Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra — 6 reasons to buy and 3 reasons to skip

Galaxy S23 Ultra reasons to buy and skip
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Our Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review is in, and we think Samsung has one heck of a phone on its hands. But is it the right flagship for you?

Certainly, no one would dispute that the Galaxy S23 Ultra is the best Samsung phone, not to mention the best Android phone overall. This phone packs a whopping 200MP camera and an exclusive Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy chip for blazing performance. But at $1,199, it's also one of the more expensive models out there. So  it's worth weighing the pros and cons. 

That's where we come in. Having tested the Galaxy S23 Ultra, we're very familiar with all its strengths and weaknesses. We can help you decide if the Galaxy S23 Ultra is a must-buy or a must-skip.

Reasons to buy the Galaxy S23 Ultra

That 200MP camera is as good as advertised

The primary reason to turn to the Galaxy S23 Ultra is as plain as the big camera lens staring back at you on the back of Samsung's new phone. It's the 200MP main camera sensor — easily the most talked-about new feature among the many Samsung is introducing with the S23 family. And having snapped many photos with that camera, we think it lives up to the hype.

We love the flexibility of the 200MP lens, which lets you snap photos at full resolution and then crop down to a specific part of the photo without losing much in the way of detail. You can also combine 16 pixels to produce a 12.5MP photo to call out more color in low-light settings. Quad pixel-pinning yields some impressive-looking 50MP shots as well.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra cameras

(Image credit: Future)

The iPhone 14 Pro Max and Pixel 7 Pro have been dominating the best camera phone talk for a while now, but when we put those phones up against the Galaxy S23 Ultra in our head-to-head testing, Samsung's phone held its own, even producing better shots in many instances.

Check out our Galaxy S23 Ultra vs iPhone 14 Pro Max face-off for our photo comparisons. If you're a serious photographer, the Galaxy S23 Ultra had better be near the top of your short list when it's time to buy a new phone.

Breath-taking astro photography

The 200MP main camera may grab the headlines, but don't sleep on the Galaxy S23 Ultra's ability to photograph the night sky.

When Mark Spoonauer tested the S23 Ultra as part of his review of that phone, he managed to shoot the full moon at 1x, 10x, 30x and 100x with the Galaxy S23 Ultra's pair of telephoto lenses powering its Space Zoom feature. (Space Zoom being quite literal in this case.) The results — a detailed moon hung in the night sky — speak for themselves. An effort to produce similar shots with the iPhone 14 Pro Max turned the moon into a blurry blob. 

The bottom line? If you like to capture the stars with your smartphone, you're going to want to have the Galaxy S23 Ultra close at hand.

Outstanding performance

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra playing racing game

(Image credit: Future)

Since we first ran Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 benchmarks on a reference device late last year, we've been eager to see what Qualcomm's new chipset did in a shipping device. The customized version powering the Galaxy S23 Ultra did not disappoint.

Usually, we see a wide gap in benchmark numbers between Apple's chips and Qualcomm silicon. While the iPhone 14 Pro models powered by the A16 Bionic chip still finish ahead of the Galaxy S23 Ultra on most of the tests we run, the gap isn't as wide as it used to be. In fact, our Galaxy S23 Ultra benchmarks saw Samsung's outperform the iPhone 14 Pro in 3DMark's Wild Life Unlimited test. It also produced a better multicore result in Geekbench than the A15 Bionic-powered iPhone 14.

When reviewing Galaxy S phones, we used to praise the peformance as "pretty good for an Android device." With the Galaxy S23 Ultra, we don't need to include that caveat anymore.

Stellar battery life

One of the weaker aspects of last year's Galaxy S22 family was how long the phones could last on a charge. Yes, the Galaxy S22 Ultra could outlast the average smartphone on our battery test, in which we have phones surf the web over cellular until they run out of power. But to get that result, we had to disable the adaptive refresh rate of the Galaxy S22 Ultra's display.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Row 0 - Cell 0 Battery size Battery life (hrs:mins)
Galaxy S23 Ultra5,000 mAh13:09 (60Hz) / 12:22 (adaptive)
Galaxy S22 Ultra 5,000 mAh10:18 (60Hz) / 9:50 (adaptive)
iPhone 14 Pro Max4,323 mAh13:39
Pixel 7 Pro5,000 mAh9:21

There was no need for such trickery with the Galaxy S23 Ultra, which held out for 12 hours and 22 minutes with its display rate set to adaptive (up to 120Hz). That lands Samsung's phone in the top 10 of our best phone battery life list. And if you do happen to turn off the adaptive refresh rate feature, you can get the phone to run for 13 hours on our test. In terms of everyday use, that's going to let you use your phone from dawn to dusk without the need for a charge.

Since the Galaxy S23 Ultra has the same sized batter as its predecessor, this is another reason to credit the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 Mobile Platform for Galaxy. It's pretty clear Qualcomm's chipset manages power a whole lot better than what we got last year.

A very bright, colorful display

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra curved display

(Image credit: Future)

The 6.8-inch display on the Galaxy S22 Ultra was one of that phone's standout features. With the Galaxy S23 Ultra essentially using the same panel with the same 1,750-nit maximum brightness and same adaptive refresh rate jumping between 1 to 120Hz as your phone activity dictates, we didn't expect to be as impressed with the new phone's display as we were last year.

Well, we were wrong — the Galaxy S23 Ultra's display remains one of this phone's strongest selling points.

It's not just that you get all that screen space or that the phone is bright enough to see outdoors in direct sunlight. (We measured 1,225 nits, which isn't quite 1,750 nits but still plenty bright.) It's not even that the Galaxy S23 Ultra delivers more colors than the iPhone 14 Pro Max, reaching 112% of the DCI-P3 color gamut in Natural mode. (The iPhone hits 83%.) It's that the Galaxy S23 Ultra display does all these things. If you're upgrading from any older model, you're going to be blown away by what this screen can do.

New One UI 5.1 features

Like the rest of the Galaxy S23 lineup, the Galaxy S23 Ultra ships with One UI 5.1, an updated version of Samsung's interface overlay for Android 13. That means new software features, and they really add something to the party.

We particularly like Bixby Text Call, in which the on-board assitant finally pulls its weight by answering calls on your behalf and letting you text back responses. The new Modes option may sound a lot like the Focus modes Apple offers on iOS 16 devices, but it's still a welcome addition to the Galaxy's bag of tricks.

Reasons to skip the Galaxy S23 Ultra

Frustrating curved edges on the display

Samsung may be in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" position with the shape of the Ultra model's screen. On the one hand, having a curved screen helps set this model apart from the rest of the Galaxy S lineup, making it feel like a premium phone. On the other, that curved screen hasn't always been easy to use, particularly now that Samsung's added S Pen support to the Ultra.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra using S Pen taking notes

(Image credit: Future)

To Samsung's credit, the curve is less prominent on the Galaxy S23 Ultra, and that's made the S Pen easier to use on this version. But there's still enough of a curve to make it difficult to touch icons and buttons at the very edge of the display. It's a minor complaint in the greater scheme of things, but if you find curved displays frustrating to use, the Galaxy S23 Ultra provides only minimal relief.

No change in charging speed

It may seem churlish to complain about the Galaxy S23 Ultra retaining its predecessor's 45W wired charging speed, especially when the iPhone 14 Pro Max is still charging at a pokey 20W pace. But that apple to... um... Apples comparison isn't particularly apt. You have to look at how the Galaxy S23 Ultra compares to rival Android phones that are taking advantage of fast USB-C speeds, and if you do, you'll see Samsung's premium phone is coming up short.

This month, the OnePlus 11 will also be arriving in stores outside of China. And this new Android flagship supports charging speeds of up to 100W. Even with that limited to 80W in the U.S., the OnePlus 11 should still charge much more rapidly than the Galaxy S23 Ultra, its main competition for the title of best Android phone until the Pixel 8's arrival this fall.

It also doesn't help that the Galaxy S23 Ultra didn't live up to Samsung's charging claims. Samsung says a drained S23 Ultra should be able to get up to a 65% charge after 30 minutes of charging. We only hit 57% in our testing.

$1,199 is a lot to pay for a phone

The good news, for U.S. consumers at any rate, is that the Galaxy S23 Ultra doesn't cost any more than its predecessor. (U.K. shoppers, in contrast have to pay £100 more than what the Galaxy S22 Ultra cost a year ago.) The bad news is that $1,199 is still a lot to pay for a flagship phone, especially in this economy, although you do get double the starting storage now at 256GB. 

If you're interested in a more moderately priced Samsung option, we've already broken down the reasons to buy and skip the Galaxy S23 after our initial Galaxy S23 hands-on review.

It also doesn't help that rival phones, whether it's the $1,099 iPhone 14 Pro Max or the $899 Pixel 7 Pro, all cost less than the S23 Ultra. The best Galaxy S23 deals can bring down those costs somewhat, especially if you place a Galaxy S23 preorder. But there's no disguising the fact that if you want this phone, you're going to have to pay up to get it.

Galaxy S23 Ultra outlook

There's plenty of reasons to get the Galaxy S23 Ultra, particularly if you're looking for great camera features and a long-lasting device. But as outstanding as these features are, they do come at a cost. If you're willing to overlook a few minor irritations about the curve of the screen and the speed of the charging, than the Galaxy S23 Ultra is worth it, especially for anyone who wants the best possible phone regardless of cost.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.