Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra has all the best stuff you can cram in a phone, but 5G is still a problem

Key Points
  • Samsung's latest phone, the Galaxy S20 Ultra, is a $1,400 phone packed with the best screen, 5G connectivity, crazy cameras and more.
  • But it's really just for people who want everything. Most folks are better off with the cheaper Galaxy S20+.
  • Here's what you need to know about the new Galaxy S20 Ultra, which launches Friday.
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Samsung's new lineup of flagship phones — the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra — launches Friday. They're the first phones in the U.S. to support the wide range of 5G networks rolling out here. I've been testing the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the top-of-the-line model, for about a week.

The Ultra is not for everyone: Samsung is clearly targeting this $1,400 phone toward people who want all of the latest and greatest stuff, including a bunch of features most people don't need but that gadget-lovers like me still enjoy — like a camera that can zoom 100x and 5G connectivity, long before there's much of a reason to even use 5G.

The premium market isn't big for Samsung the way it is for Apple, though. Generally, Samsung's best-selling products are mid-range and low-cost phones. But Samsung consistently tries to beat Apple to the market with new ideas, whether they work or not: It started with big "phablets" with the first Galaxy Note in 2011. It continued with folding phones like the Galaxy Fold and Galaxy Z Flip. Now it's beating Apple to the market with 5G.

But 5G is still confusing, and there's no real need for it right now until the technology becomes more reliable and widely available.

Here's what you need to know about the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra.


5G antennas in Manhattan.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Before we dive too much into the phone itself, I want to give a quick overview of Samsung's Galaxy S20 lineup, which includes the S20, the S20+ and the S20 Ultra. Each phone supports 5G, but not in the same way.

The "regular" Galaxy S20 on AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile only runs on low-band LTE, which is more widespread than faster mmWave 5G, but only slightly speedier than the LTE you've been using for the last several years. Sometimes I found it's even slower, but the explanation for that is best told by PCMag's Sascha Segan, who has a wealth of knowledge on the topic and has been my go-to source for understanding 5G in the U.S.

If you're planning to keep your phone for two or three years, you should look at the Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra, since they support the variety of 5G flavors in the U.S. You'll get slightly faster speeds most of the time and much faster mmWave if you find it. Samsung's intro video shows the Galaxy S20 Ultra downloading movies in just a couple of seconds, so I tried this for myself. 

Fast 5G speeds on Verizon's mmWave network in New York City. Tested on a Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I went to New York City and tested the Galaxy S20 Ultra on Verizon and T-Mobile. Verizon's mmWave network is wildly fast, but only when you can find it. I used a map provided to me by the carrier and tested it near New York University. When I came within the coverage area, a small symbol showed me I had 5G "UWB," or ultra wide band coverage. In this area, I saw speeds of about 1,100Mbps, or more than 11x faster than you'd normally find on LTE. I was able to download Netflix movies in a couple of seconds, not minutes. But you need to be right near a tower for this speedy connection to work. If you walk just a half-block away, you'll lose the signal and fall back to a slower 4G network. These signals also have trouble penetrating walls and buildings, so you'll likely drop back down to 4G if you go indoors.

T-Mobile 5G on the Galaxy S20 Ultra is slower than Verizon's, but still good.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

T-Mobile's 5G is different. There's "nationwide coverage," but in the New York area I generally got about the same speeds as LTE. The speeds were actually slower than LTE at my home in New Jersey. (This comes down to how T-Mobile rolled it out here, which gets complicated, but it stands to improve if the phone gets a software update.) In New York City, I found some mmWave networks, but it was harder: Unlike Verizon, the T-Mobile doesn't show a different icon when you're in a faster area, which is annoying. I got speeds about 300Mbps on this network, or about 3x faster than T-Mobile LTE, but way slower than Verizon's similar 5G network.

This is all to say that 5G speeds vary a lot depending on your carrier, the type of 5G connection you have and your location.

That means there's also no killer 5G use case yet. There's no reason you might need 5G in your phone right now save for faster speeds when you're standing in the right area, or perhaps a better signal if you're in a place like a very crowded stadium. 5G can do a better job providing a reliable signal in venues such as stadiums.

When 4G LTE started rolling out several years ago, we started to see some killer apps such as video chat (FaceTime over cellular!) and other things like video streaming that made people want much faster data. So far, we haven't seen that kind of shift with 5G.

Gamers might want to be among the first to adopt 5G phones, though. The faster connections to the cellular tower (and the time it takes your phone to talk to a tower) may make upcoming services like the final version of Project xCloud from Microsoft, Google Stadia or NVIDIA GeForce now more compelling, since you could theoretically use them anywhere you want, even without Wi-Fi, and still stream games in high quality and without slowdowns that could prevent you from winning competitive matches against other players.

And remember: You might not even live in a market with any 5G yet, so check your carrier's website for 5G maps before you buy this phone for that reason alone.

The good news: Once 5G becomes more reliable and widespread, you'll be ready if you buy the Galaxy S20+ or Galaxy S20 Ultra now.

What's good

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is one of my favorite phones to launch in the last couple of years. I like that it supports 5G and that it'll likely only improve from here on out. But here's the thing: If you buy a Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20 Plus or Galaxy S20 Ultra, you're getting support for 5G whether you use it or not. So it's just an added benefit to an already great phone.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There are two big highlights of the Galaxy S20 Ultra: the screen and the cameras. It has a huge 6.9-inch screen that I love (but some people might find too big). Samsung includes a new 120hz mode that's off by default but, when turned on, makes a noticeable improvement to how smooth scrolling is inside apps and games that work on it. If you buy it, turn it on right away so you can see what it's like.

Some people don't notice a huge difference, but I do. Since the 120hz mode refreshes animations on the screen faster, everything just looks really fast and smooth without any jitters, like when I was scrolling through my thousands of pictures or Twitter. Apple uses this tech in its iPad Pro, and I suspect it'll filter down to the 2020 iPhones, too.

The cameras are a lot of fun. There's this new feature called "Single Shot" that automatically takes a bunch of pictures and videos over 10 seconds.

A picture the Galaxy S20 Ultra took in Single Shot mode.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Then it just spits out the best ones it thinks you'll like. I used it playing with my dog Mabel in the park, when I didn't know if I wanted to take a picture or a video. It took both for me, and gave me some really nice pictures.

A picture of Mabel taken with the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There are lots of geeky specs to talk about with the camera. It can take 100x zoom using a fancy mix between software and hardware zooming technologies, but I found the images I captured that far away weren't very good. Even though it's sort of like a spy camera at that range, pictures end up looking blurry and splotchy. Still, you can take really clear pictures at around 4x and 10x zoom that are still better than the iPhone 11 Pro's 2x zoom.

Here's a regular wide-angle shot on the S20 Ultra. Note the building in the distance:

An ultra-wide picture on the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Here's 100x zoom, showing the (blurry) steps of that same building:

100x zoom on the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Crazy, right?

Samsung also includes a 108-megapixel camera, something we haven't seen in a phone for years. That may sound like overkill, but all those megapixels help out the zoom and other camera features. Normally, lots of pixels can result in poor low-light images. But Samsung is using some magic behind the scenes called "pixel binning" that combines 9 pixels to create larger ones that are better at capturing light, which means clearer pictures. These let you snap a picture of a big scene, like a landscape, and let you crop in to the image and still get a clean picture of something that might be far away. It's fun, but again, it's something only hardcore gadget lovers are going to understand or want to use.

You can multitask with two apps (and more) using the S20 Ultra.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Then there's the performance: The Galaxy S20 Ultra, thanks to the latest and fastest Qualcomm processor, feels very fast. It even has options that let you pin up to three apps to stay open at all times, so you can pin games and launch right into them without loading. This worked well when I tried it with "Alto's Odyssey," which otherwise takes about 30 seconds to boot into a game.

The phone is massive, but that's because it includes everything Samsung could have possibly included inside. On paper, the S20 Ultra is a tech geek's dream. It starts with 128GB of storage, with the option to add another TB with a memory card. It also has a massive 5,000mAh battery, up to 16GB of RAM and fast wireless charging.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

You even get other perks like water and dust resistance, lots of Bluetooth options and more. Samsung just packs the phone with features. It does, however, leave out the headphone jack. That doesn't bother me, but it might be a dealbreaker if you still use wired headphones.

What's bad

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I had a few issues with the phone.

The most major is with the camera, which has trouble auto-focusing sometimes. This can really stink. When I tried to take a picture of my dog Mabel doing something silly, I couldn't focus on her in time to get the picture I wanted. I don't have that problem with other phones, but Samsung says a software fix is coming that should address it. I just don't know when. But the auto-focus issues are widespread and apply to video, too. It's a bummer for a phone that puts so much into the cameras.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It's also really heavy, like a tank. Again, I like these big and huge glass and metal phones that last all day and include everything I could possibly want. They're kind of like multi-tools: you know you have everything you need. But, my wife thought it was way too heavy for her. So, for those who prefer smaller and lighter, the cheaper models of the S20 are more manageable.

And back to 5G: Sure, it's nice to have right now, but you probably don't need it just yet. You sort of just have it as a comfort to either use if you stumble across a 5G network, or for when there's a real need to use 5G in a couple of years. (At which point prices on 5G phones will also have fallen dramatically, by the way.)

Should you buy it?

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Galaxy S20 Ultra costs $1,400, but I think it's actually pretty reasonable for what you get.

I've knocked phones such as the Galaxy Z Flip for being expensive, because aside from unique folding screens, they have hardware that's otherwise found in $600 phones. The Galaxy S20 Ultra has all of the latest and greatest stuff, though. I paid a similar amount for my fully loaded Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, but Samsung's S20 Ultra has a better screen, support for 5G when it's available, a way bigger battery and more. The cost seems justified to me but, no, if you have an iPhone 11 Pro Max you don't need to upgrade to this.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Also, Samsung has pretty wild trade-in deals, offering up to $700 if you trade in the Galaxy Note 10+ that launched last year, and Samsung says it'll honor that for the foreseeable future. Pre-orders before March 6 also offer up to $200 in credits towards things like the new Galaxy Buds+ headphones and a case. It makes the price easier to swallow. This at least shows Samsung acknowledges its new phone is really expensive.

If you don't need the fancy 100x zoom camera or the massive battery, you should just buy the Galaxy S20+ for $1,199.99 or even the $999.99 Galaxy S20 (which has more limited 5G). Samsung told me it knows most folks will probably get those phones. The Ultra is just for folks who are willing to spend a bit more for a lot more phone.

If you want a similar experience without 5G and older cameras, but want to save a ton of money, get last year's Galaxy S10, which now starts at $589. And if you don't want Android at all, just get Apple's iPhone 11.

The new Samsung Galaxy S20 Lineup