SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Beware, smartphone buyers of the marketing hype from Samsung for its new Galaxy S20 Ultra phone, introduced Tuesday. The specs – “100X Space Zoom” – make it sound actually superior to a top of the line pro-level DSLR.
This is a nice camera in a really expensive phone, even pricier at $1,400 than Apple’s top-of-the-line $1,100 iPhone 11 Pro Max.
But when Samsung says: “This is the phone that will change photography,” sorry, but it’s “emperor has no clothes” time.
Try some of the touted advanced features of the S20 Ultra, as I did Tuesday in a 30-minute hands-on at the Samsung Unpacked event, and you will be very disappointed. I predict you’ll try them once, and never go back to them again.
“Zoom in 100x to find shots you never knew existed.”
That’s what Samsung says.
Like, say, a wide shot of a baseball field, and then zoom in for a close-up of a ball player’s face.
Do so, and you’ll be sorry, because the image will probably be pixilated and not sharp. You’ll be able to tell that there’s a ball player in there, but it won’t look good.
The previous model, the S10, has a “2X” zoom, which means it brings you just a little closer to the action. The advancement – and Samsung gets kudos for this – is that it added “10x Hybrid Optic Zoom,” which did indeed seem great in my limited time with the phone.
Samsung should have quit while it was ahead and just featured this. The 10X zoom feature is fantastic, and something you won’t find on an iPhone or previous Galaxy model.
In other words, you can zoom in a little bit, at 10x, and it will look pretty good. Zoom in all the way, and you won’t end up with an award-winning Sports Illustrated cover. Far from it.
There are 3 models of the S20, the plain S20, S20 + and S20 Ultra. The two other phones have the same three lenses as on the S10, the ultra-wide, wide-angle and telephoto, but at higher resolution than on the S10.
For the S20 Ultra, I tested the zoom by taking portraits of a Samsung exec. At the small range of 2x and 10x and even 30x, all looked good. But when I got to 100x, first, the camera was so shaky at the closeup range that it was hard to identify his features. And when I got to his eyes at the 100x level, they were extremely dark and the image was very grainy.
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Forget the hype for “100x zoom.” It’s not a zoom but in fact, software trickery that just crops the living daylights out of the image. It’s not zooming in at all, just blowing up a spec of the image.
Samsung held its event at the swanky Palace of Fine Arts here and invited media to go hands-on with the phones for 30 minutes tops. But we weren’t allowed to leave the facility to take photos outside – where the Golden Gate Bridge and a beautiful February afternoon was just begging us to be out there showing the phone camera to its utmost potential. Instead, we had to shoot in a dreary room. Nor were we allowed to send the images taken on the phone to ourselves for publication here. Instead, we had to photograph the images on the phones.
Thus, the images you’re looking at here clearly look better than they do, and I reserve final judgment for seeing them on the computer screen, 15 inches high on my laptop.
Samsung sells more phones worldwide than any other company, but the premium Galaxy line is No. 2 to the Apple iPhone, which is the most popular individual phone. Samsung has for several years been trying to catch up to Apple, usually by introducing new features the iPhone doesn’t have. They usually get copied by Apple, like in 2019 when three camera lenses were offered on premium iPhones, like on the S10 earlier in the year.
Let’s get geeky and talk megapixels for a moment. Basically, the number of pixels in a camera means sharper resolution, especially when compared with a great sensor. Most DSLRs in the $2,000 and up range have about 25 megapixels. Most premium smartphones have 12.
The new Galaxy S20 Ultra has 108 megapixels, and because it has so many, Samsung says it can crop so much of the image to blow up little portions. But as I said, that sure didn’t work for me in my brief time with the phone.
Samsung has a new feature that lets you shoot video in 8K resolution, which is basically twice that of 4K, 7680×4320 versus 3480×2160. Great. But for watching it, you’re pretty much stuck to on your screen. As always, the S20 has a beautiful screen. You can also share it to YouTube, which will play it in 8K, but if you have an older phone that doesn’t support 8K – which is most phones, you’ll be watching in 4K, probably.
The three new Galaxy phones are all pricey, starting at $999, $1,199 and $1,399. Only the Ultra has the 10x optical zoom, while the other two have the standard 2X zoom. The phones will be available on March 6th.
Galaxy Z Flip
I also got some brief time with the Z Flip, which at $1,380, is an incredibly cute, but oh so pricey new entry from Samsung.
I found two photography bonus points on the Flip. First, after you unfold it, you can adjust to have the images on one side of the screen and use the other as a scrolling mechanism, which made it a nice way to view photos.
More importantly, for the time-lapse fan in your home, you can fold the phone in two, and have the camera portion sitting upright, which would enable you to make a time-lapse without having to use a tripod.
The Flip is available Friday.
Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter