Galaxy Note 20 ongoing review: What’s good and not so great about the $1,000 phone so far


Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 in mystic green.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I was excited to unwrap Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, a supercharged $1,300 flagship phone that gives the Galaxy Note 10 line a significant upgrade, for a price. But in some ways, I’ve anticipated the standard, cheaper Galaxy Note 20 even more. Positioned as the entry level Note phone this year, the $1,000 device has some major differences that could matter and a hefty price tag of its own, despite scaled-down specs that encompass screen quality, camera tech and build material all the way to storage and RAM (scroll to the end for the full specs comparison).

I’ve now spent over a full day with the Note 20 and I have some observations to share. It takes a good week to thoroughly test a phone, so I’ll keep updating this post as new observations develop. Just keep in mind that my opinion might change as the experience all comes together — and that’s a good thing. Getting to know a device takes time and the experience out of the box may settle as a person uses it in day-to-day activities. Ready for the first of my first impressions? Here we go.

The plastic backing matters, but maybe not how you expect

One of the major — and very obvious — differences between the Note 20 Ultra and standard Note 20 is the backing. You get a Gorilla Glass Victus cover material on the back of the Note 20 Ultra and a polycarbonate (that means plastic) backing on the Note 20. This may not seem like a big deal, but Samsung and other high-end smartphone makers are perhaps victims of their own success, training consumers that glass is classy and sophisticated, while plastic, a typically less shatter-prone material, is less refined.

Samsung sent along my first choice Note 20 finish, the mystic green color, which is a beautiful, shimmery, green with blued undertones in the right light. It looks downright satiny. However, there’s still some incongruity when it comes to both the look and the price. Side by side with the Note 20 Ultra’s glass backing, the Note 20 looks and feels midrange, which doesn’t line up with a $1,000 sales figure. 

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Here’s another issue with the backing. I noticed that the corners snag my fingertips as I hold the device without a cover. It isn’t painful or disruptive, but it doesn’t feel as luxe as a $1,000 phone should. Samsung was gracious enough to send along a few cases, which makes the problem disappear, but it’s important to try the phone both ways.

Here’s one area where the plastic backing is a win. The Note 20 feels significantly lighter than the Note 20 Ultra, in hand, in my pocket and in my purse. It’s much easier to hold when writing, watching videos and just carrying around. That’s a real plus for me.

How about that Note 20 camera? Today’s observations

Testing a camera isn’t a single-day affair. It takes time and a variety of lighting conditions to really get a feel for the particular strengths and weaknesses. My first day out with the camera system raised a lot of questions, mostly because I had the Note 20 Ultra in my other pocket and switched off between the two.

Let’s tackle the first elephant in the room, that camera bump. It’s front of mind on the Note 20 Ultra and much more pared down on the Note 20, rising from the surface a bit, but not so much you’re worried about stubbing your thumb on it. Writing with the S Pen on a Note 20 Ultra (without a cover) caused the phone to deeply rock. The Note 20 still rocks without a cover, but not as much.

What does this all mean for image quality? In terms of the specs, the camera differences you’ll notice most come down to pared-back detail capture (64-megapixels at the high end instead of 108-megapixels), 3x optical zoom instead of 5x and 30x digital zoom instead of 50x on the Note 20 Ultra.

How does that play out in real life? In a number of ways. And yes, it does make a difference. First, there’s the Note 20’s image quality on its own, as a standalone device. Then the Note 20 versus the Note 20 Ultra. Finally, there’s the Note 20 versus other phones in its $1,000 price point. Today I compared the two Note 20 phones on a nice, long walk along the rugged Northern California coastline.

It was a good day and I was able to shoot everything from harbor seals and herons to amazing rock formations, tenacious scrub and crashing waves. 

The Note 20 did well and caught the shots I wanted, including video of adorable seals arching on ocean rocks to avoid the surf and incoming tide, to a stoic crane who stood to attention and then flew away. (Stay tuned for comparison photos on the next update.)

Note 20 versus 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″ image sensor) 108-megapixel (F1.8, OIS, 0.8μm, 79-degree FOV, 1/1.33″ image sensor)
Ultra-wide 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
Super Zoom 30x 50X
Laser auto-focus sensor No Yes
Video capture 8K 8K

For all the bulbous faults of its protruding camera array, the Note 20 Ultra’s enhanced photography got me closer to nature than the Note 20 and, after a while, I stopped reaching for the Note 20 altogether. Zoom didn’t get me as near to the fluffy seals lounging on the rocks and when I did zoom in to the cormorants on the rocks or turkey vultures in the trees, the images looked grainier than on the Note 20 Ultra. 

I could still share the Note 20 pictures and videos with my birder and nature-loving friend — who I knew would flip for them regardless — and the photos are still effective and usable. But side by side, it’s obvious where Samsung made its investments.

Phone size: Just how big is big?

The camera tests continue, but there’s one area that immediately popped into mind. The Note 20 is absolutely smaller and much lighter feeling than the Note 20 Ultra. However, it still towers out of my pockets and fills my hand. That may just be the acceptable trade-off of a large-screen phone — here we have 6.7-inches versus 6.9 on the Note 20 Ultra.

Coming up: Screen quality, battery life, storage, more

This is just the beginning of my Note-versus-Note Ultra testing period. Screen specs, battery life and a lot of minor features will go head to head to determine which phone provides the best value for the money (right now it’s anyone’s to lose) and if there are other factors that could push one above the other — or above competing devices. Keep checking in as this review-in-progress evolves. Meanwhile, brush up on the full specs comparison below.

Note 20 versus Note 20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Display size, resolution 6.7-inch; 2,400×1,080 pixels 6.9-inch; 3,088×1,440 pixels
Pixel density 393ppi 496ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.36 x 2.96 x 0.33 in 6.49 x 3.04 x 0.31 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 161.6 x 75.2 x 8.3 mm 164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.84 oz, 194g 7.33 oz, 208g
Mobile software Android 10 Android 10
Camera 12-megapixel (ultra-wide), 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (ultra-wide), 108-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera 10-megapixel 10-megapixel
Video capture 8K 8K
Processor Snapdragon 865+ Snapdragon 865+
Storage 128GB 128GB, 512GB
Expandable storage No Up to 1TB
Battery 4,300mAh 4,500mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screen In-screen
Connector USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack No No
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)
Price (GBP) £849 (4G) and £949 (5G) £1,179
Price (AUD) AU$1,499 (4G) and AU$1,649 (5G) AU$1,849 (4G) and $AU$1,999 (5G)

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