Thursday, January 21, 2021

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s new ‘everything phone’ that’s eclipses even last year’s Note 20 Ultra, and it has the beefy cameras and S Pen compatibility to prove it.

This is Samsung’s vision of smartphone excess for 2021: five cameras, a 108MP sensor, two telephoto lenses, 100x zoom, 40MP selfies, 5G, all-day battery life, and up to 16GB of RAM – all packed into an Android phone with a 6.8-inch 120Hz Quad HD display and an in-screen fingerprint sensor that has a 1.7x larger surface area than the one on last year’s phone.

It’s the first new smartphone we’ve tested in 2021, along with the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus, and it sets the bar high – much higher than last year’s problematic ‘Ultra’ phone. Samsung has retooled its main camera with lasers – yes, lasers – to remedy the autofocus issues on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, and also upgraded the specs to keep up with the demands of processing large 108MP photos, 40MP selfies, and 8K video without as much as a hiccup.

Photos look sharp, dynamic range is impressive, and the new ‘tripod lock’ feature steadies the 30x and 100x zoom levels on subjects to prevent the viewfinder image from jumping around. It’s easier to pull off the ‘Space Zoom’ now, although punching in 100x is limited to being a neat party trick due to grainy images, while 30x is passable in the right light. 

It’s the S21 Ultra’s 10x and 3x optical zoom levels that nailed the photos we wanted every time – more than any other smartphone camera. Our side-by-side comparisons with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which tops out at a 2.5x optical zoom, bore that out. Apple’s main camera captures cleaner photos in some low-light situations, but Samsung’s night mode has improved enough to almost close that gap after sunset, and when you’re snapping away indoors – and its default camera app is more feature-packed and easier to use than Apple’s.

Photography and speed are only two-thirds of the story here. This is a tale of design beauty and the performance beast, with a gently curved edge-to-edge display, smaller rear camera bump and mesmerizing matte Phantom Black color option that’s like a black hole sucking in your gaze (other colors are available). It’s hard to look away. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s best-looking phone ever.

Welcome amid an economic slowdown, the overhauled look and boost in performance haven't led to a price increase over last year’s S20 Ultra – Samsung has actually made this phone significantly cheaper. Granted, we felt like the first Ultra was overpriced, and the S21 is still mighty expensive – it’s more than the iPhone 12 Pro Max – but Samsung gives you a bit more for the extra cost: a larger, brighter and more capable curved screen, 10x optical camera zoom (vs 2.5x on the iPhone), and stylus support, something Apple has yet to offer on any iPhone. 

Depending on what’s important to you, then, Samsung may be offering more value for your money. What’s the catch? We started out saying that the S21 Ultra is Samsung’s vision of excess, but you’ll have to let go of what doesn’t fit into the company’s roadmap. Gone is the microSD card slot for expandable storage, say goodbye to MST (that was being able to pay with Samsung Pay even if a credit card machine doesn't have NFC), and you won’t find a charger inside of the box; like Apple, Samsung cites e-waste as the reason the power brick isn’t included.

If you only just got over the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack in Samsung smartphones, brace yourself for these changes – we have seen some diehards in our YouTube video comments proclaim “no microSD, no sale”. But there’s enough positive change here to offset any minor discomfort, enough that we're now confident this ‘Ultra’ phone finally lives up to its name.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra price and release date

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra release date is Friday, January 29, with preorders still available in the US, UK and Australia. The launch event was January 14, meaning that both the official announcement and the release date are a month earlier than we’re used to for the company’s flagship smartphone. Samsung is bucking trends in 2021. 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra price is also notably cheaper than the S20 Ultra at launch, though it’s still going to cost you a lot. It starts at $1,199 / £1,149 / AU$1,849 for a version with 128GB of internal storage and 12GB of RAM. 

Keep in mind that there’s no microSD card slot for expandable storage, so if you’re keen on taking lots of 4K or 8K video, you may want to look into the 256GB or 512GB storage sizes – and the latter of those sizes also bumps up the RAM to 16GB. Is it all too rich for you? The Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus don’t tout ‘Space Zoom’, S Pen support or 108MP photos, but you do get the 3x optical zoom and slick design, at a far cheaper price.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

The two main colors of the Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Future)

Design

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is one gorgeous-looking smartphone – so much so that we didn’t bother to put a case on it during testing. Risky, yes, but the finish of our review device – a matte Phantom Black with few seams – helped minimize the camera bump and fingerprints smudges.

In addition to the deep, Vantablack-like Phantom Black color, there’s also a Phantom White color on sale everywhere, while Samsung’s own online store offers an additional four options: Phantom Silver, Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy and Phantom Brown. Whatever color you choose, the matte finish of each is a significant improvement over last year’s S20 series, which had a reflective sheen that looked a little plasticky and cheap.

Both the Galaxy S21 Ultra and S21 Plus have a smooth Gorilla Glass back (while the Galaxy S21 is stuck with a polycarbonate – (read: plastic) that feels less smooth to the touch. Unless you were to compare them side by side, plenty of average consumers won’t be able to tell the difference.

We’ve been finding the S21 Ultra to be big where it needs to be, while minimizing everything you don’t want to see. For example, its large display stretches the hand at 6.8 inches, yet the curved edge-to-edge screen means that bezel is almost non-existent, and the 40MP front camera hides behind a tiny punch-hole that’s easy to ignore after a few minutes.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

Screen

The Galaxy S21 Ultra screen is Samsung’s first that’s capable (among smartphones) of running at a smooth 120Hz refresh rate while in a pixel-packing Quad HD resolution. The S20 and Note 20 series forced you to choose between 120Hz/60Hz and Quad HD/Full HD, while the new S21 and S21 Plus are stuck at Full HD+, with 120Hz enabled by default.

The long-awaited verdict? Meh – it’s the best of both worlds, sure, but you won’t see much of a difference between 1080p and Quad HD on a display of this size. The need for resolutions higher than Full HD among smartphones was being driven by VR headsets – you could see a ‘screen door effect’ at lower resolutions when the pixels were so close to your face. But Samsung, along with the entire mobile industry, seems to have cooled its VR initiatives.

This is still Samsung’s best screen, but for many other reasons. We found the 6.8-inch body to be easier to grasp than the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max, and that’s in large part thanks to the curved display and narrowness of the device. The curved edges are subtle here, and not quite as pronounced as on past Samsung devices, and that means fewer errant presses.

We also tested the screen brightness of the Galaxy S20 Ultra outdoors, and it automatically amps up to a super-bright 1,500 nits when necessary. Other phones with AMOLED screens, including the S21 and S21 Plus, max out at 1,200 nits, and every little bit helps in direct sunlight.

Samsung’s redesigned in-screen fingerprint sensor, which uses ultrasonic technology courtesy of Qualcomm, makes its debut on the Galaxy S21 series. There’s 1.7x more surface area to this invisible biometric pad, and we found it was more forgiving of our often wayward thumb placement – that’s a relief given the fact that face unlock is useless at a time when we’re often hidden behind a mask.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)
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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

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S Pen compatibility

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s first non-Note phone that’s compatible with its S Pen stylus, and it’s a trend we like seeing. However, things work a bit differently here: there’s no S Pen included with the phone, and there’s no way to embed it into the body of the phone.

There’s a folio case that holds a special S Pen – one that’s larger and more comfortable to hold than the one that tucks inside of the body of Galaxy Note phones. This means you’ll want a Galaxy S21 Ultra case for more than protection. Exactly what you’re supposed to do with the stylus without buying this folio case is currently unclear, but it neatly slots into the inner spine of the case and feels secure there.

We were able to jot down quick notes and bring up all of the Air Command options, which include a variety of features you can use without touching the phone’s screen. We appreciate the fact the S Pen is larger, so easier to grasp than the toothpick-sized Note S Pen, and the fact that Samsung’s using Wacom screen tech, so you can use any stylus with your phone. 

Missing from the new S Pen we tested ahead of launch were the Bluetooth shortcuts for triggering the camera app and making off-screen notes, which you’re able do on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. We’re hoping these will arrive with an even more special S Pen Pro model that’s launching later this year, and which was first announced during the Galaxy Unpacked event at which the S21 phones were unveiled.

Even with all of the hype around the appearance of an S Pen on an S phone, we fully expect to see the Note 21 Ultra in the next six to seven months (six if it comes early and seven if Samsung sticks to its usual August time frame). There's still a demand for that phone – and for being able to embed the stylus inside the handset.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

Camera

Ready for your extreme close-up? The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, with its five cameras and 100x zoom range, impress this time around, even if grainy ‘Space Zoom’ photos continue to not meet our quality threshold for readily posting to our Instagram accounts.

It’s the 3x, 10x and, occasionally in well-lit conditions, 30x photo zooms that nail the shot with breathtaking clarity. What helps most at the 30x (and 100x) ranges is the new tripod lock feature, which prevents the viewfinder image from jumping around, something that could be jarring when zooming in that tightly on the S20 Ultra. After a second, the S21 Ultra camera fixes onto a subject that it outlines in yellow on the small zoomed-out corner reticle, and the shakiness is magically dialed down.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

Ultra-wide camera

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

Main camera 1x (no zoom)

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

2x telephoto zoom

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

3x telephoto zoom (optical)

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

4x telephoto zoom

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

10x telephoto zoom

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

30x telephoto zoom

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

100x telephoto zoom (digital max)

Going all the way from the unchanged ultra-wide camera at 0.5x to the digitally zoomed-in 30x with usable photos each step of the way is how Samsung stands apart from Apple and its cameras on the iPhone 12 Pro Max (capped at 2.5x optical / 12x digital), and Google’s Pixel 5 (no telephoto). No one (except Huawei) is doing zoom on a smartphone like this in 2021, and your Apple phone-owning friends will have telephoto envy.

Yes, having two telephoto cameras does seem downright ridiculous, but they offer different perspectives: 3x and 10x, all without having to go digital and hybrid in between. The zoom facility on both is optical, though Samsung’s camera software oftentimes has a mind of its own. We’ve found it can overwrite your decision and pick which camera gets used (likely based on their different apertures and the lighting in your environment). So it may take ‘zoomed-in’ photos with the main sensor and then just crop to simulate that zoom. It’s a bit unpredictable, but most of the shots turn out okay. All you have to do is press the shutter button.

Our previous favorite telephoto camera from Samsung, on the Note 20 Ultra, had a 5x optical zoom and 50x digital zoom. So the 10x optical zoom on the S21 Ultra gets you closer to those far-off subjects, while the 3x optical is handy for pulling it back a little bit without digital distortion.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

10x optical telephoto camera of a moving subject

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

Night mode off

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera roll

(Image credit: Future)

Night mode on

Year-over-year the biggest improvement is to the 108MP main camera, which made its debut in the S20 Ultra but was dogged with autofocus issues at launch. That’s been fixed in the S21 Ultra thanks to the addition of  laser-assisted phase detection autofocus, which was absent on the S20 Ultra (the Note 20 Ultra did have this). Finally, you’re going to be able to do justice to the extra detail from those 108MP shots and 40MP selfies, which makes a post-snap crop easier. Otherwise, without cropping, you won’t see a giant difference.

We noticed that the Galaxy S21 Ultra camera offers improved dynamic range in outdoor photos (see photos with a bright sky and darker buildings) over its predecessors, and Samsung now offers 12-bit raw files for greater flexibility when editing. The iPhone 12 Pro series still wins out for many non-zoomed photos, especially indoor and nighttime shots, but Samsung and its more finely tuned night mode (it doesn’t simply bump up the exposure) help close the gap.

All Galaxy S21 series phones now record video at 4K at 60fps from all cameras, and 8K at 24fps returns. But it’s the new Director’s View mode that caught our eye this year: you can  capture video with both the front and back cameras simultaneously. Vloggers and other content creators will relish the fact that you can capture reaction shots of themselves, which they can splice in alongside their main footage. 

Director’s View is a neat idea that you don’t get on most phones (the iPhone 12 series requires a third-party app to pull this off). It joins last year’s video-focused additions, like zoom-in microphones for better capturing the subject you’re zooming into, and an improved Single Take mode for recording video and taking photos at the same time.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

Specs and performance

The Galaxy S21 series is faster for two reasons: it marks the debut of brand-new chipsets, and the software has been streamlined just a bit, with the ever-evolving OneUI 3.0 interface tied into Android 11.

At the heart of all three S21 phones is one of two speedy chipsets: either Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 (US) or Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 (just about everywhere else). While we haven’t done in-depth side-by-side comparisons yet (not-so-subtle: yes, we’ll be updating our reviews when we’ve done so), both seem very snappy, even if the Geekbench 5 scores we’ve gotten don’t quite measure up. This is why we shy away from benchmarking phones in such granular detail. 

What you’ll want to pay attention to more are the internal storage sizes. Many people have been turned off by the fact that the S21 series doesn’t include a microSD card slot for expandable storage, and, frankly, we’re with you on that. The inclusion of microSD slots always made it easier for us to recommend Samsung over Apple when things were neck-and-neck, as you could go for the lower storage size and upgrade later. Not anymore.

The base-level 128GB of internal storage with 12GB of RAM might not be enough for everyone. You’ll want to either pony up for the version with 256GB of storage and 12GB of RAM, or max out at 256GB of storage with 16GB of RAM. The RAM won’t make much of a difference in a phone, but you’ll definitely notice if you run out of storage space. 

You’ll need to have an idea of how much space you need in advance of buying the S21 Ultra – and that’s something that Samsung fans rarely have to think about, as microSD cards were always a nice fallback plan.

Part of the reason the S21 Ultra seems snappy is the fact that Samsung has further streamlined its software interface. With OneUI 3.0, menus now throw fewer unnecessary windows in your face before executing what you want to do. We also see Google Assistant taking up the leftmost menu instead of being forced to use Bixby Today.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

Hang on to your power adapters. Neither the old USB-A nor the new USB-C chargers are included in the box, but you will get all-day battery life. (Image credit: Future)

Battery life

The Galaxy S21 Ultra battery life was solid during our normal testing, amounting to a full day and change – but we tanked the battery much more quickly when we pushed that 120Hz screen refresh rate to the max and cranked up the resolution to Quad HD.

Its 5,000mAh battery matches the Galaxy S20 Ultra capacity, and you’re going to get all-day battery life if you stick with Samsung’s default settings. The resolution is set to 1080p out of the box (most users won’t notice a big difference between Full HD and Quad HD). 

Also helping is the fact that the 120Hz refresh rate is variable. It’s technically ‘up to 120Hz’, so it won’t be so high if it doesn’t need to be, sparing your battery. Samsung’s backend software will automatically adjust between 11Hz and 120Hz, depending on your activity: reading an eBook (low) vs playing a 3D game (high).

You won’t get a charger with the Galaxy S21, and Samsung is betting that you have an old one on hand, or that you’ll buy one at a newly discounted price. Included is a USB-C-to-USB cable, but you’ll want one of the newer fast chargers for this phone in order to speedily charge it at 25W. You can also fast wirelessly charge at up to 15W, and reverse wirelessly charge those Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro or anything that Qi-charges.

Samsung doesn’t support 45W charging on the S21 series whatsoever, something that may seem like a step backward – the Note 10 Plus and entire S20 series were compatible with this optional charger. The company told TechRadar that 25W has been optimized enough to the point that 45W matters very little, although we’d also suspect few people went out and bought the special 45W charger.

Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra?

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

Buy it if...

You want epic camera zooms
Samsung cameras are the most fun for us to test due to the epic shot variety. Two telephoto lenses are the big highlight with the S21 Ultra, and the 100x zoom will impress your friends, even if the standard image quality only ties the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

You need the most powerful Android
The Samsung Galaxy S21 delivers some phenomenally good performance, and if you need a smartphone that can handle multiple tasks at once in split-screen view, or when gaming, this will likely be it.

You want some S Pen features
Grab an S Pen and start jotting down notes on a Galaxy S phone? You can do that for the first time here. We’ve also gotten to use tools like translating text and previewing links, just like on a Note phone.

Don't buy it if...

You’re on a budget
We recommend the S21 Ultra over the S21 and S21 Plus simply because it has so much extra going on. But if you can’t afford it, wait a few months and this phone will drop in price (during Amazon Prime Day or Black Friday).

You need lots of storage
No microSD card slot is a deal-breaker for a lot of people who have emailed us/tweeted at us/ left us comments. Almost any other Android phone (outside of Google’s Pixels) has this feature – but you won’t get that camera zoom.

You want advanced stylus features
The S21 Ultra is compatible with the S Pen, but it doesn’t outright replace the Note 20 Ultra. Some features, like off-screen memo and Bluetooth shortcuts, remain exclusive to the Note 20. Avid note-takers, take note.

First reviewed: January 2021

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