Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. Note 20 Ultra: Which Is Better?
Can’t decide between the Galaxy S21 Ultra or Galaxy Note 20 Ultra? We take a look at both to see how the specs compare.
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The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra are stunning smartphones packed with cutting-edge technology.
Both phones have more features and more power than their predecessors. Even so, there are several key differences between the two phones, from the camera and the design to the processor and the price.
In this guide, we compare their specifications and features to help you choose the best one for you. Let’s go!
The S21 Ultra and the Note 20 Ultra are two of the best big-screen phones. At 164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1mm and 208g, the Note 20 is the thinner and lighter phone. And, at 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm and 228g, the S21 Ultra is a bit thicker, narrower, and heavier.
The Note 20 Ultra sports that signature rectangular shape with sharp corners. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, on the other hand, is smoother with the more traditional, rounded corners. Both handsets are covered in Gorilla Glass Victus, the strongest version of Corning’s glass.
The S21 Ultra is offered in more colors: Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, and Phantom Brown. You can also get it in Phantom Navy and Phantom Titanium. The Note 20 Ultra only comes in Mystic White, Mystic Black, and Mystic Bronze.
The S21 Ultra and the Note 20 Ultra sport huge screens that offer ultra-wide viewing angles. At 6.9 inches, the Note 20 Ultra screen is slightly bigger than the S21 Ultra’s 6.8-inch display.
The two phones have Dynamic AMOLED displays that can output vibrant, natural colors and deep blacks. Both displays can smartly switch the refresh rate between 10Hz and 120Hz, depending on what you’re doing with your phone, thus saving battery.
However, only the S21 Ultra can run a 120Hz refresh rate at the highest WQHD Plus (1440p) resolution. The Note 20 Ultra only supports Full HD (1080p) with the adaptive refresh rate.
Also, both displays can go up to 1500 nits. This means you can use your phone under bright conditions and still get good results. But the S21 Ultra is touted as being slightly brighter on average.
The two devices also have fast under-display finger scanners.
Both phones have a high-resolution 108MP primary camera and a 12MP dynamic camera. However, the S21 Ultra has a sharper 40MP selfie camera, while the Note 20 Ultra sports a 10MP front camera. The camera bump on the S21 Ultra also integrates better into the back of the phone.
They also use the pixel binning technique to render detailed, well-lit shots in various lighting conditions. However, in everyday shooting, the S21 Ultra typically renders brighter shots with better dynamic range.
The handsets have telephoto sensors for crisp zoomed-in shots. The S21 Ultra has two telephoto cameras. One of the lenses can optically zoom at 3x and the other at 10x. At 10x zoom, expect greater detail and more accurate colors. The Note 20 Ultra has just one telephoto camera with a 5x optical zoom.
Both phones can record using the front and back camera simultaneously and shoot 8K and 4K videos. However, only the S21 Ultra supports the clever Director’s View mode.
Specs and Performance
Depending on where you are in the world, the S21 Ultra is powered either by the latest Snapdragon 888 or Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 chip, while the Note 20 Ultra runs on either the Snapdragon 865 Plus or the Exynos 990. The Snapdragon models are seen in the US, and Exynos is used in most other parts of the world.
The powerful processors make both phones more efficient when doing activities like editing 4K videos or even playing high-end 3D games.
The two devices are 5G-capable, so you can stream smoothly and quickly share and download files, though the S21 Ultra benefits from a 5G built-in chip that helps minimize power consumption.
Both Galaxy phones start at a base storage of 128GB and have versions with 256GB and 512GB storage. But only the Note 20 Ultra supports a microSD card slot.
The phones feature 12GB of RAM, with the S21 Ultra’s 512GB model sporting 16GB of RAM. This means they can easily handle any task you throw at them.
One of the key specs that separates the Note 20 Ultra from the S21 Ultra is the stylus. You can use the S Pen to perform tasks like drawing on the screen, taking notes, and annotating screenshots.
The S20 Ultra comes with an S Pen that’s housed within the phone’s body. The S Pen on the Galaxy Note is Bluetooth-compatible, thus allows you to take photos remotely.
Though the S21 Ultra has stylus support, the S Pen doesn’t come with the phone; you have to buy it separately. Also, the Pen doesn’t support Bluetooth, and there’s nowhere to house it unless you buy a special case.
Battery Life and Charging
A single charge can easily last for a full day of use for both Galaxy phones, especially if you stick to the default settings. Then again, it’s the S21 Ultra that lasts longer overall.
The S21 Ultra sports a larger 5000mAh battery. The Note 20 Ultra, on the other hand, has a 4500mAh capacity, just like its formidable competitor, the OnePlus 9 Pro.
Both phones support 25W charging speeds, but the S21 Ultra doesn’t come with a charger in the box. The S21 Ultra support 15W wireless charging and reverse charging, the same as the Note 20 Ultra.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs Galaxy Note 20: What’s the difference?
Samsung has two versions of its Galaxy Note. but how do they compare?
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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G
After nearly 10 years at the cutting edge, the Samsung Galaxy Note series is still on top of its game.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 5G
If you’re looking for a phone with an integrated stylus then there’s little better than the note-taking potential of this phone.
Samsung has two versions of the Samsung Galaxy Note. the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and the regular Galaxy Note. These two models are also the last models in the series after Samsung discontinued the line, offering the Galaxy S21 Ultra, S22 Ultra and Galaxy Z Fold 4 with S Pen compatibility instead of releasing a new Galaxy Note in 2021 or 2022.
In 2019, Samsung offered two sizes of the Galaxy Note, taking the Note 10 smaller while pushing the Note 10 as the larger size model. In reality, it was the Note 10 that was the true successor to the Note crown, while the “normal” model slipped into a smaller and more affordable position.
That gap between the Note 20 and the Ultra model then became wider in 2020. Here’s how they compare if you are still in the market for a Galaxy Note device rather than a Samsung phone with S Pen compatibility.
|Snapdragon 865 Plus or Exynos 990, 8/12GB RAM||Snapdragon 865 Plus or Exynos 990, 8GB RAM|
|6.9in, 3088 x 1440, 120Hz||6.7in, 2400 x 1080, 60Hz|
|108MP f/1.8 (main), 12MP f/2.2 (ultrawide), 12MP f/3.0 5x, 50X SpaceZoom (telephoto)||12MP f/1.8 (main), 12MP f/2.2 (ultrawide), 64MP f/2.0 3x, 30X SpaceZoom (telephoto)|
|164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1mm, 208g||161.6 x 75.2 x 8.3mm, 192g|
Never has so much been written about design when it comes to two phones in the same family. In the past, Samsung has often offered much the same design between regular and plus models. That changed with the launch of the S20 Ultra. and the Note 20 Ultra is different to the regular Note 20 too.
While the difference in size is to be expected because the displays are a different size, the design itself is quite different too. The Note 20 Ultra has flattened ends and squared corners, while the Note 20 has softer curved corners.
The Note 20 also moves to a plastic back. or “glasstic” as Samsung calls it. rather than glass. This is quite a move, considering that Samsung has been using glass for its rear panels for some time. It also means the Note 20 is positioned quite differently to the Note 20 Ultra with the Ultra being the more premium model when it comes to build quality.
While the displays are a different size, there’s a big difference in technology too. The Ultra gets a 6.9-inch AMOLED display with an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate and Quad HD resolution. It’s pretty much as flagship as you can get. or it was when it first launched anyway. The Note 20 display has the same display as the Note 10 Lite. That’s a 6.7-inch AMOLED Full HD at 60Hz and flat. so missing Samsung’s signature flagship curved edges.
It’s a pretty big difference, although there will be many who don’t mind the lower resolution or refresh rate. What’s important is that it still offers the S Pen features on a display that’s big and that’s a hallmark of the Galaxy Note family. What is different to previous years is that the Note 20 didn’t get that smaller display like the Note 10 offered, which was 6.3 inches.
When it comes to the core hardware, we return to some sort of parity between the two Note models. Both are powered either by the Snapdragon 865 Plus or the Exynos 990, using Qualcomm in some regions and Exynos in others as we’ve previously seen from Samsung.
The Ultra comes with 8GB of RAM in the LTE model and 12GB RAM in the 5G model, while the Note 20 sticks to 8GB in both, reinforcing a different positioning of these phones. Storage options differ depending on LTE or 5G too.
The Note 20 LTE comes in one model with 256GB storage, while the 5G model is offered in 128GB and 256GB options, all region dependent. The Note 20 Ultra comes in 128GB, 256GB and 512GB storage options in the 5G model and 256GB and 512GB storage options in the LTE model, again region dependent. Only the Ultra offers microSD support for storage expansion.
When it comes to batteries, the Note 20 Ultra has a 4500mAh capacity while the Note 20 has a 4300mAh capacity. There’s not a huge difference here, but with a smaller display, the Note 20 isn’t really disadvantaged in the battery department.
If you’re a Samsung fan, then the cameras in these respective devices might look familiar. On first glance they are similar to the load-out on the S20 Ultra and S20 models, although the 48-megapixel zoom of the S20 Ultra has been swapped out for a 12-megapixel zoom, now giving you 50X zoom, rather than the 100X zoom of the S20 Ultra, with 5x optical.
The regular Note 20 also gets a respectable camera load-out. It has a system very similar to the Galaxy S20, with a 12-megapixel main sensor with big pixels. It also offers zoom, but only 30X digital. which is 3x optical. It uses the 64-megapixel sensor here to enable the 8K video capture (as it did on the S20), while the Ultra uses the 108-megapixel sensor for 8K. Both phones also offer an ultra-wide camera, which is the same. They also both have the same front 10-megapixel selfie camera.
What’s clear here is this is an area where Samsung didn’t drop the Note 20 too far. Sure, it’s not the same as the Ultra, but then increasing the resolution just so you can combine pixels back to 12-megapixels doesn’t automatically make for a better camera. a lot will come down to the computation behind the lens and that’s pretty much the same in that regard. This separation of cameras is similar to what we’ve seen on the S21 and S21 Ultra models too.
The two Galaxy Note 20 models are radically different, with Samsung aiming to open a wider gap between these two devices than it did in 2019. These are also the last Note models, as we mentioned, with the Galaxy S22 Ultra and Galaxy S23 Ultra now coming with an S Pen, so it’s effectively the new Note.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G
After nearly 10 years at the cutting edge, the Samsung Galaxy Note series is still on top of its game.
The Note 20 picks up some of what the Note 10 Lite offered but sticks to some of the premium aspects in the core hardware and the camera. This is reflected in the price of the handset somewhat. Even without the top specs, that larger display is much more useful for the S Pen.
The Note 20 Ultra is rather more predictable. It is the true flagship of the pair with a high price to match and the best of everything Samsung has to offer for the Note lineup. At its heart, that’s what the Galaxy Note should be. but with so many big screen. affordable. phones around, we suspect that’s what’s driven Samsung to make the regular Note 20 a little more ordinary.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 5G
If you’re looking for a phone with an integrated stylus then there’s little better than the note-taking potential of this phone.
In reality, in 2023, it’s not worth buying the Note 20 any more: you’re better looking at the Galaxy S22 Ultra or Galaxy S23 Ultra, as it offers all the S Pen functionality, but in a much more up-to-date handset.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra one year later: Is it still worth buying?
Samsung’s 2021 has seen mixed fortunes at first glance, with the Galaxy S21 series delivering cheaper price tags across the board but reportedly seeing lower sales. The company has also launched new cutting-edge foldables in the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3, although it’s too early to say whether these are a commercial success yet.
One thing we aren’t seeing in 2021 is a new Galaxy Note flagship, as Samsung confirmed earlier this year that this wouldn’t be the case. Instead, those looking for that Note-like experience are being pointed in the direction of the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Galaxy Z Fold 3, with both now offering S Pen support.
There is one other option though, and that’s last year’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Samsung’s Note series is traditionally more than just an S Pen, as it’s also been one of the best phones for power users. So, as the most recent Galaxy Note phone on the market, how does the phone fare a year after its release? That’s what we’re looking at in our Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra long-term review.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review recap
Before we carry on with our long-term review, now’s as good a time as any to look back at what we thought of the phone at launch. You can read the full review over here and watch our video above. You can also check out our six month revisit for the phone here.
How has the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra aged?
The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra was among the most feature-packed phones of 2020, and time has mostly been kind to it. There’s that slick 120Hz QHD OLED screen, a solid Exynos 990 SoC (or Snapdragon 865 Plus in the US and China), 8/12GB of RAM, 128/256/512GB of storage, and a 4,500mAh battery. In other words, the core specs keep this phone respectable a year later.
It’s also worth noting that the Note 20 Ultra packs a microSD card slot, which isn’t present on the Galaxy S21 series. This is a major selling point for those who want the most local storage possible and those who lamented its loss on Samsung’s 2021 flagships.
Another point in the phone’s favor is that Samsung is promising three major OS updates for the device. The phone launched with Android 10 and received an upgrade to Android 11 thereafter, which means you can expect Android 12 and Android 13 at the very least. Toss in four years of security patches and the Note 20 Ultra should age better than other devices from a software perspective.
Moving to basic performance, our review unit contains the Exynos 990, and it generally kept things running without a hitch. While there was some controversy about the processor at launch, between multitasking, web browsing, and launching apps, everyday usage was a smooth experience. In fact, the only time I really saw any major lag outside of games was in the first few minutes after restarting the device. There’s also a delay of about two seconds between snapping 108MP shots, but this is understandable given the sheer amount of data being processed at that point.
Gaming is a far tougher test of a phone’s internals, and the Note 20 Ultra is a mostly smooth experience. One of my go-to titles for pushing a phone is Nascar Heat Mobile, owing to the huge number of cars on track at once, but things ran at a very fluid pace. We also tried out Call of Duty Mobile and Genshin Impact, with the former running very smoothly. Genshin Impact was perfectly playable too but was prone to slow down at times, especially when simply swiping the camera around.
Another great test of a phone’s capabilities is emulation, and we ran games like Metroid Prime and F-Zero GX via the Dolphin emulator and its default settings. Unfortunately, the former offered an extremely erratic experience, briefly grinding to a halt at times. The latter game also saw some stutter as well, although it seems to be a slightly more consistent experience. We tested these games on the Snapdragon 865-toting LG V60 (another great phone from 2020) and they both ran at a much smoother, more consistent pace with out-of-the-box settings.
Our own Eric Zeman noted that his Snapdragon unit ran hot in his review, but I haven’t felt this to be the case at all with the Exynos variant during my gaming sessions. I’m not sure whether this is due to the chipset difference itself, the fact that some models have different cooling systems, or system updates by Samsung. Nevertheless, we’d definitely suggest you get the Snapdragon 865 Plus variant if you intend to play technically demanding games and emulators on the Note 20 Ultra.
Performance doesn’t mean much without battery life, and another one of Eric’s gripes in his original review was the middling endurance. A period of some relatively heavy usage (YouTube, YouTube Music, downloading/installing games) yielded under six hours of screen-on time at the adaptive refresh rate, which isn’t bad for the battery capacity. The phone still delivers a full day at this pace and you can switch to 60Hz if you need longer battery life. In other words, you’re getting solid endurance, but it is a drop down from devices like the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
It must be said that the S Pen support here is still the best you’ll get on any recent Samsung phone, including the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Galaxy Z Fold 3. The fact that you’ve got a dedicated slot for the stylus is obviously more convenient, for starters. Then there’s the Bluetooth connection here (missing from the standard S Pens seen on the other devices), enabling a host of extra remote-like features.
The biggest downside to using the S Pen on the Note 20 Ultra is that it still feels way too cramped. For example, using the Samsung keyboard’s handwriting recognition to write messages is painful simply because there’s so little space available. It isn’t much better with the Samsung Notes app, either. It really feels like anyone wanting to comfortably write more than a short grocery list should probably get a Samsung tablet or the Galaxy Z Fold 3. It doesn’t help that the phone wobbles on a flat surface too, but more on that in a bit.
In fact, I’d argue that the real strength of the S Pen for most people is the remote functionality. Whether you’re using it as a remote shutter button while the phone is on a tripod, controlling media playback while your phone is connected to a big screen, or simply navigating through your device via accessibility features, it’s become a pretty versatile tool for non-writing tasks.
Special mention should go to the 120Hz QHD OLED screen, as it’s still gorgeous a year later. In saying so, the inability to run at the higher 120Hz refresh rate at QHD resolution was a minor oversight in 2020 and is a little glaring now. You’re still getting a high-quality display regardless, but having to choose between resolution and smoothness is a little disappointing when several 2020 and 2021 flagships let you have the best of both worlds.
Another rather interesting omission is that you can’t force 120Hz all the time. It’s an adaptive or 60Hz affair here. I get that the phone’s battery would likely run down in no time flat if 120Hz was on all the time (even for images and other similar content), but giving people the option is better than deciding for them. Even a 90Hz mode would be a good compromise between a high refresh rate and saving juice. Still, those looking for a slick, expansive screen will be right at home.
A premium, but tall design
One of the best things about the Note 20 Ultra at launch was its design, and this remains true 12 months down the line. The flat, polished metal edges on the top and bottom and the metal frame in general both make the phone feel very sturdy yet premium. I don’t personally care for glass backs but it’s an expected feature for modern flagships, which is more than can be said for the standard Galaxy S21 and, notably (pun intended), the vanilla Galaxy Note 20.
There are, however, two design-related decisions that are still a bit tough to swallow after all this time. For one, there’s the sheer size of the phone. It isn’t quite as big as the LG V60, but it’s certainly close. This size and weight (208g) mean that the phone feels unwieldy at times, such as when you’re reading in bed. The Note 20 Ultra fits in my jeans just fine, but those with tracksuit s and the like might want to watch out.
The other lamentable design choice was the sizeable camera bump on the left side of the phone’s back. Camera bumps alone aren’t a problem for me, as I’m okay with a little protrusion if the cameras take great pictures. But the bump’s location means that the phone will definitely wobble anytime you tap your finger in the top-left quadrant of the display while the phone is flat on its back.
I’d rather see a large horizontal camera bump or Xiaomi’s phone-spanning housing on the Mi 11 Ultra. This way, you avoid the wobbling while still delivering great camera hardware. Hopefully, the Galaxy Note 22 (if it’s indeed in the works) addresses this issue.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: Still one of Samsung’s best phones
Bottom line: If you’re a loyal Galaxy Note buyer, the Note 20 Ultra is the best possible version ever made. Featuring a much-improved S Pen experience, a huge camera upgrade over previous Note versions, and every possible spec you could ask for, this expensive monolith is worth the price of admission. You just have to know you need it.
- One of the best phone displays out there
- Impeccable performance
- Great camera performance
- S Pen upgrades
- All-day battery life
- – Inexcusably slow and inconsistent fingerprint sensor
- – Curved display causes false touches
- – Very expensive
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At one point, I was going to start this review with a sentence like, “Samsung’s never really screwed up the Galaxy Note; every version has been better than the last.” I got about halfway through writing that sentence, and then it all came flooding back — the summer of 2016, when reports of Note 7s catching fire started trickling in. Then came the recall, then the reissue, then the second recall, then the bans. How could I have forgotten, even briefly, something that fundamentally changed Samsung, and the wider smartphone industry, so dramatically?
I forgot it for a moment because Samsung’s done such a profoundly good job helping us forget it. In the wake of the Note 7 debacle, the company returned the following April with the Galaxy S8, which turned out to be its best-selling flagship ever, followed by the Note 8 a few months later. A year later, the Note 9 was the first premium Android phone to justify its thousand-dollar price tag, and the following year Samsung gave us two Note 10 models to gawk over as it worked hard to convince us they stood apart from their Galaxy S counterparts.
So now we have the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, which borrows more than a bit of its pedigree from the huge and ultimately flawed Galaxy S20 Ultra. That phone, as you may have read, had some major issues with its cameras, from autofocus woes to exaggerated claims of telephoto prowess. Thankfully, the Note 20 Ultra makes up for those shortcomings and then some.
The Note 20 series heralds the culmination of the Note line, but Samsung took the best bits of the lineup and added it to the mainstream Galaxy S series — the stylus tech made its way to the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Galaxy Z Fold 3 foldable in 2021. And in a move that will delight Note fans, an integrated S Pen is baked into the Galaxy S22 Ultra, making it a spiritual successor to the Note 20 series.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Price release date
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra was initially announced on August 5, 2020, then subsequently released on August 21, starting at 1,300 in the U.S., with an optional 1,400 model available offering 256GB of storage. Lucky for you, in the time since its release, the price has come down by a bit, down to 1,040 as of February, 2022, at select retailers like Amazon.
It’s also much more affordable if you trade in your current smartphone or if you buy it through a carrier. In the U.S., like nearly all Samsung products, the Note 20 Ultra is available at ATT, 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 cellular 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 design
If it looks like a Note and smells like a Note, it must be a Note. That’s basically what you get with the Note 20 Ultra since it hews closely to Samsung’s boxy-body-curved-display design language employed since the Note 8 three years prior. This time, though, the Note 20 distills the design language to a science, executing tolerances that few manufacturers can achieve at scale.
Samsung made some slight alterations to the way 120Hz works versus the S20 series, too; instead of asking you to manually choose between keeping the refresh rate at either 120Hz or 60Hz, when set to the higher rate, the system decides when to dynamically step down to 60Hz again. By taking the onus away from the user in deciding whether they want to prioritize smoothness over battery life, Samsung landed on the best of both worlds, and I only noticed a few instances where the step-down was awkward and noticeable.
There are two areas where I wish Samsung would have taken critics’ criticisms of the previous Note series to heart. The first is that Samsung did not improve the ultrasonic fingerprint sensor inside the Note 20 series. It’s the same slow, unpredictable module from Qualcomm that debuted in early 2019 with the S10. The touch area is too small, and there’s minimal visual or haptic feedback to indicate you’ve identified the correct location. The best the Note 20 Ultra can do is offer a small fingerprint overlay when the always-on-display is enabled, which it isn’t by default.
I’ve complained about this fingerprint sensor through four Samsung phone generations now, and the response usually falls into two camps: people who think I’m completely overreacting and have no issues with usage at all, and those who, like me, despise the sensor and would prefer literally any other biometric option than this one. My frustration is exacerbated by the fact that, back in December 2019, I saw Qualcomm’s second-generation ultrasonic fingerprint sensor in action, and its promise was incredible: bigger, faster, and less error-prone. I’m just glad the S21 Ultra finally brings a newer sensor.
Of course, the Note has always strived to appeal to both fashion and function, and the Note 20 Ultra, at least in this Mystic Bronze colorway, is stunning. Like, nicest-hardware-ever gorgeous. There were more than a few moments during my time with the phone when I just sat with it and admired the amount of work and the years of exhaustive iteration that led to this finished product. Yes, I think it’s a bit too big for my personal tastes, but this phone is beautiful as a physical object.
Samsung‘s decision to go matte with its finish this year should be applauded, too. Glass phones are fragile, yes, but they’re also disastrous fingerprint magnets. This phone is both hardier than previous Galaxy phones, outfitted with Corning’s new Gorilla Glass Victus on the front and back, but it’s the particular light-absorbing coating on top of it that I appreciate most. Contrasted with the reflective color-matched aluminum frame, I’m all-in on this particular design decision, and I hope Samsung keeps it around for generations to come.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Hardware, performance, and battery life
|Android 11One UI 3.1|
|6.9-inchAMOLED3088 x 1440120Hz refresh rate|
|Qualcomm Snapdragon 865|
|128GB / 512GB|
|12MP telephotof/3.05x optical zoom|
|77.2 x 164.8 x 8.1mm|
It should come as no surprise that the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra runs perfectly. The Snapdragon 865 inside it isn’t much changed from the 865 in the Galaxy S20 series, but the 10% bump in the Prime core clock speed, along with a GPU 10% faster, should be enough to satisfy you if top performance is a priority.
I really tried to tax the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, from trying my hand at S Pen-assisted video editing to playing round after round of COD: Mobile, and the phone obviously passed muster. Of course it did; it cost 1,300 at launch. If you can find anything on the Android platform that is legitimately onerous to the Snapdragon 865, I’ll buy you a beer. (Seriously, tell me what you do to tax your phones aside from synthetic benchmarks.)
The Note 20 Ultra also comes with 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM standard, which should be more than enough for even the most spasmodic of multitaskers; 128GB of UFS 3.0 storage is the baseline, with an optional bump to 512GB for 100 more. And a microSD slot lengthens the still-plastic SIM tray (Samsung, up your game here); frustratingly, neither the regular Note 20 nor the newer Galaxy S21 series offers expandable storage. The Note 20 Ultra may be the last Samsung flagship to do so.
There should be nothing surprising about the rest of the Note 20 Ultra’s spec sheet: it has impressively full and loud stereo speakers, which I often used to play nursery rhymes for my two-year-old daughter; an IP68 rating, which protected the phone from the time my daughter grabbed it and dropped it into a bathtub full of water (it survived); and a 4,500mAh battery, which did a pretty good job lasting through most days.
My colleague, Hayato Huseman, who produced our companion review video, told me he got over seven hours of screen-on-time per day, so your mileage may vary.
The 5G dilemma
It would be easy to ignore the elephant in the room, the single-biggest thing weighing on Samsung’s recent smartphone pricing: 5G and the Snapdragon 865.
While 5G is certainly promising, right now, it’s hard to justify the added hardware cost that’s built into it. Qualcomm charges the phone makers a lot of money for its top-of-the-line chip, and while some, like OnePlus, have chosen to cut various corners to keep their flagships under 1000, Samsung leans into the reality.
At the moment, the U.S. is in a transitional phase, with T-Mobile in the best position to show its strength. And in markets where it inherited Sprint’s 2500Mhz-based 5G network, it’s a great value proposition, but the vast majority of the cities where the company operates have slower-than-LTE 600Mhz 5G.
ATT suffers from the same problem: where its 5G network is available, it’s only sending slower, more weather-hardy signals over the 850Mhz spectrum, which makes it similar to LTE in most regards.
Verizon’s 5G, while considerably faster, is harder still to come by, and the company even admitted that it’s not worth spending extra money on right now when it chopped the additional fee it used to charge to access its mmWave 5G network.
The problem is that, at the moment, if you want to spend good money on a phone in the U.S., you’re essentially paying a 5G tax. That tax is less pronounced on devices running Qualcomm’s less powerful chips like the Snapdragon 765, including the Motorola Edge, but it’s still there. If you don’t care about being on the latest wireless network right now, and I don’t blame you if that’s the case, you have to make the choice to wait for the networks to improve or the phones to get cheaper. Either way, it’s hard to recommend spending four figures on a phone when you know so much of that investment is going to waste right now.
The S Pen — Joe’s take
Year after year, the distinction between the Galaxy S and Note series becomes increasingly difficult to identify. The Note used to stand out as Samsung’s power-user smartphone, but we now live in a world where the Galaxy S handset that comes out before the Note is every bit as fast and capable. Even more recently, the Note’s future has been further obscured as rumors flood that Samsung will stop making them, instead bringing S Pen support to other devices like the S21 Ultra and future Z Fold models. Still, the S Pen has been one of the Note’s greatest strengths since the very beginning, and with the Note 20 Ultra, it picks up a few key features and improvements in an attempt to make it stand out as a legitimate benefit over the already great S20 lineup.
Perhaps the most notable upgrade the S Pen sees this year is its reduced latency. The Note 20 Ultra boasts an impressive latency response of just 9ms, which is considerably less than the 42ms latency previously offered on the Note 10. That’s a flashy number to tout on paper, but the real-world benefits are more difficult to discern.
I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, which means my use of the S Pen is reserved for navigating the user interface and taking handwritten notes. The Note 10’s S Pen never felt slow or unresponsive to me, and using it side-by-side with the Note 20 Ultra, I personally can’t notice much of a difference. The only time where I could visibly see the Ultra’s reduced latency came into play when drawing long lines very quickly on the screen. Where the Note 10’s S Pen gets ever-so-slightly ahead of the line that was being drawn, the S Pen on the Note 20 sticks with its virtual ink as if you were writing on real paper. It’s great to see that Samsung is constantly working to improve the S Pen experience, even if this is likely something that only skilled artists will see any true benefit from.
The other big upgrade for the S Pen is a new batch of Air Actions. Air Actions were introduced on the Note 9 as a way to remotely interact with the camera app, and with the Note 20, they’re expanded as a new way to navigate the phone and quickly open apps. There are five actions/gestures you can perform with the S Pen, and each one can be customized as a navigation button, S Pen feature, or app shortcut.
Samsung’s also packed a bunch of smaller tweaks into the Samsung Notes app, and while there’s nothing here that’s revolutionary, they all help Samsung Notes feel even more fleshed out than it already was. Notes can now be organized in desktop-like folders for vastly better organization. There’s a new PDF import tool for quickly annotating files and an Auto Straighten feature that automatically straightens out your handwriting with the tap of a button.
One of the flashier additions is Audio Bookmark, which works when you’re jotting down notes while recording audio from a business call, lecture, etc. Once the recording is complete, you can tap on any notes you took during it and jump to that section of the recording. It’s a very specific feature that a lot of folks may completely ignore, but it’s honestly quite handy and could prove to be a lifesaver during especially long Zoom calls.
Here’s the thing. Even though the reduced latency isn’t super noticeable and the new Air Actions are disappointing, the S Pen was already the best stylus available for a smartphone. Even if Samsung only made it marginally better, it already had an incredible foundation to begin with. There’s nothing here that’ll completely change your mind about the S Pen if you already weren’t a fan of it, but if it’s a tool you’ve relied on for years, the Note 20 Ultra offers the best experience you can get for it.
The S Pen — Daniel’s take
Because of how much space the camera housing takes up on the right side of the phone, Samsung moved the S Pen’s housing to the left side of the phone’s underside, next to the bottom-firing speaker and the USB-C port. A lot of people have complained about how this interrupts muscle memory or that it’s not ideal for right-handed users. These are all true, and it’s also true that even if you’re coming from another Galaxy Note, you’ll likely get used to it within a couple of days. I did.
The more meaningful thing to know about the S Pen is that, while physically identical to the one on the Note 10 series (they’re interchangeable if you have one of the previous models), the Note 20 Ultra accepts input at five times lower latency than the Note 10 — 9 milliseconds versus 45ms — and less than half that of the Note 20, at 26ms. The 120Hz display also conveys that lower latency much more realistically.
In real-world usage, this means that there’s considerably less lag between the time your S Pen touches the screen and when you see something happen, like a pen or brush stroke, or when navigating Samsung’s One UI software.
With previous Notes, I’d always made a concerted effort to use the S Pen but got frustrated by the input lag, which got worse the more text was added to the page. Even on first-party apps like S Note, I always got the impression the phone couldn’t quite keep up with me, and I heard the same sentiment expressed by students and enterprise workers alike. This time, there are no such issues; Samsung not only made the software stack more robust, as you’ll see below, but the hardware can now easily keep up with whatever you want to do, be it jot quick notes, sketch a thought, or spend time making fine art in one of the supported apps.
Hey Galaxy Note owners, what are your favorite ways to use the S Pen? ✍️Hey Galaxy Note owners, what are your favorite ways to use the S Pen? ✍️— Daniel Bader (@journeydan) August 15, 2020August 15, 2020
I surveyed my followers to see what they usually do with the S Pen, and answers ranged from jotting down quick reminders or to-do items on the lock screen (one of my favorite features) to annotating complex scripts inside Microsoft OneNote. It made me understand that, for many people, having the S Pen is a nice-to-have addition to an already wonderful phone. But there are people who have been buying the Note series over the Galaxy S since 2011 and consider it an essential tool they couldn’t live without.
Now that the S Pen is finally good enough, at least for me, to replace a traditional pad and paper setup for jotting down quick notes and organizing my thoughts, I look forward to revisiting this section in a few months with an update.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Software
Love it or hate it, using a Samsung phone means using and interacting with its One UI user interface. The Note 20 Ultra shipped with the company’s One UI 2.5 software, which was based on Android 10, though back in February 2021, Samsung rolled out an update that brought the Note 20 Ultra to Android 11 and One UI 3.1. And in January 2022, Samsung rolled out the One UI 4 stable update based on Android 12.
It’s made up of minor improvements that work together to feel like a significant upgrade to the user experience, and includes all the latest features Google baked into Android. If you’re not a fan of Samsung’s software, this isn’t likely to change your mind, but at least it feels like the company is listening to feedback.
Samsung has created and stuck with a very cohesive design language for the core user interface and all of its first-party apps. This makes the Note 20 Ultra feel super polished, along with giving it a distinct look that’s started to catch the attention of competing companies. It’s bold, instantly recognizable, and feels faster than ever, thanks to the 120Hz display.