Samsung is doing something different this year. While the Note line has historically been where the tech giant showcases its cutting-edge technology, it's now become more of an alternative, rather than a improvement upon, the S20 line. The new Note 20 Ultra has the same sized 6.9-inch display as the S20 Ultra, a smaller battery and even costs $100 less. (It's still a gargantuan $1,299, though.)
Other than the inclusion of its trademark stylus, though, there are some differences when it comes to the camera. Both have a 108-megapixel main shooter, a dedicated Ultra HD mode to take advantage of all of those megapixels and the same 12-megapixel ultrawide-angle lens. But there are differences when it comes to Night Mode and zoom, while the Note 20 Ultra's laser autofocus also solves the S20 Ultra's autofocus hunting issue.
Low-light photography is unambiguous: The Note 20 Ultra is an improvement over the already-strong S20 Ultra. Zoom is more complicated. The Note 20 Ultra gives you less zoom, but better zoom.
Since these cameras have very similar hardware, they perform similarly in three areas: Standard day-time photography, ultrawide angle shots and Portrait mode.
The camera systems on both phones are incredibly feature rich, so I'll provide only a few examples to illustrate this. See how both captured the cherry blossoms on my street with similar color vibrance, with the same levels of contrast and saturation.
It's the same here. This shot features orange, greens, yellow, beige and hints of pink -- as well as harsh sunlight and shadows -- and both phones captured it all equally.
This applies to ultrawide angle photos, too. Both phones share the same 12-megapixel, 13mm lens, with the same aperture. Performance is identical, as you can see by the shots below which look like they came from the same phone.
The Note 20 Ultra and S20 Ultra both shoot excellent Portrait shots, which replicate the depth-of-field effect you find in DSLR shots. There's a tiny difference in that the Note 20 Ultra tends to blur the background slightly more, but it's not something you'd notice unless you're really, really looking for it. The below Portrait of Dan shows how both capture colors wonderfully.
Yet both phones also suffer from the same weakness: An inability to deal with certain lighting conditions. There are times when both phones seem like they struggle to discern foreground and background, so the tones and hue suffer as a result.
I found the S20 Ultra less consistent than the Pixel 4 when I compared the two phones' Portait modes and the Note 20 Ultra suffers from the same problem. The strange thing is that the Note 20 Ultra and S20 Ultra would experience this at different times. In the picture above, you see that the Note 20 Ultra shot a rich Portrait of Arnold while the S20 Ultra's shadows look off.
Below you'll see the opposite: The S20 Ultra nailed a Portrait of Rachael, while the Note 20 Ultra couldn't figure out the lighting.
In any case, these photos are the exceptions. In general, both phones shoot awesome Portraits, like these I got of CNET's own Jackson Ryan.
Both phones also feature Portrait mode for selfie mode. Its front camera packs 10 megapixels, as compared to the S20 Ultra's 40 megapixels, yet both capture essentially the same amount of detail. You'll see a similar level of detail in my slobbish, unshaven stubble in both, as well as the fabric of my jumper. The colors are also both equally rich but, like the standard Portraits, the background is more blurry.
Less zoom is more zoom
Here's where things begin to diverge. Both phones have periscope telephoto lens' that enable impressive zoom, but the Note 20 Ultra's actually has less megapixels: 12 against the S20 Ultra's 48. That reflects their respective capabilities, as the Note 20 Ultra gives you up to 50x zoom while the S20 Ultra achieved an insane 100x.
On paper that's an advantage to the S20 Ultra, but I still prefer the Note 20 Ultra's zoom because what's there is better.
Above you'll see a standard shot taken on the Note 20 Ultra. If you zoom in, or hold your face real close to your screen, you'll see a tiny yellow sign on the other side of the river. Below is a comparison of both phones at 30x zoom. The Note 20 Ultra is sharper and far less grainy. (Note: All of these photos were taken free hand, with no tripod.)
Now for some less strenuous zooms. Below is another shot with a Note 20 Ultra. A faraway statue -- the zoom's time to shine!
Below is the statue at 10x zoom. Both phones do exceptionally well, losing basically no detail. The S20 Ultra actually looks a little better, but that can probably be chalked up to the better angle (it's hard to keep alignment at 10x zoom). When I compared other 10x zoom shots, I didn't see much of a difference.
But get up to 20x zoom and you'll see that the Note 20 Ultra shoots the cleaner, less-noisy photo. It looks like the software is working much harder on the S20 Ultra, resulting in some overly processed lines and a hint of grain. Both are impressive, but the Note 20 Ultra is better.
The same goes for 50x zoom. Below is a shot taken of Sydney's skyline. That thin, pointy building to the center right is Sydney Tower.
And now here's Sydney Tower at 50x zoom on both phones. It's technically insane, but not particularly pretty in either case. The Note 20 Ultra's shot is grainy, but captures more detail than the comparatively blurred-out S20 Ultra photo.
This 50x zoom feature is certainly clearer on the Note 20 Ultra, though I'm not sure when you'd need it. For that reason I'd take better 20x-and-up zoom on the Note 20 Ultra in exchange for the S20 Ultra's 100x zoom.
Night sight delight
While the zoom function is a tradeoff on the Note 20 Ultra -- less, but better -- the low-light performance is less ambiguous. The Note 20 Ultra captures more light than does the S20 Ultra, regardless of whether Night Mode is on or not.
See the same scene below in both regular and Night Mode. In the standard shot, notice the Note 20 Ultra gets more of the light emanating from behind the building. You can also see more of the foliage on both trees. The same can be said for Night Mode, as well as the sky being far more lit up.
You may prefer the S20 Ultra's more subtle take on Night Mode, but there's no question that, in terms of which device captures more light, the Note 20 Ultra is superior. This photo of my patio is more vibrant on the Note 20 Ultra, but the phone also shot more information in the flowers on the right. You can also see hints of the fence behind, which is absent in the S20 Ultra shot.
The improved low-light performance extends to the selfie camera. Notice below how the Note 20 Ultra selfie below has more balanced lighting and sharper detail, which you'll see in the lines on the fence to the left.
One other difference I spotted: Lights are more luminous when captured on the Note 20 Ultra. This was the case with street lights in many photos I took, but the best example I could find was this neon sign. This is shot at 10x zoom with Night Mode turned off. I'd call this a matter of taste, but it's a difference either way.
The S20 Ultra introduced a new feature to the Galaxy family with the Ultra HD mode, which makes use of all of its main camera's 108 megapixels. The point of this mode isn't that shots, at a glance, are more detailed. It's that the massive sensor catches more information, so zooming in on a photo after it's been taken results in less detail loss. It's technically very impressive.
Let me illustrate this with the help of a friendly neighborhood stop sign.
Above is a standard shot on the Note 20 Ultra. I would upload the Ultra HD version, but you wouldn't be able to tell the difference at all. But in the below comparison I've zoomed in on the stop sign in the standard photo and then again in the Ultra HD version. You'll see that the Ultra HD version is far less pixelated.
Now comparing the stop sign in both phones' Ultra HD mode, the Note 20 Ultra comes out on top, but only slightly. The text on the sign has more noise in the S20 Ultra, as do the tree branches in the background.
So yes, the Note 20 Ultra is an improvement on the S20 Ultra's already-excellent Ultra HD tech -- but not a significant one. That sentiment ultimately applies when comparing the two phones' camera setups in general.
The Note 20 Ultra is better, but the difference isn't huge. It's representative of the general shift in which Samsung's Ultra phones, rather than its Note phones, are its cutting-edge flagships. Low-light photography and zoom are both stronger on the Note 20 Ultra -- but not enough for S20 Ultra owners to get jealous.