Say you’re in the US and shopping for a fancy Android phone. You don’t want something over the top or a phone that folds in half, but you do want plenty of bells and whistles. Which one should you buy? In any of the past few years, the answer would have been easy: just get the Samsung S-series phone. This year? It’s a little more complicated.
That’s because Google has produced some worthy competitors that are putting on the pressure. They have the high-end touches that previous Pixel phones lacked, like a high-res display, premium build quality, and a flagship-level chipset — the kind of stuff you can count on getting from an S-series Galaxy phone but for a little less money. The S23 starts at $799, and the S23 Plus starts at $999. Meanwhile, the Google Pixel 7 starts at $599 and the 7 Pro at $899, putting on the pressure indeed.
While Google has been catching up, Samsung appears to have gotten comfortable. There’s very little that’s new about the S23 and S23 Plus — updated chipsets, bigger batteries, and a rear panel makeover that brings them into the same family visually as the S23 Ultra. This is not a “run out and upgrade” year by any means.
Despite the sameness of the S23 series and the added pressure from Google, Samsung remains the category winner. For some people, the Pixel 7 will be a better choice, but overall, the Galaxy S23 and S23 Plus are the best high-end Android phones for most people in the US. However, that recommendation comes with a list of caveats, and I think the ball is in Samsung’s court to come up with something special next time around.
I can’t overstate how little has changed year over year on these devices; they are the very definition of incremental upgrades. They’re still essentially two versions of the same phone: the S23 has a 6.1-inch screen and a smaller battery, while the S23 Plus has a big 6.6-inch screen and a bigger battery. They offer the same main-plus-ultrawide-plus-telephoto camera array on the back, the same robust IP68 weather-resistance rating, and the same bright, smooth-scrolling display (aside from being, you know, different sizes).
They also look a lot more like their bigger sibling, the S23 Ultra. Like the Ultra, the S23 and S23 Plus ditch the camera bump entirely — just three camera lenses floating in space. At the risk of sounding like a no-fun-nik, I like it better than the clunky camera bump. I appreciate that Samsung was trying to do something unique with the last design, but this move to a cleaner rear panel just looks nicer all around.
The phones’ exterior frames are made of aluminum, with the latest Gorilla Glass on the front and back. While the displays are completely flat, the side rails are slightly curved so you know you’re not using an iPhone. I used both devices without a case, and they feel secure in my hand, though using the S23 Plus one-handed is quite literally a stretch.
Galaxy S23 and S23 Plus screen and battery
The S22 and S22 Plus displays had slightly different specs from each other, but Samsung has evened them out this time around. Both the S23 and S23 Plus reach a peak brightness of 1,750 nits in bright outdoor light; the S22’s peak brightness was a little lower than that of the S22 Plus. They’re consistent in other ways, too, with 1080p resolution and variable refresh rates up to 120Hz. They’ll drop as low as 48Hz to conserve power based on what you’re viewing but don’t go all the way down to 1Hz — that’d be the S23 Ultra.
That 1080p resolution looks a little shabby on a spec sheet, especially on the pricier S23 Plus. The Pixel 7 Pro includes a 1440p screen — and so does the much cheaper OnePlus 11 5G. In day-to-day use, I didn’t miss that extra bit of resolution. HD resolution is enough for me to tell that Janelle Monáe’s skin is flawless as I’m watching Glass Onion on Netflix. Still, there’s some headroom here, and higher-resolution video streams are only going to become more common.
I feel much more comfortable taking the S23 out for a full day of use off Wi-Fi than I ever did with the S22
Under that display, there’s a fingerprint sensor for biometric unlocking. It’s not the fastest I’ve ever used, and it’s a little finicky about wet fingers. If Samsung is looking for a faster and more reliable fingerprint scanner, maybe it can order whatever OnePlus is having. But once I enabled face unlock, too, one or the other worked quickly enough for me.
Aside from screen size, the only notable way that the S23 and S23 Plus differ is in the battery: both size and how fast it can charge. Both have slightly larger battery capacities than last year’s models, bringing the S23 to 3,900mAh and the S23 Plus to 4,700mAh. There’s 15W Qi wireless charging on both models, but the S23 Plus can charge at up to 45W with a wired charger, while the S23 maxes out at 25W. There’s no charger included in the box, and to get those fast-charging speeds, you need to have a “Samsung-approved” fast charger.
Battery stamina wasn’t a strength on last year’s models, particularly for the smaller S22. Getting through a full day of heavy use was possible but without much wiggle room. Samsung has bolstered battery performance on the S23 series, not just with bigger cells but also with a more power-efficient chipset and display tech.
These little tweaks add up. I feel much more comfortable taking the S23 out for a full day of use off Wi-Fi than I ever did with the S22. Most days, I was only down to around 50 percent by bedtime, even on days with a lot of time off Wi-Fi — and that’s with the always-on display enabled full time (you know, always, always on).
I’ve spent most of my time stress-testing the regular S23, but my first couple of days with the S23 Plus suggest that it’s even better; after a day of heavy use, including four and a half hours of screen-on time plus downloading and playing Genshin Impact for about 30 minutes, it was only down to 47 percent. If your usage is on the light side, you could probably get two days out of this battery. That’s a definite improvement over the S22 Plus.
Galaxy S23 and S23 Plus performance and One UI 5.1
The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipset responsible for some of that battery performance improvement is slightly different — and slightly faster — than the 8 Gen 2 in other Android flagships. I’m not sure how much of a difference the customizations make; what I can say is that these phones easily handled just about anything I threw at them. Like the other 8 Gen 2-toting phones I’ve used this year, the S23 and S23 Plus manage light daily tasks seamlessly. They even handle Twitter’s notoriously choppy Android app with noticeably smoother performance than the Pixel 7 Pro. Both devices are sold with 8GB of RAM — not the most you can get on a flagship phone, but it seems to be plenty.
The S23 series ships with One UI 5.1, which is built on Android 13, and it is a thoroughly Samsung experience. There are things I like about it, but those things are usually in spite of something else I don’t like. The weather app is surprisingly good at putting useful info at a glance, and there’s even a cute little animation new for One UI 5. You just have to ignore the spammy clickbait links (powered by The Weather Channel, how far you have fallen) if you happen to scroll down to the bottom of the page — “Today’s Horoscope Fortune” is one of my current options.
Once you get it customized and de-Samsunged to the extent that you want, it’s just fine
There’s also the usual long-standing laundry list of complaints about Samsung’s mobile OS. It insists on pretending that people want Samsung’s virtual assistant, app store, and messages app instead of (or in addition to) the stock Google versions. Personally, I do not. You can opt out of downloading a handful of them when you set up the phone initially, but some are permanent fixtures you need to embrace or, at best, hide.
Once you get it customized and de-Samsunged to the extent that you want, it’s just fine. Great, even. It continues to suffer from a bit of option overload (21 quick panel buttons by default!), but true to form, Samsung offers plenty of ways to bend the UI to your will. And there’s more good news: you’ll get four OS upgrades and five years of security updates, so you don’t have to go phone shopping again until 2028.
Galaxy S23 and S23 Plus camera
The S23 Ultra’s camera system is, in a word, bananas. It’s capable of taking photos I can’t believe came from a phone. The S23 and S23 Plus have very good cameras in their own right, but they’re much more run-of-the-mill. It’s a combination of hardware that I feel like I’ve seen on a half dozen other flagship cameras, accompanied by some telltale Samsung software tendencies. There’s a 50-megapixel pixel-binning main camera that puts out 12-megapixel photos by default. There’s also a 12-megapixel ultrawide and, because this is a fancy phone, a 10-megapixel 3x telephoto camera. Oh, and an updated 12-megapixel selfie camera. Standard stuff.
Portrait mode is still really good, particularly in how it isolates tiny details on a subject, like a stray hair, that other phones will just give up on and blur into oblivion. It’ll sometimes smooth over details in skin a little too aggressively, and it occasionally goes absolutely ham with the HDR for no good reason. Even so, it’s still the best portrait mode out there for my money.
Samsung loves a blue sky, and I can see that its tendency to really go for a blue sky is alive and well. Most of the time, it looks okay, but sometimes it looks ridiculous and artificial. Sure, as a Seattleite, I get desperate for blue skies this time of year, too, but not that desperate. High-contrast scenes can likewise look a little too flat, with shadows boosted and highlights turned down. It’s usually not too bad, but it’s noticeably stronger than Apple’s or Google’s default HDR processing.
Low-light photography isn’t a particular strength or Achilles’ heel on the S23 devices. The camera has a higher threshold for turning on night mode than the Pixel 7 Pro, which is helpful if you’re in a situation where it’s hard to keep your phone still for several seconds. In moderate indoor lighting, the S23’s main camera tends to drop its shutter speed a little too low to keep up with moving subjects. The Pixel 7 Pro does a little better here thanks to Face Unblur, which uses additional image data from the ultrawide lens to sharpen faces otherwise blurred by motion. As it is, the S23 and S23 Plus gave me an acceptable hit rate of sharp shots of my toddler in low light, which is all I can really ask of a phone camera system.
I like the 3x telephoto camera for portrait mode, but in standard shooting modes, it’s my least favorite part of this camera system. It uses a relatively small sensor, and it has a hard time keeping shutter speeds up to freeze any kind of moving subject in dim lighting. It does fine in good lighting, but as your only optical telephoto option, it’s not a lot of reach. The Pixel 7 Pro includes a 5x camera that’s handier for bringing distant subjects a little closer, and there’s a lossless 2x crop from the main sensor that’s serviceable for portraits. It’s a more useful arrangement than what the S23 and S23 Plus have going on.
Video recording is available at up to 8K / 30p, with more sensible 4K and 1080p options available, too. Clips recorded in the standard camera app tend to look a little over-brightened and flat, but you can tweak how it treats shadows, highlights, and contrast in the Pro Video mode. There’s video stabilization — a combination of optical and electronic IS — and it’s strong enough to turn jerky walking movements into a gentle swaying.
Incrementalism works for now
With the S23 and S23 Plus, it feels like Samsung is getting comfortable with its tried-and-true formula. It shifted the design a little, swapped in an excellent new chipset, and made some helpful tweaks to boost battery performance. These are very useful improvements, and incremental updates aren’t necessarily a bad thing. But there’s a risk of getting too comfortable, especially when you’re the incumbent in a category.
As things stand, the 6.1-inch S23 is the best reasonably sized Android phone on the market in the US, partly because almost every other Android phone sold here is gigantic. But it’s also a really good device, with a battery that gets through a full day more comfortably than its predecessor. The Pixel 6A is another option, and it’s a damn good deal for what you get, but it’s not a flagship phone.
The situation is less cut-and-dried for the S23 Plus with the Pixel 7 Pro hovering right over its shoulder. Both include 256GB of storage for $999 (the 7 Pro is currently marked down to $849), and the Pixel offers 12GB of RAM compared to the S23 Plus’ 8GB for that same price. You also get a more useful 5x telephoto camera, a better out-of-the-box software experience, and a slightly bigger higher-res screen. For anyone who doesn’t want to fuss with Samsung software and wants the absolute most screen you can get for your money, the 7 Pro is a better choice.
There’s room for Samsung to keep improving its flagship slab-style line, even if the industry is collectively turning its attention to the foldable future
I still think most people would be happier with the S23 Plus, though. Performance from the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 is very impressive, and I have a lot of faith in it holding up after years of OS upgrades. Google’s custom Tensor G2 processor is also highly capable, but it’s a bit more of a wild card. Samsung also promises one more OS upgrade than Google does, which is weird but also a point in favor of the S23 Plus.
There’s room for Samsung to keep improving its flagship slab-style line, even if the industry is collectively turning its attention to the foldable future. This 3x telephoto camera has served its time and could use an update, and the slightly nicer screen tech on the Ultra will surely trickle down to the regular S-series phones in the future. More than that, Samsung needs to give us all some good reasons to keep spending $1,000 on its high-end phone when Google has so much to offer for (more or less) the same price. Now is certainly not the time to get too comfortable.
Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge