36 hours with Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: testing out the camera

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
(Image credit: Future)

I've had the new Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra in hand for 36 hours as of Saturday, and even though it widens my normal smartphone grasp, that 6.9-inch display is worth the stretch – and so is using the camera, according to my latest snapshots.

Not everyone gets it. In fact, every time I test a new premium Android phone, like a Note, everyone who's not a techie says "Nice.... it looks a lot like an iPhone." This has already happened when I was showing off the Note 20 Ultra. The phone expert in me cringes a little bit.

That statement is sometimes true of other phones, but I stand by the fact that the Note 20 Ultra feels different from most other smartphones out there. It bucks popular design trends with squared-off edges underneath a curved display, and Samsung hasn't given up on the the stylus. 

In fact, I think that this year's S Pen has some standout features that are underrated, which I'll examine soon (spoiler: syncing scribbled-down notes with audio notes is going to be amazing for students and journalists).

It's not much bigger than my 6.5-inch iPhone 11 Pro Max, which I'll be retiring until Apple's iPhone 12 comes out. Samsung's 6.9-inch display doesn't feel like 0.4 inches of extra. It's only a tad longer due to Samsung's better screen-to-bezel ratio and the smallest front camera punch-hole we've seen yet (much smaller than the one in the Note 20's display).

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

What's more, the Note 20 Ultra display has a 120Hz adaptive refresh rate, which gives it a fluid looks as you play games, watch movies or simply scroll through your Instagram feed. Anything with movement looks buttery smooth. It's going to be hard to go back to any smartphone screen with a jittery 60Hz when I'm done testing the Note 20 Ultra.

Okay, no, you can't use the highest resolution (QHD, or technically WQHD+) at the same time as 120Hz. But I bet most people don't know that their Samsung phone is 1080p out of the box – it looks nice regardless. All of those people who think this "looks like an iPhone" won't miss those extra pixels. And it's something Samsung can work on for the Galaxy S21 in six months.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

Samsung has the most easy-to-use, fun camera

Day one with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra proved to me that Samsung continues to have the easiest-to-use full-fledged camera app.

It's the little things, the features which enable me to set up a shot quickly, that make me appreciate Samsung's refined camera app functionality:

  • Double-tapping the power button to quickly launch the camera app. I don't have to look on the lock screen to find some pesky icon that requires a long press.
  • Making an open-hand gesture to trigger selfies so I can hold my arm out and frame up the shot – without having to retract and reset for every shot.
  • Seeing a timer ring form around the 10MP selfie camera punch hole instead of badly guessing where the camera lens is inside the display. Invaluable for group selfies.
  • Swiping anywhere on the viewfinder portion of the screen to flip between the front and rear cameras – to me, it acts like a big button, replacing that tiny camera icon button that's in a random corner of nearly every other phone.

If you're a phone manufacturer without these basic features on your camera phone, I'm judging you. Hard.

Note: For the first Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra camera photos below, I'm standing in the same spot, and also capturing from the hip (trying not to get run over by traffic).

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra regular wide camera (Image credit: Future)

It doesn't hurt that Samsung's camera takes wonderful photos. I still need to do a deeper analysis, but photos of New York City look stunning. The 12MP ultra-wide lens captures so much more of a cityscape, telling a completely different story versus the 108MP main and 12MP telephoto lenses.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra ultra-wide camera (Image credit: Future)

The biggest improvement I see? Samsung's telephoto lens, which maxes out at 50x digital zoom. No, it doesn't have that 100x 'Space Zoom' feature, as seen in our S20 Ultra camera test, but that quality loss between 50x and 100x made it fairly unusable. It was a party trick we didn't need.

The Note 20 Ultra's 50x zoom reach is more than enough, and the biggest deal is the souped-up 5x optical zoom – not digital, not hybrid optical, but optical optical. It also has a slightly wider aperture than the S20 Ultra telephoto camera: going from f/3.5 to f/3 to allow more light into the camera sensor, and besting the 0.8 microns with 1.0 micron to capture individual larger pixels. There's a tighter field of view on this camera (20 degrees instead of the S20 Ultra's 24 degrees), and it's 12MP instead of 64MP, but I don't see issues, I only see improvements so far.

Zooming into the Empire State Building for the first time was a bit shocking. "Woah, I didn't even mean to get that close," I thought. All of the shots – main, telephoto and ultra-wide – looked great. I did have to refocus the 10MP selfie camera while in front of the Empire State Building, as I was in the dark in the foreground, while the brightly-lit background of New York's 34th Street dominated. Although the background was blown out in the live preview, I found that Samsung's post-processing handled things fairly well enough in the end.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra camera roll

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5x optical telephoto camera (Image credit: Future)

There's a lot to unpack here. I've called Samsung's cameras 'the most fun cameras on a smartphone' in the past, even when they wasn't technically 'the best' pixel-for-pixel (that was often a Google Pixel). With features like the option to pick out a subject in color in a black-and-white shot (called Color Point in Live Focus), and the ability to use the S Pen to remotely take selfies, I've been more entertained testing Samsung's easy-to-use cameras than those of any other brand. Our reviews take account of more than just minute pixel quality differences.

I'll be back with more Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra impressions as I continue to use this phone, its 108MP, 8K video and that (literally) striking S Pen. It's a massive, complex handset, with an on-going review and in-depth rolling updates to match.

Matt Swider