Review: Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra is fantastic even without the impressive AI features

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra cameras.
The Galaxy S24 Ultra is released in New Zealand on Wednesday. Photo credit: Newshub.

Samsung is releasing its latest flagship smartphones early this year, getting the S24 range out as February has barely started and some Kiwis are still in holiday mode.

While most of the news around the new devices has focused on the groundbreaking Galaxy AI features, in this review I'm not going to. We've talked about those a fair bit already, but they're also not so much features of the S24 range as they are wider Samsung services.

Sure, the only way to access Galaxy AI on a phone right now is on a S24 device, but Samsung - to its credit - is going to be rolling those features out across last year's S23 range in the coming months. It may then release them on older phones after that, so they very much won't be S24-exclusive features for very long.

Much less to its credit, however, Samsung has also confessed that while Galaxy AI features are free on the S24 range for now, they might start charging for them after 2025. That could mean you spend well over $2000 on an S24 Ultra, plus however much you spend on your mobile bill each month, then on top of all that, have to start paying extra to Samsung for some of the AI features they advertised the phone with.

The Galaxy AI stuff is undeniably awesome, but as outlined above it should not be considered features of the S24 Ultra in the same way standard smartphone features are. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the S24 Ultra after using one for the past couple of weeks.

The good

Beyond those AI-powered tools, this is still a hugely impressive phone, even though it may appear at first as if it's not much of an upgrade on last year's S23 Ultra. There are a few great refinements that make this a new standard-setter, including some advantages it has over Apple's incumbent iPhone range. 

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Some of the S24's new features look very suspiciously like they are 'borrowed' from the latest iPhones, to be honest. In general I like that rather than loathe it - why not do your own version of something if it's clearly the best way to do it?

The titanium casing and colour option, boxier design, photo image selection to instant sticker creation, lock screen customisation and lock screen widgets are just some of the examples of features in last year's iPhone Pro devices replicated in the S24 Ultra.

More than any other non-iPhone smartphone I've ever used, the S24 Ultra emulates the slick, fluid Apple feel the best. The speed and subtle animations used to jump between apps, how quickly the camera app opens and operates - that super smooth modern iPhone feel is one of Apple's advantages this new Galaxy device matches.

It means everything feels instant and flows beautifully into the next thing you're doing, making it all more of a pleasure to use.

I've also been really impressed with the S24 Ultra's new anti-glare technology. It works exceptionally and the display is always easy to see, no matter where you are. Think of something like the sunlight coming through a plane window and shining right onto your phone - that's not a concern with this one.

The anti-glare tech is on top of the best-in-class brightness Samsung has achieved with the S24 Ultra. Display brightness has come a long way over the past few years and if you have an older phone, how easy the screens on newer models are to see - even outside on a blazing bright summer day - will blow you away.

Exactly how far has it come? Well, the Galaxy S10 from 2019 had a peak brightness of 1215 nits, while the iPhone 11 that came out the same year had a peak of 625. The S24 Ultra's peak brightness is a whopping 2600 nits.

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Overall, the S24 Ultra's display is pretty much the best smartphone display I've ever used. It's now completely flat with crisp, thin borders that are pleasantly even on every side. It's just so elegant and the way the sides of the phone are curved means the device doesn't have that unpleasant, almost sharp-edge feel of some other phones with entirely flat screens.

For web browsing, texting, taking notes, watching videos, gaming - for everything you want to do with a smartphone, this screen absolutely aces it.

Speaking of gaming, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 chip and 12GB RAM driving this give it serious power for running demanding modern games. It also has really good new cooling tech in it, so it won't get too hot during longer gaming sessions, as well as a big battery and various efficiency tricks that mean the battery lasts longer than any other Samsung phone I've used.

As for the camera system, this has been improved upon since the already hugely impressive S23 Ultra. Although the optical zoom controversially dropped from 10x to 5x, my photos and videos look better on this year's Ultra compared to last year's.

At the Foo Fighters concert at Mt Smart Stadium, I was especially impressed at how clear photos were taken 30x zoomed in, even before the AI 'remaster' effect cleared them up further. The 100x zoomed in pics still don't look good, but they too have been improved upon and are fun to take.

Foo Fighters perform at Auckland's Mt Smart Stadium on January 20, 2024.
Two 30x zoomed in photos of Dave Grohl at Mt Smart in January, taken with the S24 Ultra. Photo credit: Newshub.

While I'm not a very big stylus user, the inclusion of the S-Pen is a lovely bonus. For signing documents on the go and more precise photo editing it's really handy, and sometimes writing notes is better than typing them.

Speaking of note-taking - one last positive thing I have to mention is one of the AI features. The translation features and Circle to Search are obviously groundbreaking, but the AI-generated summaries of your notes - or of any text, like a web page with thousands of words - are amazing in a less obvious way.

Then the arranging your notes, giving them covers and brief descriptions and so forth: this is just so much better than the iPhone notes app, or any other I've used. It's something all smartphones should be doing soon, but for now is an area where Samsung has an impressive advantage.

The bad

It's tough how expensive top-end phones are getting. At the time of writing, you can't get an S24 Ultra in Aotearoa for less than $2400, while the highest-spec option will set you back $3100.


Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra.
Photo credit: Newshub.

And despite all of the refinements and upgrades, not to mention that eye-watering price tag, there are still some things Samsung hasn't got as well as you might hope with the S24 Ultra.

In low light it can struggle to see my face enough to unlock it without blasting me with light, and in any light the fingerprint reader seems to struggle to read my thumb. So I have to punch in an unlock code more often than I do on other devices, which is more inconvenient than you may think. 

As good as the cameras are in the S24 Ultra they're still not ideal for every situation. Streaming live video straight into some third-party apps degrades the quality in weird ways you don't get in other phones, and I find Apple and Oppo phone cameras can take better videos or photos in some low light situations.

Samsung seems to be pushing you toward its other services and products more than ever, too, which is occasionally annoying. They ultimately may mean greater convenience one day, but for now being asked repeatedly to sign up to Samsung Pass and Smart Things and the rest of it does grate a little.

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra.
Photo credit: Newshub.

That old problem Android phones have of multiple companies trying to work together to offer stuff Apple does as one unified beast still stings too. When the Google in this phone and the Samsung in this phone don't quite work cohesively together, for example, it does make me miss using an iPhone.

There are other times where I wish Samsung used Google more than it does - for example with the translation tech. Those Galaxy AI tools are massively impressive, but the translation itself isn't as good as Google's.

This will likely improve over time, but for now it really struggles with things like accents, dialects and slang. The live-translating over the phone feature also requires patience from both speakers that likely isn't there in some of the most obvious use-case scenarios, like ordering from a restaurant.

Still, when those translation features work well they are genuinely amazing and I look forward to them getting a lot better.

The verdict

Samsung has set the bar very high for this year's Android smartphones with the S24 Ultra. 

Sadly, it looks as though Oppo isn't releasing its Find X7 Ultra in New Zealand, which means if you're buying a new Android smartphone the S24 Ultra will be the best you can get for quite a while.

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra.
Photo credit: Newshub.

If you are deciding between an iPhone or Android device and just want the very best smartphone available, Samsung has created a fearsome competitor to Apple's devices with this - one that has a few clear advantages, while mitigating some of the advantages iPhones have over other devices.

As the first device on the market with Galaxy AI, the S24 range is an awesome first example of what that suite of tools will offer us.

But beyond the AI features, the display, design, battery, camera and performance of the S24 Ultra are all top notch, making it an easy phone to recommend to anyone who can afford its steep asking price.

Newshub was supplied an S24 Ultra for this review.