The Galaxy Note20 Ultra features what could possibly be the pinnacle of display technology available to the public right now. It has the resolution, the refresh rate, the brightness, the color reproduction, and, being a Note, the nuanced pressure detection for the S Pen.
Let's unpack a bit. At 6.9 inches in diagonal, the 20 Ultra is the biggest Note to date, a mere 0.1" difference giving it the edge ahead of last year's Note10+. Resolution is 1440x3088px, which comes in an odd 19.3:9 aspect ratio - in between the Note10's 19:9 and the S20s 20:9. The pixel density works out to 496ppi.
It's Dynamic AMOLED 2X - it may not have a particularly nice ring to it, but that's Samsung's branding for its 120Hz refresh rate displays (2x the refresh rate, get it?). This one comes with 240Hz touch sampling too for speedier detection of touch input. What hasn't changed since the S20 family, where Samsung introduced 120Hz panels, is the limitation that going for the 1440p resolution locks the refresh rate at 60Hz. To have the HRR, you need to run the Note20 Ultra in 1080p resolution.
What's different this time around is that the 120Hz setting isn't dead set - instead, if you opt for the Adaptive mode, the one where the Note will up to 120Hz, it will dynamically adjust it depending on what you're doing on the device. We've seen such behavior from other HRR phone displays and it should help with endurance - after all, you don't need your phone to refresh 120 times a second when watching a 30fps video, but you'd be paying a battery life toll if it is.
Mind you, the Note20 Ultra won't do it in 1Hz increments. Samsung Display claims that the used refresh rates are 10Hz for still images, 30Hz for text-heavy apps (like email), 60Hz for video, and 120Hz for games, respectively. So this adaptive system appears to be more granular than on other phones but it still defaults to either 60Hz or 120Hz for most of the time.
We have an in-house app that reads the current resolution and refresh rate as reported by Android and overlays it on the screen for us to keep an eye on. Apparently, the Note20 Ultra will base its choice of refresh rate on a number of factors, and we can't claim that what will follow is an exhaustive list.
For starters, if you're actively tapping and swiping on the screen, it'll maintain 120Hz. Leave it on a table or even just stare blankly at it while holding it for a few seconds and it'll go down to 60Hz, only to crank the RR back up once you touch the screen. Oddly enough, there's no spike, based on the accelerometer reading, though when picking up the handset from a table you are likely to touch some part of the display, thus triggering the touch-based spike to 120Hz. That's the usual behavior you can expect across the UI, as well as in most apps including Instagram, Facebook, and browsers (we checked Chrome, Firefox, and Samsung's own).
Then there are app-specific peculiarities. Games are neither here nor there or, as our own Victor put it recently while reviewing the ROG Phone 3, 'High refresh rate gaming on Android is still the Wild West.'
Pac Man, Sky Force Reloaded, 1945 Air Force and Dead Trigger 2, for example, kept the Note's display in 120Hz. The HRR-capable v1.01 of Alto's Odyssey (as confirmed in both our Razer Phone 2 review and more recently on the ROG Phone 3) - that's 60Hz on the Ultra. Mortal Kombat, which did 144fps on the ROG Phone 3, was stuck at 60 on the Note20 Ultra. Same with Real Racing 3, which ran in 144fps on the nubia Red Magic 5G. PUBG and Call of Duty don't really go above 60fps normally, and Fortnite is capped at 30fps, so the Note20 Ultra had its screen run in 60Hz for these two.
The camera viewfinder is stuck at 60Hz (even for the 120fps 1080p video recording mode), while the camera settings menu, as all other menus, got us 120Hz. Having said that, 1080p 120Hz videos recorded on the Note do, after all, trigger the 120Hz refresh on the screen. That is also the case for 120fps videos you can find online - mostly gameplay clips, because who records normal speed 120fps videos anyway (slow-mo is a different thing).
Outside of that, video playing apps introduce a variable of their own - HDR. If you're playing SDR videos in the native player, YouTube, Netflix, or Amazon Prime Video, the phone will always respect the touch-based switching detailed above. So even when you're watching a full screen video, you tap on the screen and it'll spike to 120Hz - for some unknown reason. Play an HDR video, however, and the screen will be locked in 60Hz for as long as the clip is showing on the screen - even in YouTube for the tiny thumbnail-sized view on the bottom of the screen.
Then there's the proximity sensor. If you were to engage it, the phone will go up to 120Hz and more often than not stay in that state indefinitely. To reenable the auto drop to 60Hz, you need to touch the display and it will then go back to the 'wait for 5 seconds of inactivity' behavior. This whole thing sounds more like a bug than a feature, and it could probably change with an upcoming update.
There were only a couple of instances when we managed to spot the Note20 Ultra's Adaptive refresh rate go below 60Hz. The first one is for the intermediate period right after the screen timing out - for those 2 or 3 seconds when the display goes dim, but the phone isn't yet locked, the refresh rate is 15Hz. The other scenario is when opening YouTube in a browser. In that case, it's business as usual at 120Hz when you're tapping on things, but when you're playing a video, it drops to 48Hz. For who knows what reason.
Update, September 14, 2020: During our review of the Galaxy Z Fold2, it came to our attention that the Adaptive mode logic was even more complex than we had imagined previously. On top of all the other factors involved, the Fold also reads data from the ambient light sensor and wouldn't lower the refresh rate in dimmer conditions. That, apparently, is the case with the Note20 Ultra as well.
Back to some of our more ordinary testing. There's nothing ordinary about the Galaxy Note20 Ultra's brightness, though, that's for sure. With Adaptive brightness turned on and the phone under direct light, we measured 1024nits in our usual testing scenario - that's mightily impressive. The result is a good 130nits more than what we got on the S20 Ultra, 150nits more than the Find X2 Pro and 200nits brighter than the iPhone 11 Pro.
When you're adjusting the slider manually, the Note20 Ultra is capable of outputting 500nits, a new development for Samsungs, which typically top out at or below 400nits.
|Display test||100% brightness|
Samsung's promo materials speak of 1500nits peak brightness, and we don't doubt that's achievable for lit-up areas smaller than our standardized test swatches. For kicks and giggles, we tried using a white rectangle covering 10% of the display (as opposed to our usual 75%), and we measured 1360nits. The extra nits will come in handy in HDR video playback, though clearly, you'd be getting crazy high brightness from even mostly white apps which cover a larger area of the screen.
As for color accuracy, the default Vivid mode returns an average dE2000 of 3.0 for our set of DCI-P3 test swatches - not super accurate, but decent. More importantly, the white point is fairly precise with only the slightest blue shift. That can be alleviated by bumping the 5 position Cool-to-Warm slider to the mid-warm setting - dE2000 of around 1 on the white, 2.9 average. Going to the warmest settings quickly nudges white to yellow (some 6 units off the mark) and the overall dE2000 gets an increase to 3.8.
Natural mode, on the other hand, is tuned for faithful reproduction of sRGB content. It's very accurate and we measured an average dE2000 of 1.2.
The Galaxy Note20 Ultra is powered by a 4,500mAh battery, a 500mAh downgrade compared to the S20 Ultra for otherwise mostly similar hardware. The S20+, meanwhile, with a slightly smaller display than the Note's, has the same capacity as the S Pen flagship. The Note20 Ultra's Adaptive refresh rate mode should supposedly help with battery life by only delivering as many Hz as needed for the task at hand. Once again, we are reviewing the Exynos version of the Note20 Ultra.
We tested the phone in both modes, but some clarification is needed. In Adaptive mode, our browser script kept the screen at 120Hz constantly - we believe that more closely resembles real-life use, since you're likely to more often be scrolling, than staring blankly at a page. As for the video test - we kept that at 120Hz despite the Adaptive mode's tendency to drop the refresh to 60Hz in some conditions when playing videos. We feel that's the best way to simulate worst case scenario results, since there are instances where the Note will maintain 120Hz even when showing videos.
The call time is similarly comparable to what we squeezed out of the S20U/+. This was a pleasant surprise coming from a phone with a 10% smaller battery.
On to web browsing. Still in Adaptive mode but again running at 120hz throughout the entire time, we clocked 11:31h of web browsing - an hour more than the S20 Ultra (120Hz), and some 40 minutes longer than the S20+ (120Hz) - pretty good then. The Note20 Ultra improved their scores while still running full steam in 120Hz. Our best guess is this can be attributed to the better power efficiency of the new display panel when showing predominantly white content like our scripted web page test or like your average social networks.
Video playback, on the other hand, returned a less exciting 13:05h on the Note20 Ultra - though in line with the 12:55h on the S20 Ultra and the 13:30h on the S20+ in their 120Hz modes. Again, that's the worst case scenario if your video watching happens to take place in conditions where the Note20 Ultra deems the 120Hz refresh to be the one to go for.
We then switched the Note20 Ultra to its Standard refresh rate (but kept the resolution at 1080p to isolate the effect of the refresh rate), and we got more mileage - 3 more hours of web browsing and 4+ extra hours of video playback.
For the sake of thoroughness, we also ran the two screen-on tests in the maximum 1440p resolution. Here, we got 13:40h for web browsing, closer to the 1080p/60Hz Standard result than to the 1080p/120Hz Adaptive. That's 1:32h more than what the S20 Ultra posted under the same conditions and some 40min better than the S20+ too. The 15:01h figure in video playback is, on the other hand, about 2 hours than what the S20s can do in 1440p/60Hz.
Our battery tests were automated thanks to SmartViser, using its viSer App. The endurance rating above denotes how long a single battery charge will last you if you use the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G for an hour each of telephony, web browsing, and video playback daily. We've established this usage pattern so that our battery results are comparable across devices in the most common day-to-day tasks. The battery testing procedure is described in detail in case you're interested in the nitty-gritty. You can check out our complete battery test table, where you can see how all of the smartphones we've tested will compare under your own typical use.
All of this goes to say that the Adaptive refresh rate mode on the Galaxy Note20 Ultra can make a difference, but the extent to which it will affect the phone's endurance for your particular use patterns is outside the scope of what we can test. You can certainly use the above numbers to figure out where you might stand.
Moving on, in our experience, charging the Galaxy Note20 Ultra missed the mark Samsung promised. We got 43% in a 30-minute session with the supplied 25W adapter (as opposed to the promised 50%+). The OnePlus 8 Pro, for example, will be at 63% 30 minutes into a charge from 0%, while the Mi 10 Pro 5G will get you 77%, and 80% on the Huawei P40 Pro. In as much time, the Find X2 Pro will be nearly full at 95%. On the other hand, the Xperia 1 II only gets you to 43%, but even the iPhone 11 Pro will be half-way to 100% in half an hour.
A full charge from flat required 1:23h on the Note20 Ultra and in that race it does beat the Xperia (1:51h) and the iPhone (2:00h).
The Note20 Ultra doesn't support the 45W charging that the Note10+ and the S20 Ultra have. Seeing how it wasn't a massive improvement in speed over the standard 25W brick, we gather it won't be missed, nor would it be making a return but it's still a strange omission.
Update, January 27, 2021: While reviewing the Galaxy S21 Ultra, we also retested the Galaxy Note20 Ultra and got improved numbers in both tests. A full charge from 0% this time around took 1:13h, but more importantly we now got a notably higher 57% charge in 30 minutes. Not class-leading still, but appreciably better.
You can also charge the Note20 Ultra wirelessly. Samsung says it supports Fast Wireless Charging 2.0 with compatible pads that can output 10W or more - up to 15W if previous Galaxies are any indication. As per the Wireless Power Consortium listing, the Note20 Ultra is certified for the Basic Power Profile (4.4 watts), but that's been the case with previous Galaxies that supported fast wireless charging as well. The faster charging is probably out of the specs they are ready to certify.
Wireless PowerShare is available too, so you can charge other devices off of the Note20 Ultra's back. That should work at up to 9W, and only if the Note's battery is above 30%.
The Galaxy Note20 Ultra has a stereo speaker setup made up of a dedicated loudspeaker on the bottom and the earpiece up top. The earpiece doubles as the left channel when the phone is held in portrait but the two channels will switch if necessary to respect the orientation of the phone in landscape. They're not entirely identical in their output either, with the earpiece lagging a bit behind in loudness and low frequency response.
The Note20 Ultra earned a 'Good' mark in our test for loudness, one notch below the Note10+ and the S20 family. It has a more balanced frequency response with toned down vocals and highs next to the S20s and a slight boost in the lower region too.
Use the Playback controls to listen to the phone sample recordings (best use headphones). We measure the average loudness of the speakers in LUFS. A lower absolute value means a louder sound. A look at the frequency response chart will tell you how far off the ideal "0db" flat line is the reproduction of the bass, treble, and mid frequencies. You can add more phones to compare how they differ. The scores and ratings are not comparable with our older loudspeaker test. Learn more about how we test here.
We've recently discontinued our audio output quality test.
The reason for that is that most phones that arrived for testing were already excellent in this regard and whatever difference there was, it was marginal and probably indistinguishable to anything but our lab equipment.