Released in early 2023, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is the Korean maker’s super-powered flagship phone for this year. Superpowered, as in everything about this phone comes with an emphasis on big things.
Big screen. Big processing power. Outrageously big number of camera megapixels. You get the picture.
It’s an incredibly attractive package, one that comes near to being a high-end tablet AND point-and-shoot AND gaming device all in one. In this review, I will examine key features of this plus-size “ptablet” smartphone, and evaluate whether these selling points are truly as good as they sound, or a mere matter of impressive numbers that mean little to the everyday user.
As the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is also one of the priciest smartphones for 2023—yup, big price tag too—my review will end by addressing the question of, is it worth paying a premium for these features.
Is it worth paying, or would it be better for your pocket and you to settle for a lesser model and do your photography, gameplaying, etc., with other gadgets.
- 1. Samsung Galaxy’s Most Advanced Camera Setup to Date
- 200 Megapixel Main Camera
- Gallery: Sample Photos at Different Zooms
- 200 MP vs 50 MP vs 12 MP
- 12 MP Selfie Camera
- Low-Light and Night Photography
- 2. Up to 100x Zoom
- 3. Cinematic, Pro-Quality Video Taking
- 4. S23 Ultra S Pen
- 5. Qualcomm SM8550-AC Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 Chipset & Improved GPU
- Review Summary: Is the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra a Worthwhile Splurge?
1. Samsung Galaxy’s Most Advanced Camera Setup to Date
200 Megapixel Main Camera
Without a doubt, a four-camera setup with a 200-megapixel (MP) main camera is the most awe-inspiring feature of the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.
This is a feature that goes all out to astonish. And it easily succeeds because even a pro-grade DSLR like the Nikon D850 is only capable of a measly 45.7 megapixels.
Professional photographers would, however, remind that higher megapixels do not necessarily mean better photos. Quality of sensor plays a huge role. Frankly, unless you are doing large-format printing of your photos, those abundant MPs do not truly matter. Few people are going to super zoom into your Instagram posts to see how well-managed the pixels are.
Whatever the pros have to remind, one thing is for sure. Even with the default 3:4 aspect ratio, 12 MP output, the photo quality of the Galaxy S23 Ultra is absolutely fantastic. Simply nothing short of excellent.
Under decent lighting indoors or outdoors, photos taken at 1x and 0.6x magnifications are consistently sharp and well-managed in colour, saturation, and exposure. With complexly lit scenes, post-processing sometimes fumbles but one could still easily post-edit or just use Samsung’s usually reliable Remaster function (in the Gallery) to touch up. Alternatively, the pro mode allows you to finetune everything from contrast to saturation to tint.
Limitations only begin to be obvious to the naked eye with zoom-ins and even so, overall photo quality remains top-notch. My next main section is entirely devoted to telephotography and so at this point, I’ll just highlight that photos taken at 10x zoom easily beats what my older Samsung S22 is capable of, be it in terms of clarity or noise management.
Coming back to the Pro mode, you can choose to output in RAW format. This allows for instant editing in Adobe Lightroom. No need for me to highlight what photo magic this nifty app is capable of and how that expands photo capabilities.
Gallery: Sample Photos at Different Zooms
Click to enlarge for all photos in this sub-section.
Indoor Food Shot 1x
Indoor Food Shot 3x
Indoor Food Shot 10x
Night Shot 1x
Low Light 1x
“Macro” Shot 7x
“Macro” Shot 5.7x
By the way, if you’re wondering about the technology, the S23 Ultra uses a new 200MP Adaptive Pixel sensor to capture images with superior precision. It also utilises pixel binning to support multiple levels of high-resolution processing at once.
200 MP vs 50 MP vs 12 MP
As mentioned above, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra shoots at 12 MP by default. Switching resolution uses the same camera interface button for changing picture ratios. To highlight, there’s a 50 MP option and a 200 MP option.
I’ll be frank here too. To my naked eye and even when viewed on my 27” desktop monitor, picture differences between 12, 50, and 200 MP outputs are practically indiscernible. It is only when I zoom in to 100 per cent magnification that differences in edges, sharpness, noise management, etc., become obvious.
File sizes are dramatically different though—4 MB for the 12 MP pic versus 28.5 MB for the 200 MP output. Print sizes for 200 MP photos are astonishing as well. 16320 x 12240 pixels translate to 5.75 x 431 metres in printed size.
Thanks to that huge print size, one can use the Samsung S23 Ultra to take pictures intended for large-format printing such as posters and murals. How useful this is, on the other hand, depends on your needs.
12 MP Selfie Camera
The Galaxy S23 Ultra uses a 12 MP, f/2.2, 26 mm selfie camera, one that’s capable of 4K/60fps videos too. The numbers for this rather pale in comparison to what the main camera is dishing out but don’t dismiss it right away. It takes perfectly fine selfie pics.
If used under the Portrait panel of the camera interface, you get to enjoy several nifty real-time effects too, for example, instant background removal and adjustment of bokeh. Now, I’ll be honest, these effects aren’t unique to the S23 Ultra. They are available on older Galaxy phones too. Neither is the AI powering them any better in quality, as far as I could tell.
The effects are still attractive embellishments to look forward to, though, if you’re new to Galaxy smartphones. Anyway, I repeat: the selfie camera takes great photos and videos. I’m sure you can see from the above samples.
Low-Light and Night Photography
In official literature, Samsung proudly claims that the Galaxy S23 Ultra improves “nightography” capabilities by optimising photos and videos in a variety of ambient conditions. Part of this optimisation involves superior visual noise management through the use of a new AI-powered Image Signal Processing (ISP) algorithm that enhances object details and colour tone.
These improved capabilities include a Night Shot mode that kicks in whenever you’re framing a dark environment. If it doesn’t activate, all one needs to do is tap a yellow crescent pop-up. Throughout my testing, said Night Shot mode did not fail to activate for dark scenes.
On the whole, I’ll say Night Shot should be used as long as it’s available. Other than better visual noise management, exposure is overall better, if a little bit artificial.
Moving on, ultra-wide night shots are generally high quality; usually, visually equivalent to what you get with the main camera. For the telephoto cameras, though, I would suggest not going beyond 3x magnification.
To be clear, the ISP algorithm still does impressive magic beyond 3x zoom, but deterioration becomes increasingly aggressive and unpredictable. Besides, the more you zoom in, the more sensitive the camera is to shakes too.
These shakes make Night Shots terribly hard to manage without a tripod. The camera requires you to keep still for a few seconds for all Night Shots.
2. Up to 100x Zoom
As befitting its four rear camera setup, the camera interface of the S23 Ultra offers four magnification presets: 1x, 0.6x, 3x, and 10x. You are, however, able to manually zoom in to up to a mind-blowing 100x magnification. Beyond 20x zoom, a pop-up will also appear for you to tap and improve shot stability.
100x zoom. That’s powerful enough for me to photograph a line of 12-point font-size text from across the room.
What’s amazing is also this. Under decent light conditions, photo quality at that level of zoom could still be decent. There will be significant blotchiness and ghosting; most likely, there’d be camera shakes too. But 9 out of 10 times, the output was still far better than I expected it to be.
Outside of extreme zooms, I also noted the following about the telephoto camera capabilities of the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, which aren’t surprising given the aperture for the 10x one is a significantly smaller f 4.9.
- Image quality at 3x zoom is largely superior. From 3x to 10x zoom, deterioration is increasingly obvious. At 10x zoom, the screen preview usually exhibits significant noise for indoor and low-light shots.
- What you see on the preview isn’t what you will get. The actual photo is almost always better. That’s thanks to the superior AI image processing mentioned earlier.
- Surprisingly, night and low-light photography largely maintain the same results. Deterioration just worsens a little faster.
In summary, however, I find it’s best not to go beyond 10x zoom. Anything beyond 20x, i.e., when the stabilization pop-up appears, is unreliable in output, although there are occasional pleasant surprises.
100x zoom is strictly for very special situations. I shan’t go into what these situations should be.
3. Cinematic, Pro-Quality Video Taking
Before I continue, a couple of things to note about the video-taking capabilities of the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.
- The selfie camera is capable of 4K videos at 60 fps. A feature that’s definitely attractive to vloggers and Tiktokers.
- The main camera is capable of shooting “cinematic” 8K video at 30 fps.
- There are two levels of stabilisation. A standard one is found within the settings and a “Super Steady” mode is available as a button on the camera interface.
- Audio across all recording modes is recorded in stereo and at 256 kbps bit rate.
I’ve already written quite a fair bit about photo quality. Thus, at this point, I’ll just refer you to my videos below and let the clips do the talking.
On the whole, I’ll say video recordings from ultra-wide angles to 10x zoom are generally superb in quality, with pixelation, blurring, and so on, only at high-level zooms. Stabilisation for all cameras, described by Samsung as angled in all directions, is also impressive although it does not aggressively smoothen out everything. Walking footage will still have the usual jumps and shakes, etc.
With low-light scenes, there could sometimes be the dreaded focus-hunting, but this only occurs for very dark scenes that the AI struggles to properly brighten up. Strong highlights, such as direct sunlight and street lamps could occasionally mess up the exposure too, resulting in a desaturation sensation. However, this could be corrected by using the Pro Video mode, which allows you to fiddle with EV values, shutter speeds, etc.
In all, I’m greatly pleased with Galaxy S23 Ultra video quality. Just one other thing before I move on to the next section. 360 Audio Recording is possible with the S23 Ultra. However, you’d need to have Galaxy Buds2 Pro paired with the phone. I’ll thus leave this feature out of this review as it involves additional gear.
Super Steady Video Taking
Super Steady video-taking is activated with a simple tap on the camera interface. This is not a new feature; it’s also available for previous Galaxy generations. With this switched on, you are limited to shooting at FHD or QHD resolution too.
I’ll be blunt. This video recording feature feels pointless to me not just because it prevents you from shooting at 4K resolution, but also because I simply can’t see any improvements. For reasons that elude me, low-light ultra-wide videos taken with Super Steady switched on are also heavily under-exposed. The enhancement requires very well-illuminated scenes.
What I’m saying here is: This is not the feature that you’d want to buy the S23 Ultra for; it’s not even a new thing. The basic optical image stabilisation itself also already does a top-notch job.
4. S23 Ultra S Pen
You know what? For an entire day after I received my review unit, right till I re-read the official product page, I forgot the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra comes with a S Pen. That’s because the S Pen is so well camouflaged.
Personally, I don’t think much of styluses as I’ve long gotten used to managing phones and tablets without them. If you’re like me, the good news is, the Galaxy S23 Ultra might still be a worthwhile buy because its S Pen is more than just a fun embellishment. It has quite a few practical advantages.
You’re able to doodle on photos, scribble notes, etc. You can also instantly convert written text to typed text. Photo editing with the S Pen, especially when drawing marquees around objects, is way, WAY easier and more accurate too.
Through AIR connection, you can also use the flat end of the S Pen as a remote control for camera functions. This is useful even if a selfie stick can do the same.
I’ll put it this way. I feel a stylus is not a must for a top-end smartphone. However, what the S23 S Pen is capable of completes the overall package—it enhances the other capabilities of this smartphone.
For users who don’t mind the smaller screen surface, the S23 can easily double as a mini tablet too because of this stylus.
5. Qualcomm SM8550-AC Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 Chipset & Improved GPU
At the heart of the Samsung S23 Ultra is a Qualcomm SM8550-AC Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 (4 nm) chipset, described by the Korean manufacturer as the most efficient ever in a Samsung Galaxy smartphone and the fastest Snapdragon as of Feb 1, 2023.
The entire Galaxy S23 series also uses a newly designed CPU microarchitecture that processes about 30 percent faster than the preceding S22 series, as well as a new optimised GPU that is approximately 41 percent faster than the previous series.
Since release, a lot of impressive numbers and benchmarks have been published about this high-end chipset, so I’ll skip those. I’ll just share that throughout my testing, image processing is always lightning-fast, seldom more than a blink. The phone also only gets just a shade warmer even when shooting extended low-light videos.
The same goes for gaming, including resource-demanding ones like Asphalt 9: Legends. Like the case with videos, there are no lags and jumps, or heating issues.
How well this performance compares with other 2023 flagship smartphones is hard to assess, though, as too many variables come into play. And so I can only say that with the Galaxy S23 Ultra, one has the pleasure of one of the best 2023 chipsets diligently at work. It might not stay the best beyond this year, but it will still be one of the best.
Review Summary: Is the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra a Worthwhile Splurge?
Other than the above key features, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is also equipped with a long list of other “quality of life” improvements.
The 6.8” AMOLED 2X screen has a reduced curvature, a 120Hz refresh rate, and a peak brightness of 1750 nits. (HBM is 1200 nits, according to official numbers) The IP68-rated physical build consists of a durable Armour Aluminium frame paired with Corning® Gorilla® Glass Victus® 2 on the front and back glasses. Not exactly unbreakable but presumably capable of withstanding nastier everyday abuse.
For the environmentally conscious, there’s quite a bit of recycled material with this superphone. If your home is equipped with Samsung smart devices, such as the Smart Monitor M5, Samsung DeX allows you to effortlessly connect.
And so on.
Which brings me to the all-important question of: is this top-end smartphone (and pricier) a worthwhile buy? A worthwhile splurge?
Let me first be candid. The above key features, 200 MP camera and latest Snapdragon chip and all, are awesome to have. They are superbly delightful for entertainment and work too.
But a lesser camera or slower chip wouldn’t make a smartphone awful, especially when the price tag is easier on the pocket.
The easy answer would thus be for me to say, it all depends on your needs and budget. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’ll highlight whom I feel the Galaxy S23 Ultra would be great for:
- If you regularly need to do larger format printing of your camera photos. Repeat: A 200 MP photo can fill up a wall without problematic resizing.
- Content creators looking for the absolute best image and video capturing capabilities as of 2023 without resorting to a bulky DSLR.
- If your work involves a lot of handwritten note-taking/drawing/illustrations, etc. While the Galaxy S23 Ultra is smaller than a tablet, it’s the same size as traditional notepads. You know, the paper ones from the last century …
- I feel the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset and improved GPU aren’t necessarily just for gamers. If you run a lot of resource-hungry apps all the time, such as image editing ones, the extra juice will help.
- If you love to have a huge smartphone screen and don’t mind the 234 g weight, and would in more ways than one, benefit from the powerful camera setup.