Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Review: In a League of Its Own
Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra was, and still is, a very capable smartphone. However, it was more about merging the Note line and Galaxy line above anything else. We finally had a well-integrated S Pen in a camera-oriented Galaxy S series smartphone. It was the ultimate Samsung smartphone, with nothing left out, priced from Rs. 1,09,999. Rather than going for a complete overhaul this year with the Galaxy S23 Ultra, Samsung has created a device that will feel very familiar to a Galaxy S22 Ultra user, but with a twist.
The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra uses a brand-new primary camera sensor to enable a better imaging experience, and a Qualcomm SoC that has been customised to (hopefully) deliver better performance. However, all of this comes at a higher asking price, which I’m sure fans would not mind coughing up. Should you upgrade to the latest Ultra, or stick to the one that you might have?
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra price in India
Compared to last year’s Galaxy S22 Ultra, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra has received a noticeable price bump. It starts from Rs. 1,24,999 for the 12GB RAM and 256GB storage variant which is about Rs. 15,000 higher than the phone it replaces. Then, there’s the next variant with 12GB of RAM and 512GB storage that’s available at Rs. 1,34,999, while the top-of-the-line 12GB RAM and 1TB storage variant is priced at an eye-watering Rs. 1,54,999. This brings the Galaxy S23 Ultra eerily close to the currently available Galaxy Z Fold 4 (Review), which oddly, is available from exactly Rs. 1,54,999.
For an iPhone user looking to switch sides, the iPhone 14 Pro (Review) starts from Rs. 1,29,900, so the Ultra’s higher pricing shouldn’t be a big deal. However, on the Android side of things, this could be a bit worrisome as far as top camera phones go, because Google’s latest and greatest managed to deliver better still photos in our camera shootout with the Galaxy S22 Ultra, and is available at a much lower price of Rs. 80,999.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra design
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra continues to maintain its ‘Ultra’ status in the size department. The phone still looks and feels expensive, but has gained a bit of weight (234g vs 228g) over last year’s model, even though it isn’t noticeably heavier. Regardless of weight (which is still lighter than an iPhone 14 Pro Max), the phone surely feels chunkier thanks to its flatter sides.
Samsung has done this by expanding the width of the metal frame and reducing the curvature of the edges. This makes it appear more like a rectangle with rounded corners, instead of the pill-shaped profile when viewed from the top or bottom. Despite the added thickness over the previous model, the Galaxy S23 Ultra is still quite comfortable to hold as the refreshed design provides a broader, flatter surface on all sides for improved grip.
I really wish that Samsung would make a regular-sized Ultra phone, just like Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro, even if that meant ditching the stylus. I think it would definitely find more takers. This is more so, because the company always reserves its best camera hardware for the top model, and unfortunately, it only shows up in one XXL size which is definitely challenging to carry on you. Those with tiny pockets may just have to settle for the smaller Galaxy S23, once again.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra specifications and software
Just like the previous model, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is all about bragging rights when it comes to specifications. There’s a massive 6.8-inch WQHD+ Super AMOLED panel with a 120Hz refresh rate and 240Hz touch sampling rate.
Inside, there’s something new in the form of the ‘Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 Mobile Platform for Galaxy’, which is Samsung’s branding for a customised Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 SoC. The phone is offered with a maximum of 12GB of RAM and up to 1TB of storage. The SIM card tray can hold two nano-SIM cards and supports dual 5G standby, but the phone does not support expandable storage.
Coming to communication standards, there is support for several 5G bands, Wi-Fi ac, Bluetooth 5.3, NFC, Ultra Wideband (UWB) and a USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-C port. The phone has a 5,000mAh battery and supports 45W fast wired charging and 15W wireless charging, but comes with no charger in the box.
Samsung’s One UI 5.1 offers a slick user interface (UI) with smooth animations and transitions throughout the UI. Expert RAW is now part of the camera app which makes it useful for those who need it. The Gallery app, just like iOS 16, allows users to lift objects, people and pets from the photo and save them as PNG files for sharing. There are two new battery widgets, and an improved dynamic weather widget as well. Broader updates also allow Samsung Galaxy Book laptop owners to use their trackpad and keyboard with their phones. There’s also copy and paste functionality to a supported phone and vice-versa, just like on an iPhone with a MacBook.
The S Pen still works as expected. One can jot down handwritten notes or even convert handwritten notes to characters instantly. Palm rejection when using the S Pen is a bit of a problem though.
Bloatware and third-party apps are surprisingly still a problem on a smartphone that costs this much. The phone comes with Microsoft 365, OneDrive, LinkedIn, Outlook, Facebook, Spotify and Netflix apps preinstalled. Out of these OneDrive cannot be uninstalled. There’s also plenty of Samsung-branded apps, some of which have Google alternatives also present on the device such as Samsung Internet and Google’s Chrome (or Samsung’s Messages app and Google’s Messages app).
The good part is that most of them (apart from the core apps) can be uninstalled. With my usage, I found almost 15 Samsung-branded apps that I did not need or would never end up using.
Thankfully, despite the tonne of bloatware, I did not get bombarded with any spammy notifications during the review period. I feel Samsung needs to work on reducing the bloatware on its premium lineup given that Google’s Pixel does not come with a single third-party app preinstalled. Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro which is a direct competitor, also does not come with a single third-party app preinstalled.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra performance
Samsung’s display on the Galaxy S23 Ultra hasn’t changed much in terms of proportions or resolution, but the company says it has worked to deliver better colours using an improved adaptive ‘Vision Booster’ technology. It claims to allow the display to produce better colours and contrast when viewed under bright lights or outdoors.
The company also claims to have bumped up the screen’s brightness to up to 1,200 nits and a peak brightness of 1,750 nits. I’m happy to say that all these efforts really show in real-world use. Whether I was using the phone to snap photos in bright daylight or while viewing HDR10 content, everything looked fantastic on this large display.
While the regular Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 SoC offers a maximum clock speed of 3.2GHz, Samsung’s customisations pushes this speed to 3.36GHz. In benchmarks, the Galaxy S23 Ultra managed 11,79,528 points in AnTuTu along with 1,513 and 4,626 points in Geekbench 5’s single-core and multi-core tests, respectively. For context, the iQoo 11 5G and the OnePlus 11 5G managed scores of 12,63,366 and 10,16,772 in AnTuTu, respectively.
In terms of graphics, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra managed 64fps in GFXBench’s Car Chase test, compared to the 111fps and 56fps on the iQoo 11 5G and the OnePlus 11 5G respectively. While comparing scores, one also needs to keep in the mind the higher display resolution offered by the Galaxy S23 Ultra and the OnePlus 11 5G.
Samsung’s customised processor offers several benefits for its Galaxy S23 lineup, apart from better benchmark numbers. Samsung claims that its customised SoC should be able to deliver better AI processing speeds, along with better low-light videos and photos.
Most games ran at the highest possible resolution and with no instances of visual stuttering or dropped frames on the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra. Overheating was not a problem either, thanks to the bigger vapour chamber cooling area, even during intense gaming sessions (like running Genshin Impact at ‘Maximum’ graphics settings) or when recording 4K 60fps video back to back. Compared to the Galaxy S22 Ultra, I would consider the heat management to be a big leap forward indeed.
While the phone is good at running games, I didn’t find any useful granular adjustments for individual games like you get on other flagships. The touch sampling rate for instance is something I did not find to be impressive in games such as Call of Duty: Mobile, and there’s no way to boost or improve it either. It would have been nice to have such tools in its Game Booster Plus plugin, which has very limited customisation options.
Battery life on the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra was quite impressive given that it has a massive display to power. During the review period, I set the display at its maximum WQHD+ resolution with the screen’s refresh rate set to ‘Adaptive’, which automatically cycles between 1Hz-120Hz. The phone managed to run for 21 hours and 7 minutes in our HD video loop battery test, which is quite impressive.
Even with heavy camera usage, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra easily managed to last a full day, with about 30 percent left on average. With casual use, you should expect this phone to last a day and half without breaking a sweat. Dropping the display’s resolution down to full-HD+ also adds a few extra hours to the phone’s battery life.
Since the phone does not come with its own charger, I plugged it into a 61W USB PD charger. The Galaxy S23 Ultra managed a 34 percent charge in 30 minutes, 64 percent in an hour, and fully charging the phone in 1 hour and 51 minutes, which is quite slow for flagship standards.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra cameras
Another highlight of this year’s Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is the new Samsung-made 200-megapixel sensor for the primary camera. The sensor has the same 1/1.3-inch size as a 108-megapixel sensor, which is how the S23 Ultra has similar dimensions as its predecessor. Called the ISOCELL HP2, it is a bit smaller than the HP1 (also made by Samsung) present on the Motorola Edge 30 Ultra, but offers a 16-to-1 pixel binning system which captures 12-megapixel images by default.
You can also capture photos at the full 200-megapixel resolution. Compared side by side, the 200-megapixel crop definitely is quite usable and packs in a tonne of details compared to the standard binned image. However, there is also a large difference in file size (5MB vs 35MB, per image) and the former also has a softer appearance.
A bigger upgrade is the new autofocus system, which Samsung calls “Super QPD”. According to Samsung, it basically allows the camera to use all the 200 million pixels (grouped by four adjacent pixels) as focussing agents. Unlike the HP1 sensor which could only track changes horizontally, the HP2 is able to detect phase changes in the vertical direction as well.
In theory, this should enable much faster autofocus over the previous model. There’s also a new 12-megapixel selfie camera which has autofocus, and an 80-degree field of view. This new selfie camera thankfully, also makes it to the rest of the Galaxy S23 lineup this year. The rest of the rear cameras include two telephoto cameras and an ultra-wide-angle camera, and these remain the same as last year’s Galaxy S22 Ultra.
The camera interface is the same as before, with the addition of the Expert Raw mode, which now shows up under the “More” tab in the camera app. While it seems like a neat integration, tapping on Expert RAW in the camera app will take you to the download page for the Expert RAW app in the Galaxy store. It’s basically just a shortcut to the separate app, but still a convenient one. The Expert RAW app also features the new Astrophotography modes as well.
The photo samples shown below have been shot with the ‘Scene Optimiser’ AI feature enabled, which results in higher colour saturation most of the time. If you prefer natural colours, then it’s best to leave it disabled. The feature does not work when recording video.
Daylight image quality is top-notch and the primary camera captures plenty of fine detaisl without any excessive oversharpening. What remains subjective is Samsung’s colour treatment, which is an area Google almost perfected with the Pixel 7 Pro. Photos taken at the 200-megapixel resolution appear cooler with skies that are slightly less saturated (even with Scene Optimiser feature turned off). However, dynamic range and contrast is managed really well.
In low light, I stuck to Samsung’s Nightography mode for the most part, but did enable the dedicated Night mode for certain scenes. Just like daylight photos, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra delivers excellent low-light photos with good details and dynamic range. It still has a problem with handling bright street lights, but the light flares are far more subdued compared to what the Galaxy S22 Ultra captured, which is a good thing.
The Night mode offers slightly superior imagery with less noise, but also makes you wait a couple of seconds before saving the image, so it needs to be used only in extremely dark conditions. Autofocus, as expected, was very quick even in dimly lit scenarios proving that the bump to the new sensor was completely worth it. Despite its stellar performance in street-lit conditions, Samsung’s S23 Ultra still cannot tackle extremely dark scenes accurately, as the results show a dreamy HDR effect.
Selfies came out looking crisp and clear with good subject separation when not using the Portrait mode. The results from the Portrait mode are similar with excellent edge detection. In low light, the new camera managed to shoot some quality selfies with good details and offered equally good edge detection.
Samsung, during its briefing to the media, did spend some time talking about the phone’s ability to shoot better low-light portrait photos. I snapped some using the primary camera in a very dimly-lit pub and the results were fine, but not impressive. The phone did not manage resolve details well enough and ended up looking quite soft. In regular low-light conditions the portrait photos packed good details, excellent edge detection, and good colour reproduction.
The ultra-wide-angle camera on the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra offers a very wide 120-degree field of view. The photos come out bright and sharp in daylight with good resolved details. The software does manage to get the extreme barrel distortion under control as well. In low light, the camera continues to impress by offering a balanced mix of good details and contrast with the usual saturated colours, but dynamic range falls a bit short.
The camera setup offers an interesting 100X hybrid zoom capability. Images remain tack sharp up till 10X zoom, which is the S23 Ultra’s optical limit, but still manages to deliver impressive quality till 30X zoom. At 100X, the photos appear fine as thumbnails but don’t pack in much detail. In low light, image quality from the telephoto camera is impressive till 3X zoom with noise well in control. At 10X zoom, the noise begins to creep in but the photos are still quite usable. At 30X zoom image quality does drop drastically and the camera also has a bit of trouble focussing.
What is impressive about the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s camera setup is its stabilisation, which remains rock steady until 30X zoom. Beyond this, you have to make a bit of an effort to hold the phone steady, but it’s still not as difficult as on the S22 Ultra. However, in low light the phone tends to struggle with stabilisation beyond 30X zoom and can get quite shaky. Despite good zoom performance in low light, I was able to use Night mode to further improve the quality of low-light images. This only works well if you have a tripod or very steady hands as the Night mode exposures are long and can turn out blurry even with a minor shake.
Samsung also includes RAW shooting capability, which this time around, works not just for the rear cameras but also with the front-facing camera. There’s also an Astrophotography mode in the Expert RAW app that lets users capture star trails and starry skies, provided you have a view that’s free from clouds, air pollution or light pollution. I tried my best and managed to get a decently clear shot that was free of noise, but the stars just showed up as specs. Still, you will need to use a tripod for this mode unlike the Vivo X80 Pro that can shoot similar-looking photos, handheld.
Samsung has really upped the quality of the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s video capability this time around. 4K videos appear quite detailed and have a rock steady bitrate as well. The new wider OIS system also ensures that recordings are very stable, while maintaining sharpness and quality. What I was not a fan of was the bumped up colour saturation when recording HDR10+ videos. This was visible, both, from the front and rear cameras. The heavily saturated footage when viewed on the punchy Super AMOLED panel will surely wow onlookers, but it’s not the most accurate representation of the scene.
Low-light video recordings also looked impressive with noise well under control when shooting under street-lit conditions, even when shooting in HDR10+. However, all of the above only applies to the primary camera as low-light recordings on the ultra-wide-angle camera were not as impressive and looked soft and noisy.
I even tried out the advertised 8K video recording, which for once can be captured at a steady 30fps. The footage is quite impressive and packs very good details, making it look a lot better than S23 Ultra’s 4K footage as well. Unlike the previous phone, shooting in this mode now uses the full width of the sensor, which means it’s a much wider field of view than what we got before. However, I did notice some minor stutters when panning in 8K mode.
In a sea of Android flagships, Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra sure stands tall but it’s also quite lonely at the top, with the only real competition (at least in India) being the Apple iPhone 14 Pro (Review). While I have yet to do a head-to-head camera comparison between the two (coming soon), the iPhone is certainly no match for the zoom capabilities of Samsung’s flagship, and that’s for certain.
At the same time, the nearest Android offering which comes close to the Galaxy S23 Ultra both in terms of capability and premium design is the Google Pixel 7 Pro. However, at Rs. 80,999, it sits in another price segment altogether, which is a lot lower than the Galaxy S23 Ultra. Simply put, there’s really no direct competition to the Galaxy S23 Ultra on the Android side, both in terms of capability and pricing.
Samsung has been able to deliver a proper balance of unique hardware and optimised software this year, and most of it works well when put together. While last year’s Galaxy S22 Ultra only had its far-reaching zoom capabilities to distance itself from other premium flagships, this year Samsung has managed to add a lot more to widen the gap such as the brand new sensor and proper 8K recording, making its offering truly unique. Also included is the S Pen, which is still the most unique feature among any Android competitor. The solid battery life and customised SoC are welcomed bonuses.
While the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is clearly the do-it-all Android smartphone money can buy at the moment, it all comes at a premium, which despite a price bump, isn’t hard to justify to a fan of the Ultra series or a creator who is looking for such pro-grade features in a smartphone. For a Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra owner though, it might not be the most enticing upgrade this year, unless you crave the latest hardware or need that 8K 30fps capability. Now, if we can only get a smaller sized Ultra smartphone next year, I think I’ll be truly happy.
For details of the latest launches and news from Samsung, Xiaomi, Realme, OnePlus, Oppo and other companies at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, visit our MWC 2023 hub.