Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra hands-on review: A Note in all but name

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra hands-on review: A Note in all but name

If you’ve been keeping a watchful eye on the comings and goings of the smartphone world, then you might have noticed that the Galaxy Note missed its regularly scheduled reappearance in 2021. And before you say anything, it wasn’t to do with Covid-affected supply problems, either.

With a fresh update usually arriving on a annual basis without question, Samsung’s Galaxy Note line has simply vanished without a trace. That was, however, until the Galaxy S22 Ultra made its first official appearance during Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked event on 9 February – it looked remarkably familiar.

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A Note in all but name, this year’s top-end Samsung is vastly different from anything the S series has thrown at us thus far, and by merging both phone lines Samsung has a particularly versatile ultra-flagship on its hands for 2022.

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Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review: Key specifications, UK price and release date

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review: Design, key features and first impressions

Let's discuss why Samsung has decided to consolidate its two flagship lines. Putting on my tin foil hat for a second, my biggest guess is that Note sales weren’t all that great when the Note 20 launched in 2020 and thus, Samsung had to make a tough decision about what to do with the Note moving forward.

It makes a tonne of sense to cram the Note’s stylus-friendly features into the priciest S series flagship. Samsung’s previous launch strategy was to split the buying decision between the S and Note lines every single year, which meant that whichever phone you decided to buy would ultimately be superseded six months down the line by the other one. Putting the focus on one flagship really ought to pay off for Samsung – not to mention that you’re now getting a lot more extra stuff if you go for the Ultra over the other S22 models as well.

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Of course, only time will tell whether this strategy will pay off, but there’s no denying that Samsung has cooked up a particularly impressive batch of smartphones this year. The S22 lineup covers pretty much all bases, and if you’ve got the money to splurge on a new phone, then the S22 Ultra really is the top dog for 2022.

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Kicking things off, the S22 Ultra is a colossal-looking smartphone. It’s the biggest of the three phones, with a large 6.8in display that curves around the left and right edges and a flat top and bottom – just like the Note 20, in fact. It’s a heavy thing, too, tipping the scales at 229g, and measuring 163 x 78 x 8.9mm (HWD) it’s not the most pocketable of handsets, either.

But aside from its rather brutish size, the S22 Ultra looks as good as the premium price ought to suggest. Coming in a choice of four colours – Phantom Black, Phantom White, Burgundy and Green – the S22 Ultra looks pretty swish with its frosted, glass-topped rear and reflective metal sides. It looks a bit like the Sony Xperia XZ Premium from the old days, if you remember that one.

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Unlike the Note 20 Ultra, there’s no obtrusive camera block. Flip the phone over and there’s simply a selection of lenses neatly dotted around the top-left of the phone’s rear panel. This of course also has the added benefit of sitting more flush when placed on a flat surface.

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It’s not just a bit of a looker, however. The Galaxy S22 Ultra – like the rest of the lineup – is fully IP68-certified against dust and water, and it’s also the first smartphone to benefit from Corning Gorilla Glass Victus Plus, which is a new protective layer that’s been applied to both the front and rear of the handset. According to Samsung, Victus Plus is 12.5% stronger than the Gorilla Glass Victus on last year’s model, and the S22’s new “Armour Aluminium” chassis is more durable, too.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: the S22 Ultra’s S Pen stylus. Making its first appearance in the S-series lineup, Samsung’s dinky stylus is located in the bottom left corner of the handset and is accessible by simply pushing it inwards. From here, you can jot down some notes, doodle for a brief spell and even use it as a remote camera shutter button.

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The S Pen has seen a handful of big improvements, too. To start with, Samsung says that the writing latency has been decreased from 9ms on the Note 20 to just 2.8ms on the S22 Ultra. A new AI-based coordinate prediction technology now anticipates the direction you’ll draw, too, which is pretty neat.

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra hands-on review: A Note in all but name

What these improvements mean is that both writing and doodling should feel much more natural and responsive this time around. Converting handwritten notes to text is also supposedly much faster than before, too, with an extra 12 more languages added to the text recognition software as well.

The Samsung Notes app also gets two new features. Quick Note allows you to attach or link directly to external content in a pop-up note when sharing your notes. A new Collaboration View enables on-the-fly syncing between the S22 Ultra and Samsung’s new Tab S8 tablet, allowing you to change tool settings, such as pen thickness and type, on your phone without obscuring the canvas on your tablet.

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As for the screen, the S22’s display is yet another Dynamic AMOLED 2X affair, with a maximum WQHD+ resolution and a refresh rate of 120Hz. According to Samsung, it’s their brightest panel yet, with a peak luminance of 1,750 nits and the screen’s minimum starting refresh rate has been adjusted from 10Hz down to 1Hz. This should allow for the S22 Ultra to save a bit more energy when performing actions such as reading ebooks.

Inside, Samsung’s homebrew Exynos 2200 powers things in the UK, with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 instead making an appearance in US models. Both are built using a 4nm fabrication process, and are “the most powerful processors ever on a Galaxy device”. Here’s hoping, too – we don’t want it to be slower than last year’s Exynos 2100.

Announced in January, the Exynos 2200 also has a few tricks up its sleeves. The biggest of these is that the embedded GPU has been built with RDNA 2 graphics tech, courtesy of a partnership with AMD. According to Samsung, this new “Xclipse” GPU supports Variable Rate Shading (VRS), which tweaks GPU workload by applying lower quality shaders in selected areas of the frame, theoretically boosting overall graphics rendering performance.

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Xclipse is also one of the first mobile GPUs to support hardware-accelerated ray-tracing. Simply put, this is an advanced method of simulating the way in which light travels around the environment, with more realistic looking reflections and shadows rendered in real time. However, while this might look pretty great, as we’ve seen with full-fat games consoles and desktop graphics cards, there’s a strong chance that this feature will have a negative impact on frame rate.

Elsewhere, the Galaxy S22 Ultra comes in four flavours. To start with, there’s the “cheapest” model, which comes with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The further three models all come with 12GB of RAM, with your storage choices being either 256GB, 512GB or 1TB. The S22 Ultra doesn’t allow for microSD expansion – so choose wisely.

The phone’s 5,000mAh battery supports 45W wired USB-C charging, which supposedly can charge the S22 Ultra from flat to 50% in less than 20 minutes. If you’ve got a bit more time to spare, or you’ve cut the cords, then you can also charge the phone wirelessly up to 15W.

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A lot has changed when it comes to the S22 Ultra’s cameras. Featuring a completely redesigned camera module, the S22 Ultra comes with four lenses on the rear: the primary 108MP unit, a 12MP ultrawide with a 120-degree field of view, and a pair of 10MP telephoto cameras: one at 3x optical zoom and the other zooming at a maximum of 10x. A 40MP selfie camera is located on the front of the phone.

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Like before, the S22 Ultra supports a maximum hybrid zoom of 100x. This “Space Zoom”, as Samsung still insists on calling it, is much improved this year, too. During my hands-on demo, I captured a bunch of pictures at maximum zoom range on both the S22 Ultra and the S21 Ultra, with the former offering a much cleaner image – especially after the phone’s AI tweaks were applied.

Speaking of which, Samsung says that the phone’s neural processing unit (NPU) is 2x faster than the previous version, which supposedly does a better job at sharpening details and reducing visual noise in low-light conditions. The S22’s AI-based autofocus, ‘Super Steady’ electronic stabilisation system and Super HDR captures have all been improved as well.

The new 108MP camera is the star of the show, however. Featuring a brand-new sensor, the S22 Ultra’s primary camera captures images at full resolution and then combines the data into a sharper, more detail-rich image through a process called “nona-binning”.

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We’ve seen systems like this previously from other manufacturers, but it’s clear that this detail-packing approach to the S22 Ultra’s cameras has really paid off: images looked great, even when lighting conditions weren’t ideal.

Portrait mode has also been updated, using a more sophisticated AI algorithm to enhance soft details on your subject while more effectively blurring everything else around them. Studio lighting effects can now be applied in selfies, too, and a new Night Portrait mode can be enabled on both the front and back cameras.

A new dedicated camera app, Expert RAW, allows you to fine-tune all sorts of camera controls, such as ISO shutter speed, white balance, EV and focus as well as switch between the various camera lenses. You can also capture in both JPEG and DNG formats simultaneously.

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review: Early verdict

As you can probably tell from the length of this article, there’s a heck of a lot to talk about when it comes to the Galaxy S22 Ultra. Samsung’s Note but not a Note, this year’s top-end S-series flagship stands well apart from its cheaper siblings, and it’s immediately clear that you’re getting an awful lot more for the added cost.

But, of course, that cost is a particularly potent pain point. Starting at £1,149 for the 128GB model and running all the way up to £1,499 for 1TB of storage, the S22 Ultra is the priciest (non-folding) flagship on the market. It’s £100 more than the already expensive iPhone 13 Pro Max, after all, so it really ought to be practically flawless to justify the increased expense.

We’ll soon find out when I receive a handset for review, but if you don’t want to wait any longer before handing over your cash, preorders are live right now with a UK release date set for 25 February.

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