Never let it be said that Samsung doesn't shake things up. Last year it gave us two Galaxy Notes for the first time since 2014. (Remember the Note 4 and Note Edge? Those were the days.) Just a few months ago, Samsung revealed a trio of new Galaxy S phones, including an oversized model that waltzed into the Galaxy Note's corner of the market. Which has left the top-end of the company's lineup feeling awfully crowded.
And the crowd just got bigger. Samsung officially revealed the Galaxy Note 20 ($999) and Note 20 Ultra ($1,299) today, alongside a slew of other new devices at its online-only Unpacked event. The big question now is whether these two Notes can carve out niches for themselves among Samsung's already-huge pack of premium devices. And, honestly, I’m not so sure about that.
The Ultra experience
Over the years, the Galaxy Note line has become more or less synonymous with big screens, powerful processors, and, of course, the S Pen. Both the Galaxy Note 20 and the Note 20 Ultra pack all of the above, but between the two, the Ultra caters more to Samsung's most demanding fans.
First things first: With its 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X display, the Note 20 Ultra is a big phone. For those keeping count, that's the same size as the Galaxy S20 Ultra's display, and both of these screens refresh at up to 120Hz. Just like last year's Note, there's a tiny hole punched out of the top of the screen to accommodate a 10-megapixel front-facing camera, and the lack of bezels around the display once again means you'll have plenty of real estate for jotting down notes during your (remote) meetings. The screen's tall aspect ratio also makes the Ultra a little narrower and easier to handle than you might suspect, though folks with big mitts are still Samsung’s real audience here. (Even I had trouble one-handing it.) Unlike last year, there is no version of the Note for people with smaller hands, which honestly feels like a mistake.
Speaking of big, the Note 20 Ultra's camera array looks (and feels) absolutely enormous. From what I can tell, it's very similar in size to the Galaxy S20 Ultra's hump, but it really stands out thanks to the new, bronze finish Samsung is pushing this year. What's inside, however, should sound pretty familiar. Samsung's 108-megapixel main camera is back and seemingly identical to the one found in the S20 Ultra -- ditto for the 12-megapixel ultra-wide, which still captures a 120-degree field of view.
That's not to say Samsung hasn't tweaked its formula, though. This time it opted for a 12-megapixel telephoto camera, and while that doesn't sound nearly as impressive as the S20 Ultra's 48-megapixel sensor, the Note 20 Ultra's long-range shooter has a slightly wider aperture which should help in low light. Samsung's crazy Space Zoom feature is back too, though it's been neutered a little. The Note 20 Ultra can push in 50x, compared to the 100x on the S20 Ultra. Frankly, this is fine. In addition to being creepy, those 100x photos looked downright terrible most of the time.
Based on its name and those oh-so-similar cameras, it would be easy to assume that not much has changed internally from the Galaxy S20 Ultra. That's not exactly the case. Inside is one of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865+ chipsets, and since its CPU cores are clocked slightly higher than the standard 865's, the Note 20 Ultra should have a slight edge when it comes to horsepower. Of course, considering just how fast the standard Snapdragon 865 was, I suspect most people would be hard-pressed to spot any meaningful differences in performance. (I certainly didn’t.) That's especially true because, like the S20 Ultra, all versions of the Note 20 Ultra pack 12GB of RAM -- apart from the color, the only choice you'll have to make is whether you want 128GB ($1,300) or 512GB of storage ($1,449).
A few other things to note: The Note 20 Ultra has a 4,500mAh battery, which is notably smaller than the S20 Ultra's. (Samsung swears that the two phones are rated for the same longevity, but we'll be the judge of that.) Long-time Note fans will also have to reset their muscle memory since the Bluetooth-enabled S Pen now slots in on the bottom-left corner. I can already imagine myself thumbing for the stylus where it used to be, and I'm getting frustrated. That said, actually using the S Pen should feel a little more natural than it used to. Thanks to some software improvements and the S20 Ultra’s fancy new screen, the delay between writing something on this glass and seeing it appear is minimal -- think about nine milliseconds. Seeing Samsung demonstrate this minimal latency in person has made me wonder if it might finally be time to give writing on glass another try.
The Note 20 Ultra is also the first Samsung device to pack an ultra-wideband (or UWB) radio for short-range data transmission. UWB has plenty of applications, but it’s perhaps most widely known in smartphone circles as the technology that allows Apple’s iPhone 11 series to AirDrop files by pointing one device at another. Samsung told us that the Note 20 Ultra will include a similar feature so you can quickly move files from one Ultra to another, and before long the company plans to use the radio to locate Samsung devices with AR and unlock doors.