Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: The Most Maxed Out Phone for the Money

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: The Most Maxed Out Phone for the Money

Photo: Sam Rutherford

Last year, Samsung broke out the “Ultra” adjective for the first time on the Galaxy S20 Ultra. That phone was certainly ambitious, but between its $1,400 price tag and features that didn’t quite live up to expectations, Samsung’s super premium phone felt less like an Ultra and more like a Galaxy S20++.

In a move seemingly designed to make up for its predecessor’s somewhat lackluster showing in 2020, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra has arrived. It’s packaged in a slick new design with quadruple rear cameras, and it’s packed with several features unmatched by practically any other phone on the market. Except now, Samsung’s super premium phone costs $200 less than last year’s model. The S21 Ultra isn’t just a big improvement. It’s an over-the-top, maxed out handset that combines all the features from the entire Galaxy range.

Right off the bat, the S21 Ultra’s new design helps set the tone. The rear camera module extending into the side of the phone not only makes S21 Ultra feel less bulky, but it should also add some extra durability because the housing surrounding the phone’s camera lenses is now metal instead of glass. To balance the Ultra’s looks and toughness, Samsung opted for Gorilla Glass 7 on both sides, with the back getting a lovely matte finish. And while I’m still not sure if all the time Samsung claims it spent trying to choose the perfect shade of black was worth it, the S21 Ultra (at least in Phantom Black) has the kind of stealthy exterior that evokes favorable comparisons to the SR-71 Blackbird, the Batmobile, and others. Black on black is always a slick look, though the S21 Ultra is available in white, too, if that’s more your speed.

Then there’s the S21 Ultra’s screen, which is a technicolor dream. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating that at least for now, Samsung makes the best mobile displays in the world, and the S21 Ultra is the best new example of that. There’s a small, centrally located hole-punch cut-out for the phone’s 40-MP selfie cam. But aside from that, it’s pretty much an unblemished 3200 x 1440 6.8-inch swatch of beautiful AMOLED pixels, with a slight but not distracting curve around its edges and a tiny hint of bezel that helps mask small features like the almost invisible earpiece piece up top.

Samsung’s big display upgrade for the Ultra is the addition of the variable refresh rate tech it debuted on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. The change not only gives the S21 Ultra a screen that can hit 120Hz, but also the ability to dynamically change its refresh rate depending on the content you’re currently looking at. If you’re looking at a still photo, the S21 Ultra can lower its refresh rate down to just 10Hz to help save on battery.

On the S21 Ultra, Samsung blended the camera bump into the rest of the phone’s metal chassis.
On the S21 Ultra, Samsung blended the camera bump into the rest of the phone’s metal chassis.
Photo: Sam Rutherford

Or if you’re watching a video, the S21 Ultra’s display can match the clip’s frame rate. When you’re playing a game, boost things up to 120Hz for the optimal viewing experience. And if you’re just browsing the web, the S21 Ultra’s higher refresh rate makes everything look extra smooth. Of all ways VRR can be applied, that’s the one that makes the biggest impact to me. Samsung nailed the most important qualities of a good screen: It’s vivid, bright, and responsive. No other phone can match the S21 Ultra’s combo of quality and refresh rate. More than ever, I’m convinced every high-end phone should have a 120Hz display—no excuses.

On top of that, the S21 Ultra is now stealing some more of the Galaxy Note’s thunder with support for a couple different optional S-Pens. So even though you don’t have a place to stash the pen in the body of the phone (unless you get one of Samsung’s new cases too), you can get the same drawing and note-taking experience on a Galaxy S handset for the first time, which is always a nice choice to have. I didn’t get to test it out myself because S-Pen support isn’t available yet.

Here’s a size comparison between the S21 Ultra (left) and the standard S21 (right).
Here’s a size comparison between the S21 Ultra (left) and the standard S21 (right).
Photo: Sam Rutherford

Another big improvement that might not get a lot of attention is the S21 Ultra’s new in-screen fingerprint sensor, which is not only 1.7 times larger than the S20 Ultra’s, it also feels way faster. Ever since phone makers started switching over to in-screen fingerprint sensors, a lot of people have tolerated them while sometimes remarking they wanted the old-school rear-mounted sensors back. However, after years of refinement, the S21 Ultra’s in-screen fingerprint reader is undoubtedly a perk, and in a time when facial recognition is a bust whenever I’m outside, I find myself appreciating the S21 Ultra’s new sensor even more.

On the inside, U.S. models of the S21 Ultra come with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of base storage. Unfortunately, Samsung decided to ditch the microSD card slot from the entire lineup of 2021 Galaxy S phones. For some, this may be the last straw in their list of grievances against Samsung, but the reality is that this is simply the direction smartphones are moving as a whole, just like the removal of headphone jacks paved the way for mainstream wireless audio.

My bigger gripe is that with the removal of microSD expandability, I wish Samsung had opted to include 256GB of base storage instead of 128GB, to help smooth this transition. It would be nice for buyers to feel less of a need to shell out for extra storage, especially with Samsung’s top-tier device. That said, moving up to 256GB costs just $50 instead of the $100 premium many that many other phone makers typically charge.

Meanwhile, even though the Snapdragon 888 can’t quite match the benchmark numbers put up by the Apple’s A14 chip in the iPhone 12 (3,614 for the S21 Ultra vs 4,261 for the iPhone 12 Pro Max in Geekbench 5's Multicore CPU test), I never noticed a hint of lag or slowdown while using the S21 Ultra. At least in my experience, while Apple’s latest chip has theoretically better performance, there isn’t much you can throw at a phone today that the Snapdragon 888 can’t handle with ease.

But around back is easily my favorite new addition to the S21 Ultra’s arsenal: its new quadruple rear cams. That’s because in addition to a 108-MP main cam and 12-MP ultra-wide cam, the S21 Ultra has two telephoto cams: one with a 3x optical zoom and one with a 10x optical zoom. Last year, Samsung branded the S20 Ultra’s setup with the overzealous Space Zoom moniker, which seemed kind of silly. But on the S21 Ultra, Samsung really means it this time, because space is exactly what this telephoto camera combo delivers. Don’t focus on the marketing claims of up to 100x zoom—that’s meaningless because you can crop in on almost any picture to digitally pump up the zoom. It’s the S21 Ultra’s 3x and 10x optical zoom that really matter because it gives you reach you can actually use.

Illustration for article titled Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: The Most Maxed Out Phone for the Money
Photo: Sam Rutherford

When I turned the S21 Ultra up to 10x while pointing the camera at the NYC skyline, the Empire State building remained delightfully sharp even from nearly four miles away. And thanks to Samsung’s new Zoom Lock feature—which uses AI to make the camera’s viewfinder more stable—I was able to take that shot handheld instead of needing to strap the phone to a tripod. As someone who loves the versatility of zoom lenses on big DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, the S21 Ultra feels like the first phone that can offer a similar experience on mobile. As I was testing it out, I was cursing the pandemic even more than usual for robbing me of more opportunities to use that 10x zoom. And even when you don’t need that much reach, the S21 Ultra’s shorter 3x optical zoom still trounced the algorithmically-enhanced 3x Super Res Zoom on the Pixel 5.

The camera upgrades don’t stop there either, because the S21 Ultra also includes a dedicated laser autofocus sensor that eliminates the soft-focus the S20 Ultra sometimes ran into. And while Samsung’s image processing tends to result in slightly warmer hues than what you get from a Pixel 5, the S21 Ultra tended to capture photos with colors that looked more accurate to my eye and how they looked in real life. But the big surprise to me is that thanks to an improved Night Mode, some of the S21 Ultra’s super low light shots came out even better than Google’s vaunted Night Sight mode. For instance, the yarn in the No Face pic looks significantly sharper than what I got from the Pixel 5.

Additionally, thanks in part to the S21's increased processing power, a number of the S21 Ultra’s other camera modes have seen significant improvements. The fun social media-friendly Single Take mode has the ability to capture slow-mo clips and snap up to 10 frames per second (up from 2-3 fps last year), and a new Portrait Mode feature is frankly a big upgrade from Samsung’s old and tired Live Focus mode. You can even record videos in 8K if you want, or capture 8K stills while recording, though I did notice that very occasionally 4K and 8K videos suffered from a sort of oversharpening that caused faint moire-like patterns to appear.

Finally, because the S21 Ultra is powered by a huge 5,000 mAh battery, I got some of the best runtimes I’ve seen a Galaxy S phone ever. On our video rundown test, the S21 Ultra lasted 16 hours and 45 minutes. The only phones we tested in 2020 that beat that mark were the Moto Edge+ (17:18), and the Asus ROG Phone 3 (16:56), the latter of which came with a monstrous 6,000 mAh power pack.

Illustration for article titled Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: The Most Maxed Out Phone for the Money
Photo: Sam Rutherford

In the end, it all boils down to this: While Samsung axing microSD card expandability is certainly regrettable, the S21 Ultra has the best screen, the longest (and most usable) zoom cam, and the best in-screen fingerprint reader you can get on a phone today. And it costs $200 less than last year’s “Ultra” phone, or $100 less than its premium sibling, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Then, when you factor in all the little upgrades and features, including wireless and reverse wireless charging, improved photo processing, all the enhanced camera modes, and forward-thinking inclusions like UWB support, to me, the S21 Ultra feels like the maxed out, feature-packed phone that’s finally making good on so much of Samsung’s big talk over the last couple years. So while the iPhone 12 Pro Max might have slightly better performance, the S21 Ultra is the phone to beat.

README

  • The S21 Ultra’s screen is flat out the best in the business.
  • Along with axing the microSD slot across the Galaxy S21 line, Samsung is also removing charging bricks from the S21 Ultra’s box.
  • Not everyone will care about having a 10x optical zoom on a phone, but for those who do, the S21 Ultra is a revelation.
  • As before, the S21 Ultra features an IP 68 rating for dust and water resistance.
  • Unlike its less expensive siblings, the S21 Ultra has built-in stylus support, but you’ll need to buy one of Samsung’s S Pens separately.
  • Wired charging goes up to 25 watts, while wireless charging tops out at 15 watts.
  • The S21 Ultra supports sub-6GHz and mmWave 5G across the board, regardless of which carrier you’re on.

Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.

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DISCUSSION

DownTheLiffeyOnADonut
DownTheLiffeyOnADonut

So does this spell the end for the Note? Samsung seem to have gone very quiet about it and this seems to have most of the Note’s USPs (except storage capacity).