Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra Camera Review: Great Photos, Good Videos, Giant Zoom

Samsung recently announced the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, and it packs a very interesting camera system. It’s similar to what Samsung offered on the Galaxy S20 Ultra earlier this year, but with a few key differences. Since I’ve been using the company’s latest flagship for a few days, I wanted to share my experience shooting photos (primarily) and videos. So what’s new, what’s different? Is it better, is it worse? Let’s dive in.

Hardware

The Note20 Ultra’s giant camera pod protrudes about as much as the S20 Ultra’s (2mm) but with a marginally smaller footprint. It’s also a lot more elegant, thanks to each lens featuring a visually striking circular accent. Gone is the gaudy 100x stencil next to the telephoto lens — that 100x zoom is barely usable on the S20 Ultra. Samsung only claims 50x zoom capability for the Note20 Ultra and doesn’t flaunt it.

You’ll find three cameras on the back of the Note20 Ultra — a 108MP main shooter, a 12MP ultrawide camera, and a 12MP telephoto shooter. There’s also a 10MP punch-hole selfie camera in front. Samsung replaced the S20 Ultra’s fourth rear camera, a ToF (time-of-flight) sensor, with a laser autofocus module on the Note20 Ultra — presumably to improve AF (autofocus) performance, which was an issue on the S20 Ultra.

For the main shooter, the Note20 Ultra and S20 Ultra share Samsung’s massive (1/1.33-inch, 0.8-micron pixels) 108MP HM1 sensor, which is able to “bin” (combine) 3×3 groups of nine pixels into larger 2.4-micron pixels for better low-light performance. The resulting pictures are 12 megapixels, but each pixel is more light-sensitive. Both phones also share the same main f/1.8 lens with OIS (optical image stabilization) and phase-detection AF.

Note20 Ultra – click a photo to open the gallery.

The 12MP f/2.2 1.4-micron ultrawide camera is also identical on both handsets, with a 120-degree FoV (field-of-view), but no autofocus. Obviously, it’s ideal for wide-angle photography, but Samsung also uses this lens for its Super Steady Video mode. The Note20 Ultra’s 10MP f/2.2 1.22-micron front shooter features phase-detection AF and is identical to the selfie camera in the more affordable S20 and S20+.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that instead of the S20 Ultra’s 48MP 4x telephoto shooter, the Note20 Ultra packs a 12MP 5x telephoto. Both are folded (periscope) lenses with OIS, but have different optical magnification and apertures (5x f/3.0 on the Note20 Ultra vs. 4x f/3.5 on the S20 Ultra). The Note20 Ultra also uses a 12MP 1.0-micron sensor instead of the S20 Ultra’s 48MP 0.8-micron setup.

That’s probably why the S20 Ultra can zoom up to 100x (not that you should) vs. 50x on the Note20 Ultra. Regardless, don’t let the numbers fool you. The S20 Ultra’s 48MP telephoto sensor outputs 12MP images by binning 4 pixels into one. It’s only at extreme digital magnifications that you’ll benefit from the additional pixels, and only when there’s enough light. Conversely, the Note20 Ultra’s faster f/3.0 lens gathers more light.

Overall, the extra optical magnification (5x vs. 4x) could give the Note20 Ultra’s telephoto camera the edge over the S20 Ultra’s — digital magnification just isn’t as viable. But otherwise, these are very similar camera systems that represent today’s state of the art.

Software and features

The Note20 Ultra’s camera app will be familiar to anyone who’s used a recent Android flagship or iPhone. It’s the same interface you’ll find on most Samsung phones with One UI, and the same feature set as the S20 Ultra —  including night mode, manual (Pro) mode, super slow-motion, portrait (Live Focus) video, and hyperlapse. What’s exclusive to the Note20 Ultra is the new Pro Video mode — more on this later.

Single Take also carries over from the S20 series (and is now also available on the S10, Note 10, and Z Flip handsets). It captures several photos and videos over the span of 10 seconds (the duration is adjustable) and uses AI to pick the best shots and clips, apply filters, and create a montage. It’s clever — if somewhat gimmicky. While it’s not unique to the Note20 Ultra, it’s worth mentioning, since it’s exclusive to Samsung.

Photos

Let’s not mince words: the Note20 Ultra takes great pictures. Obviously, you’d expect nothing less from a $1300 flagship, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The shooter on Google’s formidable $350 Pixel 4a generally captures more pleasing images, and still beats the Note20 Ultra in low light. That being said, I’m splitting hairs here. Samsung’s latest flagship is absolutely in the same league as Apple’s excellent iPhone 11 Pro.

Note20 Ultra telephoto (5x)

In daylight, the Note20 Ultra generally nails white balance and exposure both indoors and out, and it produces shots that look pleasantly saturated but still feel natural. There’s plenty of detail and dynamic range in these photos, without the oversharpening common to Samsung’s past handsets. By default, the main camera shoots at 12MP, but you can force it to take 108MP images if you want. It works well as long as there’s enough light.

Note20 Ultra zoom: ultrawide, main (1x, 2x), and telephoto (5x, 10x, 20x, 50x) – click a photo to open the gallery

The dedicated 5x 12MP telephoto is what sets the Note20 Ultra apart from most of the competition. I have access to several phones with folded (periscope) lenses, including Samsung’s S20 Ultra (4x 48MP), Huawei’s P40 Pro+ (10x 8MP), Oppo’s Find X2 Pro (5x 13MP), and Vivo’s X50 Pro (5x 8MP). Anything up to 10x zoom is going to look just fine with any of these cameras, but what happens beyond that?

Telephoto comparison: S20 Ultra vs. Note20 Ultra vs. P40 Pro+ at 10x, 20x, and 50x zoom – click a photo to open the gallery

 

I decided to put the Note20 Ultra up against Samsung’s own S20 Ultra and Huawei’s P40 Pro+. As you can see, the photos look pretty good at 10x and quite decent at 20x, but they start getting crunchy at 50x. Overall, Huawei wins here thanks to its 10x telephoto and Leica optics. The P40 Pro+’s 8MP sensor is definitely running out of pixels at 50x, though. What’s more interesting, however, is that the Note20 Ultra does a slightly better job than the S20 Ultra.

Low light comparison: ultrawide, main (1x), and telephoto (5x) using auto vs. night mode – click a photo to open the gallery

The Note20 Ultra also takes nice pictures in low-light — even in full auto mode. Clearly, the ultrawide, telephoto, and selfie cameras benefit from night mode the most since their smaller aperture lenses gather less light than the main shooter. It’s also interesting that you can’t zoom past 10x in night mode. Regardless, I’m glad that Samsung made night mode available for each sensor since that’s not a given with other Android flagships.

It’s the same story when it comes to selfies. Here again, the Note20 Ultra holds its own. I’m impressed with Samsung’s selfie portrait mode (called Live Focus). It does a fine job of blurring the background without too many artifacts. Unfortunately, it only works with human faces, not animals or other objects. Then again, Live Focus on the main shooter works with pretty much anything — so your pet photos are covered.

Selfie comparison: auto vs. portrait mode – click a photo to open the gallery

Since the Note20 Ultra lacks a dedicated macro camera or autofocus on its ultrawide lens (which is how phones like the OnePlus 8 Pro snap closeup images), you can use 2x zoom and pull back to get the same effect. This even works in night mode. It’s also worth mentioning that with such a large main sensor (1/1.33-inch), the DoF (depth-of-field) is extremely shallow, which means closeup shots will often be partially out of focus.

Note20 Ultra main camera (macro)

Videos

The Note20 Ultra records stabilized video with stereo audio up to 8k 24fps, 4k 60fps, and 1080p 60fps with the rear cameras, and up to 4k 60fps and 1080p 60fps with the front shooter. But this comes with a lot of fine print. For example, you can only capture 8k or 60fps video with the main sensor. Maximum zoom is 6x at 8k, 10x at 60fps, and 20x otherwise. And you can’t zoom when recording video using the selfie camera.

Super Steady Video is limited to 1080p 30fps and lacks autofocus since it’s using the ultrawide lens. It works incredibly well as long as there’s enough light. The new Pro Video mode is similar to what LG and Sony have offered on some of their flagships. It supports up to 8k 24fps recording, includes a 21:9 (cinema) aspect ratio, and provides manual controls for everything from focus, to exposure, to white balance, to audio levels.

Samsung flagships usually shine at video recording, and the Note20 Ultra is no exception. The results are very good, but still don’t quite match what Apple brings to the table. As such, the iPhone 11 Pro is still the one to beat for video, despite being almost one year old.

Sample photos – click a photo to open the gallery

Verdict

It’s clear that Samsung’s done a great job with the cameras on the Note20 Ultra. This is absolutely one of today’s best flagship in terms of imaging performance, besting even the company’s own S20 Ultra by a very thin margin — thanks mostly to faster autofocus, a better telephoto, and that Pro Video mode. It’s exclusive to the Note20 Ultra, and my YouTube creator friends are just gonna love it.

But here’s the thing, if you can live without that awesome telephoto, the iPhone 11 (non-Pro) matches (photos) or surpasses (videos) the Note20 Ultra for $700. That’s about half the price. And if you don’t care as much about video recording and don’t mind giving up that sweet ultrawide, Google’s $350 Pixel 4a shoots better images than the Note20 Ultra. While most people aren’t cross-shopping these handsets, it’s food for thought.

 

Source: Manufacturer supplied review sample

Editor’s note: Watch Myriam’s unboxing video if you are curious about the rest of the Note20 Ultra’s hardware.

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About the Author

Myriam Joire
Tech journalist, podcaster, speaker. Startup advisor, consultant, entrepreneur. Developer, trouble maker, queer. Formerly at Engadget.