Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review


The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s “best of the best” for the first half of this year, and despite the leading-edge technology, the S21 Ultra price is $200 lower than the S20 Ultra at launch. Let’s take a closer look at the user experience to see how the S21 Ultra performs in the real-world and where it stands in the grand scheme of things.

Specifications Highlights
Product Galaxy S21 Ultra (SD888) (2021), Price: 1199.99 USD
Display 6.8″ 3200×1440 AMOLED
Rear Camera(s)
  • 24mm 108-MP f/1.8 (Primary)
  • 13mm 12-MP f/2.2
  • 72mm 10-MP f/2.4 +OIS
  • 240mm 10-MP f/4.9 +OIS
Selfie Camera(s)
Computing
  • Snapdragon 888 SoC
  • 12GB/16GB RAM
  • 128GB/256GB/512GB Storage
Battery 5000 mAh, Wireless Charging
Design IP68, 229g (8.1oz), 75.6×165.1×8.9 mm (2.98 x 6.50 x 0.35 inches)
Price (Market) $1199.99

Design

Samsung is no stranger to industrial design prowess, and it did it again: the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a wonderful design on several fronts, and here are my highlights:

The new “Phantom Black” matte finish is pretty amazing because it looks incredibly classy and is (nearly) impervious to fingerprints, which is the #1 aesthetic problem of a whole lot of phones.

I wasn’t even 100% sure that the back cover is made of glass, but it indeed is. The S21 Ultra (and S21+) has a Gorilla Glass Victus back cover, and the Ultra’s protection is superior to the S21+ because it is “reinforced Polycarbonate,” whatever that means. More information in this video.

We know it works from independent testing, but obviously, your luck may vary depending on how your phone hits the cold concrete.

Some reports also mention how the surface could get scratches, so you still have to be careful. However, if you happen to drop it by accident, this seems to be a high level of glass-shatter protection, without a case.

“THIS DESIGN IS A WORK OF ART”

The camera bump/module is massive, and its design conveys all the photographic power very well. Simultaneously, it is the best camera design integration in the whole industry, in my opinion.

The camera module is so massive that it’s impossible (or practical) to hide it, but instead of just having a “lump” in the back, the S21 Ultra’s merges perfectly with the rest of the chassis smoothly and fluidly.

Compared to the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the S21 Ultra is a bit smaller (in height), but overall, I find the experience of holding, carrying, and using it very similar. They both are big and heavy phones, and the Galaxy S21 5G (non-ultra) is significantly smaller and lighter.

Perhaps it’s a pity that Samsung users can’t have the best of everything in a smaller package, but that’s where the industry is, regardless of which brand you prefer.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is truly a work of art, and it’s hard to complain about much of anything which is not related to personal preferences. If you want to see what the best industrial design and manufacturing looks like, we’re holding it right now.

Galaxy S21 Ultra colors: exclusive colors at Samsung.com

I’ll leave it to you to pick your phone’s color, but be mindful that the Galaxy Ultra’s default colors are Phtantom Black and Phantom Silver. However, Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy, and Phantom Brown are only available at Samsung’s website and are “made to order” according to the official page.

Galaxy S21 Ultra 6.8-inch Display

With a 6.8″ display, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a big phone (just 0.1″ larger diagonal than the iPhone 12 Pro Max). However, the diagonal number doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s not new, but the big Samsung phones have a much narrower chassis, making them more agreeable to hold than their iPhone equivalent.

Since Samsung is pretty much the undisputed mobile OLED leader (LG leads for OLED TVs), the display performance is just out of this world: 1500 NITs max brightness and 10-120Hz variable framerate are the numbers you want to see. This is -by far- ahead of everyone else.

Such a brightness means that the display will remain readable even on a sunny day. That 120Hz scroll smoothness won’t kill your battery because 120Hz (at max resolution!) kicks-in only when needed, not when you read static content or watch videos.

“OUT OF THIS WORLD DISPLAY PERFORMANCE”

For additional power savings, the display uses low-temperature polycrystalline oxide (LTPO) technology to keep power usage at a minimum. It is an expensive technology, so it is not widely utilized, despite its benefits.

Visually, the display is a tiny bit less curved than last year’s model, but visually they feel very similar with skinny bezels all around.

There’s Qualcomm’s new ultrasonic fingerprint reader underneath the OLED display, which is 77% bigger than last year’s. It seems much faster and more reliable than its predecessor, and a gentle fingertip tap is enough to unlock the phone. In a masked world, the fingerprint reader option is more useful than ever.

Galaxy S21 Ultra Camera Hardware

The Galaxy S21 Ultra camera hardware is comparable to the S20 Ultra’s in the grand scheme of things. Samsung focused on perfecting the Galaxy S camera user experience by ensuring that autofocus and shutter lag are now super-fast, rather than trying to go nuts with even bigger sensors and so on.

Our Uber Camera HW ranking shows as much, and the S21 gets a 201 camera hardware score, versus the 202 score of the S20. Although S21 has some improvements, the lack of optical image stabilization (OIS) on the primary camera is holding its score back, and our score doesn’t track things like multiple cameras (yet).

One of the biggest changes that our HW Camera ranking doesn’t take into account is the presence of a new 3X short-zoom camera, as we currently measure only the more powerful zoom camera.

“PERFECTING THE GALAXY S CAMERA USER EXPERIENCE”

Like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, the S21 Ultra benefits from a laser-assisted autofocus, which quickly figures out the approximate focus to get the lens motors moving. While that’s going on, the Super-PD (PD = phase detection) autofocus finalizes the AF computations and directs the motors to the final lens position.

This two-step process explains the higher AF performance, which improves the user experience significantly but doesn’t affect photo-quality most of the time (unless AF fails).

We’ll publish a stand-alone image quality and camera hardware analysis article. Still, from our early testing, the image quality is excellent, and Samsung S21 Ultra tuning seems to go back to more natural colors at night compared to the Note 20 Ultra, which was a bit aggressive with image filtering.

The S21 Ultra shoots photos close to what your eyes are seeing, so it makes the experience agreeable and predictable. I sometimes wish that Samsung would tone down some of the image-sharpening to where it was back in the Galaxy S9 days.

The 10X optical zoom’s viewfinder stabilization has been dramatically improved and makes 10X or even 30X zoom much more usable as before.

Samsung has tested several very different sensor and optics configurations for its long-zoom camera. Our Uber HW Camera score predicts that the S21 Ultra is even more powerful than the Note 20 Ultra and the Huawei P40 Pro+ long zoom, and the early data we have suggests this is true. More to come!

Several people have asked me how the S21 Ultra Zoom compares with the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s. My answer is: ‘it is not even close.’ The Galaxy S21 Ultra Space Zoom has no equal in the USA.

“THE GALAXY S21 ULTRA SPACE ZOOM HAS NO EQUAL IN THE USA”

The overall video quality is excellent, even if you go high resolution (~4k/60). It’s possible to hit 8k/24, although I don’t think it is beneficial to most people, especially without storage extension. If you want to shoot a specific nature scene with tons of details, why not. However, keep an eye on the HDR quality of 4K/60 vs. 8k/24.

I imagine that the Galaxy S21 Ultra camera system is how the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s architecture originally was envisioned, and this time, samsung nailed it.

Is it perfect? No. Sometimes, there is still too much image-filtering. Still, overall, the Galaxy S21U camera captures excellent images and offers a great deal of flexibility from ultra-wide-angle to 10X optical zoom (and beyond) togive you a lot more creative options.

Its camera software also has so many options. You don’t have to know of them or use them, but they can cater to a large public with very different needs. The dual-video recording (rear+selfie) is a good example, and by the way, the Selfie camera will no longer “beautify” you by default. Thank you!

User Interface: One UI 3

With its One UI user interface on top of the Android OS, Samsung can integrate a lot of customizations and features without having to wait for Google.

OneUI has been invaluable with the Galaxy Note series. Still, the Galaxy Fold and Z Fold 2 have proven how important it is to control the user interface when creating new unique experiences.

Generally, I find One UI to be pretty good. It has historically been a bit bloated and less responsive than Google’s “stock” GUI without question. If anything, I would suggest that Samsung makes it a bit easier for users to disable swaths of features we don’t use.

However, Samsung has recently improved many user interactions on large displays by moving many elements to the bottom of the screen in a very thoughtful way.

There are also tons of customization options for display, color style, Dark mode, always-on display, and so much more: it’s dizzying. I mostly don’t tweak them unless I need to, but it’s there, just in case.

One of the coolest Samsung features is Samsung DEX, the full Desktop Mode that turns your phone into a computer when connected to a large display – it works wirelessly too! I typically use it connected via USB-C to my PC, giving me access to mobile-only apps.

Galaxy S21 Ultra Speed

Powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888* in the USA, the performance is without reproach. The Galaxy S21 family is an excellent example of what the high-end Android smartphone performance will look like for the rest of the year.

*Note that Samsung uses its Exynos 2100 processor in place of the Snapdragon 888 in specific markets. We have not tested these units, so all our comments relate to the phone’s Snapdragon version.

The iPhone still dominates this specific CPU benchmark
But Apple’s gains in CPU benchmark don’t always translate into game-like benchmarks

There is “only” 12GB of RAM for the models with 128/256GB of storage, but the Galaxy S21 Ultra with 512GB of storage comes with 16GB of RAM.

RAM is typically not a performance choking point, but if you like installing a ton of apps, which occupy more RAM, you might want to consider the 16GB model for that reason. If you’ve never run out of memory or hit some memory-related performance drop, you will be OK with 12GB.

Another good reason to pick the 512GB storage model is that Samsung did not include a storage extension mechanism via microSD this time. For people who heavily rely on microSD, this could be a huge blow, but with cloud storage, I haven’t used a microSD for several years now, and it’s not a big deal for me.

The perceived performance is excellent, and we didn’t experience any lag with apps, photography, 4K/60p video, etc., during our time with the phone. If you come from a standard 60Hz display, the 120Hz might appear to be ultrasmooth, and the animation and scrolling speed is very well-tuned.

This phone scores well in benchmarks, but the heat buildup will eventually throttle the performance if you do heavy gaming. That’s completely normal, and it’s the reason why there’s a developing “gaming” phones that are bulky but with better cooling opportunities.

Galaxy S21 Ultra Battery Life

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a high-capacity battery
And the battery provides a really good value (per dollar) if we look at launch prices

With the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the practical battery life goes beyond the battery 5000 mAh capacity. Other crucially essential factors such as variable refresh rate, LTPO OLED panel, and a power-efficient processor all play a part in prolonging this high-end smartphone’s battery life.

In the real world, it means that the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a worry-free battery life that should easily last all day for people whose work does not consist of playing video games and recording HD video.

“A WORRY-FREE BATTERY LIFE”

Heavy travelers (like myself) could always rely on the fast-charging technology if needed, but keep in mind that a fast-charger is not included in the box and that Samsung’s official fast-charger costs $50. Brands like Anker might have more affordable options.

Given that battery capacity evolves very slowly, Samsung was extra smart with using the existing hardware and optimizing where it matters without cutting any corners. If anything, you can do more, faster, and use less power than the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra comes with a cutting-edge design and maxed-out features. It has the best of everything at Samsung mobile: design, materials, display, camera, performance, and battery life.

I was going to say, “if you can afford it,” but even though it is $1199.99, last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra started at $1,399.99, so even the S21 Ultra’s pricing has improved significantly.

“THE GALAXY S21 ULTRA IS THE BEST ANDROID HANDSET “

At this price point, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the main competitor, and if iOS is your reason for having an iPhone, no hardware will get you to switch. However, if you could install iOS on a Galaxy S21 Ultra hardware, I believe that people would trade in droves.

That is to say that both the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Galaxy S21 Ultra are superb devices. Still, the lack of proprietary port, display, notch-less display, camera hardware, battery capacity, superior glass resistance and form factor are better on the Samsung side.

At present, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best Android handset on the market. Depending on your priorities, you will have more and more choices as 2021 unfolds, but that conclusion is clear from a neutral position.

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