Samsung introduced three new phones in its Galaxy S family this year, and if you've been following us, you probably already know that two of them are pretty great additions to its portfolio. So, of course, I was very interested to see what the company could deliver with its top-of-the-line offering, the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The S21 Ultra is not only the range-topper for this year, it's easily the most distinct of the three phones. It's the only one with a Quad HD display (which is also the most power-efficient of the family), it's the one with the biggest camera setup, the biggest battery, and most notably, the only one with support for the S Pen, a long-standing trademark of the Galaxy Note series. Indeed, using the S Pen on a Galaxy S phone would have been really cool, except Samsung didn't send me one. There are other things that are worth talking about, though.
Samsung sent me the base configuration for the S21 Ultra, with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage, but you can configure that up to 16GB and 512GB, respectively. As usual, it's the Exynos-powered model, and Samsung sent me the Phantom Black color.
|Exynos 2100 (Octa-core) - one Cortex-X1 at 2.9GHz, three Cortex-A78 at 2.8GHz, four Cortex-A55 at 2.2GHz
|6.8 inches, 1440x3200, 515ppi, 10Hz-120Hz, Dynamic AMOLED 2X
|165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm (6.5 x 2.98 x 0.35in), 229g (8.08oz) (mmWave)/227g (8.01oz) (sub6)
|108MP main with nine-pixel binning + 12MP ultra-wide + 10MP telephoto (3x optical zoom) + 10MP periscope telephoto (10x optical zoom) + ToF sensor, Front - 40MP
|8K - 24fps or 4K - 60fps, HDR10+, Front - 4K - 60fps
|f/1.8 + f/2.2 + f/2.4 + f/4.9, Front - F/2.2
|128GB UFS 3.1; non-expandable
|Wi-FI 6E, Bluetooth 5.1, UWB
Available at retailers: Phantom Black (as reviewed), Phantom White
|Android 11 with OneUI 3.1
Let's be realistic here: the way Samsung presented the Phantom Black model during its unveiling of the Galaxy S21 Ultra sounded absolutely bogus. Samsung called it its "boldest color yet", which is ridiculous considering it's black. However, I have to admit the color has won me over. It's an incredibly smooth-looking black, and so little light reflects off of it that it always looks uniform. The camera module seems to use a similar finish, so the whole phone ends up looking almost completely flat.
The glass on the back isn't like any other matte finish phone I've tried, either. It's so smooth to the touch that I sometimes find myself just gliding my finger across the back just for fun. The only part of it that stands out is the Samsung logo, which is etched to remove the haze effect and looks more glossy. Regardless, it's an extremely classy-looking phone.
Samsung seems to take pride in the huge camera bumps on the S21 Ultra series, and that stays true here. The four cameras (plus a time-of-flight sensor) make for a very thick protrusion. However, I think it's balanced out by the new Contour Cut design that Samsung is using across the entire line, where the camera module melts into the frame of the phone. I loved it on the standard Galaxy S21, and I love it here.
Looking around the sides of the phone, it's all pretty much business as usual. On the left side of the frame, there's nothing to be found save for a couple of antenna bands.
On the right, you'll find the power/Bixby button and the volume rocker, both of which feel nice and clicky, but not too harsh.
The top edge is also unexciting, featuring two microphone holes and another antenna band.
And the bottom edge houses most of what you'd expect to find on the frame - a bottom-firing speaker, a USB Type-C port, a SIM card slot, and another microphone.
Overall, if it's not obvious already, I love the look of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and I think a lot of that does come from the Phantom Black color. I haven't seen any of the other colors in person, but this is one is an easy recommendation.
Display and sound
On the front of the phone is, of course, the massive 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X display, only interrupted by the punch-hole cutout for the front-facing camera. You probably don't need me to tell you that Samsung makes great displays, but it holds true here. Colors are punchy with a very satisfying contrast, it gets very bright, and of course, it's super smooth thanks to the 120Hz refresh rate. There are phones with higher refresh rates now, but I'd say you probably won't notice much of a difference in day-to-day use. It's also the only phone in the Galaxy S21 family to have a Quad HD display, so if you feel you need the extra sharpness, this is the one for you.
As far as the quality of the screen goes, little more can be said, but one thing that's worth mentioning is that the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a wider range of adaptable refresh rates compared to its smaller siblings. It can go as low as 10Hz, so if you want to use an always-on display, the phone can save some battery by only refreshing the screen 10 times per second, while the other two can only go down to 48Hz. I would be remiss to ignore that phones such as the OnePlus 9 Pro go a bit further and can go as low as 1Hz, though.
Of course, you can also use the S Pen with this display, but it's not included in the box, and for some reason Samsung didn't think it was worth it to send it out to reviewers. It's a shame because it would have been one of the biggest distinctive elements of the Ultra, and you'd think Samsung would want to highlight that, but it seems that's not the case. Either way, you can buy the S Pen separately by itself or with a dedicated case, which gives you a storage space for it. I'd definitely recommend the latter option if you don't want to risk losing your S Pen within two days of buying it.
As for sound, the S21 Ultra offers a stereo pair of speakers, comprised of the bottom-firing unit and an amplified earpiece above the display, which you can barely see. Sound quality is great both from the speakers and the microphones based on my testing. The speakers get fairly loud and have a good range, but I do feel like it's outdone by some of its competitors in terms of volume. My OPPO Find X2 Pro seems to do a bit of a better job rising above surrounding noise, but that's not to say the S21 Ultra is really lacking in any way.
Just like with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung went all-out with the numbers on the camera setup in this phone. On the back, four cameras plus a time-of-flight sensor make for a gigantic camera module, and it's probably one of the best combinations of sensor I've had the chance to try. The main sensor here is Samsung's latest 108MP sensor with nine-pixel binning, resulting in 12MP shots. You also get a 12MP ultra-wide camera, and my favorite part, two whole telephoto cameras, both with 10MP resolution, but one capable of 3x optical zoom and the other going up to 10x. Even the selfie camera is something else, with a 40MP sensor using quad-pixel binning and phase detection autofocus.
The most noticeable difference from its predecessor is the addition of the 3x optical zoom lens, and it's bigger than you may think at first. I've made it clear in the past that I love it when I can take out my phone and go from an ultra-wide shot all the way to a photo that looks to be very up-close to the subject even though I'm far away. I love periscope lenses for that very reason, but with a setup that only includes a periscope lens, you have a big range of zoom where the primary camera is still being used for digital zoom. With this 3x lens in-between, you can easily zoom into an object as much as you need to and get clear, sharp pictures at every level - until you start getting too close to the 100x digital zoom, that is.
Now, that isn't to say that shots from this camera setup are perfect, but let's start with the positives. In daytime, the Galaxy S21 produces bright and vivid colors with sharp and detailed images across all of its cameras. I always love how sharp images are coming from Samsung cameras, as it makes each object pop, in my opinion. Even images from the selfie camera look super sharp, and Samsung phones consistently take some of the best pictures from the front-facing camera, in my experience.
The color balance isn't perfect across all four cameras, but it's not too noticeable and the image processing helps even things out. I do find that there's a tendency to oversaturate, and greens especially seem to suffer from a noticeable case of yellowing. That does help plants and trees pop a bit more, but it's definitely not a color-accurate representation of them a lot of the time.
Things get a bit iffier at night time, which really reveals the differences in the sensors used for each of the cameras. You can use night mode across all four of them, and the image processing there definitely helps. Without it, comparing the ultra-wide and main cameras, it's hard to believe it's even the same phone. Otherwise, though, I'd say night mode does a fairly good job at making night shots more visible and consistent across the cameras, and the overall results are solid, though not spectacular. You can see a full comparison between all the camera with and without night mode at the end of these samples:
As for video, you can record at up to 8K resolution and 24 frames per second from the main camera, 4K60fps from any of the others, including the front-facing camera. That isn't to say the quality is the same across all the cameras, though, and naturally, the main camera will offer the best quality in general.
Samsung also offers a ton of modes for both photos and videos. Single Take takes a series of photos over 10 seconds and saves the best ones, which might be useful for capturing the perfect moment when a subject is moving. You also have things like Pro video recording and Director's View, if you want a bit more flexibility with recording videos.
Performance and battery life
Performance is the most boring part of most reviews, especially when you review a lot of flagships, because all of them nowadays are expected to run nearly flawlessly. That applies to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, too, which comes with an Exynos 2100 chipset, 12GB of RAM, and 128GB of internal storage, all of which keep things running smooth as butter in day-to-day use. If you're in North America, you'll get the Snapdragon 888 chip instead, which is arguably even better, but Samsung did a pretty good job with the Exynos 2100 and it's a huge leap forward compared to last year's Exynos 990.
Looking at the benchmarks, the Galaxy S21 Ultra certainly holds its own. First off, there's AnTuTu, a general-purpose benchmark that measures almost every aspect of the experience:
Because AnTuTu got updated with an all-new scoring system recently, we can't compare this directly to a ton of past phones, but you can see that the S21 Ultra is trailing behind Snapdragon 888 devices like the OnePlus 9. Looking at each section, you can also tell that the biggest reason for that difference is the CPU and GPU, both integral parts of the chipset. If you're in the U.S., there's a good chance the score will be higher here, since that version also has a Snapdragon 888.
Moving on to GeekBench 5, which is a CPU-focused test:
My particular Galaxy S21 Ultra actually holds its own very well against Snapdragon 888 devices, though it does trail them slightly. GeekBench also apparently added a new feature recently that highlights the average scores for your device, so you can have a better idea of what to expect. I personally run benchmarks off of a fresh reboot, which might explain the above-average scores.
Finally, there's GFXBench, which is a very intensive test focused on the GPU:
These scores are also very much in line with what we've seen from other flagships, even Snapdragon-powered ones. It's nothing too surprising, but Exynos gets the job done pretty well this year.
Performance-wise, the biggest problem I've noticed with this phone is that the Wi-Fi reception is worse than most other flagship phones I review. I've seen worse, but the signal definitely gets blocked far more easily than other phones that command such a high price.
As for battery life, with a massive 5,000mAh, you can only expect it to be great, and it is, showing once again how much Exynos has improved over the last generation. It's always lasted me easily through a day, and usually it goes about a day and a half without charging for me. I always had the phone set to Quad HD+ resolution and adaptive refresh rate enabled, so you can get even more out of it if you leave it at Full HD+ or 60Hz (or both). In fact, the display resolution is set to Full HD+ out of the box, and frankly, you probably won't see a difference in image quality.
The big thing to note with the S21 Ultra is that it doesn't come with a charging brick, which makes fast charging a bit trickier. If the charger you have right now doesn't support the fastest charging speeds - which I don't - it can take well over an hour to charge this phone's battery. That's a downside of the "environmentally-friendly" approach that Samsung is taking with its phones' packaging. By the way, the phone does support wireless charging and reverse wireless charging.
On the software side, it's all the same as I explained in the Galaxy S21 review, so I won't repeat myself too much. It's running Android 11 with OneUI 3.1 on top, and it's pretty nice, even if the overflow of settings and apps can make it a bit hard to adapt to the phone at first. Samsung has some cool exclusive features like DeX, which lets you connect to an external screen and use your phone like a PC, and it also offers the best integration with the Windows 10 Your Phone app.
After what I considered to be a year of disappointing phones for Samsung in 2020, the company seems to have redeemed itself with its first flagships of 2021. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, much like its smaller siblings, is $200 cheaper than its predecessor, and it hardly makes any compromises to get there - of course, barring the removal of the charging brick in the box.
It has the same high-resolution, high-quality panel, the design is arguably way better than what we got with the S20 series, and the camera setup is just a wonderful combination of sensors that makes this a very versatile phone for taking all kinds of pictures. On top of that, non-American users can rejoice in the fact that Exynos processors are much better in terms of performance and battery life this year. As a bonus, you can even get an S Pen for this phone now, even if you have to pay extra to buy it separately.
It's not a perfect phone, and I found the below-average Wi-Fi reception to be especially disappointing considering it's still a phone that starts at $1,199, or €1,249 in Europe. There are also some inconsistencies between the rear cameras that are especially noticeable at night, and even though night mode helps alleviate them, it's certainly jarring when you see it for the first time.
All things considered, though, those are relatively small parts of the experience on what's otherwise a stellar phone. The asking price is nothing to brush off to the side, but you get a whole lot of phone for your money.
If you're interested, you can buy the U.S. version of the Galaxy S21 Ultra from Amazon, where it's currently going for $1,186.14 for the Phantom Black variant. Over in the UK, while official pricing starts at £1,149 with 128GB of storage, you can actually get the 256GB model for £1,114.79 in Phantom White as of the time of writing.
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