Galaxy Note 20 Ultra ongoing review: Everything good and not-so-good so far

I’ve gotten to know the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra better, but so many questions about the camera, battery life and stylus remain.

I’ve just completed my second day with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G. Samsung’s phone and I are starting to get into a nice little groove. I’ve already fallen deeply in love with the signature bronze shade of the $1,300 flagship device, and the fact that its matte finish deters fingerprints.

It’s sleek and beautiful — until you get to the massive camera bump —  but also enormous, awkward for my smaller hands to maneuver and perplexing when it comes to certain design decisions. (And keep reading for more on the standard Note 20, which costs $1,000.)

So far, I’ve taken rich, enticing photos and enjoyed all the bounty an exceptionally large 6.9-inch screen can bring. I’ve fielded phone calls, kept up with work and social networks, bought groceries touch-free and navigated with Google Maps — all the things you might normally do with your phone on a given day.

It’s still early on and my testing period will have a lot to cover, from night photography and a new suite of S Pen gestures to a steady observation of battery life on a 6.9-inch display with a 4,500-mAh battery and a default 120Hz refresh rate. There’s one other big question I’m looking to answer by the time the Note 20 Ultra review period is complete: how a device built to keep you active in society fits into a world already changed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Note 20 Ultra: Here’s what I love right now

  • The bronze color with the matte finish: sleek, sophisticated and less of a grease trap when slick or grimy hands get all over it. It’s lustrous and understated without being boring.
  • Taking photos is fun. Images are vivid and 5x optical zoom keeps picture quality high enough to make me keep using it. Ultra-wide angle photos are always a great tool to have in the photo arsenal to provide dramatic effect.
  • The screen, as always, is bright and brilliant, excellent for reading the news, watching video and scrolling through photos.
  • My favorite Galaxy Note tricks return to life, like taking a really precise screenshot using the S Pen, using the magnifying tool to read online menus and too-small font, and easily creating a screen recording or GIF of a portion of the display.
  • Taking a selfie using the S Pen is a breeze when you press the stylus button with one hand without having to stick your arm out at an awkward angle or worry about dropping the phone.
  • Face tone filters for selfies are nice to add some warmth or step on the breaks if a picture is oversaturated.
  • Phone calls sounded great in my area, but of course your situation could vary depending on the service where you live.

Note 20 Ultra features I’m keeping a close eye on

Battery life is something I’m closely observing. After an uneven first day, Day 2 was more like what I’d expect for a flagship phone — whew. At 10:30am it was fully charged and freshly disconnected from the charger. Exactly 12 hours later after a day or moderate-to-heavy use that included an hour and a half of Google Maps navigation, it was at 35%. This was using the default 120Hz screen setting. Let’s see how tomorrow goes.

That camera bump is hard to ignore. Without a case, I constantly worry about dropping it and cracking the camera array, which would undoubtedly be the first thing to hit, or else laying it down and dragging or moving the device in a way that scratches the camera. This has happened to me before and ruined every ultrawide image thereafter, so trust me when I say this is no idle concern.

The S Pen placement may be something I simply need to get used to, but so far, the move from the right side of the phone to the left isn’t working all that well for me. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the design, but for some reason reaching for it feels like a chore. Did it move to accommodate the camera hardware? We’ll see if I warm up to the changes as the tests go on.

Wired headphones don’t come in the box. That may not seem like a big deal as Samsung transitions users toward wireless earbuds like its Galaxy Buds Live. But not everyone wants to invest in a set of wireless buds. More to the point, Samsung spent years touting the $99 value of the wired headphones that came in the box. Without them, the Note’s price keeps going up while shedding value. If you don’t already have headphones you want to use, your cost of ownership just went up.

What will we test tomorrow?

There’s still so much to see as the Note 20 Ultra begins to settle in as my daily phone for the next week. That means the stylus’ new gesture features, night photography, gaming, new tricks with the Note app and more. Check back as this review develops day by day. Keep reading for our original impressions on the Note 20 Ultra and standard Note 20. And scroll to the very end for all the specs.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra reminds me of a figure straight from Greek mythology. With its sleek profile, resplendent bronze finish (for its signature color), and thick camera bump on the back staring out like a set of compound eyes, it doesn’t take much more than a glance to see this new phone for power users is very much siren-meets-cyclops.

The Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra’s looks are just the beginning of the story — and there’s far more below — including one genuinely surprising change. But before we go there, it’s important to understand the context into which these phones are coming to light. The Galaxy Note 20 phones are available for preorder now and are expected to arrive by the official sale date, Aug. 21. The Note 20 starts at $1,000 (£849, AU$1,499) and the Note 20 Ultra starts at $1,300 (£1,179, AU$1,849).

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the world on its head, endangering lives, launching a global recession and throwing into question the need for a premium phone whose cheapest model costs $1,000, which is $50 more than last year’s entry-level Galaxy Note 10. But while Samsung asks us to consider the merits of a 5G device with juiced-up cameras and some features better suited for the boardroom than the living room, Google has just released an excellent $349 no-frills phone that seems more in step with these lean and doubtful days.

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