Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra full review
In Samsung's eyes, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has to achieve three things: be better than its predecessor, fix the missteps made by the last phone the company graced with the 'Ultra' moniker and put up a legitimate fight against the best and brightest rivals of 2020. How hard could that all be?
Whether you're a long-standing Note user or this is your first flagship phone ever, there's little doubt that the Note 20 Ultra delivers practically everything you could ask for in a flagship phone - and some - but there's a definite imbalance in the quantity/quality/value recipe on offer here.
Big, beautiful, but bulky
Before we dive into the details of the Note 20 Ultra's design, we have to talk about the elephant in the room, which is that the Note 20 Ultra is a BIG phone - this phone is an actual elephant in terms of smartphone size.
I was wary of sitting down with it in my pocket, for fear of it sliding out and, sure enough, I managed to catch it making a laboured escape over the course of an hour-long car ride, by the end of which the phone's body was about 60% free of my pocket.
I'd wager that it's bigger than the average user would be willing to live with in day-to-day use but its size won't come as quite as much of a shock to those already versed in the ways of the Note range. Before you put any money down on one though, testing a unit out in-store first; just to get a real sense of the scale of this device, wouldn't be a bad idea.
Related: Best big phone 2020
Samsung has, at least, made the most of the generous footprint on which the Note 20 Ultra sits. The display's bezels are already slim to begin with and the panel's curved sides not only grant this slab of a handset a more comfortable hand-feel but also give it the appearance of having practically no vertical bezels at all.
As such, with the exception of the centrally-positioned hole-punch camera, the front of the phone is effectively one uninterrupted screen - a great canvas on which to write, annotate and draw.
The Mystic Bronze finish - the signature colour for practically everything Samsung unveiled at its August 2020 Unpacked event - is stunning; rendering the back of the Note as if it were a sheet of copper-coloured satin.
Unlike the two other colourways the phone comes in (Mystic Black and Mystic White), the bronze is the only one with this sand-blasted appearance, which also translates to its surface texture. On the upside it's the superior option if you don't like fingerprints, however, it produces a fraction less traction than its monochromatic counterparts (so a case is definitely worth considering if the price alone wasn't a good enough reason to get one).
Despite a real fear of fumbling the sizeable Note, it's technically one of the toughest glass-bodied entries in the series to date; retaining IP68 dust and water resistance, while also debuting Corning's latest Gorilla Glass Victus (effectively Gorilla Glass 7) on both the front and back.
Corning has some impressive test footage of its latest toughened glass at work; surviving some pretty substantial falls and scrapes - this is still a glass-bodied device, though - treat it with care and it should shrug off minor scratches and dings better than most phones, thanks to Corning's efforts.
The near-featureless expanse of glass that makes up the Note's back only serves to accentuate its ludicrously-huge camera bump, which accounts for a fifth of the phone's overall thickness. The module does, however, compliment the Note's squared appearance, with tight rounding at each corner and a contrasting mirror-polished finish - as with the phone's metal frame.
The S20 Ultra tried to integrate its camera module into its design with some subtly - which I think was the wrong move for a phone with 'Ultra' in its name. Aesthetically, what Samsung has chosen to do with the Note's camera bump makes much more sense; adding to the sense of boldness and power that this phone is designed to evoke.
From an engineering standpoint, it's also necessary to accommodate that periscopic telephoto camera system, but an obvious side-effect of this is that the phone rocks quite a bit if touched when on a flat surface - yet another reason to slap on a case.
Stunning screen & clear sound
Push past the awkward marketing name for the AMOLED screen on the Note 20 Ultra (mentioned in the specs below) and the expansive panel at play is a sight to behold. Colour, contrast, overall brightness, viewing angles, sharpness - it's all top-notch, to the point that this is one of the best-looking smartphone displays currently on the market.
By default, it sports the 'Vivid' colour profile, which as you can imagine, pushes imagery beyond natural limits; dig into the settings, however, and you have the ability to smooth things out with a pleasing level of fine-grain control over both colour and white balance if you wish.
With this being a Note, the squatter 19.3:9 aspect ratio also makes sense compared to the S20 Ultra's 20:9 display, as it better caters to users' productivity needs, whilst still being a great fit for media consumption.
Then the there's the matter of refresh rate. Out the box, the Ultra sports Full HD+ (2316×1080) visuals with an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate - this is probably the best way to enjoy content on this phablet.
It feels as though One UI - Samsung's user experience - has been tweaked to accentuate the values of a higher refresh rate; with seemingly snappier animations as you swipe around. It also helps sell the phone's powerful, responsive underpinnings.
You do also have the option of bumping resolution up to WQHD+ (3088×1440) but as with the S20 line, there's a catch. Users are still made to choose between enjoying a higher refresh rate or higher resolution viewing on the Ultra, you can't have both. It was a limitation that we were disappointed to discover on Samsung's flagships from earlier in the year and one that we were hoping the power-user-centric Note 20 Ultra wouldn't suffer from.
There's little doubt that the hardware is capable of delivering both, so it's assumed that Samsung's concerns about battery performance are too great to relinquish control over such settings to users. That said, I imagine Note users to be more technically-versed than most and comfortable with acknowledging a simple on-screen warning, were they able to set both 120Hz and WQHD+ viewing modes on at the same time.
Audio is a simpler affair - the Note 20 Ultra forgoes a headphone jack but does come with tuned USB-C AKG in-ear buds in-box. Meanwhile, its stereo loudspeaker setup delivers mids and highs from behind the display (so there's no visible earpiece), while bass is pushed out of a down-facing grille, offset from the USB port. It's not the most balanced audio setup and lacks punch but offers outstanding clarity, making it great for spoken word, less so for the likes of Pendulum.
Smart-yet-subtle software tweaks
The Note is Samsung's opportunity to showcase the best and brightest features it can muster in a mobile device and there's little to question that when it comes to One UI 2.5 atop Android 10 - it's jam-packed.
There's a definite cumulative improvement but it's formed from small tweaks all over the place; new system-wide navigation with the S Pen, enabled by additional Anywhere Actions, Live Captions letting you following along with any audio, even when the phone is muted, plus a greatly-enhanced Samsung Notes app.
Microsoft integration is tighter than ever before, with the ability to export to Word or Powerpoint - directly from Notes, not to mention the upcoming addition on OneNote synchronisation.
Notes includes new templates, offers PDF import and annotation, and a feature called Audio Bookmark - letting you record audio notes that link with specific points in your writing. S Pen users will appreciate the auto-straighten button - which works best on longer sentences - as well as new customisation options over font-weight and colour that you can append to handwriting after the fact.
This all sits on top of an already-robust feature set; with an invaluable one-handed mode, split-screen multitasking, a customisable news and media feed, in Samsung Daily, a now truly-wireles DeX desktop experience, Game Booster with Discord integration, Samsung's own Knox security; there's even a blockchain key store.
It's fair to say that it can be a little intimidating getting to grips with One UI if you've never encountered Samsung's flavour of Android before but the scope of features is balanced by the ability to lock down and disable, hide or remove practically any and all that you see as noise against the tools you actually want.
The stronger twin
Wherever you pick the Note 20 Ultra up in the world, it's going to feel like a fast, powerful device. A flagship chipset and 12GB of RAM makes sure of that and guarantees future-proofing for the average life of such a phone, but when you're paying these sorts of prices, you expect to get the best there is and by Samsung's own admission, the version of the Note 20 Ultra we tested isn't.
Call it what you will, a quirk or strategy, Samsung has released the same phone running on different silicon in different markets for years. When it comes to its flagships, it's the US that you'll almost always find Qualcomm's latest and greatest SoC on board, while the rest of the world (more or less) gets Samsung's equivalent Exynos chip.
With the S20 series, there was a clear divide between the Exynos 990 and the Snapdragon 865 - the latter of which trumped Samsung's own chip in both performance and power efficiency. Now that we're into the second half of the year, Qualcomm's had time to improve its processor further - producing the 865+. Meanwhile, the global version of the Note comes with the same chip as the S20 range - the Exynos 990 - once again.
While I have no qualms with the 990 in real-world usage, the performance and longevity disparity that testing reveals between the global model of the Note 20 Ultra and the empirically-superior Snapdragon version in the US isn't reflected in the price and that seems disingenuous.
It's most notable with regards to power efficiency, with the Exynos-based Note in Tech Advisor's care doling out 7 hours and 34 minutes of screen-on time in our PCMark-based battery test. Our colleagues at PC World in the US have been reviewing the Snapdragon-powered Ultra and in the same test it lasted an additional 1 hour and 38 minutes on top - that's quite the inconsistency.
Then there's the matter of real-world usage, with testing resulting in 3.5 to 4 hours of screen-on time - far below anything I'd consider acceptable for a phone with a 4500mAh battery and costing as much as the Note does. I just hope that such low figures are the result of the adaptive battery technology still learning my usage patterns before exacting its own power efficiency protocols.
At least Samsung's 25W fast charging is above par. 45W charging may no longer be on the table but despite the cited wattage, the phone refills at what seems like an impressively quick pace - reaching 60% charge in 30 minutes and a full charge in a little over an hour.
What is a modern Note if not a Galaxy S phone twisted into a productivity machine by way of its integrated stylus? While new gestures and functionality have already been covered, one other adjustment Samsung has made to this year's S Pen is arguably its most important - lower latency.
With the Ultra, Samsung's managed to reduce the S Pen's latency down to an almost imperceptible 9ms. This means it goes toe-to-toe with the most established stylus on the market - the Apple Pencil - and in supported experiences, like Samsung's own Notes app, it works like a dream - the closest to writing using physical media that I've experienced from a stylus to date.
There are a couple of caveats to the excellence of the Note 20 Ultra's S Pen though. Testing it with third-party offerings like Adobe Sketch reveals that this improved latency isn't baked into the hardware but wholly influenced by the apps being used as well.
The ergonomics of the S Pen residing on the phone's left side (a first for the Note series) and the use of a display with curved edges also pose some issues with regards to usability, with the (removable) nib 'slipping' and resulting in some iffy palm rejection from time to time.
Fixing the S20 Ultra's cameras
The S20 Ultra's 108Mp sensor and 100x Space Zoom certainly grabbed headlines but carried some notable compromises when they were actually put to use. The 100x magnification had little real-world use and consistently produced less-than-stellar results, while the employ of such a large imaging sensor resulted in consistent autofocus issues across both stills and video.
The Note 20 Ultra has the same underlying hardware, with a couple of important alternations; namely the addition of an improved laser autofocus system that keeps focus-hunting in check, and a revised 50x maximum zoom, which is far more usable.
Has Samsung ironed out the biggest flaws of the S20 Ultra's camera? I'd say so, and generally speaking, you'll get some superb shots out of the Note 20 Ultra. That 108Mp still suffers from a narrow depth of focus, though - a limitation of physics - sticking such a physically large sensor so close to such a small lens, however, learn how the Note 20 Ultra's main camera tends to behave and the image processing will ensure you can take some superb photos (and video).
There's a pleasing level of consistency across the phone's three sensors - something that you don't find on every multi-sensored flagship camera, and dynamic range is also very impressive.
Low-light shooting highlights detail loss and noise more readily than expected, making Bright Night essential to getting usable shots when things get dark, while skin tones in portraits also appear a little washed out.
Beyond that though, image processing is consistent and makes for pleasing final shots, with plenty of detail, good contrast, colour and natural-looking bokeh. When shooting portraits you also have a lot of post-capture control over aspects like background blur and lighting effects, with consistently good subject detection helping the software manipulate the background without artefacts.
A bonus of the upgrade to One UI 2.5 is that the camera once again remembers the last mode used, which will appeal to long-suffering Samsung fans, while most of the newest improvements fall to the video side of things.
The Note 20 Ultra captures great video, right up to 8K footage at 24fps. I'd steer clear of this due to file size and the relative unwieldy nature of the workflow around such video but it's an impressive flex nonetheless. You get capable image stabilisation across multiple resolutions and frame rates and Pro Video mode gains so powerful new features; like live audio levels and microphone bias control, as well as the support for external wired and wireless mics.
Price & Availability
In the UK, the Note 20 Ultra starts at £1179 for the 256GB model or £1279 for the 512GB model and features 5G by default. It was available for pre-order until 20 August from Samsung's UK site (as well as the likes of Amazon UK) and has been on sale since 21 August.
Those that pre-ordered direct from Samsung and live within a 30-mile radius of Samsung KX - the company's King's Cross experience space - are able to collect their device in-person, provided they pre-ordered up to two days prior to 21 August launch date.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is something of an 'everything phone' - boasting more features than practically any other handset on the market and excelling in so many areas that there's no doubting its flagship credentials.
It addresses all three questions posed at the start of this review, making it a compelling smartphone for sure, but at the same time, it also falls prey to the state of the world in 2020.
This £1200 handset arrives into a market filled with buyers who have tightened their purse strings in the face of uncertainty and at the same time, it also has to compete with new mid-range offerings like the OnePlus Nord and Google Pixel 4a - devices that are redefining what value for money means in the phone space.
Long-time Note users will love almost everything about the Note 20 Ultra, for everyone else, despite its abilities this isn't a sure-fire recommendation, not at this price.
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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: Specs
- Curved 6.9in WQHD+ 19.3:9 120Hz Dynamic AMOLED 2x display
- In-display ultrasonic fingerprint sensor
- S Pen (9ms latency)
- Samsung Exynos 990 (Europe), Snapdragon 865+ (US)
- 12GB RAM
- 256GB/512GB storage + microSD expandability
- 108Mp main camera, 12Mp telephoto camera w/ 5x optical zoom, 12Mp ultrawide camera, laser autofocus
- 10Mp front-facing camera
- Samsung Knox security
- 4500mAh battery
- 25W fast charging
- IP68 certified
- 208 grams
- Gorilla Glass 7 front and back
- Colours: Mystic Bronze, Mystic White, Mystic Black