Like clockwork, Samsung released the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G alongside the Galaxy Note 20 on 5 August. This year, with the Galaxy S series, Samsung went with the S20, S20+ and the S20 Ultra. In that tradition, the Note 20 Ultra has been launched along with the Note 20, but there is no Note 20+ this year. Just like previous ‘+’ variants, it has now become quite clear that Ultra will be the highest end of Samsung’s flagship lineup. Both the Ultra-branded phones also house a 5G chipset which, sadly, has no relevance in the Indian market.
The Note 20 Ultra is only available in one variant in India - 12 GB RAM + 256 GB storage with the option to expand to 1 TB. It is priced at Rs 1,04,999. The Note 10+ was priced almost Rs 20,000 less at launch last year. Having reviewed the Galaxy S20 Ultra (Review), the only prospective buyers for the Note 20 Ultra seem to be those who are veteran Note series users, and rely heavily on the Galaxy S Pen.
Let’s start things off with the camera first, as that massive bump is the first thing you will notice when you hold the Note 20 Ultra in your hands.
Cameras tick most boxes, but still no SuperSteady mode for 4K video recording
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra comes with the same 108 MP primary camera that was last seen on the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Thankfully, they learned a valuable lesson with the ‘100x’ zoom on the S20 Ultra. This time round, even the user interface of the Note 20 Ultra maxes out at 50x ‘Super Resolution’ zoom. In terms of the camera specs, starting from the top camera on the rear, you have:
- 12 MP Ultrawide camera with an f/2.2 aperture and 120-degree field of view
- 108 MP Wire-angle camera with OIS, f/1.8 aperture, 1/1.33-inch image sensor and 0.8 micron pixel size.
- 12 MP Telephoto camera with periscope zoom support with f/3.0 aperture.
- On the front, you get a 10 MP selfie camera with an f/2.2 aperture.
In terms of zoom, you only get 5x optical zoom, while the 50x super resolution zoom is basically hybrid digital zoom. Thankfully, the Note 20 Ultra also sports a Laser AF sensor, which helps in getting things in focus relatively fast. You also get all the bells and whistles we had seen in the S20 Ultra such as Single take, Pro video mode, 8K video recording, Super Steady locked to Full HD resolution, 960 fps slo-mo and much more. The S-Pen also lets you shoot remotely as well as navigate the camera gallery with swiping gestures and button clicks. For instance, when taking a group selfie, you can focus on framing and could ask your friend to use the S-Pen button as a remote trigger to click a photo.
I am not going to spend much time with daylight photography on the Note 20 Ultra, as it throws up almost no issues. The primary camera produces detailed images, with sharpness intact in the centre and around the edges. Colour reproduction is quite good, although images do look a tad high in contrast. The optical 5x zoom is good and the ‘50x Super Resolution Zoom’ is also much more usable than the ‘100x Space Zoom’ that we had seen on the S20 Ultra. It’s still noisy in daylight, but it isn’t a task to frame the subject. One thing that was noticeable was some minor shutter lag.
Low light photography on the Note 20 Ultra is impressive. Yes, the Note 20 Ultra, just like the S20 Ultra, does tend to over-brighten a scene, which sometimes looks a bit unreal. However, this is something that could be fixed in future app updates. There is a dedicated ‘Night’ mode, which can extract detail even from shadow regions, but please do not use this in scenes which are well-lit, as you will most likely see colours you didn’t notice in the scene. In some low-light photos, you will notice the change in colour temperatures.
When it comes to selfies, I had read online that the Note 20 Ultra unnecessarily brightens the face. I did find that to be true in some cases, though I didn’t notice unnecessary smoothening of my facial texture. But as the light level drops, the noise reducing algorithms do tend to do just that. When shooting in a room under fluorescent lights, I did notice that the camera sensors had a tendency to smoothen the face textures in group photos. Here’s a comparison between the Note 20 Ultra and the Pixel 3a XL low light portrait selfie - you can judge for yourself which phone offers a better output.
On the video camera front, you get 4K recording mode at 30 and 60 FPS, but only on the primary camera. Turn on ‘SuperSteady’ mode to get stutter-free footage, and the video resolution gets dialled down to Full HD, which is annoying on a flagship phone. The Apple iPhone has been offering 4K at 60 FPS with stellar image stabilisation since the iPhone X - a two-generation old phone. This factor itself gives the iPhone 11 series a huge advantage over the Note 20 Ultra. The Full HD footage was good, and I noticed relatively less focus hunting compared to the S20 Ultra, while panning. I really liked the live focus video mode on the Note 20 Ultra as it nicely blurs out the background when shooting and works on the rear as well as front cameras.
SuperSteady mode produces really good stabilised footage. Video quality is among the best on Android smartphones. Just like with the S20 Ultra, with dropping light levels, the image gets softer and the focus hunts. You also get the 8K 24p shooting mode on the Note 20 Ultra, which is a good marketing move, but you need to have the phone on a tripod to get stutter free 8K footage. Also, 8K video crops in a lot, so you have to take that into account when shooting. If you make content for YouTube or social media, you also get the option to add USB or Bluetooth microphones for clean audio.
Display: 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED with 3088 x 1440 pixels w/ pixel density of 496 PPI
Chipset: Exynos 990 (2x 2.73 GHz Mongoose M5 + 2x 2.5 GHz Cortex A76 + 4x 2 GHz Cortex A55)
Graphics: Mali G77 MP11
RAM + Storage in GB: 12 + 256 GB
(Device under test: 12/256)
Expandable storage: Yes
Primary Camera: 108 MP camera with f/1.8 aperture, 1/1.33-inch sensor, OIS (Samsung ISOCELL Bright HM1 sensor)
Secondary cameras: 12 MP periscope telephoto camera with f/3.0, OIS, 5x optical zoom and 50x Hybrid zoom + 12 MP Ultrawide camera with f/2.2
Selfie Camera: 10 MP camera with f/2.2 aperture
Battery: 4,500 mAh
Software: Android 10 (3 August 2020 patch) with OneUI 2.5 skin
Colours: Mystic Bronze (under test), Mystic Black, Mystic White
Massive device with a gorgeous, polished design language
Samsung Galaxy Note series has always been known for its massive displays, but this year, the Galaxy S20 Ultra itself came with a 6.9-inch display. The same size display is present on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, but in terms of design, things are a lot more polished. Our test unit was a good-looking ‘Mystic Brown’ colour. The rear of the Note 20 Ultra is covered in Gorilla Glass Victus, the latest generation of the ubiquitous durable glass, which Corning claims is the toughest glass for a smartphone. It’s also the first device to use it. The frosted glass matte finish on the rear makes the Note 20 Ultra slightly less slippery, which is a relief. It resists fingerprints and looks very classy.
The camera module on the Note 20 Ultra protrudes quite a bit, just as we had seen on the S20 Ultra. As a result, dust does tend to collect around the sharp edges of the module. It houses three cameras, a laser autofocus element and dual-tone flash. The module is covered with Corning Gorilla Glass 6 and is the only shiny element on the rear. Placing the phone on its back will result in the phone resting at an angle. Samsung hasn’t bundled any transparent case with the Note 20 Ultra either, so that’s something you may have to purchase additionally. With the phone in vibration mode, when placed on a hard surface such as a glass-top table, the phone makes a terrible sound, making one prefer notification sounds instead.
There is a metal frame surrounding the edges, and it’s glossy finish means smudges do tend to collect on them. The top and bottom edges are flat. The sides curve both ― on the front and the back. The transition between the Corning Glass Victus, the metal frame and the Gorilla Glass 6 of the display is seamless. You only have the volume rocker and power/standby button on the right-hand side. There is no dedicated Bixby button; it looks like Samsung is finally accepting its redundance. The hybrid dual-SIM card tray is present on the top edge, while at the base you have the USB Type-C port and the speaker grille. The S-Pen has been shifted to the left-hand side corner, which may annoy some regular Note users, as the S-Pen is generally on the right-hand corner on the bottom edge. Nothing much has changed with how the S-Pen looks.
The in-hand feel of the Note 20 Ultra is great, but the 6.9-inch Infinity-O edge display with thin bezels makes it quite difficult to use this phone one-handed. Due to the thick camera module, the weight distribution isn’t the best either. You certainly don’t want to be using this phone in a rush, unless you have both hands free. The phone weighs in at 208 grams which is on the heavier side, but it’s quite sleek at 8.1 mm thick, if you ignore the camera bump. IP68 water and dust resistance is part of the package as well. On the whole, it is a well-designed device.
I had mentioned in my S20 Ultra review that the 6.9-inch display on the S20 was entering Note territory. While the regular Note 20 sports a 6.7-inch display, the Note 20 Ultra comes with a 6.9-inch display. The display is also mildly curved on both sides and presents a ridiculously thin bezel. Even the earpiece speaker is smartly concealed.
Coming with a 6.9-inch edge Infinity-O Dynamic AMOLED display, the Note 20 Ultra has a maximum resolution of 3088 x 1440 pixels. But under the display settings, you can set the display to either HD+ (1544 x 720 pixels), FHD+ (2316 x 1080 pixels) or the max WQHD+ (3088 x 1440 pixels) as well as have the refresh rate at 60 Hz or 120 Hz. Just like the S20 Ultra review, I kept things at FHD+ and 120 Hz. Screen refresh rate is variable on the Note 20 Ultra, and can go from 10 Hz to 120 Hz, depending on the app being used. If you want the highest of resolutions, you will have to forego the 120 Hz refresh rate; only 60 Hz is available. Even at FHD+ resolution, I did not face any issues with the sharpness of the display.
It is flawless. For starters, it’s REALLY bright. I had to bring the brightness slider all the way down when I was reading news and books on the Note 20 Ultra at night, when the lights in the house were out. I used the display in the ‘Natural’ mode as opposed to the ‘Vivid’ mode, which offers more punchy colours. There is support for HDR10+. The punch hole selfie camera placed in the centre does not interfere when you are viewing videos or playing games. Unless you are using apps in full-screen mode, it isn’t a bother. Sunlight legibility for the display is good. Watching HDR10+ supported movies on Netflix and videos on YouTube on this display is a joy, and the speakers are plenty loud, though I still preferred the bundled AKG earphones to listen to content.
One thing I found a tad bit annoying was that some websites had text which would wrap around the edges, and there was no way to get it in the centre. Again, something a software update could fix.
Fast performance, but software quirks galore
Samsung generally uses its in-house Exynos chipsets for its flagships sold in India, while US customers get a Qualcomm SoC. The Note 20 Ultra uses the Exynos 990 chipset ― the same used on the Galaxy S20 Ultra. The Exynos 990 houses 2x 2.73 GHz Mongoose M5 processors + 2x 2.5 GHz Cortex-A76 processors + 4x 2.0 GHz Cortex-A55 processors. All this is paired with a Mali G77-MP11 GPU. There’s 12 GB of RAM. There is absolutely no issue with raw performance, as evident from the benchmarks. Even in day-to-day usage, I didn’t face any issues.
It can play all the major games such as PUBG Mobile (I managed to play it for a few days before the ban), Call of Duty Mobile, and Alto’s Odyssey among others. The 6.9-inch display is a great surface to play on, as there is a lot more real estate to rearrange your controls. The phone did get mildly warm on the back, but not enough to raise any alarms.
The Note 20 Ultra also sports the OneUI 2.5 user interface atop the Android 10 OS. While the OS is great on most fronts, there was one major issue I found with the Note 20 Ultra. Thanks to its extremely thin bezels, the palm rejection ― especially when I was typing using the default Microsoft SwiftKey keyboard ― was quite poor. The quick button to change the keyboard is present on the bottom-left hand corner, and on eight out of ten occasions when typing fast, I would inadvertently activate that quick button, which would open up a menu from where you can change keyboards. There was no way to get rid of this when typing two-handed, and it was very frustrating. Surely, there are better ways to integrate the quick button for keyboards.
Galaxy Store and My Galaxy apps keep throwing up random notifications, despite forcing them not to. The quick notification tab shows around 33 quick buttons by default, and while you can rearrange them, you can only trim them down to 30. Overall, OneUI is a great skin and Samsung can easily take care of these issues with future updates.
Samsung has also partnered with Microsoft to sync the Samsung Notes app on the phone with Microsoft OneNote on your PC. This service will commence from November this year. It also supports a new version of the Samsung DeX UI to support a second screen on your Note 20 Ultra, either on a monitor or on your TV. It even works wirelessly now. If you are a Windows 10 user, you can download the ‘Your Phone’ app and sync it with your Galaxy Note 20 Ultra via the ‘Link to PC’ quick notification. There’s even a ‘Point to Share’ feature, which enables fast data transfer speeds when pointed at the device you are sharing data to.
The S-Pen is great on most fronts, but still has some quirks
The Samsung S-Pen is as brilliant as always. This time round, it drops latency to an incredible 9ms (the delay between using it on screen, and the action registering), making it very intuitive to use. There is also an accompanying scratching sound when you are taking notes, to mimic pen on paper. It appears a bit gimmicky after a few tries, and there is an option to disable it. For Note regulars, there aren’t a whole bunch of new features. But for those going for the Note 20 Ultra, you will take some time getting used to the S-Pen. It is a tad slippery, and I found the S-Pen slipping off my fingers on many occasions as I tried to find which side the button was located on. Here are some of the features I noticed and found interesting:
- You can do off-screen memos which just involves ejecting the S-Pen and start taking notes on the display.
- Unlock your phone with the S-Pen
- Use the S-Pen as a magnifying tool
- Use the S-Pen to glance at a particular app while working in another app
- Air Actions which involve waving the S-Pen around like a magic wand to interact with the display. Apart from using it for the camera and gallery apps, I found this feature But it can work great as a presentation tool if you cast the Note 20 Ultra display to a larger monitor.
- Live Messages is a fun feature which shows a nice animation of a message being written or drawn.
- There is a live handwriting to text conversion option available, but the catch here is that every time you save, it saves the text as a new line. Say for instance, you are writing multiple sentences, but due to the limitations of the screen you have to break it up. When it comes to saving, it would have been great if there was an option to have the text placed next to the previous text instead of a new line. Given the gazillion features OneUI 2.5 has, this is a puzzling choice.
On the whole, the S-Pen has immense value if you know when to use it. I am no artist, but I gave it to a friend who told me that the response of the S-Pen was quite good, and she could see herself using the S-Pen to do some digital art in her free time. Business users may find immense value in using the S-Pen during presentations or even while annotating and shooting off emails to their clients or colleagues. If you have no valid use case where you see yourself using the S-Pen, then it won’t make much of a difference if you get the Note 20 or the S20.
Battery life is unimpressive, but fast charging saves the day
Ever since the Note 7 battery fiasco which resulted in worldwide embarrassment for the brand, Samsung has been quite careful with the battery capacities in Note-branded devices. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra comes with a 4,500 mAh battery, while the Galaxy S20 Ultra sported a 5,000 mAh battery. Thanks to the bundled 25W Super Fast Charger, charging the Note 20 Ultra from 0-100 percent took under 68 mins. Within 30 mins, you get around 60 percent charge.
The battery life on the Note 20 Ultra wasn’t as stellar as I had expected. Yes, I could manage just over a day of regular usage which involved two emails on sync, Telegram, Slack, a few hours of listening to podcasts, watching YouTube, surfing the web and 20-30 photos. With many hours of gaming, you may need to charge the phone before going to bed. I did get around 5.5 hrs of average screen-on time on most days. PC Mark for Android recorded a battery life score of 11 hours 11 mins. Around 30 mins of playing Call of Duty Mobile, the battery life was hit by 11 percent. Standby battery on the Note 20 Ultra was good, and I didn’t notice steep battery percentage drops overnight. Battery life is conservative and isn’t over the top. Fast charging takes care of juicing up the phone in case you run out of battery sooner than expected. The Note 20 Ultra also supports Fast Wireless Charging 2.0.
Samsung’s OneUI offers multiple battery saving modes to play around with such as ‘High Performance’ mode; ‘Optimised’ mode (the mode under testing); ‘Medium Power Saving’ mode and ‘Maximum power saving’ mode. If you don’t know which mode is right for you, you can select the ‘Adaptive’ power saving mode, which will detect which power mode will save more battery life, and select it accordingly in the background.
Verdict and Price in India
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G is a great phone overall. Yes, there are issues, but they don’t take away from the positive aspects of the device. Design, display, camera, S-Pen, fast performance, fast charging - it delivers in all these departments. Consider it if you see yourself using the S-Pen a lot. Else, go for the S20 Ultra if you want to stay in the Samsung family. If you already have a Note 10 or even Note 9, skip this. This generation’s Note ends up being a minor improvement to the formula. The S20 Ultra certainly has stolen some thunder from the new Note flagship.
The price of Rs 1,04,999 is steep, but that’s par for the course in this rarefied segment of flagship phones. The Note 20, which is priced at Rs 78,000, comes with one too many compromises (including a glastic back and 60 Hz display). In the ongoing economic downturn, if you are able to spend upwards of Rs 75,000 on a phone, you may as well pay the premium and get the Note 20 Ultra. Samsung on its part, has cashback offers and certain buyer benefits to attract potential customers. The Note 20 Ultra certainly offers a lot of value in a business scenario where its integration with Microsoft and ability to cast the display, present with an S-Pen certainly give it an edge over other devices.
If you are not impressed with the price proposition by Samsung flagships this generation, the OnePlus 8 Pro is the only other viable alternative in the Android segment.
With the iPhone 12 series launch just around the corner, it will be interesting to see what kind of price drops the iPhone 11 Pro Max (Review) gets, which is an ideal alternative if you don’t want the Note 20 Ultra or the S20 Ultra. Yes, the Pro Max is priced much higher than Samsung and is a generation older, but apart from offering comparable performance, it outclasses the Note 20 Ultra when it comes to videography. Yes, yes, I know the Note 20 Ultra isn’t wooing the photography enthusiasts, but there is no excuse for the compromises made for video modes.
Could this be the last Note device?
There are already rumours making the rounds online that Samsung may discontinue the Note series all together next year and bundle the S Pen in the Galaxy S or Fold series. It would be an end of an era if that happens, for sure. If this year is any indication, the gap between the Galaxy S series and the Galaxy Note series has been minimised. A couple of years ago, the performance and overall price delta between an S-series device and Note device was quite stark. This year, I felt no such thing. In fact, if you ignore the advantages offered by the S Pen, the Galaxy S20 Ultra offers absolutely the same performance and user experience as the Note 20 Ultra. When the Note launched 10 generations ago, average display sizes were 4-inches and lower. Back then, there was a reason for the category to exist. Over the last few years, as smartphone displays are scaling new heights (pun very much intended), the differentiation the Note series offers barring the S-Pen just isn’t there. Samsung could very well release the future S-series with or without the S-Pen. I’m just speculating, but if the Note 20 Ultra is the swan song of the Note series, then it couldn’t have asked for a better device.
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