Tech

Samsung's Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a huge 5G phone for people who want everything

Key Points
  • The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is Samsung's attempt to cram as much as possible into a phone to outclass the next iPhones due in the fall.
  • If you want a huge Android phone that has every high-end feature, such as 5G, one of the best screens on a phone, good battery life, solid cameras and a pen for taking notes, then the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a good choice.
  • It also costs $1,299.99, but you could get some of that money back.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Samsung's high-end Galaxy Note Ultra launches Friday.

I've been testing it for the past couple of weeks and it's one of the best high-end Android phones you can buy, fixing some of the issues I didn't like in the Galaxy S20 Ultra that launched earlier this year.

Samsung crammed as much as possible into the Note in anticipation of the next iPhones due in the fall. Historically, the Galaxy Note has been where Samsung makes the most innovations. That's less true now that it has its Galaxy Z Fold 2 on the horizon, its second-generation version of the Galaxy Fold that launched last year and has a folding screen. It's expected in September.

Samsung recently slipped behind Huawei and is now the second-largest seller of phones in the world. But, these Note devices don't make up a bulk of Samsung's global market share the way its S, J and A-series devices do.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

If you want a huge Android phone that has every high-end feature, such as 5G, one of the best screens on a phone, good battery life, solid cameras and a pen for taking notes, then the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a good choice.

It also costs $1,299.99. It's a tough time to launch such an expensive phone, at least in the U.S. where unemployment is at 10.2%.

"We're not insensitive to the market condition, but at the same time our approach is to offer phones to a wide swath" of people, said Caleb Slavin, a Samsung senior manager of product management. He said this is a high-end device and that Samsung has a whole portfolio of choices for people who want to spend less.

Samsung has a lot of trade-in offers that can cut the price by as much as $650. It also has a new financing option that guarantees you'll get 50% of the phone's purchase price back. Take advantage of those if you want to save money. Expect lots of phone makers with high-end phones to offer these sorts of incentives as we move deeper into smartphone launch season.

If you don't need every high-end feature, you should consider Samsung's regular Galaxy S20, which costs $999, the $599 Galaxy A71 5G, the $499 Galaxy A51 5G or even the $350 Google Pixel 4a.

Here's what you need to know about the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: What's good

There are technically two Galaxy Note 20 phones launching right now. There's a regular one that costs $999 (I haven't tested it) and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, which is larger and has a few extra features. 

It's a gorgeous phone. I tested the "mystic bronze" color, which has a matte glass back and sharp beveled edges. I like that it doesn't attract fingerprints like Samsung's glossier phones. There's a huge camera bump on the back.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It has a huge, 6.9-inch screen that's bright, colorful and sharp. Samsung uses a new 120hz screen refresh technology that helps make scrolling smoother, and it's noticeable over an iPhone or any other device with a traditional 60hz refresh rate.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Note 20 Ultra has three cameras on the back, including one for ultrawide pictures for fitting more of a scene into each picture, a sharp 108-megapixel wide-angle camera and a 12-megapixel zoom camera.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

All are good, but the biggest change most people will notice is the added laser-focus. The Galaxy S20 Ultra — Samsung's other high-end phone that launched earlier this year without a stylus — had problems focusing when taking pictures.

A picture of my dog Mabel I took with the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The laser focus fixes that. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has up to 50x zoom, but I saw the best results at 5x, 10x and 20x zoom. I prefer taking pictures with this phone to the Galaxy S20 Ultra I bought a few months ago. It's a bummer since that phone costs $100 more.

An ultra-wide angle picture I took with the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I like the idea of having a stylus in my phone but rarely end up using it. Samsung's S Pen (that's what it calls the stylus) has a lot of improvements. It has lower latency, which is supposed to make it feel more instantaneous, like writing on paper. It was pretty nice for writing quick notes, though this isn't normally how I work. I prefer just typing out my notes. Still, I use Microsoft OneNote, and Samsung is going to start automatically syncing your written notes with OneNote in the coming months, so I'm excited for that.

The handwriting recognition is getting better, so it turns my scribbles into plain text. I found the S Pen more useful for other stuff, like scrolling around the screen, skipping songs in Spotify or just tapping the button on it for taking photos while I had the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra propped up. The S Pen is a useful tool, but it's one that you'll either end up using a lot or totally forgetting about.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Galaxy S20 Ultra also supports all the 5G networks that are rolling out in the U.S., including all the flavors and speeds of 5G you'll need to worry about in coming years. 5G isn't a huge deal right now, but it's going to be in the coming years, so it's good to get a 5G phone now if you plan to keep it for a long time.

The battery life was good and lasted all day. It has fast charging if you need to juice up the phone to 50% in just 30 minutes, which I really like having.

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: What's bad

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I kind of feel like I'm nitpicking here, but my biggest complaint is the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a bit large for me.

I've always loved big phones when I'm out and about on planes, on trains and traveling more. But, now that I'm at home in quarantine, I use larger tablets, my computer or the TV for watching movies. I'm starting to prefer smaller phones that I can easily hold with one hand.

This is just personal preference, and there are plenty of people who like super-huge phones like this. Swing by the store to try it in person and see if it works for you.

I'm also kind of frustrated that I bought Samsung's flagship Galaxy S20 Ultra a few months ago for $1,399.99 only to find this phone has focus that actually works. Samsung was clearly already working on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, so I'm frustrated it didn't include the laser auto focus in its early S20-series phone, too.

I moved to Bluetooth headphones long ago, and Samsung's new Galaxy Buds Live are pretty good, so I'm not too bummed about the lack of a headphone jack. Some people might be. It also doesn't come with any USB-C headphones in the box, so make sure you already have a pair or don't mind Bluetooth headphones.

I've complained about this in the past, but I need to mention it again: Samsung still stuffs advertisements in its software. There's one at the top of the Samsung Health app, for example. There are some inside Bixby, Samsung's poor take on Siri, and in other places. I don't want ads on an expensive phone.

Should you buy the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra?

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

If you want everything there is to stuff into a phone, yeah, buy the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. You'll get great cameras, an awesome screen, good battery life, a useful stylus and more.

If you want to save money and don't need the S Pen or a huge screen, you'll get a lot of really similar features in the regular $999 Galaxy S20 that launched a few months ago. Or you can save more and buy Google Pixel 4a. It doesn't have 5G, wireless charging or anything fancy, but it has a good screen, solid battery life and a great camera.

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