For nearly a decade, Samsung Electronics’ mobile division consisted of two main phones—a standard springtime flagship named the Galaxy S and a larger, stylus-included Galaxy Note line that launches in the summer. But once foldable smartphones became a reality with Samsung’s trailblazing Fold and Flip series, one of the Galaxy slab phones had to go, as four flagship smartphone launches a year seem excessive. Since the Galaxy S series has been around longer, and is the more mainstream line, that meant the Galaxy Note line drew the short end of the straw. Last year, for the first time in nearly a decade, there was no Galaxy Note release.
The thing is, the Galaxy Note series has its diehard fans, and they were not happy about the loss of their beloved stylus phone. Turns out, all the reports of the Galaxy Note series’ demise have been greatly exaggerated. The Note did not die—it’s just been given a new name.
Last month, Samsung released its new Galaxy S series—we’re at 22 now—and as usual the series consist of three phones. What’s unusual about it is one of them sticks out like a sore thumb. It doesn’t look like its two siblings in the same series. While the Galaxy S series has always had a curvy look with rounded corners, one of the new Galaxy S22 devices has hard, sharp corners.
That’s because this device, the Galaxy S22 Ultra, is an S phone in name only, it is basically the new Galaxy Note. And yes, it includes a stylus too.
Design and hardware
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The Galaxy S22 Ultra has dimensions and shape very similar to the last Galaxy note phone released in 2020, it’s got a 6.8-inch display with hard corners (most smartphone screens have rounded corners), a stylus (Samsung calls it an S-Pen) slotted into a silo located in the bottom left frame, and overall a towering, intimidating vibe. Particularly my black model, it looks a bit like the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I like this look—the Galaxy S22 Ultra, like previous Note phones, look more like a businessman’s work machine rather than a TikTok/selfie device—but I don’t like the in-hand feel. The hard corners look cool, and gives the screen just a wee bit more room than a conventional phone, but they consistently dig into my palm. The S22 Ultra is not uncomfortable to hold per se, but it is certainly less comfortable to hold than last year’s Galaxy S21 Ultra, or a curvy Xiaomi flagship.
The back of the Galaxy S22 Ultra is made of the latest version of toughened “Gorilla” Glass, with a matte coating that prevents it from attracting fingerprints. I love the minimal camera layout design—at a time when most phones have giant camera modules housing the lens array, the Galaxy S22 Ultra has the lenses fit directly into the body. This is also what sets the S22 Ultra apart from the other two phones in the S22 series: the standard S22 and S22 Plus have a different design, with a prominent camera module that protrudes from the phone’s body. The Galaxy S22 Ultra feels like an adopted child in a family already with two siblings.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra packs all the latest and most powerful components in mobile tech right now: a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chip that’s made on 4nm architecture; the latest RAM and storage standards for fastest read/write speeds; a huge 5,000 mAh battery despite the presence of a stylus which takes up space inside the phone; and the best screen in the business right now, a Samsung OLED panel with variable refresh rate between 1Hz and 120Hz. This means the screen conserves energy and barely refreshes if you’re viewing static images, but ramp up animation speeds to 120 frames per second if you’re scrolling through Twitter or playing games for extra fluid animations.
For years, smartphone brands improved camera performance by simply adding more hardware—more lenses, more pixels, etc. But given the physical constraints of smartphones, there’s only so much you can do with hardware. Eventually, the phone will run out of space to store a larger sensor or more camera lenses. I think we have just about hit that ceiling, as smartphone camera hardware have reached its physical limits. And so the only way to improve going forward is software, a.k.a. computational photography.
Using software smarts and tricks to produce a superior photo is a concept which Google pioneered in 2015, and I’d argue Huawei led the way around 2017, before Apple and Samsung really put resources into developing it around 2018.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra is Samsung’s most confident attempt at computational photography yet, because the phone actually does not bring much actual improvement in camera hardware. Samsung claimed they used superior glass lenses, but otherwise, the specs of the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s cameras are identical to last year’s Galaxy S21 Ultra. This means the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s camera improvements will come entirely via that new ISP (image signal processor) in the new Qualcomm chip and software processing.
Now, I want to clarify that Samsung recycling camera hardware isn’t that bad, because last year’s S21 Ultra offered bleeding-edge camera hardware that was leaps and bounds ahead of others. In fact, to this day, only Huawei has managed to match that Galaxy S21 Ultra camera system in pure hardware prowess. So Samsung reusing last year’s camera parts isn’t nearly as bad as Apple or Google reusing dated camera hardware between 2016 to 2018.
I’ve been shooting with the Galaxy S22 Ultra for a week and there are indeed noticeable improvements in camera performance over last year’s S21 Ultra. The phone’s epic zoom system, consisting of a 3x and 10x zoom lens, produce even sharper zoom images. In fact, even up to 30x zoom (which uses digital cropping), the image is remarkably sharp. No other phone except the Huawei P40 Pro Plus can match this level of zoom ability.
There are new software tricks like Advanced Auto Framing which lets the phone’s brains act as a director of sorts—automatically reframing videos and zooming into certain objects and faces. It works quite well, but an experienced smartphone photographer/videographer like me would still prefer my own framing.
Samsung also improved video performance significantly—stabilization is superb, easily best in Android, and the phone can now shoot realistic bokeh video (videos with a depth-of-field blur around a subject). In a real camera, bokeh is produced by a large sensor having shallow focus pane, but in smartphones, bokeh is mostly artificially created via software. Many phones, including Samsung ones, have attempted bokeh videos before to very fake-looking results, because they just didn’t have the computational power or software smarts to create realistic bokeh in video form. The Galaxy S22 Ultra finally pulls it off.
For still photography with the main and ultra-wide cameras, the S22 Ultra impresses, particularly at night thanks to a new software trick that snaps two photos at once—one at full 108-megapixel resolution, another in pixel-binned 12-megapixel resolution—and combine the two images for one “super image.”
However, I still think Vivo’s X70 Pro Plus’s ultra-wide camera produces better HDR (high dynamic range). But the Vivo phone can’t zoom nearly as far, and video stabilization isn’t as good. This means if we consider all the factors—video performance, zoom shots, macro photography, portraits—then the Galaxy S22 Ultra has the most capable and best overall camera system right now.
Let’s talk about the stylus here, which Samsung calls S-Pen. It behaves almost exactly like it did in the previous Note phone, so it not only is an input device with which you jot notes or sketch, but it also doubles as a remote control, allowing you to control the phone’s camera shutter, or slide show presentation while standing several feet away.
Input latency has been improved to 2.8ms, so the sketching experience feels even better. However, I still find the S-Pen a bit too small and thin to hold comfortably for long periods of time. I have always enjoyed playing around with the S-Pen in previous Galaxy Note phones, but I’ve never saw it as an indispensable tool. I liked having it around when I use a Note, but I didn’t miss it when I was using another phone. The S-Pen here doesn’t change that.
But that’s just my opinion, as I mentioned, there are indeed diehard fans of the Note series, those ones who were very vocal on social media last year when it appeared the Note series had been canceled.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra runs on Android 12 with Samsung’s One UI on top. One UI has evolved from a solid Android skin to one of the best on the market. There’s customization options galore but it does not get in the way of Google’s vision of Android too much.
Samsung has partnered with Microsoft and Google to provide the S22 series some software exclusives, like “Live Sharing” on Google Duo (which allows users to share screens or content with another friend via Google’s video calling app). Even Google’s own Pixel phones can’t do this. There’s better software synergy between the S22 series and Microsoft’s Windows—for example, users can mirror their phone screen to a Windows machine, or use a Samsung tablet as a secondary display for a Windows laptop. These collaborations are smart, as it gives Samsung a leg up on Chinese Android brands, as well as come closer to matching Apple in terms of software/hardware synergy.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra starts at $1,100 in the U.S. and HK$9,698 in Hong Kong. These can be considered high prices, but they’re not out of the norm for what Apple, Samsung, and Huawei have been charging for a few years. I think dollar for dollar, the S22 Ultra is a superior deal than the latest iPhone because it comes with a stylus and more memory.
And quite frankly, I think the S22 Ultra is just a more capable device than the iPhone 13 Pro Max, too. In the Android scene, there are competition, most notably the significantly cheaper Google Pixel 6 Pro or excellent Vivo X70 Pro Plus, but both of those phones run on older, less capable chipset.
If you want a do-it-all kitchen sink phone, or if you want a phone with a stylus, the Galaxy S22 Ultra is it. If you don’t need all the extra bells and whistles, then the lower tier Galaxy S22 or upcoming Xiaomi 12 will give you a very similar performance (minus the zoom prowess) at a discount of a few hundred dollars.