Samsung Note20 Ultra review: Why this big phone works for the COVID era

Small phones have gotten larger and large phones are becoming enormous. But that trend made the new Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra that I’ve been using for the past few weeks particularly useful in our locked-down pandemic times.

The $1,300 Note20 Ultra comes with a ginormous 6.9-inch screen and a built-in stylus. The device’s baby brother, the Note20, costs $1,000 and has a 6.7-inch screen and a stylus. The new phones are available for preorder with delivery on Aug. 21.

Both of the new phones are bigger by a few tenths of an inch and pricier by $50 to $200 than last year’s Note lineup.

In another difference, this year’s new phones are both compatible with superfast 5G Internet. That may account for some of the price difference.

These days, like many people, I don’t get out as much as last year. So the larger size of the Note20 Ultra wasn’t as much of a hassle. And it weighs only 208 grams, or 7.3 ounces—18 grams less than an iPhone 11 Pro Max with its 6.5-inch screen. Trapped in the house for much of the day with three teenagers at home, the bigger and brighter screen—one of the best I’ve seen on any phone—came in handy for watching Netflix or playing Civilization Revolution when the TVs and larger-screen computers in the house were already occupied.

Taking notes

But that’s also true of Samsung’s more mainstream flagship phone, the Galaxy S20 Ultra that debuted in February. That $1,400 behemoth comes with a similar 6.9-inch screen. The Note20 Ultra is slightly cheaper, but the main appeal is the built-in stylus and the ability to write and draw directly on the phone’s screen.

The included S Pen has lots of neat tricks. Just pull it out of its hiding place on the bottom of the phone and click the end button. When your phone is asleep, you can write notes in white on the blackened screen. Pop the S pen when the phone is already unlocked and you get a choice of eight apps including simple ones like notes and more complex ones like augmented-reality doodling on live videos. You can also customize which apps are listed on that menu.

One of the best features of modern gadgets like the Note20 Ultra is converting my squiggly, messy handwriting into typed text, a trick I first got addicted to when I was trying the Google Pixel Slate two years ago. To convert a handwritten note to text on the Note20, you just click on the writing-to-text icon and the Note app displays in a box on screen what it thinks you’ve written. You can choose whether to replace your handwriting with the text or just copy the text to paste into another app. You can also call up the keyboard to correct the Note20’s conversion of your handwriting if the technology made any mistakes.

And I had to correct the conversions a fair bit. Samsung’s handwriting-to-text software doesn’t seem to be as accurate or speedy as what’s available on Google’s tablets and Chromebooks. And, by the way, Apple is adding a similar feature to its upcoming iOS 14 software, so the competition will only heat up.

Super-zooming camera

Like most other flagship smartphones these days, the Note20 Ultra is packed with cameras. There is a 10-megapixel selfie camera on the front and three cameras on the back. The regular camera has a dazzling 108 megapixels and is designed, theoretically, to provide sharper images, while the ultrawide and 5X telephoto lens both have 12 megapixel sensors.

The headline photography feature, like the previous Galaxy S20 Ultra, is the use of a so-called periscope zoom for the telephoto lens. The lens is placed sideways inside the phone to avoid sticking too far from the back. To bring the image into the lens, the phone has a prism to reflect light into the lens at an angle, like a submarine’s periscope. Samsung says the lens can magnify images 5X optically and 50X using software tricks.

Pictures taken with the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra with zero, 10X, and 50X magnification.

That’s a slight downgrade from the similar lens in the S20 Ultra, which had 10X and 100X zooming capabilities. But as Fortune found in testing that phone, the 100X digital zoom was difficult to use because even the slightest jolt of the hand made it hard to focus on the intended subject. And the resulting pictures often had obvious smudging and blockiness.

The Note20 Ultra’s 50X mode is still a little difficult to use, but Samsung has improved its software to make it easier to focus. And the pictures, while still somewhat grainy, are generally better than the S20’s 100X images. The zoom is also handy for using as always available binoculars. Sitting in the passenger seat of my car, it was fun to use the Note20’s zoom to read tiny writing on bumper stickers across the road or to do some digital birdwatching in the backyard.

Slicker design

The Note20 Ultra also has another feature that’s better than the S20—its appearance. The S20 featured rounded corners and a bulbous rectangular camera bump on the back. But the Note20’s more boxy, squared-off design is more appealing. And the camera bump, while still prominent, is almost Apple-like in its elegance, with a metallic ring visible highlighting each lens.

Then again, with the pandemic, who really stares at other people’s phones anymore? Maybe the slicker design will be more appreciated once the outbreak is over.

But until then, the Note20 Ultra still has a lot to offer: a big, bright screen for videos, a handy pen for drawing and note taking, plus a fab zoom lens.

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