So it's been tricky for the big phone brands for a while now. How do they really make a splash launching their new phones when they're usually pretty much like last year's with a faster chip and slightly better battery life?
There will always be tech-addicted early adopters who absolutely have to have the latest handset as soon as it comes out but convincing the rest of the market to upgrade requires a bit more incentive.
Starting from NZ$2,449.00, Samsung's latest flagship had better provide a damn good incentive indeed.
Unsurprisingly, the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra doesn't look that different from the last couple of generations. It still boasts a 6.8-inch screen, still has a similar-looking camera array on the back and still supports the S-Pen stylus.
But this year, even those most obvious features have been given a decent tweak. The large QHD Dynamic AMOLED display is now completely flat; it seems the age of screens that curve away at the edges may be coming to an end - somewhat ironic given it was Samsung that introduced us to the concept of curvy screens some years ago, even naming these phones "Edge." Turns out, while those curves may look cool and feel nice - they actually make the phone harder to use, especially with a stylus.
The upper (ear) speaker slot is pretty much invisible now, taking up virtually no screen space below the top bezel and the screen glass is a new concoction from Corning called "Gorilla Armour" - more resistant than ever against cracks and scratches to match the toughness of the new titanium frame.
The display is crazy bright too - clocking in at 2600nits compared to 1750nits on the S23 and S22 models.
The S-Pen now matches whichever colour of S24 Ultra you choose; Titanium Black, Titanium Grey, Titanitum Violet or Titanium Yellow. It also now has a flat head. See? Curves are so 2023.
And just when I thought I had a handle on how smartphone cameras work, Samsung has blown my mind by taking out the 10X zoom lens and replacing it with a 5X one. Don't panic, this has actually resulted in better close-ups. That's because last years zoom sensor was only 10MP - the 5X one on the S24 Ultra is 50MP. That significant jump in resolution combined with the sheer processing power of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 for Galaxy chip adds up to some spectacular photographic wizardry.
Because of the way the S24 Ultra now uses multiple images from multiple sensors to create the absolute best photo possible, terms like "optical" or "hybrid" zoom have kind of lost their meaning. Enter the age of Galaxy AI.
While you still have easy access to a raft of "expert" settings if you so desire, that's way outside my area of expertise. I like to let the phone do the work for me and now that means an awful lot of work.
A few years ago, when Samsung first introduced 100X zoom it was really a bit of a gimmick. The images were usually too blurry to be of much use and that's if you could hold the phone steady enough to get what you were aiming for in shot at all.
That's all changed now. Can you see the crane across the gully from my house?...
No? Well, let's zoom in and see if we can find out who the construction company is...
Not bad, eh? The improved stabilisation makes long-distance zoom shots dramatically easier to take and the results speak for themselves. The really impressive thing about this new Galaxy AI is how fast it works on this phone. Not just when taking photos - and to be sure options like nighttime shooting are noticeably quicker - but also when editing.
Galaxy AI means a feature like object removal is almost instant, not just removing what you don't want but rebuilding the background to match.
When you have clumsy digits like mine, a thumb in shot always seems to happen just when you want it least. But with a few swipes, all fixed...
Oh, and I couldn't resist showing off the "Remove Relfection" option - check it out...
Of course, there have been updates to the video settings as well. Most notably Director's View has been renamed Dual Record - previously it was possible to record a picture-in-picture video using the selfie cam and one of the forward-facing lenses. Now you can use a combination of any lens, giving you the option of shooting wide-angle and close-up simultaneously.
Using the built-in mics on your paired bluetooth earbuds for video is another useful new addition. And you no longer have to shoot in slow motion to watch your video in slo-mo. Just long-press your vid while it's playing and the action will slow down until you lift your finger. You can make this a permanent edit after the fact.
The large, flat, bright screen makes the S24 Ultra a fantastic gaming phone and it's one of the few to offer ray-tracing via its improved GPU for the most convincing graphics response you could ask for. Samsung has also completely revamped the cooling system, combining several layers of different cooling techniques to ensure maximum performance over even the longest gaming session.
And thanks to an impressive battery performance from the 5000mAh cell, that gaming session should definitely last the distance. Most nights I still have around 70% juice left when I put the S24 Ultra on to charge - that's almost unheard of from a high-demand, large-screen flagship like this.
Unfortunately, rumours of an upgrade to Qi2 wireless charging have proven to be unfounded. This would have opened the door to a whole new range of magnetic charging accessories and cases a-la a certain other successful brand of phones out of Cupertino - but we might have to wait for the S26 series before we can magnetise a wallet onto the back of our Samsungs.
But the big star of the S24 launch was Galaxy AI - and justifiably so. Want a live transcript of your meeting or lecture? Just select the shortcut from the pulldown menu on the notification bar.
Need a translator? There's another shortcut for that. Simply download whichever language pack you require and you'll have instant access to both written and spoken translations. There are currently 13 languages on offer, presumably with more on the way and thanks the the S24 Ultra's NPU, the translation happens on the phone itself - no data connection required. This might be pretty handy if you've just arrived in a strange country and you're trying to find out where to buy a local sim card. You can even live-translate your phonecalls which makes dealing with international business partners so much smoother. The potential productivity gains are pretty obvious.
Galaxy AI doesn't stop there. You can press that distinctive star logo to summarise emails, documents and web pages. You can even change the tone and format of your own messages - make your silly dad jokes sound more formal or instantly add all the appropriate emojis you can never remember how to find.
Thanks to Google Circle to Search, you can now highlight anything on screen to find out more about it online - again, this happens within seconds. For example, you like the look of the phone I'm holding in the video below? Bring up the Google prompt, circle the phone and you'll be presented with an instant list of places where you can buy the S24 Ultra.
Google and Samsung seem to have settled the double-up of Quick Share and Nearby Share and they've now agreed Quick Share is the way we'll transfer photos, videos and other files from device to device. In an uncharacteristically open-source move, you can now Quck Share via QR code, meaning even non-Android devices can also have instant access to your stuff.
While Samsung's latest flagship may not look dramatically different from its predecessors, its new Galaxy AI capabilities combined with the latest, most powerful Android SoC available mean the performance and useability of this device are worlds ahead of where we were twelve months ago. Language is no longer a barrier. Traditional phone-photography limitations like long-distance and low light have been well and truly overcome. Complicated photo and video editing is now user-friendly, fast and happens within the native apps already on the device. And apart from anything else, this is an attractive, durable handset with a class-leading display and excellent battery life.
Is it worth NZ$2449.00? Well... if any phone is, this one is.
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