Hands On With the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Is the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra worth its $1,299 asking price? We take a first look.
What makes a phone worth $1,299 in a pandemic? That's the challenge for the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, a giant honking superphone coming out August 21. This monster of a device represents the absolute top-of-the-line in the US right now, and it might be worth the money, if everything works as promised. I spent a few hours with the phone, and so far it seems pretty promising.
The Note 20 Ultra comes in a 128GB model for $1,299 and a 512GB model for $1,449. Both look the same: impressive 6.5-by-3.0-by-0.3-inch slabs (HWD) weighing 7.3 ounces. Yes, this is a big phone, even marginally taller and deeper than the Galaxy Note 10+, but if you're here, you're here for the full serving plate experience.
It comes in matte bronze or glossy black or white. I got the bronze version, which looks very much like Apple's rose gold color. It picks up fingerprints quickly, but I don't think that will matter because you really need a case to smooth out the back panel. The camera bump is ridiculous—a big, chunky rectangle that may get caught on or scratch things if you don't have a case to even out the phone's Z-axis.
Man, that's a real camera bump
The Note 20 Ultra is a chance for Samsung to fix the mess that is the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the wrong phone at the wrong time. The S20 Ultra is a $1,449 monster with a buggy camera, engineered at a moment when it looked like the economy was booming and released into a pandemic and economic crash. The Note 20 Ultra starts with the S20 Ultra's platform and makes a bunch of course corrections: fixing the camera, lowering the price, and adding in the trademark S Pen and some new software features. Upon first glance, it looks like it achieves the goal.
The S Pen has moved from the right to the left side of the phone
The 6.9-inch, 120Hz AMOLED screen looks good, and that high refresh rate definitely helps S Pen performance. The pen tip has a very matte drag along the screen, really feeling like a graphite pencil (it's a little scary—I thought I was scratching the screen!), not to mention gloriously free of lag. But Samsung left a perplexing limitation from the S20 series: The screen is only 120Hz in 1080p mode. Kick it up higher, to really get value out of your $1,300 phone, and it's 60Hz, so you lose a little of that responsiveness.
I tried the new S Pen gestures, such as making a scribbling motion in the air to take a screen shot. They're hard-to-use gimmicks, some of those typical Samsung kitchen-sink features that few people will use. But the S Pen itself remains a solid and rare stylus. My wife and daughter both use Galaxy Note phones to draw and take notes, and a more responsive S Pen will only make that better. I want to try the Note's syncing with Microsoft OneNote, but the new Microsoft features to link up to the Note 20 Ultra aren't available yet.
The matte bronze color is sleek, not loud
I'm most excited by the changes to the camera. The Galaxy S20 Ultra has a 108-megapixel camera, but it doesn't work well. Here we have that 108-megapixel camera again, along with 12-megapixel 5x optical zoom and 12-megapixel ultra-wide, and it actually works, thanks to a new laser autofocus module. To test it, I quickly took a series of shots of close objects, followed by faraway things, followed by close again. I didn't see the focus pulsing I experienced on the S20 Ultra, and the shots were all in focus. That's promising.
The Space Zoom now goes up to 50x rather than the Galaxy S20 Ultra's ridiculous 100x
The changes in the Pro Video mode look like fun. Samsung is letting you mess around with the audio in videos quite a lot—you can turn the front and back mics on and off, or even use a USB or Bluetooth microphone. Paired with 8K recording, that could be a big step forward for audio clarity.
I haven't been able to get a good feel for the phone's Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ processor or its universal 5G yet. I'm expecting 5G performance here to be similar to the S20+, which means excellent on AT&T and Verizon, but second to OnePlus phones on T-Mobile because the OnePlus devices get 5G radio software updates more promptly.
The Pro Video mode really lets you play around with audio inputs
Honestly, I'm still uncomfortable with the existence of a $1,299 phone in 2020. At least there are a bunch of trade-ins and buy-one-get-one-free deals out there. And cheaper phones genuinely don't have things this one has: triple-layer 5G, for instance, or a 108-megapixel camera, or 8K recording. Those features are all kind of overkill, but there's room for some overkill in the world. I'll dig in further as we proceed toward a full review, so check back soon.
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