Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Complete Review
- The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is the first S-series smartphone to support the S Pen stylus.
- The smartphone has a 108MP primary camera with 100X space zoom capabilities.
- It flaunts a stunning WQHD+ Dynamic AMOLED display with refresh rate between 10Hz and 120Hz depending on the on-screen content.
Samsung launched the Galaxy S21 series in January 2021, which was well over a month earlier than its usual February launch schedule. The new smartphones bring key improvements like slightly brighter display, faster chipset and storage, and improved software. However, all this and more come at a starting price of $799 for the Galaxy S21, which is $200 lower than the Galaxy S20.
The flagship smartphone of the series, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, carries a price tag of $1,199, which is also $200 less than last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G. According to Counterpoint’s Component Practice Research, the S21 Ultra costs 7% less to produce compared to its predecessor. This cost reduction is also due to the removal of the charger and headphones from the box.
As Samsung is skipping the flagship Note series this year, the S21 Ultra gets support for the S Pen stylus (sold separately), which is coming to the S Series for the first time. With all these upgrades, has Samsung done enough to offer the absolute best of Android experience? Here is our long-term Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review after using it for over six months.
Elegant Design, Phantom Black Color Give it a Classic Look
- Gorilla Glass Victus protection front and back.
- IP68 water and dust resistant.
Samsung has always focused on the CMF (color, material, finishing) for both the Galaxy S and Note lines, and the new S21 line-up is no exception. At the launch event, Samsung spent some time explaining the lengthy process involved in creating the perfect black color finish. It finally settled on a black film with haze glass (Gorilla Glass Victus) on top.
The result is a clean and smooth black finish which not only offers a good grip when holding the phone but also keeps smudges and fingerprints at bay. Even after six months of usage without a case or screen guard, Gorilla Glass Victus holds up well and there are no scratches so far.
The camera module bump at the back still exists and the phone wobbles when kept face up on the table, but that is not a deal-breaker. The module perfectly curves into the phone’s body.
Phantom Black on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best black finish we have seen so far.
Display: One of the Best Smartphone Screens
- 8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display, 120Hz refresh rate (LTPO), HDR10+, 1500 nits.
- WQHD resolution (1440×3200 pixels, 515ppi).
- Qualcomm second-generation ultrasonic fingerprint scanner.
- 9ms latency for S Pen support.
Samsung has gone with a slightly brighter display (1500 nits) compared to the S20 Ultra (1400). Wide viewing angles and vibrant colors let you enjoy HD content with stunning clarity. Whether you are playing games or binge-watching content on Netflix or YouTube, the viewing experience is fantastic. There is a center-aligned hole-punch cutout on top of the display for the front camera, but that doesn’t cause much of a hindrance when watching videos or playing games.
Unlike the Galaxy S20 Ultra, you no longer need to choose between the highest resolution and highest refresh rate. Instead, you now get an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate at WQHD resolution. The interesting highlight of the display is that it uses LTPO (Low-Temperature Polycrystalline Oxide) technology to ensure optimum battery usage. This allows the screen to intelligently switch between 10Hz and 120Hz depending on the screen content.
For instance, in the case of static wallpapers or when you are reading e-books, the refresh rate can go down to as low as 10Hz. When playing graphic-intensive games or watching videos and movies, the screen refresh rate automatically increases to reach a maximum of 120Hz. There is an option to lower the refresh rate to a constant 60Hz, but you won’t be able to force it to run at 120Hz all the time, and that is not a problem at all.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G comes with a gorgeous screen and quick-touch response time.
For security, Samsung is using Qualcomm’s second-generation ultrasonic under-display fingerprint scanner. It comes with a 1.7x more surface area, and over 50% faster recognition. In my six months of usage, I did find the scanner to be faster and accurate in recognizing the fingerprint and unlocking within a second.
Performance: Blazing Fast Yet Efficient
- 5nm Snapdragon 888/Exynos 2100 (region dependent).
- 5G support for both mmWave and Sub-6GHz.
- 8GB/12GB/16GB RAM, 128GB/256GB/512GB storage (no expandable storage).
- 5,000mAh battery; 25W wired, 15W wireless and 4.5W reverse wireless charging.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is the first smartphone to be powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 SoC in the US. The global variant (like my Indian review unit), on the other hand, is powered by the Exynos 2100 SoC. Both chipsets are fabricated on Samsung’s 5nm node. (We are reviewing the SKU with 12GB RAM and 256GB storage.)
Performance-wise, the smartphone is a powerhouse. During my long-term usage, I did not notice any stuttering or slowdown. Whether it is using everyday communication apps or web browsing or gaming, the apps do not feel sluggish at all. Samsung seems to have worked on improving memory management.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra does all the heavy lifting without breaking a sweat.
With a few apps minimized in the background, the system is not aggressive in killing background apps, even when running demanding games. It allocates enough resources for the game to run smoothly. Samsung clearly has done a good job optimizing the software and hardware.
However, the thermal management could have been better. After playing graphic-intensive games like PUBG Mobile, the back of the phone gets considerably warm in just under 10 minutes. While this was at 120Hz, lowering the refresh rate to 60Hz did make the phone warm, though it took a little longer at about 25 minutes. Similarly, the thermal management is good when recording videos at 1080p, but the moment you switch to 4K 60fps, the phone gets too warm in about two minutes of recording.
Gaming experience is smooth, but the back of the smartphone gets warm when the refresh rate is set at 120Hz.
Another area of improvement could be the earpiece. The in-call volume is too low. I had to hold the earpiece too close to the ear to hear what the recipient was saying. But when playing media on stereo speakers (with the earpiece acting as the secondary speaker), the audio output was loud enough.
Lastly, the battery life of the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is pretty good. With the refresh rate set at adaptive 120Hz and general daily usage including social media apps, listening to music over Bluetooth TWS, and smartwatch connected all the time, it lasts a workday. In terms of screen time, I got just a little over five hours. Switching to the standard 60Hz refresh rate, the battery life with the same usage came close to six hours.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra battery lasts a typical workday without breaking a sweat, but Samsung needs to catch up with competitors to offer faster charging capabilities.
Cameras: Excellent Shooter in Every Light Condition
- Quad rear cameras, including two telephoto lenses.
- 108MP wide (24mm), f/1.8, OIS, PDAF, Laser AF.
- 10MP, f/4.9 periscope telephoto (240mm) with OIS for 10X optical zoom.
- 10MP, f/2.4 telephoto (70mm) with OIS for 3X optical zoom.
- 12MP, f/2.2 ultra-wide (13mm) with PDAF.
- 40MP, f/2.2 wide (26mm) for selfies and video calling.
Samsung has made major improvements to the camera system on the Galaxy S21 Ultra over last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra. The primary camera now has the in-house 108MP ISOCELL HM3 image sensor (1/1.33″, 0.8µm) which brings improved auto-focus, low-light and HDR performance. It uses Nonapixel technology with 9×1 pixel-binning to produce 12MP photos by default. You can click full 108MP resolution photos too by turning on that feature in settings. Photos shot in full res are about 30MB in size, whereas pixel-binned images are around 7MB.
The Pro Mode also lets you click RAW photos that you can edit later. These files are about 24MB in size. There are other interesting modes, such as the Single Take, which records a 5-15 second video clip. The AI then analyses the video clip and picks the best moments in the form of photos with filters, portrait mode, short video clips such as boomerang, dynamic slow motion, and more. I tried it a couple of times, and the results were impressive.
Talking about the quality, the camera captures some stunning photos with great details and a wide dynamic range. The photo below was clicked on a rainy day. It captures the clouds, greenery, the water in the lake, barbed wire and the stones very well.