Samsung’s Galaxy brand is meant to evoke an ecosystem that is bigger than any one device. That goal was probably more aspirational than anything in the early days when Samsung was busy simply copying the iPhone. But today, the Galaxy ecosystem doesn’t just rival Apple’s, it surpasses it in many ways. And the device that sits at the top of this ecosystem, if temporarily and tenuously, is the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, a handset that may ultimately prove to be the last and best of its kind.
I don’t want to get too far afield here, but the Note lineup is about to give up its spot at the apex of the Galaxy ecosystem by the rival Fold lineup: Where Note and the phablet form factor it innovated were once the future of the smartphone and thus of personal computing, the Galaxy Fold and its folding display design now occupy those roles. And it will be interesting to see how or if Samsung rejiggers its Galaxy handset families next year to formalize this reality into strategy.
But that’s a discussion for another day. Here in late 2020, The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is perhaps the ultimate expression of the smartphone as we now think of it. And it is quite worthy of that role.
The Samsung Note 20 Ultra is a gigantic slab of metal and glass with a true edge-to-edge display, flat edges on the top and bottom, and an overly large camera bump on the back.
It’s a rather masculine device as a result, in contrast to the curvier design of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, but I happen to prefer it. I especially like the color of the review unit, an elegant Mystic Bronze that looks great at every angle and is matte, not glossy. It’s a shame to cover it with a case, but I did thanks to its wet soap-like slipperiness. It’s just so attractive.
Being slippery is bad, but the biggest issue with the design is the mesa-like camera bump on the back. It’s not that it’s huge and ugly—I got used to the look of it pretty quickly—but rather its position in the upper-left back of the handset. This makes it impossible to lay the Note 20 Ultra down flat, and any time you tap on the left top part of the display, there’s a considerable wobble. If Samsung had just placed the camera system in the top middle, this would not be a problem.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a very large 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED display at a resolution of 3088 x 1440 pixels (496 ppi) with HDR10+ capabilities, a 120 Hz refresh rate, and Gorilla Glass Victus protection. This is quite certainly the single-best display that Samsung has ever created, and it’s bright and colorful, even in broad daylight. But there are a few caveats to the capabilities noted above.
First, that 120 Hz refresh rate is only available when the display is configured for a Full HD+ resolution (2316 x 1080 pixels), as it is by default; if you want to use the displays full resolution, you will be stuck at the more traditional 60 Hz. And even when you do make this compromise to get a higher refresh rate, it’s not enabled all the time and is instead variable (or, as Samsung calls it, adaptive). It’s not entirely clear when it kicks in, but I’d imagine it happens in videos, certain games, and while scrolling through long lists such as in Settings.
The good news? If you just leave the phone on its default resolution and motion smoothness settings, everything looks great, and I’ve never wanted to bump up the resolution or disable the 120 Hz option to gain a bit of extra battery life. There are other displays options I did change—I prefer the vivid screen mode and I enabled automatic blue light filtering and dark mode on schedules, for example—but that’s just personal preference.
Despite the excellence of the display overall, there is one huge and almost debilitating problem: It still utilizes curved display edges, and I regularly register mis-taps on the edge of the display as I stretch my palm across its impressive expanse to reach an icon or other on-screen item that’s just out of reach. I wish that Samsung would give up on curved display edges across the board—some of its higher-end models now feature flat displays, but not the Note Ultra—as this design element, while an impressive feat, is now understood to be undesirable. And this is exactly why.
Hardware and specs
Power users looking for everything including the kitchen sink need look no further than the Note 20 Ultra: If there is a technology that can be jammed inside of a smartphone, the Samsung flagship has it.
As befits a late 2020 flagship, the Note 20 Ultra is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ and Adreno 650 graphics here in the United States, though buyers in most other markets have to put up with the ignominy of Samsung’s Exynos 990 processor and Mali-G77 graphics: Both are octa-core designs built with a modern and efficient 7-nanometer manufacturing process. There is also 12 GB of RAM and 128 GB or 512 GB of fast UFS 3.0 storage, depending on the model, and you can upgrade past that with microSD storage. Combined, that’s enough power to get you well past the three Android versions upgrades that Samsung now promises to support.
While the phone has never been hot in my hand, I noticed while watching videos that there was a bit of heat rising off of its front. Moving the Note 20 Ultra close to my face, I could feel the heat clearly over a set of tests I repeated because I’d never really experience such a thing before. I assume it’s related to the handset’s heat dissipation system, which is quite different from that of the S20 Ultra. I don’t think it’s problematic, just interesting.
Connectivity is first-class with worldwide 5G and LTE compatibility, Wi-Fi 6 with up to 1.2 Gbps speeds in both directions, Bluetooth 5.0, and NFC. I wasn’t able to test 5G, of course, because I live in Pennsylvania where 5G remains more myth than reality.
From a water resistance perspective, the Note 20 Ultra is IP68 rated, meaning it can be submerged in up to 5 feet of freshwater for up to 30 minutes. I did not test that either, this time by choice, but it should survive any conceivable bathroom mishap.
And thanks to its large 4,500mAh battery, battery life is superb, and I’ve once never worried about making it through a full day of use. In fact, I’ve made it to the afternoon of the next day through forgetfulness more than once, with a lock screen message reminding me that maybe I should charge the device. The Note 20 Ultra also supports fast wireless charging and includes a 25-watt USB-C-based Super Fast Charging wall charger in the box. I routinely charged about 50 percent in just 30 minutes, which is great, but I’m surprised there’s no faster 45-watt charging option.
Thanks to the Note 20 Ultra’s panoramic display and surprisingly strong stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos capabilities, watching movies and TV shows and playing games are all excellent and immersive experiences. The hole-punch front-facing camera is cute when you first notice it in such situations, but it quickly receded from sight and never seems to get in the way. That the display is truly edge-to-edge really helps.
I didn’t test this, but the Note 20 Ultra also supports a dual audio feature that lets you play audio through two Bluetooth devices simultaneously. That’s a useful capability, and in sharp contrast to much of Samsung’s software bloat, I do like this handset’s Smart Things audio output switching interface in the notification shade.
I’ve been waiting for Samsung to nail the camera experience, and have watched it almost do so in recent years as it moved from the Galaxy Note 10+ last year to the Galaxy S20 Ultra earlier this year. In both cases, it came so close. But the Note 10+ failed my snapshot test with too many washed-out photos on bright sunny days, and the S20 Ultra had some weird limitations with certain lenses and a 100X “Space Zoom” feature that was basically useless above 10X zoom. In both cases, the basics were there, and I really enjoyed the ultra-wide shots, low-light performance, and other advantages of each.
Flash forward to late 2020 and Samsung has finally done it: The Note 20 Ultra camera system now gives Huawei a serious challenger for the top spot. I really, really enjoy using this device’s cameras, which I feel land at the right compromise between the extremes of dullness and hyper-colorized HDR effects seen on some handsets.
On the rear, the hardware is very similar to that in the S20 Ultra: There’s a 108 MP wide-angle main lens with an f/1.8 aperture, laser auto-focus, and optical image stabilization (OIS), and a 12 MP ultra-wide lens with an f/2.2 aperture and a 120-degree field of view, just as with its predecessor. But the telephoto lens is different: Where the S20 Ultra delivered a 48 MP telephoto lens with OIS with 10X “optical hybrid zoom,” the Note 20 Ultra ships with a seemingly inferior 12 MP periscope telephoto lens with an f/3.0 aperture, OIS, 5X optical zoom, and 50X hybrid zoom.
But it’s not inferior, at all: In side-by-side tests with both phones, the Note 20 Ultra delivered almost identical hybrid zoom shots (that is, above 5X) as its predecessor, and this was most obviously noted on a clear night in which my wife (using the S20) and I (using the Note) took shots of a big and nearly full moon, both by hand and with a tripod.
Those improvements, along with the general excellence of the camera system in all conditions and across all lenses, is no doubt due largely to improvements in Samsung’s computational photography capabilities. Of particular use is an automatic scene optimizer, which you can obviously disable if desired. I think it works incredibly well, and it works across all three rear camera lenses. But if you’re more interested in manual controls, they’re all there along with the expected modes such as panorama, night, super-slow-mo, hyperlapse, and many more.
Samsung also one-upped the S20 Ultra by replacing that handset’s buggy phase-detect autofocus with a frickin’ laser focus module in the Note 20 Ultra. I’ve never experienced any issues with focus, as a result, but there is a shallow depth-of-field in many photos, where the focused area is quite clear but large portions of the rest of the photo are blurred.
Finally, fans of video will appreciate the Note 20 Ultra’s incredible capabilities. It can record 8K video at 24 fps or 4K video at 60 fps using a Pro video mode that’s exclusive to the Note 20 Ultra.
I got little use from the front-facing camera because I only rarely take selfies, but it’s an adequate single 10 MP lens with dual pixels, an 80-degree field of view, and an f/2.2 aperture. This is actually a step down from the S20 Ultra, which featured a curiously high-resolution 40 MP selfie camera, but with the same 80-degree FOV and f/2.2 aperture. (It appears that Samsung took the Note 20 Ultra’s selfie camera from the lower-end Galaxy S20 and S20+ instead for some reason.) But you can at least toggle between a normal and slightly wider view if you need to accommodate more people. As with the past few Samsung flagships, the Note 20 Ultra’s selfie camera peeks out through a small circular hole in the upper middle of the display.
Overall, the camera system is excellent, and my current favorite among all the smartphones I’ve tested. This is a camera I’d be happy to use going forward.
Samsung provides both facial and fingerprint recognition on the Note 20 Ultra and while neither is truly terrible, both are middling and unreliable. They also fight with each other if you have both enabled, such that the system will recognize your face but then refused to recognize your finger press as it’s now waiting for you to swipe up on the display instead. Come on, Samsung.
Also available is Knox security, of course, and a useful feature called Secure Folder that provides an encrypted area in storage in which to store private files.
Unique hardware features
The Note series has always differentiated itself from the increasingly similar S series by its S Pen, and with this release, the small stylus picks up useful improvements for those with artistic or note-taking aims. The most obvious is an incredible decrease in latency from 42 milliseconds in the Note 10 series to just 9 milliseconds with the Note 20. I no longer have my Note 10+ to test this difference, but the S Pen seems to emulate a real pen on paper experience about as good as Microsoft’s vaunted Surface Pen, albeit in a small size that I find hard to use because of my large hands.
Size aside, S Pen integration with the Note 20 Ultra is impressive on every level. If the display is off and you pop the S pen out of its little garage on the bottom of the device, it immediately goes into a special full-screen note-taking mode in which the display remains dark but for a few on-screen controls. If you pop it out while the display is on, you’ll instead see a pop-up menu of choices which include Create note, View all notes, Smart select, Screen write, and several other choices. Smart.
This shouldn’t please me as much as it does, but Samsung even plays a fake “scritching” sound as you write on the display that emulates the sound of a pen or pencil on rough paper. It’s reminiscent of electric cars piping in fake engine sounds to emulate the gas-powered vehicles of the past, and God help me, I really like it. Performance is likewise excellent: What you write with S Pen never lags and is always accurate. This is great for note-taking, but it’s even more important for artists.
Less positively, Samsung continues to push so-called Air Actions on S Pen users, and with a few exceptions, I see little use for them. As the name suggests, Air Actions are things that happen when you wave the S Pen around like a little wand in different patterns, press the S Pen’s tiny on-barrel button, or do both together in various combinations. I’m not sure how anyone could keep it all straight.
Air Actions aren’t completely useless, and you can even choose what happens when you press the S Pen button while certain apps are open. So you could, for example, use it to trigger a photo while in the Camera app, a semi-elegant way to take a selfie with the handset further away than would be possible if you had to hold it your hand. With the (Microsoft) Office app, it’s configured by default to advance to the next PowerPoint slide with one click or go back to the previous slide with two.
But Air Actions are also a great example of Samsung’s kitchen-sink approach. There are a couple of neat ideas in there, but they get lost in the noise. I’m not going to wave this thing around like I’m Harry Potter, sorry.
From a software perspective, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, like other Samsung flagships before it, is complicated by the firm’s overabundance of crapware applications that in many cases duplicate functionality that’s already provided by Google in Android. And that’s too bad: Samsung’s take on the Android user experience, called One UI, is mostly excellent and provides what I think is a cleaner, prettier, and more modern UI than Google’s blander design. I wish all of the software than Samsung piled into this phone was of the same quality.
I’ve written of my happiness with One UI before. It’s a pleasant-looking interface with bright, colorful and squircle-shaped icons, and it somehow manages to come off as both professional and playful. It’s so pretty, I try to emulate it on other phones using themes and icon sets.
I do have a couple of nits with the user interface, however.
On most versions of Android, an app that has a notification will display a notification dot on its icon. And when you long-press that icon, you’ll see a pop-up menu that will include, among other things, the thing that triggered the notification: A new message in an email app, a comment on an Instagram post, or whatever. Samsung’s One UI supports notification dots, and there is a pop-up menu when you long-press the icon. But what’s missing, and this just doesn’t make any sense to me, is the item that triggered the notification. To see that, you need to access the notifications in the system’s notification shade. Or dive into the icon and hope whatever is new is obvious. That’s dumb.
Samsung also hijacked the Android Power button menu. In stock Android, you can press and hold on the Power button to get a pop-up menu of power-related choices (or, in the newer Android 11, a full-screen menu that also includes Google Pay and smart home capabilities). But when you press and hold on Power with the Note 20 Ultra, you get … Bixby, the digital personal assistant no one asked for and no one wants. To get the power menu, you need to press and hold on Power + Volume Down, a more complicated and non-discoverable action.
And while this isn’t exactly a crime again humanity, there are just weird Samsungy things all over the place. The All Apps screen is reached, as with other Android devices, by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. But to navigate through those apps, you then change how you swipe and go from right to left instead. If you swipe up again, as any Android user would, you return to the home screen. That’s goofy, but Samsung also puts some Google, Microsoft, and Samsung apps in folders that bear the companies’ names, and also leaves some of their apps outside of those folders, making it hard to find things without searching. Again, not a major issue, just dumb.
Beyond the UI, there is, of course, a mountain of Samsung settings, apps, and related services to sift through. And I will just apologize here, as there’s no adequate way to describe all of it in a device review because it would require the amount of text found in some books. At a high level, Samsung stuffs its devices chock full of … stuff. Some of it is useful and unique. Some replace features that Google already provides with Android, leading to weird duplications. And some of it is just terrible. But there’s just too much of it, no matter the quality.
Here’s a typical example. On stock Android, when you swipe to the left of the left-most home screen, you’re presented with Google’s Discovery feed, which I happen to find quite useful and read every day. On Samsung devices, however, you get a Bixby Home feed that is both slow to display and—seriously—displays advertisements. Samsung. People spent $1300 or more to acquire this device. Do not display ads in their feed.
The list of Samsung additions, from Galaxy Store to Samsung Pay to Bixby to Galaxy Themes to the Edge panels and Edge lighting, and hundreds if not thousands more, is hard to conceptualize let alone document or even understand. You could spend hours—and, realistically, probably should—slowly navigating in and out of all of the device’s settings, many of which are Samsung-specific. And yes, some Samsung apps can’t even be uninstalled, including some odd ones: You can uninstall Samsung Pay, for example, but not Samsung Pass, which is yet another way to manage your online accounts.
I’ve already written separately about DeX, Samsung’s amazing desktop interface, which lets you use a Note 20 Ultra with an external keyboard, mouse, and display. And for 2020, Samsung has added a new Wireless DeX capability that is equally useful. This technology has evolved into something truly special and is a unique set of capabilities you won’t find anywhere else.
And finally, since I know many will be interested in the Microsoft integrations, the Note 20 Ultra does provide the best-possible mobile Microsoft experience anywhere, and, yes, that includes the Surface Duo, which lacks the Note’s ability to run phone-based Android apps on Windows 10 via Your Phone. The Note 20 Ultra ships with Microsoft LinkedIn, (Bing) Live Transcribe, Office, OneDrive, Outlook, and SwiftKey built-in, and you can integrate Samsung Notes with OneNote and Samsung Gallery with OneDrive. When you run most of Microsoft’s apps in DeX and display them full-screen or in bigger windows, you get the tablet experience, which is fantastic.
I’ll be writing a bit more about the Microsoft integrations separately.
Pricing and availability
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra starts at an incredible $1300, but at least that version ships with an acceptable 128 GB of storage. For $150 more, or $1450, you can get 512 GB of internal storage.
A couple of points about the pricing.
Sure, it’s expensive. But the Note 20 Ultra at least looks and feels like the $1300 phone that it is. This is a premium handset that will serve you well for several years.
Too, Samsung lets you finance the purchase over two years with no interest and no fees at a monthly cost of about $36 for the 128 GB version, and that should soften the blow. As will a trade-in if you buy directly from Samsung: The firm seems to purposefully over-value trade-ins to make upgrading more feasible.
And if you are considering the Note 20 Ultra and can wait, do so: Samsung’s prices infamously fall over time, and you should be able to pick one up for hundreds less soon. And don’t forget that Black Friday and the 2020 holiday season are almost upon us. There will be deals to be had.
There are three colors available: Mystic Black, Mystic White, and the regal-looking Mystic Bronze of the review unit that Samsung provided. It’s too bad the Mystic Green color available with the less premium Galaxy Note 20 isn’t an option. It looks like a nice option.
Recommendations and conclusions
The Samsung Note 20 Ultra is a beast of a phone at a time when many are thinking more frugally because of all the certainty around the COVID-19 pandemic and our fears for the future. As I mentioned above, however, some will justify the expense because of this device’s long-term viability. And if they do, they will find the best overall smartphone experience, despite some irritations related to the curved display edges, biometrics, camera bump, and bloatware. Inarguably, the Note 20 Ultra targets the types of power users who can work around all that.
And the rewards are real. The Note 20 Ultra design is gorgeous and professional-looking, especially in the Mystic Bronze version I reviewed, and the quality is so obviously premium. The display is gorgeous and immersive, the performance is top-shelf, and the camera system is my new favorite among all the smartphones I’ve tested. It’s bursting with functionality, and you’ll find something new every time you explore its many interfaces. As such, the Samsung Note 20 Ultra is highly recommended. This is an incredible smartphone.
- Premium design and craftsmanship
- Epic, top-of-the-line performance
- Bright, crisp, edge-to-edge display
- Impressive camera system will meet any need
- DeX has evolved into something special
- S Pen is a unique option for artists and note-takers
- An expensive trinket in these uncertain times
- Curved display edges trigger too many mis-taps
- Biometrics still a bit slow, unreliable
- Huge camera bump means the phone can’t lay flat
- Too much Samsung bloatware