Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra Hands-on: Noteworthy in more ways than one

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra Hands-on: Noteworthy in more ways than one

Where does the Galaxy S line stop, and the Galaxy Note line begin? In past years, the delineation between Samsung’s two top smartphone lines has been blurred, and last year, the company bought the famed S-Pen to the Galaxy S21 Ultra – albeit as an external accessory – and then dropped the Galaxy Note line entirely in favor of the Galaxy Z Flip 3 and Galaxy Z Fold 3.

This year, the Galaxy S22 Ultra takes things a step further, borrowing a lot of cues from the Galaxy Note range, which set it apart from the rest of the Galaxy S22 lineup. Also borrowed from the Galaxy Note? The S-Pen, which is now housed within the phone, unlike on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

In many ways, the Galaxy S22 Ultra is designed to continue the legacy of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and all that was note-worthy before it. It also brings the best of the Galaxy S range, resulting in one of the most well-rounded and feature-packed smartphones ever made, on paper at least.

Ahead of the Galaxy S22 series unveiling at Unpacked today, we had a sneak peek at Samsung’s new flagship, and this is the most excited I’ve been about a non-folding smartphone in recent years. Here’s why.

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra XDA Forums

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra: Design

Look at the Galaxy S22 Ultra, and you’ll quickly recognize that it looks very different from the rest of the Galaxy S22 family. While the Galaxy S22 and Galaxy S22 Plus feature the same contour-cut design and raised camera bezel as the Galaxy S21 range, the Galaxy S22 Ultra is more Note-like in its design. It features the same squared top and bottom frame, the smooth finish with a less-noticeable camera bump, and the large display that dominates the front of the phone.

Beyond this, it also houses the S-Pen in the same location as on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. If you were to take the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and combine them (and trim down the massive camera bumps), the result would look a lot like the Galaxy S22 Ultra. That’s not a bad thing, though – all three phones look fantastic individually and collectively; they are some of the most striking designs on smartphones right now.

The Galaxy S22 Ultra is an Ultra in every meaning of the word, and this is apparent as soon as you pick it up. Through the S20, S21, Note 20, and now the S22, the word Ultra has come to symbolize Samsung’s “throw-it-all-in-one-phone” philosophy. In many ways, the Ultra is the grandchild of the original Note philosophy of representing the very best that Samsung has to offer, except it now provides the very best that Samsung has to offer in a non-folding smartphone.

All this tech comes at a price, though, both literal and physical. The Galaxy S22 Ultra is a heavy and large device and one that you’ll feel in your pocket. The good news is that you’ll quickly realize if you lose it or it is stolen as, at 229 grams, it’s one of the heaviest devices on the market today. Yet, despite its large size, it doesn’t feel as bulky as the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which was big, bulky, and had a sizeable camera bump. By removing most of the camera bump, Samsung has made the Galaxy S22 Ultra feel more svelte than it might seem at first glance. When you use one of Samsung’s official Galaxy S22 Ultra cases, the bump disappears entirely.

There are four Galaxy S22 Ultra colors at launch – Phantom Black, Phantom White, Burgundy, and Green. All four feature a beautiful almost-satin-like finish, but while the Black, Burgundy, and Green do attract fingerprints, the white version is more satin-like than the others and is arguably one of the nicest white phones ever made. It reminds me of the white Galaxy Note 10 – the smaller one, not the Plus – which I adored and had a similar color. That said, it’s hard to pick between the white one and the Burgundy, with the latter a rich, beautiful hue that I now want the next Galaxy Z Fold to come in.

The Galaxy S22 Ultra also comes with curved edges around the sides of the display, which makes it easier to hold and is welcome given the large size. That said, curved edges do represent a potential weaker impact point. While we have no qualms about the durability of any of Samsung’s recent smartphones – including both of last year’s foldables which have had no issues several months in – it’ll be interesting to see how the Galaxy S22 Ultra fares. Thankfully, Gorilla Glass Victus+ on the back and the front, as well as an armor aluminum frame, mean the Galaxy S22 Ultra will likely handle what you throw at it.

Galaxy S22 Ultra: Display

Somehow, almost inexplicably, Samsung has made its displays even better. The difference is barely noticeable, but it is there, and the Galaxy S22 Ultra display is undoubtedly the best screen ever on a smartphone. That’s no easy feat given that Samsung has long had the best smartphone display by a large margin.

This year’s Dynamic AMOLED 2x display is WQHD+ resolution – although it will likely default to FHD+ out of the box like previous years – and features an adaptive refresh rate allowing the phone to automatically change the refresh rate from 1Hz to 120Hz depending on what’s on display.

The Galaxy S22 Ultra display (left) next to the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Thanks to the new Vision Booster technology, the Galaxy S22 Ultra display uses mapping technology to measure the ambient environment and then intelligently adjust the screen’s color and contrast. The idea is that in bright sunlight, the screen will automatically increase the color and contrast of a dark screen so you can still see it clearly, without needing to rely on peak brightness alone.

This addresses a major pain point for smartphones for years – dealing with the extremes of darkness and light – and should mean you can watch a dark movie in bright sunlight or a dark scene in pitch-black surroundings. How well it works, we couldn’t test, but we’ll be sure to do so in our upcoming review.

S Pen: The return of the housed stylus

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a fully color-matched S-Pen, whereas the Galaxy S22 Ultra S-Pen is only color-matched at the end

All hail the King, the King of styli, that is. The best smartphone stylus on the planet is back in its rightful place – nestled inside the body of the Galaxy S22 Ultra itself. Unlike the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Galaxy Z Fold 3, which relied on an external S-Pen and clunky, weird storage methods involving cases, the Galaxy S22 Ultra brings the S-Pen back inside the phone itself, and it’ll mean that it’s always on hand. While the tip of the S-Pen is color-matched to your phone, sadly, the rest of the S-Pen is boring black unlike the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra which had an entirely color-matched S-Pen.

Although we didn’t have a lot of time to test the S Pen, it’s clear that it brings the Galaxy Note experience back to Samsung’s most popular smartphone range. Once you take out the pen, the Air Command window pops up, giving you quick access to a range of the S-Pen features and shortcuts that we’ve come to know and love. Similarly, do it while the screen is off, and you can jot down a quick memo which will be saved inside Samsung Notes whenever you want it.

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra Hands-on: Noteworthy in more ways than one

This year, Samsung has made the S Pen even better. Using AI, some slight hardware tweaks, and a new predictive algorithm, the S Pen latency has been cut from 9 ms on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra to just 2.8 seconds on the Galaxy S22 Ultra. The net result is that it should more closely resemble the feeling of pen on paper. However, we’ve not been able to fully test and experience this improvement during our limited time with the Galaxy S22 Ultra. Regardless, the S Pen was already the best stylus on any mobile device, and even the smallest tweaks can make a great experience even better.

Like previous Galaxy Notes, some new software experiences benefit the S Pen. Thanks to an ever-growing collaboration between Microsoft and Samsung, you can now write a note and save it directly to an outlook email or office document, emulating the experience of scribbling on a piece of paper or a letter you’ve received. There are also new functions in the Quick Note app, letting you use the S Pen to copy info from websites, messages, or the gallery directly to a pop-up note, which is stored in the QuickNote app.

Galaxy S22 Ultra: Hardware

At this point, you’re probably wondering what the catch is: surely Samsung cut corners somewhere? The answer is that on paper, at least, they certainly haven’t. The Galaxy S22 Ultra delivers on the Ultra name with a spec sheet that will rival any flagship this year while also being completely future-proofed.

This year, Samsung adopted the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor in the US, and crucially, in some countries globally like India, which have previously used the Exynos processor. Most regions will use the new Exynos 2200 processor. Still, unlike in previous years where Samsung’s processor was vastly inferior, it seems that this year the delta between the two processors could be minimal. Samsung’s processor may even be slightly faster, but we’ll have to spend more time with both variations of the phone to come to a definite conclusion (stay tuned for that in our comparison).

That said, the Galaxy S22 Ultra is undoubtedly the most powerful smartphone Samsung has ever made, and the company even makes this claim. Compared to the previous generation Qualcomm chipset used in the Galaxy S21, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 delivers 5% faster CPU performance, 40% better GPU performance, and a 133% improvement in NPU performance. The result is that an already-slick user experience should feel slightly faster and hopefully stay fast for longer.

However, what may come as a surprise is that the base Galaxy S22 Ultra represents a slight downgrade in the RAM department. The Galaxy S21 Ultra offered 12GB of RAM as standard with an optional upgrade to 16GB, while the Galaxy S22 Ultra starts at 8GB and maxes out at 12GB. Whether this makes a huge difference to the overall experience is unclear. Still, given the new camera and productivity features, it’s generally sane advice to opt for more RAM, especially if you plan to hold onto the device for a few years. While the new Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra does offer a variant with 16GB of RAM, it’s likely that the popularity and projected sales of the Galaxy S22 Ultra, combined with the current chip shortage that’s affecting everyone, means the company couldn’t offer 16GB of RAM in its flagship smartphone.

Thankfully, there’s no shortage affecting the storage options with up to 1TB of storage available. The base model comes with 128GB of storage (and 8GB of RAM), while the options with 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB of storage come with 12GB of RAM. If you pre-order during the next few weeks, you’ll get a free upgrade to 512GB, which comes with 12GB of RAM.

Like other recent Samsung phones, the Galaxy S22 Ultra also comes with ultra-wideband support (the wireless sharing kind, not to be confused with Verizon’s mmWave 5G network of the same name). There is also 5G – both mmWave and Sub6 in the US – WiFi 6e, an ultrasonic fingerprint sensor measuring 4x9mm, and many connectivity and sensor options. If it’s remotely important, chances are the Galaxy S22 Ultra has it, aside from expandable storage, that is.

The whole package is powered by a 5,000mAh battery that can charge at up to 45 watts. Unlike the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which didn’t support the faster-charging standard, the Galaxy S22 Ultra supports 45W charging, and while it doesn’t come with a charger in the box, we’ve rounded up the best Galaxy S22 Ultra chargers so you can have one ready when you get your new phone. There’s also 15W wireless charging and reverse wireless charging to charge accessories like your Galaxy Buds 2 or Galaxy Watch 4.

Samsung says that a 20-minute charge will deliver up to 50% battery, while a 4-minute charge is enough to stream a full movie. While these charging speeds may have once been considered fast, innovations by companies like Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo mean that Samsung is once again in the lower midfield when it comes to charging speed. Even mid-rangers from these companies can be anywhere from 65W-120W, so Samsung has some catching up to do.

Galaxy S22 Ultra: Camera

When you’ve considered the Galaxy S21 Ultra or the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra in the past, you’ve had to compromise either on the S-Pen or the camera, respectively. The Galaxy S22 Ultra aims to set that right by offering the best of the Galaxy Note series in terms of productivity and S Pen, and the best of the Galaxy S series with all the cameras you could want and several new features.

Like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, there are four cameras, fast becoming the standard for Samsung’s photography king. From top to bottom on the left, there is the 12MP ultrawide lens, the 108MP wide lens, and the 10MP periscope telephoto lens. In contrast, the top sensor on the right is the laser autofocus which now supports the 108MP main camera, and the bottom sensor is the 10MP secondary telephoto lens.

The 12MP ultra-wide lens is the same one found on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which was already one of the best ultra-wide lenses on a smartphone. With a 1.4µm pixel size and 120° field of view, the lens can take great photos, which, like every Samsung smartphone, should make landscapes look even better thanks to a boost in saturation.

The 108MP main lens has 0.8µm pixel size, a 23mm focal length, and takes advantage of a new Adaptive Pixel mode which Samsung says will allow it to take incredible photos even in extremely low light conditions. Adaptive Pixel works by capturing a full high-resolution 108MP image at 0.8µm pixel size and a 12MP nona-binned (aka combining 9 pixels into one super pixel) with much higher pixel size, and then combining them to get the detail and the excellent light capture of both modes. We couldn’t test this in Samsung’s studio set up, but we’re very excited to put this feature to the test.

The two telephoto lenses work in tandem with the Galaxy S22 Ultra switching between the two as you zoom in or out of an image. The 10MP primary telephoto lens has a 1.12µm pixel size, 230mm focal length, and supports 10x optical zoom, while the 10MP secondary telephoto lens has the same pixel size, a 69mm focal length, and offers 3x optical zoom. As you zoom to 3x, the secondary telephoto lens is used, and as you zoom further, the primary telephoto lens kicks in. Beyond 10x, the Galaxy S22 Ultra also offers the 100X Space Zoom we’ve seen on the Ultra phones of the past, and it means that the Galaxy S22 Ultra brings all of Samsung’s camera prowess in one package.

A lot of the new camera features are in the software, and how Samsung uses all the impressive hardware. The new Advanced auto framing feature can detect up to 10 subjects in a field and optimizes the shot’s focus, so everyone is in focus. It also automatically adjusts the zoom for the best positioning and ensures everyone is in the field of view. The new super steady system and advanced OIS mean you should get super clear and steady videos, whether at night or day.

The new nightography mode is Samsung’s most advanced camera for nighttime shooting thanks to a 23% larger pixel sensor. Combined with the Adaptive Pixel feature, this means that the camera can capture a large amount of light while also taking advantage of all the detail offered by the large 108MP camera. The result should be night photos with crisp details while also capturing a lot of light.

There’s also a new AI Stereo Depth map feature, which uses an AI algorithm to ensure that even the smallest details are in focus when taking photos. This is useful when taking pictures of people as it’s designed to prevent a particular pain point for those with long hair – those errant strands of hair that aren’t in focus. Samsung says the AI Stereo Depth Map feature will ensure that these all stay in focus, and we’ll know whether it delivers on this promise during our upcoming review.

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra with the Expert RAW app

If the Galaxy S22 Ultra is to be considered a Pro camera, it needs a pro camera app. If you want precise controls over your images, the Expert RAW app is made for you. It’s not preloaded on the phone, but it is available exclusively from the Galaxy app store. This app allows you to capture the highest-quality 16-bit RAW files and offers a wide dynamic range through multi-frame shooting. It supports all the lenses on the Galaxy S22 Ultra and lets you customize all the individual settings, including ISO, Shutter Speed, view a histogram, and more. Once you’ve captured the photo, you can easily export them straight to Adobe Lightroom. While the pro mode is also present in the native camera app, it doesn’t have as many fine-tuned controls. So if you are a pro, you’ll want to download the Expert RAW app, as you won’t be able to capture 16-bit RAW files in the native camera app.

Galaxy S22 Ultra: Software

The Galaxy S22 Ultra runs Android 12 with OneUI 4.1 on top, out of the box. It offers many native Android 12 features, including full theming support, customizable colors, and a flatter design. Samsung is keeping the Galaxy experience consistent across all devices running OneUI 4.1, which means that you should be able to pick up any Galaxy device and instantly know how to use it. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

There are a few new features in OneUI 4.1. One of these is the Privacy Dashboard, which lets you see and control what information your apps are using. If you’re tired of every app on your phone siphoning your data, the Privacy Dashboard will let you see this and prevent apps from accessing data that you don’t want them to. For the privacy-conscious, and even for those mildly annoyed, it’s a potentially useful feature to have.

OneUI 4.1 sees the launch of the grandchild of Samsung Pay. Dubbed Samsung Digital Wallet, it is Samsung’s attempt to provide a legitimate competitor to Apple Wallet, and it encompasses the payment features of Samsung Pay with much more. There are three areas to Samsung Digital Wallet, launching down the line in a future wallet. The Digital ID section will house your Student ID and Vaccine Pass. Presumably, Samsung is also hoping to emulate Apple by one day being able to store things like your driving license, although this is just my assumption. The Digital Key section will keep the keys to your car, home, or office if they’re supported, while the Payments area encompasses everything that Samsung Pay had to offer. It’s smart that Samsung is leveraging its considerable scale to provide a challenger to Apple Wallet. Still, we’ve seen companies try before, and it remains to be seen whether Samsung can get the widescale adoption that Apple has.

The Galaxy S22 series will also see Samsung’s and Google’s growing partnership take another step forward with the launch of the new Google Duo Live Sharing feature. Designed to be a direct competitor to Apple and the SharePlay feature launched in FaceTime on iOS 15, Google Duo Live Sharing does exactly what you think it does: it lets you share content or your screen while on a Google Duo call.

Google Duo Live Sharing works in both individual calls or group calls, and when you launch the feature, it’ll provide an easy shortcut list to apps like Samsung Notes, Gallery, and YouTube. Yes, it lets you share a YouTube video with everyone in the call and host a watch-party where you all watch it together at the same time.

Google Duo Live Sharing is exclusive to Samsung devices for the foreseeable future and is only available on the Galaxy S22 series at launch. Eventually, it’ll come to other Galaxy devices, and, in the future, it’ll probably also launch on other Android phones, but those won’t get some further enhancements that Samsung and Google have cooked up. When hosting Google Duo calls on the Galaxy S22, all Galaxy users experience screen and audio enhancements, including a bump in resolution to FHD for 1-on-1 calls and QHD for group calls with up to 4 people.

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra: Noteworthy in more ways than one

If you’ve made it this far, you’ll know the Galaxy S22 Ultra has a lot to offer. Rather than an incremental upgrade like previous years, the Galaxy S22 Ultra offers noteworthy improvements in many areas; on paper, at least, it seems to combine two great smartphones into one ultra-special one. Of course, we’ve seen many smartphones with potential fail to deliver when it came to the full review, and we’re excited to see if the Galaxy S22 Ultra delivers on its incredible potential.

The only slight drawback to the Galaxy S22 Ultra seems to be its price. Available to pre-order starting today, the Galaxy S22 Ultra starts at $1199.99 in the US before trade-in offers. If you pre-order before the phone goes up for general sale on February 25, you’ll get a Samsung gift card worth up to $200, a free storage bump to 512GB, and enhanced trade-in values.

The price may be a drawback for some, but I am already planning to buy one – the Galaxy S22 Ultra offers enough that, based on my brief hands-on, it represents value for money, which is rare for a smartphone priced above $1,000. That’s the offer when you pre-order directly through Samsung, but other Galaxy S22 Ultra deals could save you more money.

What do you think of the Galaxy S22 Ultra, and are you planning to buy one? Let us know in the comments below, check out the other related content that follows, and stay tuned for our full review.