Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G Review

Packed with perks, but maybe luxurious to a fault

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4.2

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

What We Like
  • Huge, stunning screen

  • Amazing cameras

  • Ample power

  • Productivity perks

  • Good battery life

What We Don't Like
  • Very expensive

  • Can be hard to handle

  • QHD+ or 120Hz, not both

  • Sluggish fingerprint scanner

 For those who can justify the cost and securely hold the huge handset, the Note20 Ultra 5G delivers some seriously impressive hardware.

4.2

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G

Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Our expert reviewer recieved a review unit of the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G to thoroughly test and assess it. Keep reading our full product review.

With the launch of the Galaxy S20 Ultra last spring, Samsung embraced a new, even higher tier of smartphone extravagance and exuberance, delivering an enormous, perk-packed phone with a price tag to match. Now brought to the Note line, which typically provides Samsung’s priciest non-folding smartphone hardware, we have the even more premium Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G.

It’s a beast, packing one of the largest screens around with cutting-edge hardware throughout, not to mention the titular 5G support. Granted, it’s also more phone than most people could ever need, with a $1,300 starting price tag that’ll keep it out of reach of the average consumer. There are a couple of downsides in the mix, but for the Android user who wants the best of the best and can handle an oversized phone, there’s also plenty here to adore.

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Design: Big and beautiful

Smartphones have gradually gotten larger and larger over the years, but with a massive 6.8-inch display, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G really does edge up against small tablet territory. The curved sides of the screen help downplay that notion just a bit, but this is still a seriously large phone at nearly 6.5 inches tall and just over three inches wide.

Even as someone with large hands who prefers sizable phones and usually wields a 6.5-inch iPhone 11 Pro Max, I found the Note20 Ultra 5G to be just a bit too large. One-handed use is limited and between the considerable dimensions and boxy frame, it can even be an awkward fit within pants pockets. The size can also be a big benefit, though: there’s a lot of space on this screen, which is perfect for the pop-out S Pen stylus, and web browsing and videos definitely take advantage of it. But this is the first time in years that I’ve tested a phone that actually felt a smidge too large in average, everyday use.

This is the first time in years that I’ve tested a phone that actually felt a smidge too large in average, everyday use.

Even so, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G is gorgeous, with one of the most polished-looking designs of any phone on the market today. The brushed glass backing and glossy, curvy stainless steel frame give it a luxurious allure. This Mystic Bronze color of the review unit we received isn’t the aesthetic I’d choose if it was my money, but it carries an almost jewelry-like effect that catches the eye. You’d never confuse this for a cheap, budget-friendly phone, and that’s surely intentional. Mystic White and Mystic Black options are also available, but there’s sadly nothing like the Note 10’s rainbow-reflecting Aura Glow.

The camera module on the back of the phone is very large, though, jutting out noticeably from the frame and giving the phone more of an uneven slant on a flat surface than any other recent handset I’ve tested. As before, the S Pen stylus pops out from the bottom of the frame, albeit now on the left side rather than right.

The Note20 Ultra 5G has IP68 dust and water resistance for protection against submersion in up to 5 feet of freshwater for up to 30 minutes. You can buy it with either 128GB or 512GB of internal storage, with the option to add up to 1TB more via a microSD card.

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Setup Process: Quick and easy

Setting up the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G is similar to setting up any other modern Android phone. Hold the small power button on the right side and then wait for the software prompts to guide you through the process. You’ll log into or set up a Google account, optionally do the same with a Samsung account, read and accept terms and conditions, and decide whether or not to copy data from another phone or a cloud backup. It doesn’t take very long.

Performance: Gotta go fast

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ chip inside the Galaxy Note20 Ultra is currently the fastest Android processor on the market, just slightly edging out the standard Snapdragon 865 seen in many of the earlier 2020 flagships (such as the Galaxy S20 line). With an ample 12GB RAM alongside, it’s no surprise that the phone is incredibly responsive and smooth throughout, and never once struggled with games, apps, media, or any other demands.

In benchmark testing, the processor put up a score of 12,176 in PCMark’s Work 2.0 performance test, which is just less than the recently-released Galaxy S20 FE 5G showed (12,222) using the Snapdragon 865. There can be slight variances in score, but they’re clearly both in the same ballpark. And that’s a very, very high score. Last year’s Galaxy Note 10 registered a score of 10,629 on the same test, so there’s a nearly 15 percent year-over-year performance increase.

You’d never confuse this for a cheap, budget-friendly phone, and that’s surely intentional.

Game performance is excellent on the Note20 Ultra 5G, and it can handle any Android game at the highest settings. Fortnite looked fluid and played great on such a large screen, and other flashy 3D games like Call of Duty Mobile and Asphalt 9: Legends similarly impressed. I recorded a result of 51 frames per second on GFXBench’s Car Chase demo, which is the best result I’ve seen to date on any Android phone, and 120fps on the T-Rex benchmark demo (both on the 1080p 120Hz setting).

Connectivity: Get all of the 5G

The Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G is equipped with compatibility for both the low-level sub-6Ghz 5G and super-speedy mmWave 5G, meaning you’re fully equipped for what US carriers have on offer right now. Testing on Verizon’s 5G network, I found that the Nationwide 5G (sub-6Ghz) offered speeds a step up from 4G LTE in my testing area, but not significantly so: I typically saw download speeds between 40-80Mbps, although I did register a rare high of 149Mbps in one test.

However, Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband (mmWave) is insanely fast: I hit a max speed of more than 1.1Gbps on it, although to be fair, I hit 1.6Gbps on the Google Pixel 5 and nearly 2.9Gbps on the Apple iPhone 12 in the exact same location. I suspect that has more to do with the network itself and quality of the signal than the devices, but it’s worth noting.

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

The big downside is that Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband coverage isn’t widely deployed yet, so you probably won’t see those speeds very often. There was a single block of the coverage near me, just north of Chicago city limits, and now it has expanded to a four-block stretch. Everywhere else in the city has the Nationwide 5G coverage instead. Verizon is starting in high-traffic areas in major cities and growing from there, so it could be a while before Ultra Wideband is truly widespread.

Display Quality: Amazing, with a caveat

The Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G’s 6.8-inch display is an absolute stunner. Samsung always pumps out great phone screens, but this QHD+ resolution AMOLED is huge and heavenly to look at. Whether it’s games, videos, or photos, everything just pops off of this bright and bold screen.

There is one hitch, however: Samsung makes you choose between the full-resolution QHD+ setting or the 120Hz super-smooth refresh rate. You can’t have both. At QHD+, the screen is slightly crisper but limited to a standard 60Hz refresh rate. Otherwise, you can drop the resolution down to 1080p and take advantage of the extra-smooth animations and enhanced responsiveness feeling of 120Hz.

The Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G is equipped with compatibility for both the low-level sub-6Ghz 5G and super-speedy mmWave 5G, meaning you’re fully equipped for what US carriers have on offer right now.

It’s surely a battery-saving move, which makes sense—but on a phone that purports to deliver the best of the best, top to bottom, choosing one or the other is disappointing. We’ve seen other phones deliver both QHD+ resolution and 120Hz, such as the OnePlus 8 Pro, while past phones have done QHD+ and 90Hz. Even the latter is a better option than having to choose between the extremes. Ultimately, I found the 120Hz option to be more impactful overall, but it’s tough to stomach a $1,300 phone compromising on that kind of detail.

Samsung has an in-display fingerprint sensor here, and it works fine but doesn’t feel quite as snappy as traditional, non-screen scanners. In fact, the ultrasonic sensor here is slower than the optical in-display fingerprint scanner in the nearly half-price Galaxy S20 FE, so Samsung may want to reevaluate that component decision the next time around.

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Sound Quality: Sounds great

You get a small speaker on the bottom of the phone and another on the top right above the screen, and together they deliver very good stereo sound for streaming music, videos, and more. They also work well when using the speakerphone setting during calls, and call quality otherwise was consistently strong throughout.

Camera/Video Quality: It’s fantastic

The Galaxy Note20 Ultra is well-equipped with cameras, sporting a trio on the back: 12-megapixel wide-angle and telephoto sensors, and a 108-megapixel ultrawide sensor. Exactly why it needs such a massive megapixel count on the ultrawide camera is unclear, but the end result is a highly versatile shooting trio that delivers consistently excellent shots in all conditions. It’s one of the best smartphone camera systems you’ll find today.

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Samsung’s image processing tends to punch up the vibrancy and contrast of photos a bit, and that’s still true here, albeit to a lesser degree. But unless you’re dead set on the natural look, that slight boost of boldness can really bring shots to life. I snapped hundreds of photos during my time testing the Note20 Ultra 5G and was consistently wowed by the results.

In fact, I captured one of the best photos I’ve ever taken while using the Note20 Ultra. Granted, the subject material was excellent: a vivid tree in mid-autumn transformation, with an eye-popping gradient from red to green across the leaves. Any top smartphone could have delivered a fine shot in that moment, but with the Note20 Ultra, everything was in harmony: the color, the details, the shadows, and highlights. My Instagram followers agree: it’s a stunner.

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

The Note20 Ultra can deliver wow moments like that on a regular basis, and even nighttime shooting does a stellar job of maintaining both detail and color during processing. With strong lighting, the 5x telephoto zoom delivers crisp detail at a distance, although the 50x digital hybrid zoom is really more about scoping out curious, far-off details than nabbing share-worthy shots. And while you might not have a screen to view it on at full resolution, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra can snag vibrant video at up to 8K resolution at 24 frames per second, or 4K at 60fps.

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Battery: Plenty to work with

The 4,500mAh battery found in the Note20 Ultra 5G is sizable, but it also has a lot to contend with given the 6.8-inch QHD+/120Hz screen, top-end processor, and 5G connectivity. Luckily, it’s up to the task. I typically finished days with 30-50 percent of battery life by the end of the night, depending on how hard I had pushed the phone in the preceding hours, so it’s a strong all-day phone with a bit of buffer to work with.

There are other, less-powerful phones that are more resilient on this front, such as the Google Pixel 5, but ultimately it’s good news that such a perk-packed super-phone can survive a full day without gasping for life in the evening. You can fast-charge the Note20 Ultra 5G at 25W using the included wired charger, or up to 15W using a compatible wireless charger. It can also reverse wireless-charge accessories or other wirelessly-chargeable phones laid on the back surface.

Software: Android with a stylus

Samsung currently has Android 10 running on the Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G, although it should soon upgrade to Android 11. In any case, Samsung’s skinned version of the mobile OS is plenty responsive, no doubt thanks to the top-tier processor and aided by the 120Hz refresh rate when enabled. Android is a comprehensive, user-friendly operating system, and Samsung’s touches are largely stylish and beneficial tweaks to Google’s own approach.

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Of course, the Note20 Ultra has a distinctive hook with the addition of the S Pen, a roughly 4-inch stylus that slots right into the bottom of the phone and pops out with ease. It matches the color scheme of the phone’s frame, and when removed, the phone automatically pops up a list of compatible functions to choose from. One of the simplest, yet handiest is that the Note20 Ultra quickly provides a writing surface for jotting down notes and scribbles when you remove the S Pen while the phone screen is off. It’s great for to-do lists and other random notes.

There’s quite a bit more you can do with the S Pen when the screen is on, including creating and viewing notes, selecting a portion of the screen to create a custom-sized screenshot, place augmented reality doodles that float in space in the camera view of the world around you, and translate specific text into other languages. The Bluetooth-connected stylus can also be used away from the screen, such as controlling music or the camera shutter.

The Note20 Ultra has a highly versatile shooting trio that delivers consistently excellent shots in all conditions. It’s one of the best smartphone camera systems you’ll find today.

With the 120Hz refresh rate enabled, using the stylus feels even smoother than before. Most people do just fine with a smartphone without a stylus, but the S Pen can be a helpful productivity aid for those who have to stay connected to work when on the go, for example. There’s multi-platform functionality, too, letting you create in Samsung Notes on your Note20 Ultra and then further edit and tweak on a PC, plus they sync to Microsoft’s OneNote for effortless multi-device access.

The Note20 Ultra 5G also supports wireless connectivity with screens that support the MiraCast standard, letting you mirror a PC desktop-like interface to a compatible monitor or TV. It’s the latest evolution of the DeX feature available on Samsung flagship phones over the last couple of years, creating a PC-esque interface and using the phone’s screen as a wireless touchpad. Between DeX and the S Pen, the Note20 Ultra 5G could provide a potential productivity boost.

Price: It’s a lot… maybe too much

While it’s true that you get a lot of phone with the Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G, you’ll also pay a lot for the privilege: it’s priced at $1,299 for the base model with 128GB storage. No doubt, you can get a phone that’s comparable or very close on most of the specs for much less money: phones like Samsung’s own Galaxy S20 FE 5G or Apple’s iPhone 12 are $500-600 less and still do a lot of what the Note20 Ultra can, S Pen stylus excepted.

Phones like Samsung’s own Galaxy S20 FE 5G or Apple’s iPhone 12 are $500-600 less and still do a lot of what the Note20 Ultra can, S Pen stylus excepted.

Like a high-end PC purchase, you’ll potentially pay a lot extra for those last gains and premium flourishes. For some people, it’ll be worth it with the Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G. For most, though, and especially given the economic climate right now, you might be better off with a more sensible alternative, and yes, an $800 smartphone is more sensible in this comparison.

Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G vs. Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Apple’s top-end iPhone 12 Pro Max is still just released as of this comparison, although I have been testing the standard iPhone 12 model and have a sense of where the Pro Max’s upgrades can make a difference. Like the Note20 Ultra 5G, the iPhone 12 Pro Max delivers a huge and high-resolution screen (6.7 inches), albeit shy of QHD+ resolution and with just standard 60Hz. That said, it has broad 5G compatibility, and what look to be truly excellent cameras.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max will have a speed advantage on paper thanks to the A14 Bionic chip, which beats all comers in benchmark testing, although the lack of a speedy screen refresh rate may obscure the day-to-day experience of that advantage. And the largest iPhone starts at $1,099, providing a decent savings from the full-sized Note20 Ultra 5G. We don’t know yet how they’ll compare in head-to-head testing, although we’re excited to find out soon.

Check out our guide to the best 5G phones you can buy today. 

Final Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra is a super-phone in every sense of the word, with an incredible screen and camera setup, ample power, lavish design, and speedy 5G support. It’s also a $1,300 phone in an era of $700-800 phones that do a lot of the same things.  Still, it’s a truly impressive phone if you can justify the price, particularly for those who might be able to tap into its added productivity perks.

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Specs

  • Product Name Galaxy Note20 Ultra
  • Product Brand Samsung
  • UPC SM-N986U1
  • Price $1,299.99
  • Release Date August 2020
  • Product Dimensions 3.04 x 6.49 x 0.32 in.
  • Warranty 1 year
  • Platform Android 10
  • Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+
  • RAM 12GB
  • Storage 128GB/512GB
  • Camera 12MP/108MP/12MP
  • Battery Capacity 4,500mAh
  • Ports USB-C
  • Waterproof IP68