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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