⚡ Mashable Score
When Samsung unveiled its Galaxy S20 lineup in February, it was clear the company was breathing new life into its family of devices with upgraded cameras, bigger batteries, and an all-around sleeker aesthetic.
So, when it came time to announce its Note 20 lineup, I was excited to see what innovations Samsung would introduce next. Instead, it felt as though the company assigned an intern to lazily copy and paste the same features from its S20 Ultra onto its latest phone — the Note 20 Ultra.
When I finally got this new flagship in my hands, I realized it felt almost identical to the experience I had with the S20 Ultra. Both phones feature 6.9-inch displays, 108-megapixel camera sensors, Space Zoom functionality, a 120Hz refresh rate, large batteries (4,500mAh on the Note 20 Ultra and 5,000mAh on the S20 Ultra), and a high price tag to match that spec list.
Of course, the Note 20 does come with its signature S-Pen stylus, which I hoped would make up for the lack of originality between both of these “Ultra” devices.
You see, there was once a time when Samsung’s Galaxy Note lineup was considered fascinating. Sure, there were plenty of phablets to choose from at the time, but Samsung included somewhat of a special weapon to go along with it, and that was the S-Pen.
Samsung’s stylus was essentially the missing piece that helped to justify the need for a phone that large. The ability to swap between smartphone and tablet usage with the simple click of an S-Pen ultimately pushed the boundaries of what handheld devices could be.
For years after the introduction of the original Note, Samsung continued to innovate what its stylus could do, whether it was enhancing pressure sensitivity for a natural pen-to-paper feel, redesigning the grip, or adding new commands for quicker access to productivity tools (like sending texts or making calls).
But since the Note’s launch in 2011, larger smartphones have become mainstream — sans stylus. Be it the introduction of Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus or Google’s Pixel XL — both of which featured 5.5-inch displays — larger displays have become the norm. These plus-sized screens make it more comfortable to stream content, snap photos, and stay connected over social media with loved ones. And all of these tasks just feel more intuitive to execute with your fingers tapping on the screen, rather than relying on a stylus to get the job done.
The stylus has always been a niche accessory, and one that you don’t often see being used in public. As someone who is already conditioned to type away on the Notes app whenever I think of an idea or create to-do lists, I’d often forget the S-Pen was even at my disposal.
I was really hoping it would once again become a reason to want to switch to the Note 20 Ultra. Rather than simply imposing a few new gestures onto it, I expected Samsung to apply more features that would make everyday tasks easier. Instead, it just feels like a forced refresh made possible by recycled ideas from the S20 family.
Don’t get me wrong, the Note 20 Ultra is an excellent phone. But, like the S20 Ultra that came before it, the phone simply feels… unnecessary.
WATCH: Here are all the devices Samsung announced at Galaxy Unpacked
A gorgeous design that seems better off behind a display case
There’s no denying the Note 20 Ultra is a stunning device that feels super premium to the touch, with its soft back and shiny edges. So much so, that it makes the Note 10 look extremely dated in comparison. It’s also far more attractive than the S20 Ultra, which has a grey glass back that looks really boring and dull by comparison.
Unlike the “plain” Note 20, which is made of reinforced polycarbonate (read: plastic) and metal, the Ultra is made up of metal and glass with a matte-like finish on the back. My review unit was the signature Mystic Bronze color, which looks more like a rose gold depending on how the light hits it.
The combination of materials certainly adds a luxurious feel to the device, but it also adds weight. As with the S20 Ultra, I typically have to hold the phone with both hands to prevent from dropping it.
A phone that’s large, heavy, and made of glass makes for a very fragile combination. As premium is it feels to hold, there were times when I wanted to simply put it behind a display case of some sort and stare at it — to quiet my fear of accidentally dropping it and watching it shatter.
I’m also not the biggest fan of rose gold, specifically because I’m tired of seeing it on every women’s smartwatch nowadays. But it’s definitely the most fun color from the lineup. If you’re not a fan of the bronze, your only other options are Mystic Black and Mystic White.
As for buttons and ports, the power button and volume rocker sit on the right of the device, while the left is free of any buttons, making it a lot easier to hold one-handed without accidentally triggering anything. The top of the phone is home to the SIM card tray, and the bottom features a USB Type-C charging port, and a Dolby stereo speaker. Those of you coming from one of the Note’s predecessors will notice the S-Pen has moved from its storage place at the bottom-left to the bottom-right. While the switch didn’t bother me, it might take a bit of getting used to if you’re coming from a previous Note device.
Flip the Note 20 Ultra over and you’ll find the rectangular triple-camera module that looks way nicer than the pill-shaped camera array on the Note 10. As with the S20 lineup, it’s a lot more modern looking and aesthetically pleasing.
But it also makes for a very thick camera bump on the back. I wouldn’t typically harp on such a defined bump, but for a phone that’s meant specifically for taking notes with a stylus, it gets annoying after a while.
When the phone was placed on a flat surface, it would often rock back and forth when I was taking notes on it, which constantly made me paranoid that I was damaging the glass on the module. So, you’ll definitely want to put a case on it to even everything out.
On the front is a 6.9-inch Quad HD+ edge-to-edge display (496 ppi). I’m not the biggest fan of edge-to-edge displays — something I came to realize after reviewing the OnePlus 8 Pro and the Moto Edge+ — particularly because their enhanced width makes it so I accidentally trigger certain apps or actions with my palms.
I actually didn’t have this issue with the Note 20 Ultra, but it helped that I turned off the Edge panels feature, which pulls up your app drawer using a dedicated button on the side of the display.
Holding the phone with both hands also gave me a bit more control. Not only did I have to do this because of the Note 20 Ultra’s large build, but because my fingers can’t stretch across such a large screen. I’d have to rely on both my thumbs to reach certain apps or buttons.
Regardless, the display itself is really nice. It gets super bright, even on the lowest brightness setting, and colors look sharp and vibrant. Having a 120Hz refresh rate (that you can lower to 60Hz via settings) is also a plus — scrolling through social media, email threads, and articles felt really smooth.
The in-display fingerprint sensor was also a surprisingly pleasant experience given my issues with the S20 Ultra, which failed to recognize my print on the display, forcing me to depend on Face Unlock. The Note 20 Ultra, on the other hand, read my print on the first try each time, unlocking the phone within milliseconds.
Let’s talk about that S-Pen
The S-Pen feels useless to me. That’s not to say those coming from a previous Note device will be disappointed. Compared to the Note 10, Samsung claims it’s lowered latency by 80 percent on the Note 20 Ultra. And it does feel super responsive when taking notes.
The S-Pen also comes with a few new capabilities that might entice those looking for an upgrade. For starters, Samsung introduced a new feature called Anywhere Actions that gives the S-Pen more versatility. Basically, you can trigger different actions depending on which way you wave the stylus in front of the display while holding down the button.
By default, the Air Actions are set to be used to return to the home screen, open the app switcher, capture a specific part of the screen, or take a full screenshot of whatever is on the display — sort of like a magic wand. But you can also customize the Air Actions to launch different apps you use on a daily basis instead.
As shown in the screenshots above, you basically wave the S-Pen around in these weird directions as instructed. The feature was sort of fun to use in the beginning, but the novelty wore off fairly quickly. Not only would I forget what some of the gestures even were, but there were also times when the phone failed to recognize which one I was attempting if my “air action” wasn’t precise enough.
I also felt a little ridiculous constantly waving the stylus in the air — and I was alone in my room. I can only imagine that, in public, I’d likely opt to tap on the display with my finger instead.
There are a few things you can do when the Camera app is open, such as single-press on the S-Pen button to take a photo, double-press to switch cameras, zoom in or out of the view angle, and a few others. These features are typically more useful when you place the phone down further away from you to snap a shot.
But I only found the feature handy when I was taking selfies, and that’s particularly because it meant I didn’t have to struggle to reach the shutter button with my fingers. Otherwise, I can’t imagine placing a $1,300 phone outside on the street to quickly stand back to snap some shots of myself.
As for using the S-Pen on a daily basis, I definitely struggled to remember it was even there. Upon receiving the Note 20 Ultra, I used the phone for a full day without taking the S-Pen out for any reason other than to test the different features.
But for the purpose of this review, I had to force myself to find a way to apply it to my everyday tasks. Whether that was replacing my physical to-do lists with ones on the Notes app or even jotting down random thoughts, it took a lot of brain power for me to remember it was even there.
If you are very reliant on the Samsung Notes app, you’ll be happy to know there’s a new live sync feature. So, whether you’re on your phone, tablet, or PC, your notes will be automatically accessible across all devices so long as you’re logged into your Samsung account.
As an iPhone user, I sync all of my notes to iCloud and love not having to either email myself or text over specific notes I’ve written. It might sound like a minor feature, but the ability to sync between a variety of different devices is essential to any workflow if you rely on a notes app.
S20 Ultra, who? I’ll take the Note 20 Ultra’s camera instead.
When I originally took the Note 20 Ultra for a spin to test its cameras, I found that photos taken on the device didn’t appear as saturated as those on the S20 Ultra. And that remains true.
Before we get into camera samples, here’s what the triple-camera setup on the back of the Note 20 Ultra consists of:
108-megapixel wide-angle lens with f/1.8 aperture
120-degree 12-megapixel ultra-wide lens with f/2.2 aperture
12-megapixel telephoto lens with f/3.0 aperture
It also comes with Samsung’s proprietary Space Zoom feature that was first introduced with the Galaxy S20 phones. This combines optic zoom technology with software-based, AI-powered digital zoom to allow you to zoom in as much as 50x on a subject on the Note 20 Ultra. Meanwhile, the S20 Ultra can zoom in up to 100x.
In addition to digital zoom, the Note 20 Ultra comes with a telephoto lens capable of 0.5x optical zoom. There’s also a laser sensor built into the module that’s specifically used for autofocus on subjects when snapping photos.
That latter point is a welcome feature here, given the buggy autofocus that plagued the S20 Ultra.
Below are examples of some ultra-wide-angle and wide-angle shots that I took using the Note 20 Ultra, S20 Ultra, and iPhone 11 Pro.
You can immediately tell that the way the Note 20 Ultra and S20 Ultra handle color processing is completely opposite. On the Note 20 Ultra, the browns and reds on the building look a lot brighter and far more even throughout. It’s a bit saturated in some parts, but I think it brings out all the right colors to make the photo pop, such as the oranges and light browns.
On the S20 Ultra, everything looks a lot darker and it’s almost as though the saturation took to the darker colors like the ground or the awning on the left.
The photo taken with the Note 20 Ultra above is also a lot sharper and more eye-catching, and I’d confidently upload it without making any edits. However, with the S20 Ultra, I feel like I’d bump up the colors a bit to give it more warmth.
There’s practically zero saturation in the image taken with the iPhone, so it creates a more realistic image. But it’s also not as sharp as the two photos above. The colors, especially on the buildings, look a lot more fuzzy.
Then, there are the wide-angle shots taken using all three phones:
It’s a bit hard to tell the difference between the photo taken on the Note 20 Ultra and the S20 Ultra, aside from the Note 20 Ultra’s tighter cropping of the image.
As for color processing, the S20 Ultra is, yet again, a bit oversaturated here. Even though it’s subtle, you can see the sidewalk looks a lot sharper and so does the handle on the sign. Even the lettering looks a lot brighter than on the Note 20 Ultra.
I actually prefer the photo taken on the iPhone 11 Pro because it looks a lot brighter overall. In comparison, both shots taken with the Note 20 Ultra and S20 Ultra appear to have a yellow-ish tint. Meanwhile, the image taken with the iPhone has more life to it.
Here are a few additional wide-angle shots I snapped with the Note 20 Ultra:
Overall, I’m fairly impressed with the Note 20 Ultra and didn’t find myself complaining about its color processing or saturation levels as much as I did with both the S20 Ultra and the standard Galaxy S20. These are images I likely wouldn’t edit much, if even at all prior to uploading to Instagram or Twitter.
Let’s move on to Live Focus, which allows you to adjust blur in the background before and after taking an image.
Here’s a comparison of both the Note 20 Ultra and the S20 Ultra using the Live Focus feature.
Between both photos, it’s clear that my skin tone looks a lot different. On the Note 20 Ultra, I appear more pale and my hair looks a bit lighter. My clothes also look lighter in color.
Since I didn’t adjust the blur in the background prior to or after taking the shot, you can tell the blur was set to minimum based on how it only picked up some of the leaves.
There’s also a 10-megapixel selfie camera on the front, which I tested out using both Live Focus and standard mode.
The Live Focus shot has a tendency to make me look a bit washed out. But it did do a good job of recognizing which parts of the background to blur, without imposing on my hair or clothes.
As for standard selfie mode, I really appreciate that Samsung decided to skip the 40-megapixel selfie camera it included on the S20 Ultra. I think the front-facing camera featured on the Note 20 is more than enough, and I wasn’t as terrified to take photos with it.
However, as per usual, I did have to turn the smoothness fully down on the beauty filter that comes built into the camera app. Even on the lower setting, it made my skin look really strange and almost fake.
Lastly, we have low-light shots which I also used all three phones to test. Samsung’s phones come with a dedicated Night Mode that processes 30 images into a clear photo. The iPhone also has Night Mode, but it works a bit differently by analyzing the amount of light around the subject to figure out how long to keep the shutter open.
Night mode on the Note 20 Ultra produces a lot brighter of an image, with more depth on both the navy blue lettering on the sign and the baby blue on the ice machine.
Weirdly enough, it also looks a bit more saturated than the S20 Ultra. The bricks on the buildings look a lot sharper and more defined on the Note 20 Ultra and so do the textures on both the tiles and the ice machine.
Night mode on the iPhone gets the job done, but the photo definitely doesn’t pop as much in color, creating more of a bland image that I would want to do some post-edits on.
As for video, the Note 20 Ultra offers the option to record in 8K (24fps) with a 21:9 aspect ratio. With its Pro Video mode feature, you can shoot up to 120fps and tweak things like exposure, lighting, audio, zoom speed, and more. You can also record multiple audio sources, select the output, and even cut out background noise.
While I didn’t find a use case to shoot such intense video footage, I did test out the selfie camera to see whether it’d be a good vlogging alternative to a DSLR.
Here’s my sad attempt at vlogging for the day, at which point, I forgot to record any additional footage after getting to my destination.
Based on both video quality and mic quality, I was really pleased with how it looked and sounded. So much so, that I’d prefer it to filming with the iPhone 11 Pro’s selfie camera.
Can’t forget that Space Zoom
Of course, I didn’t forget about the Space Zoom feature that I have yet to find a use for other than… spying on people.
As with the 100x zoom on the S20 Ultra, I found that 50x zoom produced images that were recognizable but simply unusable.
Here’s an example of what it looks like:
Here is a couple I spied on who were probably just trying to enjoy their dinner. I’m very sorry to this couple.
And now, here’s the Space Zoom feature used to its fullest:
Look, it’s definitely very grainy, but it’s still impressive that I managed to capture what they were eating and drinking from that far away. Regardless, it’s still not crystal clear enough for me to want to show off images of this quality.
Much like the S20 Ultra, the Note 20 Ultra has motion-stabilizing AI software that helps you balance out the shot. There’s also a little grid that appears in the corner of the screen to help you pinpoint your subject from so far away. But it’s really sensitive at times, so you might want to carry around a tripod if you have shaky hands.
Then there’s optical zoom, which uses the 12-megapixel telephoto lens to zoom in on a subject up to 5x.
Here’s an example:
The top image is where I was originally standing at 1.0x on the camera.
At 5x optical zoom, the shot is definitely a lot more clear than what you see with the digital zoom above.
Excellent performance and battery life
Under the hood of the Note 20 Ultra is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 875+ processor, the latest from the chipset manufacturer. I can’t say there’s a huge difference between the Snapdragon 875 and 875+ as far as everyday use on the Ultra, but swiping and navigating the device does feel slightly less sluggish in comparison.
The chipset does enable 5G connectivity though, complete with support for both , which is the slower of the two bands, and mmWave for the quicker speeds. Since I’m currently in a suburb of New Jersey during this very long quarantine, I don’t have access to 5G speeds to test. But that’s very likely the case for a lot of us now since 5G won’t be easily available for another couple of years.
As for storage configurations, the Note 20 Ultra comes with 12GB of RAM and the option to pair that with either 128GB or 512GB of storage. The first configuration will set you back $1,300, while the second brings the price up to $1,450.
For comparison, that’s only slightly less expensive than the S20 Ultra which starts at $1,400 for the 12GB/128GB model and $1,600 for 16GB/512GB.
When it comes to battery life, the Note 20 Ultra packs a very large 4,500mAh battery that I can confirm is very tough to drain. I’m not sure if it’s because I mainly rely on my laptop while quarantining at home, but I did struggle to reach a low-battery indicator with this thing.
Without fail, I was able to get through an entire day and also through parts of the following morning before having to charge the Note 20 Ultra back up again. On days where I took the phone around to test the camera, I had to charge it by the end of the day. But since it also comes with a 25W charger in the box, the phone would be fully charged up in under an hour.
So, what’s the difference between the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra?
It might not seem like it at first glance, but there are actually a lot of notable differences between the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra.
The Note 20 features a smaller 6.7-inch display with a 60Hz refresh rate, which sounds like a significant downgrade from 120Hz, but I promise it won’t impact your experience all that much. It also doesn’t feel as premium, given that it’s made of a mix of plastic and metal.
Then, there are the cameras. The Note 20 Ultra features a 108-megapixel sensor, while the Note 20 has a smaller 64-megapixel camera. Additionally, the plan Note 20’s zoom capabilities aren’t as impressive, with only up to 30x zoom possible using Space Zoom.
But, having reviewed both the S20 Ultra and the S20, which share similar specs to the Note 20 Ultra and Note 20, I can assure you the standard Note 20 is more than enough to use as your daily driver if the Ultra is a little too over your budget.
The Note 20 doesn’t need to be “Ultra”
Samsung’s Note 20 Ultra checks off all the right boxes. It has excellent performance, long-lasting battery life, and a beautiful design that merits its $1,300 price tag. But that doesn’t mean it’s a worthy investment.
Its features just aren’t all that exciting, seeing as how Samsung simply transferred the same specs from its S20 lineup to the Note 20. Given that the company specifically jumped from “Note 10” to “Note 20” to represent a full-blown revamp of its phones, I’d expected Samsung to somehow more aggressively differentiate the two lines.
The only feature that sets the Note 20 Ultra apart here is the S-Pen, which feels obsolete and forced. Unless, that is, you’re upgrading from a previous Note device or are the type of person that constantly doodles. But at that point, may I simply suggest purchasing a tablet?
Rather than release this “ultra” device with all its high-end specs, I would’ve preferred Samsung had offered a “plus” version of the Note 20 instead. You know, as it’s done for the last couple of years with its Note 9 and Note 10 series.
Instead, we’re forced to choose between two extremes: the large, expensive, and shiny Note 20 Ultra with its more impressive features or the smaller, cheaper, subtler Note 20 that might make you feel like you’re settling.
A middle ground would’ve been nice, Samsung.