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Samsung Galaxy Note 20: A Great Phone for a Bygone Era

08/05/2020 | 10:21am

By Joanna Stern

Once upon a time, in an age of commuter trains, conference rooms and baggage carousels, the technology gods bestowed upon us smartphones so big they could be mistaken for tablet computers.

These 'phablets,' it was said, could bring the productivity of the desktop to those on the go. Then, during the longest year in human history, when the only trips people took were from the living room to the bathroom, they began to question the need for so much mobile power.

This is what Samsung's latest Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra smartphones, announced Wednesday, are up against.

Starting at $1,000, the 6.7- and 6.9-inch Android devices, equipped with styluses, have all the makings of great pre-pandemic smartphones. But now? I don't need a computer in my pocket when I never leave my actual computer. Not to mention, these stretchy-comfy pants I wear everyday don't even have pockets. Besides, our metaphorical pockets aren't all that deep these days.

It didn't matter what analyst I asked, they all agreed: People are limiting spending, especially on expensive smartphones.

"The high end of the smartphone market is the hardest hit by the virus," said Vincent Thielke, an analyst at research firm Canalys, which recently reported that in the second quarter of 2020, the global smartphone market plummeted 14% in shipments, with Samsung falling behind Huawei. Gartner Research Vice President Annette Zimmermann provided a similar outlook on higher-end devices, though emphasized stability in midrange, $300-to-$600 smartphones.

And that is the most interesting part of the gadget-buying shift. With more everything from home, a fancy-schmancy phone isn't as needed for many as a reliable tablet or computer -- or three. In the second quarter, tablet shipments surged 26%, according to Canalys. Let's do some math:

$1,000 smartphone = $400 smartphone + $600 tablet

Samsung's prepared: In addition to announcing the Note 20 models Wednesday, it also unveiled the $650 Galaxy Tab S7, and its Galaxy A51 is a worthy Android phone on the cheap.

I'm not saying no one should buy the new Note 20 -- in fact, Samsung is marketing features it thinks are great for our mostly at-home lifestyle. Plus, many don't have the luxury of staying home. But this year brings a unique opportunity to evaluate how your dependence on tech tools has changed, and the Note 20 brings that change into stark relief.

The Galaxy Note 20

Hardware-wise, the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra are a lot like the Galaxy S20 devices introduced back in March, except with bigger screens, faster processors, tucked-away pens and some new camera tricks.

Each is equipped with three cameras on the back, including a telephoto capable of a super-crazy zoom similar to the Galaxy S20 Ultra, though the two new phones do have a new pro-video mode for advanced shooting and audio tools. The Note 20 Ultra has what Samsung calls laser auto focus. Both of the phones come standard with 5G connectivity, too. Some pluses for our pandemic lives: a 10-megapixel selfie camera for video calling and a fingerprint sensor embedded into the screen so you don't have to remove your mask or futz with a password.

Still, the Note 20 was already in production in mid-March when much of the world went into lockdown. Lucky for Samsung it didn't have an enhanced group selfie camera planned. However, Drew Blackard, Samsung vice president of product management, said the company has worked to tailor the software experience for our stay-at-home lives.

With Samsung's DeX, you can connect the phone to a monitor, mouse and keyboard and turn it into a full-fledged computer. The Note 20 is the first phone to have wireless DeX, which lets it wirelessly connect to smart TVs or adapters that support Miracast Wi-Fi. (It is optimized for the most recent Samsung TVs.) It is a great trick, sure, but the idea of a single device that powers all my computers is less appealing these days when I spend nearly 80% of my time on my laptop.

Then there is the budding Microsoft-Samsung tech-mance. An improved Link to Windows app on the Note lets you access your mobile apps, messages and notifications on your Windows 10 PC. The improved Samsung Notes app syncs with Microsoft OneNote, Outlook, Teams, etc. And then starting on September 15, you'll be able to play over 100 Xbox games on the phone via the cloud using Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.

And knowing most will buy the device online, Samsung has launched contactless delivery, increased the return window to 30 days and will soon offer video calls with online sales reps.

The Tablet-Phone Alternatives

But for the first time, I'm far more interested in Samsung's tablet computer than its pocket computer. The Tab S7, which is the company's first tablet to have 5G in the U.S., has an 11-inch screen, the same S Pen tricks as the Note and a $180 keyboard cover (sold separately). It also has those same Microsoft-backed productivity and gaming features as the Note, plus an 8-megapixel front-facing camera for video calling. The $850 Tab S7+ has a bigger 12.4-inch screen.

If I'm considering the best value on Android this year, I'd go with that tablet and a midtier phone such as the new $350 Google Pixel 4a with a 5.8-inch screen or the $400 Galaxy A51 with a 6.5-inch screen and three cameras. Within the next few months, there will be editions of both of those phones with 5G, though they will cost a bit more.

In the world of smartphones, there has been increasingly less reason to spend a grand. At a time when it has been getting harder and harder to understand the marginal improvements of top-tier phones -- let alone justify buying a new phone every two years -- the more affordable, midrange phones have benefited, with improved cameras, screens and performance. Just look at how good a phone the $399 iPhone SE is and how popular it was in the last quarter.

One day we will go back to lives where we'll want the best and latest supercomputers in our pockets -- maybe even a fancy one that folds in half. One day, everyone. One day.

-- For more WSJ Technology analysis, reviews, advice and headlines, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com

 

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