Galaxy S20 Ultra vs. S10 Plus: I used both Samsung phones for a week

Galaxy S20 Ultra vs. S10 Plus: I used both Samsung phones for a week

There’s no question that the Galaxy S20 Ultra is a great phone. But starting at around $1,200, it comes with a steep price. That being said, it’s not the only option from Samsung if you want a premium phone with reliable performance, strong cameras and a battery that will last you through the day (and then some). There is, for instance, the Galaxy S10 Plus, which came out last year. (And don’t forget the newer, $700 Galaxy S20 FE. Here’s how the S20 Fan Edition compares to the S20 Ultra and the rest of the S20 lineup.)

To work out if you should pay more for the S20 Ultra, or less for the S10 Plus, I used both phones for a week and compared them side-by-side on camera quality, overall design and how they performed as my daily driver. Watch the video at the top of the article for my full impressions or read on for the abridged version.

Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung’s flagship phone for 2020 has all the bells and whistles you want: a 108-megapixel camera, a huge 6.9-inch screen with a 120Hz refresh rate and 5G connectivity. Even though some of the camera features, like the 100x zoom, don’t live up to the hype, it’s still a great all-round phone that feels future-proofed for now. But remember, it’s only worth considering as long as you have the cash.

Read the S20 Ultra review.

Angela Lang/CNET

The Galaxy S10 Plus doesn’t miss out on much and shouldn’t be seen as a “compromise,” despite being last year’s model. The camera produces great photos while the 6.4-inch screen looks fantastic. Though it does not shoot 8K video or have 5G connectivity, it’s still a superb phone. Plus, it has a headphone jack, which we believe will be the last high-end Galaxy phone to have it.

Read the S10 Plus review.

Galaxy S20 Ultra’s crazy camera and 100x zoom

By now you probably know or read about the fact that the S20 Ultra’s camera is its real ace up its sleeve. There are four rear cameras: a wide-angle that can shoot 108-megapixel stills, an ultra-wide angle, a telephoto periscope lens and a depth sensor.

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The S10 Plus, meanwhile, has three rear cameras but no depth sensor.

For most photos, particularly those taken in bright, outdoor lighting, I found the cameras hard to differentiate when taking photos with the wide lens. Both take brilliant shots with pleasing exposures, sharpness and good dynamic range on default settings (if anything, the S20 Ultra saturates colors a bit more than the S10 Plus though). If I needed more to work with, the S20 Ultra’s 108-megapixel sensor on its regular wide camera let me go to town cropping into photos and reframing after I took the shot. 

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Lexy Savvides/CNET

Speaking of zoom, the other difference between the two phones is that the S20 Ultra uses a hybrid optical zoom (its true optical zoom is 4x) to reach 10x, and shots look great. The S10 Plus, on the other hand, is purely digital zoom once you get past the 2x optical reach. Side-by-side with the S20 Ultra at the same magnification, there’s no competition: the 10x zoom photo on the S20 Ultra looks clear while the S10 Plus’ shot looks like mush. But that’s really as far as I would take the S20 Ultra’s zoom. I took an OK shot at 30x which uses digital zoom, but once I zoomed in closer to 100x, things became very messy.

The S20 Ultra can shoot 8K video, but unless I want to future proof my videos for the benefit of a new 8K TV (or I want to be able to reframe for 4K for video editing purposes) I imagined myself filming at this resolution maybe once or twice. At the time of writing, the unlocked S20 Ultra that I have been using does exhibit some autofocus issues, particularly noticeable when filming video at all resolutions.

You can find out more about the differences in photo quality, cameras and plenty of samples in the video embedded above.

Does the S20 Ultra prove that bigger is better?

There’s no getting around it: The S20 Ultra is a big phone. With a 6.9-inch screen it throws its weight around at 220g (7.76 oz). For me, it’s just a little too large to use comfortably with one hand. It fits in my pockets OK, but the S10 Plus feels like a better size overall at 175g (6.17oz). Your mileage will definitely vary with your preference in the size and weight of these phones!

When it comes to display quality, both phones are excellent, but the S20’s Ultra’s 120Hz refresh rate impressed me the most. It’s not activated by default (you have to turn it on through settings), but after I turned it on, it made scrolling through screens and gaming such a smooth-looking experience.

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Angela Lang/CNET

If you want a headphone jack though, get the S10 Plus. Or, get a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter for the S20 Ultra. Truth be told, though, dongles are annoying and easy to forget. There are USB-C headphones in the box with the S20 Ultra too. Both phones have reverse wireless charging and an in-screen fingerprint reader.

Battery life and performance is too close to call

Both these phones are absolute performance beasts. You can find the full rundown of performance results in our reviews. In real-world situations, I didn’t encounter any noticeable difference between the two when doing a number of resource-intensive tasks such as recording 4K (or 8K on the S20 Ultra), browsing the internet or gaming. Note that I’ve been using an S20 Ultra with 12GB RAM rather than the 16GB variant that’s available, which may present a more noticeable performance boost over the older phone.

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As for battery life, when I used the S20 Ultra with 120Hz turned on, the battery notably depleted at a faster rate. I’d start the day at 100% charge, but my battery was down to 70% or so by 1 p.m. with about an hour of screen time. That said, I am able to get through a full day of use with enough juice to spare on both phones. The S20 Ultra does have a higher capacity battery and the option of a 45W charger for even faster charging (which costs extra). Note, however, that your experience will differ depending on how you use your phone.

The bigger performance question, however, is around 5G. If you want 5G, you’ll need to get the S20 Ultra. The S10 Plus is 4G LTE only. (Note that a S10 5G edition was available, although it’s a different size and has different specs to the S10 Plus.) While the 5G rollout across the US is only available in a few major hubs at the time of writing, the S20 Ultra will give you the future-proofing to use the phone across the major carriers as coverage grows. The S20 Ultra supports millimeter-wave 5G networks used by Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, plus the low and midband used by AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. 

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