Galaxy Note 20 Ultra ongoing review: Everything good and not-so-good so far

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra ongoing review: Everything good and not-so-good so far

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is arresting, but expensive. Here’s what we think so far.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I’ve just completed my second day with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G. Samsung’s phone and I are starting to get into a nice little groove. I’ve already fallen deeply in love with the signature bronze shade of the $1,300 flagship device, and the fact that its matte finish deters fingerprints.

It’s sleek and beautiful — until you get to the massive camera bump —  but also enormous, awkward for my smaller hands to maneuver and perplexing when it comes to certain design decisions. (And keep reading for more on the standard Note 20, which costs $1,000.) 

So far, I’ve taken rich, enticing photos and enjoyed all the bounty an exceptionally large 6.9-inch screen can bring. I’ve fielded phone calls, kept up with work and social networks, bought groceries touch-free and navigated with Google Maps — all the daily things you’d normally do with your phone on a given day.

It’s still early on and my testing period will have a lot to cover, from night photography and a new suite of S Pen gestures to a steady observation of battery life on a 6.9-inch display with a 4,500-mAh battery and a default 120Hz refresh rate. There’s one other big question I’m looking to answer by the time the Note 20 Ultra review period is complete: how a device built to keep you active in society fits into a world already changed by the coronavirus pandemic.

 Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

That Note 20 Ultra camera bump means business.

Juan Garzon / CNET

Note 20 Ultra: Here’s what I love right now

  • The bronze color with the matte finish: sleek, sophisticated and less of a grease trap when slick or grimy hands get all over it. It’s lustrous and understated without being boring.
  • Taking photos is fun. Images are vivid and 5x optical zoom keeps picture quality high enough to make me keep using it. Ultra-wide angle photos are always a great tool to have in the photo arsenal to provide dramatic effect.
  • The screen, as always, is bright and brilliant, excellent for reading the news, watching video and scrolling through photos.
  • My favorite Galaxy Note tricks return to life, like taking a really precise screenshot using the S Pen, using the magnifying tool to read online menus and too-small font, and easily creating a screen recording or GIF of a portion of the display.
  • Taking a selfie using the S Pen is a breeze when you press the stylus button with one hand without having to stick your arm out at an awkward angle or worry about dropping the phone.
  • Face tone filters for selfies are nice to add some warmth or step on the breaks if a picture is oversaturated. 
  • Phone calls sounded great in my area, but of course your situation could vary depending on the service where you live.

Note 20 Ultra features I’m keeping a close eye on

Battery life is something I’m closely observing. After an uneven first day, Day 2 was more like what I’d expect for a flagship phone — whew. At 10:30am it was fully charged and freshly disconnected from the charger. Exactly 12 hours later after a day or moderate-to-heavy use that included an hour and a half of Google Maps navigation, it was at 35%. This was using the default 120Hz screen setting. Let’s see how tomorrow goes.

That camera bump is hard to ignore. Without a case, I constantly worry about dropping it and cracking the camera array, which would undoubtedly be the first thing to hit, or else laying it down and dragging or moving the device in a way that scratches the camera. This has happened to me before and ruined every ultrawide image thereafter, so trust me when I say this is no idle concern.

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First Look: Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra


The S Pen placement may be something I simply need to get used to, but so far, the move from the right side of the phone to the left isn’t working all that well for me. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the design, but for some reason reaching for it feels like a chore. Did it move to accommodate the camera hardware? We’ll see if I warm up to the changes as the tests go on.

Wired headphones don’t come in the box. That may not seem like a big deal as Samsung transitions users toward wireless earbuds like its Galaxy Buds Live. But not everyone wants to invest in a set of wireless buds. More to the point, Samsung spent years touting the $99 value of the wired headphones that came in the box. Without them, the Note’s price keeps going up while shedding value. If you don’t already have headphones you want to use, your cost of ownership just went up.

It can get a little toasty. My CNET colleagues and I have noticed the Note 20 Ultra seemed to both generate and dissipate quite a lot of heat. Nothing out of the ordinary, just an emanating warmth that phones (and laptops and other electronics) can get when they’re working hard. On a hot summer day, it wasn’t the most pleasant sensation in my pocket and hand, but definitely not a dealbreaker.

What will we test tomorrow?

There’s still so much to see as the Note 20 Ultra begins to settle in as my daily phone for the next week. That means the stylus’ new gesture features, night photography, gaming, new tricks with the Note app and more. Check back as this review develops day by day. Keep reading for our original impressions on the Note 20 Ultra and standard Note 20. And scroll to the very end for all the specs.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra reminds me of a figure straight from Greek mythology. With its sleek profile, resplendent bronze finish (for its signature color), and thick camera bump on the back staring out like a set of compound eyes, it doesn’t take much more than a glance to see this new phone for power users is very much siren-meets-cyclops.

The Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra’s looks are just the beginning of the story — and there’s far more below — including one genuinely surprising change. But before we go there, it’s important to understand the context into which these phones are coming to light. The Galaxy Note 20 phones are available for preorder now and are expected to arrive by the official sale date, Aug. 21. The Note 20 starts at $1,000 (£849, AU$1,499) and the Note 20 Ultra starts at $1,300 (£1,179, AU$1,849).

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the world on its head, endangering lives, launching a global recession and throwing into question the need for a premium phone whose cheapest model costs $1,000, which is $50 more than last year’s entry-level Galaxy Note 10. But while Samsung asks us to consider the merits of a 5G device with juiced-up cameras and some features better suited for the boardroom than the living room, Google has just released an excellent $349 no-frills phone that seems more in step with these lean and doubtful days.

The timing is coincidental, but unfortunate. Phones can take more than a year to cycle through the pipeline, so when Samsung’s designers and engineers were plotting the Note 20 refresh, the feature roadmap was well established. The Note line has always stood for software and specs that went above and beyond. While many of the features and updates, like new S Pen gestures tuned to operating PowerPoint presentations, will make sense for a post-pandemic world, the state of COVID-19 cases today forms a weak argument for the “normal” activities that merit such a device.

That isn’t to say that the Note 20 and 20 Ultra won’t have a place in the who’s who list of 2020 phones, though it’s too soon to know. I spend all day on my laptop, but still often reach for my phone as a second or even preferred screen to read in bed, on the couch or at the kitchen table when I want a change of pace. I use mobile payments more than I ever did before, as shops in my area eschew cash in favor of touchless transactions. And battery life is still of the utmost importance as I reconnect with friends and coworkers during hours-long walks with just my phone as a way to get fresh air. Samsung, too, says mobile usage has been up during this time.

The difference is that, without an end to the pandemic in sight, it feels harder to get on board with a phone whose main features feel less compelling at the outset by dint of the times. In truth, I hope the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra win me over when I get to try out the review units. I hope Samsung’s trade-in and yearly upgrade programs entice its loyal customers to upgrade to a device that may well deliver the kind of core functionality, long-term battery life and pleasing extras that can make a phone fun to use for years.


The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a bright, massive 6.9-inch display.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I’m ready for the Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra to convince me, or at least try their hardest — top-heavy camera bulge and all. (Psst. Samsung also announced the Galaxy Z Fold 2 on Wednesday. Although it’s sure to cost even more than the Note 20, its ability to stay open while folded has me genuinely excited to see more.)  

Galaxy Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra: Surprising differences

Samsung eased us into the idea of a more entry-level Note phone in 2019, but this year, there’s a wide gulf between the standard Galaxy Note 20 and the Note 20 Ultra. (Scroll to the end for the full specs comparison.)

Note 20 Ultra: What you need to know

The Ultra has a 6.9-inch curved screen, a more squared-off shape and all the perks, including the higher-powered camera tech, support for Google’s Nearby Share through its UWB Share (ultra wide band) feature and a microSD card slot up to 1TB. The screen has an option to flip into a 120Hz refresh rate, where each pixel refreshes 120 times per second, making scrolling liquid-smooth. (We’ll have to see how this affects battery life.)

And then there’s that camera bulge. Full disclosure: I haven’t had a chance to see either Note 20 in person here in California, but my New York colleague, Richard Peterson, was able to handle and videotape both devices, and attempt to answer my laundry list of questions. 

Attending a virtual briefing and poring over our footage, it’s clear that from one angle, the Note 20 Ultra looks sleek and sexy. From another, it’s unpleasantly top-heavy in a way that makes my mind leap to a case as a necessity to protect the Note 20 Ultra’s camera mount. The fact that the camera array protrudes so far from the body makes this area far more susceptible to breaks, cracks and scratches when dropped or dragged along a surface — for example, if you lay the phone on its back. 

We’ll put the Note 20 Ultra’s new Gorilla Glass Victus shielding on both sides to the test, but I’ve banged up enough phone cameras during my career as a reviewer to suggest avoiding that risk at all costs.

The mystic bronze color sports a matte finish, while mystic black and mystic white are glossy glass.

That camera mount on the Note 20 Ultra is serious business.

Richard Peterson/CNET

Note 20: Did someone say plastic?

The standard Note 20 has a 6.7-inch flat screen with no curved sides (a staple on the Note line for years). But here’s the clincher — it has a plastic back, which Samsung prefers to call polycarbonate. There’s no microSD card slot (same as last year) and small features are missing. There are stepped-down camera specs (including no pro video mode), a less advanced screen technology with no 120Hz refresh rate option, a smaller battery capacity (4,300 mAh versus 4,500 mAh), less RAM (8GB versus 12GB), and no UWB sharing.

Embracing pastel, the Note 20’s mystic green, mystic bronze and mystic gray tones all come with a matte finish. It uses a metal frame and Gorilla Glass 5 on the front, not the most recent Gorilla Glass Victus.

The Note 20 shares the same core specs as the Note 20 Ultra. The 10-megapixel selfie camera, new S Pen gestures and Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus processor are part of both phones. 

But back to the Note 20’s plastic backing: That feels out of character for a phone family that’s typically about showcasing the best of the best Samsung has to offer. Without having reviewed the phone yet, a $1,000 phone with a plastic back seems hard to swallow. Maybe I’ll change my mind.

Note 20 cameras: 108MP, pro video mode, 8K video capture

The camera array is where Samsung wants the Note 20 phones, and especially the Note 20 Ultra, to shine. It’s taken a step back from the ostentation of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which boasted a 100x Space Zoom feature and a main camera capable of shooting a 108-megapixel photo, concentrating instead on the idea of cropping in for more detail. 

Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra camera

Galaxy Note 20 Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Main camera 12-megapixel (F1.8, Dual Pixel AF, OIS, 1.8μm, 79-degree FOV, 1/1.76 inch image sensor) 108-megapixel (F1.8, OIS, 0.8μm, 79-degree FOV, 1/1.33 inch image sensor)
Ultrawide angle 12-megapixel (F2.2, 1.4μm, 120-degree FOV) 12-megapixel (F2.2, 1.4μm, 120-degree FOV)
Telephoto 64-megapixel (F2.0, 0.8μm, 76-degree FOV) 12-megapixel (F3.0, 1.0μm, 20-degree FOV)
Front-facing camera 10-megapixel (F2.2, 1.22μm, 80-degree FOV) 10-megapixel (F2.2, 1.22μm, 80-degree FOV)
Zoom 3x hybrid 5x optical
Super Zoom 30x 50x
Laser auto-focus sensor No Yes
Video capture 8K 8K

Samsung still gave the Note 20 Ultra an 108-megapixel camera option — you tap it to turn it on when you want the full resolution. When it comes to zoom, the Note 20 falls back to 50x zoom, with the Note 20 settling in at 30x. 

It’s interesting to see Samsung backtrack like this, but the company seems to be responding to feedback that the S20 Ultra was too expensive and its 100x zoom wasn’t good enough or useful enough to justify the price.

The Note 20 Ultra has 5x optical zoom, which should make photos taken in that range crisper and clearer than using digital zoom alone. We’ll soon see.

Faster autofocus in the Note 20 Ultra is also designed to give it an edge over the standard Note 20, so you can snap photos of squirmy pets, amusing facial expressions and flapping hummingbirds faster, without missing the shot. 

A pro video mode packs in more manual tools and options for capturing footage, which should make aspiring moviemakers happy. This has been one of Samsung’s weaker areas for several years, compared to the latest iPhone. As with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, both phones support 8K video capture. Just be aware, it’ll make video files enormous on and off your phone.

Writing is one thing Galaxy Note phones do best.

Richard Peterson/CNET

The Note 20 phones get new S Pen stylus and note app tricks

What would the Galaxy Note be without its stylus? For loyalists, scribbling, navigating and annotating are part of the phone’s charm. So is the fact that the Notes app allows you to do all of the above. Here are the newest features for both Note 20 models.

New S Pen gesture navigation: Pointing the pen tip away from your body (and at a distance from the phone), press and hold the stylus button while making one of five new gestures to go back, go home, open a recent app or take a screenshot with Smart Select. You can also squiggle the pen to capture the entire screen.

The S Pen is more responsive on the Note 20 Ultra when the 120Hz screen option is on.

Handwriting recognition gets better with tools including autostraighten. 

Samsung Notes gets live auto-syncing at long last. This will store a note in the cloud for you to access from any other device — as long as you’re signed into a Samsung account.

Attach and time-sync voice recordings. You can get your voice note to sync with what you write so it’ll play back from the time you mention the word.

Import a PDF to annotate or highlight. Instead of printing out a page or downloading it to sign and then upload or send out again, you can simply mark your signature and export it back again.

Other Note 20 features and goodies

  • UWB support for sharing files like a digital key. Point to share with other Samsung devices using UWB. 
  • Xbox Game Pass Ultimate gives you access to over 100 games you can play on the fly. 
  • Samsung’s Microsoft partnership: Drag-and-drop and syncing from Windows devices and apps to your Samsung phone, including notes and reminders.
  • Samsung DeX, the vision for replacing your computer with your phone, now lets you connect to another screen wirelessly to view your content, say on your TV screen in your living room. 
  • You can pair a Galaxy Note 20 with the new Galaxy Buds Live to turn on noise cancellation. In the taped demo I saw, you still hear a lot of static and distortion, but it did cut out interfering conversations.

Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra specs

Galaxy Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Display size, resolution 6.7 inches; 2,400×1,080 pixels 6.9 inches; 3,088×1,440 pixels
Pixel density 393 ppi 496 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.36×2.96×0.33 in 6.49×3.04×0.31 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 161.6×75.2×8.3 mm 164.8×77.2×8.1mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.84 oz, 194g 7.33 oz, 208g
Mobile software Android 10 Android 10
Camera 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 108-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera 10-megapixel 10-megapixel
Video capture 8K 8K
Processor Snapdragon 865 Plus Snapdragon 865 Plus
Storage 128GB 128GB, 512GB
Expandable storage No Up to 1TB
Battery 4,300 mAh 4,500 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screen In-screen
Connector USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack No No
Special features S Pen stylus; 5G connectivity; Wireless PowerShare; water resistant (IP68) 5x optical zoom, UWB sharing, S Pen stylus; 5G connectivity; Wireless PowerShare; water resistant (IP68)
Price off-contract (USD) $1,000 $1,300 (128GB); $1,450 (512GB)
Price (GBP) £849 £1,179
Price (AUD) AU$1,499 AU$1,849
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