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Galaxy Note 20 ongoing review: Here's how Samsung's $1,000 phone stacks up so far

The Note 20 has a plastic backing, different screen and different camera specs compared to the $1,300 Note 20 Ultra. Does it truly make a difference?

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Editorial Director, Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Thought Leadership, Speed Desk and How-To. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica led CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
Expertise Content strategy, team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Samsung, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
Jessica Dolcourt
4 min read

Samsung's Galaxy Note 20 in mystic green.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I was excited to unwrap Samsung's Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, a supercharged $1,300 flagship phone that gives the Galaxy Note 10 line a significant upgrade, for a price. But in some ways, I've anticipated the standard, cheaper  Galaxy Note 20 even more. Retailing for $1,000, it slashes $300 off the price, while serving up the same core features and skimming back the extras across the board, including screen technology, camera specs, build material and RAM (scroll to the end for the full specs comparison).

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What makes the Note 20 such an interesting device is that it has to win you over as a phone in its own right, but also convince you its trade-offs don't make it feel like a diet Note 20 Ultra. There's also the Galaxy S20 Plus to compare it to as well and I'll get there eventually. I'll keep updating this post as new observations develop, just understand that my opinion could change as the experience all comes together -- and that's a good thing.

Newest Galaxy Note 20 impressions 

  • The Note 20 feels good as a standalone phone, but is overshadowed by the Note 20 Ultra.
  • A flat screen brings certain advantages compared to the Ultra's curved screen, though the bezels are still whisper thin and the phone does have issues with "accidental presses" when I hold it. For example, it fast-forwarded in 10 second increments while I held the phone and watched a Netflix show.
  • Anyone used to a 120Hz screen refresh rate will note that the Note 20 feels "slow" when scrolling.
  • Battery life seems at least on par with the Note 20 Ultra, if not better -- likely a result of the standard 60Hz screen refresh rate. 
  • It still towers out of my pockets and fills my hand, but feels less treacherous and less top-heavy.

Samsung's new Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra come in a striking bronze shade

See all photos

Note 20's plastic backing feels cheaper, but lighter

One major -- and very obvious -- difference between the Note 20 Ultra and standard Note 20 is the backing. You get Gorilla Glass Victus on the back of the Note 20 Ultra and a polycarbonate (that means plastic) backing on the Note 20. This may not seem like a big deal, but Samsung and other high-end smartphone makers are perhaps victims of their own success, training consumers that glass is classy and sophisticated, while plastic, a typically less shatter-prone material, is now seen as less refined.

Samsung sent along my first-choice Note 20 finish, the mystic green color, which is a beautiful, shimmery green with blue undertones in the right light. It looks downright satiny. However, $1,000 still seems like a lot to pay for a phone with a plastic backing, even when you slap on a case. Side by side with the Note 20 Ultra, the Note 20 looks and feels midrange, which doesn't line up with the asking price. 

Watch this: Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a do-everything device that'll cost you

Here's another issue. I also noticed that the corners snag my fingertips as I hold the device without a cover. It isn't painful or disruptive, but it doesn't feel as luxe as a $1,000 phone should. Samsung was gracious enough to include a few cases, which makes the problem disappear, but it's important to try the phone both ways.

There is one advantage, though. The Note 20 is significantly lighter than the Note 20 Ultra, in hand, in my pocket and in my purse. It's much easier to hold when writing, watching videos for an extended time and just carrying around. That's a real plus for me.

Camera: Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra

Galaxy Note 20Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Main camera 12-megapixel (f1.8, Dual Pixel AF, OIS, 1.8μm, 79-degree FOV, 1/1.76-inch image sensor)108-megapixel (f1.8, OIS, 0.8μm, 79-degree FOV, 1/1.33-inch image sensor)
Ultra-wide angle 12-megapixel (f2.2, 1.4μm, 120-degree FOV) 12-megapixel (f2.2, 1.4μm, 120-degree FOV)
Telephoto 64-megapixel (f2.0, 0.8μm, 76-degree FOV)12-megapixel (f3.0, 1.0μm, 20-degree FOV)
Front-facing camera 10-megapixel (f2.2, 1.22μm, 80-degree FOV)10-megapixel (f2.2, 1.22μm, 80-degree FOV)
Zoom 3x hybrid5x optical
Super Zoom 30x50x
Laser auto-focus sensor NoYes
Video capture 8K8K

How about that Note 20 camera? Differences matter

After two weeks with the Note 20 Ultra, photos on the Galaxy Note 20 are comparatively good, but the Ultra's 5x optical zoom and laser autofocus give it all the advantage. Images are still colorful and sharp on their own and it's nice that the Note 20 lacks the Ultra's enormous, awkward camera bump. As a result, writing on the Note 20 with the S Pen made it rock much less deeply (without a cover) than the Ultra.

When trying to shoot nature shots out on a day trip to the coast and around my neighborhood, however, I missed shots more frequently on the Note 20, and the 3x optical zoom and 30x AI zoom photos I took didn't excite me compared to the Ultra's 5x optical and 50x digital zoom. I was less bothered by the pared-back detail capture (64 megapixels at the high end instead of 108 megapixels). 

Although I don't usually use extreme zoom in everyday situations, watching a hawk tear into a snack in the branches high above, or trying to capture a seal hauling itself out of the ocean were two inspiring exceptions. Enough to definitely buy the $1,300 Note Ultra instead? Maybe not, but there is a discernible camera difference.

For all the bulbous faults of its protruding camera array, the Note 20 Ultra's enhanced photography got me closer to nature than the Note 20 and looked less grainy in the process. After a while, I stopped reaching for the Note 20 altogether. 

I could still share the Note 20 pictures and videos with my birder and nature-loving friend -- who I knew would flip for them regardless -- and the photos are still effective and usable. But side by side, it's obvious where Samsung made its investments.

Coming up: Screen quality, battery life, storage, more

This is just the beginning of my Note-versus-Note Ultra testing period. Screen specs, battery life and a lot of minor features will go head to head to determine which phone provides the best value for the money. Right now it's anyone's to lose. And I'll find out if there are other factors that could push one above the other, or above competing devices. Keep checking in as this review-in-progress evolves. Meanwhile, brush up on the full specs comparison below.

Note 20 versus Note 20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy Note 20Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Display size, resolution 6.7-inch; 2,400x1,080 pixels6.9-inch; 3,088x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 393 ppi496 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.36 x 2.96 x 0.33 in6.49 x 3.04 x 0.31 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 161.6 x 75.2 x 8.3 mm164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.84 oz, 194g7.33 oz, 208g
Mobile software Android 10Android 10
Camera 12-megapixel (ultra-wide), 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto)12-megapixel (ultra-wide), 108-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera 10-megapixel10-megapixel
Video capture 8K8K
Processor Snapdragon 865 PlusSnapdragon 865 Plus
Storage 128GB128GB, 512GB
Expandable storage NoUp to 1TB
Battery 4,300 mAh4,500 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screenIn-screen
Connector USB-CUSB-C
Headphone jack NoNo
Special features S Pen stylus; 5G connectivity; Wireless PowerShare; water resistant (IP68)5x optical zoom, UWB sharing, S Pen stylus; 5G connectivity; Wireless PowerShare; water resistant (IP68)
Price off-contract (USD) $1,000$1,300 (128GB), $1,450 (512GB)
Price (GBP) £849 (4G) and £949 (5G)£1,179
Price (AUD) AU$1,499 (4G) and AU$1,649 (5G)AU$1,849 (4G) and $AU$1,999 (5G)