Hands-On, Smartphone

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 & Note 20 Ultra Hands-On: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 series is finally here, and as expected, it is made up of two smartphones: the standard Galaxy Note 20, and the higher-end Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Compared to their predecessors – yes, I consider the Note 20 Ultra to be the successor to the Note 10+ – both devices sport some serious upgrades, and this is especially the case with the Ultra.

However, the hardware disparity between the two flagship smartphones is a lot more drastic now, and in my opinion, it’s a step back. That is not to say the Note 20 series is not quite as exciting; the Note 20 Ultra is a fantastic followup to the Note 10+. It’s just that…if you’re a fan of last year’s Note 10, the Note 20 series will not be quite as appealing to you.

Now, I say this because the Galaxy Note 20 is hardly a successor to the Galaxy Note 10. The latter was a compact flagship smartphone that shares a similar camera system as the higher-end Note 10+, but this is not quite the case anymore with the Note 20. Not only is it a much bigger device now with a 6.7-inch screen – the Note 10 had a smaller 6.3-inch panel – it even has a very different camera configuration than the Note 20 Ultra.

This, in turn, makes the Note 20 a similarly sized phone with a more pedestrian camera system next to the Note 20 Ultra. You no longer have a compact Note device this year, which was introduced with the Note 10. As a fan of compact smartphones, this is a bit of a letdown to me, though the Note 20 will serve as a better alternative to the Note 20 Ultra now with the similarly big screen at a more affordable price point.

Anyway, let’s move on to the star of the new Note devices, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. One of the biggest new features introduced on the new flagship is the improved triple camera system. It’s made up of a 108MP f/1.8 primary sensor with optical image stabilisation, a 12MP f/3.0 periscope telephoto lens that can do 5x optical zoom, as well as a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide angle shooter.

This camera setup is not too different from the Galaxy S20 Ultra‘s configuration, but there is one major difference with the Note 20 Ultra: a laser autofocus sensor. Thanks to the addition of this sensor, the autofocus performance of the Note 20 Ultra is much better than the S20 Ultra. This basically solves the latter’s inconsistent autofocus performance, which was my biggest qualm with the phone.

As for the performance of the Note 20 Ultra’s camera itself, it does seem to be able to take great-looking shots with good detail preservation and dynamic range; as expected of Samsung. However, I’ve only tested the camera in a well-lit setting, so it remains to be seen just how well it would perform under less than ideal lighting. But, again, this is Samsung: its camera performance rarely disappoints.

What about the standard Galaxy Note 20? Even though its triple camera system (12MP f/1.8 primary + 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide angle + 64MP f/2.0 telephoto) doesn’t have the laser autofocus sensor, it can still lock in focus very quickly, thanks to the Dual Pixel autofocus system of the main camera. Image quality of the camera is great too, though it doesn’t feel quite as capable as the Ultra’s more sophisticated camera array.

Next, we have the Note 20 Ultra’s bright and vibrant 6.9-inch 3088 x 1440 Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen with a fast 120Hz refresh rate, just like the S20 Ultra. The display also curves on either sides of the phone at a pretty steep angle now, which I quite like. Of course, this is a HDR10+ certified panel as well, so rest assured, this is a very, very pleasant display to look at.

Unfortunately, the regular Note 20 doesn’t have a similar display. Instead, it only comes with a flat 6.7-inch 2400 x 1080 Super AMOLED Plus screen with a conventional 60Hz refresh rate; not very impressive, is it? On top of that, the Infinity-O cutout at the top of the screen is noticeably bigger than the Ultra’s cutout too. Thankfully, it is still a HDR10+ certified panel, so it still looks pretty good.

Despite these differences, there is one vital hardware both smartphones share: the new and improved S Pen. According to Samsung, the latency of the S Pen has been reduced, so it will feel more responsive as you write and draw on the Note 20 smartphones. The Air Actions feature is also more functional now, which can be used to go to the home screen, access the recent apps page, and even take a screenshot.

And then there’s the overall design of the two phones. Naturally, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra feels markedly more premium, thanks to the curved display and back panel. Because of the curvature on the sides of the phone, it feels thinner than it actually is as well.

Obviously, this is not the case with the regular Note 20. Because it has a flat screen, it feels a lot thicker than its Ultra counterpart, even though there’s only a 0.2mm difference in thickness between the two phones. On top of that, I’m not a fan of the Note 20’s back panel either. It feels…plasticky. Almost cheap, even. That being said, I do like the matte finish of the Mystic Bronze colourway pictured above.

Battery life of the two phones is worth a mention too. The Note 20 features a 4,300mAh battery, while the Note 20 Ultra comes with a slightly bigger 4,500mAh cell. These are pretty generous battery capacities, and paired with the 7nm Exynos 990 chip of both phones – yes, the Malaysian market is still getting the Exynos variant – they should be able to return respectable battery life.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 series, as with every new iteration of the Note, is better than ever. It’s just disheartening (to me) that the compact Note 10 doesn’t get a proper successor. Instead, what we get is a more affordable alternative to the Note 20 Ultra with the regular Note 20, which…well, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Regardless, I’m definitely excited to put the Galaxy Note 20 series through its paces, especially the Note 20 Ultra. The 108MP camera system doesn’t seem to suffer from inconsistent autofocus performance anymore, the fast 120Hz screen looks fantastic, and its battery life should be better than its predecessor too.

For the Malaysian market, the Galaxy Note 20 series starts at RM3,899 for the 4G variant of the regular Note 20. The 5G version, on the other hand, costs RM4,299; both models feature 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. As for the range-topping Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, it costs a whopping RM5,199. For that kind of money, you get 256GB of storage and 12GB of RAM.