Galaxy S24 Ultra review: Samsung’s AI reinforcements have arrived


For nearly a decade the Galaxy Note was the undisputed king of Android phones. But when the OG phablet line was retired in 2020, that title passed on to the Ultra. While the hardware inside the most expensive Galaxy S model is as dominant as ever, over the past few years, the software in Google phones has begun to outshine anything available from Samsung. But armed with a new suite of AI-powered features, the Galaxy S24 Ultra (S24U) got exactly what it needed to maintain its spot atop the Android battlefield.

Design and display: Now with titanium

There are three main areas of improvement to the S24 Ultra: design, cameras and all of Samsung’s new AI tools. The biggest change to its build is the switch to a new titanium frame, which follows what Apple did for the iPhone 15 Pro last fall. So no points for originality. But more importantly, because the previous Ultra featured an aluminum chassis, there’s not a major change in weight either, with the S24U coming in at 232 grams (just two grams lighter than the S23 Ultra).

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SAMSUNG

With a titanium frame, Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 and a whole host of AI features, Samsung has made the Galaxy S24 Ultra more powerful and well-rounded than ever. But, with a starting price of $1,300, it’s a hard sell.

Pros

  • New titanium frame
  • Brighter display
  • A ton of AI tools
  • Higher res 5x telephoto camera
  • Great performance
  • Excellent battery life
Cons

  • Very expensive
  • No Qi2 support
  • Plain design
  • AI can be wonky sometimes

$1,300 at Amazon

Some other subtle changes are a new matte finish and an upgrade to Corning’s Gorilla Armor in front and back (instead of Gorilla Glass Victus 2 like on the regular S24/S24+). Another benefit of Corning’s latest hardened glass is that it has improved anti-reflective properties, so while it doesn’t totally eliminate glare, it does make it appear less harsh without impacting the display’s color saturation. And despite the previous model having slim bezels, Samsung reduced the borders around the display again by 42 percent, which is most noticeable along the top and bottom.

The display itself proves, once again, that Samsung makes the best mobile screens on the market. You still get a 6.8-inch OLED panel with a variable 120Hz rate, except now it’s even brighter with a peak of 2,600 nits (up from 1,750 nits). And if that’s not enough, the phone’s improved Vision Booster adds an additional 300 nits of perceived brightness, so movies, games, and everything else always looks good no matter where you are.

Performance: Setting a new bar for speed

One big change on the S24 Ultra is the addition of a tougher titanium frame.

Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Inside, the S24 Ultra features a new Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 SoC from Qualcomm and it’s a powerhouse. In Geekebench 6, we saw multi-core scores that were 30 to 35 percent higher than last year’s chip. This makes everything from games to switching between apps feel super snappy. The addition of a 92 percent larger vapor chamber also meant the S24 UItra never got above lukewarm even under sustained loads. Samsung also increased the phone’s RAM to 12GB for every config, unlike the S23U which started at 8GB base. Storage remains the same with 256GB, 512GB and 1TB options.

Cameras: A more usable 5x optical zoom

Three of the S24 Ultra’s four cameras are largely unchanged from its predecessor, including its 200-MP main sensor, 10-MP ultra-wide and 12-MP telephoto shooter with a 3x optical zoom. The main upgrade is swapping out the old 10x lens for a 5x optical zoom with a higher-res 50-MP sensor, which Samsung says reflects 5x being the most widely used focal length aside from the main cam. While this move might seem like a loss in terms of reach, the sensor’s increased resolution allows the phone to crop in providing what Samsung calls a “10x optical quality zoom” that’s surprisingly sharp.

In photos of the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty from across the water, the S24U produced rich, detailed pics that were just as good as what we got from a Pixel 8 Pro. And while images taken at 10X were a touch softer than similar shots taken by an S23 Ultra, they weren’t far off.

In general the S24U captured gorgeous pics in all sorts of conditions. You’ll still notice Samsung’s super-saturated colors and penchant for slightly warmer hues, but in most cases that just adds an extra sense of vibrancy. Samsung also has a habit of going a bit overboard on sharpening, though it’s not a major distraction. Even in low light the S24U’s Night Mode largely kept up with Google’s Night Sight, which is no small feat.

Software: Samsung’s big push into AI

One tweak Samsung made to the S24 Ultra's photography is a 5x telephoto lens with a higher-res 50-MP sensor instead of a 10x zoom like on the previous model.

Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Aside from its new hardware, the biggest addition to the S24 Ultra is Samsung’s Galaxy AI features, which are an entire suite of tools that fall into three main categories: text and translation, photography and editing, and search.

There’s an interpreter mode for in-person conversations along with a live translation feature that you can use during calls. Both are good enough to use in a pinch while traveling, but some things like word choice and pacing may be a bit off. The experience can also feel a bit clunky, especially when you’re on the phone and have to wait so the AI can catch up.

Next, you have Chat Assist which can check spelling, grammar and adjust the tone of messages. Admittedly, the social and emojify options are a bit gimmicky, but I genuinely appreciate the polite and professional choices, as they can help prevent a text or email from sounding combative.

Samsung's tone adjustment feature allows AI to suggest different ways of conveying a message with options for polite, casual, professional and more.

Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

In the Notes app, the S24U can also summarize, auto-format, spellcheck or translate a file, which is nice, but not exactly groundbreaking. A lot of these features are already available from other services like ChatGPT or Bard. That said, these improvements may be the biggest upgrades to the S24 Ultra’s S-Pen, which is otherwise largely unchanged.

Out of Samsung’s text-based tools, my favorite is the transcription feature in the Voice Recorder app. It makes grabbing quotes from interviews super simple, though I noticed that Samsung’s UX doesn’t feel quite as polished or streamlined as what you get from Google. For example, the Pixel Recorder lets you see the transcript in real-time, while on the Ultra, you have to record a convo and then hit the AI icon to generate a chat log when you’re done.

Samsung's AI remastering tool makes it super simple to enhance photos with just a couple of taps.

Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

The AI can also suggest edits for images like automatically remastering images (which is similar to the Auto Tone feature in Photoshop) or removing distracting elements like shadows and reflections. You can see these options by hitting the Info icon in the gallery app, which makes them super easy to access and might be the fastest way to improve your photos. The S24 Ultra can also create slow-mo clips from existing footage, just by tapping and holding on a video while it’s playing. This triggers the phone’s AI to generate new frames based on the fps of the recording (i.e. from 30 fps to 120 fps) on the fly and the results are surprisingly smooth.

If you prefer a more hands-on approach, there are Generative AI edits that allow you to reframe shots, move subjects around or delete them entirely, while the phone fills in the blanks. It’s a simple but effective process that sidesteps the need for Photoshop in a lot of cases. That said, if you look close you may notice areas where Samsung’s AI misses more details than the Pixel 8’s Magic Editor, which is a trend I noticed across a lot of Samsung’s AI features.

The S24 Ultra also has almost completely flat sides to give you the most screen for drawing and notetaking.

Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

All of the new tools generally function as expected, but things don’t feel quite as streamlined or polished as a lot of Google’s alternatives. In the Notes app, there’s a word limit for auto-formatting, summarizing and more, which limits you to about three or four paragraphs at a time. That means if you have a medium-sized doc, you’re gonna have to tackle it in chunks, which gets tedious pretty quickly. And sometimes if you try to highlight areas of a photo to remove reflections, the phone will smooth over the entire area and paint over the details.

In other situations, the AI will suggest edits that don’t make sense, like trying to turn a short motion photo into a timelapse. It’s possible this was my fault for importing a photo taken by another device, but I feel like the phone ought to know better. The AI is meant to work on any photo, regardless of where it came from. Even moving subjects around in a pic can get wonky depending on the shot and what you’re trying to do. And every now and then, the phone will suggest you remaster a photo, only for it to tell you that there’s nothing to fix. As a photographer, that’s a great feeling. But at the same time, why am I being told there are things to fix if that’s not actually the case? But, this is Samsung’s first big push into AI-assisted features, so it shouldn’t be a shock to see a handful of hiccups.

Like before, the S24 Ultra still has a built-in storage slot for Samsung's S Pen.

Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Rounding out the S24’s kit is Circle to Search, which is the one new AI feature that relies on help from the cloud instead of taking place on-device. It’s essentially a combination of traditional text-based queries and visual search tools like Google Lens but without the need for a standalone app. The neat thing is that it can analyze images from the web or objects in photos you’ve taken yourself, which makes it pretty versatile. But Google recently announced that Circle to Search is coming to Pixel phones too, so it’s not like this is an exclusive feather in Samsung’s cap.

Battery Life: Nearing two days of juice

Between the power efficiency gains from its new processor and a large 5,000 mAh battery, the S24 Ultra delivered truly impressive longevity. On our local video rundown test, it lasted 24 hours and 19 minutes, which is up more than four hours compared to last year. And in the real world, its battery life was even more impressive. The S24U often had more than 50 percent left after 24 hours. So depending on your usage, it’s possible for this phone to last two days without recharging.

Wrap-up

At this point, you’d be forgiven for being fed up with companies trying to push AI into everything. But if you just think about these as software upgrades meant to make your phone more useful, Samsung’s push into machine learning makes a lot more sense. The S23U was already a great phone and on the S24 Ultra, we’re getting the same (though somewhat plain) design, but with a tougher titanium frame, a much faster chip, a brighter display and even longer battery life. Samsung also tweaked its main telephoto lens to provide a more useful focal length but without a major decrease in reach or quality.

While its design hasn't changed a ton, the addition of a new chip and a bunch of AI features makes Samsung's latest flagship a more well-rounded device.

Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

But the big thing is that, with its Galaxy AI suite, Samsung finally has an answer to the sophisticated features that were previously only available from the Pixel family. Sure, the S24’s tools aren’t quite as polished as Google’s offerings, but they get you 80 to 90 percent of the way there. And as a complement to what is more or less a top-to-bottom list of best-in-class smartphone hardware, it feels like Samsung is using AI to shore up one of the few remaining weaknesses of its flagship handset. Particularly now that the company is following in Google’s footsteps and increasing software support from six to seven years of OS and security updates.

However, the Ultra’s biggest sticking point — its price — remains an issue. With the S24U starting at $1,300, it costs $100 more than the outgoing model. I’m also disappointed that Samsung didn’t adopt Qi 2. It’s frustrating to see all the major OEMs, including Apple, agree on a wireless charging standard only to have the biggest phone maker in the world drag its feet. Qi 2 got approved last year and we may not see it on a high-end Samsung handset until 2025.

While harnessing AI might not be a super exciting development now that everyone and their grandmother is trying to shoehorn it into everything, it does make the S24 Ultra a more powerful and well-rounded handset. And when you tack that onto a phone that already had a lead in hardware, you end with a pretty commanding device.



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