Galaxy Note 20 Ultra — will shoppers buy Samsung's $1,300 phone in a pandemic?

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra size
(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is packed with features, from a dynamic 120Hz display and more responsive S Pen to a 50x Space Zoom camera. But is the phone really worth $1,299 — and is Samsung nuts for releasing such an ultra-premium handset in the midst of a global pandemic and economic recession?

There’s no question that the Galaxy Note 20 offers high-end features to help justify the premium. But Samsung has already run into trouble this year with its Galaxy S20 series, which starts at $999 for the regular S20 and goes all the way up to $1,399 for the Galaxy S20 Ultra

According to data from M Science supplied to PC Mag, Galaxy S20 sales were about 50% lower than the Galaxy S10 series when you compare the first seven weeks. It would seem that shoppers just don't have a big appetite for high-priced flagships right now. 

I spoke with three analysts about whether the pricing for the Galaxy Note 20 lineup is fair, and Samsung itself about its value proposition.

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: What you get for $1,300

But analysts do believe there is a market for the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra despite the high price tag. And that's because it simply offers a lot more than cheaper handsets, such as the $349 Google Pixel 4a and even moderately priced flagships like the $899 OnePlus 8 Pro.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is undeniably expensive, but you do get what you pay for.

Avi Greengart, Techsponential

"The Galaxy Note20 Ultra is undeniably expensive, but you do get what you pay for, said Avi Greengart, lead analyst at Techsponential. This includes "features found rarely or not at all on other flagships" including 5x optical zoom, a 108MP camera with laser focus system, 120 Hz variable refresh rate display and an S Pen with a faster 9 ms response rate.

In our own Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review we found the Space Zoom camera to be the most impressive feature. The regular Note 20 is limited to a 3x hybrid optic zoom and 30x digital zoom. In addition, the Note 20 has a plastic design, which has some calling its $999 price into question.

Samsung covering multiple prices

In an interview, Samsung stood behind the cost of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra while also reinforcing that the company offers a wide range of options at different prices for those who don't want to spend $1,000 or more on a phone.

"The [Galaxy Note 20 Ultra] itself in terms of staying connected and video chatting and being productive, it’s a really relevant value proposition," said Caleb Slavin, senior manager of product management at Samsung Electronics America. "On the value side we just rolled out our $499 A51 5G device. So we’re trying to products out there across the value spectrum for a variety of different consumers."

"On the value side we just rolled out our $499 A51 5G device. So we’re trying to products out there across the value spectrum for a variety of different consumers.

Caleb Slavin, Samsung

The Galaxy A51 5G has decent specs for the money, including a big 6.5-inch OLED display, 5G capability, a quad-camera system with a main 48MP lens and a big 4,500 mAh battery. However, the Exynos 980 chip that powers the device is slower than the A13 Bionic processor in the cheaper iPhone SE, and some early A51 5G reviews have complained about its performance.

Galaxy Note 20 Ultra vs Galaxy Note 20

So is the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra really worth $300 more than the regular Galaxy Note 20? It certainly has several advantages, but perhaps only the most demanding power users will appreciate them.

"The Ultra offers a mix of benefits that vary from premium materials (the Ultra's new Gorilla Glass back) to spec advantages that may be lost on many," said Ross Rubin, principle analyst at Reticle Research. These include the higher-resolution 108MP camera, microSD, faster refresh rate and support ultra wideband communications for sharing files. 

For Samsung, it makes more sense to compare the Galaxy Note 20 to the Galaxy Note 9 from 2018, especially since many Note 9 owners are wondering if it's worth the upgrade.

"The most Notes out in the wild right now are the Note 9," said Slavin. "So if you’re a Note 9 owner, you spent $999 for that device. So for the same price you get a bigger screen, the latest processor, full 5G capabilities and the S Pen latency is still half what it was on that device. So there’s a whole number of improvements to the device at that same price point compared to what we had two years ago." 

Pandemic pricing is not a thing

Samsung is taking a risk by selling the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra for $1,299 and the Galaxy Note 20 for $999. Rumor has it that the iPhone 12 Pro will start at $999 and the iPhone 12 Pro Max will cost $1,099, even with the addition of 5G. So is Samsung not reading the room well enough in terms of what people are willing to pay in the current environment?

"I really don't think the prices have anything to do with the pandemic," said Carolina Milanesi, a principal analyst at Creative Strategies. "There is a [bill of materials] cost and a margin that got the prices where they are and I really don't think Samsung is making more money on these than they would in normal times."

Considering that the Note 20 Ultra has 5G, S pen support, a huge 6.9-inch screen, DeX support and UWB, Milanesi says that "the price is appropriate." For her, deciding whether the premium is worth it comes down to your income, the phone you're currently using, if you're in a 5G coverage area and if you like to take lots of photos.

While it might seem a little tone deaf to sell a $1,300 phone in this environment, shoppers will ultimately decide whether Samsung is right to charge what it is for the Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. 

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.