Smartphones have reached a bit of a plateau over the past few years, with mainstream flagships essentially just trying to surpass each other in getting closer and closer to perfection. With its Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Samsung improves on what’s been an excellent formula with the Galaxy Note 10 and S20 series and crafts a phone that is truly excellent. It’s just hitting the market at completely the wrong time.

HARDWARE & DESIGN |

Big and bold

When it comes to the physical design of the Galaxy Note series, Samsung has always gone for a boxy, industrial design. In recent years, that’s meant keeping the curved edges on the display, having sharp-ish corners on all four sides, and pulling some basic design ideas from the Galaxy S lineup that debuts earlier in the year.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra does exactly that. It takes the unapologetically big size of the Galaxy S20 Ultra and it’s huge camera bump and squares off the corners and rounds off the display. On paper it sounds weird, but in practice, it looks gorgeous. I especially like the flat top and bottom portions of the phone which really help make the design stand out.

That’s helped by the Mystic Bronze color which is simple, but unique at the same time. It also has a slick matte coating that finally hides fingerprint smudges that constantly build up on the back of glass phones. Samsung has been using glossy backs for a while, and I’m so glad the Note 20 Ultra is finally starting to change that trend. It’s just a shame the Mystic Black and Mystic White colors stick with glossy backs.

Really, the Note 20 Ultra’s hardware is just a matter of if you love it, you really love it, but the polar opposite is entirely possible too. This is far from my favorite smartphone design, mainly because it has curved edges on the display, but this design is striking, especially on the display.

DISPLAY |

Stunning, but with one annoying quirk

The front of the Note 20 Ultra houses a massive 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED QHD+ display. It’s sharp, it’s vibrant, and it has super slim bezels that make you feel like you’re basically holding only a screen.

Put simply, this is perhaps the best display on a smartphone today. Samsung is absurdly good at making smartphone panels at this point, and the Note 20 Ultra just reinforces that point.

On top of the plain quality of the display, it also has a 120Hz refresh rate which makes everything feel very smooth. Samsung is also debuting an “Adaptive Refresh Rate” display with this phone that changes the refresh rate depending on what you’re doing to help save battery life. In practice, I’ve never been able to actually notice the change in day-to-day use. Compared to the S20+, too, it really does feel as though there’s a noticeable impact on battery life for the better.

For me, though, the problem is just that the display is curved on the side rails. This is a frankly pointless trend that Samsung finally ditched on the Galaxy S20 series. Now, it’s back and as bad as ever. It still causes annoying reflections and, worse, causes problems with touch rejection. When typing especially, I often hit a key on the edges of the display because the touch rejection is just so bad. This is a display that absolutely demands a case — I’ve been using one from Spigen — otherwise you’ll have random touches frustrate you daily. It’s such a shame to have to deal with this on what is, again, the best display on a smartphone today.

SOFTWARE & PERFORMANCE |

In a word, powerful

Like the rest of Samsung’s portfolio, Android is out of the box on Note 20 Ultra. This time around it’s Android 10 with OneUI 2.5 on top and, well, it’s pretty decent! Samsung’s software has some unfortunate hiccups here or there, but for the most part, it’s a well-thought-out, clean Android skin that has a lot of useful features.

New to the Galaxy Note 20 are two core features. The first, some improvements to Samsung Notes. The app which helps give Samsung’s phablet its name has been one of the best note-taking apps out there for a while, and it’s only improved with these latest updates. On Note 20 Ultra, Samsung introduces the ability to export your handwritten notes to PDF, OneNote, Word, and other file types as well as converting them to plain text for sharing wherever you want. Samsung can also straighten out your notes to make it easier to read. It’s legitimately impressive stuff that makes the S Pen a very valuable tool for getting things done.

On top of that, Samsung is also supercharging DeX on the Note 20 Ultra by making it go wireless. Presumably coming to other phones eventually, DeX on Note 20 works completely wirelessly. Just tap the icon and the Note will search for nearby smart TVs that are compatible. That includes just about every smart TV from the past few years, including those uber-popular TCL Roku TVs (and Roku set-top boxes, too). This works shockingly well, though the performance depends on your connection and hardware. I wouldn’t expect to use it for games (except maybe with a controller), but it’ll do the trick well for sharing pictures or slideshows from an app on your phone.

Samsung’s software also delivers a ton of other features that are just hard not to find useful. Scrolling screenshots, a built-in screen recorder, pop-out app resizing, and more are features I don’t get on my daily-driver Pixel 4 XL that are sometimes really useful on this large canvas. As a Windows user, I also very much appreciate the tight integration Samsung and Microsoft have been working on over the past year. Link to Windows can do a lot with Note 20 Ultra, but admittedly I haven’t really found myself using it. It just doesn’t help my personal workflow very much, but it might be a perfect fit for yours. When I did briefly test it out, I didn’t run into any problems.

On the software front, though, there’s one huge gripe I can’t ignore that Samsung would probably prefer I overlook. No, it’s not Bixby.

Samsung is starting to get ridiculous with advertisements on OneUI. Random Samsung apps throughout the phone show ads such as the pre-installed weather app and even the dialer. Then, there are push notifications that arrive trying to get you to buy other Samsung gear or devices. Just spent $1,300 on a smartphone? Samsung might advertise that very phone to you and, in a few months, you’ll be bombarded with ads for their next device.

An ad for a $1,000 phone on a brand new $1,300 phone is not OK

On cheap devices, ads aren’t uncommon and, frankly, they’re fine. Ads can legitimately help subsidize the cost of hardware and, in turn, give you more for your money. Once you hit flagship territory, though, these ads simply shouldn’t exist in first-party software. There’s literally no excuse for Samsung to be pushing ads on a $1,300 smartphone. Yes, there’s a setting to turn the ads off, but it doesn’t actually stop all of them. This practice is ridiculous and, really, I don’t think Samsung will stop until its customers vote against it with their wallets.

Despite those annoying ads, it’s hard to ignore how fast and fluid the software feels. Performance on this phone is absolutely stellar. This is easily one of the fastest smartphones I’ve used this year, perhaps even faster than the OnePlus 8 Pro that previously held that title. Plus, Samsung doesn’t aggressively kill my background apps unlike OnePlus.

That killer performance is thanks to the Snapdragon 865+ and 12GB of RAM. The beefed-up processor is only slightly more powerful than what the regular 865 delivered in the S20 earlier this year, but Note 20 feels even faster than that should allow for. Samsung must have done some serious optimization in the background because this feels like the company’s fastest smartphone to date by a long shot. Seriously, good job Samsung. It’s also a plus that the upgraded chip makes the Note 20 Ultra feel like a legitimate upgrade from the S20 line.

The unfortunate asterisk on that, though, is that Samsung is still only using Qualcomm’s chips in some regions. You’ll get a Snapdragon 865+ in the States, but overseas in Europe and some other global regions, the Exynos 990 is the name of the game. That’s still a fine, capable chip, but the differences in performance and battery life are real. Considering this phone often costs even more in regions with that less impressive chip, a lot of Note users are justified in feeling shortchanged on this device.

S PEN |

Virtually indistinguishable from a real pen

The S Pen is the stylus that gives the Galaxy Note line its name and, frankly, its following. This is the only device that offers this feature, and a ton of people are basically addicted to it. Every year, Samsung tries to improve the pen by adding new software features or slight changes to the design.

With the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Samsung’s S Pen is making its biggest leap in years and it’s something that will tempt most Note owners to get this device. That upgrade comes in the form of the latency which has been reduced to a crazy 9ms. That’s the same latency as the Apple Pencil which has been the gold standard for a little while.

With latency that low — made possible in part by the 120Hz display — the human eye genuinely can’t see the gap between the pen and the onscreen lines it draws. It’s impressive to say the least and really sells the illusion that you’re using a real pen.

Further selling that illusion is the new tip which, when touching the glass, feels more natural. It has just the right amount of resistance to feel like you’re drawing on paper.

With Note 10 last year, Samsung experimented with some air gestures and those have been expanded on the Note 20 Ultra. Frankly, though, this feature is just a total gimmick. It makes for a cool party trick but, hey, in the era of COVID who’s going to parties anyway?

CAMERA |

A prime example of Samsung learning from complaints

When I reviewed the Galaxy S20 series earlier this year, I was borderline disgusted from the camera situation. While everyone else was improving drastically, Samsung felt as though it was stagnant and, in the case of the S20 Ultra, almost regressing. With Note 20 Ultra, Samsung has addressed most of my complaints and created what might just be the best overall smartphone camera on the market.

The back of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a 108MP primary shooter, 12MP ultrawide camera, and a 12MP periscope zoom lens. That primary sensor was a disaster on the S20 Ultra, but some optimization and the arrival of a new laser autofocus system on the Note has helped deliver a primary camera that can better compete with the likes of Google and Apple. Shots from this sensor outdoors are simply stunning, at least in most scenarios. The shots are detailed and have vivid colors that aren’t overdone like Samsung often has a tendency to do. The new autofocus system, too, helps Samsung fix the dreadful issues that plagued this same sensor on the S20 Ultra. That just shows Samsung is actually listening to complaints from its users and these reviews.

Beyond that primary camera, the zoom and ultrawide sensors help round out a killer shooting experience. Ultrawide shots are still of solid quality and the 5x optical zoom can produce some really good shots that software alone simply can’t recreate. Head past that point with caution, though, things quickly fall apart afterwards, especially when hitting the 50x limit.

Samsung also deserves credit for video quality. Stabilization is great and clarity is really good too. For Android, this is perhaps the best video quality I’ve seen. Samsung has also added an extensive Pro Video mode that allows users to adjust settings like they might with a proper video camera. The most exciting part, however, is the ability to use a pair of Bluetooth headphones as a microphone remotely. For a generation obsessed with TikTok and YouTube, that’s a genuinely useful feature.

BATTERY LIFE |

Good, but not very “Ultra”

For a long time, the Galaxy Note line was known for stellar battery life, but that reputation has started to ebb away with recent releases. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, by its name alone, implies it would be rock solid in such a simple department, but it’s not exactly amazing.

The 4,500 mAh battery in this phone is fine. For my not-too-heavy usage, it easily lasts a day with around 3-4 hours of screen time and by bedtime, it’s usually got 40-50% remaining. For my use, this could sometimes be a two-day device. I’d bet most people, though, will find that the Note is a one-day device for them. It’ll probably last till the end of the day, but if you’re an especially heavy user, it may not even last that long.

On the bright side, fast charging is still around. The 45W spec from Note 10 is gone, but 25W charging over USB-C is on board with a fast charger in the box and wireless charging as well. There’s also reverse wireless charging for giving some power to accessories, but given the not-so-stellar power pack, this isn’t going to be used by everyone.

LITTLE THINGS |

Speakers

Like every smartphone with tiny bezels, Galaxy Note 20 Ultra puts its primary speaker along the bottom of the phone. It has a single, honestly pretty small grill and is backed up by a boosted earpiece. It sounds pretty much OK. There’s nothing especially impressive being done here, but there’s also nothing really worth complaining about.

Fingerprint Sensor

In the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Samsung is using its same ultrasonic fingerprint sensor which is nested under the AMOLED display that it’s had since the Galaxy S10 in 2019. It’s still not as fast as a capacitive sensor or a speedy optical in-display one, but for the first time, I’m not annoyed by it.

Perhaps it’s the larger size, perhaps it’s the fact that the Galaxy S20+ was my daily driver for a considerable portion of this year, but I don’t really have any major complaints about the fingerprint sensor here. It just works.

FINAL THOUGHTS |

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a genuinely great phone. Arguably, it’s Samsung’s best phone. With a $1,300 price tag, it’s not a totally insane ask either — though, let’s be real, few phones are actually worth over $1,000.

However, this is just not the time for a phone this expensive to be hitting the market, and the proof is everywhere.

Based on some of the most recent reports, Samsung saw sales of its Galaxy S20 series to be 59% lower than the Galaxy S10 before it. That’s part of a continual drop we’ve seen, but clearly people don’t want to pay for expensive smartphones right now. Why? There’s a global pandemic going on which has millions of people out of work and many, many more in financial uncertainty. For most people, now is not the time to buy a phone this expensive, no matter how much they love the Galaxy Note series. The $200 jump over the Note 10+, too, isn’t easy to just take. Most people would much rather look at affordable devices like the Galaxy A51 and Pixel 4a which deliver most of what the Note 20 Ultra does for literally $1,000 less.

Now, Samsung couldn’t have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, nor could that stop the launch once things were in development. Still, the outcome here is inevitable. Many people who want this phone simply won’t be able to buy it, and that’s a shame because it’s genuinely great. If you have the means to pick up a Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, it’s a solid choice, especially if you can take advantage of the excellent trade-in values. Better yet, wait for the inevitable sales that will take a chunk off of this ultra-high price tag.

Buy Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

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