If there’s any doubt that Samsung is slowly-slowly turning into a sort of Apple of Android, all we have to do is look at the new Galaxy S23 Ultra, which we’ve had for testing over the past few days. Not only do we have no major design changes, but we’re dealing with a relatively minor upgrade in every respect. Sure, the S22 Ultra was already a phone that offered pretty much everything you could possibly need, but what we got seems to be probably the smallest annual upgrade yet. The reality is, however, that it’s hard to find a better equipped Android phone on the market.
Galaxy S23 Ultra looks just like last year’s Galaxy S22 Ultra
We’ll quickly skip the design part, as there’s nothing important to mention. The Galaxy S23 Ultra is almost identical to the S22 Ultra. At a closer look you can see that the phone is a bit “flatter” around the edges. I prefer the straighter design over the rounded one because it offers a better grip, but the visual differences are subtle. The camera lenses are also slightly larger to accommodate the new photo sensor on the main camera. This also means that the covers are not compatible between generations.
One advantage of changing the side curvature is that the screen is now only very slightly curved too. This makes it easier to press the virtual buttons at the edge of the screen, and makes light reflections less distracting. The S-Pen also returns, and is located in the same place. Even the colors Samsung chose for the S23 are pretty… monotone. Besides white, black and pink, there’s also this green that can be mistaken for grey depending on how the light falls on it.
The screen doesn’t get any upgrades
Already the Galaxy S22 Ultra had one of the best screens on the market, offering QHD+ resolution and refresh rate variable between 1 and 120 Hz. Everything is identical on the new mode too, including brightness of up to 1,750 nits. Unfortunately, even in 2023, Samsung doesn’t think its users would want to get the full benefit of the hardware they buy. The phone is set to Full HD+ resolution from the factory and on the vibrant color profile with exaggerated color hues. Fortunately, these settings can be changed in just seconds.
Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor for Galaxy brings fans in Europe what they’ve been asking for in recent years
But the processor is one of the biggest changes on the Galaxy S23, especially in Europe. Finally, Samsung fans are getting exactly what they’ve been asking for: the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor in a special “for Galaxy” variant. It promises higher frequencies than the “standard” model, along with a vapor chamber-based cooling system. Thus, we should see sustained performance in demanding applications. Test results confirm an upgrade, but far from a major one.
Synthetic tests reveal a performance gain of about 20% over last year’s Exynos, but this is to be expected from generation to generation. However, the new processor comes with an extremely high-performance GPU that even outperforms the Apple A16 in the iPhone 14 Pro, giving it advantages especially for gaming. I had higher expectations in terms of sustained performance, but the already familiar story is repeated for the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy chipset. After the 3DMark stress test, the Galaxy S23 Ultra retains only 60% of its performance. And during and even after the test, the phone was frying to the touch, especially in the metal areas at the top. Even though this is an extreme test, there are games that can stress the phone in a similar way, such as Genshin Impact, and the heat released can become uncomfortable to the point where you can no longer hold the phone in your hand due to the heat.
The tested version of the phone is, curiously, one that doesn’t exist on the market, equipped with 12 GB RAM and 256 GB internal storage. Samsung only announced the 8 GB option in the basic storage configuration. So I can’t confirm or deny whether the 8GB version is slow, but given that the S23 and S23+ also come with 8GB in all variants, there’s probably enough memory available to provide a smooth user experience. There’s also SmartRAM, which can add between 2 and 8 GB extra through cache on the phone’s internal storage. I also used the phone with this feature on and off and didn’t notice any differences.
- Antutu – 1.212.414
- GeekBench – Single-Core: 1,554 / Multi-Core: 4,913
- GeekBench Vulkan – 9.969
- 3DMark Wild Life Extreme – 3.803 (22.8 FPS)
- 3DMark Wild Life Extreme Stress Test – Best loop: 3.645 / Lowest loop: 2.166 / Stability: 59,4%
- PCMark – 15.662
Samsung lagging behind in fast charging
Unfortunately, the testing time was too short to better test the autonomy. Because I mainly took photos and short movies, plus performance tests, I didn’t get to test the phone under normal use. Certainly, using QHD+ resolution and the always-on feature for the screen I charged the phone twice in four days, but I also didn’t spend much time on the phone doing normal things like GPS navigation, video playback or social networking. There may be an upgrade over the S22 Ultra in this department thanks to the efficiency of the Qualcomm processor, even though the battery is still 5,000 mAh.
Charging is the same as last year, at 45W on cable and 15W on wireless, but no charger in the box. I only had a 30W charger from a MacBook Air M1, which charges the phone fully in about two hours. Even with a 45W charger, Samsung is still far behind the competition, which has been offering charging at over 100W for some time now.
OneUI 5.1 comes with minor changes, but takes up 20% of standard storage
The OneUI 5.1 software isn’t exactly a major change from OneUI 5.0, which debuted last fall. It still uses Android 13 at its core and comes with the same interface we’ve known for a few years. Only certain apps have received new features or minor changes to the position of some buttons. The most obvious changes would be the ability to select objects in photos just like on iOS, new weather and battery widgets, and shortcut to the Expert RAW app directly from the camera app. Other changes are minor.
I was a bit stunned when browsing through the settings menus and noticed that out of the standard 256 GB, already 20-25% is taken up right from the start. It seems that the Android operating system, along with all Samsung’s apps and tweaks, comes to almost 60 GB from the start, which could be a red flag especially for those who choose the base S23 model with 128 GB.
However, unlike all other Android phone manufacturers, Samsung has the advantage of long-term software support. We’re talking four years of system updates and five years of security updates for the Galaxy S23 Ultra. Of course, it also matters whether you like OneUI or not and whether long-term software support is important to you when choosing a phone.
I’ve never been a fan of Samsung’s ultrasonic fingerprint sensors. I’ve always found them slower than the optical ones and have encountered many errors. Every year I’ve seen improvements, but on the S23 Ultra the problems seem to have gone away completely. Finally, I can unlock the Galaxy S23 Ultra with one quick tap, no errors. What hasn’t improved are the stereo speakers, but it didn’t need to either. These were already a benchmark for premium Android models, with loud volume and even some bass, and they continue to deliver the same quality sound.
The Galaxy S23 Ultra is the first with a 200-megapixel camera, but stabilization is the real “upgrade”
Despite the more powerful processor, surely the main attraction of this phone will be the camera system. This is the second major upgrade over the S22 Ultra, but only for the main camera which gets a new 200-megapixel sensor, while the other three remain unchanged from the previous generation.
What is the advantage of a 200 megapixel sensor though? Of course, the first advantage would be high-resolution photos, which you can crop more easily to capture just certain parts of a frame. However, these images are less processed than normal frames, leading to a lack of effects that would improve detail or the presence of more image noise. There’s also a 50-megapixel mode for those who want more resolution but don’t want to take up space with 200-megapixel pictures. The biggest advantage, however, comes in ‘standard’ resolution, which combines 16 pixels side by side to create a single pixel in the final image. This means image noise is better hidden, detail is sharpened and colours retain their natural hue better after Samsung applies AI processing.
Thus, the main camera balances colors and details well during the day. On night mode, the main camera kinda turns night into day, resulting in shots that don’t accurately represent reality. Still, only on the main camera do I recommend using night mode, as zoom cameras are rarely turned on in this mode, Samsung software preferring a crop on the main camera in low light. However, I did appreciate that the exposure time was significantly reduced compared to previous generations.
With the other cameras, you have the freedom to go up to 30x zoom with minimal loss of quality. The only thing that might be bothersome about the S23 Ultra versus the iPhone 14 Pro, for example, is the difference in color tint between the sensors, especially between the main camera and the zoom cameras. Samsung should do some more work on the image processing side and update the color profiles to bring the images closer together. There’s a possibility that photos from the zoom and ultrawide cameras will be improved on the S23 Ultra, but only at the processing level, and the differences could only be seen in a test against the S22 Ultra.
Still Expert RAW has to be downloaded separately from the Galaxy Store, but you now at least have the shortcut to the direct camera app. On the S23 Ultra this app also offers astrophotography, but as the weather has been cloudy in Bucharest the last few days, I couldn’t test it. The RAW photos taken with this app, however, have a maximum of 50 megapixels, not 200. Even so, those who want to get the best out of this camera will probably want to shoot with the Expert RAW app and then edit them on a computer. The results are very good.
An undeniable upgrade on the new phone is the improved stabilisation, which is immediately noticeable, especially when shooting. Samsung seems to have fixed a lot of the software issues. Regardless of resolution, you’ll see more stable footage, even in 8K at 30 frames per second. Sure, there’s little reason to shoot in 8K, but the stabilization is pretty good even at that quality. One advantage would be that shooting in this resolution doesn’t crop as much when you start recording. Even when shooting at night, stabilisation is very good in all resolutions, including the new SuperSteady mode which gets an upgrade from Full HD to QHD. Shooting in this mode is comparable to what we see on action cameras and offers even better stabilisation than the Action Mode on the iPhone 14.
Something that caught my eye is that you can now switch between all cameras while shooting, as long as you stay at 4K at 30 frames per second. In higher resolutions, this is not possible, and in SuperSteady mode you can only use the ultrawide and wide cameras, no zoom.
Samsung now has the best portrait mode on the market, with very good subject separation, which works well even on front camera or night mode. Beware of selfies on first use, though. The camera app has a smoothing filter enabled by default, which can be quickly disabled, thankfully.
Unlike other years, I had the phone for a shorter testing period, which didn’t allow me to test just about everything I would have liked. Even so, it wasn’t hard for me to form an opinion in a short time about a phone like the Galaxy S23 Ultra, because I’ve seen this phone before last year when it was called the S22 Ultra. It’s still a top-notch, high-performance phone with a great camera system, but in the 2023 it doesn’t stand out much, mainly because of the extremely familiar design.
Samsung’s problem with this model is that it already released a similarly capable phone last year. The year-to-year upgrades in technology, while welcome, are not so great as to justify the upgrade. Besides, I don’t think those who have the S21 Ultra have much reason to upgrade either, unless they want an integrated S-Pen. So the Galaxy S23 Ultra is a… shall we say boring model, but it seems to be exactly what fans have been asking for all along: a new “Note” style model with the most powerful processor on the market, top-notch camera, big and bright screen, and above-average battery life.
Disappointing clearly isn’t it, but I’m already feeling a certain fatigue in this high-end device space, because for several years now I’ve been testing the same phones every year, with improvements so small they sometimes seem like they don’t even exist. So again I find it easier to recommend the previous model at a discount than the new one, even considering the pre-order offer. Perhaps only those who have a Galaxy S20 generation model will feel an upgrade in cameras, but not necessarily in other respects.