the day. Go stingy with how you use it and it's good enough to stay powered on until nighttime of the following day.

On charging, Samsung claims that the phone can be charged up to 65 per cent in 30 minutes with a 45W charger. Using that, and the USB-C-to-C cable that comes with the device, it did manage to go up at 62 per cent. We were able to scale the 85 per cent mark in an hour.

Just for comparison, if you use a 30W charger, the Galaxy S23 Ultra crept up to 32 per cent in half an hour. By the 60-minute mark, that was up at 65 per cent. We used our own chargers as, remember Samsung no longer includes wall plugs in its Galaxy packaging.

Amusingly, the lasting battery of the phone meant we had to wait several hours to get it drained for our charging tests. "Bad" for us as reviewers, but very good as users.

The verdict

There is no doubt that the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is, by far, the best in the company's line-up. The device is aimed at users who are looking for top-of-the-line productivity features in a small package.

We've doubled down our efforts on the premium segment ... and the camera is by far the only permanent key setting factor or key selling point
Fadi Abu Shamat, head of the mobile experience division at Samsung Gulf Electronics

But did the company focus too much on the camera? Pound for pound, yes, given that it's the only major upgrade. But keep in mind that Samsung is also now using a dedicated Qualcomm chip, which finally addresses all the performance and overheating issues they've faced in the past.

The major sticking point is that it is still expensive. And in the UAE, we finally get a 1TB option — the first time you'd have to shell out more than Dh6,000 for a Samsung device outside its Galaxy Z Fold series.

Still, technically speaking, prices of the Galaxy S23 Ultra line-up are down Dh50 in the UAE compared to their predecessors.

There's also an argument that can be made in that it's the equivalent of an 'S' device (6S, XS, etc) in the Apple line-up, in which token upgrades — though a 200MP camera is hardly token — are made before one big splash on its successor. Can we expect that big splash with the Galaxy S24 next year?

Updated: February 18, 2023, 3:00 AM
SPEC SHEET: SAMSUNG GALAXY S23 ULTRA

Display: 6.8" edge quad-HD+ dynamic Amoled 2X, Infinity-O, 3088 x 1440, 500ppi, HDR10+, 120Hz

Processor: 4nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, 64-bit octa-core

Memory: 8/12GB RAM

Storage: 128/256/512GB/1TB (only 128GB has an 8GB RAM option)

Platform: Android 13

Main camera: quad 12MP ultra-wide f/2.2 + 200MP wide f/1.7 + 10MP telephoto f/4.9 + 10MP telephoto 2.4; 3x/10x optical zoom, Space Zoom up to 100x; auto HDR, expert RAW

Video: 8K@24/30fps, 4K@60fps, full-HD@60fps, HD@30fps, full-HD super slo-mo@960fps

Front camera: 12MP f/2.2

Battery: 5000mAh, fast wireless charging 2.0, Wireless PowerShare

Connectivity: 5G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.2, NFC

I/O: USB-C; built-in Galaxy S Pen

SIM: single nano / nano + eSIM / nano + nano + eSIM / nano + nano

Colours: cream, green, lavender, phantom black; online exclusives: graphite, lime, red, sky blue

Price: Dh4,949 for 256GB, Dh5,449 for 512GB, Dh6,449 for 1TB; 128GB unavailable in the UAE