When I first laid eyes (and hands) upon Samsung's new Galaxy S22 Ultra, I assure you it was not love at first sight.
The 6.8-inch phone, which launches Feb. 25 and sits atop the S22 line as the company's most premium Android offering, is effectively a cold, smooth slab of sometimes rounded metal punctuated by multiple circular cameras. It's imposing, austere…anonymous, even, and expensive, with a starting price of $1,199. There's nary a hint of the whimsy Google infused into the hardware and software design of its rival, the Pixel 6 Pro. The S22 Ultra, by contrast, is all business.
Its no-nonsense vibe is unsurprising, really. The "Ultra'' designation has typically been the go-to option for deep-pocketed Samsung fans who want the biggest and best display paired with the most (and best?) cameras. Except now, there's a third feature pillar: the S Pen. In normal human-speak, we call this a stylus or digital pen.
What's old is new again
The S Pen is effectively a borrowed innovation from the company's once popular but now defunct Note line, which Samsung put to rest in 2021. The company first flirted with reintroducing this stylus functionality as an optional add-on for last year's S21 Ultra, but here it's an inbuilt feature. And that's turned out to be a very good thing.
I'd initially scoffed at this Ultra feature flourish when it was announced alongside Samsung's other new phones — the S22 and S22+. It seemed extra for extra's sake, which is somewhat of a Samsung design hallmark, especially when it comes to its highest-end devices.
"Is this really what it takes to convince people to pay for $1,000-plus phones?," I wondered. "A stylus?!"
Turns out, Samsung was right and I'm eating crow. I'll just say it now: I'm an S Pen convert.
While I'm still not comfortable with a world where phones are on par price-wise with laptops, I do think including the S Pen with the S22 Ultra was a wise move. In fact, it's something that I believe could and should trickle down to the rest of Samsung's phone portfolio, becoming something of a standard spec.
But before I waltz you through my unexpected love affair with the S Pen, let's unpack what exactly you're getting when you cough up all that money.
The category is body
First things first, at 77.9 x 163.3 x 8.9 millimeters, the S22 Ultra is tall, thin, and deceptively heavy, weighing 229 grams thanks, in part, to the beefy quad-camera array. As a result, when you're holding this phone in hand, you'll notice its top-heaviness causes it to tilt slightly forward. Its right and left edges are nicely rounded in an aesthetically pleasing way that gives the screen a seamless quality, but the curve is so severe that it makes gripping the phone a bit unpleasant. Sure, the Ultra's all-metal body — which comes in phantom black, phantom white, green, and burgundy — definitely conveys its premium status to any onlookers, but it's also quite slippery. Trust me, this is not a phone you'll want to use without a case.
Maybe that's why Samsung didn't bother imbuing much personality into this thing — because it's destined to be covered up in a protective, decorative case. If you don't take that precaution, you're simply setting your money on fire. In my short time with the Ultra, it's nearly gone flying out of my hands at least 10 times while I was out and about.
Trust me, this is not a phone you'll want to use without a case.
As is to be expected with a phone of this caliber, the S22 Ultra is 5G- and WiFi 6E-capable (the latter bit guaranteeing faster speeds with a compatible router), and bears an IP68 rating, so those of you with a laissez faire attitude to tech can get it dirty, dusty, and wet. But, with a more than $1,000 price tag, you should probably try your hardest to protect it from the elements. Its aluminum body is coated in Corning Gorilla Glass Victus+, which means it should withstand some wear and tear — you know, car keys in the pocket as well as absent-minded drops. We all do it. No shame.
To Samsung's credit, it's managed to keep the S22 Ultra's physical buttons for volume control and power, housed on the phone's right edge, somewhat flush with its sleek frame. Even the S Pen, which lives at its base to the left of the USB-C charging port and SIM card slot, only slightly protrudes with a smooth bump. Click this in, and the S Pen will pop out just enough so you can remove it. It's in there a little snugly, which is reassuring as it won't just slip out if you accidentally unlock it.
And, in a nice touch, if you unlock the S Pen while the S22 Ultra's screen is off, it will immediately launch into note-taking mode with Samsung's Notes app.
At 6.8 inches, the Ultra's display maintains the size of last year's S21 Ultra, but it's still a beautiful thing to behold, with a bright, saturated WQHD+ (3088 x 1440) AMOLED screen and a 120Hz refresh rate. That rate can ramp all the way down to 1Hz, depending on your app activity, which should help mitigate battery drain. You won't really notice it in practice as you swap from watching videos to browsing web pages to scrolling through your TikTok feed. It works as it should: YouTube video playback is super fast and smooth as is simply navigating through your phone's menus and app drawer.
Another feature that Samsung's carried over from the S21 Ultra is the in-display fingerprint sensor, although here its reliability has vastly improved. When Mashable reviewed the S21 Ultra, one of our biggest gripes was how inconsistent and frustrating this sensor was, forcing us to resort to manual PIN unlocks. That's happily no longer the case. The sensor on the Ultra is very sensitive, responding very quickly to your touch. To date, I've never had to bother with a PIN unlock. A word of advice, though: enable the persistent fingerprint icon from within Settings so you're not blindly smashing your finger down on the screen to unlock.
Storage-wise, the Galaxy S22 Ultra comes in a variety of memory and storage configurations but bear in mind that more power and space equals a higher cost:
12GB of RAM / 1TB of internal storage
12GB of RAM / 512GB of internal storage
12GB of RAM / 256GB of internal storage
8GB of RAM / 128GB of internal storage
Serving Samsung skin
Fans of the pure (or "vanilla") Android experience will have to get used to Samsung's One UI skin, if they aren't already. It's not terrible but you will have to customize things to your liking. And you will have plenty of options to do that — a little too many for my taste. But there is one Android 12 customization option called Material You that you should definitely take advantage of during setup. This allows you to select a color palette based on your wallpaper to apply to the UI and apps. So, for example, you'll see your text chat bubbles correspond to whatever selection of colors you choose. It's a nice touch that helps to make your phone feel a little more personal.
As for bloatware, well, there's a bunch and that's to be expected, sadly. If you're reliant on Google's suite of apps, then you'll find those Samsung has installed to be mostly redundant, like Samsung's Galaxy app store, its mobile wallet app, Gallery, Messages, and more. No hate if you prefer these services but it'd be nice to let the user decide what to download. You're also getting a handful of Microsoft apps like LinkedIn, Office, OneDrive, and Outlook which makes sense given that this is a productivity-focused, note-taking phone (Hello, S Pen!).
One minor point of contention on my end (and you may not agree) has to do with Samsung's gesture navigation. It's unintuitive. From the home screen, you swipe up to access the app drawer and immediately shift to swiping horizontally to browse apps. It breaks the flow and is one of the reasons why I prefer operating a Pixel phone. Yes, I know this is a trivial quibble but when I fork out over $1,000 for a device, I want it to zip in all the right ways.
More than enough juice
Now you may be wondering how long this beast of a phone can last on a single charge and (spoiler alert) it's very good news. The S22 Ultra packs a 5,000mAh battery similar to last year's model and in testing I managed to drain it to a little more than half capacity (60 percent or so) by bedtime. That comes to about 16 hours with typical use: scrolling through Twitter and Instagram, reading articles on Pocket, browsing on Chrome, and watching videos on YouTube.
But that all-day battery life diminishes if you make moderate use of the cameras. After a few hours of testing the S22 Ultra's imaging prowess, I had a 20 percent charge left by midnight. It's a good thing then that this phone supports 45W super-fast charging, which allowed me to fully juice up from 50 percent charge in just under an hour.
And now we come to the point where I gush about the S Pen, something I never thought I'd say. Hear me out.
For years now, I've been cursing my thick fingers and the loss of physical keyboards on smartphones. Once BlackBerries went the way of the dodo in favor of the touch-typing ushered in by the iPhone, I'd begrudgingly resigned myself to a life of non-fluent messaging and browser navigation. I just can't manage to fluently bang out a text, select copy, or press buttons with the Vienna sausage fingers I was born with. (Don't cry for me — I managed to learn the piano, regardless.)
Turns out, the remedy I needed was here all along: the stylus, errr...S Pen. The one mobile innovation that brought us the Note series and gained Samsung fame (and exploding phone infamy) is actually a necessary thing for people like me who need precision. I'm not a double-thumb texter — I just can't do it. Instead, I rely on swipe typing but even that has pitfalls. So imagine my surprise when I could neatly connect letters and gracefully form sentences while wielding that unassuming plastic wand.
It's great for overall phone navigation, too. There's just something so satisfying about how the S Pen's tip feels when it's sweeping across the screen as you switch apps or scroll through web pages and feeds. The tip is simultaneously silky and rubbery when it needs to be, so you don't feel like you're dragging something across the screen. It also makes holding the device for longer periods of time more palatable since your hands aren't crunched together. Plus, there's an added unadvertised bonus: it makes you feel like a boss.
Seriously, I may have only been idling around with my phone and reading articles in Chrome but it felt like I was doing something important.
Case in point: I was checking out a photo comparison of the PS4/PS5 versions of the video game Horizon Forbidden West when I happily discovered I could move the photo slider to the left and right without touching the screen. I did it naturally and felt in control. I was also able to scroll down a page in an app by hovering the pointer at the bottom of the page. I totally love this functionality and I'm sure you will, too.
This next one is entirely climate dependent but worth mentioning as the S Pen is incredibly handy when it's freezing cold outside and you're wearing gloves but still want to use your phone. In fact, I now kind of wish all phones had an optional inbuilt stylus. It's not all necessary but it can be kind of clutch in the right wintry circumstances.
The S Pen is incredibly handy when it's freezing cold outside and you're wearing gloves but still want to use your phone.
Oh, and another thing. Air actions, which are triggered when you click the S Pen's side button, caught me by surprise. When this is enabled, the S Pen has the ability to launch the camera with a longpress and take photos, skip music tracks, navigate the phone's menus, or even set app-specific actions.
I should also mention that latency when writing with the S Pen is quite low, and it faithfully reproduces your handwriting or, in my case, what my family has not so lovingly referred to as "chicken scratch." To quickly jot something down, simply tap the floating S Pen icon onscreen and a handy menu will appear giving you options for note taking, screen selection, live messages, AR doodles, translation and more.
If you're worried about losing the S Pen, have no fear as there's an option in Settings to enable a warning message if you happen to forget it and walk away. It'll even tell you the date and time when it was last removed from its slot.
Picture (almost) perfect
Most mid- to high-end phones like the Pixels 6, Samsung's S22 series, and Apple's iPhone 13 line have now gotten to the point where imaging software and hardware are pretty excellent all around. You don't need the latest and greatest (read: most expensive) phone to take a perfectly acceptable shot to populate your social feeds anymore — but it doesn't hurt.
I'm happy to report that you won't be disappointed at all with the multiple cameras Samsung packed onto the face and back of the S22 Ultra. Here's what you're getting:
12MP ultra-wide camera (F2.2, FOV 120˚)
108MP main camera (Dual Pixel AF, F1.8, FOV 85˚)
10MP telephoto camera (3x Optical Zoom, F2.4, FOV 36˚)
10MP telephoto camera (10x Optical Zoom, F4.9, FOV 11˚)
40MP selfie camera (F2.2, FOV 80˚)
It's an arrangement that's mostly unchanged from what we saw on the S21 Ultra but now the company claims the S22 Ultra can take even better lowlight shots, and even use Portrait Mode at night. While that latter claim is true, it doesn't exactly yield the results you might want.
I found Portrait Mode photos taken at night to have an overlit quality to them. It's akin to bad studio lighting where, yes, the subject is visible and detailed, but there's an almost cheap look to the final shot. In fact, when I tested it, the weather here in New York had turned from cold to rainy and humid, and any moisture on my face was transformed into an almost shimmery powder look...and not in a good way. Nighttime Portrait Mode shots also have a very warm tone, making them appear almost yellowish. On the upside, you do get some great detail on the subject.
Nighttime shots taken with the rear cameras yielded much better results. As you can see, there's a dreamy vibe to the shots, with a bit of softness where you'd expect detail and some halo effects around bright light sources.
As for normal, daytime photography, you can expect shots with true-to-life colors that don't appear dull or washed out. There's none of that candy coated Insta-ready "magic" here like you'd see on the iPhone 13 Pro, which is great. (I'm a fan of realism.) Objects in frame appear sharp and detailed even when using the phone's 3x and 10x zoom capabilities. 100x zoom also works pretty well but it's a bitch to hold your hands steady enough to capture anything and, besides, the resulting image will appear more impressionistic than anything.
You can even make use of the various editing options Samsung's crammed into the Ultra to remove people and objects from a shot with Object Eraser, auto-retouch a shot with Remaster picture, or apply various face effects (that wipe you of your beautiful humanity).
I will say that the S22 Ultra's rear camera placement did prove a bit troubling as my fingers would often very easily slide into frame and ruin a whole bunch of what were otherwise gorgeous shots. It's just too close to the edge when you're holding the phone in landscape orientation. This is where a less rounded phone edge would have been more advisable, Samsung.
Nice but not necessary
If I haven't already made it abundantly clear, I like this phone. Its design may be lacking but it's a powerhouse that should satisfy demanding power users who require productivity on the go and superb mobile photography.
Yes, the Galaxy S22 Ultra is a bit of overkill but it's the Samsung kind of overkill, meaning it works very well despite being a little overwhelming options-wise. I just don't like it enough to recommend spending over $1,000 for the privilege of having an S Pen and rear cameras on steroids.
For about $300 less, you can pick up the Google Pixel 6 Pro and enjoy a similar level of high-quality performance and fantastic imaging… minus the S Pen, Samsung apps, and feature bloat. And I say that as someone who fell mildly in love with the S Pen on this phone — it's a game changer if you're sick of finger-based navigation and typing.
Or, if you're not wedded to Android and want something slightly cheaper that takes so-good-they're-almost-surreal photos, then Apple's $999 iPhone 13 Pro is the way to go.
But really, no matter which of those three high-end phone options you choose, you can't go wrong. It's all a matter of where your loyalties lie and how much money you're willing to spend.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra is good but don't let its convoluted naming scheme fool you — it's not out of this world.