The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the new behemoth on the block. It’s Samsung’s most expensive and feature-rich “basic” smartphone now that foldables like the Galaxy Z Flip and Z Fold series are around. At $1,199 for a base model with 128GB, it’s actually kind of a steal compared to 2020’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, which retailed for $1,399 for the 128GB model. It’s still expensive for a phone though, so let’s see what all it does to justify the expense.
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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – Design and Features
In design, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is more of a proper successor to the Galaxy S20 family than the S21 and S21+ are. It continues the curvier front glass (albeit more subtly) that has been abandoned by the other S21 phones. The glass is the new Gorilla Glass Victus flavor, and in the case of the Ultra, it’s on both the front and back, which surely adds to the cost compared to the plastic back on the S21 and S21+. Naturally, the S21 Ultra continues to offer a metal frame to further its durability as well as an IP68 rating.
Aesthetically, the only things that give the Galaxy S21 a new look are the remodeled camera bump and the color scheme. In the corner where the cameras are situated, the metal frame stretches up to blend with the metal housing around all the cameras. Unfortunately, there is a seam between the frame and the housing that sort of ruins the effect (but likely improves repairability). The camera housing is also massive, as it accommodates four cameras, a flash, and a laser auto-focus system. It’s just over two inches tall and 1-1/4 inches wide – in other words, about a third the height and half the width of the entire width of the phone. It makes me think it’ll be a bit difficult to keep centered on charging pads for those who love wireless charging.
The phone, given it bears the Ultra moniker, features a 6.8 inch screen – the largest of the S21 family. Having recently used the iPhone 12 Pro and the LG Wing, I was ready for this thing to be another unwieldy monster. To my surprise, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is fairly easy to hold. It’s not as tall as the LG Wing (and doesn’t have a flip-up screen to shift all of its weight to the top), and it’s a few millimeters narrower than the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which is just enough difference for me to use it in one hand. And, even though it’s 1 gram heavier than the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the extra grip I get around the sides makes it less straining on my pinky.
The 6.8-inch screen continues to offer tiny bezels, which only further put the iPhone 12’s dated design to shame. The screen brings with it some new features, too. It’s still a bright AMOLED display with HDR10+ support. There’s still a fingerprint scanner under the glass, though it’s now noticeably faster than the scanner on my Galaxy S20. And, this year, Samsung doesn’t lock the display’s refresh rate to certain resolutions. The display can run its full 3,200 x 1440 resolution and 120Hz refresh rate at the same time. This model also has a wide adaptive refresh rate range, letting it hit up to 120Hz for smooth visuals and drop down as low as just 10Hz to save battery while displaying static or slower-moving content. This model also borrows a feature of the Note line with support for the S Pen through a Wacom digitizing layer, though I wasn’t able to get my hands on an S Pen for this review, and the random Bamboo Ink stylus I had lying around didn’t register.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is ready for the latest in wireless connectivity. It features the necessary antennae to connect to the big three flavors of 5G: low-band, mid-band, and mmWave. It also offers support for Wi-Fi 6E. Samsung’s Dex desktop experience is still on board here as well, including Wireless Dex. Reverse wireless charging is also still around. Unfortunately, one more feature is going the way of the headphone jack on this latest model: There’s no more microSD card slot for easy, affordable, post-purchase storage upgrade. Samsung also didn’t decide to go bold and throw a 3.5mm headphone jack back onto the phone even though the top edge is largely barren save for two microphones holes and a single antenna line.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – Software
The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes running Android 11 with the One UI 3.1 interface. I find the experience continues to offer plenty of customization to get it running just how I like (yeah, I still prefer the old-school Android navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen). The system settings are also easy to navigate. A few things are still a little irksome, like the power button defaulting to serve as a Bixby button instead. Samsung’s rebranding of display mirroring/casting as Smart View also continues to puzzle me.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – Gaming and Performance
The Galaxy S21 Ultra, like the rest of its family, runs on the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chipset. Unlike the Snapdragon 865 chipset, the 5G modem is integrated into the chipset which in theory lends the whole system more efficiency.
Predictably, the Snapdragon 888 is a fast performer. Loading games, launching apps, and switching between them all happens in a flash. The navigation is only made to feel that much smoother thanks to the ability of the display to speed up to 120Hz when needed. The system is helped along by 12GB of LPDDR5 memory, though the 512GB model packs 16GB of memory instead.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra runs games smoothly. Playing the Hitman Sniper game, the graphics were perfectly clear and the game never stuttered as I scoped in, shot targets over ledges, and quickly shifted over to my next target. Asphalt 9 showed one shortcoming of the phone, as the large screen let small details show up that much more clearly: namely, aliasing. The game is perfectly fluid at max quality even in the thick of a race, but the highest graphics quality may not be taking full advantage of the power available to smooth out the picture. Thatgamecompany’s Sky had a similar issue, though some of the graphics options were unavailable, perhaps a result of the app not yet recognizing the phone and Snapdragon 888 chipset.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra packs a 5,000mAh battery which is on the big side for any smartphone, but it’s tasked with running a fast, 5G-capable chipset and a massive display. With light use, I’m able to make it just through two full days on a charge, but I’d expect that to shrink to a single day if I was out and about all day relying on my phone for photos, chat, navigation, and entertainment. Streaming a 42-minute episode of the new Netflix show Lupin at medium brightness saw the phone lose just 6% of its battery, so it’s still on the efficient side. And, the video looked stunning, with capable stereo audio to match.
I don’t have much to report about 5G performance. I tossed my T-Mobile SIM card into the review unit and was largely running on the 5G network. But, data speeds will come down based upon the network you’re on and the 5G band used. I seem to have only ever connected to low-band towers during my testing, as I never came close to breaking 100Mbps in my speed tests.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – Camera
To put it briefly, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera system is excellent, but it suffers from one little foible that crops up from time to time. I’ll get to that in a moment.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra features the following cameras:
- 12MP Ultrawide at f/2.4
- 108MP Wide at f/1.8 with Nona-binning and OIS
- 10MP 3x Telephoto at f/2.4 with OIS
- 10MP 10x Telephoto at f/4.9 with OIS
- 40MP Front-facing at f/2.2
Those four rear sensors are capable of some really impressive shooting, especially at the longer focal lengths. The ultra-wide sensor is the first to show off its weakness, as it can get pretty noisy in the dark and often just takes decent photos (which is still commendable, since many ultra-wide sensors are pretty ho-hum).
The primary sensor shoots some great photos, and it handles low-light scenarios quite well thanks to its wide aperture. It fares quite favorably next to the fantastic main sensor on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. In fact, in most comparisons, the camera systems between the two phones are very closely matched. That holds true of the selfie cameras as well. The iPhone does a better job at shooting low-light photos fast, which helps avoid the blur risk of a long shutter. But, outside of the darkest scenes, I found the Ultra taking sharper shots. I also noticed the Ultra’s noise in darker photos was less distracting than the iPhone’s, as the iPhone’s noise appears to have a pattern to it that draws the eye, almost like the texture on the skin of an orange.
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When it comes to zoom capability, there’s no competition. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10x zoom sees to that plainly. It can produce a useful image with a high level of detail at 10x and even some distance beyond where the iPhone 12 Pro Max offers up a hazy photo.
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It actually manages to see details further out than I can with my own eyes – something I don’t think I’ve experienced on a phone in the past. At 16.4x, it can make the fine print on the back of a book across the room easily readable.
That same book cover would have been easy to read at 10x as well, but I did mention a problem though. After way too much troubleshooting, I discovered the laser AF system on the back of the phone was playing a large role in determining which camera was used to shoot. Often, I’d try to shoot at 3x or 10x and find that the phone was digitally zooming from a different sensor rather than using the sensor corresponding to the zoom level, and the result was an unusable image.
Samsung explained that the phone should use the 3x telephoto camera for all zoom levels from 3x up to 10x and use the 10x telephoto from 10x and beyond (using multi-frame processing from multiple sensors when shooting at zoom levels between sensors). But, when something comes near the laser AF, the phone seems to prioritize focus and force the phone to use a sensor with a shorter focal length. It’s not a problem if you know to avoid it, but it’s easy to run into if you hold your phone like a game controller when shooting photos. I had a similar issue with getting my finger in frame on the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s ultra-wide sensor.
Beyond photos, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is also a capable video shooter. This go-around, the phone can shoot 4K60 on every sensor. 8K video at 24fps is also an option, but only on the wide-angle camera. There are some trade-offs while shooting. Jump up to 4K60 or 8K and you lose the option to record in HDR10+. Samsung Super Steady mode is also only available at Full HD. These are trade-offs that are a tad disappointing given the iPhone 12 Pro Max is putting its muscle right into shooting 4K60 with Dolby Vision.
Samsung has also introduced a mode called Director’s View. In effect, it shows you the view of three of the rear sensors (the 10x is excluded) and the front-facing camera all at the same time. It could be helpful if you’re trying to record a video and plan to do lots of punching in and out. But, the video previews are actually all coming from the ultra-wide sensor with a crop to approximate what the other sensors are seeing. That doesn’t mean it’s not useful, but it’s another situation where you’ll want to be careful about how you’re holding the phone.