Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Small changes yield big results

Today’s best Galaxy S21 Ultra deals

OnePlus 9 Pro specs

Price:  $1,199
OS:  Android 11 / One UI 3.1
Display:  6.8-inch WQHD+ Dynamic Super AMOLED 2X (3,200 x 1,440)
CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
RAM: 12GB
Rear cameras:
 108MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultra-wide (ƒ/2.2); 10MP 3x telephoto (ƒ/2.4); 10MP 10x telephoto (f/4.9)
Front camera:  40MP (f/2.2)
Storage:  128GB
Battery:  11:25 (60Hz); 10:07 (Adaptive 120Hz)
Size:  6.5 x 3 x 0.35 inches
Weight:  8.07 ounces   

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has added pressure this year with rumors that the Galaxy Note line is either canceled or on hiatus. That means that, outside of the foldables, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the one true flagship for Samsung in 2021. Fortunately,  the phone (for the most part) lives up to the challenge.

The S21 Ultra takes its impressive array of cameras from last year and adds yet another telephoto lens to its beautifully redesigned rear-camera housing. The display gets a substantial upgrade as well with an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate at its full WQHD+ resolution. Beyond the hardware improvements, Samsung upped its software commitments with three major Android updates promised.

Making all of those upgrades more impressive is that Samsung dropped the price of the Galaxy S21 Ultra by $200 compared to the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Not everything is perfect, so read on to find out if this phone is right for you. I’m not spoiling much by saying the Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the best smartphones available. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (128GB Black) at Amazon for $999.99

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Price and configurations 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra starts at $1,199 and is available in three configurations. The base model features 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. For an extra $50, you can double the storage to 256GB; this is a wise investment if you take a lot of photos and videos. Finally, the top-of-the-line model for $1,379 doubles your storage yet again to 512GB and also gives you 50% more RAM at 16GB.

I reviewed the base Phantom Black model with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. This is the only color available for the highest-end configuration, but Phantom Silver is available for the 128GB and 256GB models. Samsung also has a few exclusive options available on its site, including Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy and Phantom Brown.

Samsung got a lot of attention for the $200 price cut on the Galaxy S21 Series compared to the Galaxy S20, which had some people questioning whether we would still see deep discounts on the new models. The answer? Yes and no. You can regularly find the Galaxy S21 Ultra for $999, but it is typically limited to a single retailer. A couple of months into a Galaxy S release in previous years you would have typically seen a universal $100 to $200 discount.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Design 

Samsung made a big deal about the new design of the Galaxy S21 Series, but the only meaningful change was the introduction of the Conture Cut Housing around the rear camera array. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of that redesigned detail; it gives the phone a unique profile and also frees my hands and pockets from constantly encountering the jutting rectangular box that was the 2020 Samsung camera array. 

With that said, it only tackles two of the four sides, so you will still run into the same problem at times. I would still strongly recommend buying a case for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Despite the new Gorilla Glass Victus on the display, the phone is still susceptible to drops. Moreover, while I like the aesthetics and the feel of the new camera housing better, a case balances out the phone and offers a better grip. I will give Samsung’s Phantom Black finish credit, though, as it sheds fingerprints admirably. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

There’s no getting around that, at 6.5 x 3 x 0.35 inches and 8.07 ounces, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a massive phone. But you need space to fit that 6.8-inch display and the rest of the “Ultra” features. Competitors like the OnePlus 9 Pro (6.4 x 2.9 x 0.34-inches, 7 ounces) and iPhone 12 Pro Max (6.33 x 3.1 x 0.29 inches, 8.03 ounces) aren’t exactly diminutive either, but they do shave a bit off due to their slightly smaller 6.7-inch displays.

As with most recent Samsung flagships, the only ports you’ll find on the phone are USB Type-C and a SIM card slot, both located at the bottom. All three buttons are found on the right side of the phone with volume up and down alongside the Bixby/Side button.

While Samsung is overselling the magnitude of the redesign, the payoff for the relatively minimal change is considerable as it gives the phone a more instantly recognizable identity and improves the overall feel and usability.   

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Display 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra features a 6.8-inch, WQHD+ (3200 x 1440) Dynamic AMOLED 2X display. The dynamic descriptor is due to the ability to scale its refresh rate from 10Hz up to 120Hz depending on the content on the screen. The goal is to enjoy your high refresh rate display without sacrificing battery life, a  tradeoff you made with last year’s Galaxy S20 lineup. The other upgrade for the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a 120Hz refresh rate at its full WQHD+ resolution; last year, 120Hz dropped you to FHD+ resolution.

Support for HDR10+ content meant another trip to Our Planet on Netflix. This time around, I watched some of “One Planet” with the Galaxy S21 Ultra in its Vivid setting. The Orchid Bees’ blue-green coloring looked otherworldly against the blotchy yellow and red orchids. The level of detail that you can pick out from the tiny hairs on the bees to the subtle shifting colors on the body and wings of the bees is simply astounding.  

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

The Vivid mode can definitely push things into the hyperreal realm at times, so if that isn’t your preference, switch to Natural and you’ll get a much more toned-down look. Samsung gives you more advanced controls in the Vivid mode that lets you tweak the white balance at a granular level.

With its more natural settings turned on, the Galaxy S21 Ultra reproduced 81.4% of the DCI-P3 color gamut. That’s just behind the OnePlus 9 Pro (84.9%) and the iPhone 12 Pro Max (84.8%). 

The results of the Delta-E color accuracy test (lower is better) weren’t great for the Galaxy S21 Ultra at 0.35 when using the natural setting. The OnePlus 9 Pro did considerably better with a 0.20. 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the brightest phones we have ever tested, peaking at 821 nits of brightness. This was significantly ahead of the OnePlus 9 Pro (722 nits) and almost laughably beyond the iPhone 12 Pro Max (655 nits), but it’s worth noting that even the 12 Pro Max display is sufficiently bright for use in sunlight.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Performance 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra was the first flagship this year to launch with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 SoC, and while that gave it the honor of being the fastest Android phone on the market, it has since been surpassed. Don’t worry though, paired with either 12GB or 16GB of RAM, the Galaxy S21 remains remarkably powerful; it’s just not the reigning champ anymore.

Even pushing around all of those pixels on its WQHD+ display at 120Hz, the Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t falter or stutter. I launched over 50 Google Chrome browser tabs while also running a Netflix video in the background and there was no perceptible difference in performance when scrolling the web or jumping between apps. 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is, of course, also a brilliant phone for gaming; the 6.8-inch display gives you plenty of screen real estate and you can max out every setting and still run even intensive games like PUBG flawlessly.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra was surpassed a couple of times now as the fastest Android phone, but its Geekbench 5 multi-core score of 3,440 is still excellent. The OnePlus 9 Pro (3,685) is the current pinnacle of Android performance, though the iPhone 12 Pro Max (4,111) easily tops them both.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Graphics scores are closer for the Galaxy S21 Ultra, at 34 frames per second in the Wild Life Unlimited 3DMark test. It’s just one frame behind the OnePlus 9 Pro (35 fps) but the iPhone 12 Pro Max (54 fps) buries them again. 

Our Adobe Premiere Rush benchmark went even better for Samsung; our video transcoding test requires the phone to convert a 4K video to 1080p. The Galaxy S21 Ultra completed the task in 1 minute and 3 seconds. The OnePlus 9 Pro (1:03) matched it and the iPhone 12 Pro Max (0:29) managed to do it twice as fast.

If you want bragging rights for the fastest Android phone or the fastest phone on the market then the Galaxy S21 Ultra isn’t the right choice for you, but rest assured, it is fast enough to handle any app or game you will throw at it and should hold up well over time.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Battery life and charging 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra includes a 5,000mAH battery. We’ve seen larger batteries in devices like the Asus ROG Phone 5, but the Galaxy hits the sweet spot of having a large battery without adding too much thickness and weight to the phone.

Battery life with the phone at its 60Hz setting was quite good with the Galaxy S21 Ultra lasting 11 hours and 25 minutes while web browsing over cellular (AT&T) at 150 nits. Unfortunately, that fell off drastically in its adaptive 120Hz mode where it lasted just 10 hours and 7 minutes. This was the opposite of what we saw with the OnePlus 9 Pro (11:44 at Smart 120Hz; 10:29 at 60Hz) and behind the iPhone 12 Pro Max (10:53) at its 120Hz setting, but the iPhone only supports 60Hz so the Galaxy S21 Ultra wins in the apples to apples comparison.

(Image credit: Future)

Now, 10 hours is a reasonable threshold for phone battery life, but my experience was even better than what our tests showed. Samsung likely optimized the power consumption since the launch which may explain the discrepancy. I never once had to charge mid-day, with the phone easily making it through my normal 7:30 AM to 10:30 PM routine while reviewing a phone. This usually means running Netflix and/or YouTube streaming for 90 minutes to two hours, web browsing, social media, gaming and capturing some photos and videos. 

The only disappointments for me with the Galaxy S21 Ultra in this regard is the elimination of the charger from the box. I understand the reasoning, but just as with Apple, I feel like a voucher for those who need one so they don’t need to spend an additional $20 on top of the $1,000+ for the phone would be a nice gesture.

I’ve also become a bit spoiled by the unbelievable fast charging possible with phones like the OnePlus 9 Pro, which can be topped up fully in just 30 minutes using the included 65W fast charger. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, by comparison, made it to 31% in 15 minutes and 56% in 30 minutes using the 25W fast charger that needs to be bought separately.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Cameras 

The collection of cameras on the back of the Galaxy S21 Ultra is truly remarkable both as a feat of engineering and for the incredible versatility it offers. This starts with the 108MP wide-angle primary lens at a fast f/1.8; it is identical to last year’s, but is now assisted by laser autofocus. This is joined by a 12MP ultra-wide lens at f/2.2, a 10MP 3x telephoto at f/2.4 and the new addition for 2021: a 10MP, 10x telephoto at f/4.9. On the front, you have a 40MP selfie camera at f/2.2.

While plenty of phones exist with quad-camera arrays, none of them hold a candle to the Galaxy S21 Ultra when it comes to actual utility. From capturing grand vistas with its ultra-wide camera, incredible detail with its 108MP primary lens, or zooming in on distant subjects with either telephoto lens, the S21 Ultra has a camera for every situation. If I had one request for Samsung, it would be a slightly faster primary lens in the future. The iPhone 12 primary lens, at f/1.6, has a notable advantage when it comes to low-light photography. 

Wide-angle camera

The 108MP primary wide-angle sensor on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is capable of 12-bit HDR photos and, in Pro mode, can output 12-bit RAW files for those who don’t mind handling the massive file sizes involved there. For the average user, the important thing is that the results from this sensor look fantastic. As always, Samsung has its own preferences when it comes to image processing and it can definitely be an exaggerated version of reality, but people can be too quick to characterize that as a bad thing. 

For many users, the processing Samsung applies to its images represents what they would do to the images with filters and editing. Let’s take a look at some of the images I’ve captured with the camera. While the contrast and saturation are pushed a bit, none of these photos break from what I saw as I took the shot. At worst, they are an idealized version of it with more saturated colors and smoother details. And the good news is that if you hate what Samsung is doing with its post-processing, the Pro mode gives you full control.

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Ultra-wide camera

The 12MP ultra-wide sensor may be a steep drop-off when it comes to megapixel count, but it delivers a comparable look to the images from the primary lens while giving you a much more expansive view. I can pick out some distortion at the edges in these images, but nothing out of the ordinary. I am likely overly sensitive to this coming off the OnePlus 9 Pro review as that phone managed to eliminate this problem entirely. 

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(Image credit: Laptop Mag)Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra ultra-wide

3x Telephoto camera

This is the same 3x telephoto zoom that was found in the Galaxy S20 Ultra last year and delivers excellent results for a short-range zoom. This is great for punching in on, say, pets or your kids without having to be in their face. You definitely start to lose some of the pop to the images with the telephoto as you can see in the samples, but color reproduction is still good. 

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10x Telephoto camera

This is the new kid on the block for the S21 Ultra rear cameras and while the f/4.9 aperture means it needs full sunlight to get the best results, it is still a nice addition. While you can push it to 100x as you’ll see in my samples, keeping it to 20x or less will give you the best image quality. Where this is most useful is either when shooting wildlife that you don’t want to get close to or capturing images or videos of kids or pets from a distance. No, it won’t be as high quality as if you were right next to them, but it’s the difference between getting a shot or having nothing at all. 

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(Image credit: Laptop Mag)Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 10x telephoto (100x zoom)

Front-facing camera

While the rear camera array is still the most impressive I’ve used, the front-facing camera may have actually surprised me more than anything. Samsung typically was guilty of over-smoothing in portrait mode, but the 40MP selfie camera on the Galaxy S21 Ultra gives fantastic dynamic range and a great overall image. For its versatile portrait modes, the iPhone 12 Pro Max still wins in my opinion, but for a basic portrait, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is its equal. 

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(Image credit: Laptop Mag)Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra front-facing camera sample

Video 

Galaxy S21 Ultra comes closer than any other phone to matching the video prowess of the iPhone and has a bevy of video tricks up its sleeve. It can capture 8K video capture at up to 30fps and 4K at up to 60fps. The newest addition to its video features is the Director’s View which lets you capture video from both the front and back cameras simultaneously. While it won’t be for everyone, if you are a vlogger or just want to send your family a video of you at some cool place or event, it’s a fun option. 

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Software 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra runs Android 11 with Samsung’s One UI 3.1 overlay. While it isn’t stock Android, one of the biggest criticisms of Samsung phones was that they received slow updates due to the Android overlay. This truly is a thing of the past now. Samsung is almost irrefutably the best manufacturer outside of Google itself thanks to its consistent timely updates and the promise of three major Android updates.

While I retain my personal preference for stock Android, I’m not bothered by One UI 3.1. It has some nice visual touches to it and the settings menus can be more intuitive than stock Android. You can quickly and easily adjust to using the One UI 3.1 skin after about a week regardless of which device you’re coming from. 

Galaxy Note fans will either be thrilled or sorely disappointed to find that the Galaxy S21 Ultra now offers full S Pen support. You need to buy the S Pen separately, and if you want to always have it on hand, you’ll need one of Samsung’s cases that give you a silo for it. However, with rumors that the Galaxy Note line is either canceled entirely or won’t be coming until 2022, this might be your best option.

(Image credit: Laptop Mag)

Bottom line

The Galaxy S21 Ultra isn’t the fastest Android phone on the market and there are some areas where other manufacturers have an edge such as the fast charging from OnePlus or the stock Android experience of the Pixel. But taken as a whole, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best overall Android phone on the market right now.

Two of the biggest factors for me here are the cameras, which give you an unmatched ability to capture anything going on around you, and the software support. No, it can’t match the 5-to-6 years of full OS updates you get from Apple, but three major Android versions take you into late 2023. It’s also important to remember that a lot of Android features come from outside of Android OS updates and you will still receive security updates afterward.

The redesign, though relatively minor, has a major impact by making the Galaxy S21 Ultra stand out again. The gorgeous adaptive 120Hz WQHD+ display and useful extras like S Pen support make the Galaxy S21 Ultra a joy to use. These perks, coupled with its reduced price mean the Galaxy S21 Ultra belongs on the shortlist of anyone shopping for an Android flagship this year.



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