The “Ultra” label says it all, and no phone wears the Ultra moniker better than the Samsung Galaxy S-series. This is a model that, with last year’s S22 Ultra, married the best of the top-of-the-line Galaxy S cameras with the stylus-toting convenience of the Galaxy Note series to deliver a superphone that checked off every imaginable box for power users, and then some.
The Galaxy S23 Ultra follows the same path as its predecessor - packing in a similar design and all the excess, all the over-the-top conveniences like the best-in-class display and the bonkers-level zoom that one has gotten used to over the past year – which led many to question just how much Samsung has moved the needle.
Over the past week, we went all out stress testing the S23’s all-new 200-megapixel camera in sunny Bangalore and hazy New Delhi while running the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 and the 5,000mAh down to the bone, to come to this conclusion – while the S23 Ultra doesn’t ostensibly appear to be a big upgrade, the sum of all its incremental improvements makes it a significant upgrade. It’s time to find out what it is like to live with the S23 Ultra, in our full review of the device.
It goes without saying that this top-tier Samsung does not come without its obligatory sticker shock, and the phone is available in a black, cream and a very fetching marquee green color in a base 12GB memory/256GB storage variant for ₹124,999. Props to Samsung for upping the base storage to a more reasonable 256GB. If you want to double the storage, you should be ready to shell out Rs. 10,000 more ( ₹1,34,999), and ₹1,54,999 will get you the insanely capacious 1TB storage variant.
If this year’s earthy tones color pallete is not to your liking, head over to Samsung.com to pick up the S23 Ultra in lime, sky blue, graphite and red colorways. Bear in mind, there’s not a lot to the box – a USB-C cable, some documentation, all packed in eco-friendly packaging. So you’ll have to fork over extra for a charger.
Now, if you’ve ever picked up a Galaxy S22 Ultra, you’ll have a pretty good idea on what to expect with the S23 Ultra – a massive, ultra-sized phone that’s not meant for shallow pockets. No change in dimensions or weight – to be fair, there are only so many ways to slim a phone down while still packing in a 5,000mAh battery and having enough room for the integrated S-Pen Stylus.
The Galaxy S23 Ultra has 30% less of a curve to its display, and the curved metal frame of the S22 Ultra has made way for flatter edges, both of which improve the experience of holding the phone. The top and bottom edges are as sharp-edged as ever, which makes pocketing it in a rush somewhat uncomfortable. This year, Samsung has added larger, more pronounced, color-matched rings around the camera setup on the rear, which will cause the phone to rock, particularly when you’re setting it flat on a surface to use the S Pen. Despite these minor annoyances, the S23 Ultra is as premium and jewel-like as it gets, so it’s just as well Samsung uses an Armor Aluminum frame and Corning's Gorilla Glass Victus 2 on the front and back for protection against drops and scratches. Not to mention, IP68 water and dust resistance, all of which come together as a nice little insurance package for a rather pricey phone. The stylus itself is identical to last year’s model, with 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity and a 2.8ms latency that makes scribbling or sketching on the device feel instantaneous.
Samsung seems to have applied the “if it aint broke…” thought process to the front of the S23 Ultra. Last year’s S22 Ultra had a gorgeous display, among (if not) the best in the business, and so it stands to reason that Samsung has retained the 6.8-inch QHD+ (1440x3088pixel) AMOLED screen with a rated peak brightness of 1,750 nits and the same 1Hz-120Hz adaptive refresh rate as before. Of course, there’s support for the S Pen stylus, which is a standout differentiator for the Ultra. Watching HDR10+ content (no Dolby Vision support, though) is such a joy on this panel, and the expansive display serves as a great canvas for showing off the videos and photos you can shoot with the device.
As with the rest of the S23 series, the S23 Ultra is powered by the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset, albeit one with a bit of a twist. Unlike the iQOO 11 and the OnePlus 11 that launched with the vanilla version of the chip, Samsung has a ‘made for Galaxy’-version with overclocked processing and graphic chops. While the differences between the Samsung and the rest is likely to be far too nuanced for it to be noticeable in everyday use, it’s good to see performance headroom that will serve the phone well in the future, not to mention the optimization benefits that accrue out of close collaboration with Qualcomm.
Rounding off the top-shelf spec is the faster LPDDR5X memory and UFS 4.0 storage. The performance is unmatched across the Android ecosystem - for now, at least – and no matter how heavy an app we used, the S23 Ultra simply didn’t break a sweat. Gaming was a breeze as well, and the phone did not run hot even after sustained use. Samsung’s OneUI 5.1 with Android 13 is among the best ways to experience Android on a smartphone. If there’s one thing the past couple of years of using a Samsung flagship have confirmed, it’s this – if anyone will deliver on the ‘four Android OS updates and 5 years of security updates’ commitment, it’s Samsung.
Perhaps the more noticeable gain is in battery life. Samsung has packed in the same 5,000mAh battery from the S22 Ultra and counted on the Snapdragon chip’s efficiency to handle the rest. The gains are appreciable and borderline insane. With the display set to full-HD+ resolution, one regularly saw nearly 8 hours of screen-on time with moderate use, and a little over 6 hours in heavy use with gaming and plenty of shooting with the camera. Bump it up to the QHD+ resolution, and you should see only about an hour reduced on either count. This is easily a one-day phone, even if you push the phone. Charging speeds are still the same, at an almost-glacial (by comparison) 45W speed that tops off the battery in an hour – this is not a phone you can charge in the time it takes you to get ready in the morning.
Samsung’s top flagship for 2023 certainly deserved a boost in this department. Wireless charging is supported at 15W and you can reverse wireless charge at 4.5W. One feature I’m looking forward to test (arriving in an update in the near future) is the ability for the phone to bypass battery charging when you’re gaming while plugged in, which should theoretically improve long-term battery life and minimize heat buildup.
Finally, here’s the real reason most of you would actively consider the S23 Ultra – the improvements to the camera over what is widely regarded as the most versatile phone camera around (the S22 Ultra). Filling those rather outsized shoes is a monstrous new, 200-megapixel sensor on the primary shooter with improved optical image stabilization, accompanied by the rest of the S22 Ultra’s cameras - a 12-megapixel ultra-wide, a 10-megapixel telephoto with 3x optical zoom, and another 10-megapixel telephoto with 10x optical zoom, which allows all of those 100x shots of the moon you’ve probably seen floating around on social media.
During the S23 Ultra’s recent launch, Samsung bandied about a lot of jargon around the new sensor – Super-Quad Pixel, Adaptive Pixel Sensor – which are meant to aid low-light focusing and details, and a new astrophotography mode and 50-megapixel RAW images available within the Expert RAW app. Daylight images are detailed and have that pleasing but restrained Samsung vibrancy to them, whether you shoot from the primary or the ultra-wide.
In low-light conditions, the images are up there with the best of what we’ve seen, though the somewhat persistent issue of shutter lag does mean fast moving objects sometimes get missed. The 3x telephoto and the 10x periscope shooter are great fun to use and lend the S23 Ultra the sort of versatility when out and about that is unmatched even with the software sorcery of the Google Pixel’s Super Res Zoom.
The 12-megapixel selfie shooter, while seemingly a downgrade from the 40-megapixel shooter on the S22 Ultra, gets better autofocusing capabilities and HDR video recording, which dramatically improves the outcomes. Likely the biggest leap in the imaging department is with videos, with the improved image stabilization (OIS) taking the S23 Ultra nearly at par with the iPhone 14 Pro series. In a nutshell, the S23 Ultra offers discernible improvements over the previous generation, in practically every shooting scenario, that had us pleasantly surprised. Remember, the S22 Ultra was no slouch in the imaging department.
Granted, this is not a phone that’s supposed to appeal to Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra users out there (of which this writer is one). That said, the performance, battery and low-light improvements in the camera department make a strong case for an upgrade even to folks who have spent an unquestionably large sum of money just last year.
For everyone else, particularly if you have the deep pockets (in every sense of the word) to be able to pick the S23 Ultra up, this is arguably the most well-rounded Android smartphone money can buy, and despite what value flagships can bring to the table, there’s real value in picking up a phone as capable and versatile as the S23 Ultra. You may not need a phone with this much excess, but after a few weeks of using it, one wouldn’t blame you for wanting it.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets at @2shar