Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Amazing features, but is anyone a 'power user' anymore?
Samsung's Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G is possibly the right phone in the wrong situation. The newest power phone is too expensive for a steep global recession, and its feature set will be too much for many.
Updated Nov. 21, 2020 4:00 a.m. PT
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Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Thought Leadership, Speed Desk and How-To. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds.
Jessica led CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
ExpertiseContent strategy, team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Samsung, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
5x optical zoom captures sharp photos in ample light
S Pen creates standout opportunities for using the phone
$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?
Watch this: Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a do-everything device that'll cost you
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
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
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 unveiled one more super-ultrapremium phone this year, the Galaxy Z Fold 2.
Samsung's Note 20 Ultra 5G is striking from every angle
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.
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.
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. 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. Check out the results of our Galaxy Note 20 Ultra drop test -- spoiler alert, we were able to break this phone.
Watch this: Comparing the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and iPhone 11 Pro cameras
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
12-megapixel (F2.2, 1.4μm, 120-degree FOV)
12-megapixel (F2.2, 1.4μm, 120-degree FOV)
64-megapixel (F2.0, 0.8μm, 76-degree FOV)
12-megapixel (F3.0, 1.0μm, 20-degree FOV)
10-megapixel (F2.2, 1.22μm, 80-degree FOV)
10-megapixel (F2.2, 1.22μm, 80-degree FOV)
Laser auto-focus sensor
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.
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.