Once known for its unique features, Samsung’s S-series flagships have undergone an evolution from underdog to industry leader and, for the most part, a worthy counterpart to Apple. Instead of flashy colours and weird gimmicks, Samsung’s Galaxy S23 series has been described as “boring” (from a design perspective) and iterative. While others might see this as a bad thing, I see it as something good.
Having spent 2 weeks with the S23 Ultra – running pre-release software – here are my thoughts about Samsung’s new ultimate handset.
Other than flatter sides, a slightly more squared-off S-Pen and a barely perceptible reduction in the curvature of the display, the S23 Ultra is the spitting image of its predecessor.
Having held both the S22 Ultra and the S23 Ultra in my hands at the same time, I’m quite fond of the flatter, and slightly boxier, design of the S23 Ultra. Not only does it make the device more grippy, it also makes it easier to use the S-Pen.
As is the case with all S23 series devices, the S23 Ultra is available in a series of rather subdued colours which will work well in a boardroom or business meeting but might not be the most appealing to anyone looking to stand out. Unfortunately, the online exclusive colours for the S23 series that are available in other regions, are not available in South Africa.
As one would expect from Samsung, the display on the S23 Ultra is phenomenal. Colours are vivid and punchy, with deep inky blacks and great viewing angles.
The 6.8-inch QHD+ display is great for watching YouTube, catching up on your favourite series or movie, reading or even doing some on-the-go editing, but you will get tired after holding this hefty device in your hands after a while so it’s best to get a case with a built-in stand.
As expected, the camera setup of the S23 Ultra is wonderful. Arguably the most versatile camera setup of any phone on the market, it delivers some incredible shoots and beautiful footage. Having said that, the marquee feature of the new Ultra, the 200MP sensor, is not as big a deal as Samsung would like you to believe. As many reviewers have said over the years, it’s not the megapixel count that makes a smartphone camera good and that’s definitely the case here.
While images taken in full resolution with the 200MP main sensor are good, you’d be hard pressed to find the difference between those and the ones taken with the S22 Ultra’s 108MP main sensor. You’ll also most likely not be taking that many 200MP images and will instead use the camera on its default settings which pixel bins them down to 12MP images. Often these images appear to have more detail and are more colourful than their 200MP counterparts. I also experienced significant processing time when capturing 200MP images which resulted in me not being able to take any pictures for anywhere up to 20 – 30s. This could be a result of the pre-release software on the device but if not, this alone would put me off using it as it would result in me missing any fleeting, spur-of-the-moment shots. Using the camera set to 50MP was barely any better and still resulted in processing lag time that didn’t allow me to use the camera while the image was processing.
For anyone who likes to set up their smartphone camera with specific settings, you’ll be happy to know that Samsung’s Expert RAW camera app can be integrated into the camera settings of the default camera app, but only if you have the Expert RAW app downloaded onto your phone. In my opinion, this defeats the purpose of integrating it into the default app and instead results in unnecessary bloatware. Why do I need two apps that let me do fairly similar things? And why integrate the one into the other but still force me to download both in order to do that? If you make both apps for your hardware, surely this can be simplified, right Samsung?
One thing I’ve noticed with the camera on the S23 Ultra is that you’re no longer getting over-saturated images as you did in the past with Samsung handsets. Now, images are more accurate to real life while still maintaining a vibrancy that makes them visually appealing. There have been instances where the camera on the S23 Ultra hasn’t quite measured up. To quote The Verge: “But as good as it can be, the S23 Ultra’s camera occasionally turns in a real dud of an image.”
At this stage in the game, especially at this price point, this should not be happening.
Samsung has recently ignited an intense discussion centered around what a photo actually is. These days most of us are using our smartphones to capture memories and we know that in order to get really good images, smartphone manufacturers have to rely on software wizardry. Recently, it had been discovered that the impressive moon images that people were able to capture using the S23 Ultra were enhanced with the help of AI. While that isn’t a new thing for smartphone manufacturers, the concerning part for me is that not only did Samsung flout its moon shots in much of its advertising for the S23 Ultra, it did so without informing people that it was “enhancing” these images of its flagship feature. There’s a big difference between using AI or machine learning to enhance aspects of a picture you’ve taken and adding details that didn’t exist to the picture you’ve taken.
What makes this even more bothersome is that when Huawei was caught doing something similar a few years ago, they were vilified, but Samsung is allowed to do what they want without repercussions. To me, this speaks of blind faith from a consumer base that should not be giving any tech company this much leeway for being willfully ambiguous. If we’re going to demand that tech companies should be truthful with us as the consumer public then that should apply to all of them, not just a select few.
Getting down from my soapbox and looking at the video-capturing capabilities of the Ultra, the most noticeable improvement is that of the device’s stabilisation. When compared to the iPhone 14 Pro, the S23 Ultra outperforms Apple’s current flagship in terms of how stable its video is, showing how much work the South Korean giant has put into improving its video-capturing capabilities.
Under the hood
All S23 series handsets around the world are powered by a new Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy chipset.
Unlike the standard 8 Gen 2 found in other Android handsets, the for Galaxy version features a primary clock speed of 3.36GHz and a GPU clock speed of 719MHz, which represents an improvement over the standard variant that has clock speeds of 3.2GHz and 680MHz.
For the average person this doesn’t mean much other than that your device will run slightly smoother but, compared to any device powered by a standard 8 Gen 2 chipset, the difference might not even be noticeable.
While the S23 Ultra packs the same 5000mAh battery as the S22 Ulta, its performance is far better. When using the S22 Ultra, it regularly failed to keep up with the iPhone 13 Pro, while the S23 Ultra has been able to last me a full day of usage and make it to the next day without needing a top-up. While the same can be said of the iPhone 14 Pro, this recognises a significant improvement for Samsung and is most likely the result of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy chipset.
The much loved S-Pen can be found housed in the device but doesn’t sport any new tricks or features.
Samsung’s S23 Ultra might be a bit of a safe play from Samsung but it refines what was an already great device in the form of the S22 Ultra.
Sure there aren’t any truly impressive new features or a refreshed design but one could argue that there isn’t any need for that.
Samsung is in an unusual position in that it’s become the global face of Android thanks to devices like its S-series and the now defunct Note-series, while it’s also trying to transition away from those devices to a still new, far-from-mainstream, foldable future. That means having to play to its strengths which in this case has resulted in giving the people what has previously been proven to work.
The company is also now at a stage where it realises that it doesn’t need flashy gimmicks to get the world’s attention and is instead focused on sustainable growth and incremental, but useful, updates. If all of this sounds familiar it’s because this is what Apple has done since the dawn of the iPhone era and it’s been proven to work.
The all-new S23 Ultra might seem boring but that’s not the case. Samsung is no longer the rebellious teen looking to find its place in the world, it’s grown up and is mature enough to know who it is and what its strengths are and, in all honesty, that level of maturity is a good look for the brand.
The S23 series isn’t about the hardware, it’s about the physical device melting away to let you do what’s needed regardless of which product you’re using. Samsung knows that the future of how we engage with our devices is no longer tied to hardware but rather to software, customisation and a robust ecosystem and at the centre of that is the smartphone which serves as the unifier of it all. I do, however, wish that so much of its software ecosystem wasn’t as reliant on third parties.
One other point of contention with the S-series is Samsung’s refusal to better differentiate between the standard and plus variants. As has happened in the past, this year’s S23 and S23+ only difference is screen size and battery size. Many were hoping that Samsung would see fit to improve the cameras on the S23+ thereby making it a more attractive offering compared to the standard S23. Maybe the rumours that Samsung might kill off the plus variant are true and this is the beginning of the end for the larger, non-Ultra, S-series flagship.
The S23 Ultra is built for the power creative who loves to tinker with their device and who will use the versatile camera setup and the business-optimised toolset, if that’s you then there’s arguably no better phone to get. If you want your device to work straight out of the box and provide a consistently reliable experience, then you might want to consider an iPhone.