Why the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra has me divided and confused


On one side, I’ve been known to be a big detractor of Samsung’s Android smartphones for the last couple of years but at the same time, I’ve been a fan of a lot of their innovations. That’s always been the reason why invariably a Galaxy Note has been awarded the best Android smartphone of the year by me more than once in the last decade. It is this idyllic throw the kitchen sink into the phone philosophy that attracts me to its phones, but it is also what causes a lot of despair as nothing just works like on my iPhone. One is always left yearning for more. It can be argued that Samsung abandoned this level of devilry with its smartphones for the last 5 years or so, but with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, it displays it again with a vengeance. And this is what makes this such an attractive phone to use, but it is also the same thing that drives me crazy which leaves me divided and confused about this phone. 

On one side there is a lot to love about this phone — it’s fast, gorgeous, there is great battery life and well the cameras are sold to be superhuman. That’s basically what you want from a phone, right? 

On the S20 Ultra, every boundary is pushed to the extreme. The 6.9-inch screen is just jawdropping. The colours are magnificent, the brightness levels are so good that even the Delhi sun can’t tame it and basically, it’s the most fun movie-watching experience on a portable device considering it also has meaty speakers which make for an immersive experience.  

The gargantuan size of the phone also makes this a great device to get work done on. I wrote a blog for the Samsung newsroom and it was basically written on the phone. Even parts of this article were written on the phone using Google Docs. I love doing this because of the size of the screen and the responsiveness of Samsung’s haptics which feel better than any phone I’ve used. 

Expectedly, performance isn’t an issue on this phone. It’s a hulking beast when it comes down to multitasking. Whatever people may say about the Exynos 990 chip; for me, it is plenty powerful, even for gaming something I don’t do enough. The phone also rarely got warm in contrast to what many reviewers have been saying. 

The one thing that has always rankled me the most is Samsung’s software — its approach towards customising Android. I hate it mostly because of the way it looks and how it ties into redundancies that Samsung has built into the system which makes the phone even more unpleasant to use. 

But I found a workaround — a launcher called Lawnchair which mimics the stock Google Pixel Android experience with the ability to customise the system. I even am happy with the Poco launcher which is made by the Xiaomi owned company. All of this does seem to lighten up the experience when new icons are added considering the fluidic nature of the 120Hz screen on the phone. 

But still, there are gaps — the way Samsung’s gestures work, the way core system UX works which look boorish even when the UI is themed to death coupled with unneeded apps making it inconvenient to use at times. This is not what one counts as a premium experience. 

The epitome of Samsung’s failings as a provider of mobile software comes to head when talking about its camera system. Yes, that 108-megapixel camera is not as good as it should be. I know this to be true for two reasons. Firstly, Samsung’s user interface is a hot mess. When you want to take a photo, you can easily end up zooming instead, missing the shot altogether. It is a UX faux pas. 

Then there is the case of the end result when you are able to capture the shot. Samsung likes to tom-tom the fact that this camera is groundbreaking because of its resolution and zooming abilities. Samsung has made a big deal of its 100x space (digital) zoom and up to 4x optical zoom. The zooming is nice to have for certain situations but most people wouldn’t need it. It is also not as good as some older phones like the Huawei P30 Pro which came out in 2019 on just basis of zoom. 

Then there is the case of the base level image quality which is what makes the Galaxy S20 Ultra so problematic. There is the fringing issue which so far Samsung has not been able to fix. Generally, too, the photos aren’t as good as an iPhone 11 which kind of defeats the purpose of all this expensive technology. 

But still, some would say, this is still the best Android camera package? Now that Xiaomi’s Mi 10 is out you can’t even say that. This is what drives me nuts. The Mi 10 is almost 50% of the price of the Galaxy S20 Ultra and uses the same camera tech which Samsung has pioneered and its photos are perceptibly better in terms of detail, saturation, colours, contrast, natural blur levels, low light for night mode and even in the same league for video. 

How is this possible you’d say? Well, today that’s the thing with gadgets, the hardware is 40% of the battle, the software is 60% and Samsung yet again proves that it can’t hold its own even with its own hardware. Xiaomi’s approach to using this technology is vastly different from Samsung which could hold clues to this variance. But this still is perplexing?

Why should I pay 50,000 more for a phone which has an inferior camera, and generally an inconvenient user experience — and that’s why as much I love using the Galaxy S20 Ultra for its glorious screen, haptics, fast performance, epic battery life, zooming camera, Samsung is not rising to the occasion. 

In fact, so much so, it can be argued that there are many things that the Mi 10 does better than the S20 Ultra — maybe a more colour accurate screen, a nicer design, definitely 30-watt wireless charging which is 2x what the Samsung can do and Qualcomm’s SoC which also has theoretical 5G support apart from the camera stuff and slightly better software? 

Don’t get me wrong — the S20 Ultra is going to be a great phone for some people like me; those who need the insane zoom, those who need the massive screen, those who need the supple haptics, those who want the Microsoft apps preloaded and those who need a 120Hz screen — but that’s definitely not everyone. 

Samsung will argue that for everyone they have the Galaxy S20+ but then again — its camera is blown away by the Mi 10 something ratified by even DxO Mark coupled with a more attractive design, and that epic 30-watt wireless charging. Samsung certainly needs to introspect, but kudos where it’s due – Xiaomi has made an impressive phone which should give OnePlus, Samsung and Apple some headaches in the premium segment of the Indian smartphone market. 

In the meanwhile, I’ll go back to scratching my head and maybe pulling some hair as I remain divided and confused for my love of the S20 Ultra which has become my favourite phone to edit stories (documents) and photos. One hopes that Samsung is able to improve the camera on the S20 Ultra, if it does, it will at least, stop driving me crazy.