Galaxy Note 20 Ultra first impressions: practical luxury

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Let's admit it: smartphone these days, even the affordable ones, are usually fast enough and you can get a quite decent camera without spending more than a thousand dollars. If, however, you want more than just good enough, if you want your phone crafted with meticulous precision and with a design refined and shiny as a jewel, that's when you start looking at premium phones. That's the feeling I got after using the new Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra for about an hour in a socially distanced briefing Samsung held shortly after the Unpacked event. It felt luxurious, exquisite.

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The new Note features a boxy, rectangular body that makes it instantly recognizable and different than Samsung's S series of phones. Its new design cuts down on the bezels further so it really feels like you are holding just one giant screen, with no interruption. The screen is 6.9 inches in size and it's vast. The previous Note had a 6.8-inch screen, and Samsung has managed to somehow cram in a slightly bigger display, even though the Note 20 Ultra is just a hair taller, but otherwise identical to last year's Note.

But the big difference is in the camera: when you hold last year's Note against the new one, the contrast is striking. The new one protrudes from the back in a way that is bold and noticeable, it alone makes a statement.

There are a few other tiny changes: the buttons are now on the right hand side where they belong and the S Pen is on the left. A few other things haven't changed: the screen is still slightly curved (something that is less noticeable on such a giant display by the way), and there is still no headphone jack.

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You have three colors to choose from, all of them neutral and far less striking than the explosion of colors that we had on the Note 10 Plus. The signature one is called Mystic Bronze, and then you have a white model, and then the one you see in the photos here is the Mystic Black one, which in reality looks more like space gray on iPhones. This particular finish was still glossy and got stained with fingerprint smudges, even though it was not quite as noticeable as on the S20 Ultra which is an absolute fingerprint magnet. Another cool thing the Note has is a glass body that is tougher than on any other phone. The technology goes by the name Gorilla Glass Victus and ups the scratch and drop resistance (theoretically, the Note should be able to survive a head-high drop, just don't try this on purpose).

The number one reason people buy a Note is the S Pen, and if that's your reason, you'd be happy to know that the S Pen upgrade here is the biggest ever in history of the series. Samsung has reduced latency on it down to just 9ms, an improvement of over 4x times. What this means is that there is no visible delay between the moment when the S Pen touches the screen and the actual drawing appears. It feels almost exactly like using pen on paper, and it's surreal. Samsung has also improved its Notes app with cloud sync, and it will convert and straighten even ugly handwriting in digital text. There are also 5 new "Air Gestures" that you can use to remotely control your phone. I tried them out and they did not always work from the first try, plus they feel like a gimmick that I am not very likely to use much in the future.

The reason why I would buy a Note, however, is not the S Pen: it's the screen. A 6.9" Dynamic AMOLED screen that is all about those colors. This is the best screen that I have seen on a smartphone so far. It displays incredibly rich colors and it gets super bright at up 1,500 nits, so you can use it outdoors without any worries. Plus, it supports Quad HD resolution, but not if you use the 120Hz refresh rate option. Then, the maximum resolution is 1080p, which is a bit of a bummer as other phones can do that. Samsung, however, seems to think that would draw too much battery. If you ask me, I'd always go with 120Hz over Quad HD, the difference the higher refresh rate makes is game changing. Also, unlike the S20 Ultra, the high refresh rates kicks in only when needed and not all of the time, so it's far less of a strain on the battery.

Speaking of battery, you get a 4,500mAh battery inside. Yes, smaller than the 5,000mAh on the S20 Ultra. Some people would find that disappointing. I don't. The Note is a bit thinner than the S20 Ultra, and for me, the latter is just too girthy, so I appreciate the thinner body of the Note. You have all the bells and whistles that you'd expect from the battery: 25W fast charger in the box, wireless charging, reverse wireless charging.

Under the hood, you get top of the line specs: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+, 12GB RAM, 128GB storage with support for microSD cards. The new thing here is UFS 3.1 tech for the storage, meaning its faster than before, and you can feel it all around the interface which feels zippier than ever.

One thing that hasn't changed much is the fingerprint scanner: it's an ultrasonic one embedded in the screen, and at first try, it's still a step behind optical fingerprint sensors on most other Android phones that feel faster. It's not a dealbreaker, but definitely feels like the one area where this Note feels compromised.

What's not compromised is the camera. The huge camera bump houses a 108MP main shooter, a 12MP ultra-wide one, and a 12MP 5X optical zoom periscope lens. The latter one is a beast and gives you clarity very similar that you'd get out of an S20 Ultra, which is to say, outstanding. You don't get "100X Space Zoom" and instead you can "only" zoom up to 50X times. I can totally live with that as images beyond that zoom range are way too blurry for me to ever use.

Samsung has also fixed the auto-focus issue from the S20 Ultra on this Note. You now get a laser auto focus that focuses in a blink of an eye for both photos and videos. It's truly impressive.

Finally, you have two new tricks: DEX wireless which allows you to quickly mirror your phone on a Samsung TV made after 2019 (or some other screens), and Nearby Sharing, a feature that leverages the new ultra-wideband chip inside the Note and allows you to point the phone at another compatible device and quickly beam large files.

So there you have it, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. It's a phone to get if you want to spoil yourself with the very best, it's practical luxury. And with Samsung's promise for three major software updates, it's also perfectly future-proof. And as for excitement and innovation? Well, the Note might feel just a tad bit boring compared to an upcoming folding giant: the Galaxy Z Fold 2. But you know what, innovation comes with its own share of risks and issues, and if you want a no-risk phone that you can rely on, the Note 20 Ultra is one of the finest around.

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