The new Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s new ‘everything phone’ with more cameras, beefier specs, and even S Pen compatibility to eclipse the very likable Note 20 Ultra. If you’re dismayed about rumors of the end of Note series, just try the S21 Ultra.
This is Samsung’s vision of smartphone excess for 2021: five cameras led by a 108MP sensor, two telephoto cameras, 100x zoom and 40MP selfies, plus 5G, all-day battery life and up to 16GB of RAM – all packed into an Android phone with a 6.8-inch 120Hz Quad HD display and an upgraded in-screen fingerprint sensor that has a 1.7x larger surface area than the one on last year’s phone.
It’s the first new smartphone we’ve tested in 2021, along with the Samsung Galaxy S21 and Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus, and it sets the bar high – much higher than last year’s problematic ‘Ultra’ phone. Samsung has retooled its main camera with lasers – yes, lasers – to remedy the autofocus issues on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, and also upgraded the specs to keep up with the demands of processing those large 108MP photos, 40MP selfies, and 8K video without as much as a hiccup.
Photos look sharp, dynamic range is impressive and Samsung’s ‘tripod lock’ software feature steadies the 30x and 100x zoom levels on subjects to prevent the viewfinder image from jumping around. It’s much easier to pull off the 100x ‘Space Zoom’ now, although punching in 100x is limited to being a neat party trick due to grainy images, while 30x is passable in the right light.
It’s the S21 Ultra’s 10x and 3x optical zoom levels that nailed the photos we wanted every time – more than any other smartphone telephoto camera. Our side-by-side comparisons with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which tops out at a 2.5x optical zoom, bore that out. Apple’s main camera captures cleaner photos in some low-light situations, but Samsung’s night mode has improved enough to almost close that gap after sunset or when you’re snapping away indoors – and its default camera app is more feature-packed and easier to use than Apple’s.
Photography and speed are only two-thirds of the story here. This is a tale of design beauty and the performance beast, with a gently curved edge-to-edge display, smaller rear camera bump and mesmerizing matte Phantom Black color option that’s like a black hole sucking in your gaze (other colors are available). It’s hard to look away. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s best-looking phone ever.
Welcome amid an economic slowdown, the overhauled look and boost in performance haven’t led to a price increase over last year’s S20 Ultra – Samsung has actually made this phone significantly cheaper. Granted, we felt like the first Ultra phone was overpriced, and the S21 Ultra is still mighty expensive – it’s more than the iPhone 12 Pro Max – but Samsung gives you a bit more for the extra cost: a larger, brighter and more capable curved screen, 10x optical camera zoom (vs 2.5x on the iPhone), and stylus support, something Apple has yet to offer on any iPhone.
Depending on what’s important to you, then, Samsung may be offering more value for your money.
What’s the catch? We started out saying that the S21 Ultra is Samsung’s vision of excess, but you’ll have to let go of what doesn’t fit into the company’s roadmap. Gone is the microSD card slot for expandable storage, and say goodbye to MST (being able to use Samsung Pay with credit card machine even if they didn’t have NFC). You won’t find a charger inside of the box either; like Apple, Samsung cites e-waste as the reason the power brick isn’t included.
If you only just got over the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack in Samsung smartphones, brace yourself for these changes – we have seen some diehards in our YouTube video comments proclaim “no microSD, no sale”. But there’s enough positive change here to offset any minor discomfort.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra price and release date
- The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra release date was January 29, 2021
- The phone starts at $1,199 / £1,149 / AU$1,849
- You’ll spend extra if you’re looking for higher specs than 128GB of storage
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra release date was January 29, 2021 so you’re now able to buy the phone in the US, UK and Australia. The launch event was January 14, meaning that both the official announcement and the release date are a month earlier than we’re used to for the company’s flagship smartphone. Samsung is bucking trends in 2021.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra price is also notably cheaper than the S20 Ultra at launch, though it’s still going to cost you a lot. It starts at $1,199 / £1,149 / AU$1,849 for a version with 128GB of internal storage and 12GB of RAM.
Keep in mind that there’s no microSD card slot for expandable storage, so if you’re keen on taking lots of 4K 60fps or 8K 24fps video, you may want to look into the 256GB or 512GB storage sizes – and the latter of those sizes also bumps up the RAM to 16GB.
Is it all too rich for you? The Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus don’t tout ‘Space Zoom’, S Pen support or 108MP/40MP photos, but you do get the 3x optical zoom and slick design, at a far cheaper price.
- These are the best Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra deals today
Design and display
- Large phone with a great 6.8-inch display and 120Hz refresh rate
- Contour Cut camera has proven divisive, but looks unique
- A whole variety of color choices
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is one gorgeous-looking smartphone – so much so that we didn’t bother to put a case on it during testing. Risky, yes, but the finish of our review device – a matte Phantom Black with few seams – helped minimize the camera bump and fingerprints smudges.
In addition to the deep, Vantablack-like Phantom Black color, there’s also a Phantom Silver color on sale everywhere, while Samsung’s own online store offers an additional three options: Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy and Phantom Brown.
Whatever color you choose, the matte finish of each is a significant improvement over last year’s S20 series, which had a reflective sheen that looked a little plasticky and cheap.
Both the Galaxy S21 Ultra and S21 Plus have a smooth Gorilla Glass back while the Galaxy S21 is stuck with a polycarbonate (read: plastic) back that feels less smooth to the touch. Only in a side by side comparison would average consumers be able to tell the difference.
We’ve been finding the S21 Ultra to be big where it needs to be, while minimizing everything you don’t want to see. For example, its large display stretches the hand at 6.8 inches, yet the curved edge-to-edge screen means that bezel is almost non-existent, and that 40MP front camera hides behind a tiny punch-hole that’s easy to ignore after a few minutes of watching a video.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra screen is Samsung’s first (among smartphones) that’s capable of running at a smooth 120Hz refresh rate while in a pixel-packing Quad HD resolution. The entire S20 series and Note 20 Ultra forced you to choose between 120Hz/60Hz and Quad HD/Full HD, while the new S21 and S21 Plus are stuck at Full HD+, with 120Hz enabled by default.
The long-awaited verdict to having both? Meh – it’s the best of both worlds, sure, but you won’t see much of a difference between 1080p and Quad HD on a display of this size, and Quad HD will drain your battery faster.
The need for resolutions higher than Full HD among smartphones was being driven by VR headsets – you could see a ‘screen door effect’ at lower resolutions when the pixels were so close to your face. But Samsung, along with the entire mobile industry, seems to have cooled all phone-based VR initiatives.
This is still Samsung’s best screen, but for many other reasons. We found the 6.8-inch body to be easier to grasp than the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max, and that’s in large part thanks to the curved display and overall narrowness of Samsung’s device. The curved edges are subtle on the S21 Ultra, and not quite as pronounced as on past Samsung devices, and that means fewer errant presses.
We also tested the screen brightness of the Galaxy S20 Ultra outdoors, and it automatically amps up to a super-bright 1,500 nits when necessary. Other phones with AMOLED screens, including the S21 and S21 Plus, max out at 1,200 nits, and every little bit helps in direct sunlight.
Samsung’s redesigned in-screen fingerprint sensor, which uses ultrasonic technology courtesy of Qualcomm, makes its debut on the Galaxy S21 series. There’s 1.7x more surface area to this invisible biometric pad, and we found it was more forgiving of our often wayward thumb placement – that’s a relief given the fact that face unlock is useless at a time when we’re often hidden behind a mask.
S Pen compatibility
- First in Samsung’s S series to work with a stylus
- Doesn’t fit inside the phone, like the Galaxy Note series
- Compatible with a variety of stylus as well as Samsung S Pen
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s first non-Note phone that’s compatible with its S Pen stylus, and it’s a trend we like seeing. However, things work a bit differently here: there’s no S Pen included with the phone and, even when you make the separate purchase, there’s no way to embed the stylus into the body of the phone.
There’s a folio case that holds a newly designed S Pen that’s slightly larger and more comfortable to hold than the version that tucks inside of the body of Galaxy Note phones. It neatly slots into the inner spine of the case and feels secure there, so you’ll want a Galaxy S21 Ultra case for more than protection. Exactly what you’re supposed to do with the stylus without buying this folio case is unclear.