Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Note 20 Ultra: Which flagship should you buy?

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Note 20 Ultra: Which flagship should you buy?

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra represents the absolute best Samsung has to offer in smartphone display and cameras. But the not even half-year-old Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is still plenty powerful, and since it’s almost certainly going to see discounts, it may be the better value for consumers who don’t need the absolute latest but still want something powerful. What are the key differences, what’s new in the Galaxy S21 series, and which Samsung flagship should you buy if you’re on the market today? Read more to find out.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra in white

Galaxy S21 Ultra (left); Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (right).

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Note 20 Ultra: Specs Comparison

SpecificationsSamsung Galaxy S21 UltraSamsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Build
  • Aluminum mid-frame
  • Gorilla Glass back
  • Gorilla Glass Victus front
  • Aluminum mid-frame
  • Glass front and back
  • Gorilla Glass Victus front
Dimensions & Weight
  • 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm
  • 228 grams
  • 164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1mm
  • 213 grams
Display
  • 6.8″ QHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X display
  • 120Hz variable refresh rate
  • 20:9 aspect ratio
  • 1600 nits peak brightness
  • HDR10+
  • Always-On display
  • 6.9″ QHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X display
  • 120Hz variable refresh rate
  • 1300 nits peak brightness
  • HDR10+
  • Always-On display
SoC
  • International: Exynos 2100:
    • 1x Core @ 2.9GHz +
    • 3x Cores @ 2.8GHz +
    • 4x Cores @ 2.4GHz
  • USA and China: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
  • International: Exynos 990
  • USA and China: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765+
Ram & Storage Options
  • 12GB + 128GB
  • 12GB + 256GB
  • 12GB + 512GB
  • 12GB + 128GB
  • 12GB + 256GB
  • 12GB + 512GB
Battery & Charging
  • 5,000mAh
  • 25W USB Power Delivery 3.0 fast charging
  • 15W wireless charging
  • 4.5 reverse wireless charging
  • No charger in box in most regions
  • 4,500mAh
  • 25W USB Power Delivery 3.0 fast charging
  • 15W wireless charging
  • 4.5 reverse wireless charging
SecurityUltrasonic In-Display Fingerprint ScannerUltrasonic In-Display Fingerprint Scanner
Rear Camera(s)
  • Primary: 108MP, wide-angle lens, f/1.8, 1/1.33″, 0.8µm, OIS, Dual Pixel PDAF
  • Secondary: 12MP, ultra-wide-angle lens, f/2.2, 1/2.55″, 1.4µm
  • Tertiary: 10MP, telephoto lens, f/2.0, 1/1.76″, 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS
  • Quarternary: 10MP Periscope telephoto lens, f/4.9, 240mm, 1/3.24″, 1.22µm, OIS, 10x optical zoom
  • Primary: 108MP, wide-angle lens, f/1.8, 1/1.33″, 0.8µm, OIS, Dual Pixel PDAF
  • Secondary: 12MP, ultra-wide-angle lens, f/2.2, 1/2.55″, 1.4µm
  • Tertiary: 10MP Periscope telephoto lens, f/3.0, 240mm, 1/3.24″, 1.22µm, OIS, 5x optical zoom
Front Camera(s)40MP, f/2.2, 0.7µm, Dual Pixel PDAF10MP, f/2.2, 1.22µm
Port(s)USB Type-CUSB Type-C
Connectivity
  • Bluetooth 5.1
  • NFC0Wi-Fi 6
  • 5G
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax 2.4GHz + 5GHz, HE80, MIMO, 1024-QAM
  • 5G
SoftwareSamsung One UI 3.1 based on Android 11Samsung One UI 2.5 based on Android 10
Other Features
  • IP68
  • S-Pen support (separate purchase)
  • IP68
  • S-Pen support (and included)
PricingStarts at $1,299 Starts at $1,399

Where does the Galaxy S21 Ultra improve on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra?

The big question for consumers deciding between the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra is likely “what are the improvements made by the Galaxy S21 Ultra improve over the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra?” There are two major areas of noticeable improvements: the processor and the camera zoom system.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888, a 5nm SoC that represents the best Qualcomm has to offer right now. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s Snapdragon 865+ is no slouch, however. Still, whether it’s benchmarks or real-world performance, the Snapdragon 888 is the superior chip — although you won’t really see the difference until you’re really pushing the phone, like shooting a video using both front and back cameras, or shooting 4K/60fps with every lens, which the Galaxy S21 Ultra can do but the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra cannot.

The camera system is where most of the tangible improvements are found. The Galaxy S21 Ultra camera introduces a new Periscope zoom lens that can achieve 10x optical zoom compared to the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s 5x optical zoom. Truth be told, the difference in zoom shots quality is subtle if kept at a reasonable range (10x) — though if you pixel peep you can see the difference in quality — but at longer zooms, the difference becomes much more apparent.

10x zoom with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and Samsung Galaxy Note 21 Ultra

10x zoom with the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Galaxy Note 21 Ultra.

For example, in the above 10x zoom image of the soccer ball, both images looked similar if viewed on a phone. It’s only if I really crop in and pixel peep on a larger screen did I see that the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10x shot captured more texture and details.

10x zoom difference between S21 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra

10x zoom, Galaxy S21 Ultra (left) and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

At longer zoom, it’s easier to see. The set below contains 20x and 30x zoom by both phones. Notice that the Galaxy S21 Ultra shot is much sharper.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra also has an additional 3x optical telephoto zoom lens with a focal length of around 70mm, which is ideal for portraits. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, because it lacks that shorter zoom lens, uses digital zoom up to 4.9x. However, the difference between the 3x shots is very hard to figure out. You can see the keyboard in the Galaxy S21 Ultra shot below has more details, and has more texture on the collar around the neck.

The main 108MP camera and 12MP ultra-wide hardware remain mostly the same as before – although the Galaxy S21 Ultra uses a newer sensor in the main camera – but the Galaxy S21 Ultra should produce superior photos due to the combination of the superior Snapdragon 888 ISP and Samsung’s own fine-tuning.

Moving around to the front, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s selfie camera is also more pixel-dense at 40MP — which Samsung then pixel bins into a 10MP selfie, while the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a straightforward 10MP selfie camera. Other than differing color science, I couldn’t quite tell any substantial difference in selfie image quality.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s screen is also technically superior, with the ability to run at 120Hz while maintaining 1440p resolution; the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra must downgrade to 1080p – although to be honest, I’m of the belief that the human eye can’t quite tell the difference between 1440p and 1080p on a relatively small mobile screen anyway. Both screens look equally gorgeous to my eyes.

The AMOLED displays of the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Where users will likely feel the difference is endurance – the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 5,000 mAh battery is significantly larger than the 4,500 mAh in the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, so the S21 Ultra will surely go longer before needing a charge.

There are more subtle improvements across the board, such as the Galaxy S21 Ultra having a larger in-display fingerprint scanner and support for WiFi 6, but these are relatively minor improvements that most people won’t even notice. For most consumers, it will be the SoC and camera zoom prowess that set the two phones apart.

What areas are similar between the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra?

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has more in common with the Galaxy Note series than any previous S phones before because it supports the S-Pen stylus that’s long been a staple of the Note series. This means more than ever, the lines between the two phones have blurred.

While it’s worth noting that the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s S-Pen support does not include the Bluetooth remote controls, using it as a pen to jot notes or sketch will feel identical, as the latency and software features mostly remain the same. And while the S21 Ultra has a newly designed camera module, the overall construction between the two phones are similar — they both have a matte glass finish and slightly curved screens. The software experience should also be similar, as are all the other bonus Samsung features such as DeX.

Which one should you buy?

If money is no object, then it’s a no brainer to go with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra since it has a much better zooming lens, a brighter screen, and a newer processor – unless you really want an S-Pen that’s included free of charge and is stored inside the phone.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
    The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the ultimate overkill in the new 2021 flagship series, packing in a flagship SoC, a premium build, a great display, and an amazing camera setup, as well as all the extras expected on a premium flagship.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra screen

But since the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is an “old” phone now, there is bound to be regular discounts that will knock several hundred dollars off its original $1,399 price tag. So if you want to save some cash and still get a very premium Samsung experience, the Note 20 Ultra keeps up well in many areas to not feel outdated. It’s still a beast of a phone even in 2021.

    Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
    The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has one of the best screens and best cameras on the market. It's 108MP camera can produce sharp and brightly lit photos, while that Periscope zoom lens can get up to 50x.

About author

Ben Sin
Ben Sin

I'm a senior editor at XDA Developers. I have been a journalist for a decade, the last five years covering the mobile tech scene closely, reviewing just about every phone and attending trade shows and launches. I also run a gadget review channel on YouTube.