Jul 19, 2023
Hands On: Samsung's Galaxy S23 Line Puts Up to 200 Megapixels in Your Pocket
After months of anticipation and speculation, Samsung announced its flagship smartphones for 2023 at a live event in San Francisco on Wednesday. This trio of handsets, which includes the Galaxy S23,
After months of anticipation and speculation, Samsung announced its flagship smartphones for 2023 at a live event in San Francisco on Wednesday. This trio of handsets, which includes the Galaxy S23, Galaxy S23+, and Galaxy S23 Ultra, should look familiar to anyone who's seen the Galaxy S22, but there are notable improvements under the hood, including the top mobile processor on the market, generous storage, and one of the highest-megapixel cameras available to phones.
We got a chance to spend some time with the handsets ahead of their announcement and have some first impressions to share while we work on full reviews.
The three Galaxy S23 family members share a lot of the same hardware features. For example, each has a strengthened (and recycled) Armor Aluminum frame and a Gorilla Glass Victus 2 panel; the latter uses the strongest glass from Corning yet and can withstand higher drops and deeper scratching than before. The phones meet the IP68 certification for protection against dust and water, which has become standard among flagship smartphones (the iPhone 14 and the Pixel 7 have the same rating).
New for this year, Samsung is offering the same choice of colors across the three devices: Cream, Green, Lavender, and Phantom Black. If you order directly from Samsung's website, you get access to exclusive colors such as Graphite, Lime, Red, and Sky Blue. Samsung points out that the colors were made in part from recycled dyes.
Samsung carries over much of the display tech from last year, but there are some slight changes. All three panels are Dynamic AMOLED 2X Infinity-O screens with adaptive 120Hz refresh rates that balance power efficiency with scrolling performance. The Galaxy S23 has a 6.1-inch FHD+ screen with a pixel density of 425ppi, the S23+ has a 6.6-inch FHD+ screen at 393ppi, and the S23 Ultra has a 6.8-inch QHD+ screen at 500ppi. Whereas the S23 and S23+ continue to have flat screens, the S23 Ultra remains curved along the edges (though slightly less so than the previous model).
Samsung has leveled the playing field when it comes to brightness. Each screen has a rating of 1,200 nits (typical) and 1,750 nits (peak outside) brightness. In years past, the Ultra model offered better specs here. The screens look outstanding in person—sharp, fast, and bright. I had no trouble seeing them under the intense glare of the demo room lights.
After spending some time with all three phones, it's easy to say they are outstanding pieces of hardware. The materials are absolutely top-notch, while the fit and finish of the manufacturing is excellent. The rear glass has a nice matte texture while the front sports a smooth sheen. I really like the rounded aluminum frame of all three models, which helps improve hand comfort.
Given the different screen sizes, the dimensions of each phone are a bit different which should help everyone fit a potential fit. The S23 measures 5.76 by 2.79 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 5.93 ounces, the S23+ measures 6.21 by 3.0 by 0.3 inches and weighs 6.91 ounces, and the S23 Ultra stretches to 6.43 by 3.07 by 0.35 inches and 8.25 ounces. At more than half a pound, the Ultra model is indeed large and heavy, even before you add a protective case.
The volume toggle and power button both sit on the right edge. Both travel and feedback are excellent. There's a USB-C port, SIM card tray, and speaker on the bottom, while the top and left edges are bare. The S23 and S23+ have a vertical trio of cameras on the back, while the S23 Ultra gets a fourth camera and a sensor array. The large, standout camera modules are gone, but the lenses do stick out from the rear surface quite a bit. If you go without a case, I imagine these lenses might catch on your pockets from time to time.
An under-display fingerprint reader helps secure the phone. It was speedy in a quick test. Facial recognition is an option, as well. Samsung didn't say if the sensor is the secure kind or if it uses simple photo recognition to unlock the phone.
Speaking of fast, let's talk about the processor. All three phones share the same processor, though there's some variability in the amount of RAM and storage available to each. First, the chip.
Samsung collaborated with Qualcomm to boost the power of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chip. Although I wasn't allowed to run benchmarks on the S23 during my short time with the phones, I was able to benchmark the 8 Gen 2 last year. Together, Samsung and Qualcomm have increased the clock speed of both the CPU and the GPU to allow for faster and more powerful performance on tasks such as gaming. Specifically, the chip has an accelerated main Kryo CPU with up to 3.36GHz peak speeds. Qualcomm didn't specify the clock speed of the ramped-up GPU, but called the "Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy" the "fastest Snapdragon ever." Importantly, it supports real-time ray tracing in games, a feature that improves the way lighting looks. We certainly plan to put that claim to the test in our full review of the phones. In person, the S23 devices felt incredibly quick, with instantaneous response to touch and app actions.
Samsung was a little cagey when I asked if the 8 Gen 2 will appear in all global models of the S23 family. The company typically ships Snapdragon-based phones in the US market and its in-house Exynos-powered variants to the rest of the world. While Samsung wasn't ready to share the details, Qualcomm was. In its separate announcement of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy it indicated that the chip would ship in the S23 family globally.
As for RAM and storage, it's different per device. The S23 will ship with 8GB of LPDDR5x RAM and either 128GB or 256GB of storage. The S23+ will also ship with 8GB of RAM but 256GB or 512GB of storage. And finally, the S23 Ultra will come in three configurations: one with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, and one with 12GB of RAM and either 512GB or 1TB of storage. None of the devices supports microSD cards, so choose your storage wisely.
Samsung increased the battery size too. Both the S23 and the S23+ ship with batteries that are 200mAh larger than their S22 counterparts. That means 3,900mAh for the S23 and 4,700mAh for the S23+. The S23 Ultra carries over the massive 5,000mAh battery from last year. Whichever device you choose, Samsung promises it will have longer battery life than the previous model (the S22, in particular, had short battery life). We plan to test battery life rigorously.
The low-end model does get the short end of the charging stick. It supports 25W wired charging, while the S23+ and S23 Ultra get 45W wired charging. This means the latter two will replenish their battery much faster—provided you have a compatible power brick (the phones don't ship with one in the box). All three phones support 15W wireless charging, which is slower than some handsets from OnePlus and Oppo, but in line with competing models from Apple and Google.
Samsung always bestows the Galaxy S line with the best, most advanced cameras it can, but this year it takes things even further than usual.
Samsung outfitted the S23 Ultra with a brand-new 200MP ISOCELL HP2 camera sensor, an upgrade from the 108MP camera in last year's S22 Ultra. The sensor includes 200 million pixels, each of which measures 0.6μm in size. These are all crammed together on a 1/1.3-inch sensor that supports three primary shooting modes, with all 200MP, 50MP (binned by a factor of four), and 12.5MP (binned by a factor of 16). The sensor offers improved video capabilities as well—it can now record at a maximum of 8K30, and can shoot 4K60 in HDR. The sensor includes optical image stabilization (OIS), laser autofocus, and an aperture of f/1.7 for low-light shooting. The S23 Ultra also has a unique periscopic 10MP zoom camera at f/4.9. This powers 100x optical Space Zoom shots. Samples we shot in the mixed lighting of the demo room looked great at first glance. Meanwhile, the S23 and S23+ share the same 50MP main sensor; it also boasts OIS but has a slightly dimmer aperture of f/1.8.
The rest of the camera suite is the same across the three devices. That includes a 12MP ultra-wide shooter at f/2.2, a basic 10MP telephoto lens with OIS at f/2.4, and a 12MP selfie camera with phase-detect autofocus at f/2.2. All three phones can handle 4x slow motion in FHD at 120fps or 32x super slow motion at 960fps. The selfie cameras are capable of capturing 4K60 video. Camera software features include Super HDR, Nightography, Adaptive Pixel, VOIS (video optical image stabilization), High Resolution Photo (all the sensor's pixels), Auto Framing, Selfie Night Portrait, and Director's View. A Multi-Exposure mode guides you through the process of merging two separate exposures into one image.
Samsung says the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 has helped it improve on-device photo editing. Using AI, the S23 family can automatically detect flaws in photos and fix them. This applies to things like image noise and poor lighting, as well as annoying objects in the background. We look forward to testing how those features stack up with the advanced editing powers of the Pixel 7 Pro with Google Photos.
The Galaxy S23 range offers one of the most advanced connectivity suites in a smartphone so far. A Snapdragon X70 5G modem and RF system provides much of the power, and it works in tandem with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 mobile processor. For instance, the combination employs AI to manage things such as 5G upload and download speeds, actual network coverage and response times, and power efficiency.
The S23 devices support both sub-6GHz and mmWave 5G, though Samsung hasn't given us a full rundown of 5G bands so we can see what mid-band spectrum is onboard. It's the mid-band stuff that's generating the most excitement and the biggest boost in network performance across today's top devices in the US and beyond.
Last year's S22 family was a signal beast, and we expect a similar showing from this year's lineup.
Connectivity goes beyond 5G, of course. The Galaxy S23 supports the fast Wi-Fi 6E for the best potential Wi-Fi performance. Bluetooth 5.3 is included as well, for the best possible connectivity with accessories such as true wireless headphones.
Samsung continues to lead the market with its mobile software. The Galaxy S23 phones ship with Android 13 and One UI 5.1 (the latest custom user experience from Samsung). The phones will receive four full OS upgrades (to Android 17) and five full years of security updates to cover things like bugs and performance issues. That's better than what Google promises to Pixel phone owners, which get fewer Android system upgrades.
As far as unique software experiences headed to S23 devices, most seem to pertain to the camera and gallery app. There are, however, more ways to personalize the device, such as with a video lock screen, as well as a new widget system for keeping the home screen neat. Samsung revised the Bixby Text Call function, which allows you to answer phone calls by typing messages for text-to-audio responses. Fresh modes and routines make it possible to customize your experience throughout the day, such as when you leave or return home. Samsung improved its Knox security suite, as well as the Security and Privacy Dashboard, which let you see more clearly what apps have access to which aspects of your phone.
The S23 Ultra, with its S Pen stylus, gets additional powers. Most notably, the S Pen gains scribble status in text fields across a range of Google services. This means S23 Ultra owners can use the S Pen to write text in Gmail address bars, Google Calendar appointment slots, and more. This feature should arrive to the Galaxy Z Fold 4 as well, which also works with the S Pen stylus. We tried it briefly and found it to be a bit wonky in practice.
Lastly, Samsung is working to ensure its Galaxy smartphones integrate more closely with its Galaxy Book laptops (including the new Galaxy Book3). For example, there's Samsung Multi Control for sharing mice and keyboard accessories between Galaxy phones, tablets, and PCs. There's also an enhanced copy-and-paste functionality between devices, as well as Google Meet and Samsung Notes for more collaborative video calls on the S23 Ultra.
We don't yet have the full pricing breakdown for all the variants, but these are the basics: The Galaxy S23 with 8GB RAM and 128GB of storage costs $799.99, the Galaxy S23+ with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage retails for $999.99, and the Galaxy S23 Ultra with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage comes in at $1,199.99. Those are the same prices as last year, and come close to mirroring the prices for Apple's iPhone 14 lineup. Adding storage to the device of your choice bumps the price up a bit.
The phones are set to hit store shelves on Feb. 17. Samsung has been taking pre-orders for the Galaxy S23 series since mid-January. You can now order the phones from Samsung.com (Galaxy S23 and S23+ and Galaxy S23 Ultra), the wireless network operator of your choice, or retailers including Best Buy. We don't have the full slate of launch deals from the carriers yet, but you can be sure AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon will all offer some discounts; we'll post those as soon as we have details.
We plan to review all three new Galaxy phones in the weeks ahead, so make sure to check back soon for our full impressions.
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