Wednesday 1 February 2023

Clash of the Ultras - Samsung vs Motorola

I have two 'Ultra' phones in hand and they fight for my attention on a daily basis, so I thought I'd pen my thoughts about the pros and cons of each - where one shines over the other (if at all) and end up with my thoughts on which one I'd prefer to use as my daily device. So yes, it's personal!

Thanks to Motorola PR in the UK I have the Motorola Edge 30 Ultra in-hand. It's the 256GB/12GB RAM version which was formally released in the UK and I have already published my full review of it, in isolation (or at most, comparing here and there to the Motorola Edge 30 Neo - which I own and have also reviewed here). Beginning to sound like I'm a Moto Fan isn't it - and the Samsung won't stand a chance! But we shall see - and yes, I shall be straight and honest.

The contender is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, similarly, the 256GB/12GB RAM model, which I also own. Admittedly it's not the newest version of Samsung's Ultra, with the S22 Ultra having been released last year and forthcoming S23 Ultra now hours away, but I don't think that matters much really. The updating process these days with Samsung is largely evolutionary, not revolutionary, and I can't afford one anyway!

The Motorola Edge 30 Ultra was released in autumn 2022 whereas the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, spring 2021, so a year and a bit between them. As I say, I don't see this as a significant obstacle to a comparison. A lot of it will be about size, no doubt, and these Ultra phones don't change much in that respect!

I'll start with size
and it's clear that the Samsung is bigger in every direction and heavier in every way. In comparison with the Motorola it feels like a hefty lump! The camera island on the back is not in the least bit subtle like the Moto's (though to be fair, the S22/23 Ultras have fixed that) and contributes largely to the fact that the device simply feels top-heavy and unbalanced in the hand. The Moto certainly wins for me here as the camera array on the back is smaller and does not impact the balance in the hand at all.

Both phones have an aluminium frame but actually, because of the styling of the two, the Moto looks much classier and premium with edges coming to a slimmer 'point' resulting in a stealth-like impression. Regardless of the Samsung's broader edges, the buttons are the same thin ones as the Moto's, though again, looking closely, they seem like plastic rather than the Moto's more 'industrial' metal design. The Samsung's buttons actually look like plastic (at least on this black model) as the back 'boulders' around the curve to the front.

Similarly, the top and bottom of the Samsung looks 'rounded' and like its plastic whereas the Moto's looks like metal, premium - and is indeed 'flat' enough to stand on-end. I don't quite understand why Samsung have gone out of their way to give users the impression that their flagship phone of the day is not terribly classy in this respect, but more pebble-like. The back of the phones differ, too, with the Moto sporting the 'matt' finish (very slippery) surface over the Samsung's straight glossy glass (and slightly more grippy).

I do understand that Samsung have tried to move away from such a 'curved' (edge) on their screens, but in the process, I think they've devalued the look and feel. Moto have also done similarly, moving away from the outrageous 'waterfall' edges of the Motorola Edge+ from 2020, which I have reviewed here and still own, but not so much. Again, Moto have retained a balance - not gone almost completely flat like the Samsung but retained enough of a curve around the screen edges to make it look premium and classy. 
So far, then, for me, the Moto is winning hands-down on look/feel and handling potential (especially with one-handed use). However, all is not as it seems and a part of that bulk of the Samsung will come out later as we look at the capability of (particularly) the two device's camera set ups.

In the meantime, a look at the retail box, battery and charging. The Samsung box has pretty much nothing in it. A SIM Card Tool and a cable. Great. Whereas the Moto is supplied with a TPU case and 125W charging brick extra! I do understand the arguments about being all eco-friendly, but I also see that having an amazing fast-charging solution (and a case) in the box is a big selling feature between the two. Samsung, Apple, Google (and a few others) have gone to town with this, painting it up as being responsible for the planet, but actually, charging the same amount to the consumer for the phone anyway!

Anyway, to charging. The Samsung is capable of a mere 25W wired charging, 15W wireless charging and 4.5W reverse wireless. The Motorola, 125W wired, 50W wireless and 10W reverse. You can clearly see the difference there, though to be fair, the S22 Ultra did up that to 45W for wired (though the rest the same and word is via leaks that this is not changing for the S23 Ultra). So, much faster charging all-round for the Moto (aside from the fact that you also get the charger). In my tests here, I have charged the Moto from flat to 100% in 21 minutes. The Samsung will do the same in well over an hour. And furthermore, it's pretty addictive watching it happen (even if not so good for the life-expectancy of the battery). Something that's there if needed - not to be used routinely.

The battery in the Samsung is 5000mAh and the Moto, 4610mAh, but this is not reflected at all in the performance of each in my testing here (and many other Samsung phones, present and past). There's a lot going on behind the scenes with a Samsung, which we'll come to later, but in my experience this always ends up with not-so-good battery life. Having said that, it's a big battery, so it's nothing like a Samsung Galaxy S10 or Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3, which were appalling in my tests (and reported widely in other reviews). But even so, if you're out and about shooting 8K video, editing it, consuming loads of media on the big screen, then expect a significantly less long experience than you would with the Moto. I estimate that the battery's performance on the Moto is something like 33% better without all that stuff going on in the background. As always with battery assessment, your mileage may vary, nay, will vary, depending on how you use your device.

We believe that the pOLED panel on the Moto is made by LG and the Samsung's is clearly their own. They are both bright and vibrant, colourful wonderful screens which nobody will be able to complain about. On the Spec. Sheet the Samsung can get brighter (in Auto), but I don't really see that here. Under certain conditions maybe, but not day-to-day. The Samsung edges ahead with 1440p over the Moto's 1080p (and resulting ppi) but the Moto counters it with 144Hz refresh rate over the Samsung's 120. For anyone who can actually tell the difference! The Samsung screen (in keeping with the size of the device) is bigger at 6.8" over the Moto's 6.67" - not much in it, but you can tell the difference in terms of what you're looking at on the screen - so for those who are OK with bigger devices and want a bit more content visible on their screens, this is a point for Samsung. Another win for the Samsung is Gorilla Glass Victus 1 over the Moto's GG5, so slightly better protection against direct impact (smashing) but much the same for (micro) scratching.

The Always-On-Display arrangements I think I'd head for a draw, regarding. Motorola's 'Peek' arrangement really is very good. It's not a 'proper' AoD but it wakes up with movement of any kind and shows the incoming notifications as a badge. If you touch/hold each of them, at the top of the screen you get a deep-dive summary of what the notification is about. Let go and it goes away. Drag your finger to the fingerprint scanner area and the phone opens up the notification source and takes you directly to the app/service to read it. I've loved this system for years and am surprised that nobody has emulated it. Furthermore, you can choose to have AlbumArt from playing music right across the top half of the screen, then swipe left/right to go back to your usual clock/time/date etc.

The reason that it's a draw is down to one (I think) unique AoD feature with the Samsung - independently-controlled brightness of whatever AoD array you decide to use (from the plethora of options via Samsung's Galaxy Store/Theming/Icons etc. open to developers). So many devices these days get the AoD brightness linked to the phone's main screen control's - and they get the algorithms wrong mostly. So many times I'm sat looking at a phone (such as a Pixel) and I simply can't see the time (unless I put it under a light to push the sensor into action). I guess this is another reason why the battery gets hit on the Samsung. The Moto does not suffer from this - in the same lighting conditions as a Pixel, for example, when touched, it comes up nice and bright. Swings and roundabouts, thus a draw.

Another win here for Samsung is the IP-rating, IP6/8, over the Moto's IP5/2. That means that it has total protection against dust (over just 'limited') and submersion in water (over, essentially, splash-resistance). In practice, how much difference this might make will depend on a person's lifestyle (and how prone they are to accidents). I can't say that I've ever dropped a phone in the bath, toilet, river or swimming pool - but I guess there's always a first time and the Samsung does bring a greater level of confidence in survival. 

This is the first device from Motorola (I believe, in the UK) where they have actually committed to the number of OS updates the phone will receive and Google Security patches too. It's taken a long time to get there, and it only applies to the higher-end flagships, but it's great to see. Three OS Updates then (up to and including Android 15) with Security updates to autumn 2026. That fills the purchaser with much more confidence going forward. Samsung's S21 Ultra was the first generation to also benefit from a firm commitment with 4 years of OS updates and 5 security, so Samsung has the edge here (although because it was released earlier, it will also get Android 15 and the same Google Security patches to spring 2026. So, buying now, regardless of release dates, they're the same - so for my purposes here with these specific devices in 2023, another draw. I guess Samsung might just edge ahead on timeliness of the updates as they are much quicker than Motorola - trying to keep up with Google and Pixels.

Comparing chipsets
, we can see that because the Moto is newer, it has a more up-to-date one, with the SnapDragon 8+ Gen 1 (4nm) over the Samsung's SnapDragon 888 or Exynos 2100 (5nm). The 15 months between the devices clearly explains that difference but nevertheless, each is blazingly fast in anything I throw at them, including gaming. The 12GB RAM on each ensures that plenty of stuff stays open in the background and each can happily support the demands of their Ready For and DeX desktop/PC implementations. Another draw then! There's no microSD card slot on either phone but users can choose (and pay the extended price for) storage up to 512GB. I do find that 256GB is the sweet-spot these days, so am happy with this amount (and can save a bit of cash), and the OS/System is indeed cleaner working just from internal memory (or via storage plugged into the USB-C slot). More level-pegging!

I'm going to be doing a specific review/appraisal of Motorola's Ready For in the coming weeks, so watch out for that one. I have assessed Samsung's DeX in various reviews (see above) over the years, so no need for another deep-dive into that. But briefly here I would say that DeX feels like it's been a bit neglected of late and Motorola have leapfrogged over Samsung into, arguably, the lead. The implementation of Ready For on the desktop is very well thought out and a recent update has enabled even more screen sizing/resolution control. The biggest difference for me, however, whether wired (HDMI) or wireless (both supported by both devices) is sending content to a TV. With the Samsung, you're pretty much getting the same 'desktop' UI that you get on a PC but Moto have reimagined a big-buttoned front-end interface which, very often, from across the room makes for much easier navigation and launching of the applications and services which people want to use. It's all about that UX and I'm giving the points to Moto here because of this feature. Anyway, watch out for my full review, coming.

Many potential users will be pleased to see the 10x Periscope Optical Zoom on the Samsung and it clearly stands above the 2x version found on the Moto. And with some justification. Having a zoom camera in a phone is an impressive feat, made available by folding optics through mirrors, like a traditional periscope, along with OIS. It gives the user everything between 24 and 240mm to play with, though this does use a secondary 10MP f4.9 sensor for the long zooming rather than the main 108MP unit. I've had great fun playing with this of course - and the Samsung's 3x zoom (with no folding trickery involved) via another 10MP f2.4 camera. The results are impressive from both, supported by smart software to assist with focus and stabilisation at that kind of range. The main 108MP f1.8 sensor by default, pixel-bins down to produce 12MP results, though for full use of the sensor there is a manual setting. This can work well in good light to squeeze out as much as possible from it - in exchange for large file sizes (13MB from about 3MB, binned). There's also a 12MP f2.2 wide-angle camera to make up the set on the back. 
There's lots of fun to be had with the array of cameras on offer from Samsung, controlled by their very capable Camera App, full of bells and whistles - and on the face of it, a clear winner for those looking for photography smarts from their phone. A full in-depth review of what these options can produce is available from the excellent GSMArena website as they drill down, test, prod and examine much more extensively.

The Motorola takes the Samsung's 108MP f1.8 sensor and ups it with a 200MP f1.9 one! At the point of release, it was certainly amongst the biggest MP count on a phone camera - and sensor, being 1/1.22". All is not quite as it seems though and it, too, pixel-bins down to 12MP results unless manually overridden. The payoff, again, is large file sizes if employed, with 4MB files becoming 26MB! I've given an appraisal of my thoughts on the camera in the Moto in my review and linked out to GSMArena again there for full in-depth, so I won't do that all again (click through to read), so rather, I'll come to my summary. 

There's no doubt at all that the 10x optical, stabilised zoom is a very attractive feature for a phone to have in its camera. As much as Moto boast the bigger sensor with a huge amount more megapixels with associated light-gathering functionality, many people will be bowled over by the flexibility of that long optical zoom. I do think that the shots taken with the Moto are exceptionally good generally, nicely balanced colours, more than sharp enough and so forth - but the reality is that neither of these are 'professional' tools and most photos taken with both of these cameras will end up being viewed on screens, not printed as posters, and probably live their life within social media. In which case, yes, the novelty of the long zoom will certainly provide 'wow' factor amongst one's mates. Both systems have their benefits and have pushed boundaries in their own ways, but there's more to consider than MPs and optical zooms. Having said that, I do think most people will be more impressed with the 10x zoom over the larger sensor, so I'll have to go with that and give the point to Samsung. Do click through though and read all about it if you can, for both phones, as there's much more behind the headline features to consider and digest.

Audio coming from tiny phone speakers is (probably) never going to be as great as any 'proper' speaker, but these two monsters have a good go at it! They both have stereo in pretty much the same format (bottom-firing right, earpiece left) and there's not much between them. If I had to choose, I'd go for the Moto, because I think that the default settings offer a slightly better sound in terms of 'tone' but the Samsung is probably louder overall. However, that bit louder, the Samsung attains with a price to pay - at full volume it tends to feel just a tad distorted, like the components are being pushed too far. Reduce it back down to, say, 80% volume and it sounds much better. But then it's lost the volume advantage over the Moto! The Moto on 100% sounds well adjusted - and that the hardware is not being pushed by the software. As always, sound output can be adjusted via the supplied tools (and other apps) and when two devices are so closely matched, a lot of it comes down to what genre of music is being played, how the audio track has been encoded and so on. I have tried to test here with a level playing field, same for both, and that is my resulting opinion. The Bluetooth output from both is loud and good quality (depending on attached equipment) and the '32-bit tuned by AKG' of the Samsung (with both sporting Dolby Atmos) doesn't really draw them apart either. It's a personal thing, they both perform well, but my ear tends towards the Moto.

Software
is the element of the assessment here which might well end up being the chalk and cheese, the love/hate and the admiration or dislike depending on the user's view and experience. I come from a background of working with Pixel phones, AndroidOne, clean interface, not too much addition in terms of bells and whistles, so I guess you might know which way I'm going here. But hold on! Because actually, over time, I have come to also appreciate the ways in which the Samsung experience can enhance the functionality, flexibility and capability of the Android OS. There was a time when I wouldn't have looked at Samsung software for long without getting straight back to a Pixel (or a cleaner Vanilla UX), but these days, I can see both sides of the argument.

The Motorola experience is, of course, the 'clean' one and closest to 'stock' Android (if such a thing exists any longer). There's no doubling up of core Google apps like the Samsung brings, with Moto making full use of what Google offer, from Contacts, EMail, Web browser, Phone and Calendar to Clock, File Manager, Photo Gallery, Knox Security, App Store, Keyboard, SMS/Messages and more. All of these with Samsung, are doubled-up as they offer their own Apps - many of which end up residing next to the Google ones (for moany of us), cluttering up the system (unless they are forcibly removed) and some installed by default. The 'Samsung world' is something of a Walled Garden where the range of apps and services they provide encourage the user to become a 'believer of the Samsung Way' and adopt it, lock stock and barrel, or make them tip-toe around the bits which they don't really want (to see). Bixby comes to mind, which Samsung persevere with, yet most people don't want to use because (probably outside of Routines) Google's tools are better. So many users try hard to get rid of it, which can be tricky with support needed for many.

On the other hand, the rich tapestry of available options, which I won't deep-dive into here, many will want to embrace - as they enable the user to control many, many aspects of the system which most other OEMs devices do not. A good example being the Good Lock app, with all the deep-rooted adjustments which can be made to all sorts of aspects of the UX - or Samsung Flow for cross-device working, Music and Video apps which are, actually, very good in many ways, Bixby Routines, theming, icons, AoD, the S-Pen functionality and so on, much of it just not available for a Moto user. There is a deep cavern to explore within the Samsung World for those who want to embrace it - and all this makes for a compelling argument in Sammy's favour! I'm back in the 'draw' camp here as I can appreciate all the above, the bells'n'whistles of the Samsung Way but also the clean, more battery-efficient and simpler world of Moto. 

Price is also a factor
here, given that, over a year down the line I paid £380 in the UK for a Samsung device which, on release, with 256GB storage and 12GB RAM would have been £1200 whereas the Moto was £749 on release (and is now frequently on sale for £649). The newer S22 Ultra with 256GB retailed at around the same price and it looks like the S23 Ultra being announced today is going to be even further away. So, in terms of value, you do pay an awful lot more for those Samsung features - at least, new.

In summary, it feels like that's what all this boils down to really - how important that vast array of hook-ins, theming, flexibility and (probably more importantly to many) that 10x optical zoom is to the buyer. Is it worth that much more money? Is it worth having to toe-the-line with the Samsung Way (or navigate and negotiate your way around much of it)? Is it worth living with a huge 'lump' of a phone, weighing down one's pockets, which really doesn't work one-handed very well? Or does the buyer save a shedload of cash (in terms of release-price) and head for a device with a cleaner, stock feel, sleeker in the hand, not bulky and weighty, a much better battery (in my tests here) and that 200MP camera?

It's a hard call and, as I say, I'm tempted (based on the used price for the Samsung) to call it a draw overall. On new prices, I certainly give it to Moto. But then I'm one who appreciates the less encumbered OS and UX. Is the phone in your pocket also your computer? Your Tablet? Your only smart device? Then maybe the Samsung is the way to go, cramming as much as one can into a (relatively) small package. For me, the balance swings the other way and I'd plump every time for the Motorola if going Ultra!

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