When Samsung added an ‘Ultra’ phone to the S20 lineup last year, we knew what to expect. The Galaxy S20 Ultra was the true representation of the ‘Ultra’ moniker with numbers on the spec sheet that were daunting to say the least. But, if you ask me, the Galaxy S20 Ultra was excessive but unrefined. The design was average, the cameras needed some work, and most importantly, the Exynos chip in India was disappointing to say the least. Thankfully, Samsung has gone back to the drawing board, and has added a smorgasbord of features and refinements to the Galaxy S21 Ultra now.
So, has Samsung managed to turn the tide in its favour? Let’s get down to my full review to find the answer to that question and more.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Design: Daunting Yet Suave
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is definitely a behemoth but considering the amount of tech it packs inside, Samsung has done its best to maintain a good balance between thickness, weight and overall ergonomics. I found the in-hand feel of the matte glass finish to be excellent. It doesn’t feel slippery even without a case on. By the way, the phone is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass Victus on the front and the rear. In my experience with the Note 20 Ultra, Victus has been really, really good at protecting from scratches and drop protection. My Note 20 Ultra is unscathed. I am expecting the same for the S21 Ultra.
And, the Phantom Black colour with the seamlessly blending camera module, which has chamfered edges of its own by the way, looks absolutely stunning. Doubt I’d ever put it in a case.
Talking about protection, the S21 Ultra also comes with an IP68 waterproof rating. So, that’s great. The buttons offer phenomenal tactile feedback and an oh-so-satisfying sound when clicked. You get a USB Type C Gen 3.2 port at the bottom too. But yeah, Samsung has axed the option to add expandable microSD card memory on the SIM tray.
All said and done, I really like how Samsung has found a way to embrace the ungainly camera module from the S20 Ultra and chisel it into such a good design. We know Samsung makes premium phones, but the S21 Ultra is like some exquisite lesson in gorgeous industrial design.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Display: Stunning, as Usual
As usual, Samsung’s latest flagship phone has one of the most captivating displays on a smartphone yet. Whether you are streaming shows or playing games or simply browsing Twitter, the display just makes you go…wow! This 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X panel offers a QHD+ resolution and has a 120Hz adaptive refresh rate option as well. The Adaptive Refresh rate can easily flit between 10Hz to 120Hz depending on the visuals on screen. Samsung claims this will also help with battery performance and it actually does. More about that in the battery section.
I don’t even have to say this, you get Widevine L1 and HDR playback support, 1500nits of peak brightness, excellent viewing angles and sunlight legibility, and absolutely no screen bleeding. This is a proper super premium flagship experience. It is almost like Samsung is flexing its muscles here with the excellent display on offer.
But the display experience doesn’t end there, Samsung has also further enhanced the haptic feedback performance. It is tighter now. And, there’s the 2nd Gen Ultrasonic In-display fingerprint scanner with a wider touch area. Which means, you can unlock the screen faster now. Plus, let’s not forget the new S-Pen support with the phone. I tried the Note 20 Ultra’s S-Pen and it worked. However, the cool Bluetooth based Air Gestures don’t work since it is not connected by BT to begin with.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Performance: Beastly
Remember last year when Samsung received a lot of flak for the Exynos 990 being severely underpowered and power hungry compared to the Qualcomm SD865? Well, Samsung has fixed all of the issues with the Exynos 2100. In my time with the phone, I’ve had a blast with the kind of power on offer. Heck, COD: Mobile runs at Very High graphics and Max frame-rates with Water Reflection and Anti-Aliasing on! Coupled with the 240Hz of touch sampling rate, gaming on a Samsung flagship is fun again.
Because, I distinctly remember trying to play Genshin Impact on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Every time I pushed the frame rates to 60fps, the game would lag hard! The Galaxy S21 Ultra sails through 60fps at High settings but at Highest it does stutter a bit. This is still pretty great. And then, it was also fun to play games with support for 120 frames per second on the 120Hz display. But, what about heating you ask? Well, I played COD for 30 minutes each on the Note 20 Ultra and the S21 Ultra. The results are there for you to see on the screen. Clearly, the S21 Ultra’s thermal efficiency has improved by leaps and bounds. We will do a full fledged Exynos 2100 performance comparison test soon. So, wait for that.
Now, coming to the benchmarks bit. The AnTuTu numbers compared to the SD888 benchmarks, shared by Qualcomm, look underwhelming. But, the Geekbench scores are in the ballpark range only. So, I took a closer look at the AnTuTu numbers and the issue was lower GPU scores. And therefore, I decided to check GPU performance scores using 3DMark’s built-in test against the Mi 11 – graciously shared by good friend Arun Prabhudesai from Trakintech.
But, surprisingly, the Exynos 2100’s Mali G78 GPU actually scored higher in the Vulkan test against the Adreno 660 inside the Snapdragon 888. I genuinely feel there is something off with these benchmark scores. And, in the context of the S21 Ultra Exynos 2100 variant, all that matters is that it is powerful and doesn’t heat up. Plus, I must show you the absolutely mad UFS 3.1 sequential read/write scores. It is nuts and almost as fast as an SSD.
By the way, the audio performance of the stereo speakers is on par with the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Loud, clear, and crisp. Nothing has changed on that front. And, the audio through my USB Type-C dongle or even Bluetooth audio was great.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Battery: Exynos Does Better!
One of the biggest problems of Exynos chips in the past was the battery performance and, once again, I am glad to report that the 5nm Exynos 2100 and OneUI 3.0’s battery optimisations are excellent. The 5000mAh battery lasted me over 6 hours and 30 minutes with the display set to QHD+ resolution and 120Hz refresh rate. But I got over 7 hours on FHD+ resolution with 120Hz adaptive refresh rate. You can easily expect it to last over a day if you are conservative with the resolution setting.
As for charging, I tried a 65W GAN charger with the phone, but it has support for a max of only 25W. At this rate, the S21 Ultra’s 5000mAh battery charged from 0 to 100 in 1 hour and 2 mins. This is pretty good.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Network Performance: No Complaints Here
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra in India is a 5G-ready phone. Unfortunately, we can’t test it now. But, 4G performance was rock solid. Call quality was excellent with a great earpiece performance as well. And, most importantly, Wi-Fi was super stable and rock solid. Before I forget, the Galaxy S21 Ultra also comes with support for Wi-Fi 6E. What this will do, at least in the U.S., is open up a plot of spectrum in the 6GHz band for unlicensed use. Which means wider bandwidth, less congestion, and faster speeds. But, it has some time to come to India.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Camera: Tangible Improvements Across the Board
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has four cameras on the rear – a 108MP main camera, two 10MP telephoto cameras which can do 3x zoom and 10x zoom, respectively, and finally a 12MP ultrawide. While I am working on a full fledged camera comparison between the S21 Ultra, Note 20 Ultra, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max, I do have my thoughts ready on the camera for the review. So, here goes nothing.
- Let me start with the Focus Enhancer mode. With big 108MP sensors attached to a wide f/1.8 lens, the biggest concern with the S20 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra was the narrower FoV when shooting a subject up close. But, Samsung has a solution now with the Focus Enhancer mode. Essentially, the app automatically switches to the ultrawide angle camera to take a close up with better focus. Remember when brands did something similar for macro mode using ultrawide. Yeah, this is the same thing. I don’t have a problem with this approach apart from the fact that the images do look slightly distorted at close crop. Regardless, this is a good workaround.
2. The other new feature is the Director’s View mode that lets you shoot using the front camera and a switch between any one of the four lenses on the rear. It is a fantastic way to showcase the Exynos 2100’s chops. And, it feels like Samsung is trying to one up Apple here by integrating the feature into the app itself unlike depending on a third-party one such as Filmic Pro.
3. Samsung’s new ISOCELL HM3 sensor offers sharper details at close crop now. It is definitely crisper than both, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
4. The dynamic range performance has been improved from the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and is on par with the iPhone 12 Pro Max now. However, I was slightly taken aback by the amount of noise in the shadows, though. Samsung will have to fix that issue with processing in a software update.
5. When it comes to the colour processing, in a sample shot of the Pixel 4A’s Oh-So-Orange colour, the S21 Ultra actually gets the shade fairly right compared to the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which has made it pink. And, even the flower on the rear has boosted colours. But, there are definitely times when the S21 Ultra definitely botches the colour temperature. You can clearly see the red cast on the building here, which is not a problem on the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
6. The ultrawide angle camera is sharp as usual. And, the colour science consistency across lenses is great too.
7. The biggest, most excellent upgrade is the addition of the 10x optical zoom lens along with 3x optical zoom. So, at these magnification levels you get crisp details and you get phenomenal natural bokeh. I am in love! And, up to 30x you can get usable images. In fact, I got a nice shot of the crescent moon at 100x as well.
8. As for portraits, I noticed some flesh tone inconsistencies at 2x default sample and the 1x one. But, the edge detection was just fantastic as usual and the natural bokeh was great too.
9. However, the flesh tones on the main camera shots of human subjects veer towards the red colour. But the details and exposure control is just phenomenally good.
10. I don’t even have to say this, selfies on the 40MP camera look extremely sharp and detailed. Plus, now you even get the option to switch to a Natural look, though.
11. Again, I absolutely love how the camera does a fantastic job with night mode as well. You can see that it doesn’t overdo the colours and merely makes the image look brighter and reduces the noise entirely. In fact, you have Night Mode across lenses but the main camera does the best job, obviously.
12. I was really impressed with the low light portraits as well. The images are there for you to see.
13. 4K 60fps videos from the front and the rear, both look really good. And, of course, you can also shoot in 8K@24fps.
14. Oh, Single Take now lets you pick and choose the shots and videos you want to take for the final set of multimedia to be captured by the phone. So, if you don’t want short clips, you can remove that.
Samsung has done a lot of work on cameras to improve the dynamic range and obviously the new 108MP HM3 sensor is absolutely sharp! Yes, there are some colour temperature issues and noise in the shadows, but I am more than happy to live with that tradeoff for a more reliable camera. Plus, the telephoto performance is just fantastic. I really like the cameras and can easily pick up the S21 Ultra as my de facto option.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Software: Second Best Android Skin Out There
It is no surprise that the Galaxy S21 Ultra comes with the latest OneUI 3.1 update based on Android 11. It is my second favourite Android skin after Oxygen OS. In typical Samsung fashion, One UI 3.1 is absolutely choc-a-bloc with features. There’s Dark Mode, Dex, Always On Display, Focus Mode, Customisation options aplenty, Deep Sleep and much, much more. Yet, it doesn’t feel very overwhelming. But yes, I did encounter a couple of Samsung ads prodding me to buy the very Galaxy S21 Ultra that I was using. Also, the brute force use of Samsung Free instead of Google Discover on the -1 page was annoying to say the least.
Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra?
Honestly, I had my expectations in check for the Galaxy S21 Ultra considering the issues with the Exynos Galaxy S20 Ultra last year. But Samsung has graciously accepted its foibles and fixed ‘em with aplomb. I am really shocked at the final product because it is by far the most refined Samsung phone I have used till date. Possibly even the best, if you ask me.
Yes, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is expensive but this is a phone that has all the features that you could’ve ever asked for and more. Plus, it is dripping with polish. I can’t believe I am saying this but Samsung might finally have a phone that might even appeal to the performance enthusiasts, something that was not the case for the past three years. Performance coupled with finesse, is a definite win-win in my books.
As for the comparisons, I like it better than the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, especially now that you have at least the basic S-Pen support. I don’t think I will miss the Note 20 Ultra if Samsung chooses to get rid of the series. As for the iPhone 12 Pro Max, I feel it really boils down to your personal preference and choice of platform. Both the phones are equally good at what they do and to pick one is absolutely impossible if you ask me. But, if you want to make a switch, from iOS to Android, I can’t think of a better phone than the Galaxy S21 Ultra to provide you with the same kind of fit and polish.
What do you think of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra? Do let me know in the comments below.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5GRs 1,05,999
Design and Build9.6/10
What Is Good?
- Exynos 2100 is fantastic
- Vastly improved battery life
- Gorgeous design
- Great cameras
What Is Bad?
- Slightly thick and heavy