Note20 Ultra phones are refinements on the Galaxy S20 lineup that add an S Pen stylus, fix some notorious camera issues, and link up better with your Windows 10 PC. The Note20 starts at $999, and the Note20 Ultra starts at $1,299.
You ready to get to work? Samsung’s new Galaxy Note20 and Galaxy
The Galaxy Note20 comes in two main models. First is the $999 Note20, which has a 6.7-inch, 1080p 60Hz screen; 8GB of RAM; 128GB of storage; a 4,300mAh battery; and a camera array similar to the Galaxy S20+ with a main 12MP sensor, a 64MP telephoto sensor that simulates 3x zoom, a 12MP wide- angle sensor, and a 10MP front-facing shooter. Then there’s the fully loaded $1,299 Galaxy Note20 Ultra: It has a 6.9-inch, 2,560-by-1,440, 120Hz screen; 12GB of RAM; either 128GB or 512GB of storage; a 4,500mAh battery; and a modified version of the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera array, with a main 108MP camera, a 12MP, 5x optical zoom lens, a 12MP wide-angle sensor, and a 10MP front-facing lens.
Both models run Android 10 on Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus chipsets, which are a little bit faster than the Galaxy S20’s Snapdragon 865 chips. The phones look like Galaxy Notes, more squarish than Galaxy S models, and this year with a prominent camera bump on the back.
“We wanted to develop a form and shape that is unique to the Note  while making sure it still resembles the Note [series],” Samsung senior designer Yunjin Kim said. In her view, that means a “geometrically extruded” camera bump that echoes the shape and edges of the phone. The big bump is “revealing the high-performance aspect [of the camera] with confidence,” which might be true, but it also might just be required for the camera assembly.
The smaller Note20 comes in bronze, gray, or green, and the Ultra comes in black, bronze, or white. “While the previous Note 10 showed the energetic aspect with an ‘aura’ color containing the principles of light and prism, [the] Note20 will focus on comfort and subtle luxury with calm and neutral colors,” designer Jung-Taek Lee said.
Samsung is offering all-carrier unlocked versions of the phones as well as individual carrier-branded models in the US.
The most special thing about the Galaxy Note line is and has always been the S Pen. The Note started as a “big phone,” and a lot of people bought it because it was a big phone, but there are a lot of big phones these days. Very few phones have styluses that work well, though, and no manufacturer has put as much thought into the stylus experience as Samsung with the Note line. That’s why my wife and daughter, who are both artists, have Notes: they wanted “the phone with the pen.”
The new S Pen upgrade starts with lower latency. I’ve never had a big problem with S Pen latency, but Samsung slashed it this year, taking it from around 40oms to 9ms on the Note20 Ultra and around 18ms on the Note20. (Samsung didn’t give an exact figure for regular Note2o latency, but it said the reduction is half what it is on the Ultra.) So now the Ultra’s S Pen latency matches Apple’s latest Pencil, which is also 9ms when used with the iPad Pro line.
The difference in pen latencies, I’m pretty sure, has to do with the two phones’ screen refresh rates. The Note20 Ultra has a 120Hz screen, which means it refreshes every 8.3 milliseconds. A 9ms pen latency is just about at the limit of visibility on that screen. The Note20 has a 60Hz screen, refreshing every 16.6 milliseconds. So an 18ms-to-20ms latency is pretty close to that screen’s refresh rate, too.
There’s fairly widespread support for the S Pen’s pressure sensitivity in common apps. Samsung keeps pushing along its Samsung Notes app anyway, improving it this time with some very useful features. It now syncs with OneNote, annotates PDFs, and has a folder structure to let you better organize your notes. My daughter has used Samsung Notes as a sketching app for a few years now because it’s so easy. Syncing to Microsoft’s cloud means itll be much more useful cross-platform.
The Samsung Galaxy 20 Ultra’s camera has problems. The phase-detection autofocus on its 108-megapixel sensor is slower than the dual-pixel autofocus on other phones, and early in the Ultra’s life, it had trouble with precision as well. And the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s “100x” zoom is a nearly unusable gimmick.
The Note20 Ultra starts with the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera array but makes some critical changes. It adds a laser autofocus module, which should fix the autofocus issues, and Samsung is promising only 50x zoom. In my experience, anything greater than 30x zoom on this camera system is like looking at an Impressionist painting, but it’s nice to see Samsung backing away from that 100x promise.
The smaller Galaxy Note20 uses the S20+ camera system, which didn’t have the autofocus problems; Samsung suggests 30x zoom there, which appears to be made of 3x optical and 10x digital.
Beyond the needed fixes, Samsung is focusing more on video than on stills in the cameras here. “The Note20 series cameras were developed with video shooting enhancements as the main focus,” Samsung’s Sarah Ahn said. “Consumers are watching and filming many more videos than in the past. This phenomenon is more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The camera now has 8K and 21:9 recording at 24 frames per second, and its Pro Video Mode lets you do a bunch of audio tricks with the phone’s three mics. You can turn mics on and off to focus your audio recording directionally, change the audio input level in real time, and use Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live as a remote microphone. The Note2o0 Ultra also records at 120fps to match its 120fps screen, Ahn said.
Samsung isn’t Apple. But at least in the US, Apple is mostly the company it goes up against. That means fighting Apple’s powerful integration between its phones, tablets, and PCs. Samsung has taken a two-prong approach to this: expanding its partnership with Microsoft and continuing to improve its DeX PC-like mode. That’s very Samsung—and very Android, of course. Why have one solution when you can have two?
The Link to Windows app for Windows 10 will now let you mirror mobile app screens on your PC, and later this year, it will let you open six windows at once, dragging and dropping between your PC and mobile apps. That looks genuinely useful.
DeX, meanwhile, moves a bit more into screencasting and presentations from its original pitch of turning your phone into a PC. DeX now works with Miracast, Qualcomm ’s popular streaming system, to stream from your phone in a PC-like mode to TVs.
Both Galaxy Note20 models will support “a full 5G experience,” according to Samsung, with access to both millimeter-wave and sub-6 5G networks. That currently sets the S20 apart from other 5G phones. On AT&T and T-Mobile, the S20 is the only phone that taps into those carriers’ millimeter-wave networks, where they have them available.
That said, the US carriers may yet screw this up. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some US-carrier-only, sub-6-only version, or a Verizon-exclusive version, or something else that keeps the state of 5G fragmented and confused.
The phones have Qualcomm’s current X55 modem, which is pretty decently set up for what’s coming with US 5G networks over the coming year. It works on all of the bands they currently plan to use with 5G next year, including new technologies such as standalone and DSS. (AT&T’s upcoming standalone network may require next year’s modem, the X60.)
Along with Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.1, and the usual array of wireless technologies, these are the first Samsung phones to support ultra-wideband, a new wireless
DeX now works with Miracast, Qualcomm ’s popular streaming system, to stream from your phone to TVs.
standard that we also saw in the Apple iPhone 11 series. As with the iPhone 11, I don’t really get why you need a new chip here, but maybe they’re going for cheap.
The chip allows for better detection of phones’ proximity and position, so it enables a point-to-share function where you can shoot files at each other’s phones. Samsung also promises a “digital key” feature to let your phone work as a key for a smart lock at your home or office. Again, I don’t understand why all this needs another chip or how many people will use these features, but they’re there.
The Note lineup is always a second chance for Samsung.
It lets the company take a given year’s Galaxy S innovations, refine them, and add the S Pen. This year, more is at stake than usual because of the issues with the S20 Ultra’s camera. The Note20 Ultra isn’t only less expensive than the S20 Ultra (by $200), it hopefully has a 108-megapixel camera that actually focuses properly.
Samsung is also positioning the Note series as the Windows alternative to Apple’s iPhone-Mac integration.
With a lot of Windows PCs out there, that’s a smart move, if it works.
Samsung is positioning the Note series as the Windows alternative to Apple’s iPhone-Mac integration.