2020 seems to be the year of “Ultra”. Samsung started it off with the Galaxy S20 Ultra earlier this year. We’ve seen a few other smartphones with the Ultra name as well, and now, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is here.
Samsung appears to have taken the Galaxy S20 Ultra and refined it a bit. Making the design cleaner, improving the camera, and giving it a nice paint job, in this mystic bronze color. It also is cheaper than the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which makes the entire Galaxy Note 20 lineup pretty confusing.
But the main question here is whether the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is worth the asking price of $1299?
Say goodbye to fingerprints
One of the biggest issues with glass smartphones, are fingerprints. Because they are glass-backed, they collect fingerprints like crazy. This has been an issue for years. But Samsung has finally taken a stand and decided to change up its design, so that it is no longer an issue.
With the Mystic Bronze color that we have here, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has frosted glass, or a haze effect on the back. Now it does still collect fingerprints, but not nearly as much as a regular glass back smartphone would.
This is likely a first-world problem that only us reviewers really have to deal with, but we are thankful.
Speaking of the design, this phone is stunning. That’s a polarizing statement. Not everyone is going to agree, as we’ve seen on Twitter. It sort of has a two-tone backside, with the back being frosted, and then the camera module being regular glass. Both sporting mystic bronze. Which looks really good actually.
The sides are still curved, which makes it easier to handle. That’s pretty important when it comes to a smartphone of this size. But the top and bottom are flat. Almost giving it a Sony vibe here. While also sticking with that boxy look that the Galaxy Note series has always had.
The design isn’t all good though. There are two aspects of this design that everyone will hate. One is the camera bump. It’s huge. Not only is it large, but it is also very thick. Hopefully you don’t plan on typing or tapping the phone while it’s on a table, because it will wobble.
The other design change that people will hate, is the S Pen. It is now on the left side, instead of the right. This is the first time Samsung has changed this in eight iterations of the Galaxy Note series. Which means those that have been using the Galaxy Note series for years, are going to have to retrain themselves to pull the S Pen out of the left side.
Now we don’t know for sure, but it seems like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra had to move the S Pen to the left side because of that camera module. Remember there is a 108-megapixel camera in this one, which does take up a lot of space, and also comes down pretty far on the phone. So instead of re-engineering that, Samsung moved the S Pen to the other side. Which was likely much easier.
My biggest complaint about the Galaxy S20 Ultra is still here on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. And that is the size and weight. There’s no getting around this, it’s a big and heavy phone. It was a big adjustment coming from the Pixel 4a, and if anything the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra cemented the fact that I prefer a smaller phone.
The display is absolutely stunning
This is something we say with every single Samsung flagship review. The display on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is absolutely stunning.
It’s a big 6.9-inch QHD+ AMOLED 120Hz display. Which looks amazing, but, you will probably keep it at FHD+ all the time.
That is because it still cannot run 120Hz at the full resolution. Now there is a theory about that, which is the fact that the Exynos 990 in the Galaxy S20 and Note 20 series in other regions, does not give the display enough bandwidth to do QHD+ 120Hz. But the Snapdragon 865 chipset does. And Samsung nerfed the Snapdragon models, for feature parity. Something Samsung has done before.
It is unfortunate, because you have devices like the OnePlus 8 Pro that can do QHD+ and 120Hz, and costs about $500 less. But let’s be real here, you aren’t going to see a major difference between QHD+ and FHD+. In fact, Samsung phones have come at FHD+ by default, out of the box, for years.
While we’re talking about the refresh rate, Samsung has a new setting this year. Instead of 120Hz or 60Hz, there is an Adaptive option. This will move the refresh rate from 1Hz up to 120Hz, depending on what you’re doing.
So for example, if you are watching YouTube, you don’t need all 120Hz, considering almost all YouTube videos are capped at 60fps or even less. So it’ll run at around 60Hz, conserving some battery life. It works mostly like the Pixel 4 series does, except it goes a bit more extreme, dropping down to 1Hz.
Samsung has done a great job with the Adaptive refresh rate on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. I don’t even really notice when it drops below 120Hz.
However, it hasn’t really done much to improve the battery. Which is likely what this mode was created for.
Battery life is pretty meh
When we had our briefing with Samsung, about the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, and I got to see the official specs (not those from the leaks), I was a bit worried about the battery life on the device.
So the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is basically running the same internals and screen as the Galaxy S20 Ultra, but with almost a 10% smaller battery. It is 4500mAh versus the 5,000mAh capacity battery in the Galaxy S20 Ultra. That is likely due to the space the S Pen is using.
But where the Galaxy S20 Ultra battery life was only okay, I was really worried about the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra battery life. And I was right to be.
For most people, it’ll likely get you through the day. But I have yet to cross the six hour of screen on time mark. Which is sort of the benchmark for whether battery life is good or just okay.
For contrast, the Pixel 4a I recently reviewed, crossed it pretty often. And if you look at my Galaxy S20 Ultra review, you’ll see that I was getting seven hours of on screen time. But shortly after that review, it started getting worse. And I was generally seeing around five to six hours if I was lucky.
Where I am already only getting around five hour of screen on time, this is not going to be a battery champ.
Luckily, there is still a 25W charger in the box. Which can charge the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra pretty quickly. We’re talking a little over an hour to refill that 4500mAh cell. So it’s good for a nice top up.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra does not support 45W charging like previous Samsung smartphones. We didn’t get a concrete answer from Samsung on this, but it is likely because the charging times weren’t much different between 25W and 45W. The major difference was the speed from 0% to 80% was a lot faster on the 45W charger.
At least you do get the 25W charger in the box though. That might not be the case next year, if rumors turn out to be true.
Snappy, Fast & Smooth
Inside the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, we have a Snapdragon 865+ chipset, 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. So you’d expect it to be pretty snappy. And it is.
Even with Samsung’s somewhat bloated One UI software on top of Android, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is still super fast, and smooth.
Not once, during our time with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, did we notice that the phone was slowing down, or hiccuping at all. But, we did notice that it was getting hotter than we expected. However, it is also really good at getting rid of that heat. So you don’t need to worry about the phone overheating. That’s a really good thing, especially given the fact that this is being positioned as a gaming phone.
We did play some games on this, like Call of Duty Mobile, and it performed really well. Graphics looked stunning, especially on that 6.9-inch AMOLED display, and at 120Hz, it was like butter.
But what you likely really want to know is how well did the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra work with Xbox games. Since that was one of the big features Samsung and Microsoft announced at Unpacked. Well, we don’t know yet. The feature isn’t launching until September 15, so we weren’t able to check it out, yet. But we will be trying it out as soon as possible, to see if this is the real Xbox phone.
One UI is quickly becoming my favorite Android skin
Samsung’s One UI skin is really growing on me, the more I use it and the more Samsung improves it.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is running on One UI 2.5 and Android 10. It hasn’t been updated to Android 11 and One UI 3 yet, though Android 11 isn’t due out til next month. So this is the latest and greatest from Samsung and Google.
One UI may not be the lightest skin out there – that’s probably still OxygenOS or Motorola’s skin. But it is very well optimized. As mentioned already, the performance on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is pretty impressive. The software is very smooth and snappy.
Samsung has added some very useful features in One UI, and some of them specific to the S Pen.
For instance, with One UI 2.5, you can now use DeX wirelessly. However, there is a big caveat there. Which is the fact that it only works with monitors and/or TVs that have Miracast support. Out of the three TVs in my home, only one has Miracast support and would work with DeX. Though, I can’t say it’s something I (personally) would use all the time. Some people, may use it often though.
Samsung’s partnership with Microsoft continues to grow with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Since the Note series is usually seen as the “productivity smartphone” these new features make loads of sense.
Some of the additions here is the ability to sync Samsung Notes with Outlook and/or OneNote. As well as Reminder sync with Outlook and To-Do.
But perhaps the biggest change here is with Microsoft’s “Your Phone” app. With the update to the Your Phone app on Windows – which is currently not available to everyone – you can run Android apps on your laptop. Which is a really big deal. Especially if you are like me and run a brand’s Instagram account.
If you’re a Windows user (unlike me), then these changes to One UI are definitely a big deal.
You can teach an old S Pen some new tricks
The S Pen continues to get some new features and tricks.
One of the headlining features of the S Pen this time around is the lower latency. Down to just 9ms on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (25ms on the regular Note 20). That doesn’t mean a whole lot, since the latency was already pretty low. But it means that it is almost instant. This is particularly important if you are drawing, sketching or even taking notes. As there’s no longer a slight lag between the S Pen and the display.
Samsung introduced Air Actions with the S Pen this time around. So you can do a few different actions in the air to go back, go home, go to recents, etc. Allowing you to use your phone in a presentation and truly never touch it.
Now, I can’t say that I’ll be using these Air Actions often, but I can say that they work just as they should. Unlike another OEM that added hand gestures last year, and quickly killed them with their next phone.
The S Pen continues to get better and better. But for those of us that don’t really use it on a regular basis, these changes likely won’t get us to use the S Pen more.
Plenty of authentication options
As Samsung typically does, it offers you plenty of ways to keep your phone secure. With a fingerprint sensors, and facial recognition. The iris scanner is still gone, which would have made a really nice comeback now with everyone wearing a mask. But we do have the fingerprint scanner.
Facial recognition is simply using the camera, so it's not super secure. But it is better than nothing. We're still waiting on more OEMs to add better security for facial recognition. Since it is still pretty easy to fool.
The fingerprint sensor is still an ultrasonic under-display fingerprint sensor. Which looks nice and keeps the back of the phone looking pretty clean. But, it's still not really fast, at all. It's still pretty slow, unfortunately. Though it is more accurate than in the past, which is a step forward. It is still a half a second slower than the capacitive sensor found on the Pixel 4a. Which is rather sad, considering how much you're spending on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.
The cameras could use some improvement
With the Galaxy Note 20 series, Samsung has kind of streamlined the cameras. Instead of offering a little bit of everything, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has three cameras, and a new laser autofocus system.
On-board is a 12-megapixel ultrawide, 12-megapixel periscope telephoto and a 108-megapixel main sensor.
The 108-megapixel sensor uses pixel binning, to produce a smaller, 12-megapixel image. But you can still shoot at 108-megapixels if you wish. Those images will take up around 25-30MB, depending on the image. While a 12-megapixel image is closer to 2-3MB.
It outputs some pretty decent photos most of the time. And the laser autofocus system that is new here, does a really good job of locking focus a lot quicker than the Galaxy S20 Ultra did. Which was my biggest complaint on that phone.
The shutter is still a bit on the slow side, not as bad as the Galaxy S20 Ultra, so it is improving, which is good. But if you’re looking to take photos of pets or kids, you are going to get some blurry photos. I’ve taken quite a few pictures of my dog, over the week and a half that I’ve had this phone, and it’s about a 50% chance that they will be nice and sharp.
There are a few instances where most of her is sharp, then her nose is a little blurry, or even looks like a beauty filter is on just the nose. And that’s due to the slower shutter, compared to the Pixel phones.
The ultra-wide angle is really good, and you probably won’t be using that on moving objects, so the shutter speed isn’t an issue here.
When it comes to the telephoto camera though, I was surprised with how improved it is. Samsung dropped the 100x zoom, and stuck with 50x zoom. You also get 5x optical zoom which is arguably the better option.
With 5x optical zoom, you can get some really great shots, from far away. Because it’s optical and not hybrid or digital, the pictures don’t come out like a painting.
However, if you do 50x zoom, they may come out like a painting. There is a picture I took of Lake Michigan with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, and it looks like a painting. When I see it in my camera roll, I wonder why there’s a painting in there.
But, the 50x zoom can take some really good shots, depending on the conditions, how stable it is, etc. Which is really impressive, considering the 100x zoom was pretty much useless on the Galaxy S20 Ultra. If you are able to, use a tripod when doing zoomed in shots. They come out really nice. If not, just try and hold your hand as still as possible. I did get some really good shots at 50x. Though they weren’t perfect, they weren’t a noisy and blurry mess.
Live Focus is where I was surprised the most. And it is likely also getting some help from the new laser autofocus system here. Previously, Live Focus was pretty useless for me. I hardly ever used it because it really only worked on people. Not as a sort of macro mode, like portrait mode does on the Pixel. That’s not the case now. Live Focus has put out some really good looking photos for me, since I’ve been using the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. And it even produced a better looking image than the Pixel 4a in portrait mode. Which shocked even me. It’s a mode that I found myself using a lot more than I normally would have.
The bottom line on the camera here is that they are decent. The camera is not going to be the best out there, but it is a solid upgrade over the Galaxy S20 Ultra camera system, and that’s saying something.
Should I buy the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra?
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a pretty tough sell at $1299. Especially when you have other smartphones on the market that are a fraction of that, and offer a lot of the same features.
But with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra you are paying a premium for that S Pen.
If you absolutely need that S Pen, then the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is worth picking up. It’s got the latest and greatest hardware in every category, with a pretty good camera setup. And Samsung is going to be pushing updates to it for three years. Making it a pretty good value actually.
Samsung did a pretty good job of tempting us to spend over a grand for a smartphone amid a pandemic. And I applaud Samsung for that.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s competition
If you need a new phone, but aren’t willing to spend $1299 on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, there are some other great alternatives out there.
Galaxy Note 10 and Note 10+ is a really great option. The biggest thing it is missing is the 108-megapixel camera and 120Hz display. Otherwise, it is still running some of the best specs in the business. Snapdragon 855, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage and a 4500mAh capacity battery.
There is also the Galaxy S20+ or even the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which is a really good value at this point. Since those are both closing in on six months old at this point, they are discounted pretty regularly. And are basically the same phone as the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, minus the S Pen.
Then there is the Pixel 4a, that just came out. That phone is a mere $350, and in some instances, has a better camera than the $1300 Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. It also has similar battery life, but a much smaller display.
If you need more options, feel free to check out our top 10 best smartphones, which are updated monthly.