Skip to main content

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 first look: Surprises, both good and bad

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

A Galaxy Note launch is a different occasion than that of a Galaxy S. The Note has always been one "for the fans," not necessarily for the masses. Yet, the last couple generations have left the fans wanting more, wondering where the differentiation between the Note and Galaxy S lines went. The Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra don't seem to be set up to change that trajectory, frankly. But of course, the details matter, and there's more to a phone than what you can see on a spec sheet.

Normally, we'd be able to bring you our early hands-on impressions of the new products right away, after spending at least some amount of time using them. But as you know, things are weird right now — Samsung had to do a fully virtual event, and we don't yet have a Galaxy Note 20 or Note 20 Ultra.

But while I haven't been using the phones, I do know a lot about them. And I was lucky enough to attend a special event where I was provided an opportunity to see and hold the devices for a very short period. Here are my thoughts based on what I've learned, and the small amount of time I've been around them.

Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra The basics

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and Galaxy Note 20

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

There's extensive Galaxy S20 DNA in both Note 20s.

As has always been the case, the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra are largely based on the Galaxy S20 series from earlier in the year. The Note 20 is effectively the same size as the S20+, with a 6.7-inch display, and the Note 20 Ultra is similar to the S20 Ultra, with a 6.9-inch display. The Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra also have the same camera arrays as their corresponding S20 counterpart — with two exceptions, which I'll get to below.

Software-wise, things are very similar to the S20 series. This is One UI 2.5, an upgrade over the S20's, which has a handful of subtle tweaks and changes, but nothing substantial. The biggest differences are Note-specific features to do with the S Pen and Samsung Notes. One UI 2.5 is also supposed to include support for using gesture navigation with third-party launchers ... though I wasn't able to test that for myself.

Image 1 of 5

Samsung Galaxy Note 20

Image 2 of 5

Samsung Galaxy Note 20

Image 3 of 5

Samsung Galaxy Note 20

Image 4 of 5

Samsung Galaxy Note 20

Image 5 of 5

Samsung Galaxy Note 20

Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra specs: Distant siblings

The rest of the specs and features are basically comparable to the S20 series. There's a small bump in chipset to the Snapdragon 865+, but the Note 20 is paired with just 8GB of RAM versus the 12GB in the S20 series and Note 20 Ultra. The ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensor remains unchanged from the S20, Note 10 and S10, which is unsurprising but disappointment in general because it's well behind much of the competition. Samsung is claiming no improvement in display brightness, colors or any other capabilities compared to the S20 — though that's in no way a problem, and still makes the displays an upgrade over the Note 10 series.

Image 1 of 6

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Image 2 of 6

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Image 3 of 6

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Image 4 of 6

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Image 5 of 6

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Image 6 of 6

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Sadly, charging also hasn't been improved. Both phones top out at 25W over USB-C PD (or less with Quick Charge 2), 15W wireless, and 4.5W in reverse-charging configuration. Yes, the Note 20 series already walked back from the 45W fast charging Samsung started to push with the Note 10+ — though that didn't really make much of a difference anyway.

Source: Samsung (Image credit: Source: Samsung)

Colors are differentiated between the two models. You can get the Note 20 in dark grey, bronze or green; and the Note 20 Ultra in black, bronze or white. The black and grey are similar, but not the same, while the bronze really is identical between the two.

Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra Important differences

Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Unlike last year's Note 10 and 10+, which were truly "the same phone in two sizes," there are notable differences in the hardware and capabilities of the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra. To start, the Note 20 certainly isn't a "small" phone — it's tough tell the two apart, size-wise. The Note 20 is just 3 mm shorter and 1 mm narrower than the Ultra, thanks to its smaller 6.7-inch display, and is roughly 7% lighter. Nothing you'd be able to notice by holding just one or the other.

The phones look the same at a glance, but there are many important differences to explore.

The phones actually have different physical designs and builds, though, that you start to notice as you see both together. The Note 20 is a tiny bit more rounded in the corners, compared to the traditional squared-off Note styling in the 20 Ultra. But conversely, the Note 20 has a flat display whereas the Ultra retains Samsung's classic curved screen edges — though the glass is still rounded, so there isn't a huge functional difference between the two.

A bigger functional change is display refresh rate, where the Note 20 is stuck back on 60Hz, like the Note 10 series, and the 20 Ultra is at 120Hz — with the latter also having a new automatic variable refresh rate that should save on battery. The high refresh rate also leads to better S Pen latency, at 9 ms compared to 26 ms on the standard Note 20. This is perhaps the biggest letdown with the Note 20 — not having a high refresh rate display on a $1000 phone is really difficult to get past.

Image 1 of 5

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs. Galaxy Note 20

Image 2 of 5

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs. Galaxy Note 20

Image 3 of 5

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs. Galaxy Note 20

Image 4 of 5

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs. Galaxy Note 20

Image 5 of 5

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs. Galaxy Note 20

The Note 20 comes up short in specs and features, and has a plastic back.

The back of the Note 20 is, sadly, plastic. It's coated convincingly to look like the matte glass finish on the Ultra, but it isn't — and you know as soon as you touch them both. The frame is still metal, giving you the nice cold-to-the-touch feel and enhanced durability, but having a plastic back on a $1000 phone is disappointing. On the other hand, the Note 20 Ultra feels superb just like all of Samsung's other high-end phones.

Internally, there are two other notable changes. The Note 20 has just 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, versus 12GB and 128GB on the Ultra — with the latter adding both an SD card slot and an optional 512GB storage model. I find it incredibly odd that the Note 20 would have less RAM than the entire S20 line, even though it does have the latest Snapdragon 865+ chipset. And keeping the SD card slot and higher storage option off of the Note 20 just further points to Samsung's clear intentions with the less-expensive model: capture Note buyers on a budget.

Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra Early impressions

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs. Galaxy Note 20

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

The Note 20 is a lovely looking phone, across all three color options, and I've long preferred the more squared-off look of the Notes to Galaxy S models. It's accentuated by the new matte textured back that won't get all smudged like the S20 series, though the camera system is still just as massive and imposing as ever. Thankfully the base Note 20 has a far smaller camera array, because it lacks the 108MP main sensor and periscope zoom lens.

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Perhaps due in part to the big camera sets, Samsung has made a massive functional change to the S Pen: for the first time, it's now on the left side of the phone. When I picked up the Note 20 Ultra, my muscle memory immediately sent my right thumb to the bottom-right corner to pop out the S Pen, and it baffled me that it wasn't there. With the S Pen on the left, it's mostly covered up by the palm of your hand, and you have to shift your hand out of the way to get it.

Now this is obviously a boon for lefties (about 10% of people worldwide), but my goodness this is going to throw off every Note fan that's spent years using the S Pen in the exact same place. I'm not sure how long I'll have to use it to get over that.

When the S Pen is out of its silo, it can do more now. Building on the "Air Actions" from before, you can now use the S Pen to navigate parts of the interface with quick gestures. Press and hold the S Pen button, and you can gesture to go home or back, open the multitasking view, start a screen select, or capture a screenshot. Samsung pitches these gestures as helping you navigate your phone from several feet away, but I think they could prove to be useful for lightly navigating the interface when the S Pen is out — saving you from reaching the pen down to tap on the screen as often, especially if you use Android 10's gesture navigation system.

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs. Galaxy Note 20

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

The Note 20's cameras, front and back, are unchanged from the S20 and S20+ — and that's a good thing. But there are changes on the Note 20 Ultra's cameras compared to the S20 Ultra — and that's even more important.

Samsung addressed two big needs in the Note 20 Ultra's cameras.

First, Samsung added a laser auto focus system. This will likely address the auto focus issues faced on the S20 Ultra's camera, which often struggled to find focus on close-up objects or in the dark, particularly with the 108MP main sensor. This isn't to say that laser is a cure-all problem, but this sensor clearly needs help. I'm happy to see it.

Next, Samsung switched up the "telephoto" system entirely. Gone is the 48MP sensor with 0.8-micron pixels, replaced by a 12MP 1-micron pixel sensor. The lens now gets you to a true 5X optical zoom (20-degree FoV), rather than 4X, and at f/3.0 will let more light in than the old f/3.5 aperture. Having one-quarter of the resolution to work with will likely reduce the quality of 20X+ photos noticeably, which is probably why Samsung cuts off zoom at 50X now. But for those 5-10X zoom shots, quality should improve with a longer starting zoom, wider aperture and larger pixels. That's a win overall.

(And just for completeness, this is your reminder that the "telephoto" camera on the Note 20, S20 and S20+ is not true optical zoom. The field of view on that "telephoto" camera is only 3 degrees narrower than the standard camera. Its zoom is almost entirely digital, whereas the Note 20 Ultra and S20 Ultra have true optical zoom.)

I obviously wasn't able to use the cameras and review their effectiveness outside of a perfectly-lit studio space, so the actual analysis of how Samsung's changes improved the experience will have to wait. But these are good, if relatively subtle, changes.

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs. Galaxy Note 20

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Right now, I'm left a bit puzzled by the Note 20. At $1000, it's in a very weird space. That's a whole lot of money to spend on a phone that is stuck on a 60Hz display, with 8GB of RAM as the industry — including Samsung itself! — moves well beyond that, no SD card slot, and an odd plastic back that cheapens the experience. And at the same time, other than the S Pen, it doesn't offer anything beyond Samsung's own S20 and S20+. I can see why Samsung wants to have it there as the "budget" option to the Note 20 Ultra, but I don't see who will desire buying this phone.

The Note 20 Ultra, on the other hand, has a clearer path to sales. It's debuting at $1300, which is $100 less than the S20 Ultra, yet it's an evolution of that phone. The Note 20 Ultra is roughly the same size (actually a tad shorter), is actually lighter, and has the same basic specs and capabilities — but now has laser auto focus for the camera, a refined telephoto camera, and of course an S Pen. The one downside is the battery, which is 10% smaller than the S20 Ultra — but the new variable refresh rate display may make up the difference when running the phone at 120Hz. Unless the S20 Ultra receives a ~$150 price cut, the Note 20 Ultra should completely eat its sales.

Much more to come soon

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Though I wasn't provided extensive time using the phones ahead of the announcement, Samsung is distributing devices to reviewers in short order so we can get right into our usual process of evaluating them. You'll see many more thoughts on the Galaxy Note 20, and Note 20 Ultra in particular, throughout the coming weeks.

Pre-orders are already open for both phones, with some decent incentives including Samsung gift cards. Actual retail availability gets going on August 21. That gives you a little time to settle in on a decision of whether or not one of these phones could be your next upgrade.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

43 Comments
  • I refuse to spend that much money for a cell phone any longer.... people don't even look at them as status symbols anymore.
  • The even bigger issue lately is that for that kind of money (really any kind of money to BUY the hardware) we should not be subjected to ads injected into basic system applications. Samsung now thinks it is ok to put ads at the top AND bottom of the weather app...of the Samsung Pay app...we even saw some beginnings overseas of them wanting to do it on the lock screen. This is garbage for something that is not sold with an asterisk stating that you are agreeing to view ads for a reduced cost or something. These are EXPENSIVE devices...very nice expensive devices but they are worthless when you start doing shameless ad promotion all over it. Samsung can have the best hardware but no one will care once they have to deal with ads everywhere in their daily usage. I think people have also grown tired of $1000+ devices and are looking for functionality on a budget. They can break 3 budget phones that check all of their MAIN criteria for a phone (looking at Pixel 4a) before they get into buying one jewelry store version Galaxy device.
  • I've gone from updating phones from once a year to every 3 years because of these prices, Updating from my Note 8 to the 20 Ultra.
  • The Note 20 should be a Note 20 lite and should have been released right before the S21 like Samsung did earlier this year with the S10 lite and Note 10 lite this year.
  • These phones (especially the Note 20) show just how out of touch Samsung has become with the market and its customers. As a long time Note 9 user there is ZERO chance I will be getting another Note phone. $1000 for worse specs than existing phones in your own lineup? Plastic? No Micro SD slot? 1080P 60HZ screen?? I see these phones as instant fails.
  • Note 20 ultra - does the Exynos have ultrasonic fingerprint, or does the UK version get the same rubbish Note 10 fingerprint reader????
    This article says the ultrasonic fingerprint reader is UNCHANGED? Nonsense. The ultrasonic fingerprint reader is brand new, and is NOT in the Galaxy S20 series.
  • The Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra have the same ultrasonic fingerprint sensor. Samsung has made no claim that it is improved beyond the S20, which itself was not improved beyond the Note 10.
  • Well that's not a good thing. We own the Note 10 Plus (black 256 GB version on Sprint), and the fingerprint sensor makes the U12+ haptic buttons seem like near-perfection in comparison. Not everyone's fingers are the same, so your mileage may vary, but it's bad enough to make it a pain point.
  • My Note 9 is looking better, day by day.
  • Same, perfectly capable phone. See no reason to upgrade.
  • Jerry in this week's podcast - Will argue why Note 20 regular version is good just because he always goes against what everyone says 😋 But seriously Samsung do better.
  • I have a list of 50 other things you can buy for $1,000 and will read them one by one in a soft voice while others talk.
  • I'm looking forward to that Jerry, and I WILL listen to it!
    Me? My phone is fine, so I just bought a $1500 ebike instead.
  • For me a dual or hybrid SIM makes sense to upgrade. Rest of the world gets dual SIM and frequent American travelers do not get to enjoy it. Shame on Samsung for delaying this feature.
  • This is a slap in the face of all Note users. Screw Samsung, I'm done with their overpriced crap. 60Hz screen and no MicroSD on a $1K Note?? Idiots...
  • This is vastly overpriced for what you're getting. 8 GB ram while the supposedly inferior S20 gets 12. What is Samsung smoking?
  • "The Note 20 Ultra, on the other hand, has a clearer path to sales. It's debuting at $1300, which is $100 less than the S20 Ultra." Base Note 20 Ultra is also only 128 GB. I believe the S20 Ultra base was 256 GB. Correct me if I'm wrong.
  • My Note 10+ has 256GB of storage, why does Ultra only have 128GB? Kinda bugs me even though I'll put the 256GB microsd from my 10+ in it. I am going to trade in to get the Ultra as it has the incredible screen and 5G..
  • There's never a "clear" path to mobile devices costing $1000+. Not with the current functionality. There's nothing clear about spending $1300 for a device that does the same things that a $600 device does.
  • What exactly is wrong with plastic backs?
    Think about this:if you buy a Ferrari it still has plastic fenders. Not glass ones. I wonder why?
  • This is where everyone who isn't going to get the phone anyway complains about it..
  • I dont get it either. I can't help but think of weakness when I hear men complain or talk about how phone makes them feel in the hands. This marketing of premium this is beyond ridiculous. phone is a tool that better work for me. I don't want to phone with glass that breaks and looks far uglier than any superficial scratch in plastic. I've seen too many iPhones with broken glass back sore or screens that people have that is ugly. I continue to look at my note 9 or any other phone like my lumias back in the day made with polycarbonate. They still don't look bad come in fact they look great.. they felt great as well. these are the same people who white gloves he's on boxes and talk about how open the box makes them feel good... This is the world we live in where our feelings are so exaggerated to the stupidest of things. Very much first world problems. Feminized... Yeah I said it and it is not PC.
  • Kupfernigk - Plastic is softer and scratches more. My plastic backed phones looked like they were dragged across sandpaper, my glass backed ones look like new. I usually don't use cases. Ferrari uses plastic fenders because they are lightweight, and people don't slide their Ferrari across a table or carry it in their pocket with spare change 😉
  • My plastic (polycarbonate) Nokia Lumias certainly didn't scratch that easily. The backs looked pretty damn new when I finally switched to Android, and I abused the crap out of them (numerous drops out of a second story window onto concrete should cause damage to a phone). Moreover, the Lumias were FAR cheaper than the iPhones and Android devices at the time, and allowed for wireless charging. Cheap, durable, premium-feeling, and feature-full? Polycarbonate plastic had it all. Modern phones are just way too fragile to consider spending more than $500 on. They're going to break, and I'm not about to spend $1,000+ on something that won't stand the test of time.
  • Had several Lumia models, best phones for durability and maintaining their looks than any I've owned. I never bothered to use them with a case either. I cringe when I see "glass back" touted as a feature - it's a crutch by the reviewers to find fault.
  • @altema22
    Sounds like you don't take care of you stuff. All my plastic backed phones still look new. But then again, I'm not gonna let every tom, di ck, and harry play with my phones.
  • Thanks for the first look Andrew, and it must be difficult to evaluate things when the phone reps are in a hurry to get the devices back! Some interesting compromises on the Note 20 indeed. They are charging one thousand dollars for a lite version with a plastic back, and it seems the only upside is the flat screen. It almost sound too bad to be true. The Note 20 Ultra change to real optical zoom is welcome, as is the addition of laser auto focus. Laser will help with the near focus problems of the S20 Ultra, but the rest depends on if they shorted us on the number of focus pixels for the phase detection auto focus again. It's amazing that mighty Samsung stumbles this aspect of the cameras so badly, while companies with minuscule budgets produce AF systems that are "lightning fast, finding focus consistently and accurately in all lighting conditions" (DxoMark).
  • Nah. Thanks. Too expensive and chock full of stuff I don't need or will ever use. Mid-range and entry level devices is where it's at these days. Samsung, though they have a mid-range and entry level device lineup, it's paltry and pretty much sucks, will learn that the hard way very soon. Ditto for Apple.
  • There's never a "clear" path to mobile devices costing $1000+. Not with the current functionality. There's nothing clear about spending $1300 for a device that does the same things that a $600 device does.
  • I was going through the pre-order process even though I'm really not excited about this phone's compromises. But I thought "OK, so I'll spend more and get the 512gb I need. Let's see... 512gb, check... Mystic Bronze, huh?! Where the hell is Mystic Bronze?!" Yup, Samsung is still playing the limited colors crap. $1500 saved. Thanks, Samsung!
  • Bronze is the only color to get, so I would have done the same.
  • Yup. And it's not even the color, so much as the frosted finish. I'm tired of shiny fingerprint magnets.
  • It's not often I would say this but that Note 20 is hideous. Smeg knows why Samsung went with such an ugly pink colour as their showcase across the tech blogs. This is a shame as the Note 10 was absolutely gorgeous with that 2-tone rainbow back. It's probably not worth the extra outlay just for a slightly faster chipset and a screen that scrolls smoother (ooooh)
  • Glad I have my iPhone 11 Pro Max. Is never spend a penny on the overpriced Samshyte.
  • We are glad too Beno!
    About time you kicked android to the curb.
  • Samsung will take orders starting at midnight tonight? 🤣. Don't wait up for me Samsung. I'm waiting for the day Andrew or Jerry will remind all the kids about tech pricing... Day 1 new tech pricing is always hideously expensive... It has always been so. The Note 20 Ultra will be reasonably priced 13 months from now. A favourite quote from a memorable book somewhat applies: It was never any better, it never will be any better better. Only richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day. I'll see what 2022 brings... That will be 5yrs with my Note 8....so fall 2023 I'll have a serious look at a Note, or just maybe walk away from flagship phones.... Google, please throw a micro SD in a large Pixel.... That might convince me. No, never Apple.
  • Seriously.... The auto industry is a great example.... Not that new vehicles are ever a wise purchase.... Would you buy a new 2021 model that might be made early available in the fall of 2020, or would you wait for clearance discounts in the fall of 2021? C'mon man. And we are simply discussing phones! The make calls and text mostly, along with internet access on a tiny screen.... Gezuz.
  • The phone, on paper, looks great. But the same could be said of all of Samsung's newest flagship devices. We all kinda know what to expect....Samsung will throw every possible feature into a phone and the majority of people that aren't overly techy will allow themselves to be talked into getting one of these devices by a customer service rep though the carrier or big box electronics store. He or she won't EVER use the bulk of these features. They will download a few apps, but never change default apps, ringtones or the launcher. I like Samsung....had their Droid Charge, S3, Note II, 4 and still using the 8. It's still working fine. Battery is a little worse and it's a bit dinged up, but still a fine device. I think I will see what the iPhone 12 Max has to offer. Like someone else said, it's just a damn phone. I'm more looking forward to the learning curve of an different operating system than just getting another device from Samsung. If I hate the iPhone, screw it, I can plop my SIM in something else. I will probably come back to Android at some point, but now is the time to try something different.
  • wow 2020 is just samsung %&^@# their customers over and over. from TVs holding back features to phones holding back. Bye samsung. done with ALL of your stuff.
  • I'm a Samsung fan was a big note fan moved to the S20 Ultra cause got such a good deal, seeing this outside of the s pen there's nothing making me want to move to this! **Especially that we are getting the gimped Exynos version in Europe it's seriously time Samsung sorted this out**
  • I said I’d laid it over you Android robots lol, typing this from my iPhone 11 Pro Max.
  • I pity what by all accounts is a small minded AC troll. I'm guilty as charged for commenting a lot... And of course I'd take a few comments back..... But you are consistently adding nil to the conversation. The merit of phones is at best amusing, but the wrong place to find self esteem. Apple? Good for you. Yawn.
  • So finally you've got the iPhone! I hope you enjoy the device genuinely, I know iOS is better for optimised apps and generally apple hardware is decent and they do support their devices but for me personally they are boring and drab! iOS and it's same set of home screen apps bores me! PS I know widgets are coming but they look pathetic as well on iOS.