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Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra hands-on: A fresh titanium frame combined with a big bet on AI

Samsung says the S24 family marks the beginning of the AI era on smartphones.

Photo by Sam Rutherford / Engadget

With the launch of the Galaxy S24 family, Samsung is boldly declaring an end to the smartphone camera wars as it moves into the AI era. And the $1,300 S24 Ultra is its torchbearer for this new age of mobile design.

While it may not look like a ton has changed on the S24 Ultra, there’s one major design update along with a handful of smaller tweaks. The move to a titanium frame (available in four colors: titanium yellow, violet, gray and black) apes what Apple did for the iPhone 15 Pro last fall. The big difference is that, because Samsung’s previous flagship featured an aluminum chassis unlike the heavier stainless steel build on the iPhone 14 Pro, the S24 Ultra’s weight (8.22 ounces) is largely unchanged from last year’s device (8.25 ounces). That means aside from some very slight changes to the texture, there aren’t a ton of outward signs hinting at the S24’s increased durability which includes the same IP68 rating for dust and water resistance.

More subtle upgrades include a new Corning Gorilla Armor panel in back (instead of Gorilla Glass Victus 2 like on the standard S24/S24+), even thinner bezels (42 percent slimmer than before) and a slightly boxier feel. The latter might not be something most people notice, but it’s part of an ongoing trend for Samsung as it’s moved towards phones with flatter screens. On the S24 Ultra, aside from some faint rounding at the perimeter of its display, it’s almost completely rectangular. So for all the people who hate screens with curvy edges, congratulations, you’ve won.

Inside, the S24 Ultra features a Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 chip along with 12GB of RAM and up to 1TB of storage. Samsung says it’s installed a larger vapor chamber that’s almost twice the size of what’s in the previous model to help keep the phone’s thermals in check. The Ultra’s screen is also slightly brighter with a peak of 2,600 nits for its 120Hz 6.8-inch OLED screen. There’s still a storage slot for the Ultra’s S Pen with a springy magnetic attachment system and its core functionality hasn’t changed, so you can expect the same super responsive stylus input.

It’s important to note that the S24 Ultra’s camera setup is largely unchanged. You still get a 200-MP main sensor and a 12-MP ultra-wide, but instead of a 10x lens, the S24’s telephoto camera is now based on a 50-MP sensor (up from 10-MP) with a 5x optical zoom. Samsung says this change was made based on customer feedback and usage patterns, which saw 5x being the most frequently used focal length. While its overall reach has seemingly decreased, the phone uses pixel-binning and AI to achieve what the company is calling a “10x optical quality” zoom while still delivering up to a total 100x Space Zoom. In our limited hands-on time, the Ultra’s telephoto camera still looked sharp even with the shorter focal length, though as before image quality begins to deteriorate quickly past 20x.

Of course, the Ultra’s zoom is just one small application of AI. The entire S24 family has a full suite of machine learning-based features. Similar to what’s available on the Pixel 8, Samsung is using AI to help you edit photos and create new slow-mo footage. You can use the S24 Ultra’s stylus (or your finger on the other models) to draw a lasso around a subject before touching and holding to move it whenever you want. Then, all you have to do is hit the generate button, and the phone uses AI to fill in any missing elements. And this isn’t limited just to moving things around either, as you can delete objects, resize, recompose and more.

Similar to the iPhone 15 Pro, the Galaxy S24 Ultra (bottom) features a new titanium frame.
Similar to the iPhone 15 Pro, the Galaxy S24 Ultra (bottom) features a new titanium frame. (Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget)

Samsung’s photo app can also detect things like shadows and reflections and will ask if you would like to remove them from your shot. This might be my favorite application of AI, as this helps streamline editing while also making more complicated fixes incredibly easy. And while I only got to test this out using sample photos provided by Samsung, it worked astonishingly well. After finding a photo in the gallery app, all I had to do was hit the info button to see a list of suggested edits, which almost instantly transformed a mediocre image into something I would be proud to share on social media.

Samsung’s slow-mo feature was also quite impressive. It works on practically any local clip, not just footage shot by an S24. When playing back a video, you can simply touch and hold. Then the phone looks at the framerate of the footage, multiplies it by four (e.g. from 30fps to 120fps) and uses AI to create additional frames — all on the fly and on-device, so nothing is being sent to the cloud.

One of the S24's most interesting new features is suggested edits in which the phone uses AI to automatically recognize and fix things like shadows and reflections in photos.
One of the S24's most interesting new features is suggested edits in which the phone uses AI to automatically recognize and fix things like shadows and reflections in photos. (Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget)

It’s not all photo tricks, though. The S24 uses its AI powers to help you communicate both on the phone, via the new live-translation feature, and in text, with improved proofreading, summarization and tone-correction abilities. During calls, activating translation is as simple as tapping a button. From there, it will recognize your speech and automatically convert it into whatever the other person is speaking (or you can save a tiny bit of time and select the language yourself). Granted, this does mean that conversations will take a touch longer since you’ll need to pause to give the phone a chance to process and translate what you say. But if you’re in a pinch while traveling, I wouldn’t hesitate to try this out.

As for the S24’s summarizing capabilities, it’s similar to what you get on the Pixel or in services like ChapGPT, Bard and others. You can direct the phone to a website or a file (including those in Samsung Notes) and the phone will condense things into a handful of major bullet points. But the potentially more useful tool is the tone-correcting feature, which in addition to basic stuff like highlighting typos, also gives you some options to rephrase things to make them seem more positive or encouraging.

While Samsung's S-Pen hasn't gotten any major upgrades since last year, the Galaxy S24 Ultra still comes with a handy storage slot for safely stashing it while traveling.
While Samsung's S-Pen hasn't gotten any major upgrades since last year, the Galaxy S24 Ultra still comes with a handy storage slot for safely stashing it while traveling. (Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget)

Notably, because you get a handful of options and the choice to ignore or implement things as you see fit, it feels like less policing yourself and more like adjusting language to get your message across in a more effective manner. Honestly, this is something everyone could probably use from time to time, even if it’s just to prevent sending out an angry text or email.

The one aspect of the S24’s AI powers that isn’t handled locally is a new circle-to-search tool. Developed in partnership with Google, the feature allows you to highlight both text and images before sending a query off to the cloud and returning results. In practice, it feels like combining traditional search and visual lookup aids like the Google Lens app into a single thing. It’s a nice upgrade in terms of general usability standpoint even if it doesn’t revolutionize the way the phone works.

Circle to Search is a new AI-based feature powered by Google that lets you look up both text and images simply by drawing a circle around a subject with your finger.
Circle to Search is a new AI-based feature powered by Google that lets you look up both text and images simply by drawing a circle around a subject with your finger. (Photo by Sam Rutheford/Engadget)

Finally, following a similar move Google made last year with the Pixel 8, Samsung will now provide a full seven years of regular OS and security updates. This is something I’m hoping to see from every Android handset maker, so I’m glad Samsung is stepping up now.

The two gripes I have are that, for a device that starts at $1,300, I think the S24 Ultra’s design is rather plain. It’s just 6.8-inches of phone with a bunch of sensors and camera lenses on the back. Not to mention I don’t think Samsung’s special titanium-hued paint jobs stand out as much as the company hopes they do.

The other issue is the lack of Qi 2 support. The S24 falls in the second half of Samsung’s two-year product cycle, which means we probably weren’t going to get any big facelifts or design changes until next year. But as the largest Android phone maker, it’s pretty disappointing to see a new flagship not adopt what could be an incredibly important multi-platform wireless charging standard.

The Galaxy S24 Ultra will be available in four main colors: titanium yellow, titanium black, titanium gray and titanium purple.
The Galaxy S24 Ultra will be available in four main colors: titanium yellow, titanium black, titanium gray and titanium purple. (Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget)

Honestly I was kind of taken aback by how good its AI features are. I actually had to stop myself multiple times from writing how one of the phone’s latest tools was a pleasant surprise. Unlike Google who has been beating the drum about machine learning for more than a decade, Samsung’s mobile expertise always felt like it lay more in hardware than software. But with the S24, Samsung is showing that it’s taking the transition to the AI era incredibly seriously.

The Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra will start at $1,300. Pre-orders go live today and on Samsung.com will include a free upgrade that doubles the phone’s storage, while official sales are slated for January 31.