Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: Bringing The A Game

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review
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It’s a month earlier than usual, but Samsung’s next generation of flagship smartphones are now upon us. After all the customary leaks and unofficial reveals, the company finally unveiled a trio of new S21-lineup of phones and the Galaxy Buds Pro on the second virtual Unpacked event tonight. And here, I will be talking about the Galaxy S21 Ultra in this review, which is the best Samsung has to offer for now—with the spec-sheet to prove it.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Specifications:

  • Body: 6.50 x 2.98 x 0.35 inches, 229 gm, IP68 rated, Gorilla Glass Victus, Aluminum frame, S-pen support (separate case required)
  • Display: 6.8-inches Dynamic AMOLED 2X Infinity-O, 515PPI, Gorilla Glass Victus, Eye Comfort Shield, Adaptive 120Hz refresh rate, LTPO
  • Resolution: WQHD+ (3200 x 1440 pixels)
  • Chipset: Exynos 2100 5G (5nm)
  • CPU: Octa-core (1×2.9 GHz Cortex-X1 & 3×2.80 GHz Cortex-A78 & 4×2.2 GHz Cortex-A55)
  • GPU: Mali-G78 MP14
  • RAM: 12/16GB LPDDR5
  • Storage: 128/256/512GB internal storage (fixed)
  • Software & UI: One UI 3.1 on top of Android 11
  • Rear Camera: Quad-camera;
    – 108MP f/1.8 primary lens, OIS, PDAF
    – 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide-angle lens, 120º FOV
    – 10MP f/2.4 telephoto, 3x optical zoom
    – 10MP f/4.9 telephoto, 10x optical zoom
    – Laser AF sensor, LED flash
  • Front Camera: 40MP, f/2.2 lens (punch-hole)
  • Security: Ultrasonic fingerprint sensor (Qualcomm Gen 2)
  • Audio: Stereo speaker, Tuned by AKG
  • Connectivity: Single/Dual-SIM (Nano), WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/6E, Bluetooth 5.2, GPS / AGPS / Glonass / Galileo / BDS, USB Type-C, UWB, 4G LTE, 5G (sub-6GHz, mmWave)
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, Barometer, Gyro, Geomagnetic, Hall, Proximity, Ambient Light
  • Battery: 5000mAh with 25W fast charging (USB-C to USB-C), 15W wireless charging, 4.5W reverse wireless powershare
  • Color options: Phantom – Black, Silver, Titanium, Navy, Brown
  • Price in Nepal: Rs. 154,999 (12/256GB)

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review:

A big 6.82-inches quad-HD display that can finally go up to 120Hz, Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100 chipset, 12GB of base RAM, the new & improved cameras, and a big 5000mAh battery. So, yeah it’s got the standard high-end stuff. And you might remember that the last-gen Galaxy S20 and the S20 Ultra received some mixed reviews for reasons more than one. In this part of the world, mostly because of… you guessed it..the Exynos 990 silicon.

But not only that, the S20 Ultra had this unfixable camera autofocus issues. While Samsung largely addressed the matter multiple firmware updates, but since that was the focal length issue of a big 108MP sensor, it was beyond repair.

Performance

  • Octa-core Samsung Exynos 2100 SoC (5nm) – Global
  • 12/16GB LPDDR5 RAM and up to 512GB UFS 3.1 storage (fixed)

Galaxy S21 Ultra - Gaming

Anyway, I feel like the new S21 Ultra has brought some massive improvement in almost all the areas you’d expect, but the biggest one has to be the performance thanks to the new Exynos 2100 chipset. You might be dying to know its real-life benchmark scores so I’ll get right to it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t run the AnTuTu benchmark as it continuously gave an error message.

S21 Ultra
(Exynos 2100)
S20 Plus
(Exynos 990)
Geekbench 5 Single Core 1,093 886
Multi-Core 3,511 2,491
PCMark Work 2.0 14,028 11,154
3DMark 5,316 4,303

Regardless, let’s pit the Exynos 2100 against last year’s Exynos 990. In Geekbench 5, as you can see, it has a 23% higher single-core score, whereas the multi-core performance is around 41% faster. Moving to PCMark Work 2.0, the Exynos 2100 delivers more than 25% higher score than the 990. Similarly, in 3DMark, which benchmarks the CPU and GPU performance of a phone, the Exynos 2100 wins out with a lead of around 23%.

Optimized One UI

Besides benchmarks, the Galaxy S21 Ultra also feels more optimized and the new One UI 3.1 complements the performance nicely. Everything is smoother than what we saw from Exynos 990-powered phones last year. Moreover, the heating issue is gone-for-good as well.

Galaxy S21 Ultra - UI

But, the age-old question still remains, does it hold up against the Snapdragon 888? If you look at the CPU architecture of these silicons, they are basically the same. Still, I’m not quite sure if the Mali G78 GPU on the Exynos 2100 is on the same level as the Adreno 660. For that, we’ll just have to wait a while for some head-on comparisons.

Gaming Experience

During my tests, I played a lot of games on the phone and it definitely seems to be doing a better job than the Exynos 990. Even after an hour or more of continuous PUBG Mobile gameplay, this thing doesn’t heat up, whereas Exynos 990 used to throttle bad. Still, there’s no 90fps gameplay on PUBG and the highest you can go is smooth graphics and extreme frame rates here, so this is one area where Samsung can eventually optimize certain games to run at a higher graphics setting.

Other than that, games like COD and Genshin Impact are quite optimized and run at the highest of settings, which is great.

WiFi 6E compatibility

If you’ve been following the ongoing virtual CES 2021, multiple router manufacturers like TP-Link, Netgear, and Linksys announced their WiFi 6E capable routers. And if you manage to get your hands on one in due time, the entire Galaxy S21 series will be able to take its full advantage as these devices support the newer, faster WiFi 6E standard.

Design

  • Glass front/back, aluminum frame
  • Gorilla Glass Victus protection
  • IP68 dust/water resistant

Moving on, another aspect I really like about the S21 Ultra is its design. It’s lighter than the S20 Ultra and is more ergonomic to hold and definitely not as heavy as the iPhone 12 Pro Max that I’d been using as my primary phone. The Phantom Black variant that I have with me comes off elegant and is mesmerizing to look at. It’s a matte back, not pitch black, and therefore radiates a Batmobile vibe. However, if this doesn’t float your boat, there are other color options to choose from like silver, gray, navy, and brown.

The camera lens setup gets a redesign and I find the new approach to be more modern, unique, and soluble. Its camera bump isn’t that big either. So yeah, it is unquestionably a better implementation than what we saw on the S20 and Note 20 Ultra.

Galaxy S21 Ultra too brags Gorilla Glass Victus protection on the front and the back for greater durability. However, the Phantom Black color variant and its close-to-matte finish feels unlike nothing like glass on the hand. It is smooth with a great tactile feel and doesn’t easily attract smudges either.

The frames are metal as expected and Samsung is among the handful of companies that still lets users expand the phone’s storage using an external microSD card in its high-end smartphones.

Display

  • 6.8-inches Dynamic AMOLED 2X panel, curved
  • Adaptive 120Hz refresh rate (10 – 120Hz)
  • Corning Gorilla Glass Victus protection

Let’s get to the display now, Like I mentioned earlier, the S21 Ultra greets you with a 6.82-inch 1440p 120Hz screen, and as far as I can tell, this is probably the best display on a smartphone yet. It can get plenty bright, up to 1500 nits and the contrast, the colors on it is extremely good. In comparison, it brags 25% brighter and 50% enhanced contrast ratio compared to previous Galaxy S devices.

Galaxy S21 Ultra - Display [2]

Moreover, Samsung is finally letting you crank up the resolution to QHD while retaining the 120Hz smoothness. And just like the Note 20 Ultra and the Z Fold 2 before it, this screen boasts LTPO technology that can dynamically switch the refresh rate between 10Hz to 120Hz depending upon the content on the screen. Samsung has something in store for the flat-display enthusiasts this time around as the regular S21 and S21 Plus skips the curves while only the Ultra goes for a curved screen.

Similar to the Note 20 Ultra, its screen is also guarded by the Gorilla Glass Victus. We’ve already seen its scratch, drop protection in action so I’ll keep it brief. Essentially, it is about twice more scratch-resistant than Gorilla Glass 6. Furthermore, it can survive drops from up to 2 meters while its predecessor had a maximum drop rate of 1.6 meters.

S-pen support

Anyway, one of the biggest leaks surrounding the S21 series was how it would replace the company’s Note lineup of premium flagship phones by including an S-pen. However, Samsung doesn’t seem to be done with the Note series just yet as the S21 Ultra will instead bring S-pen functionality by embedding the stylus inside a case.

Galaxy S21 Ultra - S Pen

So, if you want S-pen on your S21 Ultra, you’re gonna have to buy an additional folio case. Still, being able to use a stylus on an S-series phone feels like a luxury considering how you simply couldn’t on the S20 lineup.

Likewise, the ultrasonic fingerprint sensor also sees an improvement. The Galaxy S21 series embed Qualcomm’s second-gen ultrasonic fingerprint reader. Compared to the last-gen sensor on the Note 20 Ultra, this one is about 30% faster with a 77% larger surface area.

Cameras

  • Quad-camera setup at the back, Laser AutoFocus system
  • (108MP primary, 12MP ultrawide, 10MP telephoto: 3x, 10x)
  • 40MP selfie camera inside the Infinity-O cutout

Galaxy S21 Ultra - Rear Camera

Finally, let’s talk cameras. Equipped with four sensors, including an upgraded 108MP ISOCELL HM3 sensor with OIS. Unlike the S20 Ultra’s 108MP lens with 3D ToF, the new sensor uses Laser AF. Then there’s the 12 MP ultra-wide camera and two telephoto cameras – a 10x folded periscope lens equivalent to 240 mm, and a traditional 3x tele lens. Both use 10 MP sensors (1/3.24″, 1.22 µm pixels). This hybrid zoom will ensure a smooth transition between focal lengths.

Telephoto Images

For this review, I compared the zoom capabilities of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra against the iPhone 12 Pro Max that has 2.5x optical zoom.

As expected, the S21 Ultra completely thrashes the iPhone in this department. From 3x to 10x zoom, the S21 Ultra is better in every way. Even 3x zoomed night mode images are quite good.

According to Samsung, the periscope lens system that is used to achieve a 10x zoom needs to refract light only twice. In comparison, periscope lens solutions for telephoto cameras on other smartphones require up to five refractions.

Fewer refractions mean relatively higher image quality, and with the new and improved Image Signal Processor, we are looking at one of the best smartphone telephoto cameras in the industry.

Normal, Wideangle Images

Other than that, the other two lenses, wide and ultra-wide are pretty much on par with my current primary phone, i.e the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

And one thing I’ve noticed on the S21 Ultra is that its images are not as punchy and vibrant as we’re used to on previous Samsung flagships.

As a result, the S21 Ultra shoots more natural-looking photos.

Nighttime Images

When it comes to night time shots, both the iPhone 12 Pro Max and S21 Ultra do a commendable job.

But in instances with scarce ambient light, night mode images from the S21 Ultra looks better.

Portrait Images

Portrait photos are equally good from both phones. But the iPhone is able to churn out slightly more details with mildly better skin tone on most occasions. However, the S21 Ultra isn’t that far behind and in certain scenarios, shoots better portrait shots.

Similarly, its laser autofocus system works fine—slightly better than on the Note 20 Ultra. But I still feel like it’s nowhere near the Dual Pixel Autofocus (DPAF) we used to see on Samsung flagship phones of the past.

Macro Images

When trying to take close-up macro shots, the S21 Ultra hesitates to lock focus easily. Still, a feature called “Focus Enhancer” turns on automatically when taking macro photos.

In the end, the images retain good subject focus, although there is no natural background bokeh.

Selfie Images

As for selfies, the centered punch-hole cutout on the S21 Ultra houses a new 40MP sensor. I compared it against the iPhone 12 Pro Max as well.

Both phones do a commendable job. While the shots from the iPhone feature a slightly darker skin tone, the S21 brightens up the subject by a bit. None the less, both devices offer top-tier selfie camera.

Videography

Getting to the videos, the S21 Ultra’s rear camera tops out at 8K/24fps with the 4K/60fps option as well. We all know how good Apple is when it comes to videos and its superiority in terms of stabilization and color science. Still and all, videos from Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra competent enough for shooting great videos.

There’s not much of an improvement in terms of 8K videos and will disappoint with moving subjects. But, if you wish to shoot still footage in 8K resolution, the S21 Ultra can deliver decent videos.

Overall, I’m really impressed with its cameras. And since I am using preliminary software, I expect it to be even better when I get the retail unit and Samsung rolls out a few more updates to further optimize the cameras. So stay tuned for my full long-term review and the detailed camera comparison against the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Battery

  • 5000mAh battery with 25W fast charging
  • 15W Qi Wireless Charging, Wireless PowerShare

On to the battery side of things, the S21 Ultra is powered by a 5000mAh cell which is pretty much the standard these days. Throughout the review, I got about 1 day of endurance on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. So I have to say the battery life is pretty good. Having said that, Samsung could’ve further optimized it—since I recorded around 5-6% battery drain overnight. This has never been a problem with iPhones.

Galaxy S21 Ultra - Display [1]

Charging up the phone is pretty fast, but the company has downgraded the 45W charging on the S20 Ultra with a 25W charging instead. I used the 25W PD charger of last year’s Note 20 Ultra and it can fully charge the phone in under an hour. S21 Ultra’s audio quality is pretty impressive as well. It is loud and detailed enough to immerse yourself in the content you’re watching.

Conclusion

Okay, let’s bring this review to a conclusion. After the disappointment that was the Galaxy S20 Ultra, Samsung has made a strong comeback with the S21 Ultra. It packs in the best of everything—from the display, cameras, processor, and more. So, Samsung is off to a great start this year with the new S21 series. But… everything comes at a price and the S21 Ultra is still cost a pretty penny.

Yet, the silver lining here is that the company offers lucrative pre-booking offers and free insurance in many markets like South Asia. And while the regular S21+ might suffice for many, if you want the absolute best Samsung has to offer, for now, the S21 Ultra is it.

  • Watch our video review of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Premium Android experience
  • Excellent performance
  • Top-notch AMOLED display
  • Ultra-premium design
  • S-pen support (with a case)
  • A-grade camera performance

Cons:

  • No SD card support
  • Uncompetitive fast charging
REVIEW OVERVIEW
Design & Build
10
Display
10
Performance
10
Back Cameras
10
Selfie Camera
9.5
Software & UI
9.5
Battery
9
Value for Money
9