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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra hands-on: The best Galaxy phones ever?

The Galaxy Note 10 Plus was, for me, the best Android phone of 2019. Announced at Galaxy Unpacked, Samsung has now returned with the Note 20 and the Note 20 Ultra — no Plus model this year — with the difficult task of improving on a phone that really did everything you could want or need.

At a glance, it’s not a large generational leap. But look closer, and you’ll see how Samsung has refined the Note’s appeal. There’s more of what we want from the range — more power, a bigger screen, and a better camera. I’ve spent a short time with the Note 20 Ultra to see if it lives up to Samsung’s promise of being the “ultimate in power and productivity.”

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Note 20 Ultra doesn’t look that different to the Galaxy Note 10 Plus, but there are some interesting changes to the body and a subtle bump in screen size. You thought the 6.8-inch Note 10 Plus was big? Well, the Note 20 Ultra has a massive 6.9-inch, edge-to-edge Super AMOLED screen with a WQHD+ resolution, a 120Hz refresh rate, and a 19.3:9 aspect ratio screen. It’s an absolute whopper, but due to the body having practically the same dimensions as the Note 10 Plus, you don’t really feel it when it’s in your hand.

The volume and power buttons have been moved across to the right-hand side of the phone, while the S Pen now slides into a slot on the left-hand side of the body. This all makes ergonomic sense (if you’re right-handed), and feels much more familiar to the Note 10 Plus. The Bixby button has been removed, but Samsung’s virtual assistant can be called up using a special press of the power button.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Mystic Bronze color is the one to buy, let’s get that out of the way first. It’s eye-catching without being over the top. It’s more mature than the Note 10 Plus’s Aura Glow color, and it suits the clean lines of the new Note 20 Ultra. In the hand, the phone feels quite similar to the Note 10 Plus, due to the curved screen and rear panel tapering to a point down the sides. It’s quite hefty at 208 grams (7.3 ounces) though.

Part of this weight is thanks to the camera module. It protrudes quite far from the body and it certainly takes up a large portion of the rear panel, but I didn’t hate the look at all. It’s an intricate and well thought out design. Take a look at the matching bronze rings circling each lens, which give it visual interest and depth, as well as attractively catching the light.

Yes, the module is big, but it’s prettier than the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s bump. It’s also more unique than the rather ordinary camera on the back of the Note 10 Plus. For me, it’s a winner.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The main lens has 108-megapixels to match the S20 Ultra, but the Space Zoom only goes up to 50x rather than 100x. You won’t miss the additional 50x, as the quality at this zoom level was always so poor. It’s joined by a 12-megapixel wide-angle and a new 12-megapixel telephoto lens for 5x optical zoom, plus a new hybrid laser autofocus system. I tried the camera indoors and the photos it took looked excellent — bright, colorful, and vibrant — especially at 5x zoom where I noticed a surprising amount of detail. I am definitely keen to try the Note 20 Ultra’s camera outside.

The camera also shoots 8K video. This time, it’s up to 24 fps (frames per second) and in a 21:9 aspect ratio. There’s also an interesting feature connected to the new Galaxy Buds Live, Ultra Wideband (UWB) connectivity, and the video camera’s new Pro mode. Using UWB, the Ultra recognizes multiple audio sources, and will utilize the Buds Live’s noise cancellation feature when recording video. It seems this may let you record background noise using the phone’s microphones, and voice using the Buds Live at the same time. A really interesting feature.

Pro modes, by their nature, are usually complex, and this is no exception. I don’t understand what to do with a histogram, but the Note 20 Ultra’s Pro Video mode has one, for example. However, I did like the ability to finely tune and control the camera’s zoom, enabling a more cinematic zoom effect in your movies. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is shaping up to be a strong video machine.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

As you’d expect, the screen on the Note 20 Ultra looked wonderful, especially with the even smaller Infinity-O hole-punch for the 10-megapixel selfie camera, although I didn’t spend enough time with it to assess the refresh rate. The S Pen stylus is another area where Samsung has made some improvements. The latency has dropped to just 9ms for better handwriting response, and using artificial intelligence it will auto-align your scribbles too. To make it easier to understand what the S Pen can do, there’s a handy cheat sheet page that shows new gesture controls, and how to customize some of the features. As the S Pen gets more feature-rich, it’s good to see Samsung address this now.

I like the quick menu that appears when you take the S Pen out, the chance to quickly scribble notes, and the way the pen feels on the screen itself. I didn’t notice much difference using the S Pen on the Note 20 Ultra compared to my Note 10 Plus, but as the alterations are quite specific, the improvements won’t become obvious immediately. However, there’s no question it reacted to my inputs very quickly.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

What else? The Note 20 Ultra has a 4,500mAh battery with fast charging for 50% capacity reached after 30 minutes. It comes with 5G and Wi-Fi 6 too. In the U.S., the phone will have the Snapdragon 865 Plus processor, while elsewhere in the world the phone will use Samsung’s Exynos 990 chip. All come with 12GB of RAM and either 256GB or 512GB of storage space.

Samsung’s DeX desktop system has been upgraded with a wireless mode, so you can link to a compatible smart TV. Finally, the Note 20 Ultra supports Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate allowing you to play more than 100 games instantly.

Samsung knows what Note fans want, and it has delivered with the Note 20 Ultra. It has everything the Note 10 Plus had, just amplified for 2020. It’s hard to find something it’s missing that you’d ever really need. On paper, it’s an over-the-top powerhouse that’ll last for years. My first impressions when using it indicate it’ll be worth the considerable financial investment to get one.

Galaxy Note 20

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Galaxy Note 20 is quite different from the Note 20 Ultra. While its larger sibling phone is Samsung’s ultimate Note phone for 2020, the standard Note 20 was described to me as the model for Note devotees who aren’t on board with the curvy, sharpened design. It’s for those who want a more traditional Note phone. Translation? It’s a big, blocky phone without the style and attractiveness of the Ultra, while still providing the productivity and power the Note is famous for.

You get a smaller, 6.7-inch, 60Hz refresh rate, 20:9 aspect ratio flat AMOLED screen set inside a far less curvy body. It’s most noticeable when you hold the two side-by-side, when the Note 20 feels distinctly slab-like. It still comes with the S Pen, the Snapdragon 865 Plus, and 5G support.

You don’t get the same camera setup, though. Gone is the 108-megapixel camera, replaced by a 64-megapixel main sensor. The new hybrid laser autofocus has been ditched, and the maximum zoom level is 30x.


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samsung galaxy note 20 ultra hands on features price photos release date screenAndy Boxall/Digital Trends

samsung galaxy note 20 ultra hands on features price photos release date sideAndy Boxall/Digital Trends

samsung galaxy note 20 ultra hands on features price photos release date baseAndy Boxall/Digital Trends

The ultra-wide camera still has 12 megapixels, as does the telephoto sensor, but it’s not the technically superior one found on the Note 20 Ultra. The processor is the same but the RAM drops to 8GB and the phone only comes with 256GB of storage space. The battery is a little smaller at 4,300mAh and doesn’t have the Ultra Wideband (UWB) technology found in the Ultra. While there aren’t many uses for this now, it’s likely to become more interesting in the future.

The Galaxy Note 20’s lack of headline features like the 120Hz screen and 108-megapixel camera means it’s never going to attract the same power-user as the Note 20 Ultra. It feels like a considerable compromise over it. The S Pen is really the only reason to consider the Note 20 over any other flagship Android phone.

Price and availability

The Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra will be available from August 21, with pre-orders from August 6. The Galaxy Note 20 will start at $999, and the Note 20 Ultra at $1,299. Verizon will sell both 5G phones on 24 month contracts, with the Note 20 Ultra starting at $53.16 per month, and the Note 20 starting at $41.66 per month. In the U.K., the Note 20 is yours from 850 British pounds, and the Note 20 Ultra from 1,179 pounds.

Conclusion

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of dismissing the Note 20 Ultra as a clear-cut incremental update. The Note 10 Plus has obviously inspired it, but the features introduced — a more recognizable design, improved S Pen and camera, bigger screen, more power — make all the right differences to those who want the ultimate Samsung phone, and even after a short time with it, there’s no question the Note 20 Ultra is that device.

How about the Note 20? It has its place, as not everyone likes curved screens or the high price tag attached to the Note 20 Ultra. However, it’s probably advisable to hold it before deciding to buy it. I wasn’t sold on the way it felt in the hand, and the lower specs don’t make it anywhere near as desirable as the Note 20 Ultra. It’s likely to be one for S Pen devotees only.

I won’t know for sure if the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra will usurp the Galaxy Note 10 Plus as the best Note phone we’ve seen yet or if it will be the standout Android phone for 2020 until I use it more. But right now, I’m itching to have another go and find out. That’s a very good sign.

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