Reviews

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: The best of Samsung

As a general rule Samsung kicks off the smartphone announcements for the year in February, however they went early this year announcing the Galaxy S21 line a month early. Just like the last few years, Samsung unveiled three phones, the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21 Plus and the Galaxy S21 Ultra. 

Scott has checked out the Galaxy S21 and found it to be a great phone with a good camera, though a little lacking in the battery department. 

Samsung has also sent over a Galaxy S21 Ultra for review, which, as you’d expect for an Ultra model, has a little more grunt under the hood. You get more RAM, a larger battery, more cameras (5!) and a larger, higher resolution display.  These extras also cost with a $600 difference between the models. 

Samsung begins pricing for the Galaxy S21 Ultra at $1,849 with 12GB RAM and 128GB storage, with 256GB priced at $1,949 – or (if you can find stock) you can nab a 512GB model for $2,149. 

There’s a good range of colour choices for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Samsung offers the S21 Ultra in Phantom Black and Phantom Silver, or if you’re up for a 4-5 week wait, you can get an exclusive Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy or Phantom Brown colourway from the Samsung online store. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra colour options

I’ve been using the S21 Ultra for just over a week now and here’s how it went.

Hardware and Design

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is absolutely dominated by the 6.8-inch display on the front. Unlike previous years Samsung has gone a little easier on the curved sides of the display, and it really works giving you less bezel around the edges without the awkward accidental touches you normally get with curved displays.

The Infinity-O Display is bright and gorgeous. The AMOLED display has a 3,200×1,440 resolution and supports adaptive refresh at 120Hz. It’s a hell of a feature adaptive refresh. Scrolling looks amazingly crisp when you’re checking your feed, or playing a game, but it can be a battery hog so there is an option in the settings to simply go down to 60Hz at 1080p. Not that you’ll necessarily need to save battery, but we’ll get to that.

There’s a larger in-Display fingerprint sensor which I found easier, and more accepting of finger positioning and placement. The fingerprint sensor is a little slow though compared to other options on the market, but we’re at the point of splitting hairs, and it’s fast enough. 

Beyond the display, the design of the S21 Ultra is tall with that large display and it’s also fairly solid weighing in at just shy of 230 grams. The size makes one-handed use a little awkward but it’s not too heavy and comfortably thin enough that it rests comfortably in the hand with the power button and volume rocker easily reached with your thumb – and there’s also no Bixby button to accidentally trigger Samsung’s assistant, though Bixby is still present on the phone.

The camera bump has seen a massive design change on the S21 series, with Samsung melding it to the side rail of the rear of the phone so it’s no longer an island floating alone on the rear of the phone. 

I’m really digging this new look for mounting the cameras but it’s still a fairly big bump on the rear though so you’ll definitely want a case to stop any rocking when you place it on a desk. 

As I said above, I’m a fan of the metal housing covered in the gorgeous Phantom Black colour. It almost sucks the light from its surroundings, which made it a little difficult to shoot review photos – not a problem for most people. 

The durability of the housing is also to be lauded, with the phone weathering a week of use without showing fingerprint smudges, micro scratches or other signs of day-to-day use from going in and out of pockets and bags. 

Internals

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is powered by an octacore Exynos 2100 chipset, 12GB RAM and there’s 256GB storage (on the review model). Samsung removed the microSD storage expansion in the S21 line this year, which isn’t too big of an issue with 256GB, however if you opt for the 128GB model and install a lot of apps then shoot a lot of photos and videos, you could run into some space issues.

There’s been some back and forth in recent years on Samsung using their Exynos processors, vs Qualcomm’s flagship. Samsung are still using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 in phones in the US and China, however here in Australia their Exynos 2100 processor is running the show. 

While I haven’t used a Qualcomm version of the S21 Ultra, I don’t feel the need to. There’s not a huge amount of lag, though the OneUI software still has a few tweaks that Samsung could make to optimise it in places. 

Of course you get all the latest connectivity support including 5G, Wi-Fi 6E, BT 5.2 and a USB Type-C 3.2 connector with PD 3.0 support and Fast Wireless Charging 2.0 to charge the big 5,000mAh battery inside. 

Power and Battery

It’s apparently going to be a trend to not supply chargers with phones. Apple started the trend with the iPhone 12, and Samsung has followed along with the Galaxy S21 line.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra supports Fast Wireless Charging 2.0 (15W) and USB PD 3.0 wired Fast Charging (25W), so you’ll need to ensure you use a compatible charger to reach the peak speeds required. 

This of course assumes you have an existing charger that supports these standards – which I did fortunately. If you don’t though, Samsung will add a wired charger to your order for $29 or a wireless Fast Charger from $59 if you order from their site.

A 5,000mAh battery lasts a long time with easily a full day of use which extended easily into the second day – I even found a full 2-days use if I took it a little easier on use. If you do need to charge the phone though, it is quick when you have the compatible charger connected.

Camera

A Samsung phone review deserves a section for the camera alone. In previous years Samsung has provided excellent cameras, though last years S20 Ultra suffered from some focus issues. This year Samsung included a laser auto-focus and it’s worked brilliantly for sharp, fast focus.

As above, there’s four cameras included on the Galaxy S21 Ultra:

  • 108MP Phase Detection, OIS, F1.8, 0.8µm
  • Ultra Wide 12MP Dual Pixel, FOV 120° F2.2, 1.4µm Wide 
  • 10MP Dual Pixel, Optical 10x, OIS F4.9, 1.22µm
  • 10MP Dual Pixel, Optical 3x, OIS, F2.4, 1.22µm 

The 108MP sensor does most of the work day-to-day, binning the 108MP raw image down to a much more manageable final shot at 12MP. The photos are frankly amazing, though Samsung does like to blow the colours out on their photos, but there’s no denying that they look fantastic. 

The AI scene detection is quite handy, helping to adjust the camera settings to fit the scene. 

I also enjoyed the Single Take feature which shoots video, then uses AI to split out good shots from the resulting video. It took a while to get the hang of Single Take, but shooting like you’re taking a video lets you shift around and pick up better angles you may normally take and then you get better shots at the end.

As far as Ultra-Wide shots, the 12MP sensor does a fine job – if you remember it’s there. The 108MP sensor has a fairly wide field-of-view, so it’s not often you feel the need to jump into the Ultra-Wide sensor. 

What is impressive is the night shots from the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The low-light images captured are nicely clean, with minimal noise. The low-light on Pixel has been my go to standard for low-light pictures, but after the S21 Ultra, there’s some competition.

What I was impressed with was the zoom quality of the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Samsung includes dual telephoto lenses in front of 10MP dual-pixel sensors, one with a 3x Optical Zoom, and the other with a 10x. 

At the range of either optical sensor you’ll find the shots are crisp and clear. You can also get a very respectable image out of their 30x combined zoom. You can blast the zoom all the way out to 100x but it’s generally not the most usable photo, it is however a neat party trick.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra also make it a clear winner for Android users interested in capturing video. The video capture options range from 720p/60fps all the way up to 8K/24fps, with the 8K mode also letting you snap high-res images while shooting. Samsung does offer both FullHD and 4K video capture at 60fps which is far more manageable in terms of file size, but 8K is cool.

The 8K option is cool and all, but you are looking at double the file size of a 4K/60fps video. For example, a 5 second video captured at 8K/24 is 53.56MB, vs a 28.48MB file for an equal length 4K/60 video. My fairly recent laptop also tended to struggle with 8K file playback, so I’ll be sticking to 4K/60 for now.

Two new inclusions in the video section are ‘Director view’ which uses all the rear camera sensors allowing you to view different angles, or zoom while the video is shooting without missing a shot, and ‘VLogger mode’ which lets you record from both front and back cameras simultaneously.

Samsung likes to pack in the extras in the ‘More’ section of their camera app, so you still get your panorama, slow-mo video and loads more and it’s worth checking out.

S Pen

The rumours were true. Samsung has indeed brought the S Pen functionality from their Note series to the Galaxy S21 Ultra – but note, it’s not supported on the Galaxy S21, or Galaxy S21 Plus. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra S Pen Case

The S Pen isn’t included with the S21 Ultra, and unlike the Galaxy Note line, there’s no internal holster for holding the S Pen when not in use. Instead you’ll need to purchase one of the Galaxy S21 Ultra cases which include an S Pen. There’s two on offer, a Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G Silicone Cover with S Pen for $99, or the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G Smart Clear View Cover with S Pen for $129. 

If you’re a previous Galaxy Note owner, and have an old S Pen laying around, you can alternatively use that. I had a Note 9 which I was able to snaffle the S Pen from and it worked immediately on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. 

All your favourite Galaxy Note S Pen apps like Live Messages, AR Doodle, Smart Select and more are all pre-installed, so it’s a matter of just picking it up and off you go. 

It remains to be seen if the functionality is enough to warrant Samsung dropping the Note line, but all eyes are watching developments later in the year. 

For now though, the S Pen is an option on the S 21 Ultra and it works really well, of course if you don’t need it, you don’t have to get it. The need to get a case to store the S Pen in is a little awkward, but it does allow for users to get the S Pen, without having to push it onto Galaxy S21 Ultra owners who’d never actually use it. 

Software

The Galaxy S21 Ultra was launched with Android 11, running the January 1st 2021 Security Patch and the Samsung One UI 3.1 software. 

While it seems that the behemoth that is Samsung would be lax on updates, Samsung has been solidly updating their past flagships for 3 – 4 years, though it’s hard to get Samsung to actually commit to that. Suffice to say, their commitment to their flagship S-series phones has traditionally been good, and the S21 Ultra should see updates for some time.

In terms of software, Samsung has always been hit and miss with software, over-doing it on some aspects while remaining under-stated on others. The latest version of their Android ‘skin’, OneUI 3.1, is fairly easy to use, without a lot of cruft for the most part. 

The home screen and app drawer are fairly ‘stock’, though Samsung’s insistence that ‘Custom Order’ rather than alphabetical listing of apps in the app drawer is frustrating as hell. You can easily re-order it though, so no harm done.

There’s not a lot of apps installed on the Galaxy S21 Ultra as default software. Samsung still likes to mirror Google’s system apps, which is fine if you’re a fan of the Samsung aesthetic, but can get a little frustrating if coming from a more vanilla version of Android. 

To their credit though, there’s signs of Samsung leaving some aspects of the OS to Google. You can find Android Messages installed on the phone, but disabled (you can re-enable it from the Play Store entry) and you can also choose to use either the Google Discover, or Samsung Free news feeds when you swipe to the left from the home screen. 

Another aspect Samsung isn’t getting quite right is advertising, with ads appearing for their own services. Samsung has a bit of a history of doing this, and I can’t say I’m on board with being advertised to on a phone I purchased. 

Should you buy it?

The ‘Ultra’ line in Samsung’s Galaxy line is very much priced in line with their name, but it’s unequivocally the best Android phone you can buy at the moment. 

Put simply Samsung has iterated on their previous models, but in a good way. They’ve learned from the release of both the Galaxy S20 and Note 20 phones, and fixed what needed to be fixed, and refined what needed to be refined.

The camera on the S21 is simply class leading in terms of both video and still shots, with the features and modes on offer allowing for a lot of creative freedom. 

If you’re simply looking for the best Android phone, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the only phone you’ll need to check out.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: The best of Samsung
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