(Pocket-lint) - The Samsung Galaxy Note series is almost a decade old. Within that timeframe the stylus-donning handset has brought forth plenty of new technologies - such as curved screen and edge control - which have, perhaps unsurprisingly, become the relative norm in the world of smartphones.
As a result the Note 20 Ultra - the 2020 flagship in Samsung's Galaxy stable - was somewhat touted as "just another Note" long before even being unveiled, given the lack of any real killer new feature to lure new punters in.
Rather than take the cynical view, however, we can see why that's actually positive sentiment - because the Note 20 Ultra ticks all the right boxes in a now established format that its competitors are keen to emulate. But not one has managed that task to date.
So is the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra the ultimate flagship for those seeking a handset with an integrated stylus? Or does its apparent absence of any big new feature ultimately cost its appeal?
- Finishes: Mystic Bronze / Mystic Black / Mystic White
- Gorilla Glass 7 protection front & rear
- Under-screen fingerprint scanner
- IP68 water/dust resistance
- 8.1mm thickness
As you might have gathered from the Ultra name, there's also a 'normal' Note 20 - which is a little smaller in stature, cuts back on some of the higher-end finish options and camera setup, and manages to slot in under the four-figure asking price (clearly not cheap by any means).
But back to the Ultra. Which has gone all 'mystic' this time around - as there's Mystic Bronze (pictured), Mystic Black (it's very black), and Mystic White (very white - but not available in all regions, so Samsung tells us). The bronze is more peach/gold in our view, as you can see from our pictures, but that's long been a colour of appeal in recent years. There's no flashy, ultra-shiny, rainbow-like or fluorescent finishes this time around - which is probably for the best.
Samsung says the rear - which is coated in Gorilla Glass 7, just as per the front - has a new 'textured haze' finish, which helps to cut down on fingerprints and smudges. This bronze finish does reasonably well in that regard, but the black version doesn't survive the fingerprint smear challenge quite as well, it must be said.
Being Ultra by name, this Note is ultra by size - but it's not unwieldy. We had thought that the Note 10+ was a bit too wide, having lived with that in 2019 for some weeks, but that's just the new normal - as the Note 20 Ultra shares exactly the same 77.2mm width as its equivalent predecessor.
Speaking of size, it would be amiss to not address the elephant in the room: the Ultra's rear camera unit protrusion. It's huge. There's an excuse for this: the Ultra's main body is slimmer than its predecessor, at 8.1mm, therefore it's generally more comfortable to hold and not as heavy overall. But as a result you have a hulking-great camera unit popping out from the rear that wouldn't be as perceivably large if the phone's body was thicker overall.
- 6.9-inch Super AMOLED panel
- WQHD+ resolution (3088 x 1440)
- Adaptive refresh rate up to 120Hz (but not at WQHD+)
The Ultra's 6.9-inch screen sounds humungous, but that's a big part of this device's appeal. The aspect ratio means it doesn't feel excessive. Besides, it gets a whole lot right. It's Super AMOLED for starters, so blacks are black and colours really pop. It's got curved edges, but these don't suffer from excess contrast fall-out from what we've seen. It's really bright too, which is almost becoming a Samsung trademark.
There's even a dynamic refresh rate - which Samsung seems to be making a big deal about, but which has been available in various flagship phones for some time already. The maximum refresh is 120Hz, meaning 120 cycles every second. This helps create smoothness when, say, scrolling in a social media app. It's also beneficial for higher frame-rate games, if your eyes are astute enough to tell the difference.
It's a curiosity that Samsung doesn't enable 120Hz as a full-time option - it's dynamic only, i.e. the software will determine whether it's 12Hz, 30Hz, 90Hz, or whatever it deems necessary for optimum performance based on what's happening in real-time. We've not been able to tell what the software has been selecting during our 10 days of testing for this review, so it's a seamless implementation of this dynamic feature.
The issue with the 120Hz option, however, is that it's not available when using the phone at its full resolution. So that means you'll need to cut down visual appeal on one hand to gain the refresh benefit on the other. Which seems a bit like shooting oneself in the foot.
Want to save battery? Stick to the 60Hz option. It means you can select from any of the resolution options too. But even then the battery life is rather lacklustre, which we'll come to later.
S Pen Stylus
- Integrated stylus
- 9ms response time
- New gestures & Notes features
Tucked into the base of the Note 20 is an integrated stylus pen, which Samsung calls the S Pen. It's got inductive charge technology, so you'll never need to worry about the battery within - the phone handles that part for you.
For 2020 the S Pen is even more responsive in combination with the Note 20 Ultra, with just 9 millisecond latency, which makes for a near-immediate response when scrawling notes, doodles and whatnot onto the screen. Despite the stylus being small, it's easy to use, fast and efficient.
It also expands on its biggest gimmick: Air Gestures. With the S Pen in hand you can wave it about in the air like a magic wand to get the phone to perform certain tasks. Or you can try - we've often failed and needed to repeat a gesture again. We don't think many people will use this feature - stick to the physical points of contact instead as it's far more reliable. The idea is solid, but the delivery is not.
But where the Note 20 Ultra really shows its strength is with Samsung's Notes app. This is bread and butter stuff for this device, but it's a critical point of difference to what so many competitors can't do well: handwriting uptake, recognition and conversion into useful formats. For 2020 there's auto-straighten to tidy things up, a new folder system for organising, and a Microsoft partnership means OneNote, Outlook and more will be directly supported with Notes sometime post launch.
The Note 20 Ultra delivers great core stylus features and controls - and that's the main reason to buy this device over another, such as a Galaxy S20.
- Triple rear camera system:
- Main (26mm): 108-megapixel, f/1.8 aperture, 1/1.33in sensor size (0.8µm pixel size), Laser Autofocus, Optical Stabilisation (OIS)
- Zoom (5x optical; 130mm): 12MP, f/3.0, 1.0µm, OIS, 50x hybrid zoom
- Wide (0.5x; 13mm): 12MP, f/2.2, 1.4µm
- Front-facing (26mm): 10MP, f/2.2, 1.22µm
Speaking of the S20 series, the Note 20 Ultra has picked some of the headline-grabbing features from the S20 Ultra. For starters there's a 108-megapixel main sensor.
For zooming a new 12-megapixel sensor is on board, capable of 5x optical zoom (or you can extend to 50x hybrid/digital zoom - not the quite as far-fetched 100x 'Space Zoom' of the S20 Ultra, which was overreaching anyway).
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A wide-angle camera delivers twice the field of view of the main sensor, also delivering a 12-megapixel resolution.
While there's great potential in these three cameras - the 108MP main is physically massive and uses pixel combining for improving results, for example - we still don't think Samsung holds the lead in the cameras department any more. More that it's a mixture of pros and cons.
On the one hand the 108MP sensor is great at resolving detail, outputting its 27-megapixel results by default (using four pixels in one for better detail potential). But lens flare can be a problem even when not facing directly to a light source, likely due to internal reflections. And shoot closer to a subject and there's blurry haloing that just doesn't look quite right.
To the side of those three cameras - which are arranged horizontally on the rear - there's also a laser autofocus system that's only found in the Note 20 Ultra. It's super-fast to respond, but it seems as though some of the camera's abilities can't quite keep up. We were shooting fish in an aquarium, for example, and most shots were blurry - not because the focus hadn't kicked in, but because the combination of settings when using the zoom lens wouldn't enable a fast enough shutter speed for a sharp exposure.
Which brings us to that zoom lens. It's just not that good. At least, in context, for a phone of this stature it feels very much like what you'll find elsewhere. The 5x zoom delivers results that look fine on screen, but which reveal their limits when looking on another screen - there's not a lot of detail, the processing kind-of rounding out subjects. Kick it beyond 5x optical zoom and it's barely usable. Why Samsung, among many other makers it must be said, continues to push massive zoom figures - such as the barely usable 50x here - we just don't know.
On to the ultra-wide sensor. We love having the option to expand a scene when it's needed. Sure, you won't get the detail levels of the main camera in this wider view, but to add versatility it's a really handy addition. It doesn't distort too badly either, although edge softness - as with any lens of this kind - is part of the picture.
There are a bunch of modes to choose from too. Night mode is likely the most prominent of these, enabling a multi-second exposure to pull in extra light in a dark scene. Its results aren't immediately apparent as it takes quite a few seconds to process - but once you see the processing's changes kick in, the enhancements are often mind-bogglingly good. It can't counter everything - a tree in the dim of night becomes mushy in texture, for example - but where there's presence of some light the results will impress. Not quite to the same level as Google's Night Sight, mind.
But before we close out this section of this review, we have to come back to the design of the camera unit. The rear protrusion is really massive. Sure, the main body of the phone is slimmer than the previous Note device - but we think a slightly thicker body to hide that camera lump wouldn't be a bother for us, plus it could be used to squeeze in yet more battery capacity - which would have been a major benefit for this device.
The standard Note 20's camera arrangement is far smaller, because its feature set isn't quite as high grade - but that only makes the Ultra's arrangement that much more, um, eye-catching. That said, we thought the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max's camera arrangement was ugly when that launched, but that's not stopped it from being hugely popular. That's probably the general thought process: it's forgivable if the results are superb, right?
- CPU: Exynos 990, 12GB RAM (for Europe) / Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+, 12GB RAM (for USA)
- 4,500mAh battery capacity, 25W fast-charging
- 256GB / 512GB storage, microSD card slot
- 5G connectivity (sub-6GHz), Wi-Fi 6
- Samsung Wireless DeX (desktop)
Behind the scenes the Note 20 Ultra very much delivers on its name. If you're in the USA then it comes with the best-available chipset for a mid-2020 launch: the Qualcomm SD865+. For those of us in Europe we get Samsung's equivalent level Exynos chipset, the 990. The 12GB RAM is nothing to shake a stick at either.
Our experience with the Note 20 Ultra has shown it to be fast and fluid at every turn - a combination of refined software, that adaptive refresh rate, and the display just looking so outright striking. Loading apps, taking notes, switching between screens and stylus controls, it's all super smooth here. So whether you're into PUBG Mobile or are master of spreadsheets, you can flit between everything with pure ease.
The battery capacity, at 4,500mAh, is slightly up on the previous Note model. It's a relatively large capacity, but with so many features in this powerful device it doesn't perform as well as we had hoped. There's some speculation that the Qualcomm-powered model may last longer - but we don't have both for a side-by-side comparison.
As an example of a day with sub-2hrs of screen-on time and 30 minutes of gaming (the majority of which was just background app drain rather than active use) and the battery ran from 80 per cent at just before 8am and was down to 10 per cent by 8pm. That's 70 per cent of the battery gone in 12 hours - and not under particularly pressing conditions.
On two days out of the 10 we've been testing this phone the Ultra has eaten all the way through the available battery - so we've had to pop it back on charge on multiple days to ensure it makes it through the day. Not ideal.
There's fast-charging tech, but its speed has actually decreased compared to the last generation - it's 25W, down from 45W maximum - presumably in order for Samsung to preserve battery life longevity and provide a longer-life experience. So super speedy top-ups aren't available like you'll find with some other flagships at the moment.
We think the battery needs to be more capacious still. And as that camera unit protrudes so very much, is there a eason to not make the body a little thicker to squeeze in a larger cell? It should be 5,000mAh or more to last the needed runtime.
Interestingly, despite an entry 256GB storage (UFS 3.1), there's also a microSD card slot to expand upon that - which is something which the standard Note 20 doesn't offer (and an echo of the Note 10 vs Note 10 Plus of before).
Elsewhere there's Wireless DeX - Samsung's phone-to-desktop feature - which, as it's now the Wireless version, doesn't require a cable to function. Not having to worry about wires should add appeal to this mode for many more people.
All Ultra models come with 5G connectivity as standard, whether you want it or not. We don't think 5G is necessary in the current climate's limited access to city-focused areas - and the premium you'll pay for it isn't appealing. Given the option we'd take a 4G Note Ultra - as we've been unable to reach any 5G networks for testing during this review period.
Which comes to a final point: the Note 20 Ultra is expensive. It starts at £1179 / €1299. That'll be even more if you want the 512GB model.
After nearly 10 years at the cutting edge, the Samsung Galaxy Note series is still on top of its game. Yes, it's easy to see the Note 20 Ultra as "just another Galaxy Note" - but that's because it's got so much right before and continues to do so now.
The new gimmicky Air Gestures with the S Pen are forgivable because you'll probably never use them. And when you do reach for that stylus you're safe in the knowledge that the experience is second to none for practical, useful note-taking experiences. As a device with an integrated stylus you'll find nothing better than the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.
The main problem comes down to battery life. We really wish the Note 20 Ultra lasted longer, because it'll bring on battery anxiety. And while you can throttle some features, that seems to defy the point of such a powerful and feature-packed phone. The cameras also aren't quite as top-billed as they might read - the main sensor is great, but the zoom is overreaching.
There's no doubting the Note 20 Ultra is a serious flagship with added stylus appeal. If only that rear camera protrusion was a little less in your face and the battery could go the full distance.
Moto G Pro
It's not a flagship by any measure, but if you're looking for a capable stylus-equipped phone for a lot less cash then Motorola has one of the most viable options on the market.