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Galaxy Note 20 costs $300 less than the Ultra. So what's the trade-off?

Here's how the Galaxy Note 20 compares to the Note 20 Ultra.

The Galaxy Note 20, left, and the Note 20 Ultra.
Richard Peterson/CNET

This story is part of Samsung Event, CNET's collection of news, tips and advice around Samsung's most popular products.

Take a look at the photo above and what do you see? Two Galaxy Note phones for power users that cost $1,000 or more, with a stylus to wield as a navigation tool, digital pen and more. You see immediate differences, too -- camera mounts that look wildly different and finishes that aren't quite the same. That's exactly how Samsung intended the standard Galaxy Note 20 ($1,000, £849, AU$1,499) and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra ($1,300, £1,179, AU$1,849) to be. 

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is designed to be the standard-bearer, checking off all the boxes anyone would want on their wishlist. On the other hand, the Note 20 has distinctly less "premium" features, a plastic backing, no 120Hz screen refresh rate and no microSD card slot, for instance. In order to create a more approachable model, the standard Note 20 -- like last year's Note 10 -- appears to be more about trimming down the marquee device than anything else.

To be completely clear, I haven't seen the Note 20 in person, and as far as I know, no phone reviewer has. I may be (and hope I am!) pleasantly surprised when I do see the finished product, whose 6.7-inch screen and smaller overall size might be a better fit for my hands. 

There's also one more point to call out, and that's the elephant in the room. With a deadly pandemic that won't seem to end without a vaccine and an eviction crisis looming in the US, it's an unusual time to launch a $1,000 phone. The Note 20 series was in the works long before the coronavirus changed everything, but something about the series -- and all the features it offers -- feels out of step with these times when more people than ever are working and living at home. The whole point of the Note series is to better bridge work and play for people who live life on the go. I don't know about you, but I'm not going much of anywhere these days. 

Still, I've had a blast reviewing the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, and I'm excited to see what the Note 20 brings. Read on for all the details. (And don't forget the Galaxy Z Fold 2, which goes on preorder Sept. 1.)

Read also: Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra: All the specs that are the same and different

Galaxy Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra: Surprising differences

Samsung eased us into the idea of a more entry-level Note phone in 2019, but this year, there's a wide gulf between the standard Galaxy Note 20 and the Note 20 Ultra. (Scroll to the end for the full specs comparison.)

For example, the standard Note 20 has a 6.7-inch flat screen (versus a 6.9-inch screen) with no curved sides, a staple on the Note line for years. But here's the clincher -- it has a plastic back, which Samsung prefers to call "polycarbonate." There's no microSD card slot (same as last year) and small features are missing. There are stepped-down camera specs (including no pro video mode), a less advanced screen technology with no 120Hz refresh rate option, a smaller battery capacity (4,300 mAh versus 4,500 mAh), less RAM (8GB versus 12GB) and no UWB sharing.

Now playing: Watch this: Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: Hands-on first impressions

The camera module looks smaller, but also less stylized, and the device has more rounded edges, versus the Note 20 Ultra's more aggressive corners.

Embracing pastel, the Note 20's mystic green, mystic bronze and mystic gray tones all come with a matte finish. It uses a metal frame and Gorilla Glass 5 on the front, not the most recent Gorilla Glass Victus (which held up nicely in our Galaxy Note 20 Ultra drop and scratch tests).

The Note 20 shares the same core specs as the Note 20 Ultra. The 10-megapixel selfie camera, new S Pen gestures and Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus processor are part of both phones. 

But back to the Note 20's plastic backing: That feels out of character for a phone family that's typically about showcasing the best of the best Samsung has to offer. Without having reviewed the phone yet, a $1,000 phone with a plastic back seems hard to swallow. Maybe I'll change my mind.

Writing is one thing Galaxy Note phones do best.

Richard Peterson/CNET

Note 20 camera: Premium, just not the upper shelf 

The camera array is where Samsung wants the Note 20 phones to shine. The standard Note 20 camera has more than respectable camera specs on its own. They're just not as flashy as the Note 20 Ultra's 5x optical zoom (which is sharp) and full degree of zoom, which I think few people actually need or will use.

The same goes for the Ultra's 108-megapixel camera option, which you tap to turn it on when you want the full resolution, and then crop in for more details. Results have been varied, and it's a fringe feature for sure. The autofocus likely won't be as snappy as it is on the Ultra, but will otherwise remain unchanged from the S20 series released in March. 

You won't find Pro Video Mode, either, but if you don't have a desire to tinker with manual controls, you won't miss it.

Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra camera

Galaxy Note 20 Galaxy 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)
Ultrawide 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 hybrid 5x optical
Super Zoom 30x 50x
Laser autofocus sensor No Yes
Video capture 8K 8K, Pro Video Mode

The S Pen stylus is the same, with one exception

There's one perk for using an S Pen on the Note 20 Ultra, and that's responsiveness. When the Ultra's screen refresh rate hits 120Hz -- that's when screen pixels refresh 120 times per second rather than the standard 60 -- anything you do on the S Pen, from writing to navigating around, is faster than it would be at 60Hz. 

The difference is especially noticeable when it comes to a pen mark lagging behind the S Pen's point. Otherwise, the Pen is identical between the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra and functions the same on a Note 10 series phone as it does on the Note 20 Ultra (yes, I checked on both phones with both styluses).

In general, I can get by just fine without the S Pen, but when I do have it on a phone, I immediately appreciate all over again the way that I can use it to enrich the phone experience, like magnifying tiny font on the screen by hovering the pen or taking an ultraprecise screenshot, because why do you want to capture the entire screen just to crop it in, every... single... time?

Here are some new S Pen tricks:

  • New S Pen navigation gestures you can fully customize to open apps or go home, back and so on.
  • A new autostraighten tool for handwriting.
  • Samsung Notes has a new layout and live autosyncing that pairs an audio recording so you can listen to the same part of the note. This seems especially useful for the boardroom, and requires a Samsung account.
  • Import a PDF into Notes -- this is automatic and a great, timesaving tool. Just import the PDF to sign with the S Pen. Done. 

Read up on all the Note 20 specs that dovetail with the Note 20 Ultra specs here.

Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra specs

Galaxy Note 20 vs. Note 20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Display size, resolution 6.7 inches; 2,400x1,080 pixels 6.9 inches; 3,088x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 393 ppi 496 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.36x2.96x0.33 in 6.49x3.04x0.31 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 161.6x75.2x8.3 mm 164.8x77.2x8.1mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.84 oz, 194g 7.33 oz, 208g
Mobile software Android 10 Android 10
Camera 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 108-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera 10-megapixel 10-megapixel
Video capture 8K 8K
Processor Snapdragon 865 Plus Snapdragon 865 Plus
Storage 128GB 128GB, 512GB
Expandable storage No Up to 1TB
Battery 4,300 mAh 4,500 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screen In-screen
Connector USB-C USB-C
Headphone jack No No
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 £1,179
Price (AUD) AU$1,499 AU$1,849