Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra vs Galaxy S23 Ultra zoom test — this looks like a downgrade

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra hands-on
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Samsung has always been quick to point out how bigger is better, especially when it comes to the specs of its devices. With the introduction of the Galaxy S24 Ultra at the latest Galaxy Unpacked event, the amount of attention Samsung placed on artificial intelligence would’ve made you overlook one peculiar thing about its cameras — how the new telephoto lens packs a 5x optical zoom.

That’s an important detail because it’s technically half the range on paper against the 10x optical zoom offered by the Galaxy S23 Ultra. Indeed, the rumors about this so-called "downgrade" turned out to be true, but as we’ve seen countless times, it doesn’t automatically mean that the Galaxy S24 Ultra’s telephoto camera is inferior.

With that in mind, we took both phones out on a quick test drive for a Galaxy S24 Ultra vs. Galaxy S23 Ultra zoom camera test. As noted in our  Galaxy S24 Ultra hands-on, Samsung's new phone has a camera array featuring a 200MP main camera, 12MP ultrawide camera, 10MP telephoto lens with a 3X optical zoom, and a 50MP telephoto camera with a 5X optical zoom. In contrast, the S23 Ultra has that a 200MP main camera of its own and a 12MP ultrawide camera, but the telephoto lenses consist of a 10MP shooter with a 3x zoom and a second 10MP sensor supporting that 10x zoom.

Just like many of those who were watching the Galaxy Unpacked event, we were surprised about the switch from a 10x telephoto camera to a 5x one. But as Samsung delightfully showed everyone, the ProVisual Engine's AI features and updated image processing of the S24 Ultra should produce the same optical results as the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s 10x telephoto camera.

Here’s what we found out in our early testing of the Galaxy 24 Ultra's cameras.

Galaxy S24 preorders: from $249 w/ trade-in @ SamsungFree $25 credit!

Galaxy S24 preorders: from $249 w/ trade-in @ Samsung
Free $25 credit! Samsung is offering up to $550 off its Galaxy S24 with trade-in. Plus, you'll get a free storage upgrade and $25 Samsung credit. It features a 6.2-inch AMOLED 120Hz display, Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 chipset, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. On the camera front, you get 50MP main, 12MP ultrawide, and 10MP telephoto (3x optical zoom) rear lenses and a 12MP front camera.

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra vs Galaxy S23 Ultra: 5x zoom

Starting off at the phones' respective 5x zoom levels, we can instantly see a difference without having to inspect all the details. There’s a substantial color temperature difference between them, with the Galaxy S23 Ultra leaning colder and the S24 Ultra appearing slightly warmer. The contrast is much stronger with the Galaxy S23 Ultra, which we feel makes the entire image more appealing.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Galaxy S23 Ultra is using its 10MP 3x telephoto camera and applying a digital zoom to effectively get at 5x zoom — while the S24 Ultra is strictly using its main 50MP 5x telephoto camera. When we zoom into the details in the scene, it’s eerily apparent that the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s shot is sharper and more detailed.

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra vs Galaxy S23 Ultra: 10x zoom

This is where things start to get interesting because the S24 Ultra is doing a lot of things at 10x zoom. For that reason, both 10x images look pretty good and show off their excellent HDR performance to balance out the exposure in the shadows and highlights.

It’s nearly a draw until we zoom into parts of the sign in the middle of the picture, where there’s an odd softening effect that removes some of the textures we see in the sign. You might overlook it if you just look at the bigger picture, but the Galaxy S24 Ultra’s 10x zoom shot has a slightly softer look.

In another 10x zoom photo we shot after realizing that it was tough to discern the superior photo with the sign, we captured 10x zoom photos of a nearby building in the gallery above. The Galaxy S24 Ultra’s penchant for softer details become more exposed here when we inspect the fine details in the bricks.

Without question, there’s more definition from the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s shot. Don’t get us wrong — the results are still excellent with the S24 Ultra. But these shots show how it doesn’t have as much definition as what the S23 Ultra offers.

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra vs Galaxy S23 Ultra: 30x zoom

That softening effect is amplified when we move to the 30x zoom level of the S24 Ultra. We can see it most in the branches and bark of the trees in the background, as well as the bottom portion of the sign in the middle. The white area surrounding the ticket and QR code icons indicate the surface has texture with the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s snapshot, but those areas are almost indistinct with the S24 Ultra. 

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra vs Galaxy S23 Ultra: 100x zoom

The last shots we captured were ones at 100x zoom. Even though both Ultra models are capable of shooting at 100x zoom, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s practical to use if your intent is to get the most detail. In fact, it’s usually the opposite and best served as a last resort if you need to make out colors.

All of the words on the sign with the S24 Ultra’s 100x zoom level appear clear, but the textured surface of the sign has been softened to the point that any texture is eliminated. We can tell there’s some texture in the sign based on our other photos, so we know they exist. With the S23 Ultra at 100x zoom, we still can make out some of those textures.

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra vs Galaxy S23 Ultra zoom test: outlook

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra hands-on

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

As much as these photos indicate that the Galaxy S23 Ultra has the edge with its zooming capabilities, the verdict is still out until we’re able to take more samples and dissect them. We’re also eager to test out how they handle zooming with video recording, as well as how they handle low light conditions. 

Lightning conditions and where you tap on the screen to set the exposure and focus could also influence how these photos come out, so there’s still opportunity for the S24 Ultra to prove it’s better at zooming than its predecessor.

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John Velasco
Senior Channel Editor for Phones

John’s a senior editor covering phones for Tom’s Guide. He’s no stranger in this area having covered mobile phones and gadgets since 2008 when he started his career. On top of his editor duties, he’s a seasoned videographer being in front and behind the camera producing YouTube videos. Previously, he held editor roles with PhoneArena, Android Authority, Digital Trends, and SPY. Outside of tech, he enjoys producing mini documentaries and fun social clips for small businesses, enjoying the beach life at the Jersey Shore, and recently becoming a first time homeowner.