Samsung has been considered one of the top Android smartphone manufacturers for some time now, and we hear about how great the Galaxy S and Note series are every year. Until now, I had never had the chance to use the company's high-end smartphones for an extended period, so I was excited to get the chance to review the Galaxy Note20 Ultra.

Being that I live in Europe, I got stuck with the Exynos variant of the phone, and while I can't personally speak to the differences between Exynos and Snapdragon models, Samsung's chipsets definitely have a less than stellar reputation. Still, this is Samsung's "everything phone", meaning it delivers almost everything you would want a phone to do, and then some.

It's not all amazing, though, and while it's a very capable smartphone, the exorbitant price tag of €1,339.90 is hard to swallow. In fact, I can say right now that this isn't a phone you should buy - at least not at this price.

CPU Exynos 990 (Octa-core) - two 2.73GHz custom cores, two 2.5GHz Cortex-A76, four 2.0GHz Cortex-A55
GPU Mali-G77 MP11
Display 6.9 inches, 1440x3088, 525ppi, 120Hz FHD or 60Hz QHD, Dynamic AMOLED 2X
Body 161.9x73.7x7.8mm (6.37x2.90x0.31in), 186g (6.56oz)
Camera 108MP main + 12MP ultra-wide + 12MP telephoto, Front - 10MP
Video 8K - 24fps, 4K - 60fps, HDR10+, Front - 4K - 60fps
Aperture f/1.8 + f/2.0 + f/3.0, Front - F/2.2
Storage 256GB UFS 3.0
RAM 12GB
Battery 4,500mAh, 25W fast charging
5G Sub6 + mmWave
Color Mystic Bronze, Mystic Black, Mystic White
OS Android 10 with OneUI 2.5
Price €1309 - €1,339.90; £1,179

Day one

Design

Samsung's Galaxy Note series is typically responsible for the company's largest phones, and that certainly holds true here. The Note20 Ultra feels massive, and almost to a fault. I like being able to use phones with one hand, but this phone makes me constantly feel like I don't have a good enough grasp on it. The phone's backplate has a satin-like finish that feels nice to the touch, but it adds to the feeling that this phone can slip out of my hand at any time. Altogether, this has made it so that I don't want to use the phone a lot of the time. I do like the Mystic Bronze color, though.

The camera bump on this phone is absolutely massive, too, and while that's not something you'll feel all the time, it's noticeable. Laying it down on a table, the phone will rock much more than any other phone I've tested, but again, that shouldn't be something that affects the way you use the phone.

One thing I find interesting about the Galaxy Note20 Ultra's design is that the top and bottom sides of the phone are completely flat. It makes the phone feel more substantial, but it also makes it more comfortable in a way, since I almost always hold my phones so that the bottom edge is resting on my little finger. Speaking of which, the bottom edge houses the bottom-firing speaker, a USB Type-C port, a microphone, and of course, the S Pen that makes this phone unique.

The top edge is a lot cleaner, with another microphone and the SIM card slot.

Over on the right side, there's the power button that can also be used to summon Bixby, along with the volume rocker.

The left side of the phone is completely clean, which is probably helped by the fact that that's where the S Pen is stored.

Display, S Pen, and sound

The Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra packs a huge 6.9-inch display, and to be absolutely clear, this is the best-looking phone display I've ever used. Everything here is just stellar, with beautiful and vivid colors, pure blacks, smooth animations thanks to the 120Hz refresh rate, and no color distortions or issues I could complain about. The punch-hole for the selfie camera is also the smallest I've seen yet, or at least it feels that way because of the sheer size of the display. I'd say, as far as visuals go, this display is pretty much perfect. The only potential downside is that you can't use QHD+ and 120Hz at the same time. There's also an ultrasonic fingerprint sensor under the display, which works fine, though it's not as fast as the optical sensors most other phones use.

Using it, though, can be a different story. My complaints about the phone's size are exacerbated by the huge display and the curved edges at the sides. Not only is the phone somewhat hard to hold, typing with a single hand can be torture, not because I can't reach both sides of the screen, but because whenever I reach over to the A key, my hand touches the delete button, so words keep disappearing from my texts. I thought this was a bug with Samsung's keyboard for a while until I realized I was deleting words by accident. It's become more and more common to hear arguments against the use of curved edges, and it becomes an even bigger problem at this size.

Of course, what makes the Note series special is the S Pen, and that definitely holds true here in my opinion. When you pop the S Pen out of its slot, you get a list of shortcuts to common S Pen actions and apps, like drawing on a screenshot, taking notes, or open apps like PENUP, where you can get more creative and color some images to share with the community. Some of the S Pen's features can be considered gimmicks and novelties, but they can be quite fun to use.

Beyond being fun, though, the S Pen is just a very useful tool in my opinion. Samsung's handwriting keyboard works really well, and when I'm standing or sitting still, it's my favorite way to type on this phone. It feels natural and it's almost never annoying, which I can't say for some other handwriting experiences like my laptop (a late 2017 HP Envy x360, for reference). One of the features that's been added in recent iterations of the S Pen is the ability to convert handwritten notes in the Samsung Notes app to plain text, and it's also great to have. Even better, you don't even need to convert it for the text to be searchable, you can just search for the words you want, and if you wrote them with the pen, they will still show up.

Recent iterations of the S Pen have also added support for Air Gestures, which are quick shortcuts to a number of actions, which can change based on the app you're using if developers want to hook into the feature. One gesture I personally find useful is shaking the S Pen to start drawing on a screenshot of the current screen. You can also use the S Pen as a remote shutter button for the Camera app, which is another great use case for it.

As for sound, The Galaxy Note20 Ultra has a bottom-firing speaker and an amplified earpiece for stereo sound, and it's pretty good. It gets fairly loud and the audio comes out clean without any distortion that I can detect. I don't think it's the loudest I've heard, but it doesn't leave much to be desired.

Camera

The Galaxy Note20 Ultra packs a triple-camera setup on the back, comprised of a 108MP primary camera, a 12MP wide-angle, and another 12MP periscope camera for telephoto shots with 5x optical zoom and up to 50x digital zoom. As I've mentioned in other reviews, this kind of setup is my favorite, with the ability to zoom in and out at a wide range of levels. All of these cameras produce 12MP shots by default, since the main sensor uses Samsung's "Nonacell" technology, combining nine pixels into one, though you can switch to 108MP mode if you want to.

Results from these cameras are generally good, but I'm not completely sold on them. I'd heard a few times about Samsung phones' tendency to oversaturate shots, and I can definitely see that happening here. Some shots crank up the saturation much more than they should, and while it can look pretty, I try to judge cameras on how accurately they represent what I'm seeing, so I don't let personal preference play as much of a role. In many situations, especially during the day, the Note20 Ultra doesn't do that very well.

One thing I have to give Samsung credit for is the consistency of the images from all three of the cameras. It's really easy with three different sensors for shots to change significantly depending on whether you're using the main camera or the telephoto, but the cameras here are fairly consistent, though it depends on the situation.

Samsung packed a lot of camera features into this phone, and the company has most often highlighted Single Take, a feature that captures a series of photos and videos over a few seconds and save what it considers the best ones. This can be useful if you're taking pictures of moving subjects, for example. It must be noted, however, that Single Take is not exclusive to the Note20 Ultra. There's also a Pro Video mode, which I personally find more interesting. It gives you a handful of manual controls for focus, white balance, directional audio recording, and more, so you can adjust it all on the fly while recording.

There are some omissions that I find weird, though, like the fact that the ultra-wide angle camera can't double as a macro camera, like many other high-end phones do. For a phone that's about being able to do everything, that's something I would have liked to have.

Performance and battery life

As I noted at the start, I have the European variant of the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, which means it's powered by the Exynos 990 chipset, developed by Samsung itself. It's still a flagship processor, and you won't really see much in the way of slowdowns or anything like that, but I have had some problems with this phone.

For example, while using it for navigation with the HERE WeGo app, if I turn off the screen, it simply stops giving me directions, and I need to turn it on for the phone to locate me again. I don't currently have a way to hold the phone where I can see the screen while I'm driving, so it's not uncommon for me to rely on just voice directions, but I can't do that with this phone. Of course, I can't say for sure that has to do with the chipset being used here, but it's the first time I notice this issue with one of my phones. And yes, the app is allowed to run and get location access in the background.

Setting that aside, let's take a look at benchmarks to see how the Note20 Ultra measures against other flagships. First, we have AnTuTu, which is a general benchmark:

Right away, you can see a notable difference between this and the Snapdragon variant of the phone, but it's no slouch either. Next up is Geekbench 5, a CPU test:

In terms of single-core performance, the Exynos 990 seems to outperform the Snapdragon 865 in the OnePlus 8 family, but it gets handily beaten in multi-core performance. Finally, GFXBench tests the GPU:

Moving on to battery life, I was again disappointed by this phone. In the first couple of days, I was having to charge the phone long before I went to bed, even after trying to moderate my usage more than usual. At one point I was at 7% battery by 7PM, after unplugging the phone at around 9:15AM, and without anything that could be considered heavy usage. It turns out that one of my apps had been draining more battery than usual in the background, and after disabling background activity for it, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra usually got me through the day, but it's still not amazing.

With a sizable 4,500mAh battery, I really expected a lot more, but this is worse than something like the OPPO Find X2 Pro with its smaller 4,050mAh battery. Samsung offers Wireless PowerShare so you can wirelessly charge other devices off of this phone, but I never want to do that because the phone itself is more likely to be dead by the end of the day than my watch or earbuds are. I can't speak to whether this also applies to Snapdragon variants of this phone, but this is what you're getting if you buy it in Europe, and it's not great. The phone also supports 25W charging, which is fine, but pales in comparison to the aforementioned Find X2 Pro.

Software and Microsoft integrations

The Galaxy Note20 Ultra is running Android 10 and OneUI 2.5, though Android 11 should be on the way soon. As I mentioned in my review of the Galaxy A51 back in March, Samsung's OneUI is one of the most complex skins in the Android universe, and I don't really love it. It constantly gives me a feeling that there's something I might be supposed to try out, but I just don't know how to find it. With this being my second Samsung phone review, I'm a bit more comfortable with it by now, but I still get that feeling sometimes. One thing Samsung fixed, though, is that the Android 10 navigation gestures now work with third-party launchers.

All the features I mentioned in my previous review are still here, but one of the things that makes Samsung phones stand out these days is the deep link between Samsung apps and services and Microsoft's equivalent services, as well as specific features of the Your Phone app for Windows 10.

In terms of integration between specific apps, we have OneDrive replacing Samsung Cloud in the My Files app and as the sync service for photos on the Gallery app; Samsung Notes syncing with the OneNote Feed, which you can access in Outlook on the web or the OneNote app for Windows 10; and Samsung Reminders syncing with Microsoft To Do.

These things work fine, and they can make it simpler to have these items sync across your phone and PC, but I have a hard time seeing them as a big selling point considering you can just install those Microsoft apps on your phone. Sure, it's easier to keep using the same apps, but most of these links aren't linked by default or prompted to you visibly, so it's not that much easier to set up than just installing the Microsoft apps you want. However, the Samsung Reminders integration is pretty cool, since you can make it work with Bixby, which makes it easier to create reminders with your voice. Of course, that comes with the downside of using Bixby.

As for Your Phone, the capabilities of the app have grown, and they're actually very nice to have. Now, not only can you see your phone's screen on your PC, you can open individual apps from your phone, and even pin them to the taskbar as if they were PC apps, and run them simultaneously. There are quite a few times when I want to check something out on my phone quickly and I don't want to have to shift my attention away from my PC screen, so this is awesome. You can even drag and drop files between your phone and PC this way, it's really cool. What's more, you can also enable clipboard sync, so copied items on the PC show up on your phone and vice versa.

Galaxy Buds Live

In addition to the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, Samsung also sent me the Galaxy Buds Live, and while I'm not exactly an audio expert, it's worth talking about the overall experience. I quite like the aesthetic of the Buds Live, and Mystic Bronze is probably the best color to get here, just because it sticks out a lot less from most skin tones and makes them pretty subtle. I find them comfortable enough, but every now and then I get this feeling that they're not secure enough and they might fall off. They have never fallen off accidentally, even when riding my bike at high speeds, but the in-ear tip design of other earbuds feels a bit safer to me.

Setting up the Galaxy Buds Live is especially easy with a Samsung phone like the Note20 Ultra, and as you pop the case open, they show up on your phone, ready to connect. In fact, the Buds Live are even supported by Windows 10's Swift Pair feature, so they also show up on your PC if they're not paired with another device yet. The process of connecting to other phones is like any other pair of true wireless earbuds.

It's also pretty easy to switch between devices with the Buds Live, though it's not as seamless as what Apple touts with its AirPods, for example, where it automatically switches to wherever you have media playing if you have a bunch of Apple devices. Here, you can just head into the Bluetooth settings on a paired device and connect to the earbuds, even if they're currently connected and playing media somewhere else. It requires more action from the user, but it's a seamless process and it works well.

The big selling point of the Buds Live compared to Samsung's other earbuds is the active noise cancellation, but if that's the reason you're considering them, I can tell you it's not worth it. At first, I had to repeatedly turn ANC on and off because I was never sure if it was enabled or not. The only situation where I could notice a real difference was when I was sitting in my car with the AC on, and the earbuds did make the noise slightly quieter, but not by much. A better test might be with plane engine rumble on a flight, but that's not something I can do right now.

The Galaxy Buds Live have touch controls, but I was somewhat disappointed that there aren't swipe gestures like some other premium earbuds have. Because of this, volume controls have to come at the cost of some other features, like activating my voice assistant or enabling active noise cancellation. This isn't a huge problem because I usually have a smartwatch connected as well, but having to pull out my phone for these actions would be annoying.

As for sound, the Galaxy Buds Live are alright, but as I've stated before, I'm not an audio expert. Switching from my PC speakers to the Buds Live, I do feel like the sound is a little less clean with the earbuds, but that could just be because they're earbuds instead of the large drivers you can get with PCs or even phones.

It's also worth noting that the Galaxy Buds Live charge in the case, and the case itself charges via USB Type-C, as it should. It also supports wireless charging, and you can charge off the back of the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, as I mentioned above. I haven't had to do this, though, because the battery life on the earbuds has been solid and I've never had to charge them beyond the first charge when I got them.

Conclusion

As far as its role of being Samsung's "everything phone" goes, the Note20 Ultra does a good enough job. It has a huge, gorgeous display, the S Pen, solid stereo speakers, premium design, and some cool exclusive features to boot, like the links with Windows 10 and other Microsoft apps and services. It does a lot of things well enough, and is even the best at some of them, like the amazing display and the S Pen features.

But as a phone with a standard form factor that costs €1,339, there are a bit too many shortcomings to overlook. The camera is good, but not amazing, and the consistent oversaturation can get annoying. The huge display is good for media consumption, but the curved edges are prone to accidental touches, and the overall size of the phone makes it hard to use with one hand. And while performance in general terms is good, battery life on this Exynos model is far from what you'd expect of a 4,500mAh battery. I'm also just not a big fan of OneUI, but that's less of a problem.

Most of those things aren't necessarily huge problems. But what is huge is the price tag for this phone, at €1,339.90. I think the Galaxy Note20 Ultra is a really good phone. It's just not a phone that should ever cost as much as it does, even in the context of other incredibly expensive phones like the iPhone 12 Pro Max or - a personal favorite of mine - the OPPO Find X2 Pro.

That said, if you're interested, you can find it on Amazon UK, where it's currently discounted to £929, a much better deal. That price only applies to the Mystic White version, though, and it goes up from there. Over in the U.S., you can get the Snapdragon variant with 128GB of internal storage, which is discounted to $1,049.99. The Galaxy Buds Live can be had for $139.99 (currently $30 off) in the U.S., and in the UK starting at £103.16.

 

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