Review: Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra raises the smartphone bar for an eye-watering price

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra, green colour option.
The Galaxy S23 Ultra in green. Photo credit: Newshub.

The latest flagship phone from Samsung is upon us, landing amid an enormous advertising campaign that has infiltrated websites, social media, countless billboards, buses, ad breaks and everywhere else.

Samsung seems especially confident this year in their never-ending quest to dethrone Apple as the number one premium smartphone brand.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra starts at a whopping NZ$2300 - a big increase on last year's launch price and more than its closest competitors in Aotearoa, the iPhone 14 Pro Max and Oppo Find X5 Pro.

First impressions are amusingly unimpressive in terms of how the phone looks compared to last year's model. It's almost the exact same as the S23 Ultra aside from having smaller curves and if you look really closely, slightly larger, flatter surfaces - with slightly larger camera rings if you look even closer.

But on the inside, things have taken a few big leaps forward, and it didn't take long after I started using the S23 Ultra that I got an understanding of why Samsung is so confident in this offering.

This thing runs amazingly well: it can handle all manner of demanding tasks including punishing high-end games, it has a really long-lasting battery life, a beautiful display and its camera takes some of the best photos of any smartphone.

The Galaxy S23 Ultra in use.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Those are all a step up from last year's model - but probably not enough of a step up to upgrade from a S22 Ultra, if you have one of those. Upgrading from anything older though is going to be a huge leap.

Powering the phone is a customised Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chip from Qualcomm and the option I reviewed had 12GB of RAM.

That means yes, it's super powerful and can manage all kinds of crazy apps that lesser phones would freak out over, but it also means it has more battery life to power the simple stuff for longer.

Throw in the now obligatory 120Hz refresh rate and a lightning fast Wi-Fi 6E internet connection and doing anything is beautifully fluid, with no delays.

I immediately changed the display to the maximum 3088x1440, which is not quite 4K, but streaming 4K YouTube and Netflix definitely looks better than streaming 1080p videos. It looks stunning.

Taking photos with the S23 Ultra.
Photo credit: Newshub.

How good are the photos?

One of the key selling points of the S23 range is its new photography capabilities, particularly the 'nightography' advancements.

The Ultra model comes packing Samsung's best ever camera system to date, including a new 200MP main camera.

But more than the hardware improvements, it's the computational background trickery that's been cooked up and loaded into this device that is generating the amazing results you're likely already seeing on social media. 

Taking photos with the Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Photo credit: Newshub.

As mentioned earlier, it costs more than the comparable models from Apple and Oppo, so how does its photos compare? I've taken a few side by side and the results are below.

Some caveats: none of these use people as primary subjects, which is what a lot of the improvements on phone camera software goes into (and the main thing people use them for, I guess). Apologies for my lack of models!

The photos also have to be compressed and cropped down to fit onto the Newshub website, so what you see here is nowhere near the full quality of each snap, but it still gives an idea.

This first one is taken on Auckland's Queen Street during dusk:

Photo comparison: Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 14 Pro vs Oppo Find X5 Pro.
Photo credit: Newshub.

This is the same photo, but zoomed in on the Auckland Town Hall's clock tower: 

Photo comparison: Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 14 Pro vs Oppo Find X5 Pro.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Here is some street art on Auckland's Federal Street in daylight:

Photo comparison: Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 14 Pro vs Oppo Find X5 Pro.
Photo credit: Newshub.

This is the neon lit entrance to Tanuki's Cave on Auckland's Queen Street just after sunset (note: all three of these look WAY better on the phones themselves, pre-compression and downsampling): 

Photo comparison: Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 14 Pro vs Oppo Find X5 Pro.
Photo credit: Newshub.

And here is my wonderful ginger cat Teto on a duvet at night, with a small amount of red LED light on nearby: 

Photo comparison: Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs Apple iPhone 14 Pro vs Oppo Find X5 Pro.
Photo credit: Newshub.

The three phones in the comparisons above can all take really great photos, but each is doing different things with how it processes images: each handles detail and noise a little differently, and each has their own level of warmth and grading.

Personal preference definitely comes into which photos are the best, but the S23 Ultra is definitely my favourite for some of them.

What I can't show here is the incredible clarity you get in photos taken in 200MP mode in an area with great lighting, and how amazing they look on the device's screen itself. Zooming in and out on the device can be astounding with how much detail it captures.

For a much deeper dive into the photography capabilities of the S23 Ultra versus those of the iPhone 14 Pro, check out this video from a popular tech YouTuber comparing loads of photos and videos taken on each:

The video's author is Arun Rupesh Maini, aka Mrwhosetheboss, who found for the first time in years Samsung's night mode photos are better than those of Apple's.

Night mode is one of 12 categories he tests, ultimately awarding the S23 Ultra the winner of 7.5 and the iPhone 14 Pro the winner of 4.5.

"While the iPhone is still a more reliable camera for video, there's all of a sudden not a lot else that Samsung doesn't do better," said Mrwhosetheboss.


This is the most exciting new feature of the phone for me personally, but I understand it's a niche one most customers won't be that interested in. Sure, it's kind of a gimmick, but it is undeniably impressive technology.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get out of Auckland and try the feature out in an area with limited light pollution - but I gave it a crack in the big city anyway and the result was pretty cool.

It's not quite as simple as "just pushing a button" like one of its chief designers told me at the launch in San Francisco, but it almost is. You have to install a separate app called Expert Raw, click the astro button at the top, then choose a duration of between four and 10 minutes, before lining up your phone in a place where its camera is facing the night sky but you can also push the button.

Then, you just push a button.

This is my first and so far only attempt - it would be very easy to do much better, if in a better location:

Galaxy S23 Ultra astrophotography pic taken over central Auckland.
Photo credit: Newshub.

You can probably expect to see a lot more awesome photos of stars on your social feeds soon.

The verdict

The S23 Ultra is an amazing device that sets the standard for flagship smartphones in 2023.

There's no getting around how steep $2300 is for a phone - and it's even more if you want the 12GB RAM versions like I reviewed, which start at $2650.

That will sting anyone, even if paying it off on a plan for a couple of years, in the current economy.

But you really are getting what you pay for if you're in a position to invest that much. Last year's S22 models are still out there if you want a really, really good Samsung phone for a bit less.

For those able to splash the cash, the S23 Ultra is about as good as smartphones get.

It's super powerful and fast, its battery lasts all day, the display is stunning and it has an amazing camera that raises the bar for night photography.

It's going to be interesting seeing how Apple responds this year and in particular if they undercut Samsung in price, or if these more brutal price tags are the new normal.

Newshub was supplied a Galaxy S23 Ultra for this review.