The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G is a top-end £1,179 Android phone. You can find smartphone that cost more, but not many. This is likely Samsung’s last big phone of 2020 too. Expectations are, in a word, high.
And the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra meets many of them. It has a great set of cameras, a superb XL-size screen and a new S-Pen with next-to zero latency, for a nib-on-screen feel similar to an Apple Pencil. There is a problem, though. The battery rarely makes it through the day. It may hold on fine with light use, but if you’re buying a Galaxy Note just for WhatsApp, we’d have to ask why.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G is a phone for the power crowd, whatever that means. And for all its strengths the short battery life frustrates, and is made worse by the UK version’s Exynos processor. US Galaxy Notes, which have Snapdragon CPUs, will likely last longer.
The short-lived workhorse
Let’s start instead with one charge levelled at the Note series in general, or at least at its prospective buyers: few use the S-Pen all that often. Pen removed, we get to the core of this phone’s identity for most people. The Note 20 Ultra is a very large, very well-equipped mobile with a huge screen. It’s perfect for streamed video, games and for reading articles without the sense they are squeezed uncomfortably onto the display.
Use the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra like this for a week, though, and you’ll find its biggest problem, which may well be the crux of this review. The phone does not last long enough between charges. A powerhouse phone made to enhance all the stuff phone obsessives love doing needs to handle a full day of whatever it is that quietly chips away at their productivity. The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra does not.
It is far too easy to make it start whimpering about its low battery before 7pm. Fast charging takes the sting out a little, taking the phone to 67% from flat in 30 minutes, but it is not the same as a battery that actually lasts.
Part of this can be explained in the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s numbers. Its battery is a moderate 4500mAh cell, which is not a great fit for a bright 120Hz 6.9-inch screen. And this was brought into focus by the work we did on a best budget phones group test before this review, which included using Samsung’s own 6000mAh Galaxy M31.
That phone’s battery life far outclasses this one’s, at a quarter of the price. The Note 20 Ultra’s cousin, the Galaxy S20 Ultra, also has a larger 5,000mAh battery, most likely because it does not need to house an S-Pen.
An Exynos problem
The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. There’s also the Exynos problem. Samsung has split its Note line into two streams since 2013’s Galaxy Note 3. American buyers get the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+. The rest of us get the Samsung Exynos 990. For the last couple of years at least, top-end Exynos CPUs have been less power efficient than the Snapdragon alternatives. This has not changed, judging by the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.
There are ways to tell this beyond watching the battery level drop with unnerving rapidity too. Relatively simple jobs like downloading large files seem to make the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra warmer than we’d usually expect. We saw some hot days in Summer 2020, but this was indoors, doing little more than downloading Fortnite.
Running that game also raised another issue. The Note 20 Ultra can’t seem to hold Fortnite at a solid 30fps. iPhones are now so quick that Epic Games unlocked a 60fps for the latest models (App Store spats notwithstanding).
Is the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra really only half as powerful as an iPhone SE? No, but the Exynos 990’s GPU is less powerful than that of the Apple A13 Bionic, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 or 865+. Optimisation may have a hand here too, although the Snapdragon 990 has already been used in millions of phones sold, including Samsung’s own Galaxy S20.
Developers have had time with this SoC, but the popular Vulkan graphics title ARK: Survival Evolved also suffers from significant graphical glitches not seen in the Snapdragon-powered Oppo Find X2 Pro. It’s yet again the case that US buyers seem to get a better phone those in the UK.
A little wider context: any performance gap is only noticeable in a small handful of very demanding Android games. And the Note 20 Ultra should be a great phone for Microsoft xCloud when it is out of beta (for which entries are currently closed), thanks to its large screen. xCloud will let you stream Xbox Game Pass games from the cloud, or your Xbox One.
The perfect travel camera?
There is plenty to like elsewhere, of course. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s camera array is a delight. After a year of manufacturers filling their phones with utterly useless tertiary cameras, Samsung’s zero-fat approach is refreshing.
On the back are a 108MP main camera, a 12-megapixel ultra-wide and a 12-megapixel 5x zoom. All three are excellent. The zoom is responsible for the almost distastefully protruding camera housing, but it will likely sit more-or-less flush if you use a case. Samsung didn’t send one out to reviewers, perhaps to avoid lazy size comparisons with beached whales and 65-inch TVs. But you’ll probably want to use a case. To live without one is to live in fear.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s 5x zoom camera is our favourite of the trio, even if it is technically the weakest in some respects. You simply don’t get a quality zoom like this in a much cheaper phone.
Those who say you can just get closer with a wider angle lens forget the charmingly flattened perspective of a zoom lens. And that not every dog walker wants you do get up close and pap their Schnauzer. It has allowed us to take hundreds of images that wouldn’t have been possible with a two-camera array. Or the average quad-camera one.
Sure, the narrow aperture f/3 lens forces the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra to use relatively slow shutter speeds in the shade, which can result in blurred motion. And the phone reverts to a cropped main camera image at night, resulting in poor 5x low-light images. But this is less of a blow when Huawei phones, which tend to handle this better, are no longer recommended buys. Night image quality in general is excellent too, in both standard and wide views, thanks to a now-familiar night mode that makes one image out of several exposures.
Samsung took a little longer to get to this point than some, but the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra offers a superb photography experience. You always seem to have a stack of composition options. The camera is what we’ll miss most from our time with the Note 20.
The phone also has some great video features, several of which are actually likely to impact how you shoot the things. For example, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra lets you switch between the three focal lengths on the fly, with a relatively smooth transition between. It’s not dissimilar to zooming in and out with a super zoom camera.
Live Focus video can blur out the background just it does in stills, and will do a pretty good job for arty-looking YouTuber b-roll shots, as long as the scene isn’t too complex. The impressive part: this doesn’t just work for shots of people, but anything you like. Just like the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the Note 20 Ultra can shoot 8K video too, and has an ultra-stable mode with GoPro-like smoothing.
Consider these fringe benefits for specific scenarios. A frame analysis of 4K and 8K clips shows there is a huge detail difference, but 8K is unstabilised so just won’t look good for casual shooting. And the ultra-stable mode results in a drop in image quality, as it uses a cropped view of the ultra-wide sensor.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra camera doesn’t take huge strides forward from phones like the Galaxy S20 Ultra or Huawei P40 Pro. But if you are yet to use a camera array at this level, you are in for a treat.
An OLED screen made for action
A superb 6.9-inch OLED screen only improves the experience, as you can always see a clear image preview. Samsung says the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G can reach 1500 nits, even brighter than the 1300-odd of the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra might have the best screen we’ve ever seen in a phone, but at this point it’s important to pinpoint why. You can find colourful, punchy, high refresh rate displays in phones a fraction of the price, like the Realme X50 5G, so what makes this one different?
Brightness is one of two stand-outs. The other is motion resolution. You can refresh a display as often as you like, if there’s blur the effect of a high refresh rate is diminished. Sample and hold is the kind of blur you might see in an OLED screen. This is where the pixel “holds onto” its illumination, causing a smearing effect when an object moves across the screen.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has virtually none of this, visibly less so than the excellent Oppo Find X2 Pro. That phone has a 120Hz AMOLED, but not nearly the motion clarity of the Samsung. This clean motion makes the most of the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G’s refresh rate. It’s a whole new level of smartphone display clarity. It may be most noticeable when doing something wholly unglamorous, flicking through pages of app icons, but is impressive nevertheless.
Other classic Galaxy Note traits, like perfect contrast, pro-grade colour and HDR are all here too. But they have been around so long in Samsung phones they barely seem worth mentioning.
Tech pedants will harp on about how the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G can’t use its 120Hz refresh rate and native 1440p resolution at the same time, when others can. However, we come back to the simple truth the Note 20 Ultra screen looks more impressive in the flesh than the Oppo Find X20 Pro at 1440p, 120Hz. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s peak brightness and motion handling are in another league.
A faster-reacting S-Pen
Samsung’s S-Pen is the other standout feature to consider. It slots into the bottom of the phone with a delightful click, and has a surprising number of features when out of its hole. Like last time, the S-Pen is a slim, plastic Bluetooth stylus with a button and motion sensors. Various presses and wand-like waves can be used as a remote camera shutter, a temporary replacement for the soft key actions and a way to load apps you specify.
A camera remote is the best wireless use for the Note 20 Ultra’s S-Pen. You could dig deep and look for an interesting and accessibility-led use for it, but it’s likely to fall apart when you consider the dexterity required to handle such a dainty piece of plastic, not to mention fitting it back into the phone itself.
Let S-Pen actually meet screen and it can be used for full system navigation, as a replacement for the virtual keyboard using Samsung’s excellent OCR. And, of course, for doodling. Here we find the most meaningful changes to the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G’s S-Pen. Samsung has followed Apple, doing its best to eradicate even the slightest bit of noticeable lag. Your pen stroke doesn’t follow the nib like an excitable puppy, as it does in the Motorola Moto G8 Pro. It sticks right there with it, as if the S-Pen can drop digital ink through the phone’s Gorilla Glass.
Pressure sensitivity levels haven’t changed, at 4096, but the Note S-Pen feels more natural than ever. That said, we had more fun drawing on the Galaxy Tab S6 Lite. It exhibits minor stylus lag, but its S-Pen is more comfortable, larger, and a tablet screen is a much more convincing digital canvas than a phone’s.
So, will you use the S-Pen? And will you truly appreciate the huge screen and its superlative motion handling? They matter when you need to weigh these benefits against the efficiency costs of Samsung’s Exynos 990 processor.
There’s some of this “win some, lose some” effect to the design too. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a lovely matt glass back, bordered by stainless steel rather than the usual aluminium. You lose these classy touches in the standard £849 Galaxy Note 20, which has a plastic back. You read that right: Samsung made a phone at almost a thousand pounds with a plastic rear panel.
On the Ultra, this glass is silkier, smoother, than glossy Gorilla Glass, but the panel has a hollow ring, lacking some of the solidity of an iPhone 11 Pro Max. And once you put a silicone case on the Note 20 Ultra, many will find it prohibitively large.
Samsung’s ultrasonic in-screen fingerprint tech continues to warrant little more than a shrug too. It works as long as your finger is relatively dry. But being outpaced by the £299 Realme X50 5G, which has a side-loaded scanner, is not a good look.
Win some, lose some
The real Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G problem is it oddly makes us miss using one of Samsung’s cheaper phones. You have to really try to drain the best sub-£300 Android phones in a day, and there are a lot of them. Samsung, Xiaomi, Realme, Oppo and Motorola all make large-screen workhorse phones that perform well and outlast the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra by a wide margin.
They don’t have the Note’s brilliant zoom camera, its S-Pen or its standard-setting display brightness and motion. However, for the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G to become the “ultimate” phone Samsung aims for, it should not be possible to use 150% of the battery in the space of a normal day.
This means you need to think all the more carefully about how much you want or need the S-Pen. Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra from earlier in 2020 has many of the same features, bar the S-Pen, an even better zoom camera and a bigger battery. It won’t last two days between charges either, but the extra capacity makes it a less high maintenance phone. The alternative is, of course, to hunt down the US Snapdragon 865+ version.