Samsung Note 20 Ultra review: The everything phone of 2020

With every hardware trick onboard and a dash of Microsoft software, the Note 20 Ultra is the ultimate phone of the year.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
(Image: © Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

At this stage in Samsung's long mobile history, leaks about its upcoming phones are as consistent as the sun rising. New for this year, as fully expected, is the Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. While the Note 20 has garnered some mixed feelings the Note 20 Ultra appears to be a near-flawless – albeit expensive – flagship phone for 2020.

I've been using the $1,300 Galaxy Note 20 Ultra for the last few weeks as an upgrade from my 2018-era Galaxy Note 9, and a side-grade from my Galaxy Z Flip. I've always had mixed feelings on Samsung's take on Android but have acknowledged the company gets better with every release. That observation applies to the Note 20 Ultra.

Toss in some good old' Microsoft Link to Windows (aka Your Phone), some preloaded Microsoft apps, game streaming with Project xCloud, and the best hardware in a smartphone and the Note 20 Ultra is easily the top smartphone of the year. I'm struggling to find anything wrong with it. But if you don't do a trade-in, that high price for Samsung's top-tier phone is a tough pill to swallow during these uncertain times.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Price & release date

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Bronze

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is currently available for purchase, starting at $1,300 in the U.S., with an optional $1,400 model available offering 256GB of storage.

It's also available much cheaper if you trade in your current smartphone — Samsung gives up to $650 in trade-in credits if you have a recent Galaxy flagship like the Note 10+ or S20 Ultra — or if you buy it through a carrier. In the U.S., like all Samsung products, the Note 20 Ultra is available at AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, along with smaller regional carriers and MVNOs. And because it's a 5G phone, you'll need a 5G plan to take advantage of the phone's extracellular speeds.

You can get the Note 20 Ultra in three colors: Mystic Bronze, Mystic White, and Mystic Black. We're reviewing the new Mystic Bronze version and think it's the best color for the new phone.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra hardware and design

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

In many ways, the specs of the Note 20 Ultra are the least exciting part. Samsung checks all the boxes (and I mean all), as you predict for its biggest phone yet. The company has managed to squeeze every bit of new technology into one rather large (but still pocketable!) smartphone. Qi wireless, NFC, three ridiculous rear cameras, one perfect front-facing one, S-Pen, Dolby stereo audio, the latest Corning Gorilla Glass (i.e. 'Victus'), 4G, 5G, Wi-Fi 6 mmWave, and sub6, IP-68, ad nauseum, it's all here in the Note 20 Ultra.

I don't know if there is a phone with more "stuff" jammed in it than this one.

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CategoryGalaxy Note 20 Ultra
Operating SystemAndroid 10
One UI 2.5
3088 x 1440
120Hz refresh rate
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 865+
Memory12GB LPDDR5
Expandable Storage✔️
Rear Camera 1108MP primary
Rear Camera 212MP telephoto
5x optical zoom
Rear Camera 312MP ultra-wide
Front Camera10MP
SecurityIn-screen ultrasonic fingerprint sensor
AudioStereo speakers
Battery4,500 mAH
Water ResistanceIP68
Dimensions77.2 x 164.8 x 8.1mm
ColorsMystic Bronze
Mystic Black
Mystic White

Three main areas make the Note 20 Ultra stand out from many other slab smartphones on the market, which are:

  • 108MP rear camera
  • 6.9-inch 120Hz adaptive refresh 3088 x 1440 display
  • New design, including matte glass back

The camera and display will get its own section, but let's quickly talk about the build quality and that new matte back. Samsung offers three colors, including black, white, and arguably the coolest looking one with bronze. Bronze is this year's rose gold (bronze is making a comeback in mechanical watches too), and while it's an acquired taste, I like it. The back of the Note 20 Ultra is new with a matte, textured glass. The beauty here is, for the first time, the phone does not pick up fingerprints. It also feels great to hold, adding just a bit of smoothness without being slippery. All phones need to do this.

At 208 grams and 165mm tall, the Note 20 Ultra is big, but if you are coming from a Note 9 it's not night and day different. Both phones feel downright similar even if the Note 20 Ultra is a few millimeters taller. The 7 grams of weight difference is unnoticeable.

Is the Note 20 Ultra a big phone? Sure. Is it unmanageable? Definitely not. I've been rocking a Huawei Mate 20X for a while, and that phone is substantially larger. I had no problem carrying the Note 20 Ultra in my front pants pocket or using it in my Tesla Model 3 using a Jeda wireless charging mat, a feat my Mate 20X could not accomplish.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

Compared to Note 9, Note 20 Ultra is a bit squarer, and I like the change. While it lacks the curvier display and chassis, it is more comfortable to hold. Samsung has switched sides for everything between Note 9, Note 10, and Note 20 Ultra. On the Ultra, the power and volume keys are on the left instead of split between left and right. The lower speaker and S-Pen are now on the left side instead of the right. None of this impacted my usability, but if you're doing a switch, it will be a little unsettling at first.

Another change from the Note 9 is the fingerprint reader. The Note 9's rear fingerprint reader makes it easier to unlock as you're pulling it out of your pocket and not looking. The Note 20 Ultra's in-screen fingerprint reader is great if a bit slow and lacks haptics. I had no false reads, and with the always-on-display feature for it, it is easy to hit as a target. If you want even faster unlocking, you can enable raise-to-wake and facial I.D., now without slow retina scanning. While fast, such a system is less secure (though I couldn't fool with a digital photo, so there's that). Face ID does not count as a biometric for third-party apps either.

Finally, I'll shout out to Samsung's improving haptic engine. Whether it's typing or using the bottom navigation keys (if you don't prefer gestures), Samsung's haptics are beaten only by Apple. Compared to Note 9, again, it is much better on the Note 20 Ultra.

Should I mention the camera bump? Yes, it is prominent. I also do not care in the slightest, and neither did some current Note owners who I showed this phone too. While the Note 20 Ultra is a bit smidge wobbly when laying flat, it never phased me. Slapping on a case could also help alleviate that concern.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra display

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

I could do a whole article on the display tech, and innovation Samsung puts into the Note 20 Ultra screen. Luckily, I don't have to as DisplayMate did an exhaustive independent evaluation of it giving it the highest rating of A+:

For the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, Samsung has concentrated on significantly raising the on-screen Absolute Picture Quality and Absolute Color Accuracy of the OLED display by implementing Precision Factory Display Calibration, moving the overall Galaxy Note20 Ultra display performance up to Record-Setting Outstanding Levels.

It's bright, it's smooth, and it's very color accurate. The 120Hz adaptive display is hard to resist, but it's also not life-changing either. Apps like Twitter still have shoddy scrolling on Android, and surprisingly, the 120Hz does not do much to help that. For third-party Twitter apps, however, you do notice the difference, so your mileage may vary. Combined with the O.S. and Snapdragon 865+ processor, the Note 20 Ultra is very fluid and responsive to normal interaction usage. It's still not Apple-level fluid, but it's the best Android experience I have had.

OLED has had many improvements over the years. The biggest for me is how it looks more natural, akin to an excellent LCD, rather than over-saturated, high contrast versions from the Note 9 era and earlier.

What I don't love about the Note 20 Ultra is, unlike the regular Note 20, it has the silly curved display with fall-off edges. It doesn't seem as dramatic as Note 9, but while it looks impressive in photos, I don't find any practical benefit. While using Microsoft's SwiftKey keyboard, I would notice frequent "p" insertion into many words due to my accidentally touching the side (luckily, you can "solve" this touch problem with this free third-party app (opens in new tab)). I appreciate the aesthetics, but I feel a flat display would be more pragmatic. Curved edges are a fad that needs to be put to rest.

Of course, the tradeoff with 120Hz is obvious: battery life…

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra battery

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

The battery life of the Ultra's 4,500 mAh battery is OK. My testing involved using the 120Hz adaptive refresh, always-on-display enabled, and 5G left on (though rarely used). On light usage, including firing up the power-hungry camera a few times, I would be at 50 percent by bedtime. But I could see that going way down though if using the Note 20 Ultra with heavy usage. Note 20 Ultra is one of those "good enough" phones, but it also doesn't live up to the "Ultra" moniker for battery endurance.

More real-world numbers reflect about close to six-hours screen time, which is not bad. Knocking down the display to just 60Hz, would, of course, extend that by a few hours. But so far, in my time with the Note 20 Ultra, I never felt I had to do that.

Samsung's quick charge is also decent but expected at this price range. Sure, the included tiny 25-watt wired fast charger is below newer 45-watt options (and not to mention Oppo's new and insane 125W fast charger), but it's still reliable and less risky to battery longevity. Samsung says you should be able to recharge the Note 20 Ultra entirely in about an hour. That rate varies depending on how full the battery is, so at 85 percent capacity, it still takes 27 minutes to recharge fully.

The coils for Qi are also spread out and quite large. I had less fiddling to find the sweet spot when placing it on a charger than my iPhone 11.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra S Pen