The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (from $1,299) is still the phone to get if you want a handset with a stylus. Yes, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra supports the S Pen, but it comes separately and requires an awkward case to store it.
But is the Note 20 Ultra worth the ultra-premium price? After thoroughly testing this big-screen phone, I'd say the answer is yes — if you can appreciate all the bells and whistles.
OS: Android 10 with One UI 2.0
Display: 6.9-inch AMOLED (QHD; 120Hz)
CPU: Snapdragon 865 Plus
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
Battery life: 10 hrs 26 min (7:59, 120Hz mode)
Colors: Mystic Bronze, Mystic Black, Mystic White
Size: 6.48 x 3.04 x 0.32 inches
Weight: 7.33 ounces
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra boasts a huge 6.9-inch display with a dynamic 120Hz refresh rate, a sharp 108MP camera with laser auto focus and a more responsive S Pen. The regular Galaxy Note 20 is the better option for those who can live without a 120Hz display and and more advanced cameras.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the better phone overall, as it offers more advanced cameras and a faster Snapdragon 888 chip. And some may be holding out for Samsung to release a new Galaxy Note 21, but based on the company's comments that won't be released this year. As you'll see in my full Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review, this is still an excellent device.
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Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: What I like
- Dynamic 120Hz display is great: Scrolling feels like butter when you have the Adaptive motion smoothness setting turned on. And optimized games like Dead Trigger 2 look really smooth.
- The Note 20's S Pen feels better than pen and paper: You get a fast 9ms 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.
- Space 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 addictive: The new Air Actions can come in handy (like drawing a a quick arc in the air to go Home). But they don't always work the first time.
- Wireless DeX mode and Link to Windows work (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. And Link to Windows lets you run Android apps on your PC.
Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: What I don't like
- This camera bulge is quite large: The camera patch on the back of the Note 20 Ultra protrudes a great deal.
- Curved display can get in the way: While it looks cool, the curved display can sometimes lead to accidental screen taps when holding the phone.
- Very pricey: $1,300 is a lot to pay for a phone, even one as fully loaded as this flagship.
Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Release date and price
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra had a release date of August 21, 2020, and is 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.
Note that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra often goes on sale, and we've seen it for as low as $1,049 on Best Buy with activation.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Design
Samsung has made its most elegant looking phone yet with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. The squared off edges combined with the sophisticated Mystic Bronze color give this handset a corner office vibe.
I also like that the finish does a good job resisting fingerprints, unlike the Aura Glow finish on the Galaxy Note 10 Plus. You can also get the Note 20 Ultra is Mystic Black and Mystic White.
There’s a couple things I don’t like about the design. One, the camera patch on the back is big and bulky, which not only reminds me of brass knuckles — it props up the entire phone. You can hear the phone wobble when you press down on the top of the display.
And while the curved display is sexy, it can sometimes cause accidental taps when you’re just holding the phone. In some cases my screen taps did not register, as I didn't realize my other hand holding the phablet was interfering.
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.
There have been some complaints from Galaxy Note 20 Ultra owners that the camera housing has been collecting dust and condensation underneath the glass. However, our review unit has not exhibited this issue.
Overall, despite some minor complaints the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra really does look and feel like a $1,300 handset.
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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Display
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.
I also tried the Dead Trigger 2 games, which is one of the titles optimized for the 120Hz panel. As I ran around shooting zombies and navigating dark corridors the game looked smooth and felt extremely responsive.
The Note 20 Ultra's panel is exceedingly bright and is fairly easy to read in direct sunlight. The display hit a fairly high 662 nits on our light meter, which is very good but not as high as the iPhone 11 Pro's 752 nits.
The Note 20 Ultra's screen produced 121.5% of the sRGB color gamut in Natural Mode and 201.2% in Vivid mode, compared to 118.6% for the iPhone 11 Pro Max. The Note 20 Ultra beats Apple on accuracy, registering a Delta-E score of 0.24, compared to 0.28 for the iPhone 11 Pro Max (where 0 is perfect).
Some Galaxy Note 20 Ultra owners are complaining that a green tint is appearing on the screen when the brightness is lowered. We have not experienced this issue on our review unit. We reached out to Samsung but they do not have any comment at this time.
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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Cameras
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.
The power of 50x zoom. Its kind of scary. #GalaxyNote20Ultra pic.twitter.com/LpGPCuzyzGAugust 18, 2020
I 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.
The 108MP camera option may seem like overkill, but it can come in handy when you want to have the freedom to crop way into a photo after the fact. Just make sure you have enough ambient light, as this setting is best used outdoors.
As you can see in this photo of Halloween decorations, I could crop in on just a few of the straw the people, a ghost and witch, and you can still make out plenty of detail. There's just a bit of noise in the frame.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra's Night Mode is good but it's not quite as bright or colorful as what the iPhone 11 Pro could muster. You can see the difference in this photo of a fruit basket taken in almost complete darkness. You can make out more of the lemons and Apples, as well as the basket itself.
The Note 20 Ultra delivered better results than the iPhone 11 Pro in this close-up of a flower. The Note 20 Ultra's shot is closer to reality as the petals look more red than violet and the white balance is better. However, the iPhone's shot blurs out less of the background.
The Note 20 Ultra did a fairly good job with portraits, but Samsung's tendency to slightly wash out faces is prevalent here, and you can see that it had a bit of trouble with the sunlight on my arm. The iPhone 11 Pro Max's portrait is more pleasing and make me pop more against the background, even if the pic is overly warm.
Where the Note 20 really beats the iPhone is with its zoom. In this 10x zoom of a tree straddling a creek, you can make out more detail in the bark and surrounding leaves. The only bummer is that Samsung blows out some of the highlights.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra's camera turns out to be a formidable cooking partner. It managed to capture the juice on top of this steak while grilling and the flames below while keeping everything in focus.
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.
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 review: 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.
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 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 review: Performance
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is 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.
I handed the Note 20 Ultra to our resident Fortnite expert, my 12-year-old son, and he found the gameplay to be so smooth that I had to lobby hard to get the phone back.
On Geekbench, which measures overall performance, the Note 20 Ultra hit a multi-core score of 3,294, which is ahead of most Android phones but behind the Asus ROG Phone 3 with the same Snapdragon 865 Plus chip, which notched 3,393. The iPhone 11 Pro scored an even higher 3,500.
The Note 20 Ultra also trailed the iPhone on our video editing test, taking took 1 minute and 16 seconds to the iPhone’s 45 seconds.
On the GFXBench graphics test, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra scored 1,455 frames on the Aztec Ruins (High Tier) off-screen benchmark, compared to 1,657 frames for the iPhone 11 Pro.
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.
In New Jersey I saw decent download speeds on T-Mobile's 5G network, ranging between 40 Mbps and 99 Mbps. But it was not exactly blazing. Uploads ranged between 10 and 35 Mbps.
Some reviewers have complained that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra can run a little hot. A Note 20 Ultra teardown has revealed that the phone uses a multi-layered graphite thermal pad to aid with heat dissipation instead of the copper pipe and vapor chamber system used in the Galaxy S20 Ultra. However, we have not experienced any heat issues.
Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: DeX and Link to Windows
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.
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 via the Your Phone app. I was able to send and receive messages, make calls, and see my notifications on a Galaxy Tab S laptop. I also could scroll through my photo gallery.
The fun really starts when you start running Android apps on your laptop. I tried a few games, including Asphalt 9, which ran smoother here than it did over DeX mode. The keyboard controls actually worked well, though you can also use your laptop's touchscreen.
Some apps ran at full screen, but the Skyforce shooting game stayed in a small window. Samsung says that Link to Windows will eventually let you run up to six mobile apps on your PC at once.
Last but not least, you can mirror the Galaxy Note 20's interface directly on your Windows laptop and run apps from there. I had no problem firing up Twitter and scrolling through my feed. You can't do this with an iPhone.
Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Xbox Game Pass
Through the power of Microsoft’s xCloud game streaming, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra can play more than 100 Xbox games via Xbox Game Pass (currently in beta). Titles include Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, Minecraft Dungeons and Halo: The Master Chief collection.
I tried a few rounds of Forza, and the gampplay was surprisingly fluid using a PS4 controller, despite the fact I was streaming over the cloud. The only bummer was having to wait a while for each game to load; however, this time could be less once Xbox Game Pass is out of
Xbox Game Pass costs $15 a month, and when you pair the Note 20 Ultra with a game controller it could feel like a mini console. (Those who pre-order the Note 20 Ultra can get a three-month free trial.) The fun gets underway September 15 when the service officially kicks off, so we'll report back with final impressions.
Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Battery life and charging
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra packs a pretty beefy 4,500 mAh battery, which held up well in daily use.
After unplugging at 9 am I used the Note 20 Ultra with a wide range of apps. I watched over an hour of Umbrella Academy on Netflix, streamed Spotify with the screen on for an hour and a half and played about 40 minutes of Fortnite. I also used Twitter for nearly an hour, surfed the web and checked email.
After all that I still had about 27% juice left at 9 pm. That's not bad.
|Battery life (hrs:minutes)||Battery size|
|Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (60Hz/120Hz)||10:26/7:59||4,500 mAh|
|OnePlus 8 Pro (60Hz/120Hz)||11:05/9:02||4,510 mAh|
|Galaxy S20 Ultra (60Hz/120Hz)||11:58/9:13||5,000 mAh|
|Galaxy S20 Plus (60Hz/120Hz)||10:31/8:55||4,500 mAh|
|iPhone 11 Pro Max||11:54||3,969 mAh|
|iPhone 11||11:16||3,190 mAh|
|Galaxy Note 10 Plus||10:47||4,300 mAh|
|Google Pixel 4a||8:55||3,140 mAh|
The Note 20 Ultra endured for 10 hours and 26 minutes on the Tom's Guide battery test, which involves continuous web surfing at 150 nits of screen brightness over 5G. In this case we used T-Mobile's network. This was with 60Hz screen mode on. The device lasted just 7:59 with the 120Hz screen mode turned on.
By comparison, the Galaxy S20 Plus with its 4,500 mAh battery lasted 10 hours and 31 minutes and 8:55 in 120Hz mode. And the OnePlus 8 Pro lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes in 60Hz mode and 9:02 in 120Hz mode. The handsets on our best phone battery life list all last over 10 hours.
The Note 20 Ultra comes with a 25-watt charger, which juiced the device to 56% in 30 minutes. That’s good, but it’s not as fast as the OnePlus 8 Pro’s 63% in the same amount of time.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Verdict
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is nearly the pinnacle of Android phablets — and it should be for $1,299. It offers a best-in-class display, a better S Pen experience and a boatload of features for work and play. The cameras are very good, fixing the focusing problem with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, and the powerful zoom and Xbox gameplay give the Note 20 Ultra a couple of advantages over the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the superior camera phone based on our testing, as it includes a bigger main sensor that lets in more light, a LiDAR sensor that speeds up autofocus and Dolby Vision video recording and editing. And the new iPhone boats a tougher Ceramic Shield display. But it lacks the Note 20 Ultra's 120Hz display and S Pen support.
Some may prefer the newer Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra for $1,199. It delivers a faster processor, even better cameras and optional S Pen support. But if you really want the stylus built in I'd go with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, especially since a Galaxy Note 21 reportedly isn't coming this year.