Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G review: Big and beautiful but it'll cost you
Updated: Aug 19
During my recent review of Google’s splendid mid-priced Pixel 4a smartphone I noted that people may fancy a fancy new handset, they just don’t want to surrender the small fortune to obtain such a device. Thus, the $349 Pixel represents a really strong Android contender compared to premium handsets with a four-digit price tag, but you've got to live with several tradeoffs: no wireless charging, water resistance, face unlock, or 5G, for example.
We’re having an entirely different conversation if you’re willing to shell out the big bucks for snappy new Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G smartphone, which I’ve had out for review for a couple of weeks. It exacts none of the aforementioned compromises. And it’s as good an Android phone as is out there at the moment, though whether this is the time to buy has everything to do with your finances and where you are in your upgrade cycle.
Putting aside the wisdom of launching a $1299.99 handset right smack in the middle of a pandemic-fueled economic crisis, Samsung has delivered a beautiful phone most any Android loyalist will justifiably lust after.
The phone speaks premium the moment you lay eyes on it. My test device is a handsome rectangular slab dressed in a striking fingerprint-resistant matte mystic bronze color—white or black are the other available “mystic” hues for the Ultra.
For better or worse, this Note is huge in every sense of the word: it's got a big brilliant 6.9-inch Quad HD display with a 120Hz refresh rate, a generous-sized (4500mAh) battery and good of supply of RAM (12GB). Alas, there's also that awfully big price too, which maxes out at $1449.99 if you up the capacity from 128GB to 512GB.
The new Note is a physical behemoth too, with the length and heft to make the iPhone 11 Pro Max seem small.
Then again, as the very devices that established the “phablet’ category back in the day, Samsung’s Notes have always played big.
Camera and photos: Some pundits are already taking Samsung to task for the outsized camera bump jutting off the rear of the phone (see the photo above). I’m not truthfully not fazed by it as much as others, though I suspect SNL's Debbie Downer would, um, note an accident waiting to happen.
The Note 20 Ultra is shielded by Gorilla Glass Victus, supposedly Corning’s toughest smartphone glass yet. Durable doesn’t mean unbreakable.
Beneath the bump are a 12MP ultra-wide camera, a 12MP telephoto camera and a 108MP wide-angle camera. The front has a 10MP selfie-camera.
Photographers have a lot to work with, including an 8K video mode for pro-minded shooters, who also have the flexibility to exploit directional microphones. I’m not a pro but I take lots of pictures and I was mostly pleased with the camera's performance and bevy of features borrowed from the Samsung's other flagship, the Galaxy S20 Ultra that debuted last February.
There's the "single take" mode, for instance. When you tap the shutter in this mode, the phone takes 10 seconds to automatically record the scene, and curate a gallery of what it deems the best photos and videos you shot during that span.
Samsung has also brought over “space zoom," from the S20 Ultra, with tamped down expectations. On that S20 you could zoom in up to 100x to photograph a far away object in using a blend of optical/digital zoom smarts and software hocus-pocus.
In describing the feature on the S20, my former USA TODAY colleague Jefferson Graham said Samsung was just cropping “the living daylights out of the image,” resulting in imperfect pixelated images.
He's right. The same trickery is applied on the Note Ultra but I find the 50x max space zoom, down from that 100x, a bit more useful. As on the S20, you will need to keep the phone steady or placed on a tripod as you attempt to zoom in on that faraway subject, guided by a small picture-in-picture viewfinder on the screen. You can get some cool albeit still grainy shots like this one taken from a distance of a neighbor's backyard basketball hoop.
Giving the S Pen love: I’ve managed to go this far without mentioning the Note’s other distinguishing feature compared to Samsung’s S-series flagships, that being the presence of the S Pen, comfortably stashed away at the very bottom left of the device. I don’t use this souped-up stylus a ton, but all the same appreciate some the improvements Samsung’s made here.
Most notably, doodling, drawing and jotting down notes feels a lot more natural, thanks to a huge reduction in latency or lag time. You can now import and annotate a PDF into Samsung’s improved Notes app, or bookmark handwritten notes from the classroom synced up with the audio you recorded during the lecture. Just tap anywhere on the note to be taken to that spot in the recording.
Samsung can also straighten your handwritten notes, making your crooked penmanship a little more legible.
I’m not otherwise big on using the S Pen for so-called Air Actions, which depending upon how you set things up controls what happens when you press a button on the S Pen. In the camera app, for example, a single press can snap a picture or start recording video, which is handy if the phone is propped up somewhere.
Also worth noting: Let me mention the ever-chummy relationship between Samsung and Microsoft, which later in the year will let you, for example, auto sync Samsung Notes with OneNote on a computer. Meantime, starting September 15, you will be able to play Xbox games on the Note, provided you have an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription. (You can try it sooner in beta.)
Finally, there’s 5G. These are early days in the continuing rollout of the next generation of wireless and it's safe to say 5G hasn’t yet matched its hype. Fortunately the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra makes nice with the different networking flavors of 5G that are here now or coming soon, known in geek parlance as sub-6 and mmWave. The takeaway for the Note: you are future-proofed when it comes to 5G.
Indeed, if you’re buying a phone today--and spending all this loot--it best be fully compatible when the next big wave hits.
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