Are Smartphones Getting Too Much?
HWM Singapore|March 2020
The Galaxy S20 ultra is a phone with a lot of big numbers attached to it. But what does it all mean for everyone?
Koh Wanzi
We're fresh off the launch of Samsung's latest flagship Galaxy devices, which means that all eyes are once again on the phone that will undoubtedly be in the running to be one of the best Android smartphones of 2020. This year, Samsung announced three different flavours of the Galaxy S20, with the Galaxy S20 Ultra sitting at the top of the pack.

Samsung pulled out all the stops with the S20 Ultra, packing more memory into it than some notebooks and strapping on a camera module that boasts up to 100X zoom. Of course, you get all the usual upgrades too, such as a faster processor, improved graphics, and a slick 120Hz display. But the fact that I'm talking so much about the hardware under the hood says a lot as well. Despite the generational leap in its name – the S20 instead of the S11– and the Ultra tag, Samsung's new phone is still very much an iterative upgrade on the Galaxy S10 series.

But outside of foldable devices like the nifty Galaxy Z Flip, this could pretty much be said of any smartphone to come out in recent memory. They're very familiar, but they're also slicker, faster, and better. And the Galaxy S20 is nothing if not a supercharged device, boasting beefed-up specifications that are likely to endear it to power users who just want the best. This is also the first properly mainstream 5G phone from Samsung, which makes it seem like we're closer to a wider rollout of 5G than ever.

A STUDY IN EXCESS

The camera is the most significant change to arrive on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, both visually and under the hood. It manifests as a very large and thick camera bump, which houses four rear cameras and the LED flash. The size of the bump almost demands that Samsung justify it with a truly excellent camera, and it sure is trying its best to do that with specs that sound really impressive on paper, including a 108MP main camera and 100X Space Zoom.

HOW DID SAMSUNG PUT 100X ZOOM ON A PHONE?

Those of you who love to pore over spec sheets will have noticed that the telephoto lens on the S20 Ultra is seemingly inferior to the one on the S20 and S20+. It is "only" 48MP, versus 64MP on the smaller S20 phones, but both of them still have 0.8µm-sized pixels. However, the S20 Ultra is the only one that has a 102mm focal length, which lets it focus on objects that are insanely far away.

But phones are very thin devices, and the focal length is limited by how close the sensor is to the lens. To get around this, Samsung uses a lens that resembles a periscope, where a prism is used to refract light from the lens to the sensor at a 90° angle. The sensor and lens array lie flat, instead of being stacked atop each other. By laying out the hardware horizontally, manufacturers have more space available to them and are not limited by how thin the phone needs to be.

This is also referred to as a "folded" lens, and companies like Huawei and Oppo have employed this approach as well. Huawei most notably did so on the P30 Pro last year, which offers 50X zoom. The S20 Ultra is now topping that with its 100X Space Zoom, making it the first smartphone to do so, and basically doubling the bar set by Huawei.

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