Re­view: Sam­sung Gal­axy Note20 Ul­tra

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★★★★☆

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:

Geek­bench 5

Sin­gle: 966

Multi: 3,067

Com­pute: 3,652

PCMark

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.

VERDICT

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

SPEC­I­FI­CA­TIONS

• 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

• NFC

• USB 3.2, Type-C 1.0 re­versible con­nec­tor, USB On-The-Go

• Fin­ger­print scan­ner (un­der dis­play, ul­tra­sonic)

• Non-re­mov­able 4,500mAh lithi­umpoly­mer bat­tery

• 164.8x77.2x8.1mm

• 208g

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.)

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