Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra First Impressions

Posted on August 26, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 27 Comments

Announced earlier this month, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is Samsung’s new flagship smartphone, and among its many improvements is a deeper level of Microsoft integration. I was surprised and delighted when Samsung reached out to me about a review unit.

If you haven’t watched Samsung’s latest Unpacked event, I recommend doing so for a variety of reasons. I like their mantra of “meaningful innovations,” which I see as a rebuke to some of its competitors, but also of its own past, which is littered in some ways with, shall we say, some less meaningful innovations. And Windows phone fans, in particular, will enjoy Samsung’s bittersweet message of “putting consumers at the center” of the entertainment and productivity experiences it creates.

But if you can’t get through the whole thing, or just aren’t as interested in Samsung’s other hardware announcements of the day, it’s worth at least checking out the Note 20 segment, which starts at about the 9:20 mark. It is, if anything, too short, with Samsung focusing on the high-level features of the two devices—the Note 20 and the Note 20 Ultra—rather than their heady specs. And that’s too bad, because they’re actually quite different.

Were I to purchase a Note 20, I would absolutely go for the highest-end version, just as I had with my previous two Samsungs, the Note 10+ and S20 Ultra 5G, and for the same reason: Only the Note 20 Ultra, in this case, includes the most impressive camera system. There are other differences—the normal Note 20 has a flat display where the Ultra has slight curves, some materials, RAM, and so on—but that’s the big differentiator.

Regardless, both are true flagships, phones so powerful that Samsung markets them as being able to “work like a computer and play like a gaming console … and move fluidly between the two.” And it is perhaps notable, ahem, that they seem to exist in a different, um, galaxy—sorry—than this year’s budget handsets like the Apple iPhone SE, Google Pixel 4a, and Samsung’s A-series, and one wonders how a phone that starts at an incredible $1300, as the Note 10 Ultra does, can possibly justify such a cost.

Google Pixel 4a (left) v. Note 20 Ultra (right)

I intend to find out.

As mentioned above, I owned the Note 20 Ultra’s two most immediate predecessors, the Galaxy Note 10+ from late 2019 and the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G from early 2020, and the latter is still available for comparison since my wife is using it now. Yes, I know the Galaxy S and Note lines are technically separate, and that only the Note comes with S pen. But the differences between the two are really starting to fade and I wouldn’t be surprised if they merged sometime soon into a single cohesive product line. But regardless of whether that happens, you can see the clear evolution in the device’s designs and capabilities as you move forward in time to the Note 20 Ultra.

And you can see that most obviously in the incredibly large and hard-edged camera protrusion, which is more of a mesa now than a bump. I’ve never really agreed with the criticism of camera bumps in the past, from the Lumia 1020 to the S20 Ultra 5G, but this one is … big. It almost seems to have its own gravity, and it juts out from the rear of the handset in a way that no camera bump before it has.

Aside from the camera, my primary concern with the Note 20 Ultra is, of course, its deeper integration with Microsoft’s apps and services. The two firms have been expanding their partnership over the past few years to the point where the only thing missing from Note 20 Ultra is a Microsoft logo etched into its back.

Note 20 Ultra (left) vs. S20 Ultra 5G (right)

Aside from just bundling apps, there are two big pieces to this integration. The first, Link to Windows, debuted last year, and it makes it easier to connect your handset to the Your Windows app in Windows 10 than is possible with other phones, and remains a Samsung exclusive.

The second piece is unique only temporarily: The Note 20 Ultra, and a handful of other recent Samsung flagships, are for now the only phones that let you run Android apps in Windows 10 via Your Phone. I’m very curious to experience that and to see whether it measures up in any way to Android app integration on Chrome OS or iPad app integration on the Mac.

Also worth testing is another set of integrations between Microsoft and Samsung mobile apps and services. This includes OneNote and Samsung Notes integration and OneDrive and Samsung Gallery integration. But I’m also curious to test Dex again, and see what Microsoft’s big-screen Android experiences look now, in particularly its productivity apps.

That the Note 20 Ultra will no doubt be the best solution for Project xCloud game streaming is rather interesting, as is the fact that this handset supports some Microsoft experiences that are impossible, and always will be, on Microsoft’s own Surface Duo. That more than kind of resets our notion of a “Microsoft phone,” when you think about it.

I’ve only just received the Note 20 Ultra, so I’ll get it set up and configured this evening and report back on my early findings.

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Comments (27)

27 responses to “Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra First Impressions”

  1. yoshi

    I have an old iPhone 6s laying around that works just fine, but sits in a drawer. Verizon will give me $500(in annoying credits of course) towards the Note 20 Ultra. I'm fighting every urge to do that.

    Paul, can you give an update on the size comparison to the Note 10+ when able? The Note 10+ is about the max size I can go with a phone, so my fear is the Note 20 Ultra will be too massive.

  2. bgoodbody

    Using Samsung S10e. Happy with it for now. On an MVNO paying less than $17.00 per month including Fees & taxes.

  3. nbplopes

    I really like what Samsung is doing ... on paper. I get a good impression in the first months. After that it’s down hill for the price.

    After little more than 3 years Just swapped the battery of my iPhone X for 70 euros in a certified Apple Repair Center.

    I can see this device going up to 5 years of updates until it may start to get slow or look outdated in function.

    On top of this we kind of have a semi faked marketing. Again on paper the integration with Windows 10 looks amazing. It seams thanks already out ... but again lots of users are asking ... but were is it? Can’t see how to enable this. So is it out or not? Does it even work well?

    For a $1300 device expect to have these kinds of doubts. Meaning full innovation. Ok, this stuff is meaningful as it strikes the very notion of predictability and robust experience. If this values are lacking rarely changes anything ... an eternal demo of potential rather than actual usage. Less night actually be more.

  4. rmlounsbury

    The one thing that keeps me interested in Samsung is that Microsoft has made it the Android devi d maker of choice for Microsoft integrations. With it completely baked into the OS instead of installed apps.

    I'm looking forward to Paul's thoughts here.

    I'd like to see Microsoft make a Surface Phone that is a single screen device worthy of the Surface brand. It would also be nice to see a 4a style Surface Phone (kinda like a Surface Phone Go).

  5. mattemt294

    As far as I can tell with my note 20 ultra the note and to do integration are not live yet. Can't find the option anywhere

  6. blue77star

    You lost me at  $1300

  7. wolters

    I've been a Pixel User since its debut and often going from that years Note to the Pixel for the camera alone. I'm using the Note 20 Ultra right now and considering the mid-teir that Pixel 5 is going to be(with no XL in sight), I may actually stick with the Note.

    The screen is amazing but that is par for the course for Samsung. It has many features that I'd use (note taking, eventual syncing of Samsung Notes with OneNote, built in Link to Windows). The camera, SO FAR, seems like the Best Samsung has done yet but selfie skin softening seems worse than the last few Notes...

    I also love the Samsung Accessory ecosystem...the Galaxy Watch 3, despite having half the battery as it's predecessors, feels like the most complete Smart Watch for Android users with the current Oxygen and the FDA approved and coming soon ECH and Blood Pressure and a lot of features that usually aren't discussed. I love the Samsung Wireless Duo charging pads...I still use and love my Gear 360 camera...Samsung Pay is quite good and has a great rewards system...

    So far I am impressed...

    Side note About YourPhone...I like it...a lot...the App Pinning and Screen control works very well...messaging is hit and miss for me as there are refresh delays and that is most likely the app and not the phone...if messaging had RCS, it would feel complete...worst for me though is the instability of often just crashes and restarts or just becomes generally unresponsive...this is on my Surface Book 3, Surface Pro X and my work desktop. I hope Microsoft can fix this because YourPhone is nearly a life changer for my productivity...

    • joeparis

      In reply to wolters:

      As another Pixel fan who is very disappointed by the Pixel 5 specs and the lack of an XL model I too am looking at Samsung's new phones. I'm no so interested in the hardware ecosystem, and integration with Microsoft's services and products is attractive. My real questions/concerns lie with:

      [1] How close to "pure" Android is the OS on the phone (how much Samsung crap comes pre-installed and how much of it can be removed?), and

      [2] what does the update story look like? I've been spoiled with regular and on-going Android updates straight from Google at the beginning of each month. Does Samsung offer anything even close to this with the Note series?

      If you could speak to either of these points I would greatly appreciate it.

      • jdawgnoonan

        In reply to joeparis:

        Samsung runs their One UI 2.5, which is much better than the old Touchwiz (many, including Paul I think, prefer it to Google’s Pixel UI). I have been doing Google searches for demos of the UI/launcher. Samsung also now says they will support software for three years, which beats Google’s two.

        • joeparis

          In reply to jdawgnoonan:

          Thanks for replying, I will look for UI videos as well. I'm open to something that isn't pure Android as long as it isn't bloated.

        • Paul Thurrott

          Google is three years as well.
        • wright_is

          In reply to jdawgnoonan:

          It will support 3 version upgrades of Android from now on, which hopefully means up to 4 years of support (from launch).

          E.g. my S20+ was launched in March, so it should get Android 11, 12 and 13 (2020, 2021 and 2022) and, hopefully the security updates for 13 as well. The security updates are the key here.

          So far, they have been releasing the monthly security updates within a couple of days of Google announcing them.

          • joeparis

            In reply to jdawgnoonan:

            "So far, they have been releasing the monthly security updates within a couple of days of Google announcing them."

            This is really what I was wondering. A phone that doesn't get the monthly security updates is not one I am interested in.

            Thanks for letting me know!

      • wolters

        In reply to joeparis:

        1 - Samsung's OneUI feels so much cleaner than the past TouchWiz interface and while it is "skinned", it feels intuitive and flows well with Android 10. It is far from "Pure" but it is actually quite good and enjoyable. Samsung has their own Messaging, Clock, Contacts, Calendar, and Browser that cannot be uninstalled but you can turn off notifications so they don't get in the way. I currently have Google Messages as default SMS app, Google Calendar as default calendar and I also downloaded and use Google Clock so I can do some routines. Outlook is the default E-Mail app. Bixby can be pretty much ignored and you can leave it in a pre-setup condition as well. You will need to remap the power button from Bixby to the power button when holding it down but that is easily done. The apps don't get in the way like they did in the past but I do wish I could disable/hide them without a third party app. Overall, it doesn't bother me as much as I thought.

        2 - 3 Years of OS Updates. Last year, it was before Christmas when Note 10+ got Android 10 which is actually pretty fast for Samsung and I expect it to be faster this year when 11 comes out. Samsung has been extremely good at monthly security and system updates. It hasn't been as fast as the first business day or so of the month like Pixel but pretty darn close.

        • joeparis

          In reply to wolters:

          Great, thanks! In additionn to the skinning I was also wondering about the default apps. I figured I could change the defaults but it's good to get cofirmation.

  8. beckoningeagle

    Please ask Brad to test the Razer controller he reviewed a few weeks ago. I would like to know if it fits with the camera bump.


    I just realized Brad is probably not seating right next to you at the moment. Do what you can under the circumstances.

  9. fourbadcats

    Wow, you aren't kidding calling that a mesa. I think that's where the aliens contacted us in Close Encounters.

  10. bassoprofundo

    I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting with the "new" Android app integration, but it appears to be nothing more than the ability to "pin" app icons from your phone to your taskbar and/or start menu that launch apps using the screen sharing ability that's been there for some time now. Instead of just opening the full phone screen sharing experience and opening the app from there, it just takes you straight to the app. Nice to have, I guess, but it's a natural evolution of the existing capability and not something really new.

  11. jdawgnoonan

    I have an iPhone 11 Pro that has less storage than I need and I am very interested in your impressions of this phone as I have been thinking of switching to one for a while. I am trying to decide whether or not to trade the iPhone in on one, or somehow justify to the wife paying off my iPhone (acquired via the Apple upgrade program), keeping it, and buying the Note 5G Ultra.

  12. lilmoe

    The best part about Galaxies are the trade-ins and incentives. I got the S20, an extra car charger and their nice leather case for ~$550 after trading in my S7, some other "loyalty" discounts, and some accumulated reward points from using Samsung Pay for about a year. You can't beat that for the price.

    I checked again for the Note 20 Ultra, and they're doing even more of these deals. If I trade my wife's Note 9 (which was bought 2 years ago at a similar discount) , that will knock $550 off the price of the Ultra.

    $1300 is a meaningless sticker price at this point. Never pay that.

  13. starkover

    Exploring $1000 trade in for my Note 9 from AT&T. Maybe it is time to upgrade for that offer.