Monday, May 29, 2023 | 04:02 am

Hands-On With the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: The Major Improvement Is the 200MP Camera

Hands-On With the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra: The Major Improvement Is the 200MP Camera

It’s February and the first major flagship phone launch of 2023 is here. Samsung is launching the new Galaxy S23 series at its Unpacked event in San Francisco today, and this year’s trio of phones is no surprise. While last year’s focus was on the addition of an S Pen slot to the Ultra variant and saying hello to the Note replacement, this time around things feels less monumental.

Most of the changes to the standard S23 and S23 Plus models feel incremental, while the biggest update to the S23 Ultra is a new 200-megapixel rear camera, enhanced selfie shooter, and a few software updates. Some other improvements are less obvious, like a tweak in the curvature of the phone’s screen, different materials used in the case, and the latest Qualcomm processors. There are also new colors and storage options available, but that’s pretty much it. If you want the details on the regular S23 and S23 Plus, check out what my colleague Mat Smith thought in his hands-on. I am focusing on the S23 Ultra here.

Besides the camera bump, everything about the S23 Ultra feels like a negligible improvement. But that’s not a bad thing and it does mean those who bought last year’s model won’t feel like they’re missing out by not jumping on the new phone.

Design and display

At first, glance, unless you have one of the newer colors like green or lavender, the S23 Ultra looks nearly identical to its predecessor. It retains the same boxy shape, though Samsung says it’s reduced the screen edges’ curvature to make it easier to use with the S Pen. The display can also hit up to 1,750 nits of outdoor peak brightness now, though I couldn’t really tell the difference, especially without an S22 Ultra on hand to do a side-by-side comparison. And even though I continue to struggle using a 6.8-inch screen with just one hand, I was able to reach across the display to hit far-off elements. It just took some effort.

One of Samsung’s focal points for the S23 Ultra is sustainability. Materials like pre-consumer recycled aluminum and glass, as well as post-consumer plastics from discarded fishing nets, went into the handset. The S23 Ultra is also the first phone to use Gorilla Glass Victus 2, which the company says offers “heightened durability for long-term use and [was] designed with an average of 22 percent pre-consumer recycled content.” Honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference simply by touch. All I can say is the S23 Ultra felt well-made and wasn’t noticeably heavier or lighter than before.


The most significant update to the S23 Ultra is its new 200-megapixel “Adaptive Pixel” rear sensor that Samsung says is a first for its Galaxy family of products. While you will have the option to shoot at 200MP, by default the system uses pixel-binning to deliver brighter, clearer pictures at 12MP. When I used the S23 Ultra to shoot a bowl of lemons at the available options of 200MP, 50MP and the default level, the latter resulted in the best picture. I zoomed in on the peel of the fruit in all three images and was surprised to see individual pits and fine hairs in the 12MP photo. On the other two, there was barely enough detail to see the skin texture.

Samsung says it also improved its Nightography mode for better images in low light, thanks to a new “AI-powered image signal processing (ISP) algorithm.” Our demo area was very brightly lit and I wasn’t able to access any dark corners to put this claim to the test, so we’ll have to wait till we can run a real-world test to verify how well this works. And though I did capture a quick 8K video at 30 frames per second (up from 24fps before), it’s hard to judge the quality just by playing that footage back on the phone. You’ll likely want to shell out for the new 1TB storage model if you plan on filming a lot of 8K video.

There are some additional improvements to the S23 Ultra’s cameras that I couldn’t test during the hands-on event. The optical image stabilization (OIS)’s range has been doubled, meaning it can compensate for twice the amount of movement in all directions. The processing algorithms have also been updated to, as Samsung says, “carefully reflect a person’s dynamic characteristics” based on details “even down to minute facial features such as hair and eyes.” I don’t really get what that last one means practically and couldn’t see a difference in the few photos I snapped.

I also checked out the S23 Ultra’s new 12MP selfie camera, which is the same across this year’s lineup. Though the bump in resolution seems like a step up for the two standard models, going to 12MP might feel like a drop from the S22 Ultra’s 40MP sensor. But a Samsung rep told me the new sensor is bigger and more advanced, featuring dual-pixel autofocus. They also support Super HDR and can now shoot clips at 60 fps, up from 30 fps before. The few selfies I snapped at the demo came out clear and autofocused quickly, but without a side-by-side comparison, I can’t judge how much better the S23 Ultra is than its predecessor and competitors.

The rest of the Ultra’s rear camera array is the same as last year. In addition to the new 200MP sensor, you’ll find a pair of 10MP telephoto cameras and an ultrawide 12MP option. The Ultra also has a laser autofocus that the regular S23s don’t.

Processor, battery, and S Pen

Just like last year, the Ultra is the only model that has an S Pen that tucks away inside the onboard slot. There are no changes to the stylus this year, and making the few sketches and notes I did during my preview felt as smooth as before.

As always, there are loads of things we will need to wait till we can run our full barrage of tests before we can say for sure. For example, all the new S23s are powered by a custom version of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, featuring higher clock speeds than the standard version. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy will hit up to 3.3GHz, which is a whole 100Mhz faster than the standard. But Qualcomm said the improvements include “accelerated performance… in both CPU and GPU frequencies,” and that the chipset is “the fastest Snapdragon ever.” You’ll still get the benefits of the standard Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, like hardware-accelerated ray-tracing for better lighting effects in games.

The S23 line also has a larger vapor cooling chamber to keep the phone from overheating during a gaming marathon, while Samsung says the S23 Ultra’s 5,000mAh battery can last more than 20 percent longer than last year’s model.

Short of installing benchmarks on the demo units at the hands-on, which is kind of a no-go, there wasn’t much I could do to test the S23 Ultra’s performance. I installed Survivor.iO and ran through the tutorial and first round, and the phone ran as quickly and smoothly as expected. I did encounter some lag when trying out new OneUI features like picking system-generated themes and switching modes and routines, though.

New OneUI 5.1 features

All three new S23s ship with OneUI 5.1, which brings intriguing new features that are at once Android 13-like and iOS 16-esque. In addition to new color palette options generated from your choice of wallpaper, Samsung’s software now offers lock screen customization options that are strongly reminiscent of Apple’s. You can choose your clock widget’s color, font, and style, pick what system indicator symbols sit below it, as well as your wallpaper and more. But the S23 Ultra has a field for you to include a message on your lock screen in case you leave your phone somewhere and have enough faith in humanity to leave your contact information for someone to return it.

Samsung is also adding new Modes and Routines to OneUI 5.1, and the former is basically the company’s take on Apple’s Focus modes. Both give you the ability to create profiles for activities you might start like sleeping, gaming, exercising, or driving, and dictate which apps to silence or whitelist. OneUI’s Routines feature, however, is a little more fun. It’s basically “if this then that” conditional programming, offering more granular triggers and actions. At the demo, a Samsung rep set the Ultra to change its wallpaper when Airplane mode is activated. There was some lag when we first tried to turn Airplane mode on before the wallpaper changed, but subsequently, the transition was quicker.

I’m not someone who needs my phone background to be different when I’m on a plane, but I do like the variety of combinations that Routines allow. I also appreciate that Samsung went a step further than Apple here, rather than purely mimicking the iPhone.

Other new OneUI features are still very similar to their iOS versions, like the new widget stacks and Smart Suggestions widget. There’s also a new Image Clipper tool that lets you long press on a photo and grabs just the subject without its background to share in other apps – just like Apple’s updated visual lookup. Samsung’s offering is slightly different because its interface supports split screen, so you can more easily drag and drop your stickers between apps and then resize them in Notes, for example. During my brief time with the phone, Image Clipper seemed about as accurate as the iOS version, which is to say it’s mostly effective but sometimes doesn’t recognize objects. It identified people well, but failed to separate a phone from the table it was on.

Of course, OneUI 5.1 will most likely roll out to older Galaxy phones, so you don’t necessarily need to get an S23 to use these new tools. But if you’re already convinced you to want the new flagships, you can pre-order them today. The S23 Ultra starts at $1,200 and will be available on February 17th. If you’re not yet sure if these phones are worth the upgrade, make sure to wait for our full review, so we can tell you more about performance, battery life, and how well the S23s stack up against the competition in the real world.

Samsung announced the latest cohort of Galaxy phones today at its annual Unpacked event, following it up with new laptop news as well. This year’s flagship is the Galaxy S23 Ultra, which sports a Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor, a 200-megapixel camera sensor, S Pen integration, and more. As in years past, Samsung also has the standard Galaxy S23 and S23+, which have the same processor as in the Ultra and similarly capable camera arrays. On the notebook side of things, the Galaxy Book 3 Ultra has a 13th-gen Intel processor plus NVIDIA graphics, while the Galaxy Book 3 Pro series come in standard clamshell and 2-in-1 designs. Here’s everything you need to know about how to pre-order the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, and all of the other devices announced at Unpacked 2023.

The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is available for pre-order today and starts at $1,199. Those who pre-order between today and February 16th on Samsung’s website are eligible for a free storage upgrade and up to a $100 Samsung credit. If you pre-order through Amazon, you’ll get a $100 gift card along with the same free storage upgrade. In addition, specific carriers including Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T have their own pre-order specials.

Samsung didn’t deviate too much from last year’s Galaxy S22 Ultra with this year’s flagship. The Galaxy S23 Ultra looks much the same, although it does have a slightly flatter design that presumably addresses complaints about its predecessor’s curved screen edges. This year’s phone has a 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2x Infinity-O QHD+ touchscreen with a 120Hz adaptive refresh rate and a peak brightness of 1,750 nits. Beneath it lies an ultrasonic fingerprint sensor for biometric authentication, although you will still be able to access your info and apps with face recognition as well. The S Pen integration has carried over again, with the Ultra sporting an embedded stylus that you can use to doodle, take notes, and more.

Aside from the small design change, the biggest difference between this year’s Ultra and last year’s is the upgraded rear camera array. The Galaxy S23 Ultra has a whopping 200MP Adaptive Pixel sensor, along with a 12MP ultra-wide shooter and a 10MP telephoto lens. The system is capable of shooting 8K video at 30fps, 4K video at 60fps, or FHD video at 120fps and 960fps, the latter of which is dubbed Super Slow-Mo. Plus, it can shoot 4K 60fps video from its 12MP selfie camera, too.

When it comes to specs, the Galaxy S23 Ultra runs on a Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor and supports up to 12GB of RAM, up to 1TB of storage, and 5G connectivity. It has a 5,000mAh battery inside and supports fast charging and wireless PowerShare.

Both the Samsung Galaxy S23 and S23+ are available for pre-order today and they start at $799 and $999, respectively. Those who pre-order between today and February 16th on Samsung’s website are eligible for a free storage upgrade and up to a $100 Samsung credit. If you pre-order through Amazon, you’ll get up to a $100 gift card along with the same free storage upgrade. In addition, specific carriers including Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T have their own pre-order specials.

Much like last year, the S23 and the S23+ do have some similarities between them. Both run on Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipsets and their rear camera setups are the same: a 50MP wide shooter, a 12MP ultra-wide camera, and a 10MP telephoto lens. With that, you’ll be able to shoot 8K video at 30fps, 4k video at 60fps, and FHD video at 120fps or even 960fps with Super Slow-Mo.

While their designs are cut from the same cloth, the Galaxy S23+ has a 6.6-inch Dynamic FHD+ AMOLED screen while the Galaxy S23’s display measures 6.1 inches. Both, however, have an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate and a peak brightness of 1,750. In addition to the larger screen, the S23+ includes a larger battery, “Super Fast Charging 2.0” with a wired connection and UWB support, plus the option to get up to 512GB of storage (as opposed to only 256GB on the standard model).

The new Samsung Galaxy Book 3 Ultra will be available for pre-order on February 14th and it starts at $2,199. It will be widely available on February 22nd.

The most advanced model in Samsung’s notebook lineup, the Galaxy Book 3 Ultra has a 16-inch Dynamic AMOLED x2 display with a 16:10 aspect ratio and a refresh rate of 120Hz. It sports a full aluminum frame and parts made from recycled plastics. It maintains the sleek and slim design we’ve come to expect from Galaxy Books, while much of the upgrades are in its interior. The notebook runs on 13th-gen Intel Core i9 processors and NVIDIA GeForce RTX 4070 graphics, and it can be specced out with up to 32GB of RAM and up to a 1TB SSD. There’s even an expansion slot that you can use if you need even more storage in the future.

You’re also getting an FHD webcam on this laptop that offers improvements like light correction and auto framing using Samsung’s Studio Mode. That’s paired with AI noise-canceling microphones to provide a better video conferencing experience. Standout new features include Multi Control, which lets you control your laptop, tablet, and Galaxy phone from one keyboard and trackpad, copying and pasting content between devices seamlessly; and Second Screen, which lets you use your Galaxy Tab as another monitor when you need extra screen space.

The Samsung Galaxy Book 3 Pro in 14-inch and 16-inch sizes will be available for pre-order soon starting at $1,249. The Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 360 (16-inch only) will also be available for pre-order soon starting at $1,399. All of the new laptops will be widely available on February 22nd.

If you’re just in the market for a regular laptop, you’ll get to pick from the 14-inch or 16-inch Galaxy Book 3 Pro. The 2-in-1 version only comes with a 16-inch display, and all three of these laptops have minor differences when compared to the Book 3 Ultra. The Pros support 13th-gen Core i7 CPUs and Intel Iris X GPUs, but they can be configured to have up to 32GB of RAM and up to 1TB of storage (albeit that’s your cap there, as there’s no expansion slot on these). You do, however, get the same 120Hz Dynamic AMOLED 2x display on the Pro laptops, so you won’t have to sacrifice there – and the 360 model supports touch input as well. The other noteworthy difference to call out is that both the 16-inch standard and 2-in-1 models have a larger battery than the 14-inch Book 3 Pro laptop, which is to be expected.

Samsung is holding its first Unpacked event of 2023 on February 1st, and many expect the Galaxy S23 family to be the centerpiece. The company has even teased a few details, such as camera and performance upgrades. But will this phone lineup be a major revision or a modest yearly refresh? Let’s take a look at what you’re likely to see when Samsung takes to the stage in San Francisco.

Galaxy S23 Ultra

If the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s main appeal was its Note-style pen functionality, the S23 Ultra may revolve around its camera system. Rumors from leaker Ice Universe and others have long pointed to the highest-end S23 model sporting a 200-megapixel main camera, and Samsung added fuel to the discussion by unveiling a sensor that could fit the bill. The ISOCELL HP2 promises extremely detailed photos and 8K video at 30 frames per second while still offering solid low-light capabilities. It might also capture more accurate colors in brightly-lit scenarios. The front camera may get a slight bump to 12MP as well.

It won’t surprise you to hear that Samsung is poised to give the S23 family a speed boost with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2. It’s supposedly over 25 percent faster than Gen 1 while offering hardware-accelerated ray tracing for more realistic lighting in games. You may see up to a fourfold improvement in AI processing, too. Qualcomm claims Gen 2 is up to 40 percent more energy efficient, and you might get emergency satellite communication in addition to WiFi 7 networking.

However, the biggest shock may be where you find that chip. Well-known analyst Ming-Chi Kuo claims Samsung will use the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 to power the Galaxy S23 in every country, rather than using its in-house Exynos chips in regions like Asia and Europe. Critics have routinely knocked Exynos-based Galaxy phones for having worse performance and battery life than their Snapdragon counterparts, but that might not be an issue this time around.

You may not see other sweeping changes, but that’s not necessarily a problem. If leaked images at Nieuwe Mobiel are accurate, the Galaxy S23 Ultra will have a slightly flatter design than its predecessor, addressing complaints about the 6.8-inch screen’s curved edges. You’d still find a 12MP ultra-wide camera, dual 10MP telephoto lenses, an S-Pen, and up to 12GB of RAM. You may get a 1TB storage option, though, so you might not have to worry as much about that 8K footage chewing up all your free space.

Samsung’s more mainstream smartphones aren’t expected to receive as dramatic an update, but there could still be meaningful improvements. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 and the rumored 12MP front camera might arrive alongside an ever-so-slightly larger battery. The phones could also ship with 256GB of storage as the baseline — important if you’d rather not spend extra just to hold a sizable media collection.

Otherwise, we’ll probably get the familiar 6.1- and 6.6-inch displays of the Galaxy S22 line, not to mention a 50MP main rear camera, a 12MP ultra-wide, and a lone 10MP telephoto. Leaked pictures at Nieuwe Mobiel suggest Samsung is redesigning the camera array to look more like that of the Ultra family, so the conspicuous camera hump of the S21 and S22 may vanish.

Samsung rarely sticks to phone introductions at Unpacked events, and there are signs a high-end laptop may be the other star of the show. Samsung’s reservation page hints at a new Galaxy Book range, while the company’s mobile experience president TM Roh makes clear in a blog post that there will be Ultra products in “more device categories” besides phones. Expect an Ultra laptop, then.

Provided a leak at The Tech Outlook is authentic, that new model would be the Galaxy Book 3 Ultra. It’s not entirely clear what that laptop might deliver, but Samsung Display said the high-end Galaxy Book line will feature OLED screens with built-in touch, much like smartphones. The Ultra is also expected to arrive in tandem with a more conventional Galaxy Book 3 Pro and a Galaxy Book 3 Pro 360 convertible with pen support. We’d expect improved performance, and possibly extras like pen input and advanced display technology (this is Samsung, after all).

There hasn’t been much talk of other product unveilings at Unpacked, and there are even rumors casting doubt on potential releases. The Elec sources claim Samsung has pushed out the launch of a Galaxy Tab S9 family, possibly due to economic uncertainty and poor sales of the Tab S8 series. As it is, the company tends to wait longer between tablet revisions than it does phones – the Tab S8 arrived in early 2022 whereas its S7 predecessor arrived in the summer of 2020.

We also wouldn’t count on new earbuds. Samsung introduced the regular Galaxy Buds 2 in the summer of 2021, and the Buds 2 Pro a year later. Short of a revamp of the so-so Galaxy Buds Live, there’s no pressure on the company to update its in-ear audio roster.

Other products are only likely to appear at Samsung’s later events. Don’t brace yourself for new Galaxy Z foldable, Galaxy A budget phones, or Galaxy Watch timepieces this early in the year.