28th February 2024 4:38 am
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Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra Review: Top Performer By Any Measure

We mentioned this in our review of the base model Galaxy S23, but it bears repeating now – Samsung knows how to make good flagship phones. The South Korean outfit has regularly released top-performing flagship devices in recent years, with its mid-range A series benefitting too.

As such, while there has been the odd competitor from a Chinese phone maker, when it comes to the best Android phones at the moment, Samsung yields the safest bet.

So what then about its best-specced flagship phone of 2023 so far, the Galaxy S23 Ultra? We were thoroughly impressed by its predecessor, so can this year’s iteration measure up, surpass it, or get swallowed by the success of the S22 Ultra?

While one might be forgiven for thinking that people generally shy away from very expensive flagship phones, Samsung told us at the launch of the S23 series earlier this year that the S22 Ultra was the most popular model last year.

It stands to reason then that there are quite a few out in the market, so is there really a need to upgrade to the Galaxy S23 Ultra?

We spent the past couple of weeks trying to find that out. This is what we learned.

Have we met before?

First things first – design. Here things have changed, but also feel quite familiar. Samsung decided to give a slight refresh to the aesthetic of its S23 series, which has yielded a new camera array, and a less angular frame for the base and plus options.

The Ultra, however, only truly features one of those changes, with the rear camera system similar to its S23 brethren. The frame though still has a sharpness to it in the corners. It’s unclear why this is the case, but it likely has something to do with the S Pen stylus recessed into the frame of the phone.

To retain that while making the Ultra look like the other S23 models may have taken a bit longer to develop than expected. Either way, along with size and dimensions, the Ultra does indeed look different to the other options in this series.

Whether that makes it appear better than the others is really up to the holder, but when it comes to that premium feeling, there is something missing here for us. It may be a symptom of the Lavender colour option of our review model, but the contrast of the shiny frame and matte back cover strikes us as odd, especially as last year’s model featured a uniform unibody-esque feel to it.

We’re nitpicking here, and this may simply be a case of personal preference, but we kind of prefer the look of the S22 Ultra instead.

One area we cannot be blamed for being picky about is the lack of protective cover in the box. It is something we will continue to harp on about, as we did in the base S23 review, but given this phone retails for a recommended R30 999, not putting a basic back cover in the box feels a little stingy. The same goes for the charger, which you have to purchase separately.

We know Samsung South Africa tries to sweeten the deal by bundling in Galaxy Buds, but we’d gladly forego wireless earphones in favour of a charger for the massive 5 000mAh battery onboard.

Gotta love that stylus

Now that our venting is done and dusted, let’s talk about the three areas the Galaxy S23 Ultra excels – stylus, performance, and camera.

Starting with the S Pen, there is nothing really new on the hardware side of things, as it’s the same stylus as last year’s model. That said, the stylus is easily one of the leading reasons to pick up this device. It is what made the Galaxy Note series truly special, and the same applies here.

It is weird to say, but when we’re using another phone, the idea of a stylus never really comes to mind, regardless of how large the device is. On the S23 Ultra, however, we use it nearly all the time on and it just works. The ability to jot down notes, annotate diagrams, pictures, and other media is simply great. It is one of those features that you don’t miss if it’s not available on another phone, but the moment you have access to it, you rarely put it down.

The only criticism we have here is the placement of the S Pen slot, which is to the left of the phone if the display is facing you. As most of the world are right-handers, it seems odd that it is not on the right side of the phone. Not a dealbreaker, but an odd choice nonetheless.

On the performance side of things, there is nothing to complain about. We have waxed lyrical about the speed and multitasking efficiency that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset brings to the base S23, and the same rings true here. Add to that a generous 12GB RAM, and the Ultra is a definite workhorse.

Interestingly though, the base model slightly scored higher on GeekBench, but the Ultra outperformed its smaller brethren when it comes to multimedia. This makes sense given the 6.8″ (3088×1440) display on offer, and the need to attribute more computing to media-related use.

Now for the camera, and there has been some recent conjecture about doctoring Moon zoom images. Quite frankly it is not the first time that a company has fibbed about camera performance, and it will not be the last. We’re also not big fans of crazy zoom features, namely as image quality takes a beating and such pictures usually require a tripod for stability if you want decent results.

In our experience, the new 200MP lens on the back of the S23 Ultra does seem like overkill, and when this specific lens is put into use, speed takes a bit of a knock. That said, when we see the images it produces, a little lag is forgivable. Along with the behemoth of a camera strapped to the back, three more lenses are present – a 12MP ultra wide-angle, 10MP telephoto, and 10MP periscope telephoto.

The mix is great in a variety of light environments, and comes with a level of surety that good pictures are a few clicks away.

Is it a big step up from last year’s model? No, we don’t think so, particularly as we christened it one of the best flagship phone camera experiences we experienced to date. In fact that the only thing that betters what the S22 and S23 Ultra models produce, is the Leica co-designed Xiaomi 12S Ultra, but you can’t buy that in SA right now.

Final verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is a flagship phone worthy of the name, but you already knew that. By pretty much every measure it delivers unrivalled performance, and the addition of the S Pen is a feature we always enjoy.

That said, it does not come cheap, and it also suffers from the same problem that the base model S23 does. Namely that its closest competitor is last year’s Ultra. The margins of difference between the phones are very thin, so upgrading from the predecessor to this model makes little sense.

If, however, your Android flagship phone is indeed due for an upgrade, Samsung’s latest offering remains the safest bet out there.

FINAL SCORE: 8.5 OUT OF 10.

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