I’m not gonna lie: Reviewing the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G during a pandemic is weird. Normally, I hit the street early in the day and rely on the phone as my lifeline from morning till night, shooting photos of everything and anything, really living with the device and learning its rhythms. The best thing ever is being able to naturally use a phone’s features in the moment where they make sense.
Things are different now. Many of my usual activities are shuttered, and now that I’m working and living an hour from CNET’s San Francisco office and its plethora of interesting architecture, street scenes and nightlife, finding natural ways to use the Note 20 Ultra instead of the always-open laptop that now feels like a literal extension of my body is more of a challenge. For example, when following a home workout on the Note 20 Ultra — which has a wonderful 6.9-inch display — I kept wondering why I wasn’t just using the 13-inch laptop screen instead to follow the moves. And the typical night scene near where I live? A not-very-photogenic streetlight.
So here’s one of the big questions I’m looking to answer by the time the Note 20 Ultra review period is complete: How does a device built for power users, who are active in society, fit into a world already changed by the coronavirus pandemic?
That’s not to say I’m not enjoying my time with the Note 20 Ultra. I’m having a blast getting to know the ins and outs of this power phone. I’ve already fallen in love with the signature bronze shade of the $1,300 (£1,179, AU$1,894) flagship device, and the fact that its matte finish deters fingerprints.
It’s sleek and beautiful — until you get to the massive camera bump — but it’s also enormous, awkward for my smaller hands to maneuver and perplexing when it comes to certain design decisions. This is an ongoing review, so my impressions could change and deepen as time goes on. Keep reading for my observations so far, and for more on the standard Note 20, which costs $1,000 (£849, AU$1,499).
Galaxy Note 20 (128GB, $999)
Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (starts at 128GB, $1,299)
Note 20 Ultra: 7 things I love right now
Color: I can see why Samsung made mystic bronze its signature color and swapped a glossy finish for a sleek, sophisticated matte sheen. It’s lustrous and understated without being boring, and far less of a grease trap. At least it looks that way.
Casual photography: Taking photos is fun. Images are vivid and 5x optical zoom keeps picture quality high enough to make me keep using it. Ultra-wide angle photos are always a great tool to have in the photo arsenal to provide dramatic effect. Yes, the Note 20 Ultra continues Samsung’s prevalence to oversaturate some photos and 108-megapixel photography can produce mixed results. Overall, I’m happy with most photos.
Zoom photography is looking better: I’m glad the Note 20 Ultra steps back from the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s 100x “space” zoom. My best shot at 50x AI-assisted zoom was one I lucked into. It looks good, but even with a stabilizing force like a tripod, the image jumps like crazy.
Screen quality: 6.9 inches and, as always, bright and brilliant. This was excellent for reading the news, watching videos and scrolling through photos. See the flip side to brightness below. Since the bezel’s so slim, I keep accidentally pressing the sides of the phone, but the image itself is terrific, even at the default FHD Plus setting of 2,326×1,080 pixels (it goes up to WQHD Plus, which is 3,088×1,440 pixels).
Stylus tricks: My favorite Galaxy Note tools return to life, like taking a really precise screenshot using the S Pen, using the magnifying tool to read online menus and too-small font (so effortless), and easily creating a screen recording or GIF of a portion of the display. There are a few more besides, like writing on top of a PDF you can import into the notes app (yes!) and annotating a screen. You can also double-click the S Pen button to erase what you’ve written. It isn’t new this year, but it’s a favorite.
Selfie shutter button: Taking a selfie using the S Pen is a breeze when you press the stylus button with one hand without having to stick your arm out at an awkward angle or worry about dropping the phone. Face tone filters for selfies are nice to add some warmth or step on the breaks if a picture is oversaturated.
Phone calls: Who uses a phone anymore? I do! A lot! Especially now that I take a lot of work calls while out on a walk. Every call has sounded great in my area, but of course your situation could vary depending on the service where you live.
7 Note 20 Ultra features I’m keeping a close eye on
Battery life: After an uneven first day, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s 4,500-mAh battery is behaving more like what I’d expect for a flagship phone — whew. On my heaviest day of use so far, it was at 35% after 12 hours (which included an hour and a half of Google Maps navigation) and slowly drained to 16% by 7 a.m. This was using the default 120Hz screen setting using adaptive brightness and no battery optimization setting. I’ve now turned that on, so we’ll see how it goes.
That camera bump: It’s hard to ignore and is frankly a bit of an eyesore. Without a case, I constantly worry about dropping it and cracking the camera array, which would undoubtedly be the first thing to hit, or else laying it down and dragging or moving the device in a way that scratches the camera. This has happened to me before and ruined every ultrawide image thereafter, so trust me when I say this is no idle concern.
First Look: Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra
It’s heavy: After an especially grueling day, I wanted to veg out watching Netflix before drifting off to sleep. After 10 minutes, my hand grew heavy trying to hold up the phone. I switched to my phone stand, propping the Note 20 Ultra on the stand and in turn putting the stand on my belly. It wobbled and swayed every time I laughed. It even fell off once. I finally put the stand and phone on my nightstand and flipped to my side to watch, until I got a crick in my neck and called it quits after about an hour. Great sound and image quality, though.
The S Pen placement: It may be something I simply need to get used to, but so far, the move from the right side of the phone to the left isn’t working all that well for me. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the design, but for some reason reaching for it feels like a chore. Did it move to accommodate the camera hardware? We’ll see if I warm up to the changes as the tests go on.
Nighttime screen brightness: With the lights out, Android’s Wind Down mode on and the brightness slid to its lowest setting, the screen is too bright to induce sleepiness. It’s more likely to rev me up during middle-of-the-night wakeups than lull me back to sleep. I’d love to see a more aggressive midnight setting.
Wired headphones don’t come in the box. My colleague Patrick Holland embraces this — and maybe for you, it’s not a big deal as Samsung transitions users toward wireless earbuds like its Galaxy Buds Live (aka Galaxy Beans). But the Galaxy Buds live cost $170 and Samsung spent years touting the $99 value of the wired headphones that came in the box. So if you didn’t care all that much about wireless headphones (for example, they always fall out of my ears or pick up wind noise outside), you’re automatically losing the $99 value of the bundled headphones, plus the $170 or however much you wind up spending on something else. So if you don’t already have headphones you want to use, your cost of ownership just went up.
It can get a little toasty. My CNET colleagues and I have noticed the Note 20 Ultra seemed to both generate and dissipate quite a lot of heat — this has been a daily occurrence. Nothing out of the ordinary, just an emanating warmth that phones (and laptops and other electronics) can get when they’re working hard. On a hot summer day, this hasn’t been the most pleasant sensation in my pocket and hand, but definitely not a deal-breaker.
What will we test next?
- More S Pen gestures. I’ve tried them out, but haven’t yet found my groove.
- Night photography — time to scout out something worthy of photographing in an unforced way, which is tougher when streets are near-deserted and bars and restaurants operate a bustling to-go business.
- Pro video mode. Maybe a neighborhood squirrel will do something interesting.
- Gaming with this combination of screen, battery life, weight and razor-thin bezels.
- Note app tricks. I’ve experienced some, but need to spend a little more time to really get used to them.
- UWB Point to Share: Using Google’s Nearby Share, it’s meant to help you transfer files to other Samsung devices equipped with this feature. That might be a bit tricky to try out with my work-from-home mandate and social distancing guidelines in play — stay tuned.
There’s still so much to see as the Note 20 Ultra begins to settle in as my daily phone for the next week. Keep checking back as this review develops day by day. And keep reading for our original impressions on the Note 20 Ultra and standard Note 20. And scroll to the very end for all the specs.
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The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra reminds me of a figure straight from Greek mythology. With its sleek profile, resplendent bronze finish (for its signature color), and thick camera bump on the back staring out like a set of compound eyes, it doesn’t take much more than a glance to see this new phone for power users is very much siren-meets-cyclops.
The Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra’s looks are just the beginning of the story — and there’s far more below — including one genuinely surprising change. But before we go there, it’s important to understand the context into which these phones are coming to light. The Galaxy Note 20 phones are available for preorder now and are expected to arrive by the official sale date, Aug. 21. The Note 20 starts at $1,000 (£849, AU$1,499) and the Note 20 Ultra starts at $1,300 (£1,179, AU$1,849).
The coronavirus pandemic has turned the world on its head, endangering lives, launching a global recession and throwing into question the need for a premium phone whose cheapest model costs $1,000, which is $50 more than last year’s entry-level Galaxy Note 10. But while Samsung asks us to consider the merits of a 5G device with juiced-up cameras and some features better suited for the boardroom than the living room, Google has just released an excellent $349 no-frills phone that seems more in step with these lean and doubtful days.
Samsung’s new Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra come in a striking bronze shade
The timing is coincidental, but unfortunate. Phones can take more than a year to cycle through the pipeline, so when Samsung’s designers and engineers were plotting the Note 20 refresh, the feature roadmap was well established. The Note line has always stood for software and specs that went above and beyond. While many of the features and updates, like new S Pen gestures tuned to operating PowerPoint presentations, will make sense for a post-pandemic world, the state of COVID-19 cases today forms a weak argument for the “normal” activities that merit such a device.
That isn’t to say that the Note 20 and 20 Ultra won’t have a place in the who’s who list of 2020 phones, though it’s too soon to know. I spend all day on my laptop, but still often reach for my phone as a second or even preferred screen to read in bed, on the couch or at the kitchen table when I want a change of pace. I use mobile payments more than I ever did before, as shops in my area eschew cash in favor of touchless transactions. And battery life is still of the utmost importance as I reconnect with friends and coworkers during hours-long walks with just my phone as a way to get fresh air. Samsung, too, says mobile usage has been up during this time.
The difference is that, without an end to the pandemic in sight, it feels harder to get on board with a phone whose main features feel less compelling at the outset by dint of the times. In truth, I hope the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra win me over when I get to try out the review units. I hope Samsung’s trade-in and yearly upgrade programs entice its loyal customers to upgrade to a device that may well deliver the kind of core functionality, long-term battery life and pleasing extras that can make a phone fun to use for years.
I’m ready for the Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra to convince me, or at least try their hardest — top-heavy camera bulge and all. (Psst. Samsung also announced the Galaxy Z Fold 2 on Wednesday. Although it’s sure to cost even more than the Note 20, its ability to stay open while folded has me genuinely excited to see more.)
Galaxy Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra: Surprising differences
Samsung eased us into the idea of a more entry-level Note phone in 2019, but this year, there’s a wide gulf between the standard Galaxy Note 20 and the Note 20 Ultra. (Scroll to the end for the full specs comparison.)
Note 20 Ultra: What you need to know
The Ultra has a 6.9-inch curved screen, a more squared-off shape and all the perks, including the higher-powered camera tech, support for Google’s Nearby Share through its UWB Share (ultra wide band) feature and a microSD card slot up to 1TB. The screen has an option to flip into a 120Hz refresh rate, where each pixel refreshes 120 times per second, making scrolling liquid-smooth. (We’ll have to see how this affects battery life.)
And then there’s that camera bulge. Full disclosure: I haven’t had a chance to see either Note 20 in person here in California, but my New York colleague, Richard Peterson, was able to handle and videotape both devices, and attempt to answer my laundry list of questions.
Attending a virtual briefing and poring over our footage, it’s clear that from one angle, the Note 20 Ultra looks sleek and sexy. From another, it’s unpleasantly top-heavy in a way that makes my mind leap to a case as a necessity to protect the Note 20 Ultra’s camera mount. The fact that the camera array protrudes so far from the body makes this area far more susceptible to breaks, cracks and scratches when dropped or dragged along a surface — for example, if you lay the phone on its back.
We’ll put the Note 20 Ultra’s new Gorilla Glass Victus shielding on both sides to the test, but I’ve banged up enough phone cameras during my career as a reviewer to suggest avoiding that risk at all costs.
The mystic bronze color sports a matte finish, while mystic black and mystic white are glossy glass.
Note 20: Did someone say plastic?
The standard Note 20 has a 6.7-inch flat screen with no curved sides (a staple on the Note line for years). But here’s the clincher — it has a plastic back, which Samsung prefers to call polycarbonate. There’s no microSD card slot (same as last year) and small features are missing. There are stepped-down camera specs (including no pro video mode), a less advanced screen technology with no 120Hz refresh rate option, a smaller battery capacity (4,300 mAh versus 4,500 mAh), less RAM (8GB versus 12GB), and no UWB sharing.
Embracing pastel, the Note 20’s mystic green, mystic bronze and mystic gray tones all come with a matte finish. It uses a metal frame and Gorilla Glass 5 on the front, not the most recent Gorilla Glass Victus.
The Note 20 shares the same core specs as the Note 20 Ultra. The 10-megapixel selfie camera, new S Pen gestures and Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus processor are part of both phones.
But back to the Note 20’s plastic backing: That feels out of character for a phone family that’s typically about showcasing the best of the best Samsung has to offer. Without having reviewed the phone yet, a $1,000 phone with a plastic back seems hard to swallow. Maybe I’ll change my mind.
Note 20 cameras: 108MP, pro video mode, 8K video capture
The camera array is where Samsung wants the Note 20 phones, and especially the Note 20 Ultra, to shine. It’s taken a step back from the ostentation of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which boasted a 100x Space Zoom feature and a main camera capable of shooting a 108-megapixel photo, concentrating instead on the idea of cropping in for more detail.
Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra camera
||Galaxy Note 20||Galaxy Note 20 Ultra|
|Main camera||12-megapixel (F1.8, Dual Pixel AF, OIS, 1.8μm, 79-degree FOV, 1/1.76 inch image sensor)||108-megapixel (F1.8, OIS, 0.8μm, 79-degree FOV, 1/1.33 inch image sensor)|
|Ultrawide angle||12-megapixel (F2.2, 1.4μm, 120-degree FOV)||12-megapixel (F2.2, 1.4μm, 120-degree FOV)|
|Telephoto||64-megapixel (F2.0, 0.8μm, 76-degree FOV)||12-megapixel (F3.0, 1.0μm, 20-degree FOV)|
|Front-facing camera||10-megapixel (F2.2, 1.22μm, 80-degree FOV)||10-megapixel (F2.2, 1.22μm, 80-degree FOV)|
|Zoom||3x hybrid||5x optical|
|Laser auto-focus sensor||No||Yes|
Samsung still gave the Note 20 Ultra an 108-megapixel camera option — you tap it to turn it on when you want the full resolution. When it comes to zoom, the Note 20 falls back to 50x zoom, with the Note 20 settling in at 30x.
It’s interesting to see Samsung backtrack like this, but the company seems to be responding to feedback that the S20 Ultra was too expensive and its 100x zoom wasn’t good enough or useful enough to justify the price.
The Note 20 Ultra has 5x optical zoom, which should make photos taken in that range crisper and clearer than using digital zoom alone. We’ll soon see.
Faster autofocus in the Note 20 Ultra is also designed to give it an edge over the standard Note 20, so you can snap photos of squirmy pets, amusing facial expressions and flapping hummingbirds faster, without missing the shot.
A pro video mode packs in more manual tools and options for capturing footage, which should make aspiring moviemakers happy. This has been one of Samsung’s weaker areas for several years, compared to the latest iPhone. As with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, both phones support 8K video capture. Just be aware, it’ll make video files enormous on and off your phone.
The Note 20 phones get new S Pen stylus and note app tricks
What would the Galaxy Note be without its stylus? For loyalists, scribbling, navigating and annotating are part of the phone’s charm. So is the fact that the Notes app allows you to do all of the above. Here are the newest features for both Note 20 models.
New S Pen gesture navigation: Pointing the pen tip away from your body (and at a distance from the phone), press and hold the stylus button while making one of five new gestures to go back, go home, open a recent app or take a screenshot with Smart Select. You can also squiggle the pen to capture the entire screen.
The S Pen is more responsive on the Note 20 Ultra when the 120Hz screen option is on.
Handwriting recognition gets better with tools including autostraighten.
Samsung Notes gets live auto-syncing at long last. This will store a note in the cloud for you to access from any other device — as long as you’re signed into a Samsung account.
Attach and time-sync voice recordings. You can get your voice note to sync with what you write so it’ll play back from the time you mention the word.
Import a PDF to annotate or highlight. Instead of printing out a page or downloading it to sign and then upload or send out again, you can simply mark your signature and export it back again.
Other Note 20 features and goodies
- UWB support for sharing files like a digital key. Point to share with other Samsung devices using UWB.
- Xbox Game Pass Ultimate gives you access to over 100 games you can play on the fly.
- Samsung’s Microsoft partnership: Drag-and-drop and syncing from Windows devices and apps to your Samsung phone, including notes and reminders.
- Samsung DeX, the vision for replacing your computer with your phone, now lets you connect to another screen wirelessly to view your content, say on your TV screen in your living room.
- You can pair a Galaxy Note 20 with the new Galaxy Buds Live to turn on noise cancellation. In the taped demo I saw, you still hear a lot of static and distortion, but it did cut out interfering conversations.
Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra specs
Galaxy Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra
||Samsung Galaxy Note 20||Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra|
|Display size, resolution||6.7 inches; 2,400×1,080 pixels||6.9 inches; 3,088×1,440 pixels|
|Pixel density||393 ppi||496 ppi|
|Dimensions (Inches)||6.36×2.96×0.33 in||6.49×3.04×0.31 in|
|Dimensions (Millimeters)||161.6×75.2×8.3 mm||164.8×77.2×8.1mm|
|Weight (Ounces, Grams)||6.84 oz, 194g||7.33 oz, 208g|
|Mobile software||Android 10||Android 10|
|Camera||12-megapixel (ultrawide), 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto)||12-megapixel (ultrawide), 108-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto)|
|Processor||Snapdragon 865 Plus||Snapdragon 865 Plus|
|Expandable storage||No||Up to 1TB|
|Battery||4,300 mAh||4,500 mAh|
|Special features||S Pen stylus; 5G connectivity; Wireless PowerShare; water resistant (IP68)||5x optical zoom, UWB sharing, S Pen stylus; 5G connectivity; Wireless PowerShare; water resistant (IP68)|
|Price off-contract (USD)||$1,000||$1,300 (128GB); $1,450 (512GB)|