Hands-On With Samsung's Galaxy S24, S24+, S24 Ultra: The AI Features Surprised Me

I thought the Galaxy AI features might be gimmicky, but they’re actually really good.

Samsung's new Galaxy S24 Ultra Android smartphone, shown here in four different colors, announced at...
Photograph by Raymond Wong

Old Samsung used to show up to its own Unpacked smartphone launch events with a long list of software features that sounded good in a keynote, but were useless or easily forgotten in practice.

So imagine my surprise when I got to spend a few hours with the new Galaxy S24, S24+, and S24 Ultra Android phones ahead of their announcement, and found myself genuinely amused by the Galaxy AI features. Samsung seems to have put some real thoughtfulness into the first batch of AI features. They’re actually useful as opposed to gimmicks, and seeing them in action made me feel more certain that generative AI will play a leading role in the next act for smartphones.

The S24 and S24+ Designs Look Familiar...

Where have we seen a similar design before?

Photograph by Raymond Wong

But first, hardware, because somebody needs to tell you what the new S24 phones are like before they are released in the U.S. on January 31.

This is not a full review, but even so, it’s very obvious where Samsung took inspiration for the S24 and S24+. The flat metal sides and brick-like dimensions scream iPhone. If not for the three cameras, arranged in a vertical orientation, you could easily mistake the two new phones for Apple’s from across a train car.

It was only when I picked up the phones that I noticed the subtle differences. For one, the display is completely flat and flush with the aluminum mid-frame; the iPhone 15 and 15 Plus screens have a gentle curve at the bezels. The S24 and S24+ have a single hole-punch selfie camera; the iPhone 15s have a pill-shaped “Dynamic Island.” The curvature of the sides on the backside of the phone are just the teensiest bit more pronounced compared to the iPhone 15s. The antenna bands built into the metal frame are placed in different spots. There’s no mute switch or “Action button” on the S24 and S24+.

If not for the triple vertical cameras, you might mistaken the S24 and S24+ for iPhones.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

If you look up the exact dimensions (I did), both phones are just a hair or two more compact than the iPhone 15 and 15 Plus, which tells me the sizes were very intentional. All that being said, the S24 and S24+ do feel good in the hand. The curved backside edges fit nicely in my palm without digging into it, and they’re as light as Apple’s non-Pro iPhones. Samsung’s two non-Ultra phones are good — not flashy, but solid nonetheless. Wrapped in a case, they... look like an iPhone. Maybe that was intentional!

Boxier S24 Ultra Design

Samsung's new Galaxy S24 Ultra Android smartphone, shown here in four different colors.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

At Samsung’s high end, the S24 Ultra stands out in the new lineup. Samsung’s Galaxy Ultra phones been trending boxier, with sharper corners for the last two generations, so it’s only natural it leaned into the aesthetic for the S24 Ultra.

With equilateral bezels surrounding the fully flat 6.8-inch display and a new titanium mid-frame, the S24 Ultra has an identity of its own. In fact, I got a little déjà vu holding the S24 Ultra in my hand; it looks a lot like the front of the Z Fold 5 prototypes that I saw at Samsung’s Research & Design Center last summer.

The Galaxy S24 Ultra has a completely flat display this time, which is better for use with the S Pen.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

The S Pen is still intact and pops out with a satisfying click. The buttons all feel sturdy and tactile, though the volume rocker was a little high up for me to comfortably reach with my right thumb. Otherwise, there’s not really anything to complain about. The S24 Ultra is a big phone; a boxy phone; a feature-packed phone. It also comes with a $1,299.99 price tag.

Titanium Violet S24 Ultra reminds me of the Deep Purple iPhone 15 Pro. Sometimes it looks purple, sometimes it looks like a dark gray.

Delightful and Useful Galaxy AI Features

The S24 series hardware is perfectly fine, but it’s the Galaxy AI features that had the stronger impression on me. As you’re probably aware of by now, Samsung is going all-in on adding AI functionality that it calls “Galaxy AI” into the S24 series. The implementation is admittedly well done for a company renowned for throwing spaghetti at the wall.

I tried a handful of Galaxy AI features and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I found myself repeatedly saying “Wow, that’s actually pretty good” after each demonstration. Circle to Search, which lets you circle text and things in images (it also works in videos, but it needs to be paused) and automatically get a Google search result. Circle to Search is easy to do, fast, and legitimately handy. Take, for example, my limited edition Nike Jordan 1s that I wore to Unpacked. The AI feature easily identified the shoes. I could see this being really useful on a daily basis.

Forgive my poor circling... I was holding a camera in the other hand.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

That’s my sneaker!

Photograph by Raymond Wong
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Other Galaxy AI features, such as Live Translate, Transcript Assist, and text summaries were impressive, too. They’re not the sexiest features, but neither is copy and paste, and do you remember how excited people were to get that on the iPhone? Ultimately, what these new features are is, again, useful. They’re helpful for getting more out of existing apps and provide quality-of-life improvements without requiring a steep learning curve.

My favorite AI features might be the ones for the camera and photo editing. Instant Slow-mo is really fun, and there are various settings that let you get more granular with the slow-mo framerate and speed ramping. But if you don’t want to poke around those, simply long-pressing on a video and letting AI take the wheel at generating the additional frames to convert it into a slow-mo video works.

I mean, how convenient is it to have AI edit shadows and reflections out for you in photos? Look at the example below, where a shadow covers part of the person’s face. A button tap later and the shadow is removed. Usually, these AI editing tricks work well in demos, but not so well in real life. From what I tried myself, the shadow removal is legit. I held my camera over an S24, casting a shadow over it. Seconds later, the shadow was gone, thanks to AI. If you zoom in, you might find some of the impurities of generative fill, but unless you really pixel peep, the AI-edited photos are shockingly good.

Don’t you hate it when your photos have shadows cast on a person’s face?

Photograph by Raymond Wong

With AI, the shadows can be automatically removed with a few taps.

Photograph by Raymond Wong
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Turning a regular video into a slow-mo video using AI to add extra frames to create smooth footage that’s slow down.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

I’ll need to spend more time living with the Galaxy S24 phones to see if the Galaxy AI features have a lasting impact long-term, but I think they will. The new Samsung may be a little boring, but that’s fine. I’m okay with leaving the days of new phones with silly gimmicks that we’ll use once and never again in favor of features with utility.

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