Why do I still daily drive a two generation old Note9? Well, thing is when I switched to the Note10 for a few weeks from my review, my complaints were as follows. It lost features over the previous gen, like the headphone jack and iris scanner. Pinhole cameras are obnoxious. The side bezels were too small. And because of that last one, there wasn't enough space at the top of it making the Note10 work better as a vibrator than it did as a speaker when you turned up the music. So I jumped ship immediately back to my Note9 after handing the 10 off to our camera guys for B-roll.
Fortunately though, the time has come again. I have Samsung's next iteration of their flagship of flagships, the Note20 Ultra. Let's see if it's gonna end up in my pocket or back in the box.
Before we get into my experience, we need to talk about positioning, because this phone is in a bit of a confusing spot. And it's funny because Samsung's lineup hasn't always been this messy. Even just a few short years ago, it was a lot simpler, if we ignore the mid-range mess.
The S series was the daily driver with top-tier specs in a reasonably sized chassis at a high but not exorbitant price. Then for those who wanted the biggest and best of what Samsung had to offer, there was the Note. Sure, it cost a pretty penny, but as you'd expect, it was a mostly zero compromises experience. Until the Note10 started shedding features compared to the previous gen and launched alongside a confusing, smaller Note10 with a lower pixel density display, and no expandable storage. So no longer was the plus model simply a larger version of the same phone, there was this weird feature disparity.
Sure enough, when S20 launched, it got even more confusing. There was the S20, the S20+ and teh Ultra.The point is there are three different phones. So the Ultra ended up with a completely different camera array, different RAM and storage options, and a mammoth price tag. At the very least, at least the S20 Ultra looked like the other devices in it's family, which is more than I can say today.
This is the Note20 Ultra.And this is the Note20, really very not Ultra.Not only does this look like a completely different device but it's actually plastic instead of glass, has a 60 Hertz screen compared to 120 Hertz on the Ultra, not to mention that all the S20s also have 120 Hertz displays. It's got less memory than all the S20s and the Ultra. No expandable storage. No ultra-wideband connectivity, more on that later. And it's got a $1,000 price tag!
So here's my quick review of the Note20 non-Ultra. Buy an S20 or S20+, unless you need a pen, in which case you should just save yourself a bunch of that hard earned money and buy a used Note10 or Note10+. Or pony up for the Note20 Ultra. Honestly, it kind of feels like the Note20s' only reason to exist is to make Samsung's other phones look better by comparison. Because on paper, the Note20 Ultra is looking pretty fine, improving on the Note10 lineup in practically every way while managing to actually cost less than the S20 Ultra.
Now as before, I am not a huge fan of the hole-punch display. But to Samsung's credit, the hole is way smaller, to the point where it's in line with the notification shade icons and all right, I'll allow it. Don't get me wrong, I still can't wait for these to be replaced with under-screen cameras. But if the punch is this small, it's probably worth the slight aesthetic hit over the durability concerns of a motorized camera, at least for clumsy people.
The actual screen itself though, is visually stunning. The bezels are still tiny, but Samsung seems to have tweaked their edge rejection enough that accidentally opening the notification shade during a movie or accidentally bumping letters when you're reaching across the keyboard is practically a nonissue. I also noticed what appears to be a proper ear piece speaker grill up top, unlike the Note10, meaning that it doesn't vibrate when you turn up your movie like a cheap toy. But man, back to the screen.
If you guys thought Samsung's industry leading displays couldn't get any better, you obviously haven't been paying attention, 'cause they just keep doing it. Not only is the Note20 Ultra around 20% brighter than last gen, but Samsung continues to set the standard for color accuracy and outdoor readability. Believe me, if there's one thing this phone is amazing at it is content consumption. It will probably be the best looking display in your household. And it'll probably look closer to brand new for longer than you'd expect.
Corning's brand new Gorilla Glass Victus is on both the front and the back of this device, with Corning claiming that for the first time, they've made significant improvements to both drop and scratch resistance within a single generation. This new version can apparently withstand a drop of 6 1/2 feet compared to 5 1/4 for their previous gen. And they've also improved drop endurance with Victus typically surviving 21 meter high drops, while Gorilla Glass 6 could only handle about 15. As for in the real world, well, I did drop it a few times without a case and it didn't break. So mission success?
You might remember that I bashed Samsung when the Note10 launched for sticking to 60 Hertz when competitors were shipping with 90 and even 120 Hertz displays. This time around though, the Note20 Ultra features a full, fat, QHD+ 6.9 inch, AMOLED display, with the option for crispy 120 Hertz smoothness. Really does look great. But like the S20 series, it's limited to full HD resolution when it's running in 120 Hertz mode. Something that Samsung still has not offered an explanation for. Although, like I said last time, I don't personally find much of a difference in daily use at this size. It's more just that it's like kind of a tease, right? To not allow both the full refresh rate and the full resolution at the same time, especially given that the Exynos and Snapdragon processor versions of this could technically support it. And competitors like OnePlus already do.
On the subject of processors, inside our Note20 Ultra, we have the latest Snapdragon 865+, it's lightening fast. I don't really know what else there is to say about that. Phone processors have gotten to the point where honestly they were fast enough that you're not really gonna notice slow downs, a couple of years ago. But power management was also excellent, which is definitely a plus. And I even survived an overnight lake stay without a charger, that's a win in my book.
There are some reported issues with heat and power draw on the Exynos variant, but unfortunately we weren't able to validate that. So if you live in those regions, hey, you'd best do some more digging.
Underneath the screen, what has become a staple for Samsung is a characteristically Samsung ultrasonic fingerprint sensor. It's not the fastest in the world, but it does work well and consistently, so good job.
Anyway, the rest of the device will be pretty familiar to Note10 series owners, save for the side buttons, which have been swapped to the right hand side, like the S20 series. Something that most people will probably find easier to reach on a device this size.
The iconic Note S Pen is virtually identical, save for the vastly lowered latency, nine milliseconds down from 45. Now I mostly use my S Pen for taking quick notes or annotating screenshots. So for me, that wasn't exactly a game changer, but it definitely felt more fluid while I was sending late night memos to my staff. Like, "Hey, why this?" And you know, writing on things. Could just be a placebo effect though.
Back to size, around back, we've got sweet honey barbecue! The largest camera bump that I have ever seen. I mean, do you remember when people complained about the bump on like, do you remember when people complained about the iPhone 6 bump? "Oh, a camera bump, this is disgusting!' Or the one on the Pixel 4 or the S20? They got nothing on this. How did Samsung think this was at all reasonable? Like if you put the phone down on a table and touch pretty much anywhere on the screen, it's gonna wobble around. Now fortunately, if you rock something like a dbrand grip, it takes up the space where the camera bump isn't. But I usually don't run a case, so it's a little awkward for me.
In fairness though, there's at least a solid technical reason for the massive bump. Under it is the periscope super-zoom camera. This time with lower resolution, but larger pixels and locked to 50X compared to the maximum of 100X on the S20 Ultra. As usual, I tried it once. Said, "Wow, that's pretty cool." And then promptly never touched it again. I mean, at least Samsung realized that 100X was a joke, because of all the post-processing required, and they limited it to zoom that they can somewhat with a straight face say is usable. Like, I don't know, maybe if you're into wildlife photography, but on your smartphone. 'Cause I really don't know what else that 50X zoom would actually be useful for that's not illegal.
You can of course shoot and edit 8K video again, just like the S20 series. But again, it's mostly just a marketing gimmick. Yes, there is slightly more detail in the 8K footage. But when I say slightly, I mean slightly. The overall image on the 4K still feels better. And if you shoot a lot of video, well, quite frankly, you're probably gonna want an iPhone anyway.
Photos off the Note20 Ultra consistently have Samsung's usual cooler white balance, but hold plenty of detail. Their automatic HDR was not as good at balancing the highlights in the sky to the darkness by the wheels in this shot here, compared to the Pixel 4. And the amount of detail was definitely less. But if you're not pixel peeping, the Note20 Ultra, like the rest of Samsung's lineup, it's eons ahead of where they were just a few short years ago, and they even cleaned up the focus issues from the S20 Ultra with the addition of a laser autofocus. So kudos to Samsung for the camera here.
As for the rest of the changes this time around, the Note20 Ultra got something brand new, which is ultra-wideband. UWB is a short-range, wireless communication protocol, a lot like Bluetooth or WiFi. But what makes it special is that it operates at very high frequencies, allowing equipped devices to accurately track the relative position and motion of each other. It doesn't really have a use case yet, aside from speeding up Google's Airdrop competitor, Nearby Share. But in the future, we could see devices like a smart door lock that could sense exactly where you are in relation to the door, allowing it to proximity unlock only when you're right outside it, instead of unlocking, you know, when you're approaching from the inside, for example. That'd be cool, right? And then Samsung's desktop replacement, DeX, is also now wireless on the Note20 series, so you can cast to a compatible Samsung TV. It works fine, but it's just not something that I've ever really had a use for, so your mileage is gonna vary there.
So that's it then. The pinhole is smaller, cool. And the edge rejection issues are solved, awesome. It doesn't shake like my old Lambo when you turn up the volume, woo. So you should buy one or should you?
Well, the unfortunate truth is that regular smartphones, like Samsung's S series have gone up so much in price and feature set that they've actually taken over a lot of what used to make a Note, a Note. It's 1,300 U.S.dollars for the base version. And that's a pretty penny. I mean, I guess if you want a phone that does pretty well everything really well, with a gorgeous, big 120 Hertz screen, a chungus of a battery and a massive camera bump, then, hey, maybe the Note20 Ultra is for you. But the Pixel still takes better photos. An iPhone still takes better video. And if you don't wanna spend that much, the regular S20 is really only missing the pen and fancy zoom camera that I think most people probably don't need to spend $300 on. As for me, the Note20 Ultra is going back in the box right next to it's older brother.