Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: the premium productivity powerhouse

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: the premium productivity powerhouse

"Ultra" is once again the word Samsung is using for its the top of the line device. After the S-series in spring, the Note series now also gets its annual update. Here's our full review of the new flagship phablet.

Rating

Good

  • Successful camera setup
  • Unbeatable pen handling
  • Great, high-end equipment
  • Chic design (new colors!)

Bad

  • Incredibly expensive
  • Stupid marketing
  • Too big for some

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G release date and price

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra starts at $1,299 and has all the technology you could possibly need in a trouser pocket. For that price, you'll get the version with 128GB of internal storage. Ther version with 512GB of storage comes in at $1,449. Samsung has once again kept support for expandable storage via microSD cards for its 2020 Note 20 Ultra, so the larger 512GB model does feel a little redundant given the price jump.

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The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (left) and the Galaxy Note 20 come in chic new colors. / © NextPit

Samsung has gone big on its new color variant this year, named Mystic Bronze, and it's this version that you'll find slapped all over billboards this fall. It was the bronze variant we received for review.

Premium build that poses a problem

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra screams 'premium' whichever way you look at it. An all-glass and aluminum build, the flagship phablet this year looks and feels expensive. The Mystic Bronze color fits the aesthetic, and I imagine it will be the most popular variant for non-business customers this year.

Compared to last year's Galaxy Note 10, the front looks more or less the same. You still get cured edges at the sides of the display, and the screen is still hole-punched in the middle for the selfie camera. The S-Pen has moved from the right side of the bottom to the left, but aside from that, it's business as usual from the front.

NextPit Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra usb
The S-Pen has switched over to the other side of the phone this year. / © NextPit

It's on the back where the major design changes can be seen. Last year's vertical triple camera housing has been replaced by a huge, protruding rectangular module housing the extensive photo hardware. More on that later. It's hard to understate the size of this hump. The only saving grace is that the phone itself is so huge, that you don't really feel the camera hump under your fingertips as it's so far north of where your fingers sit on the back of the device.

The Note 20 Ultra is probably the largest smartphone I have ever used. In the summer months, where everyone is dressing light to keep cool, there is literally no place for this phone to have on my person. Commuting with the Note 20 without a coat on means carrying it in my backpack. Seriously, it is that big and cumbersome.

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A big, hefty bump, whichever way you look at it. / © NextPit

The display king does it again

The trade-off for the huge size of the Note 20 Ultra is that you have so much display real-estate to play with. This one measures a massive 6.9 inches, with a resolution of 3088 x 1440 pixels when in WQHD+ mode. Samsung has carried over the 120Hz refresh rate from the S20 series phones and, new for this year, is the latest Gorilla Glass Victus, a supposed upgrade on Gorilla Glass 6. Manufacturer Corning says it can survive drops onto hard, rough surfaces from up to two meters, which is handy for a $1,300 product.

The display of the Note 20 Ultra is just ridiculously good. Samsung has long had a reputation for making the best displays in the business, and this is the best one it makes, it's as simple as that. The standard Natural and Vivid modes are available, as well as custom white balance and RGB tweaking. If you can't get this display looking beautiful to your tastes, you need your eyes testing.

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Probably the best smartphone display you can buy today. / © NextPit

One bugbear from the Galaxy S20 phones is back, however. Despite the fact that the Note 20 Ultra supports both a WQHD+ resolution and a 120Hz refresh rate, you still cannot have both at the same time. Our Note 20 Ultra came at FHD+ and 120Hz out of the box, but as soon as switch up to WQHD+, you lose that adaptive motion smoothness that gives you all of the 120Hz goodness. For me personally, I'll stick to 1080p and 120Hz again this year.

A major S-Pen improvement

The unique selling point of the Note series has always been the stylus integrated into the case. Yes, there may be other smartphones that come with a stylus and/or may even have "Note" in their name, but honestly, Samsung has been building pen-based smartphones for nearly a decade now and has become really good at it.

The Note 20 Ultra is thus aimed at creatives and productivity monsters people who don't want to do without a pen, even in 2020. Whether you want to scribble handwritten notes, doodle around in meetings, or annotate documents, pictures, and presentations, the S-Pen is your friend. And since the stylus was equipped with Bluetooth and position and acceleration sensors in the previous generation of Galaxy Notes, it also works much more independently.

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The Note 20 Ultra is as packed with technology. Samsung is ahead of the competition with a great integrated stylus. / © NextPit

The integration of the stylus control into the operating system is, and remains, great. According to the motto "never change a winning team", the software innovations are rather small. There are a few new waving gestures for the S-pen, though. If you want to activate the 50x zoom with circular gestures, you can, but after what felt like two minutes I had cranked myself from "1x" to "10x" and had a sore wrist to show for it.

But to ensure that the new pen deserves its title of the "S-Pen Ultra", there is actually one more useful innovation: Samsung has managed to reduce the input latency of the pen from 42 to 9 milliseconds. The result is a writing sensation that feels immediate and natural, and it's a huge improvement over the experience on last year's Note 10. A latency of 9 milliseconds is around the same as the Apple Pencil on the iPad Pro, so if you've ever experienced that you'll know how pleasant it feels to write on the Note 20 Ultra with the S-Pen.

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Defector: The S-Pen has changed sides and is now on the right side of the housing. / © NextPit

Powerful, depending on your location

For the SoC, the Samsung Note family once again uses the Exynos SoC of the current S-generation in Europe. In the USA, the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon is used. That means our American friends are getting the impressive Snapdragon 865+ here, whilst we on the continent are stuck with the Exynos 990.

We saw the same thing with the S20 phones back at the start of the year, and there is a noticeable difference in performance between the two regional versions. However, Snapdragon customers are getting a slightly upgraded SoC (the S20 Ultra featured a regular 865), whilst Exynos customers are getting the exact same SoC in the Note 20 Ultra as you got in the S20 Ultra.

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There's plenty of power under the hood, at least in the USA. / © NextPit

Whichever chip you have, you'll get up to 12 GB of RAM and either 256 or 512 GB of UFS 3.1 storage. Unlike its little brother, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a microSD slot on board, so you can expand the storage even further.

As you can see from our benchmark test results below, the Note 20 Ultra is comparable to the other flagship Android smartphones around at the moment. When you pay this much for a phone, you expect impeccable performance, and that's what'll get with the latest Galaxy Note.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra benchmark comparison:

  Sony Xperia 1 II Galaxy S20+ OnePlus 8 Pro Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
3D Mark Sling Shot Extreme ES 3.1 6830 6658 7122 5412
3D Mark Sling Shot Vulkan 5929 6259 6613 5170
3D Mark Sling Shot ES 3.0 8514 7739 8864 6009
Geekbench 5 (Simple / Multi) 748 / 2930 911/2776 887 / 3313 735 / 2508
PassMark Memory 23202 23146 27118 22652
PassMark disk 94049 87454 50083 98122

There is also the new WiFi 6 and the wireless standard UWB onboard Samsung's flagship this year, as well the wireless DEX we saw last year on the Galaxy Note 10 phones.

An 'Ultra camera' for an ultra phone?

Our camera expert Stefan gave his views on the Note 20 Ultra camera: the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a promising camera setup. The protruding camera hump, however, can hardly be described as such due to its sheer size. Of course, the 108-megapixel sensor, which is huge by smartphone standards , has to go somewhere. We already know the Isocell HM1 from the S20 Ultra, the requirements for really great photos are there. Samsung uses an ultra-wide-angle lens, which brings more of the subject into the picture than most of its competitors with its enormous angle of view.

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The camera hump is enormous. But no wonder, the sensors have to be somewhere. / © NextPit

And indeed, since the launch of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung has managed to get a grip on the algorithms. At least after the first few days with the Note 20 Ultra, we have very rarely seen those nasty artifacts that plagued the S20 Ultra at its launch.

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If you take a closer look at the Note 20 Ultra, you can also find the unsightly stain artifacts that plagued the S20 Ultra at its launch. However, they are at least significantly less prominent in the first test. / © NextPit

In good lighting conditions, the photos are clean with accurate and attractive colors. Typical for Samsung, the photos look very gaudy and colorful. For those who find this annoying: the color reproduction of the camera can be adjusted in the settings. Due to the large main sensor, the Note 20 Ultra has a rather selective depth of field, especially for macro photos. Unfortunately, the photos look very unsteady, especially at the transition between sharpness and blurriness. However, all current large-sensor smartphones struggle with this.

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Image areas near the plane of focus look strangely blurred on the large-format smartphone sensors. / © NextPit

With less light, the large sensor finally pays off. The Note 20 Ultra still delivers a comparatively decent picture quality even indoors. The high resolution also leaves room for digital enlargement of the images, e.g. to select a slightly narrower angle of view for portrait photos. How the night mode performs in direct comparison with the competition, in particular, will soon be discussed in a separate article.

In addition to the main sensor, Samsung has an ultra-wide-angle lens, which, with its enormous angle of view, brings more of the subject into the picture than most competitors. Fortunately, the color reproduction is very similar to that of the main camera - the photos look as if they were taken from the same mold. The color rendering is pleasing, but as with the main camera, saturation and contrast are extremely high.

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Samsung's ultra-wide-angle camera offers more angle of view than most competitors. / © NextPit

Just because everyone's doing it by now doesn't make it any better. I think it is impertinent to advertise a product with features that are very limited in their use by the end-user. In particular, I'm referring to the 50x Space Zoom that Samsung gives its Note 20 Ultra. The image quality with the 50x zoom is and remains lousy.

A quick calculation to illustrate this. The telephoto lens has a 5x optical zoom and 12-megapixel resolution. To obtain a 50x digital/hybrid magnification from the 5x optical zoom, multiply the magnification by 10. Each time magnification is applied, the image resolution is divided by the square of the magnification. Basically, if I have a 12 MP sensor, a 10x zoom divides the resolution by 10x10, or 100.

With the 50x zoom, you end up with only one-hundredth of the original 12 megapixels - that's 120 kilopixels or about 400x300 pixels. Which is really not transcendent in terms of the level of detail

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The optical fivefold zoom is simply fun. / © NextPit

As long as the lighting conditions are very good, the sensor delivers decent results at least at its native fivefold magnification. Photographing with the narrow perspective in daylight is really enjoyable and the shots succeed well. In the semi-darkness or at night, however, the results are forgettable - as are the images that are created beyond the tenfold "hybrid zoom".

A large 4,500 mAh battery

There is a 4,500 mAh battery in the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra which supports wireless quick charging up to 25W and wireless reverse charging. I was getting around 12 to 15 hours of use out of Galaxy Note 20 Ultra with the resolution at FHD+ and the refresh rate at 120Hz. I am yet to fully test it at WQHD+ and 60Hz, so consider this a preliminary battery test. We'll update the review just as soon as we've had time to test it to the full, but we've only had our Note 20 Ultra for just under a week and there were plenty of other features we felt like testing for you first.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G technical specifications

Dimensions: 164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1 mm
Weight: 208 g
Battery size: 4500 mAh
Screen size: 6.9 in
Display technology: AMOLED
Screen: 3088 x 1440 pixels (494 ppi)
Front camera: 10 megapixels
Rear camera: 108 megapixels
Flashlight: LED
Android version: 10 - Q
User interface: Samsung One UI
RAM: 12 GB
Internal storage: 256 GB
Removable storage: microSD
Number of cores: 8

Final verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a good chance of being at the top of the list of the best smartphones of 2020, and the hardware is fantastic, and Samsung has also done a great job on the software side, especially when it comes to security features and S-pen operation. The in-house Android interface is of course a matter of taste, but it's definitely proven. The numerous security features under the Knox umbrella are also praiseworthy.

There is no question that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a great smartphone. But if you can do without the S-pen, you are guaranteed to find equal or even better smartphones for much less money. The size and bulk of the thing will be enough to put some people off, but compared to the $999 Note 20, the Ultra feels like the best choice this year if you really want that premium stylus smartphone experience.

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