Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review 8

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra is a big and powerful device. It comes with a hefty NZD$2,199 price that won’t be affordable for everyone. However, accommodating everyone is not the point of the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

This is a device for those who want the best display a smartphone can provide. It features the  best camera(s) a Samsung phone has ever had; there’s also super-fast performance on offer too due to Samsung’s new Exynos 2100 chip; and a battery that lets you push it to its limit all day. 

This device rivals the iPhone 12 Pro Max for the best smartphone on the market and won’t let you down.

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Premium phone at a high price

Samsung’s S21 Ultra is expensive. If the price doesn’t put you off, this phone has a lot going on and will be worth the investment (for some).

The S21 Ultra comes in three different versions, with the only differences being the amount of RAM and base storage inside.

The 12GB RAM, 128GB version is surprisingly not available in New Zealand at the time of writing, costing USD$1,199 (£1,149). The 12GB RAM, 256GB version costs NZD$2,199 (USD$1,249; £1,199) and the biggest version, the 16GB RAM, 512GB S21 Ultra, costs NZD$2,449 (USD$1,379; £1,329).

These prices are comparative to the S21 Ultra’s main competitor, the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max. The 12 Pro Max also has three versions. The 128GB version costs NZD$2,099 (USD$$1,099; £1,099). The 256GB version costs NZD$2,299 (USD$1,199; £1,199) and the 512GB version costs NZD$2,699 (USD$1,399; £1,399)

Interestingly, in New Zealand, the Samsung S21 Ultra is NZD$100 cheaper than the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, while overseas, the S21 Ultra is slightly more expensive. 

You thought Tom Hanks was Big?

The Samsung S21 Ultra is huge. With dimensions of 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9 mm (6.5 x 2.98 x 0.35 in), this is a phone that requires two hands. This isn’t a problem for me because I have relatively large hands; however, this (obviously) could potentially pose a problem for someone with smaller hands as even I had trouble using the device with one hand. There is no way I could reach the top of the device with my thumb when holding it in one hand. 

This size is to be expected. It seems that flagship phones for companies like Apple and Samsung are happy being big. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has dimensions of 160.8 x 78.1 x 7.4 mm (6.33 x 3.07 x 0.29 in), which is very similar to the S21 Ultra.

It also feels heavy; however, with these top of the range phones, this is expected. Weighing 228g, comparative to the Pro Max’s 229g, it feels solid and sturdy.

The S21 Ultra has a curved screen that goes right to the edge of the phone. It looks fantastic. The only part of the phone where you can noticeably see any edging is at the bottom. The result is an 89.8% screen-to-body ratio that makes the S21 Ultra feel like one big monitor. You forget that there’s anything behind there.

The S21 Ultra’s camera bump design is an improvement too; it’s sleek and adds to the aesthetics of the device as opposed to being an eyesore; however I’m still not in love with it.

When lying the phone on a flat surface, it sits well until you start pushing on its left side. When you do that, it’s like an uneven table at a restaurant, and it wobbles. It’s not a significant issue as most people don’t use their phone lying on a flat surface; however, with the S21’s capacity for using the S-pen and for gaming, this could become a nuisance.

The S21 Ultra comes in two standard colours, Phantom Black and Phantom Silver. Weirdly you can also get the device in three more colours only if you buy direct from Samsung.com. These are Phantom Navy, Phantom Titanium and Phantom Brown.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review 8

Display for days

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra has one of the best screens on the market. It’s a dynamic AMOLED display that has a maximum WQHD+ resolution of 3200 x 1440. It’s bright, vibrant and the colours stand out when gaming and watching videos. 

It’s also able to run at a 120hz refresh rate while in a Quad HD resolution. With previous Samsung smartphones, you had to choose between whether you wanted to favour resolution or refresh rate. Even the Galaxy S20 Ultra forced you to define whether you wished to use Quad HD with a 60hz refresh rate or Full HD+ with a 120hz refresh rate. 

The S21 Ultra’s display is also more impressive than the other phones in the S21 lineup. The S21 and the S21 Plus are locked at Full HD+ with a 120hz refresh rate. 

The S21 Ultra’s ability to run at 120hz in Quad HD is a massive step up from its predecessor and the other phones in the S21 range. Navigating the phone is super smooth and is a delight to use. 

The curved edges aren’t as large as previous Samsung phones, and it’s a significant change. It prevents accidental touches from occurring, and it makes the phone thinner and easier to use as your fingers no longer touch the screen when you hold the device. The result is a near bezel-less display that is truly impressive.

The S21 Ultra display has a peaked rated brightness of 1,500 nits. This allows the S21 Ultra to be used outside or in bright light situations easily. It was beneficial, and watching Netflix or YouTube when I was out in the sun was a breeze, where usually it would be a pain.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review 6

National Geographic calibre cameras

If you’re pondering whether to get the S21, the S21 Plus or the S21 Ultra, the cameras pose the most significant differences. 

The S21 Ultra has four rear-facing cameras. The main camera is a 108MP f/1.8 aperture camera with optical stabilisation and laser autofocus. There is a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera, a 10MP f/4.9 10x telephoto camera and a 10MP f/2.4 3x telephoto lens. Of course, you also get a selfie camera that is 40MP with f/2.2.

There is a definitive difference when you compare these camera specs to the S21 and the S21 Plus. These devices have a triple camera rear system. The main camera is a 12MP f/1.8 camera. There is an ultra-wide 12MP f/2.2 camera and a 64MP f/2.0 telephoto camera with 3x hybrid optic and 30x digital zoom. 

To assess their differences, I’ll start with the main camera; the S21 Ultra boasts a massive 108MP primary camera, a big difference from the S21 and S21 Plus’s 12MP camera. The S21 Ultra uses technology that Samsung calls “nona binning”, where the camera takes nine pixels, puts them together and treats it as one master pixel. You still end up with a 12MP photo from the 108MP main camera, but it’s of a higher quality. 

The S21 Ultra downsamples a larger image to a smaller format which creates a great looking image. This technology also works exceptionally well for low-light photography. Nona binning allows for brighter and crisper night time photography because it can take in more pixels and the results are impressive. 

The S21 Ultra’s main camera also has laser focus which the other two models do not. It results in a sharper image as the camera can choose its focal point. The S21 Ultra also has a closer focal length, meaning you can see more details in intimate photos than you can with the S21 and the S21 Plus.

The core differences between the S21 Ultra and the S21 and S21 Plus camera setups are away from the primary camera. 

It’s all to do with the optical zoom capabilities of these devices. When it comes to smartphones it’s important not to be fooled by marketing tactics that are often confusing and intentionally make it difficult to understand the capabilities of a phone’s cameras. While the S21 Ultra is marketed as having 100x zoom, this is a digital zoom, meaning that to get that image, software is used to predict pixels and it’s not always accurate.

To get around these confusing tactics it’s best to focus on the optical zoom capabilities of the phone. Optical zoom is real zoom, meaning the pixel quality will remain the same. The S21 Ultra has a 10x optical zoom, while the S21 and S21 Plus have a 3x optical zoom. This is a significant upgrade on the S21 and S21 Plus and the result is a much clearer and crisp image when zooming in.

At a 10x zoom the S21 and the S21 Plus noticeably lose quality because they use a digital zoom. The S21 and S21 Plus have a 3x optical lens so these devices need to use software to produce an image at 10x zoom. At this level of zoom, the S21 Ultra doesn’t require software, it only requires its 10x optical lens and the end result is a noticeably crisper and clearer image.

I haven’t come across a time when I needed to use the Space Zoom capabilities of the S21 Ultra which is 100x zoom. At this level I found that the quality was too distorted and pixelated and only useful in very specific scenarios – like taking a picture of a number plate hundreds of meters away.

Taking photos when zooming in can be difficult, especially with arm sway. Not here, the S21 Ultra uses a feature called Zoom Lock that lets you tap the display to lock onto your subject. It’s really good…but it doesn’t help the quality of the pictures much.

The S21 Ultra can record up to 8K videos at 30fps. Combined with the Super Steady mode that the S21 Ultra implements to smoothen out footage, the results are very impressive. I never found a need to film in 8K. For me this is a bit of a marketing ploy and isn’t a factor on whether you should purchase or not purchase this phone. Filming in 4K and 1080p was more than sufficient for me and the quality of these videos are very good. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Zoom comparisons

0.6x

A photo taken at 0.6x zoom. The colours are vibrant and you can really see the contrast between the greens of the leaves and the blues of the sky.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review 1

This is taken at 1.0x zoom and you can start to see the definition of the leaves in clearer detail.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review 2

This is a 4x zoom photo. The image is crisp and clear. We can see on the red flower it is a bit distorted but the foreground flax leaf and the birdhouse are all rich in detail.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review 4

This is at 10x zoom. This is the extent of the S21 Ultra optical zoom. This is a clean image, its crisp the colours look great and you can see very fine details on the leaves.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review 5

This is at 30x zoom. Now the zoom is using a hybrid zoom of digital and optical. You can see that there is quite a bit of distortion in the leaves however the result is still impressive.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review 6

This is at 100x zoom. It’s still kinda impressive, but very distorted. And there isn’t a situation where I can imagine using 100x zoom for any photo I’d want to keep.

Overall the image quality that the S21 Ultra can produce is incredible. The 10x zoom is a significant zoom while still maintaining a crisp and quality image. The colours pop and the end result is a vibrant and clear photo. I still don’t see a need for 100x zoom as you end up with a pixelated image, however, I was impressed by the quality of the 30x zoom.

The Samsung S21 Ultra produces top quality images that are comparable to that of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The S21 Ultra produces better zoomed in images while the iPhone 12 Pro Max generates more true to life photos however the differences are very hard to distinguish. Overall it comes down to personal preference, but both Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra and Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max have cameras that will produce great looking photos.

A mobile gamer’s dream

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra is fast, very fast. It has Samsung’s new Exynos 2100 chip, and the results are impressive. While not as fast as the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the S21 Ultra was easily capable of playing the most graphically demanding mobile games like Ark Survival Evolved without any hiccups or loss of frames. 

The Exynos 2100 chipset is a significant improvement on its predecessor the Exynos 990 delivering 22% more performance and 35% more efficiency.

Annoyingly, Samsung has removed the microSD slot from the S21 Ultra. This was always a point of difference between Samsung’s flagship devices and Apple’s flagship devices. It allowed customers to opt-in for a lower base storage option, like the 128GB version, and then upgrade it as you choose. This is no longer possible. 

Previously Samsung customers didn’t have to think too hard about what version of the latest phone they wanted as they could always upgrade the storage as they pleased however, now you will need to think about it. 

Depending on how efficient you are with cloud storage, I think that 128GB is not enough storage space for someone who could be taking photos that can be 30MB in size. For me, the 256GB version was the best fit. It’s not as expensive as the 512GB version, provides just enough storage, and you won’t notice the differences between the 12GB of RAM and the 16GB of RAM that the largest version offers.

The S21 Ultra implements Samsung’s OneUI3.0 which is the latest version of the user interface, and the benefits are no more evident than on the S21 range. The interface is fast, and the menus are simpler and easier to access. It all adds to the speed the S21 Ultra provides. Navigating the phone is snappy and straightforward. It makes for a great experience.

Wisely, Samsung has removed the dedicated Bixby button on the side of the phone. This button could be a pain due to accidental button presses. The S21 range does not have this button, and they are all the better for it. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review 8

Where’s the charger?

A big and powerful phone like the Samsung S21 Ultra is only useful if it has a capable battery. Fortunately, the battery inside this device is top class. It’s a 5,000 mAh battery that boasts an 11-hour lifetime in the 60hz 1080p display mode and a 10-hour lifetime in the 120hz 1080p display mode. 

We saw quite substantial dips in battery life when we turned on the QuadHD display setting. For a device of this size, it is hard to tell the difference between QuadHD and Full HD+, and we were more than happy with the performance in FullHD+ mode. The battery lasted longer, and we were able to use the S21 Ultra all day.

What assists the battery life is the S21 Ultra’s variable refresh rate. Backend technology inside the device will automatically adjust the refresh rate depending on what you are doing. If you are doing a low-intensity activity on your phone, the refresh rate will adapt and drop to as low as 10hz; if you perform high-intensity activities like gaming, it will rise to a maximum of 120hz. This is an improvement on the S21 and the S21 Plus, which will only drop down to as low as 48hz. It’s intuitive and ensures that your phone will last you a full day off one charge.

After all the stick Samsung gave Apple about not including a charger with their devices, Samsung dutifully copied Apple’s lead – and marketing spin, that it’s good for the planet – and dropped the charger from the S21 Ultra’s box. I don’t like this; I don’t like it with any devices. For me, it’s like getting a car without the keys. Samsung has assumed you have a charger already, and personally, I don’t feel that that is a fair assumption. 

To add to the frustration, the S21 range is not compatible with 45W charging. With the entire S20 range being compatible with 45W charging, this feels like a backwards step. 

The S21 Ultra is compatible with 25W wired charging and 15W wireless charging. For anyone that purchased a 45W charger, this will be a nuisance because, without the charger in the box, they are going to have to go out and buy another one.

It’s disappointing; a phone with a battery this good deserves extra fast charging, and unfortunately, the S21 Ultra does not support it. 

Features

Samsung’s S21 Ultra is the first non-note Samsung phone that is compatible with the S pen. The pen works well on the screen, it’s responsive, and it picked up what I was writing with ease; however, the phone does not come with an S pen, you’ll have to buy it separately, costing around NZD$30 (USD$25; £15). 

There’s also nowhere to put the S pen. You cannot insert the pen into the phone like you can with the Galaxy Notes. It becomes a hassle, though there are cases for the S21 Ultra that have compartments for the S pen. But it feels more like a gimmick than a useful tool. 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra supports all of the wireless functions you would expect from a phone released in 2021. It’s compatible with 5G, which is now standard. It’s also compatibility with Wi-Fi 6E. This is the new benchmark for Wi-Fi speeds, delivering a higher overall bandwidth. This means that when using Wi-Fi to go on the internet, the S21 Ultra will accommodate higher download and upload speeds. It’s important to know that you will need a Wi-Fi capable router to reach these high speeds.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review 9

Verdict

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is easily Samsung’s best phone to date. It has a sleek look and is easily identifiable as a premium device. 

Its professional-standard cameras are fantastic, and it rivals the iPhone 12 Pro Max for the best camera in the smartphone market. It’s four rear camera setup provides a significant improvement on the Galaxy S20 Ultra. The dedicated telephoto lenses are significantly more impressive than the S21, and the S21 Plus’ digital zoom and its “nona binning” technology allow for fantastic low light photography.

The S21 Ultra has the best display on the market. Its 120hz capabilities are impressive. The variable refresh rate ensures that you can use the phone at its best all day without the battery running out, and the no-bezel design is functional and beautiful to look at.

The new Exynos 2100 chip paired with the improvements Samsung continuously implements with its OneUI 3.0 software ensures the Samsung S21 Ultra is speedy, easy to navigate, and it truly is a delight to use. 

The lack of a MicroSD slot and the inability to charge the S21 Ultra on a 45W charger both feel like backwards steps. What once differentiated Samsung from Apple devices with external memory capabilities is no more; however, there are three competitively priced options that you can choose with the Samsung S21 Ultra that should cover what you need. 

Samsung’s S21 Ultra is expensive, but with the best display on the market, professional-quality cameras and super-fast performance, it’s easy to see where your money is going. 

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Design
Features
Performance
Camera
Battery
Price

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