Device makers try to leapfrog each other with faster electronics, even truer to life screens and more advanced cameras are what to expect with each new iteration of smartphone models but Samsung has taken a fairly moderate approach with the Note 20 Ultra.
For example, Samsung's in-house designed Exynos 990 chipset performance isn't slow but Apple's A13 in the iPhone 11 Pro leaves it in the dust; the Oppo Find X2 Pro with Qualcomm 865 inside is also faster. Compared to Samsung's Galaxy 20 Ultra, the battery capacity in the Note 20 Ultra is 4500 mAh as opposed to 5000 mAh, and the charging maxes out at 25 Watts and not 45 Watts.
Big, high power wall warts for super-fast charging times is one way to get around case sizes which limit how much battery can be squeezed into smartphones. Oppo recently announced a SuperVOOC charger with a claimed 125 Watt power.
VOOC? It stands for Voltage Open Loop Multi-step Constant-Current Charging of course because VOLMsCCC would look silly. (Also, please accept my apologies for all the acronyms in this column.)
Either way, phones have to support the different fast chargers so there's no point in buying one that supplies more juice if your device can't make use of it.
One possible reason for the small battery is the S Pen stylus. I like the little stylus in that you can wave it around like a conductor's baton to control the Note 20 Ultra, and use as a remote for the camera and of course, write and draw on the screen.
The small size is a double-edged sword: it means the S-Pen fits into the Note 20 Ultra easily, but if you have big hands, it's not great to write and draw with. Also, it's easy to lose but there's an alert that warns if you're leaving without your S Pen safely poked into the phone.
A nice feature is the 120 Hz refresh rate for smooth animations and scrolling as well as faster S Pen response, that the excellent 6.9-inch screen can do. It's available in HD+ (1544 by 720 pixels) and FHD+ (2316 by 1080 pixels) resolution; if you opt for the full WQHD+ (3088 by 1440) resolution or enable High Performance Mode, the screen drops to 60 Hz refresh. The lower rate also kicks in to save battery.
That said, it's a lovely Amoled display to view the photos and videos the four cameras on the Note 20 Ultra can take.
The 10 mega pixel front shooter sees the world through an unobtrusive hole in the screen and takes good, detailed images, but the three rear cameras are where it's at: there's a 108 Mpixel sensor for the main unit that's matched with a 12 Mpixel folded tele lens, and an ultra-wide camera, also 12 Mpixel.
Interestingly, the camera system has laser focus instead of a time-of-flight depth sensor like the S20; this could be in response to the at times slow and hesitant autofocus on the S20 devices. Either way, fast and accurate autofocus is probably more useful for general photography than sensing depth over short distances.
The extremely high pixel count for the main camera is something that in the past would require a physically very large sensor and a tripod, or you would get "noisy" and blurry pictures, especially in low light.
However, the "magic" of powerful processors and clever software lets smartphone makers skirt around the laws of physics so to speak, and use high-pixel-count sensors to produce better pictures. Although each individual pixel-gathering light might be small, the Note Ultra 20 can combine the output from nine of them for 12 Mpixel images.
It is also possible to take 108 Mpixel images when the light is good, and the Note Ultra 20 suggested that for scenery shots which look okay until you zoom in and notice the softness. Be warned that at full resolution the images are BIG: 12,000 by 9000 pixels with even compressed Jpegs being around 29 Mbytes in size. Stick to the sharper and less ginormous 12 Mpixel pics I say.
The camera system has five times optical zoom, and a mad 50 times digital zoom. That, like the 100 x zoom on the S20 Ultra is a gimmick that's hard to use even with the preview window and the images are blotchy and not very usable. Up to 10 x zoom however produces great images.
If you want, the Note 20 Ultra can shoot 8K video which looks great, but is again of limited use. Sticking with 4K produces excellent results, and means you can use the tracking focus, well, if you stick to 30 frames per second instead of 60 that is.
Want to play around with video effects like Live Focus, Hyperlapse and Slow Motion? It's HD at 1920 by 1080 pixel resolution and 30 frames per second only then.
"Pixel peepers" might argue that the Chinese competition from Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo are a bit better when it comes to still and video image quality, but the differences are small. I don't have the iPhone 11 Pro with three lenses for a better comparison but the Note 20 Ultra has a slight edge on the standard iPhone 11.
Streamers might want to take a look at the Note 20 Ultra's great pro video and audio recording features including stereo sound with zoomable microphones.
There's a huge amount of features to learn about in the Note 20 Ultra for shooting, and despite Samsung's customisations for Google Android improving with each new version, I found myself getting lost a few times, wondering "how do I enable that?". It's not really Samsung's fault per se, because I think we hit feature overload a couple of years ago and makers might have to bundle training courses with their devices soon.
With the Note 20 Ultra, Samsung's again gunning for the super mega hyper premium end of the market. The phone costs a whopping $2299 for the 5G version on pre-order, with the new Samsung "ear beans" and case cover thrown in to sweeten the deal.
If that price doesn't put you off, and it is less than what you'd pay for an Apple iPhone 11 Pro with the same amount of storage and no 5G, then the Ultra version seems a better deal than the lower-spec Note 20.
Yes, Samsung decided for reasons I don't quite understand to release a slightly cheaper Note 20 without the Ultra bits that costs $1699 (4G) and $1899 (5G). That model is a bit smaller, less good screen, a plastic back and a downgraded camera system to mention a few differences.
The Note 20 is still pricey though and if you can spend that kind of money, drop the additional $400 on the Ultra model for a better device.
Samsung's taken a leaf out of Apple's book, and Microsoft before that, and continues to work on integrating its smartphones with devices such as the Tab 7 tablet and Galaxy Watch.
Chinese vendors are well behind Samsung here, which in turn doesn't yet have Apple's slick Watch > iPhone > iPad and Mac device chain. Expect to see more work from the Korean company in this space and start talking to your bank now about that second mortgage.