The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is Samsung’s latest superphone for 2020, packed to the gills with tech – but it lands at a time when budgets are stretched, and asking more than £1,000 for a smartphone seems a little out of touch.
This big beast costs £1,179 and is the top of the South Korean firm’s smartphone line for 2020, packing in everything plus the kitchen sink.
Design-wise, it is very similar to the previous Note 10+. The front is all screen, while the back is glass with curved sides concluding in a thin metal band and a flat top and bottom. It is an attractive, minimalist design. The 6.9in QHD+ Amoled display is stunning and has a refresh rate of up to 120Hz, matching or bettering rivals such as the OnePlus 8 Pro.
It is the enormous camera housing on the back of the phone that is most striking. It houses three cameras including a 108-megapixel normal (wide) and a 12-megapixel telephoto camera with a 5x optical zoom, and sticks out about half the thickness of the main body of the phone again. It’s big, bold and surprisingly attractive in the bronze colour.
The frosted glass back is Samsung’s best, too. It hides fingerprints and provides a surprising amount of grip, given the size of the phone. I found it easier to hold than the similarly sized Galaxy S20 Ultra. But the Note 20 Ultra is a massive phone and you will need two hands to use it. Checking for notifications and answering calls was about all I could safely manage with one hand – anything more will require a phone grip.
Main screen: 6.9in QHD+ Dynamic Amoled 2X (496ppi)
Processor: Samsung Exynos 990 (EU) or Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ (US)
RAM: 12GB of RAM
Storage: 256 or 512GB (UFS 3.0) + microSD card
Operating system: One UI 2.5 based on Android 10
Camera: Triple rear camera: 108MP wide angle, 12MP ultra-wide angle, 12MP 5x telephoto, laser depth sensor; 10MP front-facing camera
Connectivity: 5G, dual nano sim, USB-C, wifi 6, NFC, Bluetooth 5, UWB and location
Water resistance: IP68 (1.5 metres for 30 mins)
Dimensions: 164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1mm
28 hours of battery life
The Note 20 Ultra ships in Europe with Samsung’s latest Exynos 990 processor, the same used in the S20 Ultra. In the US it has Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865+ instead. Both variants come with 12GB of RAM.
The Note 20 Ultra performed essentially the same as the S20 Ultra, which meant it felt fast and snappy throughout, handling games and other intensive tasks without breaking a sweat.
Battery life was disappointing compared with the 38 hours of the S20 Ultra, or rivals such as the OnePlus 8 Pro that last 32 hours. The Note 20 Ultra managed just under 30 hours between charges with the screen on little more than four hours in that time.
During testing the phone spent about three hours on 5G, the rest on wifi, the screen was set to the default dynamic 120Hz refresh rate and FHD+ resolution. On very heavy-use days, spending most of the day on 5G out and about and using the camera a lot, the Note 20 Ultra still ended the day with at least 15% left. While the battery life is not class-leading, it will make it through a single day without a problem.
Charging the Note 20 Ultra with the included power adapter was very fast, hitting 100% in under 70 minutes, matching the S20 Ultra and faster than the OnePlus 8 Pro. Fast wireless charging and reverse wireless charging are also available.
Samsung declined to provide an estimate for the expected lifespan of the battery in the Note 20 Ultra, which is typically 500 full charge cycles while maintaining at least 80% capacity for other rechargeable batteries. The device is generally repairable and the battery is replaceable by authorised service centres. Battery replacements are expected to cost more than £100 while screens will be in excess of £290.
Samsung declined to comment on the use of recycled materials in the Note 20 Ultra, but does offer trade-in and recycling schemes for old devices.
One UI 2.5
The Note 20 Ultra runs Samsung’s latest version of Android 10 called One UI 2.5. It is very similar to that running on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, but adds a few software features for the S Pen stylus such as handwriting recognition, various screen writing and screenshot tools, translation and gesture support.
The enhanced S Pen gestures – where you wave the stylus around like a magic wand – are a bit gimmicky, but using the stylus’s button as a camera remote is handy.
Samsung has expanded its software partnership with Microsoft. This includes app mirroring from your phone to your PC and support for Microsoft’s new Xbox game-streaming service that is part of the popular Game Pass Ultimate subscription, making the Note 20 Ultra one of the first smartphones to do so.
Overall, One UI 2.5 works well and is one of the best heavily-customised versions of Android available, although it will soon be out of date, with Android 11 due for release by Google in the near future. Samsung has pledged to support three years of major Android updates and monthly security patches, which is good for Android devices, but pales in comparison to Apple’s five-plus years of support for its phones.
The Note 20 Ultra’s camera system on the back is similar to that on the Galaxy S20 Ultra and performs well. The main 108-megapixel wide camera is really good, capable of capturing some cracking images in good to medium light. Its low-light performance is also much improved, with Samsung’s night mode catching up with rivals from Google and Huawei.
The 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera is also one of the best on a phone, but it is the new 12-megapixel 5x telephoto camera that is a step up over the S20 Ultra. That additional optical zoom makes a real difference in how close you can get to objects, producing great images at its native 5x zoom and good images at 10x zoom. It stretches out to 50x zoom, but anything above 20x isn’t fantastic. If you have steady hands, the light is good and your subject is totally still, you can get some good images at extended zooms, but it takes a bit of work and luck.
Video quality up to 8K is pretty good too, with a range of shooting options, smooth zoom and mic recording settings that do a much better job than most Android devices. The 10-megapixel selfie camera is also one of the best on the market.
Overall, the camera on the Note 20 Ultra rivals the best in the business and slightly pips the Galaxy S20 Ultra as Samsung’s best.
The screen is limited to FHD+ with 120Hz mode active, not its native QHD+ resolution.
The phone had issues displaying images from smart security cameras in notifications, such as only intermittently showing them from a Nest Hello doorbell camera.
There’s a set of Samsung’s excellent AKG earbuds in the box, this time with a USB-C cable, as there is no headphone socket.
The stereo speakers are really good for a phone.
Call quality was really good, both normally and on speaker.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra costs £1,179 with 256GB of storage or £1,279 with 512GB shipping on 20 August.
For comparison, the smaller Galaxy Note 20 costs £949, the Galaxy S20 Ultra £1,199, the Galaxy Z Flip £1,300, the OnePlus 8 Pro £799 and the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max £1,149.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is Samsung’s best phone to date, but it launches at a time when expensive superphones look like lavish exuberance, not must-haves.
That’s not to say the £1,179 price-tag is actually that expensive in the high-priced world of top-end smartphones that scale to £2,000. The trouble is it just doesn’t do three times as much as phones a third or less its cost.
The S Pen is still a uniquely powerful tool for those who want a stylus. Note fans will be happy. The Microsoft Windows 10 extensions are good and will get better. The camera is genuinely great. The phone looks the part and it performs well. It has a fantastic screen, but those that just want a big screen are better served by much cheaper phones.
The fingerprint scanner just isn’t good enough for this price of phone and the battery life, while solid for a day’s use, is a bit short compared with competitors.
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is very close to being the best superphone there is. The real question is whether anyone still wants a giant phone costing £1,179 when you have very good phones costing under £400.
Pros: huge 120Hz screen, 5G, great and flexible camera, 5x optical zoom, microSD card slot, dual sim, One UI, wireless charging and powershare, good performance, S Pen
Cons: absolutely massive, very expensive, no headphone socket, ultrasonic fingerprint sensor not as good as competitors, battery life is only OK
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