Samsung has a knack for turning out powerful phones, especially in its Galaxy Note line. This year, it has two, the standard Galaxy Note 20 5G, which launched at $1,000 (£849, AU$1,499, both 4G) and the Note 20 Ultra, which launched at $1,300 (£1,179, AU$1,849, again both 4G). Both have sharp displays, excellent cameras, all-day battery life and impressive internal performance, along with an S Pen stylus that makes the Note unique. But you can only buy one, so which will it be?
This Galaxy Note 20 review focuses on the differences between 2020’s Note phones in the hopes it’ll help answer your questions while you make a decision — or just drool over Samsung’s large-screen devices. On the whole, I can recommend both Notes, just not at their retail prices.
I suggest keeping an eye out for deals, bundled offers, discounts and trade-in values that bring the prices down by $300 or more. Both phones will have fluctuating prices throughout the holiday season — check out CNET’s guide to the best Black Friday phone deals. Samsung prices tend to fall as the months go on, so your chance of snagging a deal are high. Plus, a surprise recommendation at the end if you’re not sold on using the S Pen stylus daily.
Design differences matter: Screen, plastic vs. glass
The Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra clearly look like different devices, but not just because of the Note 20’s slightly smaller 6.7-inch screen to the Note 20 Ultra’s 6.9-inch display.
It’s apparent that the Ultra has a glass backing (Gorilla Glass Victus, in fact,) while the Note 20 uses polycarbonate (that’s plastic). If you use a case, it might not make a difference to you, but after all these years of being conditioned to equate a premium, $1,000 device with glass construction, plastic makes it feel cheaper than its price tag, even though the specs are strong.
I also noticed a sharp edge where the Note 20’s plastic backing joins the metal frame, meeting in a gap big enough to run my fingernail all the way around. If you’re going to use a case, it might not bother you, but Samsung can and should do better.
There’s no curved screen on the Note 20 the way there is on the Ultra. That doesn’t bother me, but the edge-to-edge display on both phones means there are still plenty of accidental screen presses when you’re simply holding the phone. For example, if you’re passively watching a video and shift your finger to find a more comfortable grip, you may wind up inadvertently triggering a button.
The final design difference worth noting is the 120Hz screen refresh rate on Ultra, compared to the standard 60Hz rate on the Note 20. It won’t make a difference if you’re switching from a 60Hz phone, but it can feel comparatively “slow” if you’re switching from a phone with a 90Hz or 120Hz display.
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The Note 20 Ultra is the clear camera winner
The Ultra’s has a massive and protruding camera array on its back to accommodate larger sensors and perhaps help it stand out. Meanwhile, the Note 20’s camera bump makes the phone less top-heavy and prone to rocking when you write on it while it’s on a flat surface.
But the Note 20 Ultra took better photos overall. You’re going to get great great shots no matter which phone you use, when you’re taking photos in brightly lit conditions: saturated color, crisp edges, the works. But if you’re at all interested in zoom photography, the Ultra’s 5x optical zoom takes the crown. Not only does it get you very good telephoto images up to 5x, it can also go up to 50x.
The Note 20’s 3x optical to 30x AI-assisted zoom is still good as well, and better than the Galaxy Z Fold 2 (which has 2x optical zoom), but image quality at 30x was better on the Ultra than on the regular Note 20. Most of the time the Note 20 will fulfill your photographic needs. But when I took them both to the moody Northern California coast, many of my nature shots were simply better on the Ultra and I stopped reaching for the note 20 altogether.
The Ultra has a 108-megapixel camera you can use to crop into shots for more detail, a feature I’ve found to have uneven results.
Features the Note 20 and Ultra share
- 5G data speeds (some regions have 4G models)
- Signature Note S Pen stylus
- Android 10 out of the box
- Snapdragon 865+ processor (other markets use a Samsung Exynos chip)
- Extras like fast wireless charging
Other notable differences
- Screen size, battery (4,300 vs. 4,500)
- MicroSD card
- 512GB option with Ultra
- 8GB RAM versus 12GB RAM on Ultra
Should you buy the Note 20, Note 20 Ultra, or a different phone?
The Note 20 Ultra is too big, too heavy and too expensive. But I’d still personally buy it over the Note 20 because I do find myself using the extra camera features. However, I don’t actually think it’s worth $300 more than the Note 20 just to have a 120Hz screen, 5x optical zoom instead of 3x, a glass backing and a microSD card storage option — plus all the other extras.
Most people will be happier with the cheaper Note 20 over the Ultra, but again, I think Samsung has overcharged for both phones at their full retail price, and I find the Note 20’s $1,000 price tag for what is essentially a plastic phone cheeky at best and insulting at worst.
For either phone, look for a deal. I’d be happier to pay $1,000 for the Ultra and $700 for the standard Note 20, if we’re keeping Samsung’s $300 price delta intact.
Here’s another alternative within the Samsung cosmos. The newer Galaxy S20 FE (Fan Edition) is a middle way. It merges some of the Ultra’s best features with the Note 20’s cost-cutting trade-offs, bringing you a 6.5-inch display with a fast 120Hz refresh rate, a big $4,500-mAh battery, 3x optical zoom and a rear plastic backing. There’s expandable storage, too, and of course, support for 5G data speeds.
While the cameras won’t be quite as good, and there’s no S Pen stylus, the Galaxy S20 FE is the best buy in terms of value, if not a status symbol — though it does come in fun colors.
Best yet, it starts at $700 full retail and was already on sale for $600 in some stores by the time it hit the market. With trade-in values and seasonal deals, I expect that price to fall.
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