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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 first impressions: Not what I expected

This is the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra. And if you’re coming into this expecting some radical new device that will change the game the way the original Note did, I’m going to tell you now that this is not that phone.

In fact, if I had to describe the Galaxy Note 20 series in one word, I think that word would be underwhelming.

What’s new?

Unlike the Galaxy S20 series this year, the Note 20 will only have two models like last year. And I’ll start with the “hero” phone, the Note 20 Ultra.

Looking at the spec-sheet, this phone has all the hallmarks of a high-end Samsung flagship. It gets upgraded internals, a larger high resolution screen and battery—the usual stuff you’d expect from a yearly refresh. In Malaysia, our Note 20 Ultra is powered by an Exynos 990 processor with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage.

Up front, there’s a massive, gorgeous 6.9” Quad HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X display that curves and bleeds over the sides the way the best Samsung flagships tend to do. That means it looks as stunning as ever, only now it also has a 120Hz refresh rate which is definitely appreciated

The Note 20 Ultra also retains its predecessor’s excellent build and premium finish so it feels great in the hand.  It also packs stereo speakers despite having such tiny bezels, and retains IP68 water and dust resistance which is always good.

Interestingly, however, Samsung decided to move the position of the power and volume rockers to the right side of the device, and the S Pen over to the left. Why did they do that? I have no idea, but I guess this makes it better for lefties?

The Note 20 Ultra also gets a bigger battery, sporting a 4,500 mAh cell with wired and wireless fast-charging support, as well as reverse wireless charging capabilities. And yes, this is a bigger battery than the one on the Note 10+, but I was expecting at least a 5,000 mAh cell since that’s what we got on the S20 Ultra. I guess, they had to make space for the S Pen?

A nice gesture

Speaking of the S Pen, Samsung has included a few new enhancements with this particular model’s stylus. 

For starters, the new S Pen has a lower latency of 9ms this time around, so writing on the Note 20 Ultra should feel more realistic than before. I don’t remember having any issues with the Note 10+’s S Pen when it comes to latency, but if you might appreciate this more.

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On top of that, you’re also getting a few more Air Actions. In addition to the magic wand camera zoom stuff you could do on the previous model, you can now also use Air Actions to navigate through the Note 20 Ultra.

Drawing a left arrow with the S Pen lets you go back, a right arrow pulls up the Recent Apps, an up arrow brings you Home and a little left-to-right squiggle takes a screenshot. You can also do a downward arrow to bring up smart select.

Getting the actions to work 100% of the time was a little tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it, they actually felt pretty intuitive. But, is this something major? I mean, I don’t really think so. 

Now though, let’s talk about the camera

Although it’s not typically the focus of the Galaxy Note line, the Note 20 Ultra does get a new camera setup.

Up front, you’ve got what looks like the same 10MP selfie shooter in a tiny punch hole but the big update here is the rear camera. There’s a 108MP main wide-angle camera alongside a 12MP ultra-wide camera and a 12MP periscope telephoto camera.

This setup allows the smartphone to zoom up to 50X which isn’t nearly as far as the S20 Ultra, but apparently is still enough to earn the Super Zoom moniker. That said, what I found interesting about the Note 20 Ultra’s camera is the fact that it also features a Laser hybrid autofocusing system.

I know, laser AF sounds super outdated, and it doesn’t look like Samsung’s taken a whole new spin on this system either. However, I will point out that like the S20 Ultra, the Note 20 Ultra doesn’t have Dual Pixel AF, so having a laser AF system to help out the relatively slow phase detection AF will be appreciated.

Now, I didn’t get to test the camera out because I had such a limited amount of time with the phone. Plus, they didn’t let me take any of the photos I took with me when I left, so I won’t comment on image quality in this first impressions video.

It will have similar video chops as the S20 Ultra, also being able to shoot 8K footage. There’s also a pro video mode that’ll give you flexibility to choose your audio source whether you want it to come from the front of the phone, back of the phone, default, bluetooth or through a USB mic which sounds pretty cool.

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Samsung’s also included an updated version of Samsung DeX so you can use it wirelessly now. They’ve also got a partnership with Xbox where you can stream games and play them on your smartphone, but this feature isn’t available in Malaysia.

However, what I found most disappointing was what Samsung did to the Note 20. 

It should have been called the Note 20 Lite

Last year, when Samsung launched the Note 10 and 10+ I fell in love with the smaller Note 10. It was a great size, and although I thought they could have done a better job with the split between the 10 and 10+, I thought the end result was still OK.

The Note 10 still felt like a proper Note flagship, and if you didn’t look at all the numbers you probably wouldn’t have minded. With the  Note 20 though, it felt like they threw all that out the window because the Note 20 feels a lot more like it should be the Note 20 Lite.

Now, when I first saw the spec-sheet, I was like OK, this looks pretty good. It has the same Exynos 990 processor, and 256GB of UFS 3.1 storage, only with a little bit less RAM, coming in at 8GB instead. And sure, the 4,300 mAh battery is a little smaller but it’s also a smaller phone so that kinda makes sense. Plus, it also has support for fast wired and wireless charging, as well as reverse wireless charging.

It also features stereo speakers and IP68 water and dust resistance which is neat. You also get the new S Pen Air Actions, but you lose out on the lower latency, though I didn’t notice a huge difference if I’m being honest.

But that’s pretty much where the good news ends.

Look at the screen and you’ll notice that instead of the gorgeous dual-curved Dynamic AMOLED 2X panel, you get a flat Super AMOLED Full HD+ screen with a refresh rate of 60Hz.

Now, I don’t have anything against flat screens, in fact I think they’re pretty cool but putting it next to the Note 20 Ultra and you just won’t believe that they’re from the same family.

And while the Note 20 also has a triple camera setup, it’s a significantly different arrangement. You get a 12MP main camera, a 12MP ultra-wide and a 64MP telephoto camera. This means zooming only goes up to 30X. But, the upside is that you do get Dual Pixel AF on this smartphone.

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Though, the most noticeable difference, and the one thing I couldn’t believe Samsung did to their Note line was the fact that instead of the gorgeous glass and metal build from the Note 20 Ultra, the opted for a Glasstic back on the Note 20.

Yes, “Glasstic”

When you’re making a smartphone that’s part of your premium Note lineup, first impressions are super important. And nothing gives people a stronger first impression than a smartphone’s build. 

But when you pick up the Note 20, it does not feel like it should belong in the same room as the Note 20 Ultra, much less share the series name.

Now, at the time that this video’s being recorded, I don’t know how much the Note 20 lineup will be priced in Malaysia just yet. But, by the time you watch this video, the price should be out. 

Samsung tells me that the reason for this material choice is that there is a big price gap between the Note 20 Ultra and the Note 20, so now that you know this information, do you think it’s enough to justify it?

Samsung spoke of meaningful innovation being the guiding principle for their products this year. And that sounds good, right? Sounds like they’re going to listen to what the public wants and give that to them.

But when I heard that, I was a little sad. It sounded like they were just going to play it safe, and not push the envelope. It sounded boring, and I guess that direction of meaningful innovation is perfectly reflected in the two new Notes that they’ve just pushed out.

Note users always want more power, a better camera, a bigger battery and a bigger, better screen. And these are definitely upgrades you’d find on the Note 20 Ultra. Samsung also improved the S Pen, which is the key feature Note users will swear by.

That means these won’t necessarily be bad smartphones. After all, they are upgrades over the Note 10 which is one of the best phones of 2019. I guess, I was just expecting something else–something more special with the Note 20 duo.

But, that’s what I think. What do you think of the Note 20 series? Let me know in the comments below.

Photography by Zachary Yoong and Hanif Azrai with the Sony A7 III and Fujifilm X30.

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