During its Unpacked event two weeks ago, Samsung announced the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, a $1,299.99 6.9-inch powerhouse of a smartphone currently up for preorder.
While the Note used to be the touchstone of powerful performance for Samsung devices, the Galaxy S line of devices (like the epic S20 Ultra) has proved to be equally powerful. Still, it’s all about how you’ll use the phone, as the Note 20 Ultra meets the power requirements with ease. In our testing of the Note 20 Ultra, we found the three main cameras, a 120 Hz display, an extremely fast processor and a sleek build add up to one great smartphone.
But at $1,299.99, just how good is the Note 20 Ultra, and should it be your next phone? Well, we’ve been using it for two weeks, and the Note 20 Ultra has a ton to offer.
Three cameras and an all-important focus sensor
The Note 20 Ultra features three cameras and a crucial laser autofocus sensor. Most notably, Samsung fixed one of the downfalls to the S20 Ultra’s cameras: shaky shots that came out blurry. While it was especially noticeable when using 100x digital zoom, it also occurred with general shots. And for a $1,399.99 phone, it just wasn’t up to snuff.
After our multiple days of testing, it’s clear why Samsung added the additional autofocus sensor.
It not only helps with average shots by ensuring clear views and, in return, artifact-free shots, but it provides less blurry Space Zooms, which is Samsung’s technology for zooming in on a faraway point with optical and digital zoom combined.
It also uses pixel-binning technology, which uses a higher megapixel lens to capture a shot as smaller megapixels and combine them. Essentially, this 108-megapixel lens delivers 27-megapixel shots by combining four pixels into one. This is the same tech used on the S20 Ultra, which has been adopted by other companies, such as Motorola on the Edge+.
The cameras included on the Note 20 Ultra are:
- A 12-megapixel ultrawide camera: This gives you the ability to capture a wider field of view without physically moving.
- A 108-megapixel wide-angle camera: This is a regular lens with a higher number of megapixels for capturing more details. You have the ability to shoot at a full 108 megapixels or to pixel-bin the shot down.
- A 12-megapixel telephoto camera: This telephoto lens allows you to capture more details when zoomed in and, in fact, offers up to 5x optical zoom.
- A laser autofocus sensor: This will help to lower the chance for blurry shots and speed up the focusing on cameras.
The Note 20 Ultra’s camera setup delivers a versatile array of lenses that help you capture great shots. As a whole, we’re impressed with the speed of capture and the transition between ultrawide, standard and zoomed. Photos had the classic Samsung vibrancy, but we didn’t experience nearly as many focusing issues or end up with as many blurry shots as we did with the S20 Ultra.
When you first open the camera app, you’re seeing a 1x view, which uses the standard 108-megapixel wide camera. You can easily switch between the cameras and zoom level by tapping the tree icon above the shutter button. You can also set the camera to 0.5x, 2x, 4x, 5x, 10x, 20x or 50x, the highest level of digital zoom on the Ultra, which is 50% less than on the S20 Ultra.
Was it cool to zoom 100x into the top of the Freedom Tower, across the Hudson River or to the top of 30 Rock with the S20 Ultra? Yes, but the result was almost always an unusable photo. It was blurry, and even on a tripod, it was hard to reduce the shakiness of the shot.
And that’s really what Samsung addressed here. With 50x, you still need a steady hand, but the image features more details. Better yet, it’s a usable image that you might want to post on Instagram.
You can also tell a story when you go from 0.5x to 50x. Take a look at the embedded shot of NYC from the Jersey side.
There are a lot of details on the ultrawide shot. The Note 20 Ultra was able to contrast the deep darks and browns of shoreline rocks with an array of blues in the river toward a balanced — not overexposed — shot of lower Manhattan. In fact, you can even see buildings like 30 Hudson Yards near the Hell’s Kitchen area.
Jumping ahead to the last shot, at 50x zoom, you can still make out details at the top ring and spire of the Freedom Tower. You can see details on the windows without a significant amount of blur; thanks to that laser autofocus sensor, it gets the job done.
Another great example shot is a more practical one. We zoomed in from one side of a parking lot to another in order to view a sign for parking rates.
For starters, in the ultrawide, there’s no weird shadow effect happening on the side of the building, and you can, in general, get a good sense of the environment. Lighting is correct, and while it was somewhat of a cloudy day, the Note 20 Ultra didn’t feel the need to up the vibrancy. The resulting 50x zoom is blurred, but you can make out the text.
And in everyday use, when you’re not zooming 50x, the Note 20 Ultra performs well. It does the cool auto bokeh effect without being in Live Focus (Samsung’s portrait mode equivalent). This works nicely on plants and other photos with a subject.
The front-facing camera on the Note 20 Ultra is a 10-megapixel camera with an 80-degree field of view. You get wide and ultrawide settings, which result in solid shots. Face smoothing is not turned on by default, either, so selfies come out sharp with a lot of detail.
Case in point, the Note 20 Ultra was able to clearly pick out gray hairs on the top of my head — funny, yes, but shows that it can focus and capture details. It also added a nice bokeh effect on the NYC skyline and Hudson River behind me. There’s a hazy effect on the skyline, but it was a tough shot with the sun shining on it. We like how the river and rolling waves were captured, even with some light reflection.
In typical Samsung fashion, the Note 20 Ultra has solid video skills. It can record video up to 8K at 24 frames per second in either a 21:9 or 16:9 ratio. You get your pick, and with the Pro Video settings, you kind of feel like a director. The only problem is you’ll need an 8K TV to view the videos in their full glory.
The good news? Unlike the S20 Ultra, Note 20 Ultra doesn’t suffer from a rolling shutter and focus issues. Videos look sharp when played back on the Ultra, and we didn’t experience issues like shutter, focus or even blurring.
In the several test videos, which you can see below, the Note 20 Ultra fared well. In captures with bright spots, we noticed haze, but it was only in those specific moments. It might be the automatic video processing, but playing around with Pro Video settings let us alleviate those. Samsung’s Single Take mode, which lets you hit the shutter and move the phone around for 15 minutes, captured some really well-paced shots.
This phone flies
To put it mildly, nothing we threw at the Note 20 Ultra bogged down its performance, which is, shall we say, a needed trope for a $1,299.99 smartphone.
Powering the Note 20 Ultra is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ processor with 12GB of RAM. Let’s restate that last part: 12GB of RAM. That’s more than a base MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and even a 27-inch iMac — in a phone.
That’s a good bit of jargon, but essentially that means you can leave apps open — and we mean a lot of them. You can multitask with ease. Gaming is fluid, and even photo edits in Photoshop Express happen quickly. And for the legacy Note fans, that means the S Pen feels closer to paper than ever.
We switched to the Note 20 Ultra as our daily driver — which means it has to run all of our work, personal and productivity apps, and even games. Let’s give you a sense: Slack, Outlook, Twitter, Trello, Apple Music, Spotify, Gmail, Chrome, Instagram, Office, OneDrive, LinkedIn, Duo, Skype, Samsung Pay, “Real Racing 3,” “Fortnite” (pre-ban), “Forza Street,” Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, AT&T TV and many others.
We didn’t experience any blips or hiccups with apps, crashes or slowdowns. The Note 20 Ultra just flies, whether only one app is open or dozens are. The Note 20 Ultra runs Android 10 with Samsung’s One user interface on top. You get all the traditional preloaded apps and Samsung styling, but for 2020 you’re also getting a promise: Samsung is guaranteeing three generations of Android updates. That means you’ll get a longer life span out of the Note 20 Ultra (this also applies to the Note 20) and are getting more value for the price.
Unlocking via facial recognition, while not as secure as Face ID on the iPhone, happened quite fast. It’s not using biometrics with a depth sensor like the iPhone, but rather just using the standard front camera to recognize your face. Using the built-in, in-screen fingerprint sensor resulted in about a 99% success rate. Setup and onboarding for it was noticeably faster than on the S20 Ultra and, in use, we had a better success rate.
As we do with every Underscored review, we ran the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra through a series of benchmarks. These are the same tests we run on any device we review to qualitatively compare phones.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra scored a 972 on single-core and a 3,229 on multi-core. That beats out the Note 20, and notably the S20 Ultra, which scored a 901 on a single-core and a 3,203 on multi-core. That puts this above the iPhone 11 family, Pixel 4 and most other Android smartphones. Seriously impressive and, quite frankly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a way to slow this Note down.
And Samsung didn’t do much with the S Pen for 2020. The latency (aka how quick writing is) is reduced to 9 milliseconds. Essentially, the Note 20 Ultra can double as a mini notebook to jot down notes during a meeting. We especially like that you can just take the S Pen out with the screen off and start writing — on the back-end, it turns the screen on slightly and will display your writing in real time. Best yet, you can pop the S Pen back into the Note 20 and it will automatically save the note.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra features a 4,500mAh battery inside and it will get you through a day, even with the high display refresh rate engaged. Interestingly enough, it’s 500mAh smaller than the S20 Ultra. In our testing, battery life has been really solid, lasting 10 to 12 hours with moderate use, which is essentially on par with the S20 Ultra.
Mystic Bronze is just great and 120 Hz needs to be an industry standard
As we said in our Galaxy Buds Live review, we love Mystic Bronze, and while it’s not as glossy on the Note 20 Ultra, it’s pretty classy.
Mystic Bronze is kind of like a brushed rose gold. It has a nice glossy finish on the sides, while the back is a frosted matte finish. It feels nice to the touch and doesn’t show fingerprints. That’s an advantage over the Note 10+ and the S20 Ultra.
WIth its 6.9-inch screen, the phone is large, but it doesn’t feel too big in our hands. And surprisingly, it’s not all that top-heavy with the cameras sticking out. The Note 20 Ultra is just 8.1 millimeters thick and weighs just 208 grams. The top of the device is home to the combo SIM and microSD card slot, while the bottom houses the S Pen and USB-C port. The left side is empty, while the right gets the power button and volume rocker.
The display is an Infinity-O Quad HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X display. It’s 6.9 inches when measured diagonally, which gives you a lot of room to play with. It comes in at a 3,088-by-1,440 resolution and measures in with 461 pixels per inch. The result is an incredibly vibrant picture, thanks to the AMOLED panel.
Gaming is a breeze with no noticeable blurring across popular titles like “Forza Street” and “Real Racing 3.” And that’s thanks to the 120 Hz refresh rate, essentially how many times in a second the screen can refresh itself. That bests the 60 Hz that’s in the iPhone — and, yes, it’s noticeable. There’s a certain buttery smoothness to navigating through app pages and even when browsing timelines on Twitter of Facebook. You can only use 120 Hz when the screen is set to 1080p HD, but we’ll gladly take that trade-off.
At $1,299.99, it’s in line with most other flagships, and leasing it makes it much more affordable. Samsung’s also running a number of incentives. But at the end of the day, you really can’t go wrong with the Note 20 Ultra.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed price at the time of publication.