In a year when mid-range devices like the Pixel 4a and OnePlus Nord have been getting a lot more attention than usual, Samsung has just released the new Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. If you’re looking for a pragmatic device that offers a decent value proposition, this isn’t the phone for you. The Note 20 Ultra was built to be a no-compromises device, promising to deliver the ultimate performance and photography experience. And of course, it’s also the phone with the S Pen.
Based on that quick intro, you might have the foregone conclusion that the Note 20 Ultra is going to be my favorite smartphone of the year. Right off the bat, I’ll say that this phone is exquisite in many different ways, but it’s not perfect and is definitely not the phone most people should buy.
While there’s not a perfect phone that will appeal to every buyer, the Note 20 Ultra is in a precarious position, delivering practically every feature most spec junkies crave these days, but the phone’s price and overall size will ensure that it remains a coveted phone for a very small segment of the market.
The design of the Note 20 Ultra is the first indication that this phone means business. With its squared-off edges, bold bronze finish, and ridiculously large camera module on the back, this phone isn’t built for the casual smartphone user. The Note line has always been targeted at power users and smartphone enthusiasts, mainly because it packed in so many features and a massive battery that could keep the phone running for days on end.
After toning things down for the Galaxy Note 8 through the 10 after the exploding battery fiasco of the 7, it’s nice to see the Note return to its roots.
Holding the phone, its size, and its weight impart the overwhelming superiority of this device when compared to the competition. But while it’s a massive phone, it’s also refined. Samsung’s made sure that the fit and finish are pristine and the Frosted Satin finish on the rear glass panel is a nice touch after last year’s aura glow which was a fingerprint magnet.
The S Pen
As the name implies, this phone is the latest in Samsung’s lineup for Note devices. While the massive camera bump on the back of the phone gets the most attention, the main feature that sets this phone apart from every other Android device on the market is the S Pen. Yes, there are a handful of devices that have pen or stylus support, but only a few of those have a pen that can be stored inside the phone and fewer than that have the software support to make the pen even remotely useful.
As is the case each year, the S Pen functionality has been expanded this year with a slew of new features. The most NOTE-worthy and most useful are the integration with Microsoft OneNote and the reduced latency. Samsung Notes has always been a decent app, but with Microsoft OneNote, using the notes you take on your computer or sharing them with family members or co-workers is a much more pleasant experience.
The latency from when you start writing on the screen with the S Pen and when it shows up has been reduced to just 9 milliseconds Making the S Pen feel significantly more responsive than it has in the past. Add to that the subtle pencil writing sound that the phone makes when you’re using the S Pen and it nearly feels like you’re writing on paper
You even get a handful of new air gestures for controlling the navigation of the phone, but honestly, the camera controls that were added last year are still the most useful if you’re using a selfie stick or a tripod to get a steady shot.
Just be sure to slap a case on this thing if you want to take notes with the phone laying on your desk since the camera bulge makes it impossible otherwise.
As is the case with most of Samsung’s flagship smartphones, the Note 20 Ultra sports a curved AMOLED panel. This makes the phone feel sleek and looks smaller than it actually is, but I’m personally not a fan since the number of false touches you get can be infuriating. It honestly feels like Samsung’s palm rejection software has gotten worse this year, but it could simply be the sheer size of the display.
But the real story here is the adaptive 120 Hz refresh rate when you bump the resolution down from 1440 to 1080. The difference is truly noticeable and after you’ve used the phone at the higher refresh rate, you’ll likely stick with the lower resolution rather than going back to 1440 and be stuck at 60 Hz. Having an option to use it at its full resolution would be ideal, but that would cause additional battery drain and as I’ll touch on in a bit, that’s something that the Note 20 Ultra has a few issues with already.
The color reproduction and brightness, as always, are commendable. Using the phone in direct sunlight isn’t an issue at all and I love how dark the display can get in low light so that you can use it in bed at night without lighting up the whole room.
Besides the S Pen, the other highlight of the Note 20 Ultra is the triple camera system that Samsung is using on the back of the phone. The 108MP main sensor is a repeat from the S20 Ultra earlier this year, but this time around they’ve included a laser autofocus system to make sure each shot is in focus. The improvement is quite noticeable as I didn’t have any issues while capturing images on a short family vacation this past week.
The other two cameras are great as well, featuring 12MP sensors paired with an ultrawide lens and a 5x periscope lens. While I’ve always been a big proponent of ultrawide lenses on smartphones, this 5x telephoto lens is the first one to convince me that having a good zoom is just as important. But rather than having me talk about it, just take a look for your self at what the Note 20 Ultra can do.
At the end of the day, this triple-camera array makes the 20 Ultra one of the most versatile smartphone cameras today, allowing you to capture incredible photos no matter how close or far you are from your subject. I still think Samsung’s default settings are a bit too punchy with over-saturated blue skies and contrast dialed up a bit too high. But if you’re taking pictures to post to Instagram of your Facebook feed, you’re gonna love the results.
The only real let down is the front-facing camera. The 10MP sensor performs well in a lot of lighting conditions, but Samsung’s beauty mode adjustments which can’t fully be turned off, lead to some pretty horrible selfies. I wasn’t a fan of the OnePlus Nord’s selfie camera, but even that one took better shots than this.
If you’re a gamer or a power user, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a phone that can outclass the Note 20 Ultra. Samsung’s using the new Snapdragon 865+ inside this thing, paired with 12GB of RAM and 265GB of onboard storage.
For having 12GB of RAM, the phone seems to dump apps and games from memory more often than it should, but if you use about a dozen or so apps throughout the day, you’ll likely never have to wait for them to reload.
As for the sheer performance of this thing, I wasn’t able to find a single app or game that could slow it down. With gaming, you’ll be able to enjoy your favorite titles with settings turned all the way up and even take advantage of the display 120Hz refresh rate if the game supports it.
The only thing that does feel slow on the Note 20 Ultra is the Bixby Daily feed to the left of the home screen. While I don’t use it much, the times I do accidentally swipe over, it takes 5 seconds to load up any content. My recommendation is to simply disable it since it has more ads than actually useful content.
Honestly, that’s the thing that irks me most about the Note 20 Ultra and all of Samsung’s newer devices. Samsung has scattered ads in as many first-party ads as it possibly can, promoting restaurants in the dialer app, apps recommendations in pop-up notifications, scattering ads in Bixby Daily, Samsung Pay, Game Launcher and Weather apps.
If I’m paying $1,300 for a smartphone, I don’t want any ads. Period.
As for One UI, Samsung’s adjusted a few things since rolling the new design language. It’s far better than what Samsung used to have but still feels a bit bloated and overbearing when compared to what other OEMs are doing.
The sheer number of features and customizations that are included in the software is an asset for those who truly know what they’re doing, but Samsung doesn’t have a mechanism to showcase the features to new Samsung users, forcing you to dig through menus that are often 4 to 5 layers deep to tweaks settings.
The good news is that Samsung has announced that the Note 20 Ultra and a select number of newer devices will be getting three years of software updates, so things should technically get better between now and 2023.
Anyone who’s owned a flagship Samsung phone in the past few years is likely familiar with Dex by now. The desktop UI that appears when you connect your phone to a monitor is a great way to use it with a much larger screen to be more productive or simply enjoy your media, but this year, the Note 20 Ultra does away with the cables and allows you to do it wirelessly. This doesn’t really work with most monitors, but if you own a smart TV, there’s a good chance you can use this. Controlling the desktop using the touchpad feature on the phone isn’t the best, but connect a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and you’ll have yourself a nifty desktop experience if you’re willing to put up with the lag that comes along with the wireless connection.
In the past, owning a Note meant having a phone that could get you through a long world day and still have enough power to get you through the next morning without worrying about battery life. But things are a bit different with the Note 20 Ultra.
On paper, the phone’s 4500 mAh battery sounds impressive, but when you factor in the massive display, bleeding-edge processor and cameras that practically force you to take pictures all day, the real-world results aren’t that impressive.
The average user should be able to make it through a day without any issues, but the Note 20 Ultra is built for the power user, someone who’s constantly on their phone, taking notes in meetings, playing games that take advantage of the phone’s incredible performance and snapping photos from sun up to sunset. Doing that, I was usually reaching for a charger with 15% battery left by 6 or 7 pm. Not something you’d typically expect from a Note.
I have to admit, I like the Note 20 Ultra a lot more than what I was expecting. Besides being discrete and not offering adequate battery life, there’s really nothing this phone can’t do.
But here’s the thing. Take away the S Pen and the 5X zoom and the Note 20 Ultra isn’t any better than the $899 OnePlus 8 Pro. In fact, it’s a bit of a downgrade in some respects. If you simply must have the S Pen or can’t live without a periscope zoom lens, the Note 20 Ultra will make you quite happy, but if those features aren’t high on your priority list, there are plenty of flagship smartphones from 2020 that can be had for a whole lot cheaper.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Rating: star_fullstar_fullstar_fullstar_fullstar_50 (4.4 / 5)
- S Pen
- Battery Life
The Bottom Line
If you need a phone that checks practically every box imaginable, the Note 20 Ultra won’t disappoint. But if you’re looking for a flagship smartphone and don’t need all the bells and whistles that the Note 20 Ultra packs in, there are plenty of other devices that are significantly more affordable.