The new Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is supposed to be the best of the best that Samsung has to offer in a smartphone – minus a bendable screen. It’s the most expensive conventional phone in Samsung’s lineup, and includes the top-of-the-line 108-megapixel camera of the Galaxy S20 Ultra from earlier this year as well as the S-Pen stylus and all its associated functionality. Of course, being a Note series device, it also has to have an enormous screen plus all the latest hardware. This is a luxury phone for those who want the absolute best, but the Note series’ usual focus on productivity also hasn’t been forgotten.
Samsung has combined its best hardware and software features, plus top-end design and materials to produce the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Is this the right direction for the Galaxy Note series, or is it all too much in one package? Read on to find out.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra design
Galaxy Note series phones typically push the boundaries of size, and have often been derided for how large they are. The Note 20 Ultra has a 6.9-inch screen, but thankfully the curved sides and narrow borders all around mean that the phone itself isn’t ridiculously huge. It’s still more than a handful – but not completely outrageous by today’s standards. You might have trouble fitting it in some pockets and you definitely don’t want to use it one-handed all the time.
The 208g weight is also on the high side but not too much to handle. Samsung says it has done its best to make the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra slim, and most of the body is just 8.1mm thick. However, the camera bump is absolutely massive, and sticks out another 2mm or so. This not only makes the phone top-heavy, but means you can’t easily use it when it’s lying flat on its back. It got in the way when holding this phone horizontally, and it also just felt awkward. A case will go a long way in reducing the gap between the phone’s back and the module, and surprisingly Samsung hasn’t included even a basic plastic one in the box.
Samsung has used Corning’s new Gorilla Glass Victus for the screen and the back of this phone, though the camera lenses are protected by a panel of Gorilla Glass 6. A thin screen protector comes pre-applied. The frame is all metal and the top and bottom are flat, which is unusual for Samsung. The corners dug into my palms a little when holding this phone, and the top dug into my ear a bit when making calls. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is sold in Mystic Bronze and Mystic Black in India. A white version exists in some countries and might make it here after some time.
The rear has a frosted matte finish and is not slippery, which is a huge relief. This makes the shiny frame stand out, and the look overall does grab attention. Samsung has also decided to highlight the rings around each rear camera, though thankfully these don’t stick out even further from the module like on some other phones. It’s also good to see an IP68 rating for water and dust resistance.
The power and volume buttons are on the left, and there’s no Bixby button anymore. The SIM tray is on the top and I noticed that it isn’t centred. The S-Pen silo has been moved to the left of the bottom, which will annoy some long-time Galaxy Note users. A light press pops it out partially, and then you have to pull it out all the way with your fingertips. The S-Pen can be inserted facing up or down, and thankfully it won’t go in and damage the phone if you accidentally try to put it in backwards.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 price and specifications
Samsung has launched the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra in India at Rs. 1,04,999, and there are no variants. The Galaxy Note 20 will cost considerably less, at Rs. 79,999. There are multiple offers during the pre-booking period, but these prices are still way above average.
Longtime Samsung fans know that they company typically uses its own Exynos processors for flagship phones sold in some parts of the world, and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips for other markets. India usually gets the Exynos models, and these are widely seen as a step down in terms of performance, and some third-party tests have indicated that this is indeed true. The company insists that it does what’s right for each market but it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed.
The Exynos 990 used here is the same chip that powers the Galaxy S20 series. It’s an octa-core chip with two high-performance custom 2.7GHz cores, two more 2.5GHz Cortex-A76 cores, and four more power-efficient 2GHz Cortex-A55 cores. It features an integrated Mali G77MP11 GPU.
Samsung only offers the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra with 256GB of UFS 3.1 storage and 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM. This is a hybrid dual-SIM phone, but you can use an eSIM instead of a second physical SIM, which frees the second physical slot for a microSD card. Note that you can’t use three cellular connections at the same time.
The 6.9- inch Dynamic AMOLED screen supports HDR10+ and has a QHD+ resolution of 1440×3088, although it’s set to run at 1080×2316 by default. Even more interesting is the variable refresh rate feature – you can choose between 60Hz and ‘Adaptive’, which dynamically scales up to 120Hz but can also scale down to 30Hz or 10Hz, if there’s only static content on screen. This is said to improve battery efficiency. You can’t lock the screen to 120Hz though, and you can’t run it at this refresh rate and the full resolution at the same time.
You get a 4500mAh battery and USB-PD fast charging, which means you can share the same charger with a laptop and other devices. A 25W charger is included in the box. There’s also Qi wireless charging and reverse charging.
Samsung has slightly improved the S-Pen with this generation. It has its own tiny Lithium Titanate battery and uses Bluetooth for remote control functions. You get 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity and reduced 9ms latency. The stylus itself is also IP68 certified.
Other noteworthy specifications include dual-band Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5 with the Scalable codec, NFC and MST for payments, all the usual location services and sensors, an ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensor, and stereo speakers. There’s also Ultra Wideband (UWB) functionality for precise positioning, which is exclusive to the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. You get a headset tuned by AKG with a braided cable, but the box is actually quite bare – there’s no case, and no extra S-Pen tips or tweezer tool to help replace them.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra software and usage
Samsung has announced that it will deliver software updates including security patches for three years, though that doesn’t necessarily guarantee the next three major versions of Android. Still, that’s great by Android standards. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra comes running Android 10 with OneUI 2.5, and my unit received the August security patch, which is impressive.
Some of the preloaded apps, such as Galaxy Store and My Galaxy sent a few notifications from time to time, and so did the Google app. You have to use the Galaxy Store app to keep some (but not all) of Samsung’s preloaded first-party apps updated. These include Samsung Pay India, Bixby, Samsung Shop, Samsung Cloud, Game Launcher, and some background frameworks. On the positive side, you can get new versions of smaller apps such as the camera and calendar without waiting for a full OS update.
There are two main software features that set the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and its smaller sibling apart – the Samsung Notes app which works with the S-Pen, and the DeX desktop experience. The S-Pen has also been souped up with “air gestures” that you perform while holding its button down. These could in theory help you work quickly without having to switch between the pen and your finger to navigate through apps and the Android UI, but in my experience gesture detection didn’t work consistently.
The Notes app is pretty feature-rich, with the ability to mark up PDFs and pictures including screenshots, and also timestamp notes to an audio recording. Handwriting recognition is pretty good, and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra managed to make sense of some pretty crude scribbles. Coming later this year is the ability to sync notes to Microsoft OneNote across devices and the cloud, as well as export to Word, PowerPoint, or PDF documents. Samsung has even just announced a discount on Microsoft 365 subscriptions for Galaxy Note 20 series owners.
Owners of previous Galaxy Note devices will be used to the S-Pen’s standard features and functions. Ejecting it pops a menu up on screen with shortcuts to various tools. You can open the notes app, make a selection of text to translate, annotate a photo or screenshot and send them as messages, and create AR filters that follow your face around. If the phone is locked, you can still scribble a note quickly and it will be saved. One thing I found annoying was the fake, scratchy pen-on-paper sound that plays when using the S-Pen, but this can be disabled.
DeX requires a Microsoft account and leverages the Your Phone app that comes with Windows 10. Some features, such as being able to run Android apps on your Windows desktop, will be introduced later this year. Another new feature is wireless mirroring to a compatible smart TV (Samsung says its own 2019 and later models are supported). You can mirror your phone’s screen or use the TV as a secondary display to run content on.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra performance and battery life
Although some people might not feel that they’re getting their money’s worth, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is still extremely fast. You won’t notice the slightest delay in ordinary use. Samsung’s OneUI is slick and runs just fine, feeling snappy even with the display set to 60Hz. The S-Pen is extremely responsive and using it felt natural. The screen is crisp and bright, with remarkably vibrant colours. Curved sides always result in some reflections and a shift in colour tone, but this isn’t too distracting. The stereo speakers are not balanced but sound overall is very loud and satisfying enough for music as well as videos and games.
I sometimes needed to tap the ultrasonic fingerprint sensor a few times before it was happy with how I placed my thumb or forefinger. Face recognition was pretty quick, but sometimes didn’t work in low light. Apps loaded very quickly and there was no problem at all with multitasking.
As for benchmarks, AnTuTu reported a score of 536,385 which is somewhat lower than what the more affordable OnePlus 8 series managed, and quite far behind the Asus ROG Phone 3 (Review) which is based on the same Snapdragon 865+ SoC as international versions of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Androbench showed sequential read and write scores of 1720.7MBps and 789.48MBps for the internal storage, which are both very good. Geekbench 5 put up 623 and 2,778 points respectively in its single-core and multi-core tests.
Graphics tests were run at the full-HD+ resolution with the adaptive refresh rate enabled. GFXBench managed 46fps in the Car Chase scene and 34fps in Aztec Ruins (High Tier). 3DMark returned 8,586 points in the Sling Shot Unlimited test.
PUBG Mobile ran very well, and gameplay was perfectly smooth. Asphalt 9: Legends also didn’t give me any trouble. The huge screen makes controls easy and playing more fun. However, the large camera module does get in the way when holding this phone horizontally. Also, the back and the frame of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra did get quite warm, but not enough to be uncomfortable.
Battery life is impressive in real-world use, and I was able to get at least a day and a half with frequent use of the S-Pen and cameras, plus a little light gaming. However, our HD video loop test did surprisingly poorly, with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra running for only 12 hours, 45 minutes. The screen refresh rate made no difference across multiple runs. Charging is pretty quick, and I was able to get from zero to 75 percent in one hour.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra cameras
Now we come to the cameras, and there’s a lot of ground to cover. The 108-megapixel primary rear camera is of course the star of the show. This has PDAF and optical stabilisation with an f/1.8 aperture. It’s joined by a 12-megapixel f/2.2 wide-angle camera, a 12-megapixel f/3.0 5x optical zoom camera, and a laser autofocus sensor.
You can take photos at the full resolution, but for some reason that option is grouped with the aspect ratio selector, not the resolution menu itself. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra takes extraordinarily crisp and detailed photos in the daytime, even of objects at a distance. Focusing is quick and exposures are metred well. Even on a cloudy day, colours popped nicely and detail was generally excellent. In a few rare cases, the focus was a bit off.
Close-ups have nice natural depth and there’s no need for a macro camera as you’re prompted to switch to 2x magnification which delivers much the same effect. The wide-angle camera is also quite effective but there is a considerable fish-eye effect at the sides.
In the daytime, you can select up to 4x zoom which uses the primary sensor, since there’s enough detail to crop and magnify. At 5x, the phone switches to its optical zoom camera and you can notice an improvement in quality. You can go up to 50x in increments using a series of buttons that will appear to the side of the shutter button, or slide your finger up and down on the camera selector to zoom smoothly. Samsung calls this ‘Space Zoom’ combines the telephoto camera with digital zoom. If you’re in a dark environment the main sensor continues to be used and you can zoom up to 20x digitally.
Detail obviously isn’t great at the maximum magnification and it’s difficult to frame shots since every little movement is amplified. The viewfinder shows you a preview of a larger frame to help once you cross 20x. Having such a camera can of course still come in handy, and in some cases you’ll be able to read signs or pick up other tiny objects in the far distance.
Performance dips at night as expected, but I was absolutely staggered by the quality of results that are possible using the Night Mode on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Even indoors, in the middle of the night, this phone was able to pick up truly shocking amounts of detail, often bringing out colours and highlighting objects that the naked eye simply could not perceive. Some shots looked as bright and detailed as if they had been taken on a budget phone in the daytime. It isn’t exactly night-vision but it’s very nearly the same thing.
You have to wait about seven seconds for a Night Mode shot, but it’s well worth it. The telephoto camera doesn’t do so well at night, but the wide-angle one surprisingly does, and Night Mode is available for all three.
You can record video at up to 8K, though that might be impractical. Footage is stabilised well at 1080p but there was a little jitter at 4K. There’s also a Super Steady toggle that uses the wide-angle camera and crops the frame to adjust for shakes. You can switch between the three cameras when shooting at 1080p and also manually zoom up to 20x. Slow Motion and Super Slow-Mo modes are fun to play with and you can choose which section of a recorded clip to slow down in the editor after recording.
At night, video taken with the main camera is pretty clear but the wide-angle one isn’t as good, and zooming digitally isn’t very effective. Footage is fine if you’re standing still and panning around, but there is some judder and shimmer if you record while moving.
Unsurprisingly, the front camera takes excellent shots in the daytime and at night. You can apply a wide-angle effect which essentially just prevents cropping, and also apply several effects.
There are a few UI quirks and details to note about the camera app. Most of the modes are buried in a spillover menu by default but you can add whichever ones you want to the list of default modes that are instantly accessible. The Scene Optimiser is off by default. Beautification is off for portraits, but on for selfies. Live Focus mode gives you a choice of background styles including radial blur and selective colour, and the intensity is adjustable. With Live Focus Video, there’s also a colour-shifting Glitch effect.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a phenomenal companion device, in many senses more than a smartphone. Its camera capabilities are truly incredible and the S-Pen could make a lot of everyday tasks go smoothly once you get used to it. If you have the money and don’t mind the huge size of this phone, you will most likely be very happy with it. However, very few people actually need all of this functionality and the price restricts it to very few potential buyers. This is a luxury proposition, not a must-have investment. The standard Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy S20 series could be better bets for many people.
If you want a top-end Galaxy Note for its S-Pen functionality and don’t particularly care about the cameras, the much less expensive (but still very premium) Galaxy Note 20 would be a good choice. In India, Samsung has launched only the 5G version of the larger Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and the non-5G version of the Note 20. There are a few other surprising differences between the two, such as the use of polycarbonate instead of glass, a flat 60Hz full-HD+ panel instead of a rounded 120Hz QHD+ one, slower S-Pen response time, and no microSD slot or UWB, for the smaller sibling.