Galaxy S22 Ultra hands-on: Ultimate superphone mashup

Samsung was always going to have a tough mission following up the excellent Galaxy S21 Ultra, but unexpectedly, it also seems to be having trouble exorcising the ghost of the Galaxy Note, the series it seemed to drop in favor of the Galaxy Z Fold range. The ghost has proven so hard to banish, it appears to have possessed the S22 Ultra. I came away from an hour with the Galaxy S22 Ultra confused over whether it is really a new Galaxy Note phone masquerading as a Galaxy S Series Ultra phone.

At first, Samsung’s decisions around the hardware changes made it quite difficult to quickly ascertain who the phone is really for and whether it would have been better to call in an exorcist before sending the phone out into the world. However, upon reflection, I think the S22 Ultra could end up satisfying both Note loyalists and S Series Ultra lovers. Let me explain.

S22 Ultra mixes S Series and Note design

Let’s start with how it looks. The S21 Ultra’s defining integrated camera module, which gave it such a unique look, has been dropped, and the cameras now poke out individually from the phone’s body. It looks sleek and modern, and cleverly, Samsung has added clear lens surrounds to minimize the visual impact. However, it’s not eye-catching in the same way as the S21 Ultra, but it is far prettier than the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Galaxy s22 ultra in phantom black with s pen.
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

The Galaxy S22 Ultra is even bigger than the S21 Ultra. It’s about the same length, but there’s some additional width, likely due to the space for the S Pen stylus inside. That’s right, the feature that made the Note the Note has been added to the S22 Ultra, and it looks and feels exactly like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, right down to the way it unclips and springs out when you push the end of the S Pen.

The 229 gram, 8.9mm thick chassis isn’t shaped like the S21 Ultra either. It’s curvier, so it disguises its bulk better than the S21 Ultra, but make no mistake, this is a serious handful. I had almost gotten used to the size of the S21 Ultra, but I think the S22 Ultra is still going to need some additional muscle training before I learn how to hold and use it with one hand.

Unsheathing the S Pen, the S22 Ultra feels, unsurprisingly, like a Note phone, and putting the pen to glass returns that same, slick, fluid experience that made the Note such a joy. It’s ridiculously accurate with a wonderful pen-like tactility when you write, and the palm rejection is spot-on. It’s also helpful, with the same array of Bluetooth-enabled features Note owners are now used to. The convenience of the S Pen stored inside the phone’s body will be new to anyone who has only used an S Series Ultra phone but not to anyone who has used a Note.

There are four different Galaxy S22 Ultra colors available. The standard Phantom Black model looks great, but the matte Phantom White version is a real eye-catcher, as is the new green model. However, for top visual appeal, you have to look at the pretty burgundy model, as the shade changes in different lighting conditions.

Galaxy s22 ultra with s22 plus and s22.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra with S22 Plus and S22. Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

I used the S22 Ultra alongside the Galaxy S22 and Galaxy S22 Plus, Samsung’s other two new phones, but there’s also absolutely no family connection between the designs. Put either S22 next to the Ultra, and they’re clearly very different smartphones. It was always obvious the S21, S21 Plus, and S21 Ultra were related, but not now. It’s almost as if the Galaxy S22 Ultra should be called something else.

Camera and performance

If you own a Galaxy S21 Ultra, you’re probably wondering if the camera on the S22 Ultra will be even better. I didn’t have the chance to test the camera outside, but I did take a few photos inside and compare them to the S21 Ultra. Viewing 10x and wide-angle photos on both revealed very few differences, with the S22 Ultra perhaps taking ever-so slightly warmer images. The phone I used would be using pre-release software, so looking any closer for differences would be unfair.

The galaxy s22 ultra's camera module.
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

However, as the specification is broadly the same — 108-megapixel main camera, 12MP wide-angle, 10MP 3x telephoto, and 10MP 10x optical zoom — between the two, and my early impressions were that Samsung hasn’t gone mad with software-driven changes, I’m expecting the S22 Ultra’s camera to be quite similar in performance to the S21 Ultra’s.

It’s no bad thing as the S21 Ultra is excellent, but it may not be worth the upgrade from it if all you care about is daytime camera performance. Samsung is promising advancements for night-time photography, along with new pro-level features. It may have a tough time beating the S21 Ultra’s camera, but it’s likely going to be an excellent upgrade to the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and S20 Ultra.

I browsed using Chrome and the Samsung Internet app, played around with the OneUI settings menu, and used the camera app too. The S22 Ultra performed smoothly and speedily throughout, and the massive, 6.8-inch, 120Hz, massively bright screen shows there’s no question this will prove to be a monster when it comes to multi-tasking and productivity. As Note owners already know, Samsung knows what it’s doing when it comes to making a really powerful productivity-focused phone.

On the subject of the screen, the S22 Ultra has a feature called Vision Booster, where it can boost its brightness for better viewing in sunlight, and for improved contrast and colors. I used the phone inside but did note how vivid the screen looked, and also wonder if the warmer colors in photos were due to the screen and Vision Booster tweaks rather than the camera.

By this stage, I’m sure you’re seeing a pattern. If I had absolutely no knowledge of Samsung’s product range outside of it making an S Series and a Note series phone, then after picking up the S22 Ultra, I’d need quite a lot of convincing that it wasn’t actually a new Note phone.

Worth the upgrade?

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter from a should-I-buy-this-perspective what this phone is called. Just like it wouldn’t matter if your best friend was called Bob and not Dave, for example. But there’s no question Samsung has quietly merged the Ultra and the Note line together, and that has made it confusing for those who know Samsung’s range well.  Because when you look closer, it arguably looks like Samsung has dropped the Ultra phone from a hardware perspective, and just swapped the name over to what would have once been the Note 21 Ultra.

I also think it’s fairer to say this would be how a Note 21 Ultra would have been specced, and not a Note 22 Ultra, because so much of what made the S21 Ultra such a great phone remains, and it’s the addition of internal storage for the S Pen that can be viewed as the primary upgrade. If you were feeling uncharitable, you could then see it as a 2021-spec phone arriving in 2022. After all, before the Note was sidelined, the new model traditionally arrived around September time.

Galaxy s22 ultra in burgundy color.
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

Where does this leave the S22 Ultra, and owners of recent top-spec Samsung phones? My early impression is the S22 Ultra doesn’t seem to be a must-have upgrade to the S21 Ultra yet, so it’ll be worth waiting until the full reviews are out before making your final decision to buy one. But it is shaping up to be a great upgrade from the Note 20 Ultra, and crucially, the S20 Ultra too.

The Galaxy S22 Ultra has everything that made the S21 Ultra such a brilliant smartphone, complete with the main feature we all miss from a Note phone, and while the Samsung hasn’t broken new ground, it has merged two of the best, most desirable phones the company has ever made into one, massively capable super-phone.  It’s set to please a lot of people, and Samsung definitely shouldn’t call in an exorcist to rid the S22 Ultra of the Note series’ spirit.

The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra will be available for pre-order on February 9, prior to its February 25 release, and it starts at $1,200.

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