Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review: 5G, display, cameras, and S Pen make it the best phone for business

samsung-galaxy-note-20-ultra-1.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    9.3 Spectacular
  • $1,099.99

Pros

  • Full 5G network support
  • Stunning, large 120Hz adaptive display
  • Improved latency in the S Pen with new gestures
  • Improved rear cameras with laser focus
  • Ultra-Wideband (UWB) support
  • Wireless DeX support

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Large rear camera area

Earlier this year, I reviewed the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, and it had specifications and technology to make it an awesome phone for business. However, the camera had some imperfections, it was a large phone for an S series device, and it was expensive. After spending a few weeks with the Note 20 Ultra, it is clearly the better Samsung phone in 2020 and a great device for enterprise customers.

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While the Note 10 Plus (see our full review) wasn't a slam dunk upgrade from the Note 9, the Note 20 Ultra is a near-perfect upgrade for Note 9 users. We'll discuss Note 10 users in this review, too.

One thing to note: Early reviews and feedback on the Note 20  -- not the Ultra version reviewed here -- show that it presents too many compromises to be considered much of an upgrade over the Note 10. These compromises include a 60Hz refresh rate display, no microSD card tray, plastic back panel, no improvements to S Pen latency, use of older Gorilla Glass on the display, and no UWB support.

The Note 20 Ultra boasts several differences compared to Note 20, which makes this larger device the better choice for an additional $300. 

Also: Samsung Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra: My top 5 business productivity features

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G offers all you could want in 2020 with is few innovations that will be enabled and supported in the future. There are also several software elements, primarily Microsoft integration, coming in future updates. Several ZDNet contributors have the Note 20 Ultra in hand, so look to future articles covering more aspects of this latest Samsung device.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G specifications

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus
  • Main display: 6.9 inches, 3088 x 1440 pixels resolution (496ppi), AMOLED Infinity-O with dynamic 120Hz refresh rate
  • Operating system: Android 10
  • RAM: 12GB LPDDR5
  • Storage: 128GB internal storage (512GB available), UFS 3.0
  • Cameras: 12MP rear f/3.0 telephoto, 108MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (120 degrees field-of-view). A laser auto-focus sensor is also found on the back. 10MP f/2.2 front-facing camera.
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax (2.4/5GHz), Bluetooth 5.0, Ultra-Wideband, GPS/Galileo/GLONASS/Beidou, NFC, MST
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, Barometer, Ultrasonic Fingerprint Sensor, Gyro Sensor, Geomagnetic Sensor, Hall Sensor, Proximity Sensor, Ambient Light Sensor
  • Dust/water resistance: IP68 rating
  • Battery: 4500mAh non-removable with fast wireless charging. Wireless PowerShare is also available.
  • Dimensions: 164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1mm and 208 grams
  • Colors: Mystic Bronze, Mystic Black, Mystic White

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As expected, there are no compromises here when it comes to specifications. Looking at last year's Note 10 Plus, we see 5G by default, a better 120Hz refresh rate display, improved camera hardware, wireless DeX support, additional S Pen Air Actions, and improved latency in the S Pen. For Note 10 users, these may be enough to justify the upgrade, but if you have a Note 9, then the Note 20 Ultra is clearly a worthwhile upgrade.

I've used the S20 Plus for a few months and find the slightly lighter and thinner Note 20 Ultra to be a better option at a similar price point. The S20 Ultra seemed a bit too much for an S series device, while the Note 20 Ultra is a natural evolution in the Note lineup.

Also: The Note 20 Ultra is a beautiful, expensive phone that came at the wrong time CNET

Hardware

The most striking aspect of the Note 20 Ultra is the rear camera area. It has a similar large bump sticking out of the back that we saw on the S20 Ultra, but it is a bit narrower and deeper. This camera bulge makes the phone rock when resting on its back. I would like to have seen Samsung place small feet, or maybe even an integrated kickstand, near the bottom of the back so that the phone rested flat on a table when set down. For now, the best way to level things out is to pick up a case.

Compared to the Note 10 series, we see a move of the buttons from the left side to the right side, now matching the S20 series. Samsung also re-positioned the S Pen silo from the right to the left side of the bottom. It might take a bit of getting used to, but after a couple of days, I was able to adapt to the placement of the buttons and S Pen.

The S Pen has the same design, look, and feel as the Note 10 series, but the latency of the S Pen has been improved from 45ms down to 9ms. By the way, the Note 20 latency is 26ms, better than the Note 10 but not as good as the Note 20 Ultra.

Also: Galaxy Note 20 has the most complete S Pen to date, Samsung says

Given that there were some camera focus issues with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, I was a bit nervous to see a similar camera setup on the Note 20 Ultra. While the three main camera approach is similar, the depth (ToF) sensor on the S20 Ultra was replaced with a laser autofocus sensor, and in my experience, offers up improved camera results.

We also see Super Zoom limited to 50x rather than 100x, which is fine since 20x is really about the limit of decent pictures. Check out my image gallery showing the various zoom levels when capturing a campfire and Mt. Rainier. The 100x was pretty gimmicky and offered little actual value to the camera experience.

New colors are available for the Note 20 series with the keystone color being Mystic Bronze. I'm not a fan of the light purple color, and if I decide to purchase one for myself, I will likely go with Mystic White.

Software

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra launches with Android 10 and Samsung One UI 2.5. The  Android security patch delivered earlier this month is also installed on this review unit.

Samsung still includes its own apps, including calendar, contacts, image gallery, music player, and web browser software. All these offer more than the stock Google apps, and while others move to purely stock Google apps, there is still a ton of value in these Samsung applications that offer more for business users. I read rumors that Samsung may be reducing the number of these future apps, but that is not currently the case.

The camera interface has been updated to support the various new cameras. If you want to enable the full "nona binning" (aka, pixel binning) functionality, you can tap in the top row of the viewfinder and then select 4:3 108MP to get a 12MP shot with more details.

Pinching to zoom will also initiate quick zoom buttons for 0.5x, 1x, 2x, 4x, 10x, 20x, and 50x. When the 108MP mode is selected, the zoom tops out at 6x.

The Single Take option seen in the S20 Ultra is present, so you can choose this and then capture 10 seconds of content. The Samsung software will then automatically create different images and clips with effects, filters, and more. This is a fun and easy way to get creative and let the software do all of the work.

It is also interesting to see that you can start recording a video and then switch between the rear and front cameras without interrupting the video. This could be useful for sharing moments with employees in the field or family on the road.

Daily usage experiences

After testing out the S20 Ultra 5G, I didn't have high expectations for the Note 20 Ultra. Then again, I'm a huge fan of Samsung's S Pen and associated experiences, so there was some hope I would be satisfied with the new phone. After a couple of weeks of testing, I find the Note 20 Ultra to be a great upgrade from the Note 9.

Given the convergence of the S and Note series of devices, along with further releases of various Flip and Fold phones, it is possible Samsung could retire the Note line since the S Pen is the major differentiator. Support for the S Pen can be a high-end option of an S series phone or an option in a Fold device, which is what ZDNet's Larry Dignan and I would both love to have for getting work done efficiently.

The S Pen improvements, 5G support, 120 Hz display, and improved cameras are all good reasons for Note 10 owners to upgrade to the Note 20 Ultra. The device performed flawlessly and once you try out a 120 Hz display it is tough to go back to 60 Hz.

I didn't use the S Pen Air Actions much over the past year with the Note 10 Plus but have used them at a rate of about every other day on the Note 20 Ultra. I find Air Actions and new gestures to be more reliable and responsive. I have also set up custom Air Actions within supported apps that make the S Pen now function as a magic wand for the Note 20 Ultra.

Wireless DeX works well on the Note 20 Ultra, and once I start business travel again, I look forward to using it on hotel TV screens. Wired DeX is a great option with a device like the NexDock 2, and there is a ton you can do with the power of a Note 20 Ultra.

We still need to see further development of UWB and expanded Microsoft software integration, so if you purchase a Note 20 Ultra now, there are many aspects and improvements coming to whet your appetite for more productivity. We also look forward to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate gaming for those times when we just need to have some fun.

Availability

Pre-orders are now open for the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra. You can purchase from Samsung, Amazon, Best Buy, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. Both phones will officially launch Friday, Aug. 21. There are a number of special discounts for those who buy one first. For a detailed look at all the offers available right now, check out ZDNet's buyer's guide here.

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Where To Buy

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (128GB, Mystic Black)

Part Number: SM-N986UZKAXAA