Since the day the first Samsung Galaxy Note smartphone came out the Note series has always been the ultimate Android ‘do everything’ phone. It’s always had the best and biggest screen, the best specs, the best battery life, a great stylus, and the biggest price. Samsung Note phones have historically offered everything the S phones do and more. The last Samsung Note phone, the Note 10 was excellent, as was the Note 9 before that, so how good is the Note 20 Ultra?
First of all it’s important to make the distinction between the Note 20 and the Note 20 Ultra. Like last year, Samsung has released two Notes. One slightly cheaper Note 20 which has had some features removed, and the big, extremely expensive, £1,279 flagship, the Note 20 Ultra. What has pretty much every feature you could ever want… and a whole load you never even knew existed.
The first thing to talk about is the Note 20 Ultra’s design. I think it’s one of the best-looking smartphones ever made. It’s certainly the best Samsung has come out within a long time. The matte finish of the glass on the back of the phone paired with the mystic bronze colour looks amazing. And, even though it’s absolutely massive, the camera bump manages to look great too. There’s something very aesthetically pleasing about the design of the rings around the camera, and the way that the camera module itself is a slightly darker colour than the rest of the phone. At the front it looks exceptional still. The absolutely monumental 6.9-inch screen flows over the edges of the phone, and the only break in the otherwise perfect looking screen is a tiny hole punch at the top. It’s quite a looker. When we spoke to Paul Scott, Samsung’s head of product management, before the launch of the phone he told us that consumers were asking them to make the screens even bigger, and they certainly did!
The screen itself is easily the piece de resistance of the Note 20 Ultra. It’s right up there with the best screens ever made. On anything, let alone just on a smartphone. It gets as bright as any other phone screen out there and HDR certification means colours look vivid and punch. The screen can either run in a high-resolution 1440p mode or at a lower 1080p 120Hz mode. Both look absolutely stunning, but my personal preference is the 120Hz mode. The extra pixels are nice but for anything other than watching video it’s unlikely you’ll notice them. 120Hz is something you’ll notice no matter what you’re doing. Just like all other high refresh rate smartphones, it makes the experience of using the device just feel smoother, more responsive, and better. One thing that’s worth noting is that you still can’t have the phone set to use 1440p and 120Hz at the same time, probably because that would absolutely decimate battery life, but I feel if I want to decimate the battery life then that should be my decision.
Speaking of battery life, the Note 20 Ultra has a pretty good one. It’s nowhere near the best I’ve ever used, but you can comfortably get through the day on it. I was honestly expecting much worse on a 6.9-inch display running at 120Hz, so the battery life is as good as it is was quite a pleasant surprise. Samsung achieves this battery life by running the screen at an adaptive refresh rate. That basically means when you’re scrolling about doing smartphone things your phone screen is running at 120Hz, but when you’re doing anything that doesn’t require that full 120 frames per second it detects that and lowers the screen’s refresh rate.
So the screen is very nearly perfect. In my time with the phone, there was one thing that seriously annoyed me about it. If you’ve read any of my smartphone reviews in the past I think you already know what I’m going to say. I really think this trend of ridiculously curved smartphone screens has to die. It does look nice, I am willing to admit that. But in terms of practical use, I’m sorry, it’s just not very good. On this absolute unit of a 6.9-inch screen, the amount of accidental touches that occurred wasn’t even funny. I genuinely had to completely alter my typing style just to avoid accidentally pressing Q or P on the keyboard while trying to text. The size of the screen definitely makes the accidental touches worse, there aren’t many other phones where this has been this much of an issue for me. If there was one thing I could change about this phone it would be those curved edges, without a doubt.
The other main feature on the Samsung Note 20 Ultra that you are probably considering buying it for is the S Pen. I’ve never owned a phone with a stylus before, and I wasn’t totally convinced of it being worth the extra money. But after using the Note 20 Ultra for a couple of weeks, when I go back to my iPhone I miss it. My job involves a lot of note-taking, and when I have the Note 20 Ultra on me, that is easily my device of choice to take those notes on. First of all, the latency of the S Pen has been massively reduced compared to last year’s model. This means it feels absolutely amazing to write on. The pen is ultra-responsive, smooth, and pressure-sensitive. Writing on it is a joy. Then on top of the great experience, the notes app itself is brilliant. It has pretty much every feature you could conceive of in a notes app. Take this, for example: it can record audio while you’re taking notes, so once you’re done you can tap the note and it will playback the sound you were hearing while taking it. It’s amazing. The handwriting detection is also very good, and that means a lot coming from me because I have pretty terrible handwriting.
As it’s a Samsung Note, and because it costs over £1,000, the specs have to be the absolute best available. And generally they are. I didn’t have any performance issues at all while using the Note 20 Ultra. It breezed through any task I threw at it, whether that be gaming, taking pictures, or multitasking. It didn’t even drop a frame. When we spoke to Samsung before the launch of the phone, Paul told us that the data shows people are holding onto their phones for longer than they used to. So thankfully, if you buy this phone you won’t have to worry about it being unable to run the latest games for quite a few years. However, the level of performance and battery life you’re going to get from your Note 20 Ultra depends on which region you bought the phone in.
If you’re in the USA you’ll be getting the full-fat Samsung Note 20 Ultra which comes with a Snapdragon 865+, 12GB of RAM and either 256GB or 512GB of storage. That is fantastic, pretty much the best money can buy. If you buy the Samsung Note 20 Ultra pretty much anywhere else it comes with Samsung’s own Exynos 990 chip. While this is a very powerful and capable chip, it benchmarks lower than the 865+ and can have issues with thermals during long gaming sessions. I’m not saying this is a reason not to buy the phone, I still think it’s a very good chip powering a very good phone. It’s just a bit frustrating living with the knowledge that I’d be getting a better version of the phone for the same price if I was just living somewhere else.
Now let’s talk about the cameras. There is a lot to say about these, but as the rest of this review is so long I’ll keep it short and sweet. They are fantastic. The 108MP main sensor is brilliant. It takes incredible still images and surprisingly great video at up to 8K resolution. This is the same sensor Samsung used in the S20 Ultra which had issues focusing on close up subjects due to its size, but I’m glad to report thanks to a laser autofocus this issue has been fixed. The other cameras are excellent too. There’s a 12MP ultra-wide camera and a 12MP telephoto periscope camera, and both take brilliant photos and videos. The telephoto periscope camera can zoom all the way up to 50x which is a cool party piece, but actually its strength lies at between 2x and 10x. It takes pictures in that range of zoom which lose almost no quality and that’s an impressive feat! By default all the pictures taken with this phone have that, now trademark, Samsung look. Everything is super colourful and bright. I do generally like this look, but in scenes with a lot of natural colour I do find myself tweaking the pictures a bit to make them less overwhelming. The night mode on the Note 20 Ultra is also brilliant. Overall, you will not be disappointed with the cameras.
Finally, the Samsung software. It’s still the same as it’s always been. It looks good, it works well, it runs well, but there’s just too much of it. Samsung takes the approach of if it exists we need it in OneUI, and while that means you’ll never be wanting for a specific software feature that a competitor has. It also means you will have to wade through mounds and mounds of useless stuff you don’t want just to get there. The way Samsung treats software is the definition of a double-edged sword. At the best of times, you’ll be amazed to find that exact app or software feature you wanted is there and works perfectly. And at the worst of times you’ll be fishing through hundreds of apps and menus just to find the one feature you want.
So, does the Samsung Note 20 Ultra deserve that ultra badge? I think so. If there’s anything you’ve ever wanted on a phone, I can almost guarantee you that it’s on this one. Great design – check, huge 120Hz screen – check, excellent stylus support – check, great battery life – check, top of the line specs – check… ok my point has been made, it’s very good at pretty much everything. There are a few things which I would change if I could, the annoying curved screen, the fact that you’re getting more phone for the same price in the USA, and the ridiculously bloated software. But those things don’t stop the Note 20 Ultra from being my favourite Android phone. Yes, it is extremely expensive, but if you do end up buying it I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.