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The Galaxy Note is an unusual smartphone for one reason, and one reason only in 2020: its stylus, the beloved S Pen. And while everything else about it feels incredibly familiar, it’s impossible to deny that no other phone can scratch the very particular itch Samsung does with the Note. If you were a bit of cynic, you’d probably sum up the Note20 Ultra as “an S20 Ultra with a pen,” and I’ll level with you: you wouldn’t really be wrong. But we weren’t fans of the S20 Ultra, and our review made that much clear. Unresolved autofocus issues on the main camera and an astronomical $1400 price tag were hard to stomach as it was, and with comparatively little to differentiate it from phones like the much cheaper OnePlus 8 Pro, Samsung’s halo product simply didn’t feel up to the task. How, then, can the remarkably similar Note20 Ultra escape that legacy? The obvious answer is that it can’t—not fully, at least. But it does improve in meaningful ways, and while it is still bonkers expensive at $1300, there’s no doubt you’re getting more phone in the Note20 Ultra for less money than you did in the S20 Ultra. When you’re talking about phones costing this much, that might not even feel material, but if you are in the market, Samsung and carriers have been offering fairly aggressive discount and trade-in options that could soften the blow. And for Note fans, that may well be enough to pull the trigger.
Make no mistake: people will buy the Galaxy Note20 Ultra. Samsung would talk your ear off about who these people are, but the reality is that you can summarize them into the group known as “people who buy Galaxy Note smartphones.” They’re a distinct subset of a subset in the world of smartphone customers, and the Note’s stylus and uncompromising gigantism have made many of them loyalists over its now ten generations (remember, there was no Note 6). With the Note20 Ultra, the formula continues unspoiled: the S Pen is still here (and better than ever), the display is still as massive as it is gorgeous, with smooth 120Hz refresh, and inside are still the fastest smartphone guts money can buy, in the form of a Snapdragon 865+. You get a ton of RAM, up to 512GB of storage (plus a microSD slot!), and three cameras on the back. Wireless charging (including reverse wireless charge), IP68 water resistance, 5G, and a fancy in-screen fingerprint reader let you know you’ve got a real, bona fide premium smartphone in your hands. Not to mention the sleek frosted glass and overall updated corporate aesthetic, which I think has been received to widespread praise.
All in all, the Note20 Ultra is almost surely the Note that Note fans are going to want in 2020. I think those coming from an older Note, say a Note8 or Note 9, will really feel the upgrade this time around in a way that they wouldn’t have on the Note10+. But like last year’s phone, its high price and massive dimensions mean it is not one that is particularly likely to make new customers glom onto the Note brand (and I’m not saying it needs to be).
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
This phone is huge.
The first thing you will notice about the Galaxy Note20 Ultra is its size. This phone is huge. Truly massive. The S20 Ultra was gigantic too, but the Note20 Ultra pushes the width envelope just ever so slightly further, making it legitimately unwieldy at times. I like big phones, and I like the size of this screen, but there’s no doubt you start running into ergonomic compromises at this scale. The thing you’ll immediately notice about this phone after its girth is also very large: the camera hump on the back.
Unlike the S20 Ultra, which attempts to at least vaguely blend the module into the design of the phone, the Note20 Ultra’s camera cluster protrudes unapologetically and distinctively from the rear of the phone. It’s like it’s screaming at you: “buy a case, or bad things will happen to me!” (I’m inclined to believe it.) The phone’s look is polarizing, and while I think most have reacted positively to Samsung’s bolder corporate aesthetic—I think it’s a step forward, personally—I’ve seen people go both ways.
Around front, the beautiful display and small punch-hole camera greet you, a testament to Samsung’s unmatched prowess when it comes jamming more and more screen into comparatively less and less space. While certainly technically impressive and striking to behold, the ensuing consequences for edge touch rejection are predictable. Using this phone while you’re laying down is an exercise in folly (unless you whip out the S Pen); there is no realistic grip that will enable you to avoid accidental touchscreen input consistently, and once again, reminds you of just how badly this phone needs a case. Did I say it needs a case? It needs a case. Buy a case.
Samsung has built a genuinely excellent, industry-leading smartphone display.
Moving along at an adaptively-controlled 120Hz, the screen is truly a joy to consume all of your endless content upon, with its ultra-smooth scrolling and vivid, bright colors. You can tune it down to a more realistic sRGB mode (which is what I did) to mute the comical oversaturation it’s set to provide by default, which I can’t say really diminished the experience for me. As usual, Samsung has built a genuinely excellent, industry-leading smartphone display.
That display’s tricks don’t end at its refresh rate or high quality, but at the Note’s signature feature: the S Pen. The digitizer layer ensures that you get extremely fast and accurate output when using the phone’s built-in stylus, which has had its latency reduced by a factor of 4x, from over 40ms on the Note10+ to just under 9ms on the Note20 Ultra. The result is that when using apps like Samsung Notes, the ink practically feels like it’s coming out of the tip of the S Pen — it’s that responsive. You can still see the pen trail along a bit if you drag it, though, so it’s not quite like the real thing, even if it is now a lot closer.
When using apps like Samsung Notes, the ink practically feels like it’s coming out of the tip of the S Pen.
The S Pen has a few new gestures for controlling the phone, but I’ll be the first to tell you: they really are just gimmicks. I could barely get them to work at all after about 20 minutes of trying to train myself, waving the S Pen about in every gestural style ranging from Harry Potter to math teacher on a tiny chalkboard. Even when they did work, they were rarely useful, and simply made no sense as a way any normal person would control a smartphone. Samsung’s eyes were bigger than its stomach on this one, and while I can see the dream here—floating, Minority Report-esque smartphone control—the execution is just plain bad. It hardly matters, though: it doesn’t take anything away from the phone, so much as it doesn’t add anything to it.
The ultrasonic fingerprint scanner on the Note20 series is the same Qualcomm hardware Samsung used on the Galaxy S20 series, but I feel the tuning on this particular iteration is better. I’ve had noticeably fewer failed reads on the Note 20, and while still not super fast, the scanner is at least less frustrating now. It remains less reliable than, say, the Pixel 4a’s traditional capacitive scanner, but anecdotally I feel it’s been improved.
The Note20 Ultra packs just about every Samsung and premium smartphone feature you could ask for.
Both Notes this year lack a headphone jack (as with last year), and external audio is provided by stereo speakers. They’re loud, but if I’m honest? They’re really just very average. Actually, I think they may be a bit of a regression, perhaps with that earpiece speaker so tightly crammed up at to the top of the phone, they sound a bit muffled and muddy at maximum output when doing something like watching a YouTube video. I’m not exactly a fan. On haptics, I would describe the Note20 Ultra’s as above average, but not remarkable (I prefer the Pixel 4a’s, if that tells you anything). They’re good, and while I still think Samsung’s notification buzz tone is obnoxiously loud (boomers gotta hear those calls!), some people may prefer that. To each their own.
The Note20 Ultra packs just about every Samsung and premium smartphone feature you could ask for: fast wireless charging, fast USB-PD wired charging (25W), reverse wireless charging, IP68 waterproofing, mmWave 5G (still useless!), a microSD slot, Samsung Pay with MST, and something called “Ultra Wideband Sharing” that you really probably don’t need. That last one is exclusive to the Note20 Ultra, and is effectively Samsung’s attempt to bring the old 60GHz Wi-Fi ad (or ax) standard back from the grave as a much faster way to share large files across two devices directly. While in principle kind of cool, the problem is that the Note20 Ultra is currently the only phone that supports it, and I see no reason anyone but Samsung ever would pay to put this kind of hardware into a phone.
In the box (in the US), you’ll find the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, a 25W power brick, a USB-C-to-C cable, and a SIM ejection tool. No headphones for you, America (unless you ask nicely).
Software, performance, battery life
I would be surprised if any US model gets Android 11 before 2021, but we’ll see—Samsung could very well prove me wrong.
The Note20 Ultra ships with Samsung’s latest iteration of its largely-liked OneUI software, version 2.5. The biggest change that brings is support for Android’s gesture navigation in third party launchers, something many will be thrilled to finally get (Ryan reports they behave a bit wonky on such launchers, though). Samsung’s stock launcher is actually pretty good, minus a missing Google Discover pane, and I’ve been using it since I received the phone. Otherwise, the same old Samsung OneUI software experience is here, running Android 10. And when Android 11 drops less than a month from now, the Note20 Ultra will officially be a version behind the bleeding edge of Android. I would be surprised if any US model gets Android 11 before 2021, but we’ll see—Samsung could very well prove me wrong.
Updates have long been an issue for Samsung, and while the company is getting faster (and much better at security updates), there’s still definite room for improvement. Samsung’s newly announced commitment to offering 3 major OS upgrades on its high-end phones is great news, too, but the general sentiment remains that Android OEMs should be aspiring to Apple’s 5 years or more when it comes to support. While that’s partly down to Qualcomm, in the context of a $1300 phone, three years of full software support may feel like a little less than Samsung could afford to offer.
The phone feels incredibly quick and smooth, borderline unflappable.
One thing I’ve noticed about the Note20 Ultra is just how quick it feels. It’s not that any recent high-end Samsung phone has felt slow, per se, it’s more that their animations and gesture tuning (especially on Android 10) just felt a bit weird and clunky. Samsung seems to have gotten the memo with the Note20, because the phone feels incredibly quick and smooth, borderline unflappable. With the Galaxy S20, I consistently felt strange animation jank and occasional throttling were issues, especially in hot weather. The Note20 Ultra feels noticeably faster, loading things more quickly, scrolling with fewer jumps, and moving between multiple apps without skipping a beat. It feels like this phone could give a OnePlus 8 Pro a run for its money, but doesn’t feel strangely oversped like Oxygen OS tends to.
One spec that does feel like a slight letdown is the storage. Samsung started the Note10+ with 256GB of base storage in 2019, but the Note20 Ultra walks that back to 128GB in 2020. Why? My guess is UFS3.0 remains relatively expensive in these larger configurations, and Samsung didn’t want to eat that cost. It still feels weird, though, and worth raising a stink over, given this phone is $200 more than the one that preceded it.
This phone lasts longer on a charge than the S20 Ultra, despite having a battery 500mAh smaller.
Battery life for me has been good. For a phone this size with a battery this size, 5G, a super bright 120Hz screen, and a very powerful processor, I felt there was a risk Samsung might actually regress on battery life from the already just-decent S20 Ultra. In fact, I think this phone lasts longer on a charge than the S20 Ultra, despite having a battery 500mAh smaller. Typically, the Note20 Ultra is getting me around five-and-a-half to six screen on hours per day with fairly intensive usage, and it’s doing so pretty reliably. I’ve had it really drain badly on some days while spending a lot of time at maximum brightness on T-Mobile 5G (which is not good where I live!), but that’s really taking the phone to the limit. In mostly indoor conditions, I think I could probably hit 8 hours of screen time on this phone without much trouble, which is pretty good. Certainly better than most Snapdragon 865 phones to date.
Charging is now capped at 25W, and I think I know why: in our testing (using a proper USB bench test rig), we found that Samsung’s 45W charging on the Note10+ and Galaxy S20 series was basically non-functional; the phones could never even get close to those kinds of speeds, rarely exceeding 30W or so. 25W is still pretty fast, but it’s definitely getting left behind by Chinese manufacturers like Oppo, OnePlus, Huawei, and Vivo, all of whom have much faster chargers. Hell, OnePlus’ wireless charger has a higher rated output than Samsung’s wired one. Still, I wouldn’t say this is a big deal, it’s just something Samsung should probably be aware of in the larger competitive landscape.
First things first: yes, the S20 Ultra autofocus issue is largely fixed by the new laser autofocus module on the Note20 Ultra’s main camera. It can be a bit slow to focus at times, but it actually works, which is a definite improvement. I still find Samsung’s insanely shallow depth of field isn’t my favorite, though, and the processing is still overcooked for my liking. Things certainly pop, but in a way that still just feels too Ready For The ‘Gram. Some people may like that, some people may not. Overall, the main camera is very good, it’s just still not as good as, say, what you get on a $350 Google phone.
I also feel that Samsung’s phones have an odd amount of shutter lag, but I think that’s a deliberate decision on Samsung’s part to delay the shutter feedback to when the phone has actually completed the full image capture. This is not how things work on almost any other phone I’ve used, though, and it’s sup-optimal UX, frequently leading you to question whether you’ve actually pressed the shutter button. It just makes the camera feel weirdly slow.
The biggest improvement visually on the Note20 Ultra’s cameras versus the largely on-paper similar S20 Ultra comes in the periscope system. Samsung has totally revised the optics for the Note’s iteration, increasing the effective optical zoom factor to 5x from the S20’s 4x, and widened the aperture to f/3.0 from the S20’s f/3.3. Combined, the effect here is very much positive: the Note20 Ultra’s zoom system reaches farther and sees better than the S20 Ultra’s, and it quickly became my favorite camera to use on the phone. I also think Samsung has improved the processing overall. Here are some shots from periscope cam, specifically.
The Note20 Ultra zoom system lets you capture images you just can’t get on other smartphones.
Is the periscope system perfect? No: Light bloom and extremely soft focus are still issues, and likely a result of the complex optics involved in making this system work. To some extent, they’re probably unavoidable. But it’s super encouraging to see the improvements, and the payoff is the ability to get so much closer to your subject matter. The Note20 Ultra zoom system lets you capture images you just can’t get on other smartphones (at least of those available in the US). It’s just so hard for me to overstate as a benefit when working with a camera—I always see people singing the praise of ultrawide, but the fact is, being able to zoom in to 10 or 15x effectively and get a usable photo is just far more important to me. I basically never even touch the ultrawide camera when I review phones, but I am constantly zooming in, and I hope the camera samples for this review show why.
That all said, the whole “50x max zoom” marketing is nonsense. Beyond 25x or so, images really aren’t useful for much other than bragging about how far away you were when you took them. Full-on oil painting effect is in play past 30x, and nobody wants to look at that. The below photo was shot at 25x in bright daylight.
At 25x, you can tell what you’re taking a picture of, but it’s not really useful for much beyond that.
If you think that looks good, you should probably have an eye exam. Don’t get me wrong, it’s usable, I guess, if you absolutely needed this photo. It’s just not aesthetically pleasing in any way, nor were any super zoomed-in shots I grabbed (i.e., beyond 10-15x).
Finally, here’s a dump from the main camera sensor, which I feel is largely similar to the one on the S20 Ultra (granted, with functional autofocus).
Should you buy it?
Yes. But here’s the thing: the person who is going to buy this phone already knew they were going to buy it, barring any terrible lurking issues. And I will reassure you, Person Who Has Already Pre-Ordered Mine: the Galaxy Note20 Ultra is a truly great phone. You’ve probably bought a Note phone before, or you’re someone who upgrades their Samsung phone annually, or someone who just wants the biggest and baddest phone available. If you can get a good trade-in offer, a carrier bill credit deal, use Samsung’s phone lease thing and not feel like the weird 20 month term isn’t going to screw you when it comes time to turn in the phone, or just don’t care about spending $1300 on a phone, the Note20 Ultra will delight you.
If money is a concern, though, and you can’t or don’t want to take advantage of the various offers available for the Note20 Ultra, its $1300 MSRP is simply not supported by the end experience you’re getting here. A OnePlus 8 Pro is $400 less than the Note20 Ultra, and while it’s not as good in some ways, it’s lunacy to suggest it’s $400 worse. And that’s a phone a lot of people already feel is borderline too expensive. And $900, I should remind you, is a price the Galaxy S20+ has also frequently been available for on discount.
The 5G tax really is having an impact on phone prices in a way that just doesn’t feel sustainable long term.
The 5G tax really is having an impact on phone prices in a way that just doesn’t feel sustainable long term. While I absolutely agree the Note20 Ultra is full of top-notch components and some genuinely impressive technology, it’s very hard for me as a reviewer to say “Yes, reader, $1300 is an amount of money I am telling you is OK to feel good about spending on a phone—after all, it has 5G!” Unless, as I said previously, disposable income simply isn’t a concern for you when it comes to smartphones, that feels… not right. 5G is a crappy experience in the US at this point, and will be for the foreseeable future. Costly mmWave modules in your phone are literally useless for 99.999% of the population. And make no mistake: you are paying for their inclusion in this phone. Even sub-6GHz 5G isn’t really great, and it will take a long time before it is. Paying a premium for that makes little sense right now.
There’s also the fact that the Note20 Ultra isn’t truly top dog in a lot of respects. Yes, it has the fastest chip, the best display, the widest 5G support, and a unique built-in stylus, but from there, it gets harder to assert total supremacy. There are phones with just as much RAM, more storage, faster wired and wireless charging, better cameras, better speakers, better haptics, bigger batteries, and rarely do any of them approach the Note20 Ultra’s towering MSRP. The thing is, none of these phones have all of these things over the Note—making it hard to assert any clear winner in the super-high-end smartphone world. Whether the Note20 Ultra is the “best” phone on the market right now (price aside) is entirely subjective to what you want out of a smartphone.
So, if you are one of those people I described at the beginning of this (altogether too long) conclusion? You’ll like this phone, I’m pretty confident. It’s very fast, it has pretty good cameras (and a very cool telephoto system I really do enjoy), the 120Hz display will look amazing to anyone coming from a 60Hz panel, and the more responsive S Pen is a great upgrade. The Galaxy Note20 Ultra is a great Galaxy Note, and a great phone. I think anyone on an older Note will think so, too, as long as that’s what they came here looking for. And as long as they’re prepared to pay the price—whatever that may be.
Long term review notes.
I’ve now been using the Galaxy Note20 Ultra for the better part of a month, and in that time, I’ve come away struck by something I don’t often feel with Samsung phones: I really just want to keep using it. Sure, it’s huge. And yes, I prefer the main camera on the nearly-$1000-cheaper Pixel 4a. But the Note20 Ultra’s gorgeous display, blazing performance, and downright fun 5x telephoto camera just keep me coming back for more. I don’t even use the S Pen, honestly, but it’s nice to know it’s there if I need to sign a document or want to play a particularly finicky strategy game on my phone.
The battery life remains very good, and now that I’ve got it in a case, I’m not constantly annoyed by the giant camera hump or the fact that I am constantly terrified of dropping the damn thing. Is $1300 too much money for basically any phone? I think that’s an obvious “yes.” There is not $1300 of value in a Galaxy Note20 Ultra. But few people will pay full retail for this phone, and there’s no reason they should. And if you don’t? It’s hard to see how you’d really be unhappy with it. While I do give Samsung flak for their slow-to-roll software updates (they’re getting better!) for major Android OS upgrades and their legitimately obnoxious advertising, there just aren’t any other Android OEMs playing at this level on hardware. (Aside from, perhaps, Huawei, who really aren’t a going concern these days outside China anyway.)
Some other thoughts I’ve been scribbling down.
- The S Pen seems occasionally happy to free itself from its built-in sleeve unprompted, perhaps because the spring release mechanism this year is a bit more sensitive. Ryan actually momentarily lost his because of this the other day.
- I’ve used both T-Mobile and AT&T 5G on this phone, and while they’re both fine, 5G is not a reason to buy this phone. You are not meaningfully future-proofing yourself, and 5G performance in general is “meh.”
- I’m still miffed Samsung downgraded the Note20 Ultra to 128GB of storage from the Note10+’s 256GB. That’s lame.
- The quality of the speaker still isn’t my favorite. It’s OK, but I really think Samsung could do better, and my bet is still that this is down to packaging constraints to achieve those crazy bezels and cram in the S Pen and battery.
- Curved displays are bad. Edge touch rejection is mostly resolved with a case, but this remains a visual gimmick that serves no real purpose and makes effective screen protectors annoyingly difficult to apply.
- I’m still super happy with performance on the Note20 Ultra. Whatever Samsung did to make things feel snappier than on the S20 series has seriously worked.
- I love love love the 5x telephoto system. Sure, it’s a little soft and basically useless in anything but direct light, but it lets you capture images other phones just can’t.
- I’m thoroughly convinced there’s no reason to save $300 and get the lighter, cheaper Note20. You give up far too much of what makes the Note20 Ultra great — don’t do it.
- 3 years of OS updates make it significantly easier to recommend Samsung’s phones in general. The Note20 Ultra feels more than up to the task of 3 or even 4 years of daily use.