Review: Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra
Price: £1,179 (inc VAT) from fave.co/34uV3Il
Our Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra review found three clear reasons to make the jump to this new flagship phone: Mystic Bronze, laser autofocus and the S Pen’s new 8ms latency. And if you’re looking for any reasons not to, well, there are plenty of those in this review too – namely, it’s gigantic, expensive and not a huge upgrade over the S20 Ultra.
But if you’re a Note fan, you know exactly what you’re getting and you know you want it: the biggest, fastest and most powerful Android phone you can buy. For everyone else, it’s not so simple.
Samsung’s flagships have become so good that reviews of them are all basically the same: yes they have the best specs, but they’re also the most expensive (although the Note20 Ultra actually costs £20 less than the S20 Ultra). The maths is brutally clear: Even with trade-ins and carrier offers, you’re still going to be paying more for this phone than for any other Note that came before it. There’s no doubt that you’re getting a lot for your money with the Note20 Ultra. But Samsung has raised the bar so high, the best might not be worth the price of admission anymore.
BIG, BRIGHT & BEAUTIFUL
There’s no nice way to say it: the Note20 Ultra is the most unwieldy phone I’ve ever used. Granted, it’s about 15g lighter than the S20 Ultra, three-quarters of a millimetre thinner and only a couple of
millimetres wider, but that phone was already at the upper limit of what my hands and pockets could handle. The extra width on the Note20 Ultra, along with its very boxy shape, makes it feel uncomfortable to handle and carry.
The unwieldiness is due in no small part to the camera bump. You’ve seen it in photos, and it’s every bit as obtrusive as it looks. The Note20 Ultra’s impressive thinness actually works against it here, making the bump feel much thicker by comparison. The size also means it’s tough to use when resting on a table. I even encountered some issues with charging pads. A case would help, but you wouldn’t want to use one.
Why? Because the Note20 Ultra is flat-out gorgeous. Samsung’s new colours are dubbed ‘Mystic’, and they give the Note a refinement and dignity that contrasts with the pop-culture vibe one gets from the S20 Ultra’s bright, iridescent ‘Cosmic’ colourways.
The Note20 Ultra has a luscious matte finish that’s nicer than what I’ve seen on any Galaxy phone I’ve ever used. It doesn’t need to grow on you like the iPhone 11 Pro’s Midnight Green or wait for the right light like the Note 10’s Aura Glow. It repels fingerprints like it was made of plastic, and it has a better grip than the glossy S20 does. The new bronze colour’s matching, stainless-steel sides add a touch of sophistication, accentuated by the slivers of colour that peek out above and below the display. You’d be nuts to get any other colour and even more nuts to put a case on it, even a clear one.
The front of the phone is equally fabulous. The bezels around the enormous 6.9in screen are about as thin as they can get without disappearing completely. The curved edges contrast nicely with the flat top and bottom.
Because it’s a Samsung flagship, it
goes without saying that the display is big, bright and breathtaking. But I’ll say it anyway. Samsung somehow manages top itself with each new flagship. If you go deep enough in the comparison with the S20 Ultra, you’ll see a more consistent white balance and a higher max brightness (a whopping 1,500 nits using adaptive brightness), but all you’ll notice are the vibrant colours and deep blacks.
The Galaxy Note20 Ultra has the same 120Hz display that Samsung introduced with the S20, so unfortunately, you still need to drop the resolution to Full HD to use the 120Hz setting, but it’s a small sacrifice. Once you try it out, you won’t want to go back, but here it has an adaptive refresh rate to conserve battery life. So if you’re reading an article, the rate will drop to 60Hz, but if you’re playing a game or watching a movie, it’ll increase to 120Hz. It’s a great batterysaving feature and one that looks to be exclusive to the Note. Samsung has announced the One UI 2.5 features that are coming to the S20 and the adaptive refresh isn’t one of them.
POWER TO SPARE WITH SOME SPARING PARTS
The Note20 Ultra might not be a true ‘gamer’ phone like the Asus ROG Phone 3 or the Lenovo Legion Duel, but it packs just as much of a punch. The Snapdragon 865+ combined with 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM produced the best scores I’ve ever seen on an Android phone:
Work 2.0: 12,298
So you’re getting a phone that’ll run everything at tip-top speed, including Microsoft’s new xCloud Xbox gaming service. I’m no gamer (my Candy Crush obsession notwithstanding), and my Minecraft Dungeons-loving son was too young to try out the preview with his account, but Xbox fans will surely be happy with the performance.
You’ll also be able to download Fortnite without side-loading, an unexpected benefit of Epic’s recent war with Google and Apple. Because Samsung runs its own App Store and doesn’t have terms as strict as Apple’s for developers, the new Epic Store with discounted V-Bucks is available at a tap. My son reports that while the on-screen controls were a little confusing at first, gameplay on the Note20 Ultra is ‘OP’ (that means good), and he was able to snipe some sweats.
The Snapdragon 865+ chip gets a little hot, however. In Fortnite and other graphically intensive apps, the back of the phone became noticeably warm to the touch, often topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the heaviest loads (per an infrared thermometer). It might become an issue on hot days. That’s probably why the Asus ROG Phone 3 and Lenovo Legion Duel have specialized cooling systems.
Also worth noting it that the Note20 Ultra’s 4,500mAh battery is a little on the skimpy side is. While that’s bigger than what you’ll find on most phones, it’s smaller than the 5,000mAh battery in the S20 Ultra. But don’t worry:
your Note20 Ultra is still going to make it through the day, even with heavy users who want to keep 120Hz motion smoothness turned on.
Note20 Ultra users will have to settle for second-best when it comes to battery life, however. In benchmarks, I got better than 12 hours with 120Hz turned off, but only around nine hours with it on. My real-world experiences were similar: even with the new adaptive refresh rate, the Note’s battery drained significantly faster when motion smoothing was on, which is just going to be a fact of life until it evolves. It’s the main reason why the iPhone 12 probably won’t include a ProMotion display – it kills battery life.
When you need to charge it, you’ll get 25-watt fast charging, but not the 45-watt charging on the Note 10+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra. It won’t make a huge difference – the Note20 Ultra will still fill up in less than 90 minutes using the 25-watt charger – but it’s strange that Samsung removed support after just a year. The camera bump also caused some issues with charging pads. More than once my phone didn’t charge because the camera lifted the phone up enough where the coils weren’t touching.
A MIGHTY NOTE-TAKER
Because this is a Galaxy Note phone, it has an S Pen on board, though it’s not like the styli of Note past. For one, it’s been moved to the left side of the device after living its whole past life on the right side.
The placement isn’t the only thing that’s new. Samsung has accelerated the S Pen’s latency from 45ms to 8ms, which has a dramatic effect on writing and drawing. I never had an issue with
the old pen’s performance, but the new S Pen feels as natural as writing on an actual piece of paper. That latency is the same as the Apple Pencil’s, and it makes a huge difference when taking notes, marking up documents or just scribbling on the screen. It’s even better with the higher refresh rate. Samsung’s Notes app has been upgraded as well, with better handwriting support and annotated audio. I suspect you’ll be using your Note to take notes more often than with previous Notes.
The rest of the S Pen’s tricks aren’t nearly as impressive. Samsung turned its stylus into a Bluetooth remote with the Note 9 and added app gestures last year. Now the Note has even more ‘air actions’ that let you control all aspects of the phone with back, recents, home, and screenshot gestures. I could somewhat see the appeal of using the S Pen as a remote for the Camera or Gallery, but the use case for the new air actions is extremely limited.
And that’s if you can get them to work. While I was able to complete the handy tutorial that forces you practice each of the new gestures, getting them to work while using the phone wasn’t so
simple. I often triggered the wrong gesture or none at all.
I struggled to find a reason to use them. Even when I was using the S Pen, it was just as easy to tap the phone than wave my hand to go back a screen or switch apps.
The new S Pen is joined by a new version of One UI (2.5) that brings minor camera and interface tweaks, as Samsung continues to refine one of the best Android skins this side of the Pixel. Samsung has specifically designed One UI to be friendlier to giant phones. The menus, navigation, and layout all make the Note20 a little easier to handle. You’ll still need two hands, but One UI is a pleasure to use.
A MORE RESERVED, MORE REFINED CAMERA
The Galaxy Note20 Ultra has a camera system rivalling that of any smartphone out there, but it’s not quite as extravagant as the S20 Ultra’s. That’s a good thing. The 100X Space Zoom that was plastered across the camera array on the S20 Ultra has been lowered to 50X, and the DepthVision lens has been replaced by laser autofocus.
Both changes serve the Note20 Ultra well. While the 108Mp lens is still largely unnecessary – I couldn’t tell the difference between 108Mp pictures and 12Mp ‘binned’ images – the Note20 Ultra is definitely Samsung’s best smartphone camera. It’s no coincidence that it’s also the least gimmicky, eschewing features like Dual Exposure on the Note 9 for the things that matter: improved night mode, lightning-fast focus and realistic zoom.
The zoom has its limits. When pushed to 50X, the Note20 Ultra still produces noisy shots. Drop to 30X and they’re usable, but 10X yields the best results. If I were in change of the Note 30’s camera, in fact, I’d make 30X the upper limit and work on perfecting it. Samsung’s zoom is its biggest advantage over Google and Apple (for now). Even with fewer megapixels in its telephoto lens (12Mp vs 48Mp on the S20 Ultra), the Note20 Ultra takes better zoom shots.
The other big improvement is with autofocus. Focusing was an issue with the S20 Ultra that has never been satisfactorily resolved. For the new generation, Samsung added a laser autofocus sensor to the Note20 Ultra. It makes a huge difference over the S20 Ultra and is a far more useful fourth lens than a macro or depth one. I’ve never used a phone that focused this quickly without needing to tap the screen, and it helps all aspects of the Note.
However, at times it works a little too well. When the foreground is similar to what’s behind it, the Note20 occasionally locked onto the wrong part of the picture. Other cameras were smarter. When it got it right, photos often had
an aggressive bokeh effect even without using Live Focus. In the photo of the flower above, for example, the back petals are out of focus. The same shot with the Pixel 4a has everything in focus.
Night mode also improves on the Note20 Ultra, pulling it close to equal footing with the iPhone 11 and Pixel 4. Shadows and lowlights aren’t blown out as they are on other Galaxy phones. Pictures have less noise than on the S20 Ultra. It’s a great improvement and puts the Note20 Ultra on firm footing with the night mode champ. Hands down, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra is Samsung’s best camera phone. You’ll still get a
healthy serving of Samsung’s trademark oversaturation, and the app is still a bit more confusing than it should be. But more often than not, you’re going to take your phone out of your pocket and snap a great picture with very little fuss, whether you’re far away or shrouded in darkness.
Nothing I write here is going to convince you about a Note20 Ultra either way. If you have £1,179 to spend on a phone and want the very best of Android, you’ve probably already decided to order one. And if you’re a Note lover, it’s likely already on the way. For everyone else, however, it’s a tough sell. It’s undeniably the best phone you can buy, but it’s also probably more screen and power than most people need. No matter how you slice it, £1,179 is a lot of money to pay for a phone, even one as beautiful as the Note20 Ultra. Michael Simon
• 6.9in (3,088x1,440; 496ppi) Dynamic AMOLED 2X capacitive touchscreen
• Android 10, One UI 2.5
• Exynos 990 (7nm+) processor
• Octa-core (2x 2.73GHz Mongoose M5, 2x 2.5GHz Cortex-A76, 4x 2GHz Cortex-A55) CPU
• Mali-G77 MP11 GPU
• 8GB RAM
• 256GB/512GB storage
• Three rear-facing cameras: 108Mp, f/1.8, 26mm (wide), 1/1.33in, 0.8–m, PDAF, Laser AF, OIS; 12Mp, f/3.0, 120mm (periscope telephoto), 1.0–m, PDAF, OIS, 5x optical zoom, 50x hybrid zoom; 12Mp, f/2.2, 120-degree, 13mm (ultra-wide), 1/2.55in, 1.4–m
• Selfie camera: 10Mp, f/2.2, 26mm (wide), 1/3.2in, 1.22–m, Dual Pixel PDAF
• 802.11a/b/g/n/ac/6 Wi-Fi dual-band
• Bluetooth 5.0, A2DP, LE, aptX
• GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS, GALILEO
• USB 3.2, Type-C 1.0 reversible connector, USB On-The-Go
• Fingerprint scanner (under display, ultrasonic)
• Non-removable 4,500mAh lithiumpolymer battery
The 6.9in screen on the Galaxy Note20 Ultra definitely needs two hands to operate.
Sorry, Bixby lovers, the dedicated button is gone for good.
The bezels aren’t completely gone on the Note20 Ultra, but they’re not very visible.
The Note20 Ultra’s matte finish is a massive improvement over the glossy S20 Ultra.
The Galaxy Note20 Ultra (top) is only about three-quarters of a millimetre thinner than the S20 Ultra, but the difference is noticeable.
The bezels are thin, the camera is centred, and the screen is gorgeous on the Note20 Ultra.
You’ll want to take more notes with your Note20 Ultra’s S Pen.
The camera bump on the Note20 Ultra is very bumpy.
The Note20 Ultra is impressively thin at 8.1mm, but the camera bump adds some girth.
The Galaxy Note20 Ultra has impressive zoom, seen here (clockwise from top left) at 1X, 10X, 30X and 50X.
The Note20 Ultra’s laser zoom is so fast and precise, the centre of subjects are often too in focus, leaving blurry edges.
Even without a dedicated time-of-flight sensor, the Note20 Ultra (left) takes portraits that are as crisp as the S20 Ultra’s.
The Note20 Ultra (left) takes sharper, more balanced, and less over-exposed photos in Night mode compared to the S20 Ultra. (It was very dark when I took these shots.)