We're fresh off the launch of Samsung's latest flagship Galaxy devices, which means that all eyes are once again on the phone that will undoubtedly be in the running to be one of the best Android smartphones of 2020. This year, Samsung announced three different flavours of the Galaxy S20, with the Galaxy S20 Ultra sitting at the top of the pack.
Samsung pulled out all the stops with the S20 Ultra, packing more memory into it than some notebooks and strapping on a camera module that boasts up to 100X zoom. Of course, you get all the usual upgrades too, such as a faster processor, improved graphics, and a slick 120Hz display. But the fact that I'm talking so much about the hardware under the hood says a lot as well. Despite the generational leap in its name – the S20 instead of the S11– and the Ultra tag, Samsung's new phone is still very much an iterative upgrade on the Galaxy S10 series.
But outside of foldable devices like the nifty Galaxy Z Flip, this could pretty much be said of any smartphone to come out in recent memory. They're very familiar, but they're also slicker, faster, and better. And the Galaxy S20 is nothing if not a supercharged device, boasting beefed-up specifications that are likely to endear it to power users who just want the best. This is also the first properly mainstream 5G phone from Samsung, which makes it seem like we're closer to a wider rollout of 5G than ever.
A STUDY IN EXCESS
The camera is the most significant change to arrive on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, both visually and under the hood. It manifests as a very large and thick camera bump, which houses four rear cameras and the LED flash. The size of the bump almost demands that Samsung justify it with a truly excellent camera, and it sure is trying its best to do that with specs that sound really impressive on paper, including a 108MP main camera and 100X Space Zoom.
THE CAMERA IS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGE TO ARRIVE ON THE GALAXY S20 ULTRA, BOTH VISUALLY AND UNDER THE HOOD. IT MANIFESTS AS A VERY LARGE AND THICK CAMERA BUMP, WHICH HOUSES FOUR REAR CAMERAS AND THE LED FLASH.
HOW DID SAMSUNG PUT 100X ZOOM ON A PHONE?
Those of you who love to pore over spec sheets will have noticed that the telephoto lens on the S20 Ultra is seemingly inferior to the one on the S20 and S20+. It is "only" 48MP, versus 64MP on the smaller S20 phones, but both of them still have 0.8µm-sized pixels. However, the S20 Ultra is the only one that has a 102mm focal length, which lets it focus on objects that are insanely far away.
But phones are very thin devices, and the focal length is limited by how close the sensor is to the lens. To get around this, Samsung uses a lens that resembles a periscope, where a prism is used to refract light from the lens to the sensor at a 90° angle. The sensor and lens array lie flat, instead of being stacked atop each other. By laying out the hardware horizontally, manufacturers have more space available to them and are not limited by how thin the phone needs to be.
This is also referred to as a "folded" lens, and companies like Huawei and Oppo have employed this approach as well. Huawei most notably did so on the P30 Pro last year, which offers 50X zoom. The S20 Ultra is now topping that with its 100X Space Zoom, making it the first smartphone to do so, and basically doubling the bar set by Huawei.
You'll get 4X optical zoom on the S20 Ultra, and up to 10X "Hybrid Optic Zoom", which is still apparently lossless, according to Samsung. Beyond that point, things start to become more and more unforgiving as the slightest movements of your hand make it difficult to frame your subject and get it a clear shot. I was able to get some useable shots only up to 30X zoom though, and anything beyond that is a hit-and-miss. Everything just gets super grainy and blocky, and you have to be far enough away such that actually glimpsing the object in question outweighs how blurry it's going to be.
However, when compared to the Huawei P30 Pro, the S20 Ultra produces noticeably cleaner and sharper images at 30X and 50X zoom, so Space Zoom is overall a really solid implementation of digital zoom. And it shows that there are still refinements to be made, rather than just pushing boundaries for numbers sake.
THE S20 ULTRA CAMERAS AT A GLANCE
• 12MP, 120°, f/2.2, 13mm (ultra-wide), 1.4µm
• 108MP, 79°, f/1.8, 26mm (wide-angle), 1/1.33", 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS
• 48MP, 24°, f/3.5, 103mm (tele-photo), 1/2.0", 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS, 10x hybrid optical zoom
• 0.3MP, f/1.0, time-of-flight 3D, (depth)
• 40MP, 80°, f/2.2, 26mm (wide), 0.7µm, PDAF
YOU'LL ONLY WANT TO SHOOT AT 108MP WHEN THE LIGHTING IS GOOD, BUT IT'LL LET YOU CROP IN CLOSER TO FAR AWAY OBJECTS WITHOUT LOSING TOO MUCH DETAIL. THIS IS PROBABLY NOT SOMETHING THAT THE AVERAGE PERSON WILL USE EVERY DAY, BUT IT'S POTENTIALLY USEFUL, AND YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOU MIGHT NEED IT.
DO YOU NEED A 108MP CAMERA?
Then there's the 108MP shooter, which uses Samsung's ISOCELL Bright HM1 sensor. A variant of this sensor is used in Xiaomi's Mi Note 10 phones, so Samsung isn't the first to trot out such a high resolution sensor. But while this is the main camera sensor, the S20 Ultra doesn't shoot at 108MP all the time. For one, these photos would be a lot bigger than usual and take up a lot of storage space. Another reason is the tiny 0.8µm pixels, which collect less light and could possibly end up introducing more noise to the picture, which would then just obscure all the extra detail collected by having so many of them.
Samsung's sensor attempts to circumvent this problem with a process called pixel binning, and its default mode is to actually shoot 12MP photos. This involves combining 3x3 grids of nine pixels into a single big 2.4µm pixel, which is in turn bigger than those in many other smartphones. This is an evolution of Samsung's Tetracell technology, which turned four pixels into one big one. Samsung now refers to this as nona-binning, and the resulting larger pixels can capture more light more improved clarity.
But in well-lit conditions, you can switch to the 108MP mode if you want that extra detail. Obviously, few of us require such detailed photos, but the idea is that you'll be able to crop these pictures and, well, make photos from photos without reducing the picture quality. In these cases, Samsung applies some re-mosaic tech that rearranges the colour pixels to bring out even more detail. The re-mosaic algorithm remaps pixels into a conventional RGB pattern, which Samsung says produces more detailed images in bright lighting. This offers you a nice bit of flexibility, where you can take regular 12MP pictures while still getting the option to scale up to 108MP when you need it.
MORE THAN JUST NUMBERS
Fortunately, the headlining 108MP sensor and 100X Space Zoom are more than just big numbers on paper. You'll only want to shoot at 108MP when the lighting is good, but it'll let you crop in closer to far away objects without losing too much detail. This is probably not something that the average person will use every day, but it's potentially useful, and you never know when you might need it.
Similarly, you're not going to be constantly trying to take pictures at 100X zoom all that often either, but when you need to take a picture of that thing that's really, really far away, you know the feature is there. Granted, pictures taken beyond 30X zoom are not worth sharing in any way, and anything you capture will probably just be for your own consumption. There is just enough resolution to make out the details of whatever it is you're after, such as the lettering on a building far away, or maybe the vague features of a famous person on the street.
More importantly, no other phone currently offers this particular combination of features, which helps the S20 Ultra stand out from the crowd as a phone for power users and enthusiasts.
ARE GIANT CAMERA BUMPS GOING TO BECOME THE NORM?
However, you’d be forgiven for looking at the S20 Ultra and thinking it was just a little bit too much. Its headlining camera features may be actually useful, but how many of us really need them? More importantly, why does Samsung think we do?
I think the answer lies in where the phone industry is going as a whole, or rather, where it is not. Today, modern smartphones are mostly homogenous slabs of glass and metal. It’s difficult to pick out a device that feels wholly original, and every product launch is a familiar march of edge-to-edge screens with pin holes, notches, or tear drops.
Just as laptop manufacturers appear seized by an urgent need to innovate and reinvent the PC with dual-screen and foldable devices, smartphone makers are possessed by a similar impulse. When almost every product refresh is described as iterative, companies are keen to try something new, which explains devices like the Galaxy Z Flip and the new Motorola RAZR. But such ambitious designs are also risky, and they will never sell as much as the candybar phones that are the mainstay of every brand.
To that end, innovation must come in the form of the phone’s hardware and specifications. These are less flashy updates, but as in the case of the S20 Ultra, they can and do make a difference. And in a time where we’ve all gotten used to the idea of carrying a camera around in our pockets, it’s no surprise that everyone is focusing on beefing up the smartphone camera. We’ve seen this on other phones as well, such as with the iPhone 11 Pro’s trio of cameras that inspired countless memes.
Outside of battery technology, the camera is arguably the area where there’s the most room for improvement on a smartphone, despite the already excellent photos today’s phones can produce. High refresh rate displays and powerful processors are nice to have, but the camera is probably what makes or breaks a smartphone today. But when everyone is offering nearly the same feature set with a wide-angle and telephoto lens and computational photography smarts, the solution to stand out seems to be to push the technical capabilities of each component of the camera to their logical extremes, such as Samsung did with its ultra-high resolution sensor and 100X zoom.
These features were added not because plenty of us need them. Instead, Samsung added them just because it can, but more because there remain few avenues to explore when it comes to delivering meaningful improvements to the user experience. Smartphone manufacturers have also shown great inclination for lifting and improving on the best features of each other’s phones – the S20 Ultra’s 100X zoom could be seen as a response to the 50X zoom on the Huawei P30 Pro – so I fully expect that we’ll see similarly insane zoom levels from the next batch of phones.
Whether or not they’ll result in as large a camera bump remains to be seen, but I’m pretty sure we’ve bid goodbye to the days where it was actually a thing for phones to have a completely flush and discreet camera module. Cameras are getting even better, and they’re about to get bigger still.
PHOTOS SAMSUNG, 123RF