Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: A capable but costly flagship

Right now, all signs point to 2021 being a turning point for Samsung smartphones. An end-of-year scoop from Reuters cites multiple anonymous sources who claim there won’t be a new Galaxy Note this year, and a Samsung official basically confirmed as much to a Korean news agency. We’ve also seen Samsung announce plans to make its flashy new foldable phones more “accessible”, which dovetails with earlier reports saying the resources that would’ve been allocated to the Note is instead going to those foldables. The times, they are a-changing.

All of that means the new Galaxy S21 Ultra is more important than usual — it might be the only premium “traditional” smartphone in Samsung’s line-up for all of 2021. The pressure was on for Samsung to nail it with this phone, and for the most part, the company did just that.

Key specs

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Processor

Octa-core Snapdragon 888

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RAM/storage

12GB+128GB, 12GB+256GB, 16GB+512GB

MicroSD card support

No

Main display

6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X display

Display resolution

1440 x 3200 (20:9)

Rear cameras

108MP f/1.8 wide camera with OIS, 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (120° field of view), 10MP f/2.4 telephoto camera with 3x optical zoom, 10MP f/4.9 telephoto camera with 10x optical zoom, laser autofocus

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Front-facing camera

40MP f/2.2 camera

OS

Android 11 with One UI 3

Battery

5,000mAh

Charging

USB-C, supports fast wireless charging

Dimensions

161.5x75.6x8.9mm

Weight

229g

Fingerprint sensor

Yes, in-display

Waterproofing

Yes, rated IP68

NFC

Yes

Headphone jack

No

5G support

Yes, sub-6 and mmWave

Configurations

If you’re mulling buying a Galaxy S21 Ultra, you have some decisions to make. The first is color: In addition to the Phantom Silver and Phantom Black options we’ve already seen, Samsung has navy, titanium, and brown models available on their website. (Our review unit came in matte black, and despite all of Samsung’s breathless press conference hyperbole, it doesn’t look that different from any other black smartphone.)

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Your next decision will be about how much storage you need, and it’s worth really thinking about this one. Here are your options:

12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage: $1,200

12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage: $1,250

16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage: $1,380

There are two quick things worth noting: First, none of these have expandable storage, which most people won’t have a problem with. Second, the starting price is a full $200 less than the equivalent model last year. If you look at old S20 Ultra reviews, you wouldn’t find a single one that didn’t call the phone out for being too expensive.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Design and display

Well, look who got a makeover. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is just big and beefy as last year’s highest-end S20, but Samsung says it benefits from the biggest redesign in the Galaxy’s history. Apart from the weird, bandage-backed Galaxy S5, the company has tended to favor generational polishing over sweeping visual changes. Let’s be real, though: Samsung is basically just talking about what it did with the Ultra’s massive camera array.

Rather than place all four cameras and the laser autofocus module in a graceless lump like it did last year, Samsung moved all of them slightly to the left and extended the metal frame to wrap around them. Personally, I’m a fan of the pointedly asymmetrical look, though it isn’t without issues. One of my most used is a Bluetooth game controller that telescopes to “hug” a smartphone, and it just can’t fit around that hump.

Samsung’s new aesthetic signals a new visual lineage for its high-end smartphones, but it’s important to note that it doesn’t change the fundamentals of the Ultra’s design. That’s a polite way of saying the S21 Ultra is still massive. There are some minor differences in heft — a fraction of a millimeter here, a few grams there — but the S21 Ultra is still about the same size and shape as last year’s S20 Ultra, so it’s going to be too big for a lot of people. With that in mind, if you’re even thinking about buying this phone (and you can figure out a safe way to do it), it’s definitely worth holding one before you splurge on it. The Ultra basically weighs as much as an iPhone 12 Pro Max, but is a lot easier to handle because of the screen’s tall and narrow aspect ratio.

Speaking of, $1,200 also gets you what has to be one of the best-looking screens I’ve ever seen in a smartphone. (I mean, just look at that image above.) Screens are Samsung’s thing the way camera sensors are Sony’s thing, so none of this really comes as a surprise. It’s one of Samsung’s Dynamic AMOLED 2X panels. Colors are rich, viewing angles are great, and its max brightness is higher than ever — think 1500 nits — so the phone never falters outdoors.

Just like on the Note 20 Ultra, Samsung went with a variable refresh rate display — it sinks as low as 10Hz when you’re just looking at photos, and surges to 120Hz when you’re scrolling through Twitter or playing compatible games. And for the first time, you can get this screen running at its full 3200x1440 resolution and at its peak 120Hz refresh rate at the same time. I know people who have been just clamoring for this, and having that extra pixel density can be helpful at times — say, when you’re trying to see all the detail in one of the camera’s 108-megapixel photos. Generally, though, you should just leave this screen at Full HD. The difference in resolution isn’t as meaningful as having smooth on-screen motion, and believe me — your battery will thank you.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

In use

A phone that’s as dedicated to excess as the Ultra needs to offer excellent performance, and that’s just what we got out of Qualcomm’s new, 5nm Snapdragon 888 chipset. This is the first 888 phone we've had the chance to test, and as you’d expect, it sets a high bar for the rest of 2021’s smartphones — there's more than enough power here to keep all your go-to apps and graphically intense games running beautifully.

That's hardly a surprise when benchmarks point to notable performance gains over last year's Snapdragon 865, which was already more than fast enough for most use cases and most people. What’s more, we’ve long passed the point where people routinely push their high-end smartphones to their limits, not that that’s going to stop chipmakers from pushing the envelope anyway.

I mention all this because it can be easy to take this kind of performance for granted. What benchmarks are less apt at describing is how fast the S21 Ultra feels — between that extra compute power, that 120Hz screen, and some software tweaks, the Ultra feels like the most immediately responsive phone I’ve used in a long time. (We’ll soon see if the rest of the year’s premium smartphones can replicate that feat.) And beyond that, being able to play high-fidelity mobile ports of gorgeous PC tech demos like Bright Memory never fails to impress.

Performance aside, there are some notable changes to the Galaxy S experience this year. For one, the Ultra ships with Samsung's OneUI 3 running atop Android 11, which comes with enough tweaks that it probably warrants a full review on its own. Since this review is pretty long as-is, I'll just shout out a couple standout additions here.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

In addition to less obtrusive message alerts and a cleaner approach to notifications, the S21 Ultra also packs Google's excellent Discover Feed in lieu of the lousy, ad-ridden Samsung Daily. You also get Samsung Free as a possible Discover replacement and, while it’s not as immediately helpful as Google’s feed, it offers niceties like free streaming video channels. It’s odd, yes, but I’d take this over a screen full of Bixby nonsense any day. I was also really looking forward to trying Samsung’s Private Share app, which lets you securely share files and control access to them. The problem is, the feature only works as long as your intended recipient also has a Galaxy phone running the Private Share app.

Samsung started leaning into 5G with its 2020 flagship, but here we are a year later and the experience remains mixed. Our review unit came pre-activated on Verizon’s 5G network, and for the most part, data speeds were pretty much as fast — or not fast, depending on where you are — as the LTE networks we had access to before. (Note: Engadget is owned by Verizon Media, but our editorial independence remains fully intact and Verizon has no say over what we publish.)

Yes, there are occasions when you’ll happen on a mmWave node and see your download speeds shoot through the roof — we’re talking more than a gigabit per second. If you find that kind of coverage, consider yourself lucky and don’t get attached. When I tried the S21 Ultra in Bryant Park, one of the easier-to-find mmWave 5G hotspots in New York City, the difference between gigabit speeds and the status quo was often a few steps. Hell, sometimes, I didn’t even need to move: while perched on the steps near the park’s west edge, back-to-back speed tests returned wildly different results.

Point is, 5G is here and it can be pretty good depending on what carrier you’re using. But even though these networks stand to get much better with time, actual, valuable performance improvements can be harder to come by than you might expect right now.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

And of course, there’s the S Pen. Over the years, we’ve seen Samsung slowly release versions of its hallmark stylus for laptops and tablets, but never for non-Note smartphones until now. As mentioned earlier, that’s probably because there’s a strong chance we won’t actually get a Galaxy Note this year — or ever again, if Reuters’ reporting is on the money.

It feels weird to use one of these styluses on a non-Note phone at first. There’s a bit more latency here, so you’ll see your strokes trailing behind the tip of your S Pen. And while the S21 Ultra’s Wacom digitizer means you can still click the S Pen to access your shortcuts, you can’t do any of the remote control tricks that made the Note 20 Ultra such a joy to use. (For that, you’ll probably have to wait for Samsung’s S Pen Pro to ship later this year.) Don’t get me wrong: you can still take notes and sketch portraits with the S21 Ultra just fine, it just lacks the elegance and technical finesse that the Galaxy Note was known for.

Clearly, there’s much more going on inside this phone than usual, so how does its battery stack up? So far, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has seemed on par with devices like the Note 20 Ultra. With the screen set to Full HD, I usually finished a day of consistent use with between five to six hours of screen-on time logged and plenty in the tank left for the following morning. For many people, the Ultra will be a multi-day phone. Just know that it’s definitely possible to drain the phone in a day without much effort, especially if you run the screen at its max resolution.

Frankly, I was expecting a little better since the S21 Ultra has a 5,000mAh battery, and because the Snapdragon 888 has a built-in modem instead of a separate module. On the whole, we’re looking at quite good — not game-changing — battery life.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Even more cameras

One of the big reasons the Ultra costs as much as it does is because of its cameras. This year, you get five of them: a 40-megapixel front camera for needlessly detailed selfies, plus a 108-megapixel wide camera, a 12-megapixel ultra-wide, and a pair of 10-megapixel telephoto cameras: one with a 3x optical zoom range and another with a 10x optical range. Throw in a laser autofocus to fix the issues we saw with last year’s S20 Ultra and we’ve got one of the most competent camera setups Samsung has ever put together.

That 108-megapixel wide camera is going to do most of the heavy lifting, and it’s a solid all-around performer. That’s partially because of Samsung’s ludicrous sensor and the way it treats nine smaller sensor pixels as one big one by default, but also because of Samsung’s approach to colors. They’re really punchy, especially when you’re looking at photos on the phone, to the point where they usually look better than reality.

That’s classic Samsung, and ordinarily, this is where I’d say that whether the images the Ultra takes are “better” than others depends on the way you like your photos to look. This time though, I gotta give it to Samsung — I’ve been using Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max pretty extensively, and its Smart HDR seems a touch too aggressive at times, making photos look a little “moodier” and more contrasty than in real life. Samsung’s images might skew a little vivid, but they’re often the more natural-looking — I never expected to say that.

If detail is more important to you than anything else, you can also shoot at the sensor’s full 108-megapixel resolution. Assuming you get close enough to your subject, you can capture just about everything it has to offer, with all of Samsung’s eye-catching image processing intact. (For cases where you’d prefer to have a completely untouched image to play with, switch to Pro mode and shoot in 12-bit RAW instead.) There are two things you should keep in mind, though. First, the resulting files usually weigh in between 20 and 30 megabytes -- that's about ten times larger than normal, so be mindful of your storage. The other thing is that shooting in full resolution means you don't get the benefits of pixel binning, so you probably shouldn't try using this setting in low light.

Speaking of low-light, the S21 Ultra’s Night Mode is noticeably better than last year’s, which often produced images with a yellowish-greenish cast. Though my usual gripe still applies — Samsung phones want night photos to look as bright as possible, which is nice in theory but not always what you want. That said, it also stacks up really well against the competition — I tested it against the Pixel 5 and Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max, and the Ultra generally produced the cleanest results. Just remember that cleanest doesn’t necessarily mean “best.” The iPhone can blow out parts of images, but its photos actually look like they were taken at night.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera sample photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera sample photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera sample photos

Meanwhile, the 12MP ultrawide is back, and it’s the most forgettable camera here. That’s not a knock on its performance: it takes perfectly nice photos when you can’t back up from your subject, or when capturing more space is your biggest concern. It’s just that, it doesn’t come in handy all that frequently. The two telephoto cameras are a different story.

Having two distinct zoom cameras in a single phone is unusual, but they both do a great job of putting you closer (sometimes much closer) to the action. Even better, we’re working with pure optical zoom here, so the resulting photos — while maybe not as detailed as ones you’d take with the main camera — are still impressive. That’s especially true of the 10x zoom camera, which seemed unnecessary going into this review and now I don’t want to give it up.

If you need even more range than that, there’s always Space Zoom, which lets you push in as much as 100x on a subject. Again though, Space Zoom raises some ethical concerns. Knowing you can watch someone who has no idea you’re even there never stops feeling unsettling. There are of course more legitimate uses for Space Zoom, though, and it feels more polished overall. For example: when you’re framing up your shot, the camera tries to keep whatever you’ve settled on in the frame. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a huge improvement over pointing and praying.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom comparison

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom comparison

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra zoom comparison

Space Zoom feels much more functional, more consistent than it did last year, especially at super-long range. One could even argue the relative merits of shooting at 30x zoom — it brings you dramatically closer to your subjects, and the results are still clear enough to be worth sharing. But shooting at 100x still feels like a meaningless flex on Samsung’s part. It’s proof of what the company can do, but I get the impression Samsung never stopped to think about whether should.

There’s still more in Samsung’s bag of camera tricks, though. SingleTake, a feature designed to collect a flurry of stylized photos and clips from a single seconds-long recording produces a slightly wider variety of results, but you probably won’t find more than two or three that are actually worth hanging onto. And beyond that, a new (and pretty well-hidden) content eraser tool lets you selectively remove objects from your photos, sort of like Photoshop’s content-aware fill feature. It’s very much a work in progress, though, so you’ll probably wind up with at least a few failed or awkward attempts for every successful, clean excision it makes.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra content eraser

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra content eraser

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra content eraser

The Ultra is also very capable at video, if that's more your speed. Samsung added a bevy of new features to spice up your footage (and I'll get to those), but there's one big upgrade to note right off the bat. For the first time, you can shoot 4K60 video using any of the Ultra's cameras -- even the one pointed straight at your face all the time. If that somehow wasn't enough, you can also switch to full-blown 8K video recording, even though I can just about guarantee you don’t have a display that can properly do it justice yet. Hell, even some desktop PCs will struggle to play back that footage.

That's where Samsung's new features start coming into play. If you’re going to record in 8K anyway, have fun, and know you can tap a button to pull some pretty decent stills from the video stream. Meanwhile, Director’s View is a legitimate treat — rather than blindly switching between cameras and hoping for the best, you can now see video streams from each of them so you know exactly what you’re committing to. And just like last year, Samsung's Super Steady video mode returns -- with support for 60fps recording, no less -- to make sure you run-and-gun footage doesn't turn out a shaky mess.

No matter what weirdo tool you’re using to help you shoot, your footage will mostly turn out great. Emphasis on "mostly". There are some exceptions though — at least a few of my clips with very detailed scenes look grainy and overprocessed when looking on a proper monitor, but those were thankfully in the minority. Even so, overall video quality is one area where the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max easily have the Ultra beat.

All told, I was — and still am — shocked at how much I enjoyed the S21’s cameras. Those relatively minor video issues aside, the flexibility, range and overall competence on display here has me wondering if I should trade my personal phone in for an upgrade. They say the best camera is the one you have with you, and if you’re carrying one of these around, you’ve got a great tool for just about any occasion.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review photos

Wrap-up

In many ways, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a by-the-book upgrade — it’s faster, its cameras are more polished, and its software is a little cleaner. Calling it a thrill would be a stretch.

With that in mind, the Ultra absolutely shines this year, not because of game-changing updates, but because it addresses basically all the problems we saw in last year’s model. This level of competence on display here counts for a lot more than ambitious, half-baked features. Best of all, it’s less expensive than the model it replaces. With all that in mind, the Galaxy S21 is definitely worth the splurge for power users and camera fanatics, though I’d recommend waiting a while before buying one. Samsung is notorious for its aggressive deals and promotions even shortly after a device’s launch. So in this case — as in many others — your patience may be rewarded.

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