It looks like a Note, it acts like a Note. Just don't call it a Note. That's Samsung's new Galaxy S22 Ultra, a massive, 6.8-inch Android phone that's styled like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra from 2020. The similarity between the new S-series phone and the Note of yesteryear is more than skin deep. For the first time on a Galaxy S, a stylus—the one feature that made Note phones so unique—is embedded inside the device. That might mean the death of the Note branding Samsung has used for its large, S Pen-carrying mobiles since 2011.
This $1,200 phablet (are we still saying phablet?) was announced today at Samsung's Galaxy Unpacked virtual event, alongside two other phones: the new Galaxy S22 ($800) and Galaxy S22+ ($1,000). Oh, and three new tablets too. Here’s a breakdown of all six Samsung devices.
I’m Feeling 22
Let's start with the phones. There are minor changes over last year's excellent Galaxy S21 range. The S22 and S22+, for example, are slightly smaller than their predecessors, with 6.1-inch and 6.6-inch screens, respectively. They don't have the accented color on the rear camera module, which is a downgrade to me. It added a bit of fun to the S21 lineup, and things feel a bit one-note here (pardon the pun).
The S22 Ultra gets the biggest redesign. It takes many cues from the Galaxy Note, including the built-in S Pen you can pull out from its underside. Samsung says its stylus is more responsive than ever before, but it can do all the same tricks we last saw on the Note 20 Ultra, including serving as a Bluetooth controller for the camera, acting as a drawing utensil, or being used as a way to take notes so Samsung's handwriting recognition software can convert your scribbles into regular text. There is no S Pen included with the S22 or S22+, and those phones don’t support the stylus either. You’ll have to pay for the Ultra if you prefer to use a stylus with your phone.
The other main difference between the Ultra and its smaller siblings is in the camera system. The S22 Ultra remains the only one of the lot with a 10X optical zoom camera—and it has no peer in the US with similar functionality. Its main camera uses the same 108-megapixel sensor as last year's S21 Ultra, whereas the S22 and S22+ have a new 50-megapixel sensor that's 23 percent larger than the sensor in their predecessors. Larger image sensors have more light-gathering capabilities, enabling them to produce brighter and sharper photos. The only cameras that are exactly the same across all the phone models are the 3X optical zoom telephoto, the 12-megapixel ultrawide, and the 40-megapixel selfie cam.
Despite different main cameras, Samsung says all three phones use a new image processing technique called Adaptive Pixel to produce brighter high-resolution photos. Weirdly, this process doesn't occur by default. Let me explain. Just like last year, by default, the new devices capture 12-megapixel photos instead of photos that take full advantage of the sensor size—108- or 50-megapixel photos, depending on the phone. This is because it uses a process called pixel binning, where pixels merge and become larger but fewer in number so each one can absorb more light. That produces a photo that's lower in resolution yet brighter. It's an ideal method to use anytime there isn't a ton of light in a scene.
Samsung has always allowed you to bypass the default behavior and capture a 108-megapixel photo with sharper details, but this mode has always suffered in low light. Not anymore. Now when you force the camera to capture a 108- or 50-megapixel photo, it will employ Adaptive Pixel. This takes a photo at the max resolution as well as a pixel-binned photo and merges the two, supposedly giving you the best of both worlds. Well, except for the fact that these photos have very large file sizes (around 20 megabytes instead of the usual 3 MB). It's hard to say exactly how much of an improvement Adaptive Pixel is, but it clearly can't be as good as Samsung wants, or it'd be the default option when you take a photo. (Maybe larger file sizes are precisely why it's not the default?) I'll have more to say once I get to test the phones.
I'm more excited to try Auto Framing. This new video feature can detect up to 10 people in a scene and will automatically try to keep everyone in focus and in the frame. It will zoom in, zoom out, pan around, and follow subjects as they move, meaning you don't need to be as much of an auteur for those TikToks filmed in your bedroom (no shame). Other camera improvements include smoother stabilization when you use Samsung's Super Steady mode when taking videos and a Portrait mode that does a better job of handling hair. Portrait mode also works better on pets now and can work in tandem with Night mode, so you can snap those bokeh-filled selfies in the dark.
The AMOLED screens on these phones all have adaptive 120-Hz screen refresh rates like last year, but Samsung specifically calls out a new trick called Vision Booster, which sounds like something my optometrist would prescribe. It cranks up the colors and contrast of the screen in super sunny conditions so that dark scenes are easier to see—handy if you're the type to watch season 2 of The Witcher outside the confines of your home.
There are just a few remaining differences between these devices. Naturally, they all have varying battery capacities, but the S22+'s screen can get a bit brighter than the S22’s. There’s Wi-Fi 6E support on the S22+ and S22 Ultra but just Wi-Fi 6 on the S22. That probably doesn’t matter just yet, because Wi-Fi 6E is still a fairly new standard, and you need new routers to make use of the technology. The two bigger phones also support ultra-wideband (UWB), which helps you track certain trackers more precisely, and they can charge faster at 45 watts, whereas the S22 has no UWB and is restricted to 25 watts. The latter also doesn't matter as much, as there's no charger in the box; you'll need to supply your own.
If you use Google Duo, Android's FaceTime equivalent, you'll be happy to hear that these Samsung phones are debuting a new feature called Live Sharing that lets you watch YouTube videos, search locations on Google Maps, and use select other apps with friends during video calls. It's very similar to Apple's SharePlay, though not as expansive. Presumably, this will make its way to other Android devices at a later date, but Google did not share details about its rollout.
Google, the company that maintains the Android operating system, is refocusing its efforts on tablets again. That might be why Samsung's Galaxy Tab S8 lineup is the most ambitious we've seen from the company in ages. Sure, Samsung has long maintained a presence in this mobile category, but three luxe tablets is a lot. Today we saw an 11-inch Galaxy Tab S8 ($800), a Tab S8+ ($900), and a behemoth, 14.6-inch Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra for $1,100. All three come with S Pen styluses that magnetically stick to the back of the slate.
Svelte designs and thin bezels mix well with these bright screens. (The Tab S8 uses LCD whereas the other two use AMOLED panels.) But I'm more excited about the placement of the selfie camera—it's in the middle of the bezel when held in landscape mode. That means Zoom calls won't look as awkward as they do on iPads, where the camera is placed all the way over to the side in landscape mode. Samsung is taking a page out of Apple's book with a feature similar to Center Stage on iPads though, where the camera pans and zooms on the subject during video calls. (OK, Facebook did it first.) These tablets can also cut out background noise better than before, so you shouldn't sound too awful if you take a virtual meeting at the local coffee shop.
Expect these tablets to also offer easier ways to use multiple apps at the same time in differently sized windows. Samsung says you can even use the Tab S8 as a secondary screen with your Windows PC. If you want to turn ’em into your main computing device, there are keyboard covers you can buy for each. These covers are included free if you preorder a tablet.
All six of Samsung's new devices are powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor (the successor to last year's Snapdragon 888 chipset). But the best part? They will all receive four Android OS upgrades and up to five years of security updates (Samsung is also backporting this upgrade policy to the Galaxy S21 range, the S21 FE, last year's Galaxy Z Fold3 and Flip3, and the Galaxy Watch4). That's the best software support on anything other than iPhones—even besting what Google offers on its devices.
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