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Gadget of the Week

Gadget of the Week: S23 delivers ultra camera performance

The numbers are impressive, but the performance more so, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK after testing the Samsung S23 Ultra.

What is it?
It is conventional wisdom nowadays that, if one has a current model of any flagship phone, there is no need to upgrade when the updated version arrives a year later. This has been the case with the iPhone for a few years, and certainly applied to the update of the Samsung S22 Ultra over the S21 version. In that case, both had 6.8-inch displays and near-identical camera arrays, with a minor update of the processor. The new handset was differentiated by advanced new software capabilities, including a vast editing toolbox, and Space Zoom offering 100X zoom thanks to a multiplication of 10x Optical Zoom and 10x digital zoom. For people who typically snap away with their phones without bothering with edits, that meant it was the same phone.

The S23 Ultra is not the same phone. It has two primary physical features that stand out.
First, and most significantly, the main less runs to no less than 200 Megapixels – the most of any phone yet released in South Africa, it is a wide-angle lens with an aperture of f/1.7, 23mm and supports Laser Autofocus, phase detection auto focus (PDAF), a high-speed autofocus tech, and optical image stabilisation (OIS). That means it can take a standard image and, after the photo is taken, zoom in on a small corner of the image.

The main lens is supported by LED flash and three additional lenses:
• 10 MP, f/4.9, 230mm (periscope telephoto), dual pixel PDAF, OIS, 10x optical zoom
• 10 MP, f/2.4, 70mm (telephoto), dual pixel PDAF, OIS, 3x optical zoom
• 12 MP, f/2.2, 13mm, 120˚ (ultrawide), dual pixel PDAF

The cameras support 8K video at 24 or 30 frames per second (FPS), 4K video at 30 or 60fps, 1080p or
HD video at 30, 60 or 240fps, and 720p at 960fps for super slow-mo. The front camera is only a 12 MP wide angle lens with f/2.2 aperture and PDAF, but it shoots video in 4K at 30 or 60fps, and in 1080p HD at 30fps. The selfie camera is evidence that it is not always about the megapixels, but also about the software that manages photos.

The display of the S23 Ultra comes in at 6.8-inches, using Dynamic AMOLED 2X,with a screen refresh rate of 120Hz and 1440 x 3088 pixels resolution.
In practice, we found that the telephoto lens was more impressive than the capabilities of the wide-angle lens.

Having the good fortune to attend the first Formula E world championship race in South Africa, the E-Prix held on the weekend in Cape Town, we tested it in a real-world scenario that was as challenging as one is likely to find in regular use of the handset.

Taking a normal wide-angle photo of a crowd on a distant grandstand, zooming in on the image did not allow us to identify individuals in the crowd. However, using the telephoto lens and optical zoom brought us so close to the spectators, we felt we were in their faces. It was a powerful demonstration of the capabilities of the S23 Ultra, but not necessarily of the 200MP lens.

The Samsung S23 Ultra zooms in on the crowd at the E-Prix in Cape Town, starting at wide-angle and zooming in to 100x optical zoom.

An even more impressive demonstration came with filming the Formula E electric cars speeding past at more than 200km/h on a straight about 100 metres away. They flashed by in a split second, but it was possible to freeze frame the video on each car and zoom in on the image to read the sponsor names on the cars.

Finally, we used the phone to interview Jaguar driver Mitch Evans, and were able to produce broadcast quality footage.
All in all, it was not the mega lens that stood out, but the overall performance of the camera array. Bear in mind that limited time was available for testing the device, and users may achieve different results over time.
A second element of the S23 Ultra worth mentioning is that the volume and control buttons have been further recessed into the side of the phone, giving it a smoother feel, compared to the slightly rough-edged feeling of the S22 Ultra. This is thanks to a marginally wider and heavier body, barely noticeable, but enough to move the buttons more flush, and to require a new phone case.

How much does it cost?
Starting at R30,999 or R2,887 per month.

Why does it matter?
Does 200MP matter? Justin Hume, vice-president for mobile at Samsung South Africa, offers an
anecdote that gives an insight into its impact:

“I was chatting to a colleague, and he said the fundamental problem that he’s got when people take an image of him is his beard, because it’s scraggly, and that blurs out to an unresolved, undefined mass. Suddenly, you’re bringing up a resolution like 200MP on a camera, and it’s in sharp contrast and resolution. It allows us to get a better quality of image.

“Second, you can be more creative in what type of images we take. Often, I’m having to pull out the phone quickly to take the snap and then I’m zooming in and cropping, and the images are blown out.”

What are its biggest negatives?

  • Only specialised uses are likely to justify upgrading for the sake of a 200MP lens.
  • Barely noticeable changes to the body still require one to get a new phone case if upgrading.
  • Mind-bogglingly expensive for a flagship phone that is not a foldable.

What are its biggest positives?

  • The software behind the camera array provides for a marvellous photographic experience.
  • Shooting in 4K allows for broadcast quality video and quality freeze-frames of ultra-fast action.
  • 100X optical zoom actually works, to zoom in on a face in a distant crowd.
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