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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review (hands on)

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is big, bold and very expensive. Here's the pros and cons so far.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review with S Pen
(Image: © Future)

Our Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the most versatile big-screen phone yet, making it best for power users who are willing to pay a premium.

For

  • Dynamic 6.9-inch 120Hz display
  • Smoother S Pen performance
  • Streams Xbox games
  • Powerful Snapdragon 865 plus chip
  • 108MP camera with laser auto focus

Against

  • Expensive
  • Camera bulge is quite large

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (starting at $1,299) could be the best big phone yet, and it packs a lot more premium features than the regular Galaxy Note 20. It boasts a bigger 6.9-inch display with a dynamic 120Hz refresh rate, a sharper 108MP camera with laser auto focus and a more responsive S Pen.

I've spent the last day using the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, and I'm really impressed by the display and the zoom capability of the camera. And while the new S Pen gestures are nifty, they require a learning curve.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra specs

Price: $1,299
OS: Android 10 with One UI 2.0
Display: 6.9-inch AMOLED (QHD; 120Hz)
CPU: Snapdragon 865 Plus
RAM: 12GB
Storage: 128GB, 512GB
Rear camera: 108MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP telephoto with 5x optical zoom (ƒ/3.0); 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2)
Front camera: 10MP (ƒ/2.2)
Battery: 4,500 mAh
Colors: Mystic Bronze, Mystic Black, Mystic White
Size: 6.48 x 3.04 x 0.32 inches
Weight: 7.33 ounces

The Note 20 Ultra also offers a bigger battery than the standard Note 20, more RAM and a microSD card slot. Just like the regular Galaxy Note 20, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra also has a fast Snapdragon 865 Plus processor, streams Xbox games and syncs your S Pen notes to the cloud. 

Still, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is $300 more than the regular Note 20 — and $1,300 is a lot of money to spend on any phone, especially in today’s climate. I've spent the last several days using the Note 20 Ultra, and here are my impressions so far. 

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra cheat sheet: What I think so far

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review size

(Image credit: Future)
  • The design makes the iPhone look boring: Samsung knows how to make sleek looking hardware. The Mystic Bronze finish on the Note 20 Ultra not only looks elegant but manages to give off a sheen without attracting lots of fingerprints.
  • The Note 20's S Pen feels super smooth: Samsung says that the Note 20's 9 ms response time and offer a pen-to-paper feel. Scribbling notes on this panel feels completely natural to the point I forget I'm writing on a screen.
  • This camera bulge is out of control: The camera patch on the back of the Note 20 Ultra protrudes a great deal from the chassis and props up the phone at an angle when placed on a table. 
  • But the Zoom camera is very impressive: I got in very close with the Note 20 Ultra's 5x optical zoom, putting my iPhone 11 Pro Max's 2x zoom to shame. And the digital zoom stayed steady up to 20x; it got shaky at 50x.
  • New S Pen tricks are satisfying yet gimmicky: My son got a kick out of seeing me perform some of the new Air Actions (like drawing a a quick arc in the air to go Home). But I m not sure if I would use these every day yet.
  • The 120Hz display is great: Scrolling feels like butter when you have the Adaptive motion smoothness setting turned on, but the jury is out on the toll on battery life.
  • Wireless DeX mode works (pretty) well: I managed to get the Note 20 Ultra to connect to my TCL Roku TV wirelessly and use the phone as a touchpad, although gaming was a bit jerky.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra release date and price

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra will ship on August 21 and will be available through all of the major carriers. The 128GB version of the Galaxy Note 20 costs $1,299. The 512GB version costs $1,449 — the same price Samsung charges for its Galaxy Z Flip 5G foldable phone. 

Pre-orders for the Galaxy Note 20 start August 6, and those who do pre-order the device can get a $150 Samsung Credit, which you can redeem on Samsung.com or the Shop Samsung app. You can put that credit toward anything from the Galaxy Watch 3 and Galaxy Buds Live earbuds to to Samsung TVs.

Wireless carriers have started announcing their own Galaxy Note 20 Ultra deals, which you can find in our guide on how to pre-order the Galaxy Note 20.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra design and colors

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review back

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a big phone with its 6.9-inch display, but it also has minimal bezels with Samsung’s trademark punch hole for the Infinity-O display. The back of the phone uses a new haze finish that’s designed to resist fingerprints, and you have your choice of three colors: Mystic Bronze, Mystic Black and Mystic White.

My review unit is the Mystic Bonze version, and it's a sophisticated looking finish, even if it's not as eye catching as the color-shifting Aura Glow hue on the Galaxy Note 10 Plus

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The camera housing on the back of the Note 20 Ultra kind of reminds me of brass knuckles — and not in a good way. My bigger issue is just how massive this camera patch is. It lifts the entire back of the phone when sitting on a desk or table.

Measuring 6.49 x 3.03 x 0.32 inches (164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1 mm) and weighing 7..3 ounces (208 grams), the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is not as big as the Galaxy S20 Ultra (6.6 x 2.7 x 0.34 inches and 7.7 ounces), but it’s still a handful compared to the Galaxy Note 10 Plus (6.4 x 3 x 0.31 inches and 6.9 ounces) which had a smaller 6.8-inch display. 

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra display

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review display

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The massive 6.9-inch OLED quad HD+ display on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is big, bold and colorful. More important, this is the first Samsung phone to offer a dynamic 120Hz refresh rate. 

The Galaxy S20 lineup introduced a faster refresh rate to Samsung phones, delivering smoother scrolling as well as better visuals, especially for games and movies. But it was a feature you had to manually adjust. With the Note 20 Ultra, the refresh rate automatically adjusts based on what content is on screen, which should save on battery life. 

When using the display I found scrolling to be super smooth and fast in Chrome with Adaptive mode turned on. You can always choose 60Hz manually if you want to save every last drop of juice.

There's more of curve to the Note 20 Ultra’s screen compared it the flat panel on the Note 20. Personally, I'm not a fan of the curved panel. It sometimes causes some text to be distorted, and it can also lead to accidental screen touches.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra cameras

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review camera

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra features a trio of rear cameras, plus a laser auto-focus sensor that should address one of our bigger complaints about the Galaxy S20 Ultra and its issues with focus.

The phablet's camera array starts with a 108MP wide camera with a a f/1.8 aperture, and it’s paired with a 12MP ultra-wide camera with a 120-degree field of view and f/2.2. The 12MP telephoto lens delivers a 5x optical zoom and up to a 50x super resolution zoom. 

I was immediately impressed with how close the 5x zoom get me to this dianthus flower without have to move the Note 20 Ultra right up to the flower bed. The the pink and white flower looks colorful, and there's a good amount of detail in the petals. 

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review camera sample

(Image credit: Future)

I also tired out the powerful Space Zoom on the Note 20 Ultra with this tree as the subject. As you can see in the gallery below, the results look fairly sharp all the way up to 10x zoom, but the 20x and especially the 50x shots look blurry. Still, this is better than what you get from the iPhone right now.

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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 1x zoom

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra no zoom (Image credit: Future)
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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 2x zoom

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 2x zoom (Image credit: Future)
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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5x zoom

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5x zoom (Image credit: Future)
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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 10x zoom

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 10x zoom (Image credit: Future)
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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 20x zoom

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 20x zoom (Image credit: Future)
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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 50x zoom

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 50x zoom (Image credit: Future)

My bigger concern is that some of the images have a haze to them while others do not. For these shots, the sun was behind me. 

I also tried out the Night mode on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, which can help illuminate the scene even in complete darkness. As you can see in this photo of decorations, the difference is literally night and day with Night mode on and off. 

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra's camera also turns out to be a formidable cooking and eating partner. It did an admirable job in this close-up of grilled corn drizzled with butter mixed with chili lime seasoning. 

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review camera sample

(Image credit: Future)

The next shot of steak looks even more appetizing. The Note 20 Ultra did an admirable job capturing the juice on top of the meat and the flames below while keeping everything in focus. 

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review camera sample food

(Image credit: Future)

If you want to record the sharpest video possible, you’ll be pleased to know that the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra can record 8K video with a 21:9 aspect ratio at up to 24 frames per second. There’s also a new Pro Video mode that lets you control the focus, exposure and zoom speed. Plus, you can use the onboard mics or external mics, such as the Galaxy Buds Live.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review selfie camera

(Image credit: Future)

The 12MP selfie camera up front (f/2.2) has a 120-degree field of view, which should come in handy for group selfies. in this selfie, the Note 20 Ultra did a great job capturing the lush green background at a nearby park, and the blue in my shirt really pops. However, my face looks a bit too smooth and a little washed out.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra specs and performance

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra should be one of the fastest Android phones around, as it’s one of the first handsets with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 Plus processor. This chipset boosts the clock speed by 10% up to 3.1 GHz and the graphics is also 10% faster than the regular Snapdragon 865 chip inside the Galaxy S20.

This processor is paired with 12GB of RAM and either 128GB or 512GB of internal storage. For $1,299, I wish the Ultra started with 256GB of storage, but at least you can expand it via microSD card slot by up to 1TB.

As you would expect for a premium flagship, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra supports both flavors of 5G, so you should be able to hop on both sub 6-GHz networks and mmWave networks with ease where they are available.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra S Pen

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra benefits from a swift 9ms response time for its S Pen, which is designed to deliver more of a pen-to-paper feel when taking notes or drawing.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review S Pen

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

In addition, the S Pen now offers five new Anywhere actions, which build on the Air Actions from the Galaxy Note 10 series. You can return to the home screen, take a screen shot, return to a recent app and more through various gestures. But it will likely take some practice before you can remember every gesture-based Anywhere action.

Other S Pen upgrades come on the software front. The improved Samsung Notes app now includes Live Sync so you can save all of your notes to the clouds and then access them from any device. Plus, the Note 20 Ultra is smart enough to time sync your notes along with voice recordings, so you can hear what was being said right when you scribbled down that thought. 

I tried recording a voice memo in the Samsung Notes app, and sure enough, I could see the words I wrote highlighted as I played back the clip. 

In addition, the Samsung Notes app now makes it easier to find your notes with a more PC-like file folder structure. The software can even straighten out your handwriting. 

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra battery life and charging

Equipped with a fairly large 4,500 mAh battery, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra should be able to last you through most of the day. We’re most curious to see how well this phone lasts on our battery life test given the dynamic nature of the phone's 120Hz display. With the 120Hz mode on, we saw a dramatic decrease in endurance on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, with the phone running out of power 3 hours faster than when we kept the display at a 60Hz refresh rate.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review S Pen

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

To juice back up, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra includes a 25W fast charger that should get you back to 50% capacity in 30 minutes. Samsung does not say if the Note 20 Ultra supports 45W charging, but it does support Fast Wireless Charging 2.0 if you have a wireless charger that goes 10W or higher.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is geared toward power users who are looking for a productivity boost, and this phone offers a couple of big upgrades on that front. 

Multitaskers will also appreciate the improved DeX experience, which is now completely wireless, instead of requiring you to use a cable or dock to connect to a monitor. Now you can beam what’s on your Galaxy Note 20 Ultra screen to a compatible smart TV from across the room; the TV needs to support Miracast, though.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra DeX mode gaming

(Image credit: Future)

After some tinkering I was able to get the Wireless DeX mode to work on my 55-inch TCL Roku TV. After connecting to the TV I could use the Note 20 Ultra's screen as a touchpad to move the cursor around the display. Although the movement was a bit jerky, I enjoyed being able to pull up pics from the Google Photos app and show them on the big screen. 

I also tried streaming the Asphalt 9 racing game to the TV, but the gameplay stuttered. The Note 20 Ultra delivered better performance when playing Fortnite; using a PS4 controller my 12-year-old son was able to play a match and make a couple of kills with not too much lag.

Another key upgrade is Link to Windows integration, which allows you to access mobile apps on your Windows 10 PC. This should make it easy to send messages, make calls, syncs photos and more from the best laptops and desktops. Samsung says that Link to Windows will eventually let you run up to six mobile apps on your PC at once.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Xbox Game Pass

Through the power of Microsoft’s xCloud game streaming, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra can play more than 100 Xbox games. Titles include Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, Minecraft Dungeons and Halo: The Master Chief collection. 

Xbox Game Pass costs $15 a month, but when you pair the Note 20 Ultra with a game controller it could feel like a mini console. And if you don’t, the Note 20 Ultra benefits from a 240Hz touch latency that the regular Note 20 doesn’t have.

The fun gets underway September 15 when the service kicks off, so we'll report back with impressions when we can. 

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Early verdict

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

It’s clear based on the features and specs that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a superior phone to the Galaxy Note 20. But is the more expensive phablet right for you? For my money, I would prefer this phone's bigger and smoother 120Hz display, more powerful zoom, better autofocus for the camera and more responsive S Pen. But I need to live with the phone a bit more to tell you whether it’s worth such a high sticker price.

If you don’t want a stylus, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra or Galaxy S20 Plus are both very good alternatives to Samsung's Galaxy Note series, as is the cheaper OnePlus 8 Pro. And if you want a big-screen 5G phone from Apple, a 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max should be on the way in a couple months with improved performance and cameras of its own. 

I will report back with more of my hands-on impressions on the Note 20 Ultra and an ultimate verdict. But right now I would say there's reason to be excited if you're a Galaxy Note fan.