Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra review: Live by the S Pen, die by the S Pen
Overview, Design & Handling, Display & Audio, User Interface
Note: This review was first published on 18 Aug 2020.
Live by the S Pen, die by the S Pen?
Fans of the Samsung Galaxy Note smartphones have waited a long year for the arrival of the Samsung Galaxy Note20 series. As one of the last few smartphones with a stylus still seeing hardware refreshes on the market, the Galaxy Note20 phones appeal to a very specific niche of people who find the S Pen more productive and intuitive than finger tapping and swiping on a mobile device.
The Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra is supposed to embody three things. One, it’s Samsung’s latest and best effort at reimagining stylus-based smartphones. Two, it’s obviously their latest 2020 premium flagship smartphone product, on par with the no-stylus Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. Finally, the Galaxy Note20 Ultra is supposedly an upgrade from its predecessors, especially the Galaxy Note10+.
However, a glance at the flagship phone market would quickly tell you that Samsung has more than its previous phones to contend with. With devices like the OnePlus 8 Pro, Oppo Find X2 Pro, and Huawei P40 Pro+ (if you don’t mind HMS), the Galaxy Note20 Ultra is far from a comfortable position.
In the hardware arena, the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra has a curved edge 6.9-inch Quad HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X Infinity-O display that supports 120Hz refresh and 240Hz touch sampling rates. The main draw is none other than its improved S Pen with faster input latency of just 9ms, on par with the S Pen found on the Galaxy Tab S7+ and about 80% more responsive than the Galaxy Note10+’s S Pen. Note20 Ultra’s Exynos 990 processor can also be found on the Galaxy S20 series, making it a 5G-ready phone. Part of the Note20 Ultra’s triple-rear camera configuration was inspired by the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s, with the 108MP wide-angle camera making a return. Finally, it has a 4,500mAh battery capacity, which is more than Note10+’s (4,300mAh) but less than S20 Ultra’s (5,000mAh). Note20 also packs several flagship-tier features, like its USB PD 3.0-certified fast-charging that’s AFC and QC 2.0 compatible, alongside Fast Wireless Charging 2.0 at 10W+.
At S$1,898 for the 256GB variant, will the Galaxy Note20 Ultra be able to offer usability and value beyond its S Pen? Let’s find out.
Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra
Design and Handling
The Galaxy Note20 Ultra carries a design language that’s prominently Samsung’s. It has curved edges on the long side, with its metal rims framing the device ever so slightly. Textured Haze - what Samsung named their Note20 series diffused finish - was chosen because it was partial towards neutral colour palettes for their phone. This was apparently key to the ‘calm’ appearance of the device. We think it’s pleasant, and the Mystic Bronze model we have feels like a nod at rose-gold packaging of cosmetic products from the 90s.
Combine all of that with the Note20 Ultra’s glass rear and you get a smartphone that looks like it’s meant to be the pinnacle of beauty and power. Despite its emotive aesthetic, the Note20 Ultra is rated IP68 for water resistance.
The 8.1mm thickness gives the Note20 Ultra considerable heft, but it also makes the device sit securely in your hand. The smartphone also doesn’t tip over when you’re palming the lower half where most of the swiping and typing take place. The volume rocker and power/lock buttons are also well-placed since it sits where you’d naturally rest your fingers at, regardless of your dominant hand.
Next to the S Pen’s holding slot (at the bottom left) is a one half of its dual speakers (with the other hidden within the call speaker), followed by a centrally located USB Type-C port. The opposite end of the device hides a dual SIM card tray with a hybrid second slot that can take microSD cards.
The antenna bands are well-hidden because of their lack of glitter. For the Mystic Bronze variant, the phone’s metal sides and rims are the shiniest parts. Meanwhile, the nude-coloured matte antenna bands blend into the highly polished edges. What you get is a smartphone with plenty of antenna bands that makes way for the Note20 Ultra’s continuous look and feel.
While it's the epitome of Samsung's elegance and refinement, the phone’s design does have its quirks as well. One, it has a massive raised housing for its rear cameras. It’s almost as if it’s competing with the Huawei P40 Pro+ in having the most inconvenient lens housing among all 2020 phones. Most users would likely disguise the bump with a phone case, but that would be a pity since that would hide most of the Note20 Ultra’s carefully crafted Textured Haze finish.
Second, would be the slight metal bezel peeking out of the top and bottom rims of the phone, when most other devices of its tier would choose to hide those edges for a continuous appearance. It's likely a compromise to accommodate an S Pen, since the same design choice was also on the Galaxy Note10+.
Display and Audio
As mentioned, the Note20 Ultra packs a 6.9-inch, Quad HD+ (3,088 x 1,440 pixels resolution), Dynamic AMOLED 2X Infinity-O display, working out to a pixel density of ~496 PPI. Before we start talking about the refresh rate and resolution, let’s see exactly what Note20 Ultra users are paying for.
Dynamic AMOLED 2X is an enhanced AMOLED display that supports 100% DCI-P3 colour gamut with HDR10+ certification. It also has SGS certification for blue light reduction. Infinity-O refers to the slim display bezels and the O-shaped front camera cutout on the panel. In essence, Samsung used two marketing terms to summarise the majority of what makes flagship smartphone displays an important component for consideration: it supports HDR video playback, reduces blue light to improve nighttime browsing, has a remarkably accurate colour space, and it simply looks sexy. However, all this jazz is not new, since Dynamic AMOLED was on the Note10 series and Infinity-O was a thing since the Galaxy S10 phones.
The Note20 Ultra display also supports 120Hz refresh rate and 240Hz touch sampling rate. Of note was how the Galaxy S20 series couldn’t support 120Hz at 1440p (technical explanation here). The Note20 Ultra hasn’t overcome this limitation between its processor and display. If you try to set the Note20 Ultra to Quad HD+, a dialogue box informs you that the device doesn’t support ‘high refresh rate’ at 1440p resolution. It’s a bummer because the S$1,298 OnePlus 8 Pro and the S$1,699 Oppo Find X2 Pro can, and those Snapdragon-powered phones also run on AMOLED displays.
We’ll be honest - you’re not going to get a visible disparity in screen quality between last year’s Note10+ and this year’s Note20 Ultra with their similar resolution sizes and display quality. The difference is also inconsequential between this year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra and Galaxy Note20 Ultra because they share the same display type, vertical resolution, refresh rate, and touch sampling rate.
Competing devices from other brands also make it difficult to pick one phone’s display over another, since they are all capable of accurate colourisation while supporting high refresh rates at their peak resolution sizes too.
That said, the Note20 Ultra’s higher-than-typical touch sampling rate offers better input response times, so you’re still guaranteed a buttery-smooth scrolling and swiping experience. Also, having both Ultra phones sharing nearly identical displays would mean that it’s up to the consumers to decide if they want a Samsung flagship with or without the S Pen.
With its dual firing speakers (one at the bottom, another at the top via the super thin earpiece grille), the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra's audio is operationally satisfying, whether for entertainment or calls.
Samsung relies on its proprietary One UI interface to envelop the Note20 Ultra’s Android 10 base OS. Like the rest of their Galaxy Note devices, it comes with extra customisations that grant software-based features to the S Pen.
What’s new, however, isn’t only the reduced S Pen latency of 9ms, but also its breadth of controls. The old Air Actions received five more Harry Potter-like gestures for phone navigation, collectively called Anywhere Actions. By holding the S Pen away from the Note20 Ultra and holding down the stylus’s only button, you can swish your S Pen like a magic wand and your phone responds accordingly. The resulting command can be customised. For instance, doing an up-down flick would make the phone head back to its Home Screen.
It’s an awkward feature to use in public, but it becomes useful if you already have the S Pen in your hand, or if you’re presenting information to another person or in a small group meeting (after you've mirrored your phone's screen to a TV). The most useful Anywhere Actions are the holding down of the stylus’s button to launch your most important app, and handy customisations that work with select apps.
Using the S Pen itself to navigate and make notes isn’t a new experience, but Samsung definitely held true to their “lifelike pen-to-paper experience”. The sensitivity might take some getting used to, but it’s something that can be mastered in a matter of days.
Like the Galaxy Tab S7+, the Note20 Ultra also had Samsung Notes enhancements, which include new features like Auto-Straighten, importing and annotating directly on PDF documents, as well as an audio bookmarking feature to sync voice recordings and written notes.
The Microsoft integration feature - which was around since Android 7.0 (Nougat) phones and iOS phones - is indeed more integrated on the Note20 Ultra device. This is because Samsung has a specially built Link to Windows app (instead of the regular Your Phone Companion app for Android devices) available since the Note10. Instead of only accessing photos, text messages, and notifications, the old Link to Windows by Samsung could let you drag and drop files onto the PC.
What’s new is the ability to run your Note20 Ultra apps on the PC itself, which means you can use your phone without having to physically touch it. Currently, Link to Windows can only run one app at any given time, and it’s more screen mirroring than emulation. One, you'll constantly need to be on the same Wi-Fi network as your PC during Link to Windows. Two, you’re still relying on the mobile phone’s processing power, since the phone also runs the app at the same time.
On paper, it doesn’t sound like much. In practice, however, it feels as if every app can run smoothly on a desktop while mirroring the phone’s interface, and it’s great because the results carry across devices. Just about any messaging, shopping, and entertainment app worked. The games we’ve tried automatically go into landscape mode if that’s the preferred orientation. Only an odd game or two couldn’t receive PC inputs using Link to Windows. As a whole, it’s extremely handy to have and relatively glitch-free. The only quirk? Audio plays from your Note20 Ultra and not from your desktop.
A cool party trick is the combination of Anywhere Actions with Link to Windows. Simply put, you can swish your S Pen around to control the phone even when it’s linked, making it really handy for folks who need to do any show-and-tell with content from your phone, but on a significantly larger screen. In fact, the default setting for going to the next slide in the Microsoft Office app is a single press of the S Pen button, while going back by a slide is two presses. Don't forget to unlink the device from the paired PC once you're done.
According to Samsung, the Link to Windows function will improve even further to support syncing of OneNote feed (inside Outlook) and auto-syncing of reminders across Microsoft Outlook, To Do, and Teams. What we’re more excited about is the update that lets users run multiple apps while using Link to Windows. That would truly unlock multi-tasking for your phone, unlike the sadder, Android-based Multi-Active Window on Tab S7+ which had container constraints, more incompatible apps than compatible ones, a frustrating set of controls, and generally a pain in the S Pen to use.
The wireless Samsung DeX feature on the Galaxy Tab S7+ also made it to the Note20 series phones. Interestingly, wireless DeX connectivity isn’t only compatible with Samsung Smart TVs, but with all smart TVs that have Miracast. Samsung still highly recommends their Smart TVs launched after 2019 for the DeX feature, though.
A feature we couldn’t try was Ultra-Wideband technology (UWB) since it requires another UWB-enabled Android smartphone to see it in action. Basically, UWB makes it easier to share files and content in a physical context. Between two Samsung phones with UWB, you can use Point To Share where you simply point the device at another to trade files. Nearby Share is the pan-Android alternative, and you can trigger it via the Share button found around most files on your phone.
As a whole, the seamless Microsoft integration was the standout feature for us. Yes, it’s largely a Microsoft effort to make Android phones interoperable with Windows 10. We still think part of the credit goes to Samsung for getting their Link to Windows to work better, with minimal issues. Link to Windows also made it such that the Note20 Ultra offered more than an improved S Pen, with categorical benefits to your productivity potential.