Samsung has settled into a new routine for its Galaxy Note line of smartphones: take some of the major new features from the flagship Galaxy S updates from earlier in the year, improve on them slightly, and add a stylus. Instead of being the first with new technology, the Note has become the phone that refines it.
If there is something new for Samsung’s routine, it’s this new “Ultra” moniker at the end of its flagship S and Note phones. We’re used to phones coming in small and big, but now Samsung wants to introduce yet another tier. Near as I can tell, what “Ultra” mostly means is going all-out on every possible spec and making the camera bump gigantic. Samsung has long felt the likes of OnePlus and Huawei (at least until this year) nipping at its heels, and the Ultra tier of its phones is Samsung’s answer to anybody who thinks it can’t make the highest-level Android phone.
Ultra also means ultra-pricey, as the Note 20 Ultra starts at $1,299.99 for a model with 128GB of storage. You can bump that all the way up to 512GB for $1,449.99.
There are lots of great things about routines: they are predictable, they allow you to build up skills, they are comfortable and familiar. But they can also lead you to fall into a rut. The Note 20 Ultra avoids that trap, fortunately — not because it has new ideas, but because it does such a good job with the same old ones.
There’s no one thing I can point at to explain what makes the Note 20 Ultra such a good phone. But there are a lot of little things.
Galaxy Note 20 Ultra hardware
The Note 20 Ultra is a huge phone with a 6.9-inch screen. It’s so big that I want to bring back the term “phablet” just to describe it. That’s because it’s large enough to cross some hazy line where it begins to feel like a little tablet instead of a large phone. Normally, I reach for my Kindle when I want to read an ebook or a Switch when I want a portable game machine, but the screen on the Note 20 Ultra is big enough that I never felt like I needed either.
The Note 20 Ultra’s most prominent hardware feature is a promontory. It has this massive, mesa-like camera bump on the back that houses the three cameras, a laser focus sensor, and the flash. It’s not just that it’s huge, it’s that it juts straight out of what is otherwise a vast, flat expanse of phone.
Camera bump aside, I don’t think anybody is designing nicer phone hardware right now than Samsung. The Galaxy S20 is my favorite phone hardware of the year so far because it has the cleanest lines. The Note 20 Ultra doesn’t quite rise to that level because of the camera bump, but it’s an otherwise flawless execution of what I expect a Note to be.
That means it has a big screen, yes, but it also means that it has squared-off corners, minimal bezels, and is symmetrical front to back. Samsung has a new finish on the back that’s matted instead of glossy. That hides fingerprints, but it (counterintuitively) makes the phone a little more slippery. Samsung is highlighting the bronze color this year, and for good reason: it’s beautiful.
One other oddity: the S Pen stylus silo is on the left-hand side of the phone instead of the right. As a righty, I find it a little off-putting. But I figure it’s time leftys had something swing their way.
Note 20 Ultra screen and specs
There aren’t a lot of surprises with the Note 20 Ultra when it comes to its specs or performance. The screen, in particular, is excellent. It’s big, obviously, but all of the little technical details are spot-on. The color accuracy, viewing angles, and brightness are all superb; I had no problem using it outside in bright, direct sunlight. It’s a quad HD + OLED at 496ppi, supporting HDR10+ and a few different color options. It’s also using Corning’s latest, stupidly named Gorilla Glass “Victus.”
But the reason the screen is so great isn’t the resolution or the glass; it’s the refresh rate. It can hit 120Hz, and — in a first for Samsung — it’s a variable refresh rate. The screen dynamically adjusts based on what’s being displayed and can ratchet all the way down to 10Hz if nothing’s moving.
Maximalists will likely sneer at the fact that Samsung won’t let you simultaneously set the maximum resolution and the high refresh rate at the same time, but I don’t care, and I can’t see the difference in resolution anyway. The trade-off is better battery life, and the battery life on the Note 20 Ultra is excellent.
I’m regularly getting through two days of use. Even if I push this thing super hard by shooting 8K video and playing streaming games, it still clocks in around six hours of screen time and doesn’t need to be plugged in until I sleep.
The battery life out of that 4,500mAh cell is all the more impressive because it’s powering a lot. The Note 20 Ultra has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ processor, which has a separate modem for 5G (an extra power draw). There’s 12GB of RAM — enough to multitask — and the usual assortment of other Samsung specs: in-screen ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, wireless and reverse wireless charging, expandable storage, stereo speakers, Bluetooth 5, NFC, MST, IP68 water resistance, wireless DeX over Miracast.
Samsung even tossed in a UWB radio just like the iPhone — and just like the iPhone, it seems like it’s here more as a braggy spec sheet checkbox than as an actually useful feature.
It supports both sub-6 and mmWave versions of 5G, and I continue to believe that 5G is still not worth the price premium it commands. Where I live, I find that, at best, it’s only 10 to 20 percent faster than LTE. And in some rare cases, it’s actually slower than LTE.
Overall, general performance on the Note 20 Ultra is top-notch. Apps never seem to close in the background, stutters are nonexistent, and the refresh rate on the screen makes everything feel that much smoother.
The S Pen and Samsung software
There is one spec that is genuinely impressive: Samsung has reduced the latency on the S Pen stylus. It’s down to 9ms (80 percent faster than the Note 10) through a combination of faster processing, a higher refresh rate screen, and some predictive machine learning that can intuit where the stylus is going ahead of time.
It’s impressive because it’s tangible: latency when drawing and writing with the S Pen is the best I’ve ever seen on a phone. The virtual ink flows right out from the stylus tip with nary a gap.
Generally speaking, my advice when it comes to the Note is this: if you definitely want a stylus, your only choice is a Note. If you don’t know if you want a stylus, you probably don’t. It’ll just be a thing that you use a few times and then forget about.
I have always been in the latter camp. After a day or two, I just don’t bother with the S Pen. But this year, I found myself using it a ton. It’s not because of the latency, and it’s certainly not because of Samsung’s silly “air actions” that let you wave the S Pen around like a magic wand remote control.
It’s because of Samsung Notes. I’m going to write a sentence now, and you’re probably not going to believe it. I can hardly believe it. But after a week or so with the Note 20 Ultra, I stand by it. Here we go.
Samsung Notes is the best notes app you can get on a phone.
Samsung’s notes app already does stuff that Apple Notes is just catching up to and Microsoft’s mobile OneNote app still can’t pull off, like letting you highlight your handwriting and copy it as plain text. It also lets you export out your notes (longhand or typed) to a Word doc, PowerPoint, plain text file, image, or a PDF.
Even if you never pull the S Pen out of its silo, the Samsung Notes app is well-designed, handling quick lists and longer notes equally well. It has just the right amount of text formatting, and this year, it added the ability to organize your notes into folders (finally).
But it’s when you use the S Pen that Samsung Notes really sings. Its handwriting recognition is as good as I’ve seen on any gadget — and, of course, your handwritten notes are searchable, too. New this year, Samsung Notes also (finally) can directly annotate PDFs.
If you write at an odd angle, you can tap a button to straighten your handwriting so it flows naturally down the screen. That seems like a silly thing, but it makes your notes much more readable. Notes also does the trick where it can record audio as you jot down notes so that you can go back later and tap on your jotting and hear what was said at that precise moment.
There is a problem with Samsung Notes, though: it’s only that good on the Note 20 Ultra itself. There is a desktop app (who knew?), but the truth is I wouldn’t trust most of my digital life to Samsung Notes unless I could get to everything in it more easily on other devices. Later this year, Samsung Notes will be able to one-way sync to Microsoft OneNote. I haven’t been able to test it yet, and it’s annoying that it isn’t a two-way sync, but it should help.
Samsung’s love affair with Microsoft is getting really serious this year. In addition to Notes’ one-way sync, reminders and tasks will sync both ways with Outlook. Later this year, Microsoft’s Your Phone app on Windows will allow you to mirror multiple apps at once from the Note.
Samsung is also pushing Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service. I’ve been using the beta, and it’s really good. Playing an Xbox game on the Note’s big (for a phone) screen feels completely natural. It’s a bigger screen than even my Switch Lite. Stadia is fine, too — but it won’t have Microsoft’s game library.
The rest of Samsung’s One UI version of Android is par for the Samsung course. Lately, Samsung has lost a bit of discipline when it comes to software design. The company is always tempted to lade on too many weird features and get you to use too many weird Samsungy services. The experience on the Note 20 suffers as a result. Inside Samsung’s own apps, you’ll sometimes run into gigantic banner ads; Samsung Health is particularly egregious. Dial it back, Sammy.
Also: Bixby. Instead of letting this poor excuse for a digital assistant languish any longer, Samsung needs to send Bixby to be with relatives in that farm upstate where it can live happily ever after.
The Note 20 Ultra camera
With a camera bump this big, you’d expect the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra to have an impressive camera system. It does — although the actual photos you get out of it aren’t always great. However, the important thing is that Samsung has largely recovered from the problems that beset the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
I think the Note 20 Ultra has a camera system that’s on par with the best phones out there, except for one part: Samsung biffed it with the selfie camera.
Here’s an example. I took the exact same selfie with a Note 20 Ultra and a Pixel 4. My boss Nilay Patel took one look at the Note’s photo and asked why it made me look like a ham. I hereby dub the Note 20 Ultra’s selfie camera the #Hamcam.
This is a terrible photo, and I have a bunch more like it, but I also have some that look darn good. I’m not sure how or why the camera decides to ham it up, either. Even if you turn off every face smoothing and filter option, Samsung’s selfie camera still applies something to clean up faces. I wish it didn’t because I know there’s a good camera in there somewhere.
The rest of the cameras fare much better. You get three cameras: a 12-megapixel ultrawide, a 12-megapixel telephoto with a periscope assembly, and a 108-megapixel main wide-angle. Let’s take them in order from simplest to most complicated.
Generally, the ultrawide sensor on any phone is the weakest of the bunch, and that’s the case here. However, the ultrawide on the Note 20 Ultra is better than that average. I’m pleased with the dynamic range, in particular, which is important for landscapes.
For the telephoto, Samsung went with its “folded” periscope system. So the sensor sits behind a set of mirrors that extends its real optical zoom range to 5x. Samsung also has this thing it calls “Space Zoom” that lets you combine the optical and digital zooms to get into 50x. Interestingly, the S20 Ultra has a higher megapixel count and offers 100x zoom, which means Samsung dialed it back for the Note.
Good. The S20 Ultra was never anything more than a parlor trick over, say, 15x zoom — but it was fairly impressive at 15x. The same applies to the Note 20 Ultra. Pinch all the way in to 50x, and you’re looking at something more akin to abstract art. But at 10x or so, it’s better than the iPhone 11 Pro and competitive with the Pixel 4. Those phones can’t zoom farther than that, but the Note 20 can, and I got decent results at 15 or even 20x.
Then there’s the main 108-megapixel camera. This sensor is Samsung’s own, and Samsung’s whole project with cameras this year is to make a generational leap over the Sony sensor-using competition by utilizing all of those megapixels.
Samsung stumbled out of the gate with the S20 Ultra, which had serious focusing problems that were only partially mitigated by a software update. The Note 20 Ultra has that update, but, more importantly, it also has a laser autofocus system. It’s a brute force hardware solution, but it works: close up, the focusing is much quicker and far more reliable than the S20 Ultra’s.
You can take 108-megapixel photos, but the reality is that you’ll almost never get enough added detail to be worth it. Better to stick with the default 12-megapixel images, the result of combining (known as “binning”) multiple pixels together. Those results are classic Samsung: good but sometimes a little oversmoothened and / or oversharpened.
Samsung has fallen a step behind the iPhone in terms of color and still hasn’t caught up to the Pixel in terms of detail, but I still think it’s ahead of most of the rest of the Android pack. Surprisingly, I found myself preferring the Note 20 Ultra’s low-light mode photos to the Pixel’s. In those cases, at least, Samsung’s penchant for smoothing made for a more pleasing image in extremely low light.
Finally: video. I am a much bigger fan of Samsung’s Pro Mode for video than I expected to be. Yes, there’s an 8K option in there, and yes, I think that outside anything but ideal conditions shooting simple subjects, you should stick to 4K or lower. But the interface for pro mode is clean and clear. And Samsung has added lots of microphone options, a relative rarity on phones. You can switch between the front mic, rear mic, or the omni mic. You can also plug in a USB-C mic or record off a Bluetooth headset.
It’s fair to call the Note 20 Ultra an iterative update. Doubly so: it’s a refinement of the same Note design that Samsung has been refining for half a decade, and internally, it’s a bunch of tweaks to the Galaxy S20 Ultra from earlier this year.
Beyond that inconsistent selfie camera and Samsung’s refusal to just kill off its Bixby digital assistant, there’s nothing in the Note 20 that I would send back to the drawing board. And though there’s no single big feature that is a must-have, there are lots of little things that made me remember how amazing smartphones can be.
I still can’t get over how good the experience of using the stylus in Samsung Notes is, if only because I’ve been trained by years of Samsung’s software overpromises. This time, it actually delivers. Streaming Xbox games on it is truly immersive and fun — and the battery has the stamina to hold up for hours of it. Even the gimmicky Space Zoom sometimes paid off.
If you have a Note 10 or even a Note 9, this isn’t a necessary upgrade for you. And if you don’t think you’ll use the stylus, there are less expensive options that give you many of the same benefits.
The Note 20 Ultra is a very ostentatious, flashy phone. But this year, it didn’t get a flashy update. It got what amounts to a spec bump (and a camera bump to match). But that’s enough to make it perhaps the best flagship Android phone you can buy right now. Even for a phone as big as this, that is no small thing.