Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra – Review 2020


The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the most flexible, powerful Android productivity tool available, with spectacular connectivity, long battery life, a fantastic stylus, and a gigantic screen. It’s also a do-over. Samsung’s huge, luxurious slab of Qualcomm’s finest chips and the latest Gorilla Glass, is what the Galaxy S20 Ultra should have been. Where the S20 Ultra stumbled in the camera department, the Note 20 Ultra features a laser autofocus module that fixes its predecessors failures, making it the phone to turn to for reliable super-zoom. My only real hesitation here is the Note’s top-of-the-line $1,299 starting price, which feels out of touch with our pandemic-ravaged economy.

Design: You Already Know It’s Big

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is very large. At 6.49 by 3.04 by 0.32 inches (HWD), it’s noticeably taller and ever so slightly wider than the Galaxy Note 10+ (6.39 by 3.04 by 0.31 inches). It isn’t wider than the iPhone 11 Pro Max (6.20 by 3.06 by 0.30 inches), but it’s much taller. I can’t really hold it in one hand and operate it with the same hand, but I can comfortably hold it in one hand and operate it with the other; this is a true phablet. The 6.9-inch screen goes to the very edges of the device and waterfalls down the sides, so if you hold it in a death grip, you’ll have some edge-touching issues.

camera bumpThe Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s camera bump is very deep

In addition to increased protection, you’ll probably want to the put the phone in a case to smooth out the camera bump on the back—it’s a big rectangle with sharp edges that can scratch other things in your pocket. It’s narrower but a little bit taller than the S20 Ultra’s camera module, which is already a bit of a mountain. The bump seems to be the price you pay for the 5x zoom periscope-style camera.

The Note 20 Ultra is the first phone we’ve seen with Corning’s Gorilla Glass Victus, a new form of strengthened glass that Samsung and Corning say is even tougher than what you find on the S20 series and the standard Galaxy Note 20. Corning says it’s twice as scratch resistant as the Gorilla Glass 6 on those other devices, which is relevant with that extra-large camera bump. The phone also carries an IPX8 waterproof rating.
ColorsThe Note 20 Ultra comes in three colors
The Note 20 Ultra’s 6.9-inch AMOLED screen is 25 percent brighter, Samsung says, although what it means is that it’s 25 percent brighter than the Note 10; it’s about 10 percent brighter than the S20 displays, which we profiled here. Like on the S20 Ultra, you have to choose between resolution and refresh rate. You can do WQHD, 3,088-by-1,440 resolution at 60Hz, or 1080p, 2,316-by-1,080 resolution at 120Hz. I don’t really understand why you can’t do WQHD at 120Hz like you can on the OnePlus 8 Pro, which is the current winner for the finest screen on the market.

It has the same in-display fingerprint sensor as the S20 series. It’s fine; I wish it had a larger touch target, but it’s par for the course nowadays.

There are two powerful speakers: a very visible one at the bottom, and a less noticeable one at the top. Together, they combine for noticeably better sound than on smaller phones.

The other notable physical change here is in the position of the S Pen. It’s on the left now, rather than the right.

S Pen locationThe S Pen now sits on the left side of the phone

Performance: The Current Leader

We received a Note 20 Ultra unit with 128GB of storage. A 512GB model costs $1,449.99. Both models have a microSD port for external storage.

The phone uses a Snapdragon 865 Plus processor that amps the system’s “performance core” up to 3.06GHz. That generated Geekbench scores of 973 single-core and 3,249 multi-core in testing; about a five percent lift over the Galaxy S20 series on single-core, and just about the same on multi-core. On the GFXBench Car Chase test, we got 29fps onscreen (an increase of 3fps over the S20) and 57fps offscreen (an increase of 5fps). A PCMark score of 13,340 is the highest we’ve seen so far, and a few percentage points better than the Galaxy S20+.

Like the Galaxy S20 series, the Note 20 Ultra has all forms of 5G (so does the regular Note 20) and comes in both carrier-specific and universally unlocked models. These are still the only phones available on AT&T and T-Mobile that can combine their low-, middle-, and high-band networks. High-band coverage on AT&T and T-Mobile isn’t great. T-Mobile only has it in seven cities, and while AT&T supposedly has it in 35, it’s nearly impossible to find in any of them. But if you’re in one of those T-Mobile cities, it’ll be a help.

Call quality is on par with other Snapdragon 865-based flagship phones; the Note 20 Ultra supports HD calling and Wi-Fi calling, as other leading smartphones do. If you’re on AT&T, remember that it may bar Wi-Fi calling from your phone if you didn’t buy it directly from the carrier. There’s no technical limitation there; it’s just an AT&T policy.

See How We Test Phones

I tested my Note 20 Ultra on Verizon LTE and got spectacular performance. The phone pumped out speeds up to 400Mbps purely on 50MHz of ordinary licensed spectrum, without using any of Verizon’s more arcane or shorter-distance technologies like LAA, CBRS, or 5G. The phone also showed noticeably better signal than a Galaxy S20 in the same location—between 1-9dB better depending on the location. That cements the Note 20 Ultra’s performance as the best phone for connectivity on the market today.

Along with 4G and 5G, the phone has every other networking standard you can think of, including Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.1. Its newest technology is UWB, a standard that’s in the most recent iPhones and that I haven’t seen a decent use for yet. UWB helps you tell how close you are to another UWB-based device and in what direction. Its initial use will be for letting people beam files between two nearby phones. Samsung has also said it will be used for smart locks at home.

Battery life from the 4,500mAh cell is also excellent. Streaming video in WQHD mode over Wi-Fi at 75 percent brightness, I got more than 12 hours of screen-on time, which is terrific. Battery life will likely be lower if you’re using some of the advanced display features like 120Hz or the S Pen, as the screen’s refresh rate adapts to the content being shown on it.

The phone charges using USB-C, Samsung’s 22W fast charger, or wireless charging. I noticed that just like it doesn’t promise 100x zoom any more, Samsung isn’t promising 45W charging now, either. In a previous test, we found that Samsung’s 45W charger doesn’t charge any faster than its 22W charger does, so this decision make sense.

Reverse chargingThe Galaxy Note 20 Ultra supports reverse wireless charging, so you can charge your headphones on it

Software: Very Samsung

Samsung can’t leave Android alone. Never wanting to be a slave to Google, it’s always throwing new features in.

The most exciting and productive feature here involves linking your Note 20 Ultra up to other devices, like your PC, your watch, or your TV. In typical Samsung fashion, there are multiple ways to do everything. A “call and text on other devices” feature will forward your calls to a Samsung tablet or Samsung watch. Link to Windows lets you drag and drop files and answer messages on a Windows PC. Smart View screen casts to your TV. Samsung’s DeX mode now also screen casts to your TV, making it a giant presentation monitor.

The feature here I’m most excited for, though, isn’t available yet: It’s the ability to mirror up to six Android apps on your PC through Link to Windows. Samsung used to have something called SideSync that would do the same thing, but it wasn’t widely understood or used.

Wireless DeXWireless DeX lets you cast your phone screen to a TV

I hooked up the Note 20 Ultra to my Windows PC using Link to Windows and got my dialer, messages, photos, and notifications, but attempting to mirror apps didn’t work. Link to Windows is supposed to mirror one app at a time already, if not six, so hopefully a promised software update in September will iron things out.

I also used DeX to connect the phone to my TCL 5-series Roku TV, which was quick and easy. In that mode, the phone’s screen turns into a touchpad and you could tap on icons and move things around. DeX is different from screen casting in that it uses the TV’s whole screen properly, while screen casting ends up with big black bars because of different aspect ratios—so it’s good for presentations, but also for remotely running streaming apps.

S Pen: Faster, but Better?

I gave the Note 20 Ultra’s S Pen to my daughter, an art student who uses a Galaxy Note 8 as her regular phone. She said that for art, at least, she didn’t find it better than the S Pen that comes with the Note 8 or Note 9. Samsung says it has reduced pen lag on the Note 20 from 40ms to 9ms, and the pen tip has a new, more matte feel than previous devices—it really feels like it’s dragging along the screen (in a good way). But my daughter focused on how the material of the pen itself feels smoother and slipperier than earlier Note models.

spirit of the s penMy daughter drew the “spirit of the S Pen” with the S Pen

The Note 20’s screen modes come into play here. A 120Hz screen refreshes about every 8.3ms. A 60Hz screen refreshes every 16.6ms. Getting the pen latency down to 9ms means that your ink refreshes about as often as the 120Hz screen does. But the phone only permits 120Hz refresh rates with a 1080p screen mode, so if you want WQHD resolution, you’re back to 60Hz and the lower latency is a bit wasted.

The S Pen remains by far the best stylus available on a mobile device. It’s pressure and tilt sensitive, has wide application support, and it isn’t as long as your forearm the way the Apple Pencil is. (That said, the Pencil is a decent size for writing on an 11-inch tablet; it would just be comically large with a phone.)

Because Samsung has stuck with the S Pen for a while, it’s genuinely useful in the applications you want to use it in—taking notes in OneNote, annotating PDFs, or drawing in Adobe Sketch, for instance.

Document markupThe stylus isn’t just for artists, as you can mark up documents with it

New software here is just gravy. I’m excited that Samsung’s built-in Notes app is supposed to sync with Microsoft OneNote, but I couldn’t try that out because it’s going to require a software update. There’s also a new feature where you can remote control your phone by waving the S Pen around in the air, but the gestures involved are hard to memorize and replicate, so I think pretty few people are even going to be aware it exists.

Camera: Samsung Fixed It

The Note 20 Ultra’s camera is an updated, fixed version of the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera, and that’s a good thing. There are three cameras on the rear: a main f/1.8, 108-megapixel camera; an f/2.2, 12-megapixel 5x zoom camera; and a f/2.2, 12-megapixel ultrawide. The 5x zoom uses up to 10x digital zoom to simulate up to 50x zoom. On the front, there’s a 10-megapixel selfie camera.

50x zoom50x zoom is highly artifacted, but at least Samsung isn’t promising 100x

The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s biggest problem is that the phase detection autofocus on its 108-megapixel main camera is slow and, at times, unreliable. The Note 20 adds a laser autofocus module that solves this problem: It has the instant, accurate autofocus that you expect from modern flagship smartphones, and I had no problem quickly focusing and refocusing on objects at different distances.

As for zoom, it turns out that yes, putting a 5x optical zoom on your phone really improves photo quality at up to 5x, and that gives you a lot of flexibility in choosing your socially distanced subjects. The Note 20’s native 5x zoom delivers much sharper, clearer shots at 5x than the S20’s 3x-plus-digital zoom, as you’d expect, and it’s less noisy at 10x, too. At 20x or higher, there’s going to be lots of digital zoom artifacts on anything you shoot, but the Note 20 is at least starting from a better place.

5x zoom test5x zoom on the Note 20 Ultra (left) is sharper and clearer than on the S20+ (right)

You’re probably wondering what cost this comes at. In my experience, it is lightly desaturated colors compared with the Galaxy S20+. It’s not a huge deal, and you’re unlikely to notice unless you have photos from the two phones side by side, but the shots taken with the S20+ look a little more intense. Some people actually prefer the less saturated colors, considering them more natural.

color comparisonThe colors on the S20+ (right) are a little more intense than the colors on the Note 20 Ultra (left)

The 108-megapixel sensor still has a very shallow depth of field, and the focus isn’t great in the corners if you’re taking photos of extremely close-up subjects. The full 108-megapixel mode, meanwhile, is more image than anyone really needs. At a 1:1 pixel view, it’s noisy and definitely susceptible to artifacting, unless you’re taking pictures in very bright natural light. As it also creates 24MB files, it’s more for photography experts to experiment with than anything else.

But I’m just doing expectation setting here around the 108MP number. The Note 20 Ultra camera is as good or better than any other smartphone camera on the market, and it has a huge number of interesting, powerful features for mobile photographers. Just don’t imagine you’re getting standalone high-end camera quality out of this thing, as we’re hitting the limits of what small smartphone sensors and tiny smartphone lenses can do.

night modeNight mode on the Note 20 Ultra (left) and the S20+ (right) are about on par

The Note 20 Ultra records 8K video at 24fps, 4K video at 60fps, and 1080p video at 120fps. (You’re not likely to need 8K video, but it lets you crop after the fact.) The laser autofocus module fixes the S20 Ultra’s video focus issue, so you don’t have the pulsing focus problem I saw on the S20 Ultra.

A new Pro Video mode allows for much more flexible audio recording. You can do directional recording with the front mic only, omnidirectional audio, or use a Bluetooth or USB mic for audio recording (although a Bluetooth mic will still sound highly compressed, like Bluetooth mics do).

20x zoom shotImages at 20x zoom on the Note 20 Ultra (left) and S20+ (right) are both artifacted, but they’re less so on the Note

Conclusion: The Most Phone Available

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is what the Galaxy S20 Ultra which should have been, with a working camera, a slightly lower price, and a ton of productivity and creativity features. It’s the most phone possible right now. I’d argue it’s even more phone than the upcoming $1,399 Microsoft Surface Duo—while you don’t have quite as much screen here, you have a more convenient stylus, 5G, Wi-Fi 6, better cameras, and a bunch of other advantages.

But we’re still in a pandemic, which means I have a lot of trouble recommending $1,299 phone. My pick for high-end phones, the Galaxy S20 5G, costs $300 less. The Note 20 Ultra makes a lot of good arguments for that extra $300: the S Pen, a larger screen, new video recording modes, and better RF signal performance. But ultimately it’s still a $1,299 phone in the middle of a crisis of mass unemployment and I can’t name it our Editors’ Choice in good conscience.

What about the $999 regular Galaxy Note 20? I haven’t tested it yet, but it’s worth noting that it isn’t just a smaller version of the Note 20 Ultra. The Note 20 lacks the Ultra’s zoom camera (it does virtual 3x zoom by cropping the middle of a 64MP sensor), it doesn’t have the laser autofocus (although it probably doesn’t need it, because it doesn’t have the 108MP camera), it doesn’t have a microSD card slot, and it has a 1080p, 60Hz screen.

That leaves me stuck here, but not with the question of whether the Note 20 Ultra live up to its promises, because it does. The real question is whether it’s fair to charge $1,300 for a phone at all right now. I’m not going to take a strong position on that, but it feels tone-deaf to give an Editors’ Choice award to a handset this expensive during a time of such economic struggle. That said, if you can afford it, the Note 20 Ultra absolutely provides a luxurious creative experience you will be happy with.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Specs

Operating System Android 10
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+
Dimensions 6.5 by 3.0 by .3 inches
Screen Size 6.9 inches
Screen Resolution 3,088 by 1,440 pixels
Camera Resolution (Rear; Front-Facing) 108MP, 12MP, 12MP; 10MP
Battery Life (As Tested) 12+ hours (video streaming)

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I'm Malkit singh rataul.

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