Review: Samsung Galaxy S23 and S23 Ultra
I'm at a crossroads. Just a few weeks ago, I reviewed Samsung's Galaxy A14 5G, calling it a phenomenal phone that costs a mere $200, proving that you really don't need to pay heaving wads of dough to get a great smartphone. Now I'm reviewing Samsung's top-tier $1,200 Galaxy S23 Ultra and $800 Galaxy S23--and dang it, sometimes it's nice to splurge, you know?
Samsung's Galaxy S23 lineup (which also includes the S23+, a model I haven't tested yet) are not game-changing devices in the least--and most people don't need all these high-end cameras and tremendous horsepower. But I have to remind myself that sometimes it's OK to pay up for the best of the best. It's nice not having to squint at a dim screen on a sunny day, and to have the ability to play a demanding game at its highest fidelity.
If you're coming from a Galaxy S22 or S21 or any other flagship device released within the last two years, these new Samsung handsets don't really give you a reason to upgrade. But if you have something older in your pocket, or a more wallet-friendly device that you feel offers a compromised experience, then you should definitely take a look.=
I won't bore you with the nitty-gritty specs on these phones. Instead, you can read my explainer on how the Galaxy S23, S23+, and S23 Ultra are all different and how they're similar. (Heck, you can read last year's S22 series review to get the gist on what most of these new devices are about.) What you can't quite find out by reading specs are how these phones feel--the 6.1-inch S23 is my personal favorite because it fits my hands and most of the screen remains fairly accessible when I want to use it one-handed. The S23 Ultra's 6.8-inch display isn't terribly unwieldy, but while using it, I find my thumbs stretching farther and farther until my other hand has to join in--and I have large hands.
The best change is the S23 Ultra's edges, which are far flatter than last year's curvy S22 Ultra. The edges are not as flat as the edges on an iPhone 14, but the Ultra still feels nicer to hold than its predecessor, and my grip almost never interrupts the screen. Outside this, color me whelmed with how the Galaxy S23 lineup looks. I still think Samsung's S21 series offered a sharper design language with the Contour Cut camera module in an accent color. These new phones with their understated and accent-free camera array look like the textbook definition of a "smartphone"--they're no doubt elegant, but there's not much character.
The three handsets share many of the same traits, like how the 120-Hz AMOLED screens can each now hit 1,750 nits of peak brightness. This is a feature that's often overlooked; a high brightness makes it so much easier to read the screen when you're outside on a sunny day. Too often my fiancee has to squint at her Pixel phone, and that's never a problem here. (It also gets pretty darn dim for anyone who appreciates low brightness at bedtime.)
They're all powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 "for Galaxy" chipset, which is slightly faster than the base-level Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 you'll find on other flagship Android phones like the OnePlus 11. My benchmark tests bore that out, but it's not a massive leap. This chip is special in two ways. Year over year, it's really hard to notice meaningful gains in performance these days, but I've noticed that phones with this processor feel more responsive and snappier than ever before.
This is further highlighted in demanding games like Genshin Impact. Last year, I had to lower the graphics settings so the game would run without too many stutters. Now, the game feels super smooth at the highest graphics settings, and you only see a few stutters here and there after long play sessions, and only when there's a lot of action on the screen. The handset gets warm after some gaming, but not terribly so. Hooray!
Galaxy S23 Ultra
The second thing I like about this chip is its efficiency. Despite using the same 5,000-mAh cell as last year's S22 Ultra, Samsung claims the S23 Ultra lasts 20 percent longer. This rings true. The Ultra often lasted me well into a second day with average use, requiring a top-up around 3 pm. The S23 with its 3,900-mAh battery capacity comfortably lasted a full day with around 30 percent left in the tank by midnight. You probably don't need to tote a charger around everywhere you go. (Though if you need a charger, since Samsung doesn't include one in the box, we have recommendations in our guide to S23 cases and accessories.)
Samsung is leading the Android world with software updates, as these phones will get four Android OS upgrades and five years of monthly security updates. That'll make sure that you can keep using the S23 lineup as long as you'd like without feeling as if you're missing out on new Android features (or crucial security fixes). Samsung's OneUI software interface isn't my absolute favorite, but it certainly beats the OnePlus 11, and I'm so happy that a recent software update finally lets me disable Samsung Calendar, which I don't use, so I no longer have to get two notifications from it and Google Calendar.
The Galaxy S23 Ultra is still the only model with the S Pen stylus embedded in the bottom. I've enjoyed using it as a remote shutter for the camera so I can take photos in low light without having to tap the shutter icon (and potentially introduce some camera shake). This was especially helpful when I was balancing the Ultra on a park bench here in New York and tried to use Samsung's new Astrophoto mode to capture some stars--a single tap on the S Pen's button and voila, a sharp photo. I'm not one for taking notes or doodling with a stylus, but you do you.
If you take a lot of photos, it's probably worth splurging on the S23 Ultra. A few photos I've captured with the Ultra over the past few weeks are usually nicer than the shots from the standard S23, but the gap is by no means vast. The 50-megapixel camera on the S23 can snap up some crisp and colorful shots in any lighting condition, and the same can be said for the Ultra's 200-megapixel camera. Take selfies more than anything else? You'll be happy to hear they all have the same 12-megapixel selfie camera that's pretty sharp.
The ultrawide and 3X telephoto cameras are super reliable and handy to have, but I also love using the S23 Ultra for its fourth camera, the 10X optical zoom. Ask my fiancee. She'll tell you how often I stop on the street to point the 10X camera up toward a tree to capture a photo of a bird, a squirrel, or just the Empire State Building. I'm a telephoto kinda guy, so this depends on whether you find yourself zooming in on your subject. To me, this is one of the top reasons to get this phone over anything else here in the US, though I have to say that the Pixel 7 Pro's 10X digital zoom gets impressively close considering its price.
Overall, I'm really impressed and happy with the photos that come out of the S23 lineup. As with any camera system, there are some flaws, like how colors can be too saturated, or how the cameras try to smooth out your facial features by default. (You can turn this off.) I also don't get too much use out of the dedicated 200- or 50-megapixel camera modes on the S23 Ultra and S23, respectively. Sure, you can capture a lot of detail in these high-resolution photos, but I generally prefer the results from the default 12-megapixel shots (and they don't suck up as much storage). These cameras easily rival the Pixel 7 Pro and the iPhone 14 Pro, and in many cases, they best them. Samsung's improved video stabilization on the S23 Ultra is also worth noting, as it's some of the best you'll get on an Android phone, though the iPhone still wins the pot here.
I have minor quibbles. Why are the S23+ and S23 Ultra made out of aluminum instead of stainless steel like the iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max? Some of the software menu options are also a little confusing and tucked away. It'd also be nice to see one major new trick with these handsets that's more helpful than gimmicky. Alas, I'm nitpicking.
Which should you buy? Again, I should remind you that you don't need to spend this much to get a great phone, but hey, it doesn't hurt to treat yourself. Most people will be more than happy with the Galaxy S23 (and the S23+ if you want a bigger handset), but camera fiends and stylus wielders will love the S23 Ultra. I suggest you wait a few months for a sale, as Samsung phones are often discounted before long. Or you know, buy from last year's Galaxy S22 series for a fairly similar experience.