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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: A noteworthy upgrade

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
1,179
inc VAT (£1,279 for 512GB)

Bigger screen, bigger battery and bigger price

Pros 
120Hz screen is a great new addition
Stunning new design
S Pen improvements
Cons 
Samsung’s priciest (non-folding) phone yet
Battery life could be better
Ugly camera housing
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The term “phablet” might not be used much in tech circles anymore, but Samsung’s work-friendly Galaxy Notes are still the first handsets that spring to mind when you think of big-screened smartphones. Despite outlasting the designation once used to define it, the Note is back once again, and this time around Samsung isn’t resting on its laurels when it comes to upgrades.

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Continuing the two-phone tradition it started last year, there are two models of Note 20 to mull over in 2020. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is primed to steal the limelight this year, since it’s where you’ll find all the extra bells and whistles. Just be prepared to spend the most you’ve ever had to spend on a (non-folding) Samsung phone to date. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: What you need to know

Considering how much Samsung wants you to pay for one, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra represents the very pinnacle of Samsung’s Android achievements thus far. No stone has been left unturned, it seems, with Samsung throwing in a handful of high-end upgrades that were initially introduced in the Galaxy S-series of phones earlier in the year.

That list includes Samsung’s most up-to-date flagship processor, the Exynos 990, as well as a 6.9in 120Hz screen, a 108-megapixel camera (accompanied by wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses) and 5G as standard. Since this is a Note device, too, the S Pen returns with a handful of new features, along with DeX mode, Samsung’s desktop-like interface which now supports wireless screen mirroring.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Price and competition

Let’s get it over with: the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is very, very expensive. Starting at a lofty £1,179 for the 256GB model and rising to £1,279 for 512GB, the Note 20 Ultra costs £179 more than the Note 10 Plus did last year.

Phones that cost this much are becoming increasingly hard to justify. Launching during a global recession – blamed in part due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – consumers are keeping a more watchful eye on their bank balance. After all, why spend over a grand for your next phone when you can simply buy a Galaxy A21s (£169) instead?

Still, at least the Note 20 Ultra isn’t quite as costly as the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Apple’s top-end flagship starts at £1,024, but this is for the basic 64GB model – the 256GB variant is £1,174 and the 512GB model is an eye-watering £1,374. The iPhone 11 Pro Max doesn’t have space for a microSD card, though, nor does it come with a bundled stylus.

The Huawei P40 Pro Plus isn’t cheap either. Costing £1,300, this is the least appealing of the three phones since it only runs a stripped-back version of Android that lacks Google’s core suite of Android apps (amongst other software restrictions). Huawei’s own App Gallery has its own app alternatives, of course, but that list is rather limited.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Design and key features

Design-wise, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra lives up to its moniker. As you can probably tell from the images dotted around this review, it looks like an especially large handset with monstrous physical dimensions. It’s certainly up there in size terms, but I never really had to worry about dropping it, even when I moved from the comparatively dainty iPhone 11.

Looks can be deceiving, since, despite the increase in screen size, it's actually not much bigger than last year’s Note 10. Measuring 77mm wide, 165mm tall and 8.1mm thick, the Note 20 Ultra is roughly the same size as the iPhone 11 Pro Max, and it doesn’t feel overly bulky either, weighing 208g. Unlike the regular Note 20, it also has curved sides which squeeze more comfortably into your palm.

The Note 20 Ultra’s 6.9in screen absolutely dominates the first impression. A neat hole-punch notch can be found at the top-centre portion of the display, which houses the 10-megapixel selfie camera, and it also has some of the skinniest bezels I’ve ever seen on a handset.

Flip the phone over, though, and we encounter the first of Samsung’s aesthetic missteps. The rectangular camera housing, which sits in the top-left corner, is quite unsightly. It takes up a lot of space, increases the weight of the top portion of the handset, and protrudes a noticeable 4mm. I’m also not a huge fan of the harsh-edged top and bottom sides of the phone, and I can’t imagine many people will be pleased with the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack either.

Still, the remaining space that hasn’t been taken over by the rear camera array is quite lovely. There are three elegant colour choices with a fingerprint-friendly frosty finish to chew over this year: ‘Mystic Black’, ‘Mystic White’ and my personal favourite, ‘Mystic Bronze’, which was sent to me for review.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: S Pen and software

Naturally, the S Pen returns, although its interior housing has switched sides and is now in the bottom-left corner instead. There are a few minor upgrades this year, most notably when it comes to writing precision – the Note 20’s S Pen has a speedy 9ms latency, which is a 40% improvement over last year’s model. There are five new waggle-like gestures, too, including a feature which allows you to shake the S Pen to take a screenshot, and then directly annotate it if you wish.

If, like me, you have wonky handwriting, then the phone’s note-taking software is now able to straighten your words and you can also attach voice recordings to your notes, allowing you to read and listen at the same time. Other work-friendly improvements include a PC-like folder and sub-folder structure, deeper Windows integration, auto-saves to the cloud and wireless DeX (Samsung’s “Desktop Experience”, first introduced with the Galaxy S8) functionality with any TV or monitor that supports screen-mirroring.

As for play, both Note 20 phones are among the first to support Microsoft’s Project xCloud game-streaming service. So long as you have an active Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription (both phones come with a three-month pass), then you will be able to stream and play over 100 Xbox games when the service launches in September. You will have to pair a compatible Bluetooth controller in order to play these games, however.

Before I continue, did I mention that there was absolutely no mention of Bixby at the launch event? Samsung’s naff digital assistant was notably absent from the official presentation, and the dedicated Bixby button on the side of the phone has quietly been removed, too.

Make of that what you will, but I reckon Samsung is quietly sweeping Bixby under the carpet, and it may be about to take an involuntary redundancy from Samsung’s repertoire of services. Perhaps this is the last time we see Bixby? Those rumours about the upcoming Google Assistant integration might actually be true, it seems.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Display

Moving on. Not only does the Note 20 Ultra benefit from the largest-ever screen on a Note handset, but it’s also the first Note with a buttery-smooth 120Hz refresh rate.

The caveat, however, is that you can’t enable the 120Hz setting at the phone’s native screen resolution of 3,088 x 1,440. Instead, like the Galaxy S20, you have to dip the resolution down to FHD+ in the phone’s display settings. The regular Note 20, which costs £330 less, doesn’t have this problem, of course, since it only uses a simple 60Hz panel.

The screen itself is a Dynamic AMOLED jobby which also supports HDR10+ content. There are two display modes to choose from, with the phone’s ‘Natural’ profile being the most accurate of the two in terms of colour reproduction. In this mode, the Note 20 Ultra was capable of producing 93.7% of the sRGB colour space, with a total volume of 95.2% and an average Delta E (colour accuracy) of 3.3.

It’s bright, too, with a measured peak luminance of 688cd/m² with the auto-brightness setting engaged, which is more than enough to ensure that the screen is readable in sunny conditions. Likewise, HDR 10+ content on Netflix, Prime Video and YouTube looks sublime, with deep, rich colours and boosted highlights in darker scenes.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Performance and battery life

The Note 20 Ultra is powered by Samsung’s latest in-house flagship chipset, the Exynos 990, or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 Plus equivalent if you happen to live in the US. This speedy octa-core processor has a maximum clock speed of 2.73GHz, and it proved to be a very capable performer in our benchmarking tests.

It stormed through our usual suite of benchmarking apps, and I found the Exynos 990 to be roughly 32% faster in multi-core processing than the previous generation Exynos 9825, which powered the Galaxy Note 10. It’s no surprise that the Note 20 Ultra finds itself among the very best in the market when it comes to raw speed potential, but you’d certainly hope so considering the price.

Gaming performance is equally rapid. The 120Hz screen really comes into play here, with the on-screen GFXBench Manhattan 3 test resulting in an average frame rate of 94fps. Provided the app supports it, of course, you should expect to reach above 60fps in a wide variety of titles.

Elsewhere, there’s a healthy 12GB of RAM for multitasking, as well as either 256GB or 512GB of internal storage. While the vanilla Note 20 doesn’t have expandable storage, the Ultra model has a microSD slot which can take cards up to 1TB in capacity.

The Note 20 Ultra also has a larger battery, at 4,500mAh, with support for 25W charging speeds – the Note 20 Ultra can charge up to 50% from empty in just 30 minutes. In our video rundown test, it lasted 18hrs 26mins at native screen resolution, before needing to recharge. Interestingly, if you dial the resolution down to FHD+ but increase the refresh rate to 120Hz, then the Note 20 Ultra’s stamina is decreased by roughly 14%.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Cameras

The Ultra’s camera offering is also slightly different to the regular model, most notably when it comes to ‘Space Zoom’. Both phones have a triple-camera array at the rear, but the regular Note 20’s telephoto unit can only hybrid zoom up to 30x, while the more expensive Note 20 Ultra is capable of zooming up to 50x.

In a practical sense, this discrepancy is hardly worth buying the more expensive phone for, in my opinion. Where the Note 20 Ultra does beat its Note 20 stablemate is with its massive 108-megapixel main camera unit – which works with the aforementioned 12-megapixel zoom sensor and a 12-megapixel ultra-wide snapper.

Like the Galaxy S20, the Note 20 Ultra can capture video at up to 8K resolution, although you will have to drop the resolution down to 4K if you want to record at 60fps. Samsung has also updated the camera software and you can now enable an on-screen histogram, as well as audio level indicators. The zoom slider has also been improved, and you can now tinker with multi-source mic controls, if you decide to pair the phone with a Bluetooth mic – like the new Galaxy Buds Live.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Verdict

The Note 20 Ultra is the culmination of Samsung’s bi-annual flagship launches, and it’s pretty much everything you could ask of a modern flagship. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a rapid performer, but it also takes great pictures, its screen is an absolute delight, and its software experience is as equally refined as the Galaxy S20’s too.

But there is one major sticking point, and that’s the high launch price. Starting at £1,179, the Note 20 Ultra is leg-shakingly expensive, and I can’t imagine many of these will be flying off the (virtual) shop shelves.

Indeed, other than the three months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, there aren’t any freebies to help sweeten the deal if you haven’t preordered either, and I reckon Samsung should at least throw in a free pair of Galaxy Buds Live to somewhat justify the expense of the top-end model.

Still, the Note 20 Ultra doesn’t necessarily need a handout, and there are plenty of laissez-faire individuals who simply want the very best they can get their hands on, despite how much it might cost to get it. If you’re in that camp, then the Note 20 Ultra is more than capable of standing up on its own as the Android smartphone to beat in 2020.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra specifications
ProcessorOcta-core Samsung Exynos 990 (2x2.73GHz, 2x2.5GHz, 4x2GHz)
RAM12GB
Screen size6.9in
Screen resolution3,088 x 1,440
Pixel density494ppi
Screen typeDynamic AMOLED
Front camera10MP (f/2.2)
Rear camera108MP (f/1.8), 12MP (f/3.0) zoom, 12MP (f/2.2) wide
FlashLED
Dust and water resistanceIP68
3.5mm headphone jackNo
Wireless chargingYes
USB connection typeUSB-C
Storage options256GB; 512GB
Memory card slot (supplied)microSD (1TB)
Wi-Fi802.11ax
Bluetooth5
NFCYes
Cellular data5G, 4G
Dual SIMYes (shared with microSD)
Dimensions (WDH)165 x 77 x 8.1mm
Weight208g
Operating systemAndroid 10 (One UI 2.5)
Battery size4,500mAh

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