The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra raises some questions I'm eager to answer.
After months of lockdown where I live, reviewing the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G has been an absolute blast. Samsung's most advanced phone for power users is expensive -- it starts at $1,300 (£1,179, AU$1,894) for the 128GB model -- but it's also stuffed with features and has an arresting (some might say divisive) design, all of which makes it fun to explore. There have been some bumps along the way -- no phone is perfect -- but also some really nice perks of using a premium device with a beautifully detailed 6.9-inch screen.
My favorite way to review a phone is to live with it and use it as naturally as possible. These are bizarre times, because I can't go to the places and do the things I normally would when testing a phone's features, like using the Note 20 Ultra's S Pen capabilities during meetings, shooting photos of my friends at night or recording street performers to test the Ultra's new pro video mode. It also doesn't help that I live pretty far from my usual testing grounds.
In some ways this scenario is the perfect test of a phone in these times. Life isn't the same today and we don't know how the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could permanently change the way people work and live. A do-everything device for work and play makes perfect sense for our prepandemic times, but how does it fit into a world where more people may work from home and be less socially active, particularly until there's a widespread vaccine?
Here are my top observations so far. Note that since this is an ongoing review, so my impressions could change and deepen as time goes on.
Order from Samsung | Verizon | AT&T | Xfinity Mobile | T-Mobile | US Cellular | Best Buy
Order from Samsung | Verizon | AT&T | Xfinity Mobile | T-Mobile | US Cellular | Best Buy
Everything about Samsung's new phone is supersized, from the 6.9-inch screen to the huge -- and I mean HUGE -- camera array on the back. It's 2 inches tall and over an inch wide, and it juts out prominently.
Samsung has done a decent job of making this camera mount look as jaunty as possible, but it's still not my favorite look, and if you don't use a case to round it out, I'm concerned that any drop or scrape will scratch the camera first. This has happened to me with a phone before, and my ultrawide photos were never good again. Also, if you lay the Note 20 Ultra down, say on a tabletop, and write on the screen, the camera mount will cause the phone to rock.
For me, the Note 20 Ultra is a tad too wide to comfortably fit in my hands, and it towers comically out of my back pocket in a way that would make a bystander nervous.
Although the screen is huge, which is terrific for reading of any kind and watching video, I would point out that in today's environment where my laptop feels like an extension of my arm, I'm more likely to follow a home workout on the 13-inch laptop screen instead of on a phone.
Color: I can see why Samsung made mystic bronze its signature color and swapped out a glossy finish for a sleek, sophisticated matte sheen. It's lustrous and understated without being boring, and seems like far less of a grease trap.
Casual photography: Taking photos is fun. Images are vivid and 5x optical zoom keeps picture quality high enough to make me keep using it. Ultrawide-angle photos are always a great tool to have in the photo arsenal to provide dramatic effect. Yes, the Note 20 Ultra continues Samsung's tendency to oversaturate some photos, and 108-megapixel photography can produce mixed results. More on this in my final review. Overall, I'm happy with most of its photos.
Zoom photography is looking better: I'm glad the Note 20 Ultra steps back from the Galaxy S20 Ultra's 100x "space" zoom. My best shot at 50x AI-assisted zoom was one I lucked into (see above). It looks good, but even with an onscreen viewfinder and a stabilizing force like a tripod, the image jumps like crazy.
Screen quality: The screen is 6.9 inches and, as always, bright and brilliant. This was excellent for reading the news, watching videos and scrolling through photos. See the flip side to brightness below. Since the bezel's so slim, I keep accidentally pressing the sides of the phone (more below), but the image itself is terrific, even at the default FHD Plus setting of 2,326x1,080 pixels (it goes up to WQHD Plus, which is 3,088x1,440 pixels).
Stylus tricks: My favorite Galaxy Note tools are here, like taking a really precise screenshot using the S Pen, using the Note 20 Ultra's magnifying tool to read online menus and too-small font (so effortless), and easily creating a screen recording or GIF of a portion of the display. You can also double-click the S Pen button to erase what you've written. There are a few more besides, like writing on top of a PDF you can import into the notes app (yes!) and annotating a screen. A new layout in the Notes app makes it easier to switch among menu items.
Selfie shutter button: Taking a selfie using the S Pen is a breeze when you press the stylus button with one hand without having to stick your arm out at an awkward angle or worry about dropping the phone. Face tone filters for selfies are a nice way to add some warmth or tone it down if a picture is oversaturated.
Phone calls: Who uses a phone anymore? I do, especially now that I take a lot of work calls while out on a walk. Every call has sounded great in my area, both over cellular and via apps like WhatsApp and Slack. Of course, your situation could vary depending on the service where you live, and the same goes for your 4G or 5G connection.
Battery life: After an uneven first day, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra's 4,500-mAh battery is behaving more like how I'd expect for a flagship phone -- whew. On my heaviest day of use so far, it was at 35% after 12 hours (which included an hour and a half of Google Maps navigation) and slowly drained to 16% by 7 a.m. This was using the default 120Hz screen setting with adaptive brightness and no battery optimization setting. I've now turned that on, so we'll see how it goes.
Edge touch rejection: I've started to notice that the razor-thin bezels may be interfering with how I use the Note 20 Ultra, especially when I'm lying down on my back or side, and especially when typing. The notification shade will suddenly start sliding down as if I've summoned it, the edge screen may pop out or some other issue might interrupt my typing. It's not a deal breaker for me at this stage, but it is something that's occurred most mornings and evenings.
It's heavy: After an especially grueling day, I wanted to veg out watching Netflix before drifting off to sleep. After 10 minutes, my hand grew heavy trying to hold up the phone. I switched to my phone stand, propping the Note 20 Ultra on the stand and putting the stand on my belly. It wobbled and swayed every time I laughed. It even fell off once. I finally put the stand and phone on my nightstand and flipped to my side to watch, until I got a crick in my neck and called it quits after about an hour. Great sound and image quality, though.
The S Pen placement: It may be something I simply need to get used to, but so far, the move from the right side of the phone to the left isn't working all that well for me. There's nothing inherently wrong with the design, but for some reason reaching for it feels like a chore. Did it move to accommodate the camera hardware? We'll see if I warm up to the changes as the tests go on.
Nighttime screen brightness: With the lights out, Android's Wind Down mode on and the brightness slid to its lowest setting, the screen is too bright to induce sleepiness. It's more likely to rev me up during middle-of-the-night wakeups than lull me back to sleep. I'd love to see a more aggressive midnight setting.
Wired headphones don't come in the box. My colleague Patrick Holland embraces this -- and maybe for you, it's not a big deal as Samsung transitions users to wireless earbuds like its Galaxy Buds Live (aka Galaxy Beans). But the Galaxy Buds Live cost $170 and Samsung spent years touting the $99 value of the wired headphones that came in the box. If you didn't care all that much about getting wireless headphones (for example, they always fall out of my ears or pick up wind noise outside), you're automatically losing the $99 value of the bundled headphones, plus the $170 or however much you wind up spending on something else. So if you don't already have headphones you want to use, your cost of ownership just went up.
It can get a little toasty. My CNET colleagues and I have noticed the Note 20 Ultra seemed to both generate and dissipate quite a lot of heat -- this has been a daily occurrence. Nothing out of the ordinary, just an emanating warmth that phones (and laptops and other electronics) can get when they're working hard. On a hot summer day, this hasn't been the most pleasant sensation in my pocket and hand, but definitely not a deal breaker.
There's still so much to see as the Note 20 Ultra begins to settle in as my daily phone for the next week. Keep checking back as this review develops day by day.
The camera array is where Samsung wants the Note 20 phones, and especially the Note 20 Ultra, to shine. It's taken a step back from the ostentation of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which boasted a 100x Space Zoom feature and a main camera capable of shooting a 108-megapixel photo, to concentrate instead on the idea of cropping in for more detail.
|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|
|Laser auto-focus sensor||No||Yes|
Samsung still gave the Note 20 Ultra an 108-megapixel camera option -- you tap it to turn it on when you want the full resolution. When it comes to zoom, the Note 20 falls back to 50x zoom, with the Note 20 settling in at 30x.
It's interesting to see Samsung backtrack like this, but the company seems to be responding to feedback that the S20 Ultra was too expensive and its 100x zoom wasn't good enough or useful enough to justify the price.
The Note 20 Ultra has 5x optical zoom, though the camera shortcut tools make it easier to pick 2x and 4x zoom before jumping to 10, 20 and 50x zoom settings. You can go more granular by pinching and zooming in the viewfinder.
Faster autofocus in the Note 20 Ultra is also designed to give it an edge over the standard Note 20, so you can snap photos of squirmy pets, amusing facial expressions and flapping hummingbirds faster, without missing the shot.
A pro video mode packs in more manual tools and options for capturing footage, which should make aspiring moviemakers happy. This has been one of Samsung's weaker areas for several years, compared with the latest iPhone . Like the Galaxy S20 Ultra, both phones support 8K video capture. Just be aware, it'll make video files enormous on and off your phone. We're still testing this mode and we'll also focus on it in a separate camera deep dive.
What would the Galaxy Note be without its stylus? For loyalists, scribbling, navigating and annotating are part of the phone's charm. So is the fact that the Notes app allows you to do all of the above. Here are the newest features for both Note 20 models.
New S Pen gesture navigation: Pointing the pen tip away from your body (and at a distance from the phone), press and hold the stylus button while making one of five new gestures to go back, go home, open a recent app or take a screenshot with Smart Select. You can also squiggle the pen to capture the entire screen.
The S Pen is more responsive on the Note 20 Ultra when the 120Hz screen option is on.
Handwriting recognition gets better, with tools including autostraighten.
Samsung Notes gets live auto-syncing at long last. This will store a note in the cloud for you to access from any other device -- as long as you're signed in to a Samsung account.
Attach and time-sync voice recordings: You can get your voice note to sync with what you write so it'll play back from the time you mention the word.
Import a PDF to annotate or highlight: Instead of printing out a page or downloading it to sign and then upload or send out again, you can simply mark your signature and export it back.
|Samsung Galaxy Note 20||Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra|
|Display size, resolution||6.7 inches; 2,400x1,080 pixels||6.9 inches; 3,088x1,440 pixels|
|Pixel density||393 ppi||496 ppi|
|Dimensions (inches)||6.36x2.96x0.33 in||6.49x3.04x0.31 in|
|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)|
|Processor||Snapdragon 865 Plus||Snapdragon 865 Plus|
|Expandable storage||No||Up to 1TB|
|Battery||4,300 mAh||4,500 mAh|
|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)|