Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra hands-on review: a 200MP smartphone camera ready for its close up
Samsung's newest tech is here, and we've tested its new 3 phones and 5 laptops. Here's how they stack up.
We have tons of Samsung Unpacked content today, including this Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra hands-on (below), Samsung Galaxy Book 3 Ultra laptop hands-on, and a deep dive into the Galaxy S23 colors, specs, screen protectors, storage analysis, and deals. Visit The Shortcut for ongoing updates today.
My Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra hands-on
It’s here. I have one. The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra’s 200MP camera is ready for its extreme close-up, which is good news because this phone seems iterative until you get close up to peel back the subtle but smart changes. My early take is that this is the No. 1 smartphone to buy in 2023 if you want the best of what Android offers.
I got to test the 200MP camera, which is four times the maximum resolution of the iPhone 14 Pro Max, to see if it actually makes a difference when it’s relatively the same price (more on that soon). The S23 Ultra boasts five cameras, takes better low-light photos than the S22 Ultra, retains that fun-to-test 100x ‘Space Zoom’ lens, touts a hand-stretching 6.8-inch display and embeds Samsung’s trademark S Pen stylus. I’d love to see Apple make a mini Apple Pencil for the iPhone, but until that happens, Samsung remains unmatched here.
The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is the complete package. The question is: do you want and need it all for the high (before pre-order discounts) asking price of $1,119 for 256GB (there are options for 512GB and 1TB, too)? Most people will be fine with the cheaper Galaxy S23 or Galaxy S23 Plus. But you’re not most people. You came looking for the first draft of my Galaxy S23 Ultra review and, increasingly, Samsung’s other phones are fine also-rans with good enough specs, meaning interest has only turned to the pro-level Ultra series, especially among The Shortcut subscribers.
Good news: Samsung is making the choice to upgrade easier with tempting launch week trade-in offers and a secret $50 pre-order discount. Should you grab an S Pen and sign up away for that pre-order deal or wait? Here’s what I found when testing out the Galaxy S23 Ultra to determine its true value vs your s-pend.
Why trust my Samsung Galaxy S23 review
I got to test out the Galaxy S23 Ultra before its February 17 release date and I’ll continue to evaluate this new phone until that date (and long after, obviously), just like I’ve done for the S22 Ultra and Z Fold 4. I’ve reviewed or tested every Samsung phone since the Note 3 for either The Shortcut or TechRadar.
It’s too early for my final recommendation, but I can say that the S23 Ultra is a strong favorite among new Android phones in 2023 – if you have the money to spend and factor in the tempting trade-in offers. The Shortcut has no banner ads and only earns through affiliate links (and from paid subscribers), but affiliate links never factor into our judgment of a device. Like you, I’m obsessed with testing out cutting-edge tech but also saving money when doing so.
Let’s dive into it.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra price
Let’s get this out of the way: at the initial price of $1,199, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra costs $100 more than the iPhone 14 Pro Max – at least until you look at the two phones spec-for-spec. Apple’s price for its top-tier iPhone is $1,099 for 128GB, and there’s no storage-limited 128GB Galaxy S23 Ultra.
There’s no reason you should be paying the full $1,199 price for the Galaxy S23 Ultra given all of Samsung’s early pre-order incentives.
Samsung starts things out at a more reasonable 256GB, so the company is basically price-matching the iPhone 14 Pro Max at $1,199 for 256GB. The Google Pixel 7 Pro is a more competitive $999 at this same 256GB level, with a $100 cheaper 128GB version.
Update: Samsung is currently offering a free pre-order upgrade: the 512GB version for the price of the base 256GB storage option. This is typical of the pre-order phase and tends to vanish once the phone comes out (so February 17).
There’s even more to the story. Samsung offers the most robust trade-in offers around (although Apple has done a much better job of this in recent years) Ironically, I’m looking at the pre-order page now, trading in an iPhone 14 Pro Max to Samsung earns you the most money.
On top of this Samsung has a $50 pre-order discount (this will also vanish when the phone actually releases on February 17). In fact, there’s no reason you should be paying the full $1,199 price for the Galaxy S23 Ultra given the pre-order incentives.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra release date
February 1, 2023: announced and pre-orders begin today
February 6, 2023: My final Galaxy S23 review with a score will go live
February 17, 2023: Ships to first customers from Samsung and US carriers
The Samsung Galaxy S23 launches today, February 1 with pre-orders having already started by the time you read this. But the actual delivery date is Friday, February 17, 2023. The delay between “launch event” and the actual S23 Ultra “release date” sometimes confuses people. That’s what I’m here to clear up.
All US carriers – Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile – will sell the new S23 smartphones as well as Best Buy stores. New this year is the ability to buy a Galaxy S23 directly from Samsung while renewing through one of the carriers. You don’t have to go directly to their individual site or a store to purchase this phone on a plan or get their offers.
Over the course of the next week, I’ll continue testing the Ultra (and the rest of the new Samsung products) leading up to a final Galaxy S23 Ultra review. I’ll also make a judgment call to see where this device slots into our best phones buying guide and do a lot of comparisons with the Google Pixel 7 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max, Samsung’s biggest big-phone rivals in the US.
Massive 200MP camera for canvas-sized photos and no-detail-lost cropping
12MP photos take advantage of 16-to-1 pixel binning tech
Four times the max resolution of the iPhone 14 Pro series
200MP photo files will be around 70MB to 80MB
S23 Ultra’s 200MP camera and “Nightographty” mode deserve the most attention. Looking back at my Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review, it had a perfectly fine 108MP camera, and most photos are snapped at 12MP anyway. This nearly-year-old S Pen-included phone is still my daily driver when using an Android phone – at least until February 17 when the S23 Ultra comes out.
I see two benefits to a 200MP camera on the S23 Ultra. First, you’ll be able to print out canvas-sized photos from a smartphone, if you so choose. I don’t think anyone is doing that in 2023, though. Second, and far more important, you can crop into a 200MP photo without losing detail and, even when snapping default 12MP photos, there’s a 16-to-1 adaptive pixel binning process (basically, combining smaller pixels into larger ones) happening on the backend. It that should (I haven’t tested this part out yet) result in better low-light photography.
Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro series is able to do this at 48MP, so Samsung is quadrupling its biggest competitor to give creators even more room for edits. You’ll need lots of storage room, though. I asked Samsung what about file sizes to expect at 200MP and the answer was this: 70MB and 80MB at 200MP vs under 10MB for the 12MP camera. I’ll confirm those estimates in my full Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review.
How the S23 improves upon the S22 camera
Vastly improved AI post-processing, enhancing Super HDR and toning
Samsung catches up better with “Nightography” low-light photos
Video has double the image stabilization for everyone’s shaky hands
Stay tuned to my Twitter and Instagram for IRL photo testing this week
What’s most telling is that Samsung, during Galaxy S23 Ultra briefings I sat in on, has talked about – and shown me – how much it has improved the camera’s AI post-processing over the S22 Ultra. Post-processing is the real key to making your photos look better – it’s all about Super HDR, increasing the shadows, and tamping down the highlights that would otherwise be blown out if the exposure is set too high.
Nighttime photos are where the S22 Ultra struggled and often took third place in my tests next to the Google Pixel 7 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max. You may not notice a huge difference between daytime shots if you’re coming from the S22 Ultra, but there seems to be a marked difference in how it handles low-light photography.
What I found interesting is that most companies go out of their way to never disparage their other devices (Apple is a master of this), but Samsung is drawing a distinct line between the S23 Ulta and S22 Ultra, showing that its camera is smarter at scene detection and presenting warmer skin tones. I can’t wait to get this 200MP camera out of briefing rooms and onto the streets of San Francisco later today.
It’s going to take time to do a full Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra camera review. But I brought the iPhone 14 Pro Max and Google Pixel 7 Pro with me to the Samsung launch event to do a proper comparison. Samsung is touting double the video image stabilization for your shaky hands, and that deserves real-world testing. I’ll update photos live on social media and I continue to test the S23 Ultra in various scenarios.
Gaming and screen: it’s got game on display
Tested a bunch of mobile games on the S22 Ultra during my demo time
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 should provide speedy performance
Samsung still makes the best 6.8-inch display in the biz
I still prefer the Z Fold 4 for gaming due to its bigger screen
Yes, my demo time with the new Galaxy S23 Ultra was precious, but I couldn’t help spending a chunk of it testing out some mobile games – for work, of course. That PS5 restock audience I tapped into has increasingly been asking me about mobile gaming performance, especially with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and PlayStation Remote Play getting more and more attention. And my rule is, even if you’re not a gamer, if it can do high-end games, it can do spreadsheets, too. So everyone benefits.
The system requirements for mobile 3D games – and AR gaming – will only increase in 2023. So, at the heart of all three new Galaxy S23 phones is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chip that was first announced in December. This was my first chance to test the chipset in a real phone. How did it do when gaming? The S23 Ultra passed – sometimes with literal flying colors.
It’s a combination of things: the always punchy colors in Samsung’s Super AMOLED screen (still the best smartphone display around), its 120Hz adaptive refresh rate, and the chipset thermals to run everything without overheating. This is a $1,199 phone and it shows, although the iPhone 14 Pro series still has better peak brightness outdoors at 2,000 nits vs Samsung’s 1,750 nits.
The bigger rival to the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra for gaming is actually… Samsung. The Z Fold 4 has become my go-to for mobile gaming, even though it has a now-last-gen chipset. It’s the giant 7.6-inch screen. Samsung has adjusted the Galaxy S23 Ultra aspect ratio to be 19.3:9 over the S22 Ultra’s 19.5:9, but nothing beats a foldable when it comes to immersive gaming.
Understated design and colors
Samsung hasn’t changed much here: a sleek design and minimal camera bump
Protected by Gorilla Glass Victus 2 (new) and Armor Aluminum (returning)
Four S23 Ultra colors: Phantom Black, Cream, Green, and Lavender
Samsung’s design language is very different from its rivals – Apple’s iPhone and Google Pixel have embraced the camera bump, while Samsung wants to eliminate it. Personally, I’d rather always have a better camera and battery life for a smidge more thickness, but I get the desire for a more pocketable device.
Luckily, the Galaxy S23 Ultra strikes a good balance between size and performance. Nope, it hasn’t really changed year-over-year, with the same elegantly boxy frame. In fact, the S23 Ultra design is so similar that I had a lot of trouble telling apart the Phantom Black S23 and S22 when I had them next to each other for comparison photos. But there are subtle differences – again, when you take a closer look. It marries a strong Armor Aluminum frame (we saw that last year) with Gorilla Glass Victus 2 (brand new this year).
The Galaxy S23 Ultra glass should prove to be stronger than the S22 Ultra, which is a key selling point, in my experience. This phone is incredibly slippery even when not wet. And when it is wet, you can count on the retained IP68 water and dust resistance rating. Samsung keeps its phone well protected, though I always suggest one of the Galaxy S23 Ultra cases to protect your $1,199 investment.
If there’s one letdown it’s that the colors are a bit muted for my taste. At all stores, there four Samsung Galaxy S23 colors: Phantom Black, Cream, Green, and Lavender. Samsung saved more dynamic hues for its own Samsung Store: Sky Blue, Graphite, Lime, and Red. But when Phantom Black is the best color among the default four, I’m left wanting.
The S Pen is Samsung’s secret weapon
Samsung’s secret weapon inherited from the Note series
S Pen write-on-screen feature makes annotating screenshots super simple
Hidden S Pen gems: record audio and down scribble notes – they sync
Samsung just needs to bring Samsung Notes to Mac or Chrome
I still dig the S Pen, and think it makes Samsung’s S phones feel like the complete package. The S Pen stylus, which is a bit bigger than a toothpick and embedded inside the phone for easy carry, is a tool I use weekly. No, it’s not an everyday tool, but it’s here when it counts, especially when using the write-on-screen functionality for precisely annotating an image.
No one knows about this: One of the S Pen features I love is the ability to record voice notes (via the mic) and jot down written notes (via the screen + S Pen). You can go back later and tap anywhere on the written portion, and the audio will play back to what was said at the time you made that scribble. It’s like an interactive timeline for voice notes using your written notes. I may have spent years telling Samsung execs they needed to make this feature because I wanted to get rid of my LiveScribe smart pen that did the same thing. Underrated feature I bet you didn’t know about.
The S Pen has been the secret sauce that made Samsung’s Galaxy Note phone stand out. Now the S23 Ultra has inherited these stylus tricks. Until the Z Fold series gets an embedded S Pen (it’s sold separately and there’s no holster in the phone) or Apple makes moves with a mini Apple Pencil, the Samsung S series will have a monopoly over its competition when it comes to productivity nerds who want a stylus.
What I still need to test for the full review
5,000mAh battery – same capacity as S22 Ultra but with Qualcomm’s more efficient chip
The 200MP camera and 100x zoom in real-world scenarios
How the software functions with a Windows PC
Besides the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra camera tests, I still need to put the 5,000mAh battery through its paces. But I can say this from experience: it should get you the same or slightly better all-day battery life as the S22 Ultra. Why? Because it’s the same battery capacity as the S22 Ultra phone I’ve been testing for a year now, but it has the new, more efficient Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset.
A lot of the battery life savings happen behind the glass of your smartphone, and Samsung has gotten a lot better at power management in the last three years. Qualcomm’s latest 4nm chipset is only going to help.
I’ll continue to update the web version of this ongoing Samsung Galaxy S23 review, and post updates to my Twitter and Instagram.
Should I pre-order Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra?
✅ You want – likely (pending my full review) – the best all-around Android phone
✅ You want to try Samsung’s 200MP camera and 100x ‘Space Zoom’ lens
✅ You’ve realized the productivity potential behind the S Pen’s hidden features
✅ You got the $50 secret discount and have a trade-in to slash the price
❌ You love Apple’s ecosystem and have stubborn iMessage friends
❌ You need a cheap device (see the Galaxy S22 and S22 Plus for an alternative)
❌ You refuse to buy a case and are a butterfingers (this phone is slippery)
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