In the last year or so, Samsung has started splitting up its flagship experience with new “Ultra” devices. At first, it seemed like these new, higher-end phones simply had more and better stuff to elevate them further, but with the new Note20 series, I think it’s clear Samsung is intentionally making its base phones worse. However, the world of smartphones is lacking in absolutes, and I still think Samsung did a whole lot right with the Note20. Somehow the company managed to fit a huge and flat 6.7″ screen in a phone without making it unwieldy or awkward to use. Battery life is also ridiculously good, and I even honestly like the matte plastic back now that I’ve used it. The problem is that Samsung cut plenty of other corners (especially when it comes to the screen), and yet somehow, it’s asking $1,000 for the phone. Frankly, that’s absurd — this phone is a terrible deal.
We reviewed the phone as sold by T-Mobile.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
There’s a clear elephant in the room when you talk about the Note20. From launch, Samsung was criticized for all the little ways it chose to cut down the baby version of the Note20, and the most vocal critics pointed to the so-called “glasstic” back. Yup, this thousand-dollar smartphone has a plastic panel on the rear. But the knee-jerk reaction to a non-premium material (which I was admittedly a part of) was wrong. Now that I’ve used it, I honestly like it. It’s been durable, has a nice gritty texture, keeps weight down, and it’s warmer to the touch when the phone is otherwise cold. And besides, you’re going to put a case on it. I’m a convert, I’d like to see this kind of plastic in more phones from Samsung — especially if it can help keep costs down. It’s just too bad that didn’t make a dent in the Note20’s price tag.
Surrounding the plastic back is the same sort of aluminum frame you can expect in all of Samsung’s premium phones. It has a brushed texture on the flat top and bottom, unlike the glossy Note20 Ultra. All the buttons are on the right side, the SIM tray is on the top, and the USB Type-C port, S Pen, and the speaker are on the bottom. Frustratingly, the S Pen is on the left side of the phone. That’s the same place the Note20 Ultra puts it, but if you’re right-handed, that means your palm will probably block it when you get ready to write. Left-handed folks might celebrate, but the objectively correct positioning for us right-handers is on the right side, and I did find it a little annoying.
The front is fantastically flat and nearly all screen. Bezels are teeny, and the front-facing camera has a hole-punch cutout at top dead center. The fingerprint sensor, as per usual, is built into the screen. Fingerprint sensor performance seems identical to all of Samsung’s flagships for the last two years: Fine. The error rate from my calloused thumbs remains higher than with optical solutions like OnePlus’, but it usually works after a few tries. The only potential bummer is that the cutout for the ultrasonic sensor is visible in strong outdoor lighting, and it’s an annoyingly irregular shape.
While I’m amazed Samsung was able to fit such a big and flat display into a phone that isn’t awkward to use, I wish the resolution was higher; 1080p just doesn’t cut it at $1,000. 60Hz is also a bummer at this price, and it seemed a little dim at times using it outdoors in bright light. If you’re the sort to get picky about performance at night with dark themes, my unit was stunningly even without any “green tint” issues or other irregularities. In short: this would be a good screen if it were in a $500-650 phone, but for a grand, it’s honestly a little offensive when every other Android phone at the price point does better.
The S Pen seems identical at a glance to the version in the higher-end Note20 Ultra, though Samsung says it has a higher latency — I’m not sure whether that’s a difference in the stylus itself or the lower refresh rate in the display. Either way, it’s a few frames less laggy than the one in last year’s Note, offers the usual (read: good) S Pen experience in software, and the hardware feels nice enough for a plastic stylus with a button in it.
Speakers are also fine. As David noted in his review of the Note20 Ultra, the notification volume scale seems weighted pretty far toward “oh god my ears,” but it’s easy to turn down. As you’d expect, it can swing stereo sound via the earpiece. If you’re blaring music, the speakers can distort at max volume, and there’s absolutely zero bass, but that’s par for the smartphone course. They’re very clear otherwise.
In the box, Samsung includes a 25W charger and a cable. Samsung no longer touts an impossible charging speed, so the included adapter will max out the phone.
Software, performance, and battery life
Samsung’s One UI 2.5 is a well-known and fixed quantity, so I won’t go into extensive detail here. For a deeper dive, you can read our Galaxy Note20 Ultra review — most of the same points apply. In short, Samsung’s software isn’t offensive like it once was, and I even find it pleasant to use. There are a few exceptions, like the fact that third-party launchers seriously bug out when you use Android 10’s gesture navigation, and Samsung’s stock launcher is kind of bad, but it’s fine if you’re going to stick to button-style navigation or you like Samsung’s launcher. Bixby is pretty terrible, too, and I honestly wish Samsung would just stop trying to foist it on customers. The Google Assistant is better. Samsung’s built-in apps are also all pretty much redundant and borderline useless, excepting Samsung Notes — more on that later.
Technically, the Note20 is a version “behind” the latest Android release, but with an Android 11 One UI 3.0 beta already in testing, I can’t imagine it will be too long until the Note20 catches up. (Personally, I don’t think it matters yet, but some folks will care.)
One aspect where OneUI really shines is when it comes to multitasking. The split- and multi-window capabilities in Samsung’s software easily beat pretty much every other version of Android out there. I find it much more useful on a really big-screen device like the Z Fold2, but it can come in handy once in a while on the Note20 as well. You’ll have to accept using the Edge Panel (a tool that I enjoy) to reap most of the benefits, and making custom app pairs could be an easier process, but it’s an overall good solution and better than what’s built into stock Android these days.
Now, one thing I don’t like is how aggressively OneUI kills apps in the background, but you can disable that behavior during setup or on a per-app basis later. I’m sure this practice has something to do with the impressive battery life I experienced (which I’ll talk about later), but it also breaks basic and expected behaviors, making developers’ lives harder and interfering with things like notifications.
As a Note phone, the big draw for most folks is the stylus, and the Note20 offers the same software experience there customers have come to expect. I find the new air gestures mostly useless, but they could come in handy. By far, the most useful feature is the fact that you can just pull out the phone, pop out the stylus, and start scribbling on the screen to immediately take down a note. It’s very, very handy for quickly saving important details, and less time consuming than firing up Google Keep and tediously tapping it in. I’m not usually a fan of handwritten notes, but the app can do OCR to convert them into text — though it sucks pretty badly trying to read my cursive. In short: It’s one built-in app I can guarantee you will use, by virtue of the S Pen.
Based on specs, you’d expect the Note20 to be fast, and it obliges. In fact, it feels a lot faster than other phones with the same chipset that I’ve used. I don’t know if the lower resolution and framerate simply stress the Snapdragon 865+ less, leaving it more headroom, or if other optimizations are happening. Either way, the Note20 has far, far more oomph than it needs, and it can plow through anything you throw at it. In the same vein, I never felt the phone get especially warm, though I do imagine the plastic back is a slightly better insulator than glass would be.
But perhaps my favorite thing about the Note20 is the battery life. I am pretty sure this is the longest-lasting phone I’ve ever used. I legitimately tried to kill it, swinging over 7 hours of screen-on time in one day (and that was with a ton of usually battery-wrecking GPS/standalone Android Auto use) and the phone didn’t even bat an eye. In my estimation, it should be possible to break 10 hours of screen-on time with the Note 20, and I regularly went 2-3 days without charging the phone in normal use. When it does run low, the 25W charging rate tops the phone up fast enough, and I didn’t have any issues with Samsung’s wireless charging, either.
The Samsung Galaxy Note20 comes with three rear cameras: A primary wide-angle, a telephoto, and an ultra-wide angle. They’re all serviceable and can take decent photos, though I personally expect more for the price.
The Note20 butchered these early fall colors — stronger reds and oranges than these photos show.
I should start this discussion with a clear disclaimer: I’m not a fan of Samsung’s camera processing. I think the colors are often wrong or oversaturated (especially greens and reds), exposure and dynamic range are inconsistent, white balance can bug out, and the results generally tend toward a nuclear or neon vibe. (Frankly, I even prefer OnePlus’ camera processing to Samsung’s.) But that’s all subjective, and some people enjoy the look. Either way, it can take some good photos at times, and I snagged a few.
One of the things I love the most about the camera in Google’s Pixels is its predictability. Nine times out of ten, I know exactly what I’m going to get, and that isn’t the case with Samsung or the Note20. In anecdotal examples, it seems to hate my cat, losing pretty much any detail in his dark fur, dropping the ball hard when it comes to dynamic range even though other photos clearly demonstrate it can do better. Strong, vibrant colors also end up either oversaturated or tweaked with an incorrect white balance into something entirely different. I can get good photos out of it, but I can also get some really bad ones. And personally, I don’t want to have to rely on that roll of the dice when I want a quick shot.
Extreme digital zoom remains of doubtful utility. Samsung advertises up to “30x.”
One last thing I do want to point out: I am a little surprised at how sharp the output from the Note20’s telephoto camera (before digital zoom) can be sometimes, though it definitely varies.
Should you buy it?
Samsung Galaxy Note20
No. I honestly don’t think anyone should buy the Note20. Frustratingly, that’s not because it’s a bad phone, it’s because of the bad price. What you’re getting here for $1,000 is entirely unacceptable. Even the new Galaxy S20 FE beats the Note20 in some ways, and it’s a $700 phone. A stylus simply isn’t worth the $300 premium, and if you really want one, just get the Note20 Ultra or pick up last year’s Note10+ at a discount; Samsung’s selling it new for $700 right now.
Battery life here is stellar, and I even like how nice Samsung managed to make the plastic that it was initially criticized for using. While I still like curved-screen displays, Samsung managed to make this flat without making it awkward to use, which is a minor triumph. But, a 1080p 60Hz display is unacceptable for this much money, a device this size has the space for a microSD card slot, the stylus’ positioning is annoying, and the camera isn’t class-leading. I can’t in good faith recommend it unless money doesn’t matter, and for some reason, you can’t get a Note20 Ultra instead.
Buy it if:
- You want great battery life and a stylus and don’t care about much else.
Don’t buy it if:
- You want all the bells and whistles, Samsung dropped the ball here.
- Camera performance is a priority.
- You can spend more or less money — there are better phones both above and below this price point.
Where to buy:
The Samsung Galaxy Note20 is available at the retailers below: