The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra premiered the new 200MP imager - the biggest on a Samsung phone yet. Samsung says it delivers a clarity never before seen on Galaxy, and we put it side by side with the best (at the time) on the market to see how it fares. We also have a detailed look at the Galaxy S23 Ultra's cameras in our review - here we'll be focusing more on specific camera details, not the overall system.
While the 200MP primary camera is good, it's the versatility of the entire camera system that makes this one of the best phones to have for photos and video. The Galaxy S23 Ultra gives you an ultrawide start at 13mm, moves on to a 23mm main camera that can also deliver a 2x mode (46mm?), then onto a 69mm 3x camera, and all the way to 230mm with the unique 10x camera. It's an unmatched range of zoom for a smartphone. And as rumors peg the Galaxy S24 Ultra to drop the 10x camera in favor of a 5x makes the Galaxy S23 Ultra potentially the last smartphone with an optical 10x you can get.
Before we move on to quality, a few words on the software. The Galaxy camera app is one of the best, and because it hasn't drastically changed in the past few years, it's familiar to people who use a Galaxy phone, which is very convenient. Double-press the power button to launch the camera from anywhere - double-press again to switch to the selfie camera - and double-press again to return to the main camera.
We'd love for Samsung to implement a feature like the iPhone's Photographic Styles, Fujifilm cameras' Film Simulations, or any camera model's picture modes - in essence, a way to tailor the cameras' output to your specific style. We'd like to be able to preselect how much sharpening is applied, the contrast bias, the vibrance, and saturation, and just wrap it in a unified style and have it work alongside the phone's HDR and computational features.
Let's start with the main camera, which has sadly prompted Samsung to revert to an old negative habit. Images from the main camera oftentimes come out excessively sharpened. While the rendering of buildings, objects, or people are moderately oversharpened to the point of making fine detail stand out, the sharpening algorithm really goes overboard with any foliage and grass that happens to be in the frame. Things look fine at fit-to-screen level, but zoom in closer or, better yet, look at the photos on a monitor, and the overdone sharpening becomes obvious.
Worse yet, we can notice a clear difference between our Galaxy S23 Ultra photos from the camera comparison we did back in March and the phone's photos today. The main camera images were sharper than average back then but are way oversharpened now, to the point that you can see a halo at the edge where the trees meet the sky in the shots below.
There's a fix of sorts, but it takes a few steps. You need to download the Good Lock module Camera Assistant and enable the 'Picture softening' setting to Medium. It takes the edge off the sharpening, resulting in a more pleasing and natural rendition. The downside is that the setting works across all cameras and negatively affects the sharpening level used with the other cameras.
It gets worse at night when the main camera tries to compensate for the loss of detail to noise suppression. This results in muddy photos with poor detail rendering.
There is another way of avoiding the noisy, oversharpened look. You could switch to the ExperRAW app for your camera needs. It can be set to only shoot JPEG (also RAW or RAW + JPEG), and it will save images with a different processing. You'll still enjoy the benefits of computational photography, but toned down. Keep in mind that the lack of Samsung's Scene Optimizer means less saturated skies and no true 'scene recognition'. You also won't be able to quickly launch ExpertRAW like you can the Camera app.
Samsung needs to address this oversharpening issue with a dedicated system update.
That aspect aside, in good light, the Galaxy S23 Ultra's main camera captures detailed images with almost no noise. Dynamic range is superb - shadows are well-detailed but remain naturally dark, while the highlights are always well-controlled. We'd call it midtone-heavy. The colors are vibrant, but not overdone, while the skies are consistently true to real life.
It's zoom images where the Galaxy S23 Ultra shines. Photos taken with the 3x and 10x cameras are superb in good light and good in low light. They have similar fine qualities as the main camera - solid detail levels, a wide dynamic range with good contrast, and lively colors. Noise is noticeable on the 3x and 10x shots, however.
The relatively small sensors show their weaknesses at pixel level - fine detail isn't as impressive as on the main camera, and it quickly becomes overly noisy in low light.
By bringing the scene closer to you, these cameras are more about showing a different perspective than technical photographic prowess. The 10x, especially, is excellent at this. At 230mm, it's optically unmatched in the smartphone world and can give you a unique point of view whether you're on the street in a popular place in the city or way above in an airplane, capturing wind turbines from 11,000 meters. Using a Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra long-term teaches a keen-eyed photographer to look beyond what's accessible with a regular phone's 5x camera. That said we're excited about the possibility of a bigger sensor zoom in next year's Galaxy S Ultra.
In low light, the main camera picks noise reduction over detail. This means you'll get clean images with a slightly artificial rendition. Low-light photos have a fine balance between a realistic nighttime exposure and a striking shot - everything is exposed well but not to the point that it looks unrealistically bright.
The ultrawide camera is great for exaggerating perspective or capturing more of the scene. But most ultrawide cameras on recent flagships have been the same old inferior sensor with unimpressive optics - the Galaxy S23 Ultra included. This camera isn't as good in daylight and is downright poor in low light, and this reviewer has found himself reaching for the wide-enough main camera over the inferior ultrawide. While physically challenging, it's high time Samsung put a meaningfully better sensor behind the ultrawide - similar to what vivo does with the X90 Pro+.
The selfie camera of the Galaxy S23 Ultra dropped from the 40MP of the Galaxy S22 Ultra to a 12MP, but the focal length and general performance are the same. The new imager shoots slightly more saturated images with less noise and the same high level of detail - a win across the board.
The Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is a mature shooter, and it remains one of the most versatile in the world. It'll never miss a shot, misfocus, or crash in the most important moment. It has rock-steady stabilization up to 230mm, and its autofocus seemingly always knows just what you want in focus - whether it's a person a meter away or an airplane zipping across the sky from you at 10x.
There are no other phones that put an ultrawide, a wide, a midrange zoom, and a super telephoto in your pocket.
Samsung's overzealous sharpening has put a dent in what has been a stellar experience, but we're sure it's fixable, and we urge Samsung to do so.
Still, we wouldn't expect a laid-back natural-looking processing out of the Galaxy S23 Ultra. That's not Samsung's way. The Galaxy S23 Ultra creates striking, popping images that stand out with their contrast and color even at the smartphone screen level.
If you want more authentic photographic results from your phone, go with an iPhone, but you'll miss out on a super telephoto in your pocket. Managing expectations is one of the most important things in life. It doesn't make sense to expect the Galaxy S23 Ultra to behave like a Leica camera and then become disappointed that it doesn't.
Before we move on to the final words in this review, let's answer the important question - how is the Galaxy S23 Ultra after eight months of use? And the answer is - fresh as the day we set it up for the first time. We look after our devices here at GSMArena, but the Galaxy S23 Ultra's pristine condition says something about the phone's solid build quality as well.
We've also used the Galaxy S23 Ultra on several carriers in a few countries and can attest to its excellent network handling and reliability.
The Galaxy S23 Ultra is a true do-it-all tool. It combines a huge display, an S Pen, 512GB of storage (Samsung launched only 512GB units as a pre-order bonus), 12GB of RAM, the fastest Snapdragon up until a few days ago, and a 5,000mAh battery that can go all day. Not to mention a camera system that's just as uniquely versatile three years into its tenure. And outside of the sheer impressiveness of the Galaxy S23 Ultra's specs sheet, it's competent, and that induces confidence.
The phone runs smoothly and hasn't scoffed at any task we've given it over our time together, and we have no reason to think it would be any different in other hands and with other use cases.
But as improved as the Galaxy S23 Ultra is over its predecessor - it remains fundamentally the same phone. You can't say the S23 Ultra is an exciting phone. It's a very specific device that's unlikely to entice the iPhone lover or the Pixel person to switch phones. But let's get back to the part about managing expectations. The Galaxy S23 Ultra is probably the most Samsung phone out of Samsung's entire lineup - over the top, Ultra-specced, pen-enabled, huge. It's a phone made for a specific user in mind. And that person will be more than happy with the Galaxy S23 Ultra for yet another year.
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