I tested Galaxy S24 Ultra for two weeks. Here's why it's Samsung best phone
In my 25 years of tech reviewing experience, I've tested a lot of Samsung phones. The Galaxy S24 Ultra is understated due to AI software perks you can't see at first.
As a phone reviewer, I’ve tested plenty of Samsung phones in my 25 years as a tech journalist, from old Samsung flip phones like the SCH-A950 to, well, new Samsung flip and foldable phones like the Z Fold 5 and Flip 5. What’s old is new again.
That’s exactly what I found in our Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra review. The design isn’t groundbreaking by any means (Titanium frame? It’s nice, but I can take it or leave it, honestly). Its the Galaxy AI software that feels fresh. That’s worth highlighting again in an in-depth discussion about how machine learning is changing smartphones.
I’ve reviewed the iPhone 15 Pro Max and Google Pixel 8 Pro, and those phones have their own strengths. But the new Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra is the first AI phone you should consider buying before the pre-order trade-in credits expire at launch.
Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra AI
Samsung’s use of AI in the Galaxy S24 Ultra is the real deal, according to my two weeks of testing this phone. While CES 2024 was filled gadgets claiming to have AI, including an “AI microwave,” Samsung’s Galaxy AI features the following:
Live translation over calls, a first for an Android smartphone
Text and voice translation via the new Interpreter that works offline. It’s better than any translator app I’ve tested in the past.
Notes with AI summaries. You can record a boring speech or conversation with multiple speakers, and the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra will transcribe it, then translate into different languages if need be and, best of all, arrange a summary with headers and bullet points.
Circle to Search with Google is coming to Google Pixel phones this week, but first launched on the Galaxy S24 Ultra, and I found it more useful than I thought it would be initially. Specifically, being able to quickly circle Instagram products and clothes or dishes on Yelp that have no labels is highly beneficial. Best of all, no need to leave the app, as Circle to Search is a simple UI overlay.
Generative photo editing where you can reframe the picture you’ve taken and fill in missing edges once you straighten things out. Even subjects can be moved around. This is all possible in the latest version of Photoshop, but not free in the default app.
Easy shadow and reflection fixing also impressed me. According to Samsung, it’s harnessing the power of AI to recognize shadows and reflections (we see you, camera man) and eliminate them (the shadows and reflections, not the camera man). In my testing, it works the first attempt more often than not.
AI-generated wallpaper is buried in the settings menu, but I got some joy out of the Mad Libs-style creation here. It’s still fill-in-the-blank, but no two wallpapers look the same using this process.
This is one of the first Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 phones we tested in the US at The Shortcut, and with 98% better AI performance vs the Gen 2 chip, we’re likely seeing things run smoother when using all of this machine learning software.
One of the valid Galaxy S24 Ultra criticisms is that Galaxy S23 Ultra is due to get an AI update sometime in the future. So why upgrade? My belief is that these AI tasks will run smoother (and drain less battery) on the S24 Ultra given the different chipsets. AI can still be a part of older phones, but the experience may be inferior.
200MP Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra camera
Samsung has consistently lagged behind the competition when it has come to testing its cameras in all of my smartphone reviews. Both Apple and Google are always a step ahead in their post-processing software, leaving Samsung to claim the crown as the leader among telephoto lenses (if you don’t count a few phones out of China).
But the Galaxy S24 Ultra closes the gap on the main camera – mostly. I found that it takes bright night photos thanks to its 1.6x larger pixels compared to the S23 Ultra and offer a bit more dynamic range in mixed lightning. Options to take 12MP, 50MP and 200MP photos with increasingly more detail can match what the iPhone 48MP camera is capable of in some key scenarios.
Specifically, the 50MP S24 Ultra camera offers a 5x optical zoom that’s sharper than the 10MP Galaxy S23 Ultra at the same range. That phone offered a 10x optical zoom, but Samsung said users are splitting the difference and wanted 5x. The S24 Ultra can still punch into a 10x zoom with a hybrid optical-digital range, and its ProVisual Engine cleans photos up nicely without as much oversharpening as Samsung is known for. It’s great to have variety and portrait photos at 5x look so much better this year.
The S24 Ultra display is a winner
When reviewing the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra specs, one thing stands out to me: this phone has a bright 2,600 nit display that shines at peak brightness – both literally and figuratively. It’s brighter than the iPhone’s 2,000 nit peak brightness and the S23 Ultra’s 1,750 nit peak brightness. Now, you won’t get these brightness levels from the S24 Ultra indoors. This is meant to adapt to outdoor, in-direct-sunlight conditions. It’ll be nice to have this when you’re trying to stare at your screen in the summer time.
Three more quick display perks: the S24 Ultra now features a flat screen. Gone are the curved edges Samsung made famous with its Edge phones almost a decade ago. This makes the S Pen stylus easier to use to the border of the phones. And speaking of borders, there’s less of a black chin on this new phone that has uniform bezels.
Finally, the anti-reflective screen on the S24 Ultra is this year’s unsung hero feature. Most consumers won’t buy the phone for this reason, but it’s a reason why you won’t ever want to go back to the S23 Ultra, which, in comparison, feels like a distracting mirror when the brightness is lower. I can hardly see myself in the S24 Ultra screen when it’s off.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra deals end tomorrow
One of the reasons the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra has been difficult to judge of the last few weeks is that it’s a $1,299 phone with varying price points. Samsung offers plenty of trade-in bonuses and even a free upgrade to the next storage tier, from 256GB to 512GB. But that goes away when the phone launches and the Samsung Store exclusive Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra colors won’t be in stock forever.
It doesn’t dramatically change my opinion of the phone, but there’s a lot more value for early adopters (about time) this week vs people who wait until after the phone launches. When doing a review with a value and price point that’s constantly shifting, it can be difficult to pinpoint its true worth for average consumers. But, so far, the S24 Ultra is Samsung’s best phone in years in a lot of understated ways.