With Galaxy Note 20, Samsung reaches beyond the screen

Putting digital pen to screen defines the Note, but Samsung has included new wireless connection methods that could be particularly useful in the age of COVID-19.

Samsung Unpacked: What the Note 20 and other new devices mean for business

From the glass curving around a phone's sides starting with its Edge series phones to its work in folding plastic and soon folding glass phones, Samsung has long been one of the most innovative companies when it comes to smartphone displays. That's not too surprising given that it is also one of the world's largest display component producers. While the Galaxy Note 20 doesn't break the kind of display ground that the Z Fold does, Samsung still snuck in a few screen-related features such as automatically changing of refresh rate based on the application and AI-fueled enhancements to make the S Pen-to-screen writing experience smoother than ever.

But the latest version of the Note, once known for the size of its screen as much as for its signature writing implement, features several technologies that extend the functionality of the device beyond the borders of its "borderless" Infinity Display. Samsung started down this road with the previous Galaxy Note, which introduced midair gestures as it brought Bluetooth to the venerable S Pen. These have been expanded in the Note 20 to include more camera and volume control features. But there are even more significant ways the Note 20 transcends the handheld experience.

Ultra Wideband. At its virtual WWDC keynote in June, Apple announced that iOS would have support for new ultra wideband technology (UWB), offered by vendors such as NXP, for digital key applications. UWB had a moment years ago when the USB Implementers' Forum tried using it for a wireless USB standard, but the initiative was one of the few attempts at which the trade group stumbled. Now, though, UWB is being revisited for its short-range directional sensitivity as an ideal technology to use for wireless key applications.

Apple showed off BMW as a partner for its car unlocking application. Samsung, though, has initially highlighted a home lock implementation as well as device-to-device file transfers that could bring back the exchanges enabled by "beaming" in the early days of PDAs. For now, such exchanges will be limited to Galaxy Note Ultra devices, but we can expect UWB to migrate to other phone models made by Samsung and other vendors.

Wireless DeX. Samsung has been on a multi-year decluttering journey when it comes to DeX. When the alternative desktop interface for external screens (or internal in the case of Samsung's Tab S line) debuted, it required a dock, then just a cable, and now not even that. When I'd tried out DeX with a laptop-like device designed to provide input and display capabilities, DeX reflected a greater maturity than the main rival offering from Huawei, which has become an even less viable option in the U.S. in recent months.

Wireless DeX uses the Miracast standard that has good support among televisions (including Samsung's, of course) and has the support of Microsoft in Windows, However, Miracast has been overshadowed in the market by AirPlay and Google Cast, the favored casting approaches of the dominant smartphone operating systems. Samsung hasn't committed to supporting either of those standards, but the small size and affordability of Chromecasts would make Google Cast a natural second standard to explore.

Your Phone. Last month, I wrote about the growing case for Microsoft to support Android apps side-by-side with Windows apps on a PC as Apple Silicon Macs join Chrome OS in supporting native mobile apps. In that column, I acknowledged that such a step would require a degree of collaboration between Microsoft and Google we haven't yet seen. However, the Note 20, which is preloaded with Microsoft's Phone Companion, provides the next best thing: the ability to wirelessly access apps on the device from one's PC. This opens the door to a range of "quick mobile transactions" that are simply not possible from a web page, such as initiating a remote Starbucks order, ordering an Uber, or paying someone via Venmo.

The Note 20 won't have this functionality exclusively for long. Microsoft has shown the ability to remotely run Android apps on its own Surface Duo. But, while the Note may not be Samsung's best-selling model, it's sure to extend the feature to a broader audience than Microsoft's attempted comeback device. 

Coincidentally, the three new features line up with extending the Note 20 to TVs, PCs, and other phones, the most important "three screens" that have long been used to describe digital media targets. That collective reach represents a marketing opportunity for Samsung in an era where the business caution of COVID-19 takes on even more significance than the traditional charm of convenience.