30/09/2022

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Galaxy S22 Ultra ongoing review: Samsung’s low-light camera is impressive so far

9 min read

Samsung S22 Ultra

Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra.


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The Galaxy Note may be gone, but fans of Samsung’s giant-screened, stylus-equipped phones shouldn’t worry. The Galaxy S22 Ultra, which starts at $1,200 (£1,149, AU$1,849) and goes on sale Feb. 25, is the Note sequel we never got last year. It inherits the Galaxy Note’s most distinct qualities, such as an S Pen that you can store inside the phone and a sharper design. Plus, it has the same characteristics that the Note and Ultra shared in the past, like a giant screen and a more sophisticated camera. 

All of these changes mean that Samsung has done a better job of making the S22 Ultra stand apart from the Galaxy S22 and S22 Plus. It’s also clear that Samsung has learned two things. First, better cameras and larger screens aren’t always enough to convince consumers to splurge on a $1,200 phone. Now, Samsung is adding the S Pen as an additional draw. And second, the audience for high-end phones that cost more than $1,000 may not be big enough to justify offering both a Galaxy Note option and a Galaxy S Ultra option. 

We’re still in the process of testing the Galaxy S22 Ultra. But the upgraded low-light cameras and Note-like aesthetic already seem like an improvement. Still, it’s worth remembering that these night photography improvements apply to Samsung’s cheaper Galaxy S22 phones as well. That means the Galaxy S22 Ultra will have to offer much more to make it worth its high price. 

The Galaxy S22 Ultra is a Note clone, but that’s a good thing

Samsung S22 Ultra

The Galaxy S22 Ultra comes with a stylus that you can store inside the phone, just like the Galaxy Note.


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

To say that the Galaxy S22 Ultra looks like the Galaxy Note would be an understatement. During the course of writing this review, I accidentally typed “Note” instead of “Ultra” more times than I can count. The Galaxy S22 Ultra has the same harsh, angular edges that Note fans are familiar with, which gives the phone more of a notepad-like feel. 

It’s an improvement over last year’s Galaxy S21 Ultra in this regard, which in some ways felt like a larger and heavier Galaxy S21. I’m glad Samsung found a way to make its top-of-the-line phone stand out a bit more.

The Galaxy S22 Ultra, like its predecessor, is the largest phone in Samsung’s Galaxy S lineup. It has a 6.8-inch screen similar to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, while the Galaxy S22 Plus has a 6.6-inch display and the standard Galaxy S22’s screen measures 6.1 inches. It’s also slightly wider than last year’s Galaxy S21 Ultra, which can make it a little challenging to use with one hand. It’s around the same width as Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro Max, although Samsung’s screen is a hair larger. 

Samsung also says the screen on the Ultra and the Plus are its brightest yet. I haven’t had a chance to put that claim to the test, but I’ve had the brightness set to about 25% or less and it still feels luminous enough. 

But what truly makes the Galaxy S22 Ultra feel like a Galaxy Note replacement is the inclusion of the S Pen. Samsung says it has improved the S Pen by reducing its latency, meaning it should be better at predicting where you’re going to scribble next. It’s been a while since I’ve used older S Pen styluses, but the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s feels very responsive and smooth. I’ve been using it to write down reminders and to-do lists so far, and it feels almost just like writing on paper.

Samsung S22 Ultra

The Galaxy S22 Ultra’s S Pen has lower latency compared to previous models, meaning what you draw appears on screen instantly. 


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

However, editing a Google Doc with the S Pen can still be awkward. When I tried using the handwriting-to-text tool in Google Docs, I noticed that words weren’t spaced properly unless I tapped the space bar after each word, which doesn’t feel natural when you’re handwriting.

That said, the S Pen is still useful for jotting down quick thoughts since the phone can serve as a notepad even when the display is off. That’s not new — the Galaxy Note supported this functionality too — but it’s appreciated nonetheless. During the course of writing this review, I’ve used the S Pen to write down quick impressions and thoughts when away from my computer, which has been helpful. You can also mark up screenshots and documents with the S Pen, which may be useful for those who need to review documents on their phone.

But I’m still questioning how valuable the S Pen is now that many people have likely shifted to hybrid or remote work. When testing Galaxy Note phones in the past, the S Pen came in handy for scrawling quick notes during a meeting or interview. But now most meetings happen virtually through my laptop, where I have a full keyboard in front of me for taking notes.

So far, the S Pen seems like a “nice-to-have” feature rather than a necessity. But considering Samsung hasn’t raised the price of its Ultra model compared to last year’s S21 Ultra — which didn’t include an S Pen — I’m totally fine with that.


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A better camera in low light

Like last year’s Galaxy S21 Ultra, the Galaxy S22 Ultra comes with a 108-megapixel main sensor, 12-megapixel ultrawide sensor and two 10-megapixel telephoto lenses. But Samsung says it’s made some under-the-hood improvements that should make the Ultra better at snapping photos in dark scenarios and processing detail. Specifically, Samsung says the new cameras can capture four times as much data. 

As far as low-light photos are concerned, the Galaxy S22 Ultra certainly delivers. In my side-by-side testing against the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the Galaxy S22 Ultra performed better in low light compared to its predecessor. 

So what’s changed? Samsung updated the way the Galaxy S22’s cameras process photos in dim conditions. All three new phones can combine the resolution from the camera’s main sensor with a process known as pixel binning, which combines data from multiple pixels into one giant pixel to improve brightness. Pixel binning isn’t new to Galaxy phones, but the ability to combine it with higher resolution from the main sensor is. 

That improvement is reflected in the photo samples from the Galaxy S22 Ultra shown below. As you can see, they’re more colorful and detailed than those taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Even though the S21 Ultra’s pictures may look brighter, they’re not as crisp or bold. You can really see the difference in the Spider-Man toy below. 

Galaxy S22 Ultra 

galaxy-s22-ultra-funkos

This photo was taken with the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s camera in a room with all of the lights turned off. 


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Galaxy S21 Ultra 

galaxy-s21-ultra-funko

This photo was taken in a dark room with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s not as colorful as the Galaxy S22’s. 


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Galaxy S22 Ultra

galaxy-s22-ultra-flowers

Another photo that was taken in a dark room with the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s camera. 


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Galaxy S21 Ultra

galaxy-s21-ultra-flowers

The same scene with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s not as sharp as the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s.


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

The same can generally be said for how the Galaxy S22 Ultra compares to Google’s Pixel 6 Pro in dimly lit scenes. In some cases, Samsung outperformed Google without question, such as in the photo samples showing Funko toys and flowers shown below. 

Galaxy S22 Ultra

galaxy-s22-ultra-funkos

This photo was taken with the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s camera in a room with all of the lights turned off. 


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Google Pixel 6 Pro

pixel-6-pro-funko

This is the same scene but with the Pixel 6 Pro.


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Galaxy S22 Ultra

galaxy-s22-ultra-flowers

Another photo that was taken in a dark room with the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s camera. 


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Google Pixel 6  Pro

pixel-6-flowers

Here’s another dark photo taken with the Pixel 6 Pro. Again, the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s photo is brighter. 


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

But in other settings, like the dimly lit bar, it was a closer call. I generally think Samsung did a better job with brightness and detail, but some might prefer the way Google’s camera interprets the reddish lighting in the bar.

Galaxy S22 Ultra 

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This photo was taken in a dimly lit bar with the Galaxy S22 Ultra.


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Google Pixel 6 Pro 

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The same scene taken with the Pixel 6 Pro.


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

The iPhone 13 Pro is Samsung’s biggest competition when it comes to night photography. Both phones perform excellently in low light when it comes to color.

Galaxy S22 Ultra

galaxy-s22-ultra-funkos

This photo was taken with the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s camera in a room with all of the lights turned off. 


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

iPhone 13 Pro

iphone-13-pro-funko

This photo taken with the iPhone 13 Pro in a dark room has great color, much like Samsung’s.


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

But there were some areas where Samsung was the clear winner, as was the case with the flower photo below. 

Galaxy S22 Ultra 

galaxy-s22-ultra-flowers

Another photo that was taken in a dark room with the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s camera. 


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

iPhone 13 Pro

iphone-13-pro-flowers

This photo was taken in a dark room with the iPhone 13 Pro. It’s brighter but not as sharp as Samsung’s.


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

But in other areas, you might say the iPhone produced the better image, like in this photo of a cocktail. The iPhone did a better job of keeping the entire subject in focus, including the glass’s stem.

Galaxy S22 Ultra

galaxy-s22-ultra-drink

This photo was taken in a dimly lit bar with the Galaxy S22 Ultra.


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

iPhone 13 Pro 

iphone-13-pro-drink

Again, but with the iPhone 13 Pro.


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

We’ll be updating this review in the coming days with more analysis of the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s general camera performance, including Portrait Mode, the zoom lenses and general image quality. But based on our testing so far, the improved low-light photography is impressive. 

Still, it’s worth remembering that these night photography enhancements are available on the regular S22 and S22 Plus too. Based on my testing so far, the Galaxy S22 Plus performs almost as well as the Galaxy S22 Ultra in low light with some subtle differences. 

That means the main camera advantages you’re getting by choosing the Galaxy S22 Ultra over the Galaxy S22 Plus are essentially the same as last year: the higher-resolution 108-megapixel main sensor and a closer zoom. 

Battery life and performance

Samsung S22 Ultra

The Galaxy S22 Ultra runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor.


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

The Galaxy S22 Ultra runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor in the US and Samsung’s Exynos processors in other select markets. But Samsung says there shouldn’t be any noticeable differences between the two.

So far, using the Galaxy S22 Ultra has felt as smooth as you would expect from a high-end smartphone. Apps launch quickly and swiping between home screens and settings menus feels fluid. Part of this is also likely thanks to the screen’s ability to boost its refresh rate up to 120Hz, a feature also found on Samsung’s cheaper S22 models and last year’s S21 lineup.

But any phone that costs $1,200 should be capable of these things. The value that new processors truly bring to smartphones comes down to the new features they power, particularly when it comes to camera performance. Samsung, for example, has said that its camera refinements are thanks in part to the Galaxy S22 lineup’s new processor. Google similarly says its Tensor processor brings machine learning enhancements to Pixel 6 phones that improve translation and other capabilities. 

Still, if you’re interested in general performance, we’ll be running benchmarks on the Galaxy S22 Ultra that will be incorporated into this review soon. 

Early overall thoughts

Samsung S21 Ultra versus S22 Ultra

The Galaxy S21 Ultra (left) alongside the Galaxy S22 Ultra (right).


Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

The new low-light camera performance definitely seems to be a highlight for the S22 Ultra. But if you already have an S21 Ultra, the S Pen and improved night photography features aren’t enough of a reason to upgrade on their own. 

The Galaxy S22 Ultra works well as a Galaxy Note replacement, and I’m glad Samsung is doing a little more to distinguish it from its smaller-sized S22 devices. Check back soon for our full verdict and more details. 


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