The Galaxy S20 Ultra's defining design element is its camera hump on the back. Having said that, we can imagine looks weren't the driving force behind that, because look at it:
The camera cluster takes up a big chunk of the back, but it does need to house a lot of hardware. The 48MP periscope telephoto is likely responsible for the height of the bump thanks to its big 1/2" sensor sitting in a plane perpendicular to the one of the phone. Then again, the main camera with a more conventionally placed but even bigger 1/1.33" imager and an f/1.8 lens do have space requirements of their own. In any case, it makes for quite the chunky assembly.
While we can't say we're fans of the bulge, at least it has legitimate reasons to be there - there's hardware inside. What we're even less thrilled about is designers' choice to stamp the 'Space zoom 100X' text on there - it's in poor taste and is befitting an entry-level device from an up-and-coming brand, not Samsung's $1,399 ultimate flagship. If only they had printed some camera and lens specs, instead.
And we have some more complaining to do too. The Galaxy S20 family's color options aren't overly exciting to begin with, but the Ultra, in particular, is about as mundane as it gets. Cosmic Black and Cosmic Grey (our review unit) are the available colorways, and neither makes us want one. Hardly a dealbreaker in and of itself, of course, and if you're after an Ultra, the lack of flashy color options wouldn't stop you, but it's just a bit disappointing. Perhaps more spirited options will be added along the way?One's gray and boring, the other changes color depending on the light (Note10+ on the right)
Looks aside, there's little to frown at when it comes to the build quality - it's Gorilla Glass 6 on both sides, with a metal midframe holding everything together and showing around the perimeter. There's some debate online whether it's stainless steel or aluminum, and Samsung's not stating it explicitly in promo materials. Historically, it's been aluminum, and that's what's reportedly on the regular S20s, but rumor had it that the Ultra would be stainless steel like the iPhones. We'll be sure to update you on this if and when we find out.
Over on the front, there's a bit of surprise and one that may please a certain group of people who hate design for design's sake. Unlike previous years when Galaxy flagship had more dramatic curves, the Galaxy S20 Ultra's display has but a minor curvature to its side edges, potentially improving handling and minimizing unwanted touch input from the edges. Your mileage will vary on this one, but we did find some improvement in this respect, one that's hard to quantify, but we're feeling it's there.
And it's not like the Ultra's lost any of its appeal because of that. It's about as bezelless a phone as you'd find today. The bottom one is marginally thicker, so if you're nitpicky like that, it could bother you. We're strangely okay with it.
We've also grown used to the centered punch-hole cutout for the selfie camera. That's not to say we're liking it, it's just that there's something comforting about its symmetry that feels better than having it to the side S10-style.
Another thing built into the display is the fingerprint reader. It's the same ultrasonic type that Samsung fits on its flagships as opposed to a generally snappier optical solution. The thing is, in our experience Samsung's optical readers don't work as fast as competitors' offers, so it's not like we have one option to prefer over the other.
As for the actual performance of the reader, we're left with this lukewarm impression we had on the S10 and Note10. Consensus around the office is that it's not adequately quick (or accurate), certainly not in comparison to an excellent optical reader like in the OnePlus 7T Pro or Mate 30 Pro. Most of us often have issues unlocking, to the point where we might opt for the less secure but more convenient face unlock. Then there's yours truly who insists the fingerprint reader works for him all the time, every time - go figure!
Samsung's flagships have had stereo speakers since the S9, and so does the S20 family, the Ultra included. Similarly to the Note10's setup, the one on the S20 Ultra has the earpiece channeled through a wide but thin slit where the display glass meets the frame, and there's a port on the top to vent air and improve low-frequency response.
The main loudspeaker is down on the bottom, as usual, keeping company to the USB-C port and the primary mic. There is no 3.5mm audio jack to be found anywhere around the phone. The card slot is on top, and it accepts two nano-SIMs or one nano-SIM and a microSD card.
Ah, there's another recent development that most of us here approve of. The S20 Ultra has its power button and its volume rocker on the rocker on the right. While it wasn't the end of the world, people did use to whine that the Note10s had the power button on the left (no one seemed to care that much about the volume control). Samsung fixed that with subsequent releases, and now the power button is on the right. It's not strictly a power button, it's called the 'Side key,' and it wouldn't power off the phone by default, but you can relieve it of all its Bixby duties in settings and make it do what used to before in-house smart assistants became a thing.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra measures 166.9x76x8.8mm and weighs 222g in 5G trim, while the LTE version is 2g lighter. Neither is particularly light by any stretch, but the iPhone 11 Pro Max remains heavier at 226g. A weird bonus of the huge camera bump is that you can extend your index finger and push up against it to get some of the weight off of your poor pinky. Talk about small victories.