Amidst the economic and social stresses we are going through currently, many smartphone manufacturers have resorted to making affordable devices. Yet, in Samsung’s case, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra does the opposite. Positioned as its most premium offering, the phone tries to fix a lot of what was wrong with the Galaxy S20 Ultra. At the same time, the flagship wants to appeal as a meaningful upgrade over the Galaxy Note10+ of last year. But priced starting at Dh4,499 for the 4G version and Dh4,899 for the 5G version, does it pack enough for you to take the plunge?
Design and build quality
In the hand, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra is not too dissimilar from Samsung’s previous flagships. It sports a rectangular body with sharp edges which is typical for a Note series device. But at 8.1mm thick and 208g, you find yourself with a fairly compact unit compared to the Galaxy S20 Ultra which feels much larger for the same 6.9-inch screen size. This year, you find the Galaxy Note20 Ultra in three color variants. The one we have for review is Mystic Bronze, a personal favorite of mine although you also get Mystic White and Mystic Black finishes. In particular, the glazed glass finish on our unit means fingerprints are far and few, lending for a cleaner look at all times.
As you would expect with a premium device, there are no sacrifices when it comes to build quality. Both the front and back panel on the Galaxy Note20 Ultra is made of a special type of glass from Corning, called Gorilla Glass Victus. This is a refinement over its Gorilla Glass 6 but further adds protection against falls. While there is nothing different when it comes to feel in hand, you do get that extra sense of durability. In our usage, the device has held up well, showing minimal wear and tear. And it has even had a few dunks in water with no fret thanks to its IP68 water and dust resistance rating. As a side note though, the front panel of the device comes with a screen protector pre-installed and the case bundled with the phone is rigid and of fairly good quality, so kudos to Samsung for that.
Different to the the Galaxy S20 series, the Note20 Ultra brings with it a curvature. The front panel is curved on the edges which amplifies that immersive experience. This does not both me too much when it comes to usability however a flatter edge does tend to give you better grip, especially for a phone this large. So perhaps sticking to the display design of the Galaxy S20 series could have been a better call.
While those are all the noteworthy changes with the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, you also see a few smaller ones. The volume and power buttons are now both on the right side whereas the top edge houses a hybrid dual-nano SIM slot or microSD expansion to up to 1TB depending on your preference. You also find a secondary microphone on the top edge whereas the left edge remains bare. However, the bottom does see some movement. The Type-C USB port is placed in the center alongside the primary microphone but both the speaker and S-Pen slot move to the left. These are not huge changes but the latter definitely appeals to me, as a left-handed writer.
Display technology and audio
The front of the Galaxy Note20 Ultra houses its mammoth display. As previously mentioned, it is a 6.9-inch panel, complete with HDR10+ support, a 1,440 x 3,088 pixel QHD+ resolution and a 120Hz refresh rate. Samsung calls this panel a Dynamic AMOLED 2X one, and that is because the panel offers an adaptive refresh rate when using the smartphone. And it turns out, this is different to other smartphones offering a variable refresh rate, with the Galaxy Note20 Ultra able to shift between a spectrum of display frequencies based on what you are seeing on screen.
As great as this adaptability is, the drawback comes with resolution. If you want to take advantage of this variable refresh rate, you will need to tone the smartphone’s resolution to FHD+ in the settings. With other flagships offering a full 120Hz refresh rate at QHD+ resolution, this is definitely a drawback. During my use, I have switched between the FHD+ mode and the QHD+ mode numerous times and the higher resolution makes a noticeable difference. And not having a higher refresh rate at QHD+ has felt a bit restricting compared to other flagship smartphones on the market. Perhaps even a middle-ground 90Hz option at QHD+ would have been much appreciated but alas, we do not see it.
Moving to multimedia, the display is excellent. It does not suffer from any black crush contrast issues or dynamic range problems. In general, multimedia shows a good degree of pop, vibrancy and color accuracy. Side by side, the panel is also brighter than the Galaxy S20 Ultra and in the real world, this does help with sunlight legibility to a certain extent. But dimming the display down all the way and viewing grey colors in the dark, you do notice a slight green tint which goes away very quickly if the brightness is above 20 per cent. This though, seems to be naturally exhibited by all AMOLED flagship panels with refresh rates of 120Hz in 2020.
Flanking the display, you find the speakers tuned by AKG. Samsung’s stereo speaker experience has always been good and with the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, it takes it up a level. The difference in audio was almost immediately noticeable compared to the both the Galaxy S20 Ultra and the Galaxy Note10+. Audio is louder and has a richness to it, sounding fuller so there is definitely an upgrade here. However, there is no support for 3.5mm jack earphones given the lack of the port. So, you will either have to use a pair of Type-C earphones, wireless ones or a Type-C to 3.5mm jack dongle.
The internal makeup of the Galaxy Note20 Ultra remains identical to the Galaxy S20 Ultra in this region. It sports Samsung’s Exynos 990 octa-core CPU with a Mali-G77 MP11 GPU. In our unit, we have 12GB of on-board RAM with 256GB of UFS 3.0 storage, out of which 226GB is user accessible. You can also opt for 512GB of on-board UFS 3.0 storage however with support for microSD expansion, this is not a necessity. As you would expect with a high-end smartphone, the software experience on the Galaxy Note20 Ultra compliments its internals well. We are looking at One UI 2.5 draped over Android 10 and interestingly, Samsung will support the Galaxy Note20 Ultra with up to 3 years of software updates. This slight bump in One UI version is not a major overhaul and the experience is similar to what you would find on the Galaxy S20 Ultra or Galaxy Note10+, starting with that fast and accurate ultrasonic in-screen fingerprint scanner.
Navigating the user interface is smooth and multitasking is handled well by the smartphone too. With it having a large screen, I have grown accustomed to using Samsung’s split-screen view and pop-up view features for a number of applications. And this is just scratching the surface. On the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, you get a host of customization options, whether you want to change themes, navigation controls or gestures. One of the features that I have used the most with the Galaxy Note20 Ultra is its ability to share content among your devices. There is an Ultra-Wideband (UWB) chip inside the phone which makes it easier to synchronize and share data, whether that is via Google’s Nearby Share or Samsung’s native option to Link to Windows. With Samsung’s continuous effort to make synchronization with Windows PCs as easy as possible, you can truly reap the rewards.
I am able to synchronize my entire smartphone with my PC and have all my data wherever I need it. The application that enables this is not too clunky on your Windows PC and the overall experience is quite good. Granted, there are some delays with on-screen feedback especially when you cast your smartphone on your PC but that aside, you are looking at some great functionality. Being able to easily transfer pictures from your smartphone to your Windows PC is a use case I see for a lot of people. And this just makes it much easier. One improvement to take this to the next level would be the ability to share information via the application from your PC on your smartphone. Basically, a seamless experience when copy-pasting and I think it is not too far.
There are other other neat tools baked into Samsung’s user interface too. For example, quickly scanning QR codes directly from the notification shade is useful or screen recording. It is not wrong to say that the Galaxy Note20 Ultra comes very close to replacing a traditional laptop computer. Add to that Samsung’s DeX support, which now also works wirelessly on supported devices although if you want the best experience without any latency, wired is still the way to go. But regardless, with this combination, you are looking at the ultimate tool for productivity. In fact, this portion of the review was written using Samsung DeX, just to show you its potential benefits being used with the Galaxy Note20 Ultra.
As always, no Galaxy Note device is complete without the S-Pen. This year, the S-Pen sees a big upgrade with latency and this is immediately noticeable. More or less, the feature set on the S-Pen remains the same with support for Air Gestures allowing you to navigate the device. But this is not a feature I used on a regular basis. What has seen major improvement though is Samsung’s Notes application. It has received a fresh look and adds a number of valuable features allowing you to express your creativity. More so, it has come in handy for quickly jotting down lists or phone numbers using the smartphone’s screen-off memo. There has been the odd occasion or two where I have resorted to sketching with the S-Pen so having it does spark an extra level of creativity.
Otherwise, the S-Pen comes in handy for highlighting important information. For instance, circling a particular paragraph in a document, jotting down changes in a screenshot or even e-signing a document. However, there is a slight catch. With the camera bump on the Galaxy Note20 Ultra being so large, writing on the smartphone is a wobbly affair. You can get around it but when you are engrossed in the process, this constant shake will bother you, especially if you are coming from the Galaxy Note10+ which had a much smaller camera unit.
Primary camera capabilities
This moves us nicely onto the camera of the Galaxy Note20 Ultra. The main unit comprises of four sensors, with a primary 108MP wide camera, a 12MP 120-degree ultra-wide camera, a 12MP periscope telephoto camera capable of 50x hybrid zoom and a LaserAF unit. First and foremost, Samsung has managed to fix the focus issues that plagued the Galaxy S20 Ultra. This is potentially a result of the dedicated LaserAF unit on the Galaxy Note20 Ultra and it works well, whether you are in a bright room or in low-light. The main 108MP camera is capable of some incredible photos with natural shallow depth-of-field notably with a higher dynamic range than both the Galaxy S20 Ultra and the Galaxy Note10+. But compared to more recent flagship smartphones, the shutter speed from the Samsung feels slightly slower.
Alongside the primary lens, we find the ultra-wide one. One thing that is great to see with it is that the quality drop between lenses is not very noticeable in good lighting conditions. In low-light, the differences are more pronounced although night-mode does an excellent job to fix this with software processing. As for the periscope telephoto lens, this is an area where Samsung has toned it down. On the Galaxy S20 Ultra, you could zoom into an object up to 100x whereas on the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, it is restricted to 50x. This is still more than enough however it does require you to be extremely steady with your images. More so, the lens excels only at higher zoom ranges, most notably starting at the 5x mark. But with lower zoom ranges, the Galaxy Note10+ does notably better given ideal lighting conditions. Just to expand on this, the lens also sways skin tones to an unnatural hue of yellow whereas edge-detection is also a hit or miss.
In low-light, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra holds its own. Pictures without night-mode are still sharp and with it enabled, you get outstanding results. Samsung has worked on toning down the excessive sharpening when using this mode and it is definitely evident here. As I touched on earlier, even using the ultra-wide lens with night-mode results in usable pictures which is not something that I say very often for a lot of smartphones.
Improvements in video are also evident with the Galaxy Note20 Ultra. It features both gyro-EIS and OIS, with stability differences between the Galaxy Note10+ coming through quite easily at both 1080p resolution and 4K resolution footage. You can also opt for a Super Steady video mode to heighten stability even further although this tones down the quality of video footage being captured. It is a shame that you still cannot record 60fps footage with the ultra-wide angle camera on the Note20 Ultra but to make up for it, you do get an 8K 24fps video option, which improves details but at a noticeable loss in stability.
Selfie camera capabilities
Over on the front of the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, you find a 10MP selfie camera. It is largely the same sensor on paper as found on the Galaxy Note10+ with processing changes. The Galaxy Note20 Ultra seems to beautify selfies a bit more than my usual liking however pictures do look sharp. As with the primary camera, the selfie sensor suffers from edge detection too. But it is still more than a decent experience even offering a wide-selfie option for group pictures. My favorite feature though has to be its night-mode which genuinely does wonders for your selfies in low-light. Of course, the front facing camera is good enough for vlogging too, although at 4K 60fps, the video footage does look a bit cropped in.
Battery life and charging
Perhaps one of the slight kinks on the Galaxy Note20 Ultra’s armor is battery life. With the slightly thinner profile, the Note20 Ultra sees a smaller 4,500mAh battery compared to the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s 5,000mAh one. This is however a boost compared to the Galaxy Note10+’ battery capacity of 4,300mAh. In my usage, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra has clocked an average of around 8 hours of screen-on time. This was with the smartphone’s 120Hz refresh rate enabled and while it may sound good, there have been days where the screen-on time drops to an average of 5.5 hours. If you typically use your smartphone a lot and work longer than 8 hour days, the Note20 Ultra may need a top-up towards the start of the evening. But with lighter to moderate usage, you could maybe squeeze a full 14-15 hour day.
Comparing this to the Galaxy S20 Ultra, it does fall short. But Samsung gives you various options to keep juiced up on the go. For example, the provided 25W charging brick and cable gives you a full charge in 63-70 minutes. The smartphone also supports 45W charging although to access it, you will need to purchase the charging brick and cable separately. Otherwise, you could always rely on 15W wireless charging. As a bonus, Samsung has also thrown in 9W reverse wireless charging to keep your peripherals charged via the phone on the go.
If budget is no concern for you, the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra is a phone that justifies its price tag. Given the sheer amount of features packed into the smartphone and the refinements it brings, it could become one of the best phones of this year. Plus, the way Samsung has implemented the S-Pen and its features just helps anyone stay on top of their game. However, we do recommend you consider the 4G variant if 5G is not a necessity for you. That way, you will be able to save some money on your purchase without sacrificing on any crucial features. Weighed up against the Galaxy Note10+ and the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra offers notable changes. And if you are willing to trade-in your current smartphone, you could get some great discounts via Samsung’s trade-in offers. But if you happen to own a smartphone that is only a year old like the Galaxy Note10+ and do not want to particularly let it go, an upgrade to the Galaxy Note20 Ultra is not a necessity by any means.