Consumer technology and the tech industry are inherently geeky, but companies try to shed that label by hiring hipster designers and coffee-guzzling marketing types. The result is a gaping chasm created between the undoubtedly hyper-nerdy stuff inside these devices and their cool, lifestyle-orientated exterior. Samsung’s S21 Ultra was very much that device. The follow-up is a return to outward, unashamed nerd-core. We’ll expound in this Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra review.
Samsung’s latest doesn’t look like a slick Apple device, nor does it look like the many products that try to copy the iPhone line for line. First of all, it’s very wide, an unashamed shift by Samsung to improve its utility, such as the fact that it now comes with a pop-out stylus pen. It’s the type of Inspector Gadget trickery people expect from Android devices. It’s also a return to the Note concept that briefly ghosted the world in 2021. But is it a happy homecoming? Read on to find out.
Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra In a Nutshell
- Excellent optical zoom skills
- Outstanding, bright WQHD+, 120Hz display
- Built-in S Pen stylus
- Brilliant performance and multi-tasking
- Massively improved portrait mode
- Inconsistent camera results
- Small-handed people may struggle
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G: Technical Specifications
Price $1200 | Cameras: 12MP ultra-wide, 108MP wide, 10MP periscope telephoto with 10x optical zoom, 10MP telephoto with 3x optical zoom | Processor: Exynos 2200 5G (4 nm) | Display: 6.8-inch dynamic AMOLED 2x WQHD+ display, 120Hz, 1750 nits | Storage: No SD slot, 128GB-1TB internal | RAM: 8GB-12GB | Battery size: 5000 mAh | Dimensions: 163.3 x 77.9 x 8.9 mm | Weight 228g
Not For The Faint-Hearted Or Small-Handed
The Galaxy S22 UItra is large. Small-handed people might struggle to traverse it, so make sure you take a look at the S22 and S22 Plus if commuting between the top and bottom of the Ultra isn’t for you (or if your wallet is offended by its price tag). For those who do like the giant screens, it’s time to rejoice because the phablet category is back with confidence.
In length, the S22 Ultra isn’t that different compared to the S21 Ultra, so it sits in my pocket comfortably. I don’t have narrow pockets, so the additional width doesn’t impede the well-fitting material of my clothes. However,1 I have noticed that lint from my pockets gathers around the new camera setup.
The bump of the S21 Ultra is gone, effectively eliminating the imbalance that peeved me whenever I sat it down on a flat surface. Now, the five individual sensors fly solo without any housing, which means it does lie slightly more flush. It also creates a less bulky effect, which is welcome considering the vastness of the phone.
The overall boxiness of the handset leans into the phone’s geeky credentials. It is, of course, very well designed, but the S22 Ultra is a design departure from the lifestyle-centric concepts we have become accustomed too. Nowhere is that more clear than with the S Pen. The extra width is because the S22 Ultra has a hidden stylus housed in one side of the body. It is coaxed out with a click and instantly brings up the contextual S Pen menu when removed. I like this. Even if I haven’t been able to work the S Pen into my daily use, I like that it exists and I enjoy the experience.
The pen is really well designed; it’s light, active and has an action button on the side. My only gripe is that the button can be awkward to press if you lack dexterity in your fingers. What does work is the additional precision offered by the stylus, which long-time readers will know is something I highly value.
Samsung has created some nice use cases for that precision, including annotating videos and pictures (useful for meme making and sharing on WhatsApp), selecting things to translate or cropping things out of pictures. I took a video of my cousin’s 16th birthday and created an animated GIF out of one moment in the video, focusing just on him. I haven’t seen that level of functionality on a phone before and I am frankly impressed. This is real power-user territory, but Samsung has done what it can to make those power features as easily accessible as possible.
The pen’s improved latency (Samsung says it’s 70% faster than the previous S Pen) means there is virtually no lag, which is noticeable when drawing. I can’t say it is wildly different from drawing on my Tab S7 Plus, but the S22 Ultra is responsive and fluid. It’s an active stylus and it charges in the body of the phone, but I haven’t experienced any issues around low pen battery.
This all takes place on the 6.8-inch OLED display. Samsung’s panels have long been best-in-class and it’s no different here. The display has a slightly cooler, bluer hue than my Pixel 6 Pro, but that is only noticeable when you hold both up against each other. This was the case with the S21 Ultra too—it’s just how Samsung calibrates its displays. It’s not a bad thing, just a matter of taste. What’s does stand out is the how bright the S22 Ultra gets, peaking at 1750 nits versus the Pixel’s 497.
The difference is, excuse the pun, night and day. I took both out for a morning walk on a rare sunny day and I had to max out brightness on the Pixel 6 Pro to properly see the display. On the Samsung phone, I only needed about 80% of top brightness for the screen to be visible. Just make sure you turn it down again when you’re in a darker environment to save your battery life (and eyes from blinding).
The variable 120Hz refresh rate creates a really buttery smooth experience. The switch between lower refresh rates isn’t obvious, but gaming sessions will use the full 120Hz. Rampaging around on Asphalt 9 is really enhanced, but combining the 1440 x 3088 resolution and high refresh rate adds so much more to drawing and creative tasks. Switching between pencils, thickness, colors and then seeing the ink trail your pen strokes is a truly elite experience. Zooming in to get make more detailed edits without losing any quality really shows off what Samsung has achieved with this display.
However, with all of that power, the UI animations are not as smooth as they could be. Bringing up the app drawer feels a bit stunted, as does swiping down the quick settings menu. It’s not bad, I’ve just seen better on the Pixel 6 Pro and iPhone.
Aide from a slow start-up, the phone’s Exynos 2200 performs well. In real world performance, the S22 Ultra handles everything I’ve thrown at it with aplomb. I spent a good bit of time running Asphalt 9 and Dead Trigger 2 without the phone getting hot. I also shot a few 8K 24FPS videos and noticed no performance issues whatsoever.
Something I really enjoyed was running both Adobe Lightroom and YouTube in split-screen mode, which produced no performance problems even after 30 minutes. The ability to edit with the stylus whilst also watching a YouTube tutorial—on the same phone screen—is like multitasking bliss.
The in-screen fingerprint reader has improved too. It’s now both accurate and consistent, although at times it does feel like some software trick has been applied to paper over potential incorrect reads because it almost hesitates while reading, and then lets me in. I could be seeing things, but I wanted that observation on paper if complaints pop up in the future.
Battery life is decent and mostly on par with other high-specification phones I’ve tried in the last six months. The S22 Ultra handles a full day of medium use, including using the S Pen for demanding tasks. I have found it lasts from morning (8AM) until bed (12AM) with around 15% battery left. On less heavy days, it lasts until the next day comfortably. I’m averaging about 6 hours of screen-on time before battery depletion, which is decent in my book, especially considering the high resolution display and draining refresh rate.
Old Cameras, New Tricks
Last year’s S21 Ultra introduced me to high optical zooms on a smartphone for the first time. It blew me away and it still does. Capturing high quality closeups of benched Arsenal players deep in conversation at the Emirates was more interesting than the game. I’d held out a small hope that the S22 Ultra would improve the amount of lossless zoom, but alas it doesn’t. I’m not even sure if it’s possible without adding a significantly bigger lens.
I won’t dig Samsung out for that, as 10x optical zoom remains an outstanding, mind-blowing achievement. I just had a small wish that I’d have the power to see into people’s souls.
The periscope telephoto lens is largely the same from last year’s model, as are the other sensors, including a 12MP ultra wide, 108MP wide and a 10MP telephoto with 3x optical zoom. I was impressed with the phone’s ability to pick out details at 1x, 3x and 10x at dawn during heavy rain. At 30x, the image looks a bit smoothed over and you can’t see the lads in the van, but I’m happy the phone could capture anything useable that close up. It was also very stable once the phone chose what I was focusing on.
Much of what did and didn’t work last year still applies. Colors are vibrant and images are well exposed, although I’d say pictures are more color accurate than previous Samsung devices. There’s still an incredible amount of detail in the 108MP sensor, picking up individual raindrops on the bin in the below image.
In my night mode test, the Samsung phone struggled to focus. I managed to get one in-focus shot out of four in extreme dark conditions. But that image (below) is impressively lit and a good amount of detail is captured. I think the Pixel 6 took a better low-light image, but there isn’t much difference between the two. The Google phone did, however, capture four in-focus shots back-to-back.
Portrait mode has also been improved. The camera can better pick out most of the olive tree’s individual branches, but some do merge into the cabin behind it. This is still a vastly better result than the S21 Ultra and the Pixel 6 Pro.
On video shooting, the option to capture 8k at 24FPS returns, as does the option to take high resolution frames from those videos. I shot a couple of lengthy videos and ran into no performances issues. In real-world use, I didn’t reach for 8K shooting very often because the shooting options are restricted to the 108MP wide sensor. Other modes utilize the other sensors and produce more useable shots in my opinion.
Portrait video appears to have improved, with more accurate edge detection. That small change makes Samsung’s version of Apple’s Cinematic video look far more, well, cinematic and professional. There are some nice options to tweak such as adjusting the focus and background blur, changing the type of blur or only keeping the foreground person in color with the background in black and white. Users can switch between the ultra-wide and telephoto lenses too. I had a lot of fun playing around with this because the end result is massively enhanced by the accurate edge detection.
The camera does freak out sometimes though. I was taking fast moving images on the highway at night (don’t worry, someone else was driving) and the S22 Ultra struggled to get an in-focus image, or some pictures came out very noisy and blurred. There was a watercolor effect where the camera struggled to accurately represent the shadow on the dashboard. This wasn’t optimal shooting conditions, but the same shot with the Pixel 6 Pro worked the first time.
The issues with the S22 Ultra are very similar to the S21 Ultra’s failings, which is that the camera can take some outstanding images without effort and some terrible ones for reasons I can’t discern. Sometimes pictures come out detailed, focused, well-exposed and all of the other good stuff. Other times, they’re blurry and the colors are overblown. It struggles with consistency and I’m not sure what’s driving that. Head to head, shot for shot, I prefer the Pixel 6 camera. But nothing beats that 10x optical zoom.
The 40MP selfie camera, however, remains excellent. This is my favorite phone for selfies, as was the 21 Ultra. The phone picks up detail in challenging lighting conditions, as you can see below, and manages to pick up individual hairs in my beard. My skin doesn’t look washed out and the image is nicely illuminated. Google’s Real Tone technology handles my skin tone the best of any phone, but Samsung’s handset does a decent job too. Combining Samsung’s high megapixel selfie snapper with Google’s real tone software trickery is something I’d like to see.
A Power User’s Dream
One UI 4.1 is built on Android 12’s Material You UI. You’ll find neat customization features like matching the UI to the wallpaper or a particular theme. It materializes slightly differently on the Samsung phone, with quick settings keeping their trademark circular button style but inheriting whatever color scheme you have chosen. Key apps like Mail, Calendar, Texts and others take on the customizable color scheme too. The Ultra also fits more on the screen than the S21, too, with smaller keyboard keys and notifications. It feels a bit more professional than last year’s iteration.
Where the phone really shines is in the multitasking madness, much of which is channeled through the S Pen. Something I’ve been playing with is the “live messages” feature that lets you create quick animated videos from your pictures or videos. It basically records whatever you draw on screen and creates a video from it. I’ve only used it to insult friends with rude messages over their pictures, but I imagine it might be useful for a less broken soul who wants to send a nice birthday message or something.
I already mentioned the Smart Select feature that can quickly make cropped gifs out of videos. Friends on WhatsApp have commented on how quickly I’ve responded to videos with homemade gifs, which feels like some kind of achievement. The dexterity offered by the S Pen really makes this possible and that’s true throughout the phone. Selecting text to translate, copy or highlight with the stylus is far better than fumbling with my cumbersome thumbs, which often takes a couple of tries. That’s mostly where my S Pen usage focused itself. I didn’t use note taking because predictive text is faster. I didn’t do much hand annotation of my calendar either, because I’m a boring guy who just writes things normally in his calendar without adding little doodles.
There is lots of other nice stuff here. Using the S Pen to zoom into something on screen is cool, app splitting is great for doing two things at once and the Pen Up drawing app is indescribably satisfying to doodle with when you’re bored.
With all of these S Pen features, you need to remember you have an S Pen. I’ve only had the device for two weeks, but I often forget that I can make use of the stylus to improve whatever action I’m completing. That is the issue with power user smartphones: The average user simply doesn’t engage with 60% of what the device can do. If you go buy the S22 Ultra, make sure you invest some time into getting to know it.
Another neat addition is the object eraser in the Gallery app, which does exactly as advertised. I don’t know if it’s built on the same technology as Google’s magic eraser, but the effect is very similar. It largely removes objects without too many artifacts left behind. Smaller updates include the ability to change the video background with one of four options when calls come in.
The biggest change, though, is Samsung now offering up to four generations of Android updates, which is the most the Korean company has ever offered. For a phone this price, it makes perfect sense. Expensive technology shouldn’t be obsolete in two years. I look forward to the days when Android makers can offer upwards of 6 years of support like Apple does for its iPhones.
Is The Galaxy S22 Ultra Worth Buying?
The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra is the nerdiest phone Samsung has launched for a few years and I couldn’t be happier. It doesn’t dumb down for the masses, rather there is a required learning curve to get the most out of this device, which I appreciate. If you’re prepared to spend some time mastering the S Pen, customizing the UI and processes, and generally making it your phone, then you will be rewarded. To me, this is what Android is about: Putting some work in to get more out than you do from an iPhone. The stylus plays a big role in that.
Something I haven’t mentioned is how stable the phone is. No blips, bugs or breaks (so far). Everything works as advertised and without hassle. I commented in my S21 review that it was the most stable phone Samsung had ever released, and one of the most stable Android handsets I’d ever used. That remained true for the months I used it. Samsung seems to have done the same with the S22 Ultra. Time will tell a better story, of course, but the Korean company is on a good run right now.
However this isn’t a phone for everyone. It’s big, expensive and requires some effort to make the best out of. I also find One UI kind of ugly and functional compared to stock Android, which is a bit more fun. If those aren’t issues for you, and indeed if you’re actively ready to embrace a power user ‘s life, I don’t think there is a better phone around right now than the Galaxy S22 Ultra.