To be or not to be is a question I would have asked myself repeatedly if I were the new flagship Galaxy Note, or Galaxy Note 20 Ultra as Samsung calls it. Forgive me for starting this review with such pessimism but it has been a long time since any smartphone has left me so deeply satisfied and yet, craving for more, at the same time.
Now, before you jump to any conclusion, let me put it out there that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is hands down, the best phone that Samsung has ever made. It is also in many ways, the best Android phone that money can buy today. So why the pessimism, you ask? To that I say, hold onto your seat-belts, and let us get started with this review already.
Design and build quality
All Samsung premium phones exude luxury and the Note 20 Ultra is no different. If anything, the Note 20 Ultra is the most luxurious phone that Samsung has ever made. Logic dictates that I should refrain from using fancy adjectives to describe it but in this case, let us just do it anyway. The Note 20 Ultra, especially in this mystic bronze colourway that I have for review, looks and feels simply breath-taking.
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As is usually the case, the Note 20 Ultra builds upon an existing Galaxy S-series phone, in this case the S20 Ultra, and adds plenty of “Note” elements on top to make it unique. The big takeaways are two. The Note 20 Ultra is boxier which makes it somewhat wider (in comparison to the S20 Ultra). But despite that, and despite it having the same screen size as the S20 Ultra, the Note 20 Ultra is much lighter (208 grams as opposed to the 220 grams S20 Ultra) and thinner (8.1mm as opposed to the 8.8mm S20 Ultra). The Note 20 Ultra is all about perfecting the design of the S20 Ultra, and I quite like it.
Samsung is also upgrading the build materials in the new Note. The Note 20 Ultra is the first commercial phone to feature Corning’s Gorilla Glass Victus (or Corning Gorilla Glass 7) – it uses it on the front as well as on the back. The outer frame is made of metal. Although the new Note has the same rectangular camera housing as the S20 Ultra so to say, the individual cameras themselves have bold outlines that make them stand out. Learning from the S20 Ultra’s idiosyncrasies, Samsung has put in laser autofocus in the Note 20 Ultra, which is one of the reasons why the module sticks out.
Then again, it sticks out a little too much for comfort, which makes the Note 20 Ultra begging for a case. And casing it comes at an even bigger cost. You will have to let go of looking at and feeling its textured haze finish, something that I daresay, is one of the phone’s biggest highlights.
The Note 20 Ultra has the same 6.9-inch Quad HD+ “dynamic” AMOLED 120Hz display as the S20 Ultra but with two improvements. Firstly, the Note 20 Ultra has even slimmer bezels giving you an even more expansive surface to get things done – mostly, this is going to come handy when unleashing the full capabilities of the bundled S Pen (that is getting its biggest update since the time Samsung first launched it alongside the original Note in 2011, but more on that later).
The other big change is the technology driving that display panel itself. The Note 20 Ultra packs a variable refresh rate display that can theoretically render images anywhere from 120 times per second to 10 times per second automatically depending on the available content. Games for instance will render at 120 times per second, while static content (think, still images) can render at 10. That display, especially at its peak 120Hz refresh rate, is one of the most power consuming aspect of the phone and with a variable refresh rate, Samsung is looking to keep a check on that.
Everything else has been carried forward from the S20 Ultra. The screen gets plenty bright, has excellent viewing angles, and punchy colours. There is also support for HDR10+ content. Just like the S20 Ultra, you can run the Note 20 Ultra’s display at 120Hz at 1080p+ resolution only. The phone’s ultrasonic in-display fingerprint scanner is fast and responsive, but there’s still room for improvement.
The Note 20 Ultra’s S-Pen offers the most true-to-life note-taking experience yet, according to Samsung. That is true. This starts with the latency. The Note 20 Ultra’s latency has been reduced by nearly 80% compared to last year’s model – it is 9ms now.
When paired with that high refresh rate display and some under the hood artificial intelligence, the Note 20 Ultra’s S-Pen literally glides through everything you throw at it. Samsung is also using sounds that mimic a pen interacting with a piece of paper with every stroke — all this feels surreal and there is also an option to turn it down just in case.
Not that it needed to (what with no competition), but it is nice to see Samsung not just continuing with it, but also making the S-Pen increasingly more relevant with every iteration. Plus, it keeps on adding more features to it.
This year’s new S-Pen feature is “anywhere” actions that allows users to use gestures to control as many as five functions on their phones. It is true that you can only do back, home, recent app, smart select, and screen write with it, and a lot of people might not even use it extensively, but hey, I can totally see a high ranking executive waving the S-Pen like a magic wand during a make or break presentation. If not, it is a most definitely a conversation starter, a thing you might want to show off. All this of course makes use of the S-Pen’s accelerometer and gyroscope – makes you just sit back, take a moment to reminiscence how far the technology has come.
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Samsung Notes app is also getting updates this year, including exporting handwritten notes into PowerPoint slides and ability to make handwritten notes and annotations on imported PDFs.
There are a couple of more noteworthy additions. Auto straighten lets you adjust uneven writing, making your notes more presentable – and easier to read. Audio bookmarks let you sync handwritten notes with audio recordings so you can jot down notes alongside – surely makes a lot of sense for us journalists.
Performance and battery life
The Note 20 Ultra is Samsung’s first 5G phone in India. But despite being 5G-ready, the Note 20 Ultra in India is still powered by Samsung’s Exynos 990 processor. The version sold in the US comes with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 865+ processor so most definitely, it is a bummer. There are not too many configurations to choose from in India either. The Note 20 Ultra in India comes with 12GB RAM and 256GB storage.
There is a silver lining though. While the Note 20 Ultra is not the most powerful phone that you can currently get in India, I am happy to report that Samsung has been able to get the thermals right. How is that a silver lining? The Exynos 990, which is by no means a slouch, and Samsung’s visibly improved thermals mean, the Note 20 Ultra gives you a more consistent performance and this is true across the board.
Remember, this is a phone that Samsung claims is designed to replace your PC. While it is not going to do that conclusively, at least it can try.
Speaking of which, Samsung seems to have also designed the Note 20 Ultra keeping in mind the work hard, party harder mantra. The Note 20 Ultra for starters comes with wireless Dex support. This is a feature that will invariably come to older Samsung devices including the S20 Ultra, but only the Note 20 Ultra will be able to handle it without losing its cool. Period. Samsung is also extending its partnership with Microsoft to allow Note 20 Ultra users to sync notes directly to OneDrive and/or Outlook. The Note 20 Ultra will also be one of the first few devices in the market to get Xbox Game Pass and subsequently Project xCloud access from September 15, though the latter will not be available in India at launch.
The only area where the Note 20 Ultra gets a downgrade is the battery capacity. For some reason, this one comes with a 4,500mAh battery. While it is still bigger from what Samsung shipped with last year’s Note 10+, the company should have taken the S20 Ultra’s 5,000mAh battery as benchmark considering how the Note is widely regarded as a productivity-focused device. Anyway, the 4,500mAh battery inside the Note 20 Ultra can last you a day, though your mileage may vary. Battery life is surely better than the S20 Ultra but again, it is nothing to write home about. Samsung is also going conservative with the charging stats. The Note 20 Ultra supports 25W fast wired charging, wireless and reverse wireless charging.
Samsung is going a bit conservative when it comes to cameras on the Note 20 Ultra as well though the S20 Ultra’s 108MP main sensor remains the star of the show here but with improvements. There are three cameras on this one – as opposed to the S20 Ultra’s quad camera setup. Here is the technical low-down:
– 108MP main sensor with PDAF that is sitting behind an f/1.8 aperture lens with OIS; plus, there is laser autofocus
– 12MP ultra wide-angle sensor sitting behind an f/2.2 lens
– 12 MP periscope telephoto sensor with PDAF that is sitting behind an f/3.0 lens with OIS for 5x optical zoom (50x hybrid zoom)
– 10MP front camera
Not only does the Note 20 Ultra benefit from the S20 Ultra’s high-resolution main sensor, it also fixes its biggest issue – focusing. Samsung has made all the right choices here by adding laser autofocus and the impact is substantial. It is visibly fast at focusing though a high-resolution sensor like the one that the Note 20 Ultra uses also has a few demerits, the biggest being, it expects you to know a thing or two about photography, something I learnt from my experience with the S20 Ultra.
The biggest advantage of having a large sensor is you no longer require additional hardware to simulate a depth of field effect. A phone like the Note 20 Ultra can give you some high-quality natural bokeh in your photos with excellent subject isolation. But you will have to be patient with it when shooting landscapes.
As for the rest of the stuff, it is a lot more subdued in comparison to the S20 Ultra. The biggest change is the absence of Samsung’s 100x ‘space’ zoom theatrics. Instead, the Note 20 Ultra maxes out at 50x hybrid zoom with best results coming out at 4x (optical) and 10x (hybrid) range. Even 30x and 50x zoom shots are serviceable with a tripod. A 12MP ultra wide-angle camera completes the package, quite capable enough to get the job done.
The main camera, besides the faster focusing, is a familiar affair when it comes to image quality. It can capture good detail in good light with vibrant colours (which is hallmark Samsung) and slightly overexposed photos in tricky and low light. Night mode surely helps pull out some details from the shadows, but surely, rivals like the iPhone 11 Pro offer wee bit extra. The main camera shoots 12MP photos by default but you can also shoot at full 108MP. These photos have warmer colour tones in comparison and obviously take up a lot of space.
The 10MP front camera is a let down on an otherwise impressive package. It can capture good-enough selfies with good detail and mostly spot-on colours in good light but low-light selfies (and portraits) leave you asking for more.
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For videos, the Note 20 Ultra (like the S20 Ultra) can do 8K 24fps videos, but there is no stabilization. Rolling shutter (jello effect) is still a common occurrence in the Note 20 Ultra’s 8k videos. Plus, the file size is huge. 4k (30, 60fps) videos come out great though with lots of detail and well-balanced audio.
Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra?
If you have been following closely, the Note 20 Ultra seems all about improving upon the S20 Ultra. Whether it be in design, display, performance, cameras, even battery life, while bringing its own set of “note” skills to the table including the one-of-its-kind S-Pen. The new Note is about power, it is about productivity, and no other phone does it better.
I cannot help but digress a little though, for the more the things have changed in the new Note, the more they have remained the same. While in the past you probably did not notice it as much, this year, things are crystal clear. The Note 20 Ultra looks and feels like an iterative — albeit with some welcome improvements — update to the S20 Ultra. With the S20 Ultra existing in the market already, and available at a lower price, the Note 20 Ultra that costs upwards of Rs 1 lakh seems like a product lost in translation.
This identity crisis is accentuated when you look at Samsung’s big showstopper this year, the Galaxy Z Fold 2. The Note once represented the pinnacle of Samsung’s engineering but with the company breaking into new innovative territories and going ultra with its existing portfolio at the same time, maybe the time is nigh to retire some unsung heroes of the past and embrace the future. A Fold with an S-Pen will not be such a bad idea, just saying.
But then again, if you’re an existing Note user or someone who has been eyeing it for some time because let’s just be honest, with great power comes great productivity, the Note 20 Ultra is as noteworthy as they come from Samsung.
- Luxurious design
- Best in class display
- Good cameras
- Good all-round performance
- Big and bulky
- India gets Exynos