Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra smartphone
Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra
Photo: Bree Fowler

The new Samsung Galaxy Note20 5G phones, which went on sale last month, have big, sharp displays well-suited for reading documents, watching video, and scribbling notes with the model’s trademark S Pen stylus.

They feature top-of-the-line performance; some of the best smartphone cameras on the market, including respective 3x and 5x optical zoom; and the hardware needed for 5G connectivity.

And we can now say that the battery life is solid, too. In our initial testing, reported on Sept. 10, the supersized Galaxy Note20 5G and Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G delivered significantly fewer hours of operation than other premium models, which can last upward of 40 hours. The Note20 lasted just 30.5 hours on a charge and the Note20 Ultra quit after 30 hours.

In a follow-up test conducted with a different set of samples, the Note20 delivered 34 hours of battery life and the Note20 Ultra lasted 36.5 hours.

We test phones with international partners and the models used in that first test are meant for markets outside the United States. Those in the second test were designed for the U.S. Many phones have the same components worldwide. In this case, though, the phones used in the first batch and the second batch incorporated different processors. Samsung uses its own Samsung Exynos chips in the Note20 models sold overseas, while it uses Qualcomm Snapdragon processor for the phones it sells in the U.S.

In the end, the U.S. models deliver significantly better battery life than the phones distributed to the rest of the world.

We asked Samsung to comment on the reason for using different processors in the Note20 phones. The company did not respond in the time we requested.

More on Smartphones

Based on our final test results, the two Note20 phones climbed high into Consumer Reports’ extremely tight ratings, with other premium models such as Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro Max.

The Note20 and Note20 Ultra start at $1,000 and $1,300, respectively, for 128 gigabytes of storage. While that’s in keeping with last year’s models—the Note10+ 5G cost $1,300 at launch—it still represents a significant investment for most consumers. The Note10 models also remain among our highest-rated phones. 

Here’s a closer look at our test results. 

Familiar Design

A comparison photo of the Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra.
The Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max (shown at left) has a display measuring 6.5 inches diagonally. The Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra (right) has a 6.9-inch display.
Photo: Bree Fowler

For many people, the chief draw of the Samsung Note phones has long been the stylus and display that work together as sort of a digital pen and notepad. And this latest incarnation gives you more room to write.

The screen on the Note20 spans 6.7 inches when measured diagonally. And the one on the Note20 Ultra stretches to 6.9 inches.

By comparison, the Note10 from a year ago had a 6.3-inch display and the one on the Note10+ topped out at 6.8 inches.

On both of the new phones, those are OLED displays, giving you blacker blacks and nearly unlimited viewing angles. And both displays received Excellent scores from our testers.

As with Samsung’s earlier models, the Note20 and Note20 Ultra let you scribble notes on a blank page, a photo, or a PDF. You can also use the S Pen to sketch on the phone’s lock screen, an activity favored by my kids back in the days before they discovered the wonders of Roblox and YouTube.

For a while now, you could save those notes, convert your barely legible scrawls into proper text, and even translate them into a handful of languages. While Samsung’s software didn’t work miracles, it did work well enough on my notoriously terrible handwriting that I could get a general idea about what I’d scratched down.

Samsung’s latest software allows you to auto sync those notes and drawings to the cloud, making them instantly accessible on your PC. You also can attach voice recordings to your notes, then play back sections of the audio by tapping on the related text.

I found that last feature a bit tricky to use. I tried doing a short interview, letting the audio recording run while I took notes. But I struggled to write quickly enough with the stylus to keep up with my subject. As a result, when I tapped on a section of text, the audio that played back didn’t match up exactly. On the flip side, just having the audio attached definitely helped me decode the notes later.

New Cameras

Like the Galaxy S20 phones launched earlier this year, the rear setups on the Note20 and Note20 Ultra feature new optical zoom cameras, in addition to the traditional wide and ultrawide cameras. In this case, we’re talking about a 3x camera for the Note20 and a 5x for the Note20 Ultra. (Use the slider on the image below to see how much closer the 5x zoom gets you.)

That means you can “zoom” in on a subject without the use of software that can result in blurry images. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to rely on digital tricks to get you even closer. Samsung says the 5x camera on the S20 Ultra can blow up an image as much as 50x with the help of software, but there again you may end up with less crisp images.

Photos: Bree Fowler

A multicamera setup makes it much easier to take good portraits, too. The popular “bokeh” effect—where part of the image is in sharp focus and the rest is blurred—uses a pair of cameras to separate the subject from the background.

I took the portrait photos below with the Note20 Ultra, and they were clear and sharp.

While it’s possible to get similar effects with a single camera and software, the results generally aren’t as good, because the software often blurs the fine details in a subject’s borders, such as the hair on a person’s head.

Portrait mode photos of flowers and a young boy taken with the Note20 Ultra.
Portrait mode photos taken with the Note20 Ultra. The feature worked well on objects and people.
Photo: Bree Fowler

Because the Note phones are more about productivity than photography, Samsung elected to go with a 5x camera on the Note20 Ultra instead of the 10x camera found on the S20 Ultra.

Regardless, the cameras on the Note20 phones managed to grab some of the highest scores in our ratings. In fact, the Note20 Ultra now claims the best overall camera on the list, just barely edging out the iPhone 11 Pro Max, largely because of the quality of the still images taken with the rear camera setup and the overall performance of the front “selfie” camera.

On the downside, just like with the S20 models, the camera setups on the Note 20 phones result in a noticeable bulge on the back of the device. They stick out enough that you can’t lay the models flush on a table. The top part is always propped up a bit.

In addition to being annoying, it made me worry about damaging the cameras when I set the phone down, so much so that I spent time scouring Amazon for a case designed to wrap around the camera bulge.

I ultimately found what I wanted, but it took some research.

Should You Buy One?

Samsung’s Note phones have always been designed with a particular user in mind. They’re big, beautiful, and primed for productivity. You either love them or you don’t.

And while the company makes incremental improvements each year, the core design doesn’t change much, making the model a practical choice, especially when compared with, say, the recently unveiled $2,000 Galaxy Z Fold2, which is also geared toward the mobile professional.

If you already have a Note10, this probably isn’t the time to upgrade. You can wait another year to buy a 5G phone, even if you live in a big city, because the major carriers still have a long way to go to provide blanket coverage with their 5G networks.

On the other hand, if you’re a Note fan with an aging device, this might be the time to pull the trigger on a new phone. While pricey, these latest options have the processing power and 5G hardware to serve you well for the next few years. 

Clarification: An earlier version of this article, published on Sept. 10, reported battery life in CR testing of 30.5 hours for the Samsung Galaxy Note20 5G and 30 hours for the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G. This article has been updated to reflect that a follow-up test in the lab yielded different data.