The company that released a phablet a dozen years ago has never given up on big dreams for big phones. Last year, the company took a risk — discontinued the beloved Note line. Although I stand by my initial assessment that the Samsung Galaxy S22 Note would be a good branding compromise.
First, there isn’t much daylight left between the Galaxy S and Note lines. From a design point of view, they became increasingly difficult to tell apart. The idea of a large phone is more normal than new these days, and the addition of the S Pen feature to the former was the final straw. There is also the simple fact that people just don’t buy phones like they used to, so combining two such premium lines was a logical step.
All of this allowed Samsung to put its money where its mouth was when it came to sophisticated devices. I admit, I had my doubts when the company announced the Galaxy Z Fold as a flagship. Pushing it to the top spot, clearing a Note-sized hole in its lineup, has put those questions to rest — even if the jury’s still out on long-term viability. Analysts estimate Samsung’s current shipments of complex devices in the middle of last year at ~10 million units. It’s nothing to shake a stick at, and it’s a clear advantage that it’s still more or less the only game in a complex city.
Although Samsung is far from a premium phone maker, the company, along with Apple, continues to dominate the sales charts. Huawei is out of the picture for now, and while a host of other Chinese companies have happily filled the void, Samsung continues to be the premium Android smartphone to beat.
The Galaxy S23 Ultra is to all intents and purposes the Galaxy Note 23. It’s more than just a spiritual successor, it’s the product that the device almost certainly would have become. And while it’s not the most expensive phone in Samsung’s portfolio (the Z Fold wins hands down in that context), it’s probably the most premium device the company has to offer. Of course, the starting price of $1,200 is considered prohibitive for most consumers.
The good news is that by swapping out some basic features, you can drop the starting price down to $800 for the S23, which is a reasonable price for a flagship from one of the big two phone makers today. As usual, the sacrifices for an entry-level model are screen size, battery (directly related to screen/phone size), camera and stylus functionality. A 6.1-inch phone is still a flagship, and of course not everyone needs a 200-megapixel camera sensor or what a 6.8-inch phone is.
The $1,000 Galaxy S23+ splits the difference somewhat. The 6.6-inch display and 4,700mAh battery are closer to what you get with the S23 Ultra. Once again, the 200-megapixel main camera is downgraded to 50-megapixels, and the stylus functionality has been discontinued altogether. If you can live without those details — as the vast majority of Samsung flagship buyers probably can — it’s not a very compelling upgrade, priced $100 more than the entry-level iPhone 14 Pro.
One of the biggest downsides to the Note being swallowed by the Galaxy S lineup is that there isn’t much wiggle room for the latter’s enthusiasts. There’s no, say, Note Lite in the mix. That’s probably partly because phones with stylus functionality remain relatively niche despite the Note’s success. From a pure numbers standpoint, it makes sense to keep the product, but maybe not build an entire line around it.
This means that if you want this feature, you’ll need all the other bells and whistles that come with it. Samsung has offered custom colors in its product lines for some time, but when it comes to mass-produced consumer electronics, custom features are a different matter. It’s hard to argue that anyone “needs” any of these features, but a large number of owners of Samsung’s premium devices find S Pen-based note-taking extremely useful in their work lives, and you can’t argue with that.
Notably, all three models are powered by the same Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor. Qualcomm’s latest flagship offers plenty of upgrade options. That starts with the often-overlooked elements, like faster Wi-Fi thanks to an upgraded radio and Wi-Fi 7. The latter, mind you, is a small measure for the future, as the first compatible routers will arrive this year. In the meantime, you can take advantage of Wi-Fi 6 and 6E speeds, depending on the network.
As always, the computing power advantage is the real headliner. Our S23 Ultra (with 12GB of RAM and 512GB of storage) scored 1,434 on Geekbench 5’s single-core test and 4,787 on the multi-core test, a healthy jump over the previous generation, though overall scores lag behind what Apple can currently gain from the former. -party silicon on iPhone. Working with the phone without problems. Years of hardware and software evolution have resulted in a well-polished product that’s fast and responsive when switching between apps, playing games, and watching videos.
This year, the phone’s design has shifted in a more boxy direction, eschewing the smooth, rounded corners of its predecessors. It’s something of a mixed blessing. Maybe it’s just me, but the push for perfectly smooth devices is aesthetically pleasing, but they’re—literally—harder to hold. On the other hand, there’s a certain degree to which it feels like Samsung is leaning towards a tank metaphor with its high-end device, and those who already have trouble holding a 6.8-inch phone in one hand may have an added challenge. It’s a deliberate contrast to the rounded S23 and S23+ models, which have a more industrial and — perhaps business-oriented — design.
The S23 line is the first of any manufacturer to feature Gorilla Glass Victus 2, which was announced late last year. That’s some consolation, because you’re not the first with Qualcomm’s new chipset — though, as in this case, you’ll likely see a few (or dozens) of systems with Corning’s latest version. Why not? Durability should be among the three or five most sought-after features among phone buyers. Once upon a time, flagships were some of the most expensive and most fragile phones you could buy.
In addition to improved scratch resistance, the material is rated to withstand drops of one meter onto concrete and two meters onto asphalt. Hopefully you’ll never have to test this with a $1,200 phone, but heck, most of us have at least once. Before leaving the topic of the article, it is important to highlight Samsung’s ongoing efforts towards sustainable development. If I were feeling a little more cynical, I’d say the best way to reduce e-waste is to spare consumers the cycle of upgrading every two or three years, but we both know that’s not how it works for companies that are constantly looking for new ways to increase volumes
And besides, marketing interests aside, companies should be encouraged to repurpose materials where possible. Much of Samsung’s efforts on this front have focused on making materials out of old fishing nets, water barrels and plastic bottles. According to the company, the phone consists of approximately 22% recycled materials. Samsung also ditched excess shipping packaging several generations ago.
The location of the camera on the back panel has not changed. At the top is a 12-megapixel ultra-wide-angle camera with autofocus, a 200-megapixel wide-angle camera sits in the middle, and a 10-megapixel telephoto lens occupies the bottom slot. Another 10-megapixel lens with Space Zoom (3x, 10x optical) is located to the left of the 200-megapixel one.
As always, the camera is important here. For years it was the main battleground where the flagship wars were fought. Samsung has largely stood up to Apple on this front, although stiff competition has emerged from Xiaomi and other Chinese firms in Huawei’s absence. Despite its lack of market share, Google has also emerged as a serious contender thanks to its masterful combination of hardware and AI-powered computational photography.
The 200MP sensor is a headliner – literally and figuratively. Interestingly, with these things in mind, it seems that the S23 Ultra isn’t the first phone on the market with a super-megapixel sensor. That honor seems to go to the extremely reasonably priced Xiaomi 12T Pro. Samsung has long been one of the biggest suppliers of components for other companies’ phones, so this isn’t a big surprise.
Anyone following this stuff will quickly notice that megapixels aren’t everything. Of course, that’s true, but the evolution of mobile cameras is making more and more efficient use of all those pixels. This means using binning to combine information from multiple pixels to create a sort of larger superpixel capable of collecting much more light for sharper images with less noise.
The camera set is really great. The 200MP sensor doesn’t seem like much of a necessity in most settings, but it does have its moments. Most users won’t have much need to shoot huge files at full resolution. If you want full professional photos, the phone can shoot in RAW format, which can be edited with Adobe Lightroom by default.
For the average user, the hardware/software combination works quite well out of the box. The Ultra works well in low light and the optical zoom is a lifesaver. It can zoom up to 100x, but I mostly went above 10x so as not to degrade the image. Overall, though, it’s one of the best zoom and overall camera features available on a phone in 2023.
As always, the screen is great. The 6.8-inch AMOLED display has a resolution of 3088 x 1440, the S23 and S23+ have a resolution of 2340 x 1080. All three have an adjustable 120Hz refresh rate. The Ultra also has a maximum brightness of 1750 nits. A larger phone size means more battery space. Thanks to the 5.00 mAh capacity, I got more than a day of heavy use. 45W wired charging will quickly top that up when your battery is low.
The Galaxy S23 Ultra is, as expected, a great phone. This is a true no-compromise Android phone: from the large, bright screen and powerful battery to the variety of cameras and S Pen features. This is an extremely expensive device that is the true definition of getting what you pay for.