Teardown: Samsung Ultra S20 5G smartphone
Image credit: Samsung
Is Samsung’s new camera-led flagship more than a beta?
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is a camera-led flagship 5G handset that has come to market at a time when photography faces constraints, albeit ones beyond the company’s control.
It carries a hefty early-adopter price: £1,199 for the model with 128GB of storage and 12GB of RAM, rising to £1,399 for 512GB and 16GB respectively. It does not fold, but it does feature a main rear camera with a massive 108MP capability, next to a dual 48MP telephoto array.
The largest resolution can be used, but the main objective is to combine the input of all three cameras to deliver a professional-standard result, or simply capture more light and data to produce better quality snaps.
To review the results, there is a very large 6.9-inch diagonal OLED screen with 3200x1440 resolution and a 120MHz refresh rate (twice that of a typical high-end smartphone).
Samsung has invested a lot of in-house engineering to achieve these specifications. Most notably, it has developed its own camera sensor, the ISOCELL Bright HMX, rather than using any of the third-party options.
For low-light photography in particular, the sensor uses a barrier made of a novel material (Samsung has used metal barriers before) around each of the 0.8µm pixels on the large device. This is designed to prevent diminished quality due to factors such as crosstalk and optical loss.
It also uses pixel binning. This, as explained in an iFixit teardown, “is a fancy term for combining groups of pixels to gather more light. The result is a brighter – though lower-resolution – photo that hopefully has less noise.
“Binning isn’t your average, everyday downsampling,” iFixit continues. “All of this pixel partying happens at the hardware level, eliminating conversion errors.”
Then to keep the depth of the phone to 8.8m (albeit still comparatively thick), the zoom stack has been installed in an array at a right angle. Light is directed to the array via a prism that itself contains an optical image stabiliser.
The S20 Ultra may not fold, then, but it obviously carries a substantial share of non-recurring engineering costs. Samsung has sought to mitigate those a little by reusing much of the same layout as the Note10+ 5G. Similarities include, iFixit found, “millimetre-wave antennas embedded into the frame and an earpiece speaker that fires upward from behind the display”. But there is still an ROI factor, hence the price.
And the work is not yet finished. After some reviews raised issues about auto-focus and image quality (particularly fading focus toward the edge of frame at higher pixel count), Samsung said that a software update would be distributed that addresses these issues.
Something that may be more difficult to fix, though, is power management. The S20 Ultra contains a 19.30Wh battery (5,000mAh at 3.86V). This compares with 16.56Wh for the Note10+ 5G. However, given the increased refresh rate of the display, reviews again found that the phone’s charge only limped to the end of a day. There are four separate power management ICs.
Moreover, iFixit rated the phone at a low 3 out of 10 for repairability. “Replacing the glued-down battery is tougher than ever, especially with board interconnect cables to work around,” it concludes. “All-too-common display repairs require either a complete teardown or replacing half the phone.”
Its team was also concerned that, as the phone has no 3.5mm headphone jack, this could put extra strain on the USB-C port. USB ports are one of the most common failures on handsets.
So, is the S20 Ultra just a pathfinder? As iFixit notes, it may well be, but it illustrates Samsung’s ambitious design culture. “In a world of iterations and safe bets, it’s refreshing to see Samsung continue to do what Samsung does best: pack phones full of zany technology and see what sticks.”
And that’s true. With its broad range of handsets, Samsung can filter down the innovations in its flagships to cheaper phones for the mass market. Given growing competition from companies such as Huawei, Xiaomi and OnePlus, that is probably how the S20 Ultra best makes sense. Its misfortune is that it has arrived during the Covid-19 crisis, when even early adopters may hold back.
Key components: Samsung Ultra S20 5G
1. Rear panel
4. SIM/microSD tray
5. Motherboard/Front camera
6. Main camera components
9. Daughterboard (speaker)
11. Daughterboard (USB-C)
12. Charging coil
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