Bottom line: Despite a number of hardware compromises compared to the Note 20 Ultra, the Galaxy Note 20 is a surprisingly great phone with versatile cameras and all-day battery life.
- No accidental touch input on the flat display
- Excellent battery life
- Impressive camera performance
- Promised three years of software updates
- One UI 3.1 introduces useful features like Wireless DeX
- No Super Resolution Zoom
- No expandable storage
- Display is limited to 1080p and 60Hz
The Galaxy Note 20 is one of Samsung's most perplexing devices in years. It has most of the modern appointments of a 2020 flagship, including 5G support, a top-of-the-line processor, and a trio of high-quality cameras, but it also ditches the luxe glass backing of its Ultra counterpart in favor of a plastic one and features a relatively dated 60Hz 1080p display.
On paper, these compromises can make the Note 20 seem like a hard sell compared to the Ultra, especially given the abundance of comparably high-end options like the OnePlus 9 at similar or even lower price points. But in my time with the Galaxy Note 20, I've come to appreciate it as a more practical device than even the pricier Note 20 Ultra that I absolutely love. As it turns out, those hardware tradeoffs aren't so bad.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20: Price and release date
The Galaxy Note 20 launched on August 21 for $999.99, with a single configuration featuring 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. Since then, the Note 20 has seen a number of discounts bringing it down to around $800 through most retailers, including Amazon. If you already have a relatively recent device to trade in, Samsung is offering massive trade-in credits through its site, knocking up to $650 off of the Note 20's total cost (though as of April 28, 2021, Samsung still sells the Note 20 at its original price of $1,000).
You can pick up a Note 20 in Mystic Gray, Mystic Green, or Mystic Bronze. I personally don't think you can go wrong with any of the color options, but I'm a fan of the Mystic Green, and Mystic Bronze finishes in particular — though it's easy to appreciate the understated look of the Mystic Gray review unit I was sent.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20: What I like
It's easy to get caught up in the debate around Samsung's decision to use a plastic backing on the Note 20, but I was surprised by how solid the phone still feels in the hand. There's the slightest bit of give in the plastic if you apply enough pressure, but the Note 20 doesn't creak or feel at all cheap, and the matte finish feels reminiscent of the frosted glass on the Mystic Bronze Note 20 Ultra. In case you're worried about long-term durability, the Galaxy Note 20 also has an aluminum midframe.
In fact, this plastic design has been so successful that soon after the Note 20's release, Samsung began to introduce plastic bodies to some of its Galaxy S models as well, including the Galaxy S20 FE and Galaxy S21 — both of which I reviewed and found to be fantastic devices at extremely competitive prices.
The plastic design also helps the Note 20 feel a bit lighter than the Note 20 Ultra, and while the rounded corners are a bit odd to see on a Galaxy Note device (most of which feature a more squared-off look), they keep the phone from poking uncomfortably into your hand.
By far, the thing I was most excited to try on the Galaxy Note 20 was its completely flat display — something that, at the time, had otherwise been phased out of Samsung's high-end lineup. After encountering far too many accidental touches on the Note 20 Ultra's curved glass, I was curious to see how this screen would fare by comparison.
To my delight, accidental touch input isn't an issue whatsoever on the Note 20. It's really made me think about how unnecessary curved displays are at times; they certainly look and feel nice, but I'm still not convinced they bring much functional benefit to the table. The flat display was a smashing success on the Note 20, and it continues to be on Samsung's subsequent plastic releases.
Of course, in typical Samsung fashion, the quality of the display is excellent, as well. The Galaxy Note 20 uses a Super AMOLED Plus panel with rich colors, great daylight visibility, and a low enough minimum setting to use comfortably at night. It isn't perfect — more on that in a little bit — but there's still plenty to love here.
I was also impressed with the Note 20's battery life. The 4,300mAh battery is only marginally smaller than the Note 20 Ultra's 4,500mAh cell, but between the display's smaller size, lower resolution, and lower refresh rate, I've been able to hit all the way up to 7 hours of screen-on time with ease, ending most days with around 30% battery life remaining.
Samsung recently committed to offering three years of software updates to many of its phones, including the Galaxy Note 20. That means it should be running the latest version of Android through at least 2022 — at launch, it ran Android 10 with Samsung's One UI 2.5 software overlay, but thanks to an update that rolled out in February 2021, the Note 20 is now running Android 11 with One UI 3.1, which comes with some fantastic new features like Wireless DeX and the ability to control the direction of your microphones while shooting video.
On the camera side, you don't get the Note 20 Ultra's enormous 108MP camera or periscope-style telephoto lens, but the Note 20's imaging is nothing to scoff at. The main camera uses a 12MP sensor that's larger than the one on the Galaxy Note 10 at 1.8 microns, which helps it take in more light and perform better in dark situations.
Elsewhere, you get a 12MP 1.4-micron ultra-wide sensor and a 64MP 0.8-micron telephoto sensor with 3X Hybrid Optic Zoom that can be pushed up to 30X through digital zoom. Of course, that pales in comparison to the Note 20 Ultra's 50X zoom, or the S21 Ultra's 100X, and in my experience, the Note 20's telephoto sensor only retains a useful amount of detail up to about 10X. Still, I've been overall impressed with the Note 20's cameras, a marked improvement over those of its predecessor.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20: What's not so great
Let's talk about some of the more polarizing traits of the Galaxy Note 20, most of which center around the hardware. Its display, while terrific in most other ways, is limited to just 1080p at 60Hz. That's not necessarily a huge deal at first glance; I loved the Note 10's display in 2019, which featured the same specs, and even many of Samsung's 120Hz-capable devices force you down to 1080p if you choose to take advantage of that higher refresh rate.
But during the Note 20 series' launch event last fall, Samsung made a huge deal about how beneficial the Note 20 Ultra's 120Hz refresh rate is when it comes to reducing latency on the S Pen, making writing and drawing on the screen feel closer to a real pen-and-paper experience than ever.
Of course, it makes perfect sense that the Ultra would have higher-end features than the standard Note 20 — it's more expensive, after all — but when even the similarly priced Galaxy S20 released back in March 2020 can reach 120Hz, it feels like the Note 20 got the short end of the stick.
The spec sheet is also a bit thinner than that of the Note 20 Ultra. There's a single configuration available, with 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. I think both specs are perfectly fine for most users, but this continues 2019's trend of bisecting a brand name that was once synonymous with the ultimate smartphone experience. The Galaxy Note 20 is a more accessible Note meant to reach a broader audience — and that's okay.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20: The competition
Without a doubt, the Galaxy Note 20's biggest competition is its pricier sibling, the Note 20 Ultra. For a few hundred dollars extra, you get more RAM, a larger Quad HD+ display with a 120Hz variable refresh rate, more powerful cameras, a slightly larger battery, expandable storage, and the same great One UI 3.1 software based around Android 11. I like the Galaxy Note 20 a lot more than I had originally expected, but if you're a traditional Note fan that wants the very best of the best, the Note 20 Ultra is likely a better fit.
Of course, Samsung has released a few other phones since the Note 20's release that offer similarly compelling value. As of April 28, 2021, the Galaxy S21 costs $100 less than the Note 20 at just $700 and adopts a newer design with the same polycarbonate backing, a much smaller and more pocket-friendly footprint, and great cameras in their right.
Outside of Samsung's own catalog, the OnePlus 9 is yet another contender that's fully embraced plastic design with a fashionable new look and some great-looking colors. You get a Snapdragon 888 processor, a gorgeous 120Hz 1080p display, 65W fast charging, and the company's OxygenOS software, which continues to be one of my favorite implementations of Android.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20: Should you buy it?
You should buy this if ...
You want the S Pen without the Ultra price tag
The Galaxy Note 20's obvious advantage over alternatives like the OnePlus 9 and Galaxy S21 is its S Pen, which can be used for everything from quick sketches to notetaking, signing legal documents, and even acting as a remote shutter for the phone's cameras. 120Hz aside, this is the exact same S Pen experience you'd get on the Note 20 Ultra, without the eye-watering $1,100 price tag.
You want all-day battery life
While it's a bit of a bummer that the Note 20 is limited to just 1080p and 60Hz, those limitations also cut down on battery drain. The Galaxy Note 20 is able to last even longer than the Note 20 Ultra, despite a slightly smaller battery, and I've easily managed days with over 7 hours of screen-on time. The Note 20 is an absolute battery champ.
You're not a fan of curved displays
Curved displays look and feel nice, but they're functionally little more than eye candy. After running into a frustrating amount of accidental touches on the Note 20 Ultra, it was a relief to move to the Note 20's flat display — which comes with the added bonus of being a bit less fragile in the event of a drop.
You should not buy this if ...
You want Samsung's very best phone
The Galaxy Note 20 is great, but you'll still get more out of the Note 20 Ultra or S21 Ultra if you're willing to spend the extra money. The Note 20 Ultra's extra 4GB of RAM can definitely come in handy if you're a frequent multitasker, and the 120Hz variable refresh rate makes for a smoother-looking experience that doesn't take too much of a toll on battery life.
You want to take pictures from across the town
The Galaxy Note 20 manages to push its 3X Hybrid Optic Zoom telephoto sensor to an impressive 30X, but the image quality starts to quickly deteriorate beyond 10X. Meanwhile, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra can reach all the way up to 50X, and the S21 Ultra goes even further with a maximum 100X zoom. You won't necessarily want to post those shots to Instagram, but that sort of range can be useful for reading distant signs and even taking photos from an airplane window.
4 out of 5
The Galaxy Note 20 really surprised me. Going into it, I wasn't sure how to feel about the plastic design and 60Hz display on a 2020 flagship release. But as it turns out, the phone still feels extremely well-made, and that lower refresh rate brings with it some superb battery life. It may actually be one of the best Android phones available today. None of the Note 20's compromises are deal-breakers for anyone but the most discerning of buyers, who should, of course, get the Note 20 Ultra instead.
If the price still scares you off, though, Samsung is offering high trade-in values for quite a few older devices, which could bring the Note 20 down to as low as $350 — at which point it's an absolute steal. No matter what price you pay, I think you'll be happy with the Note 20 for the next few years, especially if Samsung holds true on its promise to keep the phone up to date along the way.
Review Changelog, April 2021
This article was originally published in August 2020. It was updated in April 2021 with the following changes.
- Updated pricing to reflect recent sales.
- Added mention of the recent updates bringing the Note 20 to Android 11 with Samsung's One UI 3.1 software.
- Added reference to newer competition like the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S20 FE, Galaxy S21 Ultra, and OnePlus 9.
- Added changelog.