The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Is a Super Phone Finally Worthy of Its Name

Illustration for article titled The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Is a Super Phone Finally Worthy of Its Name
Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

When Samsung released the Galaxy S20 Ultra at $1,400, it felt like Samsung was trying to push its super-premium phones into a whole new tier, a tier that would justify its obscene $1,400 price tag. However, even though the S20 Ultra had a giant 6.9-inch screen and a huge 10x lossless zoom, it lacked some of Samsung’s usual polish and simply didn’t offer enough to make me feel like all that money was worth it.

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But fast forward six months, and now the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has arrived sporting an even better screen with a variable 120Hz refresh rate, a much more refined design, speedier performance, enhanced productivity, and an upgraded S-Pen. Oh, and it’s actually slightly cheaper than the S20 Ultra. So after some careful retooling, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has become a fully armed and operational battle station, and it’s the true heir to the empire.

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Unlike the S20 Ultra which always felt sorta clunky, between its signature Mystic Bronze finish and new matte glass back, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra feels like the first-class device that Samsung has been trying to deliver. In fact, aside from its admittedly large camera bump, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s body and bezels are actually slightly thinner than the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s, so even though both phones have 6.9-inch screens, the Note 20 Ultra feels like the much more wieldy device. As for that camera bump, while it does stick out quite a bit, considering the number of buyers who instantly throw their phones into cases the moment they get it, it’s hard to complain about too much. Big camera modules are here, and they aren’t going away anytime soon.

The Note 20 Ultra’s biggest upgrade is its new 120Hz variable refresh rate display. Every year, Samsung saves its best mobile screen for the Note, and this year Samsung is really flexing on its competition because there’s no other display like this on the market. During testing, the Note 20 Ultra’s display hit a peak brightness just short of 800 nits (with Samsung claiming the Note 20 Ultra is capable of up to 1000 nits in certain conditions), while also producing some of the most vivid, eye-catching colors around.

And on top of all that, Samsung has upgraded the Note 20 Ultra’s 120Hz display to support variable refresh rates, so that instead of being locked to 60Hz or 120Hz as on the S20 Ultra, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s display can adjust its refresh rate dynamically depending on what’s on the screen. This lets the Note 20 Ultra conserve power when you’re doing less intensive things like viewing photos or typing an email, which is important because as a phone that supports full 5G connectivity, when you do connect to a next-gen cell network, having extra juice in the tank is always welcome. And when you’re watching movies or playing games, you can take full advantage of those high refresh rates to get super smooth looking video and graphics.

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On the inside, the Note 20 Ultra is also overflowing with an excess of specs and performance. Boasting a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ processor, 12GB of RAM, 128GB of base storage (or 512GB if you upgrade), and a microSD card slot, Samsung’s hyper phone never feels like you’re taxing it, no matter how hard you try. Across the board, the Note 20 Ultra consistently posted top-tier benchmark numbers, including the highest score we’ve ever seen on Geekbench 5's Compute test (3,658).

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s new laser autofocus module does a lot to address complaints over inconsistent focus many people had with the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s new laser autofocus module does a lot to address complaints over inconsistent focus many people had with the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo
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I also really appreciate that Samsung gave it the ability to connect to any Miracast-enabled TV while using DeX, which gives you yet another way to utilize all of the phone’s performance. For a phone that’s designed to cater toward power users, combined with Samsung’s usual wired DeX mode, this really elevates the Note 20 Ultra from being a really powerful phone into more of a laptop replacement, or at least something you can get real work done on in a pinch.

Speaking of work, in addition to the Note 20 Ultra’s new screen having variable refresh rate (VRR), Samsung has also lowered its touch input latency down to just 9 milliseconds, just like what you get on the Tab S7+ or an iPad Pro. This makes note taking, sketching, or whatever else you use the S-Pen for feel incredibly smooth. And with five new Anywhere Actions for going Back, going Home, summon Recent Apps, using Smart Select, and turning on Screen Write, you could easily use a Note 20 Ultra to host a full Powerpoint presentation without ever needing to hook up a real computer. But that’s not all, because thanks to the ability to more easily annotate directly onto PDFs using the S-Pen, automatically sync the Samsung notes apps across multiple devices, and link the Note 20 Ultra to a Windows PC via the Your Phone app, using the Note 20 as a complementary work device is even easier now too.

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Meanwhile, around back, Samsung has remixed the camera components from the S20 Ultra for the Note 20 Ultra, so that this time you get a 108-MP main cam, a 12-MP ultra-wide cam, and a 12-MP telephoto with a 5x optical zoom. And instead of a 3D time-of-flight sensor, Samsung gave the Note 20 Ultra a new laser autofocus system. This might be one of the most clever adjustments Samsung made for the Note 20 Ultra, because by including one less camera ( especially one that was somewhat gimmicky), Samsung was able to lower the price of the phone’s components, while also giving you better more usable camera performance in the real world.

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Now admittedly, the Note 20 Ultra’s cameras aren’t without their flaws, because like a lot of Samsung phones, they have a tendency to go a little too hard on sharpening and can sometimes push white balance to skew too yellow, but overall, the Note 20 Ultra’s image quality is just a bit behind what you get from a Pixel 4, which is a respectable place to be. Details are generally sharp, shutter lag is almost non-existent (unless you turn on the phone’s full 108-MP resolution mode), and it’s Pro Video recording mode has even more features and settings for more advanced mobile videographers. And if you have a pair of Galaxy Buds Live, you can even use them as a remote mic while filming when paired with the Note 20 Ultra.

Finally, while the Note 20 Ultra’s 4,500 mAh isn’t quite as large as what you get in a Galaxy S20 Ultra (5,000 mAh), thanks to its more energy-efficient processor and screen, it’s overall battery life of 14 hours and 23 minutes was just 20 shorter than the S20 Ultra (14:41). That’s better than an iPhone 11 Pro (13:00), and a Pixel 4 XL (12:36), but just a bit shorter than an iPhone 11 Pro Max (15:00)

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Illustration for article titled The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Is a Super Phone Finally Worthy of Its Name
Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

For a long time, I’ve been asking what the Galaxy Note line is supposed to be other than just a Galaxy S with a built-in stylus, and with the Note 20 Ultra, Samsung has finally responded. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a gorgeous screen with faster performance and even more productivity features than you get in the fanciest Galaxy S phone, along with way more productivity features and a price tag that’s $100 less.

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Frankly, the S-Pen is just a bonus, and when it comes to taking notes during meetings or just drawing silly captions on photos, I’m glad it’s still around. But even without it, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is still so much more thoughtful and refined than the S20 Ultra, or any other super premium phone. Yes, even at $1,300, this thing is still exceedingly expensive, but at long last, Samsung has finally made something truly worth of that “Ultra” tag.

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  • Samsung says the Note 20 Ultra’s zoom goes up to 50x, but that’s really pushing it. Stick to 5x to 10x for optimal results.
  • It’s hard to capture in photos, but the new matte texture on the Note 20 Ultra’s back feels fantastic.
  • Samsung’s new variable refresh rate display allows the Note 20 Ultra to adjust its scan rate based on the type of content you’re viewing.
  • Despite having faster performance, a better screen, and a built-in stylus, the Note 20 Ultra actually costs $100 less than an S20 Ultra.
  • Samsung is now supporting three generations of Android OS upgrades on select Galaxy phones including the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (which comes pre-installed with Android 10), which makes you feel better about the longevity of a phone this expensive.
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Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.

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DISCUSSION

TheSillyMan
TheSillyMan

Oooo and you get a 400 prepaid visa card if you buy before 9/15. So basically 400 dollars off (id put it towards the payment plan). So its more like 900 bucks (1000 with tax) if you buy early. But then you only have to balance the risk of being an early adopter and hardware/software issues.... decisions decisions