Without getting into the background, let’s just jump into why humans need to evolve at a rapid pace. The Galaxy Note20 Ultra is big. Bigger than it needs to be but there are takers for it and sadly, our digits haven’t elongated in proportion to the growing screen sizes of modern phones. 6.9 inches to be precise in the case of the Note20 Ultra.
Did anyone ask for this size of a phone? Probably not. But the fact that it exists is reason to believe that big might just be better. At least for Samsung, since it reserves its top tech for the Note series and even between the newly launched Note20 and the Note20 Ultra, it’s this ginormous Ultra that gets the extra dollop of love from its creators.
Bronze is the new gold standard
The first thing you notice about the Note20 Ultra is the newly coined Mystic Bronze finish. It’s matte, fingerprint resistant and oh-so-sexy. It’s doing to me what Space Grey did a few years ago and I wanted all my gadgets in matching finishes. The 6.9in display does make for large dimensions and awkward hand positions just to pick up the Note20 Ultra from a desk. Don’t even try thinking your hands are big enough for one-handed use. This is a phone unapologetically for those who want to be seen. The triple-lens camera housing around the back is perhaps its most distinguishing feature after the Mystic Bronze finish and it might not be an accident.
With Apple continually churning our camera module designs that become instantly recognisable on screen, in a crowd or from a distance, Samsung is clearly hoping to create its own identity for the Note20 Ultra while being pressed against someone’s ear. The curved screen, dubbed the edge Infinity-O is made of Corning’s new Gorilla Glass Victus, said to be the toughest ever glass made for a smartphone and up to 4x more scratch-resistant than its competitors. That claim couldn’t be put to test since the thin film-like scratch guard preinstalled on our device caught scratch marks caused by doodling with the S-pen. The screen quality itself is as expected, staggeringly good. Between Vivid and Natural, it’s personal preference but there’s no denying its ability to immerse the viewer with its resolution, colours and now, 120Hz smoothness. Surprisingly though, even for a 2020 flagship, the Note20 Ultra doesn’t let you run the display at its max resolution of 3088 x 1440 WQHD+ at 120Hz. You are forced to drop a notch to 2316 x 1080 FHD+ if you want supreme smoothness or make do with 60Hz refresh rate if you want maximum resolution. Most people will pick the FHD+ @120Hz since the marginal advantage higher resolution may give you isn’t even tangible on the 6.9in screen. This is also an adaptive refresh rate, dropping to lower refresh rates if you’re not scrolling through pages of the gram or searching for dancing cats on YouTube. It helps conserve battery life, which even with 4500mAh on board, can prove to be too close to comfort for power users. A 25W fast-charger is included in the box, which is reminiscent of a flagship phone from 2018, given how the Chinese competition is obsessed with powering you up while you chug a cold brew.
The size is definitely a concern if you haven’t been a Note user in the past. The curved sides are fine but the edge can dig into your palms. I’ve never been a fan of curved screens but the Note20 Ultra uses the edges well to display “panels” that can hold several screens worth of shortcuts for quick access from anywhere in the OS. Samsung’s own One UI 2.5 is highly polished too with endless customization abilities but being able to use three apps simultaneously is still one of Note’s biggest party trick. You can split the screen in two halves with a third app floating on top, with the S-Pen you can even make good use of all this power and real estate by copy-pasting handwritten notes from one app to another.
The S-Pen itself has learnt a few new tricks, including turning any handwritten note into actual text that can be copied on to a clipboard for pasting anywhere in the UI and it now even straightens up your scribbles. The numerous air-gestures come across as gimmicks since they’re all a bit of a hit or miss, but I did find using the S-Pen double-click as a shutter button for the camera convenient. You can also show your palm to the selfie cam to trigger the shutter if you don’t want to mess with the mighty pen. But the biggest improvement in the S-Pen has been the reduced latency to an incredible 9ms from 45ms from the previous generation and that is instantly tangible the moment you click it out and start scribbling on the off screen. There is a feeling akin to pen-to-paper and very analogue like, it doesn’t feel like a digital device at all, allowing for more creative doodles and accurate handwriting. Palm rejection could still be improved though, as it tends to open unwanted tasks while engrossed in making a masterpiece.
Performance is par for the course and Samsung’s homegrown Exynos 990 is more than up to the task of handling games, multiple apps at once or 8K video recording without a stutter. It does heat up a fair bit after a few minutes of power use though and if you decide to cover it up with a case, even more so. But honestly, at this level of performance, you can’t expect it to run cool as ice. The Note is meant to perform like a high-strung machine and it does provide the power in its applications, heat is an obvious byproduct and not something that should be an issue all the time. Our test mule with 12GB RAM and 256GB storage never broke a sweat and for those photographer types, this is one of the few flagships that still offers a microSD card slot so fuel your greed of storing RAW, 108MP image files even further!
It’s the cameras that a lot of people will be exploring first when they get their hands on the Note20 Ultra. Heck, that camera module could very well be visible from outer space! It may not be a mere coincidence that Samsung calls it Space Zoom. The 108MP wide (ƒ/1.8), 12MP telephoto with 5x optical zoom (ƒ/3.0) and the 12MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.2) create quite a bump at the back, along with the laser auto-focus. The hole-punch selfie cam is a rather straightforward 10MP unit but Samsung’s Live Focus software-based depth of field effect is constantly improving to the point where it looks more natural than most other competition. Even the detail from the front cam is good, although it does smoothen the skin, flattening the texture and automatically reduces blemishes. I could use some of that, but it’s not a ‘what you see is what you get’ sort of selfie cam. Thank God for small mercies!
The 5x periscope optical on the rear is solid with sharp focus and it retains most of the detail and resolution of the 1x shot. In well-lit conditions, it’s almost as clear and detailed as a 1x shot and that is to say that the Note20 Ultra has one of the best usable zoom cameras anywhere! Strangely though, between 1.1x and 4.9x, as you zoom in, the image quality continually degrades, until it suddenly snaps into focus the moment you hit 5.0x, which is when the software hands it over to the dedicated 12MP telephoto lens. Yet, in the camera UI, you only get shortcuts for every other value (0.5x, 2x, 4x, 10x, 20x and 50x) and only when you manually adjust the slider to exactly 5.0x, can you avail of the better image quality. Casually snapping away in 4x thinking it’s close enough to 5x won’t give you anywhere close to the image quality that 5x will give you.
On the main camera, laser focus and Best Shot, both turned out to a gamble, either prompting you to choose an undesired angle or taking its own sweet time to focus, especially in anything but 1.0x zoom. Straight up 12MP (9-in-1 binned) shots were great, with enough dynamic range and even-handed colours on par with other flagships. Compared to the iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone did have a slight edge in terms of shadow detail and better HDR implementation. The Note20 Ultra just looked a shade darker, concealing some details in dimly lit areas and overexposing the whiter shades ever so slightly as you can see in the sample pics of the crane and rig.
Night mode works as expected and while it’s good, the competition has made tremendous strides in this aspect too and the Note2 Ultra doesn’t stand out as a cut above. Both the Vivo X50 Pro and the OP8 Pro do as good a job if not better at half the price.
By no means is this a sub-par camera set-up, but you’ll just have to spend more time getting it to do the best it can. 108MP shots over the binned resolution do offer more detail and resolution, but at almost ten times the file size and also, the difference is more appreciated on the phone screen itself. Transfer it back to a desktop or laptop and you realise that digital sharpening has been added to the mix and all the pictures have a hint of processing. As long as you don’t zoom irrationally into the images, this won’t be a concern at all and in fact, it makes for stunning pictures for social media use and everyday food and family photography. Even the 50x Space Zoom gets you unbelievably close to the subject and while you won’t be able to frame that picture for your wall, it’s an incredible tool to have on a smartphone. It allows you to identify faces, objects and even text from distances that would otherwise be out of reach so, full marks to Samsung for that.
There’s 8K video (24fps) and 4K or Full HD video, both at 60fps and even a 21:9 cinematic aspect ratio if you want to emulate Scorsese using a Samsung, this could be your tool and Live Focus (depth control) on video does add drama to even a birthday candle blowout. Results are variable from great to OK and overall, in terms of stability and the ability to maintain correct exposure, the iPhone 11 Pro still trumps it.
Samsung’s One UI has been polished to a shine in the Note20 Ultra and works seamlessly across the board. Things like multi-window, pasting handwritten clipboard text, annotations on virtually anything, syncing notes to the cloud or Outlook, sharing with other devices nearby...all the little everyday things that make a great work-phone experience are present. Animations and notification on the off-screen are improved too and everything works with the fluidity of a well-oiled machine. DEX has gone wireless if you want to use a bigger monitor as muscle and the Note20 Ultra as the brains of your work desk, support for Xbox games and list goes on if you really want to explore every crevice of the fact sheet.
But the fact is, the Note20 Ultra isn’t for everyone. It’s size, which can be a bonus for some, is a bane for most since it makes every task a two-handed affair and believe it or not, it wears you down over the period of a whole day of replying to texts in monosyllables or having to be extra careful just while removing it from your pocket for a quick pic. It’s a powerhouse no doubt and the S-Pen is truly fast and responsive like a real writing tool now, but be ready to invest yourself in it. Both in terms of money and commitment. But, if it’s the absolute best screen quality you’re looking for, the Note flexes its muscles better than anyone else. Watching a movie is actually not just possible but even enjoyable on this screen and the stereo speakers just about keep up. The Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra offers a lot, but also asks a lot of you. Not for everyone but for those who like supersized phones, there is no other phone that can do what the Note20 Ultra does.