February 23, 2024

pros and cons

Pros

  • Best display available in a smartphone
  • Camera system does it all
  • Battery life remains among best in class
  • AI features deliver new value
Cons

  • Costs more than some premium laptops
  • No Qi2 magnetic charging
  • Missed an opportunity in spatial photos and videos
  • Night mode sometimes kills good photos

more buying choices

ZDNET’s buying advice

The Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra brings a surprising number of excellent new features to a product line that was already among the cream of the crop in smartphones. And if you’re coming from a phone that is at least two years old, the S24 Ultra will feel like a superphone. 

With its new best-in-class anti-reflective display with 2,600-nits of brightness, the S24 Ultra is a joy to look at and use all day long. The camera system is more versatile than ever and has modes for nearly every possible shot you could want. And the AI features, especially Circle to Search and Live Translation, make those tasks smoother and more frictionless. 

If you’re buying this phone on a carrier plan where you’re spreading out the payments monthly, getting the S24 Ultra may only cost you $5-10 more per month than the standard S24 or S24 Plus. There’s a lot to love in this product for a few extra dollars a month, and it’s likely to continue to feel like an advanced smartphone for years to come.

Specifications

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra

Display

6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2x (1440 x 3120) with 2,600 nits of brightness

Processor

Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 3

RAM/Storage

12GB with 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB

Camera

200MP f/1.7 wide, 12MP ultrawide, 10MP telephoto (3x), 50 MP periscope telephoto, and 12MP front    

Battery

5,000mAh with 45W wired/15W wireless charging

Durability

IP68, Gorilla Armor, titanium frame

Colors

Gray, Black, Violet, 

Price

Starting at $1,299


How I tested the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra

I used the S24 Ultra as my work phone for a full two weeks, running on a Google Fi SIM card. It went with me on two trips. I took photos at night, in the rain, in the snow, in various sunlight conditions, and in lots of indoor settings. I used it as a mobile hotspot extensively while I was traveling. I used it as my primary camera during the MIT Reality Hack event. I tracked my daily usage using the Digital Wellbeing app, my daily data consumption using the Google Fi app, and my daily battery drain using the Settings app. 

What are the Galaxy S24 Ultra’s best features?

New anti-reflective, anti-scratch screen and brighter display — Never under-estimate the value of improving the display of a smartphone for enhancing the overall pleasure of using the device every day. To be clear, the Galaxy S Ultra line has always had excellent screens because Samsung’s sister company Samsung Display is one of the world’s leading display makers and so Samsung phones always have access to the latest technologies.

But this year is the biggest leap I’ve ever seen year-to-year in the display for a flagship Samsung phone. And not just about the quality of the image on the display itself, although that’s better with a peak brightness that has jumped from 1,750 nits to 2,600 nits, smoother movements and animations, strong color accuracy and vibrance, and excellent performance outdoors in full sunlight. 

Even more impressive is the new anti-reflective, anti-scratch glass that Corning calls “Gorilla Armor.” The anti-reflective properties actually reminded me of Samsung’s S95D OLED TV from CES 2024, which features a very impressive anti-glare screen that doesn’t lose any of its vibrance. The same can be said for the S24 Ultra, and that makes its screen more enjoyable to use than the iPhone 15 Pro Max and other flagship phones. 

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra display

The new display on the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra has 2,600 nits of peak brightness.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Then there’s the anti-scratch properties. When I was reviewing the iPhone 15 Pro Max, I had it outside of a case for 30 minutes when I first received the review unit and it got a scratch on the screen that hasn’t gone away. I used the S24 Ultra without a case for three days and it didn’t get the tiniest speck on it. I’ve since used it extensively and there’s still not even the slightest hint of a scratch anywhere on the screen. 

I’m not the only one who thinks so highly of the new display. DXOMark has rated the S24 Ultra display as No. 1 among the world’s best smartphones, based on its testing.

Upgraded camera system with new zoom — The 10x optical zoom has been my favorite feature on the Galaxy S Ultra series since it first arrived in the 2020 model, so I was not very excited when Samsung announced that the S24 Ultra was pulling back from the 10x optical zoom and downgrading it to 5x. At least, that was my first reaction because, for years, I have loved using the 10x zoom to get sharper, clearer zoom photos from the Galaxy S Ultra phones than anything I was able to get with an iPhone.

However, the S24 Ultra’s new 5x camera jumps from a 10MP to 50MP sensor and so it can offer a 10x zoom that is simply cropping in and using all of that extra data from having five times the megapixels to create a crisp, clean image. In my tests, it worked far better than I expected and the results were at least as good as the 10x zoom photos from previous Ultra models and in some cases they were sharper and less noisy. Some of that probably has to do with the fact that the new 5x sensor can also take in more light than last year’s model with the aperture improving from f/4.9 to f/3.4 (lower equals more light). I’d still recommend that you don’t use the digital zoom to go over 10x, and certainly not up to 100x (even though the phone will let you do it). Those digital zoom images still look as grainy and awful as ever. 

Example of 10x zoom on Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra

Example of the 10x zoom on the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

I had a good experience with the S24 Ultra’s other types of photos. And as ever, it has an incredible number of modes to make it easy for users to get different kinds of shots. I use the Pro and Pro Video modes the most because I like to have more control over the camera and not have it automatically apply computational algorithms to try to make the shots better. But most people will generally be happy with the standard Photo and Video modes, with one exception: Night mode. There are times when this feature tries to do a longer exposure and make night look like day and it can ruin a good shot. However, if you tap the crescent moon icon then you turn off Night mode and I found that the shot is almost always better because the camera’s sensors have solid low light capability without using those badly-implemented longer exposure features in Night mode.

The camera system has a bunch of other helpful modes including Panorama, Portrait, Hyperlapse, Slow Motion, and Food. If you are a more experienced photographer and want to shoot raw images, you still have to download a separate app called Expert RAW. The Pro mode does not shoot raw images. I’d like to see Samsung simplify that and make shooting raw an option within the Pro mode.

AI features in partnership with Google — I won’t go too in-depth on the new Galaxy AI features because my colleague June Wan covered them thoroughly in his review of the standard Galaxy S24 and S24 Plus. I’ll simply add that I was pleasantly surprised at how useful these features are and how well they worked overall (though they’re far from perfect) — from Circle to Search to Live Translation to Notes summarization to Generative AI photo editing. 

But if you’re attracted to the Galaxy S24 Ultra (or the other S24 models) for these features, then I’d caution you not to buy any of these phones based on the AI features alone, as interesting and even magical as they may seem. That’s because it’s mostly Google software powering the features and we have to expect that these capabilities are likely to come to Pixel phones and other phones that are more reasonably priced than these Samsung models. So if it’s mostly AI you want, I’d wait for one of those devices that will be coming later in 2024.

What I’d like to see in the next model 

1. 3D spatial video and photo capture — My biggest disappointment in terms of a feature that’s missing from the Galaxy S24 Ultra is not completely reasonable. I wish it had a version of spatial video and photo capture like the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max have. We know that Samsung and Google have their own XR headset to compete with Apple Vision Pro and that it’s reportedly coming out later this year. Since the product has already been teased, it would have been great for Samsung to get ahead of the game and let us start capturing stereoscopic videos and photos with the S24 Ultra. Other Android phones are likely to jump on this during 2024. Spatial videos and photos are the most impressive feature on the Apple Vision Pro and Meta has announced it will play them natively on Quest headsets. Xreal smartglasses will play them as well. This could be a revolution in the making and Samsung will be playing catch-up.

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra titanium edges

Titanium finish on the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

2. Qi2 magnetic wireless charging — The fact that Samsung left Qi2 wireless charging out of the S24 lineup is a real head-scratcher, especially considering Apple integrated it into the iPhone 15 lineup five months ago. Samsung isn’t alone in this. The Pixel 8 and OnePlus 12 are also lacking Qi2, but this was a missed opportunity for Samsung to stand out. As we learned at CES 2024, a flood of Qi2 wireless chargers are coming to market to bring magnetic wireless charging to Android devices. This allows Android users to benefit from the conveniences of wireless charging with magnets that iPhone users have enjoyed for years with MagSafe. That includes the ability to charge on convenient stands and to take advantage of magnets so that you don’t wake up with an uncharged phone because it wasn’t positioned just right on a charging pad. 

Final thoughts

While the new Galaxy AI features can flash a number of fancy parlor tricks to make the Galaxy S24 Ultra one of the most useful and capable smartphones on the planet right now, they aren’t the reason to buy this phone. After all, we have to expect many of these capabilities to come to other phones in 2024 since Google is powering the software underlying many of them. 

No, if you’re going to spend $1,300 on this phone then it should be because of the hardware features and refinements that are unique to Samsung, and the fact that — more than ever — the camera system can do it all. 

Samsung’s Galaxy S Ultra product has been the flagship of Android flagship phones since it first launched in 2020, and especially after it integrated the S-Pen and it adopted its current Galaxy Note-like form factor in 2022. While the 2024 edition of the Ultra may look just like last year’s model at first blush, that hides a bunch of meaningful upgrades to the display, the flatness of the screen, the cameras, and the titanium materials the phone is made of.

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra with Circle to Search

Google’s Circle to Search on the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

And while the standard Galaxy S24 and S24 Plus models look and feel more and more like iPhones with their rounded edges, the S24 Ultra maintains the traditional Galaxy Note squareness that is distinctive among Samsung flagships, makes it unique among Android phones, and gives it a standout look versus the flagship iPhone 15 Pro Max. 

In fact, while the screen size of the S24 Ultra (6.8 inches) is only slightly larger than the iPhone 15 Pro Max (6.69) on the spec sheet, it actually has more usable space because of those square corners while the iPhone loses usable space at the top and bottom of its screen because of the rounding of its corners.

That gets to overall the theme of the S24 Ultra. It’s eminently practical, pleasant to use every day, and simply better in lots of unexpected little ways. In an era of rapid smartphone maturation, those are strong compliments.

Alternatives to consider

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