Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge
But the regular Note 20 isn’t as powerful as it could be
Samsung has officially announced 2020’s Galaxy Note lineup. There are two models this year: the regular Galaxy Note 20 and the high-end Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Both feature the main thing that differentiates the Note line — an included S Pen stylus — but the new Notes are more different from each other than you might expect.
As it did with the Galaxy S20 earlier this year, Samsung is explicitly trying to make the “Ultra” moniker push the top-tier specs ever higher, which apparently allows the regular model to skimp on a few features. It’s a tale of two Notes.
The regular Galaxy Note 20 lacks important features like a high refresh rate screen, microSD storage expansion, and periscope zoom lens, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t expensive. It’s $999.99 for a model with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM.
The Note 20 Ultra, meanwhile, has everything Samsung knows how to throw at a phone (short of a folding screen) and the price to match those specs: $1,299.99 for the 128GB storage / 12GB RAM model and $1,449.99 to bump that storage up to 512GB.
Preorders for both begin at 12:01AM ET on August 6th, and the phones should be shipping and in carrier stores (the ones that are open, anyway) on August 21st.
Both phones do share some key specs. The one you’re most likely to be told about (because it’s what carriers are pushing) is their support for both types of 5G networks. Samsung has improved latency on the S Pen and added a few more ways you can wave it about to control your phone remotely. They support fast charging, wireless charging, and reverse wireless charging.
They’ve got stereo speakers with some Dolby technology, IP68 water resistance, and ship with Android 10. Both can record video at 8K (which seems like overkill for a phone) and support external microphone options. Dex now works wirelessly (via Miracast) and both phones have some important new Microsoft software tie-ins.
Both still feature Bixby, at best the fourth-place digital assistant behind Google, Alexa, and even Siri.
The Note 20s also have a new kind of finish, which Samsung calls “Mystic.” It amounts to a textured finish on the glass that should hopefully do a better job of repelling — or at least hiding — fingerprints. The Note 20 Ultra will come in bronze, black, and white. The Note 20 will come in bronze, gray, and green.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra hardware and specs
The Note 20 Ultra has two big jobs. The first is to fill the slot of Samsung’s highest tier, zero-compromise phone. It needs to be the phone with the highest specs that Samsung can use to say it is second to no other Android manufacturer. The second job is to correct some of the mistakes of the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Simply as an object, the Note 20 Ultra is as imposing as a phone can be — which is a good thing, as that really is the Note’s aesthetic. It’s big and square, with a screen that’s curved (for better or worse) around the sides to minimize the visibility of bezels. It is as close to all-screen on the front as you can reasonably get, interrupted only by a small hole punch and even smaller top and bottom bezels. The camera bump is unabashedly, unapologetically massive.
On a spec level, Samsung does get to claim to be at the very top of the Android heap — at least for the time being. It has a massive 6.9-inch 1440p OLED display capable of refreshing at 120Hz. It has three cameras on the back, one of which is 108 megapixels, while another includes a periscope. It has the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus processor and 12GB of RAM, plus the ability to expand its base storage with an SD card. The battery is 4,500mAh and it supports both flavors of 5G.
So flagship specs for the Android world are a check — though it should be said that Apple’s A13 Bionic processor from last year is still faster than anything Qualcomm is putting out.
The Note 20 Ultra adds dynamically adjusting refresh rates for the screen to preserve battery life, but it can’t hit that full rate at its max resolution (also presumably to preserve battery life). Samsung also tossed in an Ultra Wideband (UWB) radio to make it easier for phones to transfer files by pointing them at each other and — eventually — to support unlocking cars. The iPhone 11 Pro has UWB, so it seems like Samsung couldn’t stand not hitting that spec checkbox, too, even though the software isn’t quite ready.
Samsung’s second mission with the Note 20 Ultra is to try once again to turn its Samsung-made 108-megapixel camera sensor into a category-beating camera. Results with that sensor on the Galaxy S20 Ultra were decidedly mixed — it initially had slow focus and, even after a software update, wasn’t as good as a more traditional smartphone camera. Plus, Samsung’s “Space Zoom” feature offered a 100x zoom that honestly should have capped out at something much smaller — the optical zoom from the periscope is 5x.
With the Note 20 Ultra, Samsung has theoretically addressed both issues. For focusing, the Ultra includes the software enhancements Samsung already released for the S20 Ultra. But more importantly, it has swapped in a laser autofocus system, which should speed up focusing considerably. Space Zoom is now capped at 50x — still enough to be impressive, but hopefully not so much that all you’re getting is a pile of pixels.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 hardware and specs
Where the Note 20 Ultra is a spec monster, the regular Note 20 has a somewhat shorter spec sheet. It’s smaller, for one thing, with a 6.7-inch 1080p display. As a physical device, the regular Note 20 is also more approachable. It has a bit more curve to its corners (though less to its screen) and shows more bezel overall. The camera bump isn’t like a huge mesa on the back of the device, either. It’s still a very large, fairly wide phone by any standard, but it isn’t just a smaller Note 20 Ultra; it has its own design language.
Disappointingly, the Note 20 lacks a few specs that you get on a Note 20 Ultra. Its display has the usual 60Hz refresh rate you see on any phone. You also can’t expand its storage with microSD cards, and there’s only a 128GB model available.
It’s especially baffling because even the regular Galaxy S20 from earlier this year has a high refresh rate screen and also allows for microSD storage expansion. The smaller S20 lacks mmWave 5G, though, so perhaps Samsung sees that as a trade-off. Still, at $999.99, a high refresh rate screen is a must in 2020, and it’s odd to see it missing here.
The Note 20’s camera system is essentially equivalent to the S20’s, at least. It has a main 12-megapixel camera, a 12-megapixel ultrawide, and then 64 megapixels for the telephoto and its non-periscope-enabled version of Space Zoom — which goes up to 30x.
The Note 20 is certainly still a top-tier phone from a spec perspective. It has a 4,300mAh battery, the same Snapdragon 865 Plus processor, and all the same software features as the Ultra. But in dropping some things that are available on the S20 lineup, the Note 20 is asking a decent amount of money for that S Pen.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 software enhancements
Since these are Notes, the first big software update applies to the S Pen. There are now more “Anywhere actions” that turn the S Pen into a gesture-based remote control for the phone. You’ll need to memorize various magic wand movements to make it all work, though.
Samsung is deepening its relationship with Microsoft in some fairly significant ways. For the Note 20 line, the most important new software feature is that Samsung Notes will sync with Microsoft OneNote later this year. That makes Samsung’s app much more useful as your notes are now less likely to just sit on your phone. Samsung tells us that it’s only a one-way sync, however, which means you can’t use the Notes app as a stand-in for the OneNote app if you work across multiple devices. Notes also gains the ability to annotate PDFs, match up audio recordings with your notes, and offers full folder management.
Microsoft also is going to feature heavily for gaming, as Samsung will be pushing its compatibility with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. One of the preorder bundles will offer an option to get three months of the gaming subscription service from Microsoft, which will let you stream Xbox games on Android from next month. The Your Phone app that syncs with Windows will of course be bundled, but now Samsung is promising future software updates like running multiple Android apps on your Windows desktop.
Alongside the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra, Samsung also announced a new tablet, a new watch, and new earbuds. It also had previously announced a 5G version of its Z Flip folding phone and may yet announce a second version of the original Galaxy Fold in today’s event. If it does, that Galaxy Z Fold may lay claim to being Samsung’s flagship device.
But for people who don’t want to take a risk on folding phones (and I don’t blame you), the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is Samsung’s best attempt at offering the best you can get on Android. The regular Note 20 is a lot less ambitious but still fairly pricey, probably thanks to those 5G radios. Whether either can live up to or exceed expectations is a question for the review — which we’ll bring to you later this month.