September 19, 2020
Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Huge, gorgeous and high-end -- with a price tag to match

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Huge, gorgeous and high-end — with a giant price tag to match


Like

  • Sleek lines, matte bronze finish
  • Exceptional screen quality and 120Hz refresh rate
  • 5x optical zoom captures sharp photos in ample light
  • S Pen creates standout opportunities for using the phone

Don’t Like

  • $1,300 is too expensive right now
  • A large, heavy, awkward phone
  • Unsightly camera bump that invites breakage
  • Note 20 Ultra rocks when you lay it down flat

If you’re looking for Samsung’s new Galaxy Note 20 Ultra to be a do-everything phone, you won’t be disappointed. Like other Note phones that came before it, the Note 20 Ultra is aimed at a rarified group of Android “power users” who want a phone with all the toys and aren’t afraid of a higher price tag. With the Ultra, there’s plenty of both.

Samsung saved its best features for the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, including a more refined design than the Galaxy S20 Ultra — a phone I don’t recommend. You’ll find an exceptional 6.9-inch screen, sharp 5x optical zoom camera and a swifter stylus for annotating screenshots and taking notes. The Note 20 Ultra also makes small but significant enhancements over the Note 10 Plus, especially in the camera realm.

Do these features justify the Note 20 Ultra’s price? It begins at $1,300 (£1,179, AU$1,894) for the 128GB version (you can also buy it in 512GB). The retail price is a steep ask, especially when you combine a climate of deep global recession and mounting unemployment. Add that to the fact that if your active work and social lifestyle has changed at all, like mine has, you won’t truly take advantage of all the features this phone has to offer.  Will the Note 20 Ultra still be the phone you want to use post-pandemic, or will a better upgrade come along by then?


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I’ve always enjoyed using a Galaxy Note, for the stylus as well as the sleekness of the line’s design. The Ultra produces top-notch specs, checks all the boxes, and I want to love it. But for me, it doesn’t totally come together, and in terms of value, it’s a miss. Unless you already know you can’t live without it, it’s hard to recommend the Ultra for all but the most loyal Note fans, or people upgrading from older phones.

If you get a good enough trade-in deal or bundled offer, I think you’ll be more than happy with the features and performance, even if some aspects, like the protruding camera bump, aren’t your favorite. But if you want to reserve a little money this year and save your splurge when you have more certainty and freedom of movement, there are plenty of excellent devices well below $1,300 that will see you through until then, including the Google Pixel 4A, Samsung Galaxy A51, iPhone 11 or 11 Pro and OnePlus 8 or 8 Pro.

Read on to learn everything from screen quality to sample photos from the Note 20 Ultra’s cameras. Scroll to the end for the full list of specs compared to the standard Galaxy Note 20. Samsung also has one more super-ultrapremium phone planned for the end of the year: its Galaxy Z Fold 2, which goes on preorder Sept. 1.

Is the Note 20 Ultra’s mystic bronze color really all that? Can you still see fingerprints?

I’m in love with the mystic bronze color of my Note 20 Ultra review unit. It’s got a subtle shimmer that to me feels understated and elegant, without losing a dynamic finish. In certain lighting, it looks rose gold. The matte finish does a lot to keep fingerprints on the back to a minimum — I can barely see them.

Switching to the S Pen will immediately keep the screen cleaner than typing with your fingers, but I use both input methods on the phone. Mystic white and mystic black, which I have not seen in person, have glossy glass backings.

How good is the screen?

The 6.9-inch display is excellent: clear and sharp, with an approach to the 120Hz screen refresh rate that’s much more polished and useful than Samsung’s first attempt with the Galaxy S20 Plus and S20 Ultra. The default mode is “Adaptive” motion smoothness, which turns on 120Hz refresh when you’re scrolling or using features that can take advantage of the faster screen. It’ll flip to the 60Hz standard when the screen is static, saving on battery overall. You can also toggle to 60Hz if you’d like to preserve even more.

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You trade off large camera sensors for a big ol’ bump that keeps the phone from lying flat when you put it down.


Angela Lang/CNET

Is the Note 20 Ultra’s curve still relevant in 2020?

I love the classy, immersive look of a curved, waterfall edge. But the Note 20 Ultra’s true edge-to-edge display made it hard to place the cursor at the edges of the screen where I wanted it to go, and I noticed — especially when lying down — that gripping the phone while typing or navigating often called up other apps or features unintentionally, or else closed out what I wanted to do. A little more grip buffer — or better touch rejection along those edges — would go a long way.

What kind of glass protects the camera and phone?

Samsung uses the new Gorilla Glass Victus on the Note 20 Ultra’s front and back. Corning claims the cover material can withstand drops up to 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) and is also twice as scratch-resistant compared to Gorilla Glass 6, which is rated for a 1.6-meter (5.25-foot) fall.

But the camera module, which sticks out from the back, is covered with Gorilla Glass 6, meaning that if the phone were to fall on its back and hit this part first, it would be theoretically more prone to breaking than the rest of the device. (Stay tuned for our upcoming torture test.) I’ve had cracked glass over my camera lens before and it ruined every portrait shot I tried taking after. A case might really help fill in the empty space and distribute forces in the event of a fall.


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What about the Ultra’s big camera bump?

When I first got the review unit from Samsung, I described the design as siren-meets-cyclops. It’s actually nicely styled, but it’s still just too big. The main problem is that when you place the Note 20 Ultra on a flat surface, like your table, and start writing or navigating with the S Pen, the phone actually rocks. This has happened on all of CNET’s review units.

Is the fingerprint reader better than on other Galaxy phones?

Yes. Fingerprint scanning errors still happen, but few and far between, and I usually get in on the second try. This makes mobile payments a lot easier. My pro tip since the S10 is this: Enroll your dominant thumb twice, your other thumb once and your dominant index finger once. You have a total of four fingerprint profiles to work with.

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The Note 20 Ultra has a crisp, vibrant screen.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

How is the Note 20 Ultra’s zoom quality?

The phone’s 5x optical zoom is really sharp and produces excellent shots when there’s ample lighting. I liked how a tip popped up on screen as I took a photo of a buttery, multilayered croissant, suggesting I shoot at 2x and pull back. Much better photo.

Samsung pulled back from 100x Space Zoom on the S20 Ultra and I’m glad. The 50x zoom on the Note 20 Ultra is enough for most uses, and much improved with the higher optical zoom output to start with. Use it to capture scenes you might ordinarily be too far away to get, like a cute dog with its head out the window, a hawk circling overhead or shooting a funny street sign.

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I took this picture using auto mode on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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Here we are at 50x zoom, the highest the Note 20 Ultra will go.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

What about the rest of the cameras?

Taking photos with the Note 20 Ultra phone was a lot of fun. I was a little limited by the present circumstances with the range of photos I naturally wanted to take, but I still found shots I loved: purple clouds rippling in an impossibly pink summer sky, a delicious picnic lunch and a glowing candle at an outdoor restaurant at night.

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Shot in auto mode on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra — no filter.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Note 20 Ultra has a 108-megapixel camera feature, which lets you take a detailed shot and crop photos after the fact. My results were uneven, with a blown out photo of a flower that completely lacked detail, to a fairly successful shot of a bug that had landed on my shirt. Night mode and selfie quality were solid, and I especially like the new selfie filter that lets you warm up or cool down the tone before you take a shot.

Pro video mode is a Note 20 Ultra exclusive, and is packed with settings that are frankly over my head because I’m not a professional videographer. I did like being able to change the microphone direction, and smoothly zooming in was a nice feature, but quality during night shoots was poor. Keep an eye out for our in-depth Note 20 Ultra versus iPhone 11 Pro Max camera comparison.

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A nighttime photo taken without night mode from the Note 20 Ultra.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra camera

Galaxy Note 20 Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Main camera 12-megapixel (F1.8, Dual Pixel AF, OIS, 1.8μm, 79-degree FOV, 1/1.76 inch image sensor) 108-megapixel (F1.8, OIS, 0.8μm, 79-degree FOV, 1/1.33 inch image sensor)
Ultrawide angle 12-megapixel (F2.2, 1.4μm, 120-degree FOV) 12-megapixel (F2.2, 1.4μm, 120-degree FOV)
Telephoto 64-megapixel (F2.0, 0.8μm, 76-degree FOV) 12-megapixel (F3.0, 1.0μm, 20-degree FOV)
Front-facing camera 10-megapixel (F2.2, 1.22μm, 80-degree FOV) 10-megapixel (F2.2, 1.22μm, 80-degree FOV)
Zoom 3x hybrid 5x optical
Super Zoom 30x 50x
Laser auto-focus sensor No Yes
Video capture 8K 8K

How’s battery life?

The Note 20 Ultra’s 4,500-mAh battery is smaller than the S20 Ultra’s 5,000-mAh battery, but lasted much longer during my testing period. I’m not hotspotting for hours during a commute these days or going out from early morning until late night, which makes it harder to compare anecdotally. However, I’d call battery life good, not amazing, and it’ll certainly take you through a typical day. 

On my heaviest use days, I navigated with Google Maps for about an hour and a half and spoke on the phone for over an hour with no significant drain. I routinely take two hours of meetings calls while on a walk, without issue. I’ll update this review once I have results from our more formal lab tests in New York. 

Are there any standout S Pen features in the Note 20 Ultra? 

Because of the 120Ghz refresh rate, the S Pen writes noticeably faster. There’s also lower latency overall (under 9 milliseconds, according to Samsung). I also feel my writing is neater. Samsung introduces new features, like handwriting auto-straighten and PDF importing, which I like.

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The S Pen writes better and faster on the Note 20 Ultra.


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Then there are the five new air gestures, which felt gimmicky. They’re customizable — a good thing, but I never figured out how to naturally incorporate them into days spent at home, and your movements have to be slow and deliberate to get the gestures right.

My favorite S Pen tricks are oldies-but-goodies:

  • Using the S Pen to sketch a concept
  • Magnifying tiny font on a page
  • Annotating anything and everything
  • Taking precise screenshots and highlighting just the exact text I want to copy and paste
  • Taking a selfie by pressing the S Pen button

What’s the Note 20 Ultra’s processor like?

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus processor on my Note 20 Ultra review unit is, in a word, snappy. Extremely fast, totally competent, nothing got in its way. Benchmarking scores were also top-notch. However, some regions use Samsung’s house-made Exynos 990 chipset, which is the same as the Galaxy S20 line. (The Note 20 Ultra with Exynos also has 256GB storage versus the 128GB of my configuration.) I haven’t had a chance to test the Exynos version, but will update this with insight from my colleague in the UK.

Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra specs

Galaxy Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Display size, resolution 6.7 inches; 2,400×1,080 pixels 6.9 inches; 3,088×1,440 pixels
Pixel density 393 ppi 496 ppi
Dimensions (inches) 6.36×2.96×0.33 in 6.49×3.04×0.31 in
Dimensions (millimeters) 161.6×75.2×8.3mm 164.8×77.2×8.1mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 6.84 oz, 194g 7.33 oz, 208g
Mobile software Android 10 Android 10
Camera 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 108-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera 10-megapixel 10-megapixel
Video capture 8K 8K
Processor Snapdragon 865 Plus Snapdragon 865 Plus
Storage 128GB 128GB, 512GB
RAM 8GB 12GB
Expandable storage No Up to 1TB
Battery 4,300 mAh 4,500 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screen In-screen
Connector USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack No No
Special features S Pen stylus; 5G connectivity; Wireless PowerShare; water-resistant (IP68) 5x optical zoom, UWB sharing, S Pen stylus; 5G connectivity; Wireless PowerShare; water-resistant (IP68)
Price off-contract (USD) $1,000 $1,300 (128GB); $1,450 (512GB)
Price (GBP) £849 £1,179
Price (AUD) AU$1,499 AU$1,849



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