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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra hands-on review: Impressive device with minimal updates and premium price

A review of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra smartphone after three weeks of use reveals surprising discoveries about the device.

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Samsung's Galaxy Note 20 Ultra comes in three colors: Mystic Black, Mystic Bronze and Mystic White.

Samsung

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is indisputably a top-notch flagship smartphone that is impressively large with a price tag to match. 

The phone was unveiled at Samsung Unpacked on Aug. 5, and Samsung sent TechRepublic a review unit the next day. After three weeks of daily use, it's easy to say that this is the best phone yet that Samsung has developed. But at a certain point, there's only so much more that a phone can do. Samsung already has created world-class phones, so the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the latest of a long line of great devices. 

It's definitely a gigantic phone, with a 6.9" screen, but in a world where smartphones serve as a substitute for tablets, this works out just fine. I found myself grabbing the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra to stream the latest episode of The Umbrella Academy even with my iPad or TV readily available. It was just easier, and the picture quality was amazing.

SEE: Photos: A first look at the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (TechRepublic)

I also stopped using the Kindle app on my iPad to read an ebook, although I did still grab my son's Nintendo Switch for an occasional round of Animal Crossing. (Those fish aren't going to catch themselves.) The screen on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra was plenty large enough for reading and gaming.

One of the reasons for the picture quality is because the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a 120Hz refresh rate, plus an adaptive refresh rate. It's variable, and this is a first for Samsung. The screen dynamically adjusts with what's being displayed at the moment. It drops down to 10Hz if nothing is moving on the screen.

Speaking of gaming, Samsung is promoting Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service with the phone. There's an Xbox library of more than 100 Xbox games that you can stream from the cloud. This includes Minecraft Dungeons, Forza Horizon Four and Gears of War Five Ultimate Edition. 

There are on-device optimizations for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth so gamers will be able to level up their gaming experience with a Bluetooth controller for an immersive console-like gaming experience. The screen on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is actually larger than the Nintendo Switch, so it gives an even better gaming experience. 

The battery lasted for a day and a half, and sometimes two days, depending on how much I used my phone to watch The Umbrella Academy's Klaus and Number Five time travel when I was streaming Netflix. It's a 4,500mAh cell and it is powering a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ processor with a separate modem for 5G. That's an extra power draw, so that makes the battery life all the more impressive. 

You can't write about the phone without mentioning the most obvious feature of the phone—the massive camera bump on the back. The bump houses three cameras as well as a sensor and a flash. I asked Ray Couey, director of strategic alliances at Samsung Electronics America about the design. He said that Samsung created the bump to make room for all of the technology within the camera while keeping the phone as slim as possible. 

One disappointing feature of the phone, at least to me, was the absence of wired earbuds. I've gotten used to having that spare set for when I don't want to use a Bluetooth headset. Couey told me that Samsung made that decision because, "We're finding that a number of people that were actually needing the wired headset was actually pretty low. And so a lot of people were already using a Bluetooth headset for whatever reason. And so when we were looking at how can we reduce our eco footprint, this came up as part of the packaging element.

I'm guessing that Samsung plans on everyone using their new Galaxy Buds Live with the phone, which were introduced at Samsung Unpacked, and the wireless earbuds are priced at $169.99. They have active noise cancellation that can be toggled on and off.

SEE: Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 and S7 Plus cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

I do love that it uses Corning's Gorilla Glass Victus, which Corning said has twice the scratch resistance as the last version, Gorilla Glass 6, and can be dropped from 2 meters without damage. I've actually never cracked a screen yet on one of my smartphones, but I always like knowing that my device has the latest and greatest glass possible. 

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Image: Samsung

I am also kind of thrilled that Samsung has reduced the latency on the S Pen stylus. It has an 80% improvement over the Note 10's stylus. It's down to 9 milliseconds, aiming for a low latency that graphic artists and architects will appreciate. I don't have a Galaxy Note 10 on hand, but I do have a Galaxy Note 9, and I could definitely tell a distinct difference. It feels like you're really writing with an ink pen. Air Actions still exist with the S Pen, so that users can remotely control their smartphone with the stylus. The control options have expanded to include five more gestures.

I admit though, that I tend to forget about the S Pen after a while. It's fun for a few days when I first start using a new Note device, then I put it away and stop using it. Hopefully that won't be the case with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra now that there are even more uses for it. 

Of course, there's DeX. I tend to not use it myself, though. I know. Don't tell Samsung. But it's a favorite of some folks, and it can now connect wirelessly and can be used on any smart TV that supports mirror cast. 

And colors. I was sent the new Mystic Bronze shade. I'm not a huge fan. I find it to be a variation of the rose gold shades of years past. If I had my druthers, I'd go with Mystic Black or Mystic White. I do really like the textured haze effect that cuts down on fingerprints and smudges. It was the first thing I noticed about the device.

The price is pretty hefty. But that is the norm these days for top-notch smartphones. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra starts at $1,299 for the 128GB version, and the 512GB model is $1,449, and a 512GB MicroSD card bumps up the storage to over 1TB. The smaller Galaxy Note 20 starts at $999.

The phone was available for purchase beginning Aug. 21, and you can find it at all the usual places, including Samsung, Best Buy, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T

Specifications

Screen: 6.9" WQHD+ (Edge) 120Hz

Rear Camera: 12MP, 108MP, 12MP; 5x Op, 50x Di

Front Camera: 10MP

Battery: 4,500mAh

Storage/RAM: 128GB and 512GB/12GB

Processor: Snapdragon 865+

5G Networks: Sub6/mmWave

Color: Mystic Bronze, Mystic White, Mystic Black

Other: Auto Refresh Rate, SD Card, UWB, S Pen 9ms, IP68, Stereo SPK

Cost: Starting at $1,299.99

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By Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is Associate Managing Editor at TechRepublic. She oversees TechRepublic's news team and TechRepublic Premium. She focuses on tech and business and how the two worlds intersect. Teena's lifelong journalism career has included writing on s...