Home » Long Term Review of the Samsung Galaxy S21 ultra 2021

Long Term Review of the Samsung Galaxy S21 ultra 2021

A wolf in wolf’s clothing

unboxing samsung galaxy s21 ultra 5G

Apex predators stand out for a number of reasons. They are sometimes referred to as sharp fangs or nails, offensive behavior, and a stealthy approach to their prey. Samsung, one of the longest dogs on the mobile market, is following the same tack for its new flagship, the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The phone features a sharp design, aggressive camera module, and hidden strength because of the specs that kill. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t pretend to be anything aside from what it is: an apex predator within the smartphone kingdom where it slays much of the competition.

After using the smartphone for nearly two weeks and brooding about Samsung’s previous phones, it’s easy to ascertain that the company has been on a journey. The 2020 Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra was a solid first attempt. It set the blueprint for what was to follow, albeit it didn’t necessarily succeed itself. Later, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra made improvements upon the S20 Ultra’s blueprint, albeit they didn’t go quite far enough. With the S21 Ultra, we finally see Samsung hitting its stride and delivering the phone many have hoped for.

This isn’t to suggest it’s perfect. And the biggest predators in the world have flaws and vulnerabilities.

colors s21 ultra

I will give my honest opinion at the end of the review.

Or you can click here my-verdict

1.      Introduction

The first S20 Ultra was meant to be the largest galaxy to date, but it’s been short of that. You could experience a refresh rate of 120Hz, but only at a lower 1080p resolution. The telephoto camera was marketed as 5x, but it was only 4x, and let’s not even deal with the Space Zoom. The ultra-wide camera had a decent sensor, but due to lack of autofocus, it couldn’t make macro images. The battery was huge, but the life of the battery was weak. You’re getting the idea.

This year isn’t off to a good start for the fans of the rich retail bundles, though. Like Apple and Xiaomi, Samsung has removed the chargers and headphones from the retail boxes and ships each Galaxy S21 only with a cable.

Let’s take a deep dive in the specs now.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G specs at a glance:

Body 165.1×75.6×8.9mm, 227g; Glass front (Gorilla Glass Victus), glass back (Gorilla Glass Victus), aluminum frame; IP68 dust/water resistant (up to 1.5m for 30 mins), Stylus support.
Display 6.80″ Dynamic AMOLED 2X, 120Hz, HDR10+, 1500 nits (peak), 1440x3200px resolution, 209 aspect ratio, 515ppi; Always-on display.
Chipset (International) Exynos 2100 Octa-core (1×2.9 GHz Cortex-X1 & 3×2.80 GHz Cortex-A78 & 4×2.2 GHz Cortex-A55); Mali-G78 MP14
Chipset (USA/China) Qualcomm SM8350 Snapdragon 888 (5 nm) Octa-core (1×2.84 GHz Kryo 680 & 3×2.42 GHz Kryo 680 & 4×1.80 GHz Kryo 680; Adreno 660.
Memory 128GB 12GB RAM, 256GB 12GB RAM, 512GB 16GB RAM; UFS 3.1.
OS/Software Android 11, One UI 3.1.
Rear camera Wide (main) 108 MP, f/1.8, 24mm, 1/1.33″, 0.8µm, PDAF, Laser AF, OIS; Ultra-wide angle  12 MP, f/2.2, 13mm, 1/2.55″, 1.4µm, dual pixel PDAF, Super Steady video; Telephoto  10 MP, f/2.4, 70mm, 1/3.24″, 1.22µm, dual pixel PDAF, OIS, 3x optical zoom; 
Front camera 40 MP, f/2.2, 26mm (wide), 1/2.8″, 0.7µm, PDAF.
Video capture Rear camera 8K@24fps, 4K@30/60fps, 1080p@30/60/240fps, 720p@960fps, HDR10+, stereo sound rec., gyro-EIS; Front camera 4K@30/60fps, 1080p@30fps.
Battery 5000mAh; Fast charging 25W, USB Power Delivery 3.0, Fast Qi/PMA wireless charging 15W, Reverse wireless charging 4.5W.
Misc. Fingerprint reader (under display, ultrasonic); Stereo speakers; NFC; FM radio (Snapdragon model only; market/operator dependent); Samsung DeX, Samsung Wireless DeX (desktop experience support), ANT+, Bixby natural language commands and dictation, Samsung Pay (Visa, MasterCard certified), Ultra-Wideband (UWB) support.

2.      Design, build, handling

There are two ways to look at the latest Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra-as a welcome overhaul and a fresh take on a very bland body, or a ruggedly attractive effort that’s gone sideways and seems like a hasty job instead.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is amazingly good at bringing out a streamlined industrial look; we’d give it that. Although the front is completely screen-like on all recent Galaxies, the frame and the back are distinct. See, Samsung made the aluminum frame larger, and now the rear panel has shorter curves.

Then there’s the back of the glass, which is now matte, and we love the frosted feeling that we get while touching it. It’s terribly slippery, but it’s still very enjoyable.

At last, there’s a new camera island, wait, no, it’s a whole continent now! And the frame unusually extends around this monstrosity in an odd attempt to make everything click, but instead to break the design. And this is where the Galaxy S21 Ultra becomes a take-it-or-leave affair. Either users see the beauty of this awkwardness, or you look at the deal-break.

The new Ultra isn’t as big as the old one. In fact, it’s a little shorter because of the slightly smaller screen.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a brand-new Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen, and it’s the most premium Samsung panel on the smartphone to date. It’s a 6.8″ 1440p OLED with an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate. You can enjoy 120fps of fluid at the native 1440p resolution this time. It’s not a curved screen, but it’s protected by the latest Gorilla Glass Victus with a 2.5D edge, so the front is not completely curved. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a brand-new Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen, and it’s the most premium Samsung panel to date. This time, you will appreciate 120fps of fluid on a native 1440p resolution. It’s not a curved screen, but it’s covered by the new Gorilla Glass Victus with a 2.5D lip, so the front isn’t fully curved.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra arrives with a thin plastic shield pre-applied to the factory. It fits well for this sort of scanner, but it’s definitely not the perfect protection for cracks. But if you opt for a third-party lens, the accuracy and speed of the ultrasonic scanner can and will possibly decrease, so be warned.

Now, let’s have a look at the back. The back panel is also a Gorilla Glass Victus piece, bent into the frame. The curves are not as long as those of the S20 Ultra, hence the bulkier feeling.

Gorilla’s back piece has a matte finish, and it looks wonderful and sounds lovely when touched. It’s as slick as the S20 Ultra’s glossy rear, but it’s much less resistant to fingerprints. Even after a day of use, the back looks reasonably clean, which is something we hardly see in these days.

Then there’s the latest Super quad-camera sitting at the top of a metal mountain. The first column includes the 12MP ultra-wide camera, the 108MP main camera and the 10MP 10x telephoto. The second one has a laser-AF technology, an LED light, and a 10MP 3x snapper.

The entire piece appears to suit the design-as if the handset had been a large solid block before the camera island was chiseled out.

camera bump on the galaxy s21 ultra 5G

The bottom is very crowded-it has a (dual) SIM slot, a mouthpiece, a USB-C connector, and a second stereo speaker. The microphone is next to the SIM tray and looks much like its ejection hole, so be careful.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t give a 3.5mm jack since it retired a while back. But it also omits microSD extension, and we should legally call the S21 generation ‘the SD killer.

no microSD and 3.5mm Jack samsung s21 ultra 5g

We feel like Samsung has made all the right choices for the Galaxy S21 Ultra design-a it’s phone that’s a nice and strong build of luxury materials. We like the latest matt back and the frosted aluminum around the snappers. It’s as water-resistant as ever, but we’re not sure everyone’s going to love the latest look and approach to the main camera. It’s also one of the most slippery phones around, so extra care, or better a case, is a must.

3.      Lab tests – display, battery life, charging speed, speakers

The best OLED screen to date

This year, Samsung has kept the best screen exclusive to the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It is the only in the S21 trio to offer a 1440p screen, while the rest of the S21 were somewhat demoted with regular 1080p screens. All of them support adaptive 120Hz refresh rate at the native resolutions, including the Ultra, which is a first for Samsung.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 6.8″ Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen of 1,440 x 3,200 pixels or 515ppi. The S20 Ultra had a 6.9″ display, but the difference is quite negligible. The panel is protected by a piece of Gorilla Glass Victus.

The screen supports Adaptive Refresh Rate and can go as high as 120Hz or drop as low as 10Hz when needed. It’s also supposed to be the brightest one, with a peak brightness of 1,500 nits! Don’t get your hopes too high, though; that number is for HDR video playback and can’t be achieved when the entire screen is lit.

brightness level s21 ultra samsung  galaxy

Speaking of HDR, the S21 Ultra supports HDR10+ and will naturally play the highest definition material across all common services-Netflix, Prime, HBO, YouTube.

We measured a very strong maximum brightness of 458nits in our show test. When put under bright light, the S21 Ultra increases the screen brightness by up to 1023 nits-making this Ultra the second phone to go north of 1000 nits (the first was the Note20 Ultra).

Now, let’s talk about the refresh rate. There are two settings available to you – Standard (60Hz) and Adaptive. The Galaxy S21 Ultra remains in 60Hz for whatever it is that you’re doing if you have the phone set to Standard.

The Adaptive mode is, well, adaptive. You’d be looking at 120Hz whenever you’re touching the phone with a drop to 60Hz a couple of seconds after your last interaction. That is the general behavior for most things like the UI, browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Samsung’s own) and social media apps (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok), and it is the most natural of approaches.

There are exceptions, though, with most of them being video apps. In YouTube, for instance , the phone remains at 120Hz when you’re playing back HDR videos but drops to 60Hz for 30/60fps non-HDR videos or 48Hz for 24fps videos.

In Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, the S21 Ultra will behave similarly – 120Hz for high-res HDR content, 60Hz for 30/60fps SDR content, and 48Hz for 24fps SDR content. you furthermore may get 120Hz within the UI once you touch the screen, otherwise 60Hz.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra also unlocks its high refresh rate for several popular titles that are known to travel above 60fps. Among those we tried and got 120Hz were Shadowgun Legend, Mortal Kombat, Dead Trigger 2, 1945 Air Force, Alto’s Odyssey, and Pac Man.

And a bit like on the S21, the S21 Ultra features a 60Hz cap on the camera viewfinder. there’s also a 60Hz cap in Google Maps – perhaps Google’s own doing there. The Always On Display also works at 60Hz – we expected this to be the place where we’d see the promised 10Hz. Well, it is not. this might be a possible burn-in-related setting, though, which mandates refreshing those pixels every now then.

Battery life

battery test courtesy s21 ultra Samsung galaxy

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is powered by a 5,000mAh battery – the same as the S20 Ultra’s. Its screen is a bit more demanding as it supports HRR over the native resolution. But the S21 Ultra also features a newer and more efficient hardware, so we hoped to get a somewhat similar numbers as S20 Ultra’s (87h rating, 24h calls, 10h web, 13h video).

Well, the Galaxy S21 Ultra managed to surprise us big time! The total endurance rating of the new Ultra is 114 hours, while the standalone test results read as follows: 35+ hours on call, 15 hours on web browsing, and 18 hours on video playback. We also measured an outstanding standby performance on the default phone state with S-Pen on, AOD off.

Charging Speed

The Galaxy S21 Ultra may be the best of the crop, but it still doesn’t sell you a battery-you need to buy one if you don’t have a USB-C charger at home. The provided USB-C-to-C cable suggests that you either have a USB-PD converter or one of the later Quick Charge 4 cross-standard units. If you have an older charger, let’s hope you have a USB-A-C cable as well.

The good news is that Samsung is throwing a free charger on many of its pre-order campaigns. Carriers across the world are doing the same thing (they also did that with Apple’s iPhone 12 series). We suspect this free charger promotion will be a one-time thing aimed at getting you a charger that’ll last, and it won’t happen next year.

Samsung also announced a reduced price for its (cable-less) 25W adapter (TA800N model) – it now costs $19.99 in US, €19,90 across the EU, and £17 in the UK.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra supports USB Power Delivery with PPS on top for up to 25W of power. The 45W charging capability from the older flagship generation is not supported.

So, if you are using the said 25W Samsung adapter, then a 30-minute charge from flat will replenish 54% of the battery. One hour gets you to 95%, while a full charge requires 1:11 minutes. Not bad for a 5,000mAh battery, not bad at all.

Speakers-the loudness and the consistency

The Galaxy S21 Ultra features stereo speakers in a familiar hybrid configuration-one is stand-alone at the bottom, while the earpiece also acts as a second speaker. For a portrait-oriented handset, the top speaker manages the left line, while in the landscape, they make sure they play the right direction of the channel.

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4.      Software, S-Pen features

Android 11 and One UI 3.1 with S-Pen support

The Galaxy S21 lineup starts right on Android 11, and with Samsung’s latest pledge for three big OS updates, your latest Galaxy S21/+/Ultra should be ready for Android 14 in 2023.

Samsung’s launcher at the top of Google’s OS is OneUI 3.1—that’s 0.1 better than what we had with new changes to Android 11 last year’s Universes. The 0.1 increment makes a subtle difference, not to mention that going from 2.5 to 3 wasn’t just a jump either, so let’s look at the Galaxy S21 family program here.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra also comes with a Wacom layer on top of the screen and, like all S-Pens, supports Wacom-compatible styluses. For this Ultra, Samsung has released a new S-Pen that is larger and, well, more pencil-like than the rest, and a Bluetooth-enabled S-Pen Pro is on the way, too. This support for the pen is unique to the Ultra and is actually the first ever on a Galaxy S screen.

The fundamentals of the One UI are mostly identical to previous versions, though the occasional shift can be found here or there. For instance, the default lock screen shortcuts – dialer and camera, now monochrome – were used to match the colors of the respective apps. Oddly enough, they can maintain their colors if you choose different applications – it’s not exactly a first-party vs. third-party form of distinction either.

The added wellness widget is among the practical modifications on the lock screen – you can now keep track of how much time you spend on your phone without even unlocking it. The always-on show settings, meanwhile, have been streamlined.

Unlocking the phone is best done using the ultrasonic fingerprint reader embedded in the display, and its performance is outstanding – it is the fastest one we’ve experienced, the conventional bunch included!

So, with the new-gen hardware, the software needs fewer taps to register a print, and that’s welcome if minor refinement. The option is there if you want to use face unlock – it can be more convenient in certain situations, if generally less secure since it’s just based on the selfie camera.

Another noteworthy improvement is that the entire screen below is protected by the pulling of the notification shade, even if there is just one or no notification card at all. Previously, if darkened, the portion of the screen under the last warning will remain visible. While we are here, instead of heading through the menu, the easy toggles can now be edited directly from the plus button at the end of the list.

Coming courtesy of Android 11, notification history is now open, too. It’s accessed from the Settings menu, so it’s not instantly available, but it’s there for those times where a message has been ignored too quickly and you can’t seem to figure out what it was about. Just make sure you allow it, because it’s off out of the box.

The new media controls were also implemented in One UI, introduced with Google’s latest OS update. Right below the easy toggles, you get a stack of active audio playback apps and swiping to the side switches between the apps.

The Media screen was already available on One UI 2.5 pre-Android 11, and it offers similar features for selecting the output device or using Samsung’s Music sharing feature.

The volume control panel has also gotten a makeover, and now, instead of the horizontal ones of OneUI past, the four sliders are vertical.

Yet another of the native Android 11 improvements that Samsung also includes in OneUI 3 is the ability to pin apps to the top of the sheet with Share options. It’s one of those things that make you wonder how come it had to wait until v11 for us to get there. Things are much better now, but still, we’d like to remove options too, because that list could sure use some decluttering.

One more thing that Google tweaked in this year’s release is the permission handling, and Samsung’s implemented it in One UI 3. With this version, you will now see a new prompt for permissions every time an app requests it, letting you deny permission, allow it only while using the app, or just for this one time. If an app requires constant access to permission, you also get a fourth option that takes you to a setting page where you can provide it. This is done prevents the user from accidentally selecting this option while blazing through the permission dialogs.

The settings menu has seen a subtle but meaningful makeover. Subcategories are made more legible by using a dot separator and extra intervals, while recent searches are now shown as bubbles instead of a list. Additionally, there’s a newly added feature to search settings by hashtags – for conceptually related things but found in different places in the menu.

  
Settings

The dialer comes with a bunch of cosmetic changes itself. You get to pick one of two layouts for the in-call screen. You can also set up a background image or video for that screen, though it’s going to be all the same for all of your calls – you can’t have a different one on a per-person basis.

    
Dialer

You get a whole bunch of options for using your Galaxy with other devices to enable various use cases. DeX is the proprietary feature that lets you use the phone as the ‘computer’ and add a monitor and a keyboard for added productivity – it works wirelessly or over HDMI.

Alternatively, the Link to Windows feature provides you with an interface to your phone from your computer so you can copy images to and fro, manage notifications on your PC or even make calls from it.

Another option along those lines but with more limited potential is Continue apps on other devices. This requires you to be logged in to your Samsung account on both devices, hook them up to the same Wi-Fi network with Bluetooth enabled and use Samsung Internet browser or Samsung Notes. You’ll then be able to copy and paste text and images across and open the same tabs in the browser.

    
DeX • Continue apps on other devices • Link to Windows

Other staples of proprietary Samsung software include the Edge panels – the panes that show up when you swipe in from the side and provide tools and shortcuts to apps and contacts. Game launcher, the hub for all your games, which also provides options for limiting distraction when gaming is here to stay as well.

Otherwise, the software package is similar to other Samsung phones, with an in-house Gallery app, the Game Launcher app, and a proprietary file manager. Samsung’s Internet web browser is also available on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

S-Pen features

If you are familiar with the S Pen from previous Galaxy Notes, you’d find it easy to use it on this Galaxy S21 Ultra, too. There is also low-latency support in selected apps, which wasn’t clear at the time of announcement.

The S-Pen that’s sold separately as Galaxy S21 Ultra-exclusive ($39.99) is larger than the Galaxy Note20’s, looking and feeling more like a real pen. It has a matte finish and comfortable shape, there is a single button, and, of course, the replaceable pen’s head. This looks a lot like the Galaxy Tab S7+ stylus, in fact.

There is also an S-Pen Pro coming, and it will feature Bluetooth connectivity. Now, even if you get a BT-enabled S-Pen from a Note, the Air Actions won’t work (you just can’t pair it, as this was done by inserting it into the socket – something the S21 Ultra doesn’t offer). You’ll need an S-Pen Pro for that.

So, the Galaxy S21 Ultra supports the basic S-Pen functionality at this level. When the Bluetooth S-Pen Pro releases later this year, the more advanced features we’ve seen on the Note20 and Tab S7 series will come with a software update.

And these simple acts are here.

There is a Screen-Off memo. When the phone is on standby, simply press the S-Pen button and go right ahead and write a note, which you can then pin to the always-on display or save for later reference.

When your S-Pen gets near the display while the phone is unlocked, the Air command menu icon appears. You can either tap on the icon or press the pen button to summon the Air command menu. There are pre-set shortcuts here, which you can customize, and those can be either S Pen features or shortcuts to apps.

Advanced screenshot capture is one of the S Pen’s main use cases. Smart select allows you to take differently shaped screenshots, extract text from them, or pin them on the screen. Alternatively, you can create short GIF animations. Then there’s Screen write that takes a fullscreen snap that you can write on with the full set of different pens and brushes (and then crop, if you will).

There are numerous other smaller use cases for the S Pen as part of the Air view set of actions. For example, you can hover over an image in the gallery for an enlarged preview or over a calendar entry for more details. You can also scroll up and down by hovering the S-Pen over the edge of the screen.

   
Air view

The Notes app seems to be featuring low-latency support and feels like you are writing on a real paper. You can convert handwritten text into word files, diagrams to PDFs, drawings and sketches to PowerPoint Files.

Screen write – this takes a screenshot, and you can start writing on that shot immediately. For example, you see something cool on a video, just hit Screen Write, make a doodle or something and share it with your friends. That simple.

Screen Translate is a cool option, too, though it doesn’t translate whole sentences, just words. Pick the language and start hovering over the text with the S-Pen. You will start seeing bubbles with the translations.

The Write on calendar feature has made an appearance, but we couldn’t find the proper way to use it. It does exactly what the name says – you write on top of the calendar, and that’s pretty much it.

    

Live message is quite cool, too, although you will rarely use it. It uses the camera to capture a video during which you can write and doodle on the image. How cool is that? Mostly useless, but cool.

AR Doodle uses the front camera – if a face is found, you can draw doodles on it, and they will stick to the face. Draw horns and capture a video with the said horns. Or a mustache. It is a ridiculous thing, but we are sure it will find its fans.

Finally, PENUP is powered by the PENUP app – it’s a drawing app where you can express yourselves by using the S-Pen as a paintbrush and paint a masterpiece. Or use some of the templates and color one by yourself.

   

5.      Performance and benchmarks

The Galaxy S21 trio is offered with 2 chipset versions, as is often the case with Samsung flagships, with unique regions having one or the other. Qualcomm is supplying the Snapdragon 888 to North America and China, while handsets are fitted with the new Exynos 2100 SoC from Samsung for the rest of the world.

The processors have a tri-cluster structure on both chips and use the same cores (Qualcomm is said to have tweaked things in the prime core). ARM’s Cortex-X1, a no-compromise performance-focused architecture based on the Cortex-A78, is the headline for these processors. A trio of Cortex-A78s, standard ones, is next up, while four Cortex-A55s take the total core count to eight for more mundane tasks.

For all the sameness in the setup, there is a difference in the clock rates, which is somewhat significant. The Exynos numbers read 1×2.9GHz + 3×2.8GHz + 4×2.2GHz, while the Snapdragon spec sheet says 1×2.8GHz + 3×2.4GHz + 4×1.8GHz, and the higher rates may give the Samsung chip advantage for applications that can make good use of multiple cores. For comparison, the Kirin 9000 uses the older Cortex-A77 cores in the performance cluster, but its prime core is ticking higher than either the SD888’s or the E2100’s (1×3.13GHz Cortex-A77 + 3×2.54GHz Cortex-A77 + 4×2.05GHz Cortex-A55).

On the GPU front, the Snapdragon comes with the Adreno 660 GPU, which Qualcomm says is 35% faster and 20% more energy-efficient than last year’s Adreno 650.

The Exynos 2100 employs a Mali-G78 GPU with 14 cores and promises 46% improvement over the last generation. The GPU in the Kirin 9000 has the same Mali GPU but in a maxed-out 24-core configuration, though probably at a lower clock rate.

Both the SD888 and the E2100 are manufactured by Samsung on a 5nm fabrication line – Qualcomm switched from TSMC to Korean foundries for this year’s chips’ production.

There is 12GB LPDDR5 RAM on either version. If you think that’d be insufficient, you can also get the largest storage model, which employs a whopping 16GB RAM. Storage is always UFS 3.1, and three options are available – 128GB, 256GB or 512GB.

Our Galaxy S21 Ultra review unit has the Exynos chipset inside and has 256GB of storage and 12GB RAM.

Geekbench is a CPU benchmark, and it puts the single-core Cortex-X1 core on top of every other Android phone we’ve tested to date, better than the Cortex-A77 inside the Huawei Mate 40 Pro. We don’t have a Snapdragon 888 reference just yet, though we hope we’ll get our hands on the Xiaomi Mi 11 soon enough.

The Apple’s latest Firestorm core is still on top with an unfathomable lead, not that it matters that much, though.

6.      Camera Details Photo Quality

Ultra-packed quad-camera

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has one of the most versatile camera setups available to date and hardware that is worthy of the Ultra Moniker. Unlike the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the S21 Ultra offers two 3x and 10x optical zoom telephoto snappers with no tricks involved.

The main camera uses Samsung’s new 108MP ISOCELL HM3 1/1.33″ sensor with 12,000 x 9,000 pixel grid and 0.8μm pitch. It has a Nona-pixel Bayer filter pattern that allows 9-to-1 pixel binning, allowing the effective pixel size 2.4μm and resolution 12 MP. The front lens has a focal length equal to 24mm and an f/1.8 aperture and is balanced.

The HM3 sensor features many HM1 improvements (used on the S20 Ultra and Note20 Ultra) including enhanced HDR, low light and autofocus performance.

Smart ISO Pro is an HDR technology that captures one high ISO along with one low ISO shot simultaneously. As both are captured simultaneously, this avoids the ghosting of moving objects that is a problem for sequential HDR. Then the two shots are combined into a single 12-bit image. That’s 12-bits per channel, meaning the RAW image contains 64 times more color information than a 10-bit image.

The HM3 also features a Low Noise mode, which should improve light sensitivity by up to 50%. Alternatively, in good lighting conditions, an enhanced remosaic algorithm can output full resolution 108 MP images.

Super PD Plus adds micro-lenses to the Phase Detection elements used by the sensor for autofocus. The lenses should improve the measurement accuracy of those elements by 50%, which allows the sensor to accurately track moving objects even in the dark.

The ultrawide angle module is apparently the same as on the S20 and Note20. It’s based on a 12MP 1/2.55″ sensor with 1.4µmm pixels and uses a 13mm f/2.2 lens that should deliver a 120-degree field of view. But unlike the last generation of flagships, the S21 Ultra does offer autofocus on this camera, and it can take closeups.

The telephoto hardware on this Ultra is totally different. Now, instead of a 4x camera, this one provides two snappers-one for 3x and one for 10x optical magnification.

The first zoom camera uses a 1.22μm 10MP 1/3.24″ sensor combined with a 70mm f/2.4 lens, stabilized. It supports dual-pixel PDAF and provides 3x optical zoom.

The second zoom camera has the same 1.22μm 10MP 1/3.24″ sensor, but it lies behind the periscopic 240mm f/4.9 OIS lens. Dual-Pixel PDAF is also available, and you can do 10x optical zoom with this one.

The fifth black hole you see on the back is where the laser emitter and the AF assistance receiver live.

Over on the front, we are getting the same selfie camera that premiered on the S20 Ultra – a 40MP Quad Bayer shooter. Its pixels are tiny at 0.7µm each, but group 4 of them together, and we are getting a 1.4µm pitch. The 25mm equivalent lens is just wide enough and decently bright at f/2.2. And it has autofocus!

Photo Quality

The default 12MP photos from the main camera are excellent, even if a bit over-sharpened for our taste. The resolved detail is plenty, the grass looks good, the dynamic range is outstanding most of the time, and the noise is pretty much non-existent.

Due to the binning process, some unpleasantries are visible in more complex areas like those balcony blinds and the wall decoration – these patterns don’t look this way, at all. But that’s a math problem that’s dealt with approximations, and that’s why we can’t have the most complex patterns as realistic as we would have hope for. The excessive sharpening at times isn’t helping this either.

The white balance and the color rendition on the S21 Ultra are very accurate, and that’s a rarity with Samsung’s cameras. Often the processing goes overboard with the colors.

The telephoto hardware on this Ultra is totally different. Now, instead of a 4x camera, this one provides two snappers-one for 3x and one for 10x optical magnification.

The first zoom camera uses a 1.22μm 10MP 1/3.24″ sensor combined with a 70mm f/2.4 lens, stabilized. It supports dual-pixel PDAF and provides 3x optical zoom.

The second zoom camera has the same 1.22μm 10MP 1/3.24″ sensor, but it lies behind the periscopic 240mm f/4.9 OIS lens. Dual-Pixel PDAF is also available, and you can do 10x optical zoom with this one.

The fifth black hole you see on the back is where the laser emitter and the AF assistance receiver sit.

Now, let’s look at some night shots.

The photos coming from the main camera are very good, but not what we expected from a flagship of such caliber. We expected incredible sharpness and exposure, what we got is average detail, a lot of noise, and clipped highlights. The phone shoots at high ISO settings refusing to let shutter speed go as low as we’d expect – almost as if the camera were not stabilized.

The Night Mode automatically decides the exposure time; for the main camera it is usually 2 seconds. And it is a game-changer.

The photos taken with the Auto Night Mode are impressive with just the right sharpness, pretty good detail levels, very low noise, superb color saturation, restored highlights and well-developed shadows. Yes, we did like the Night photos a lot!

The 12MP ultrawide photos are usable and retain good colors, but this is the best we can say about them. They are poor in detail, the noise is pretty high, and they are rather dark.

Night Mode once again is doing a commendable job – it gets rid of the noise, massively improves the exposure, restores clipped highlights and exposes more detail in shadowy areas, and it offers much better colors. If you need to shoot an ultrawide photo at night, the Night Mode is a must.

Selfie camera and video quality

The Galaxy S21 Ultra borrows the selfie camera from the S20 Ultra – a 40MP Quad-Bayer shooter with autofocus. It saves 10MP images, but you can opt for 40MP, too.

Samsung’s weird treatment of selfie zoom speeds will stick with us for at least one more year, evidently. See, there are two zoom modes, the native 25mm equiv. Resulting in a 10MP frame and zooming in 32mm equiv. Save a screenshot of the cropped 5MP. The selfie camera still defaults to a cropped-in view instead of starting with some zoom setting that was last used. And why would it go back to the crop if you switched between Picture and Portrait modes, even though you’ve been zoomed out specifically? It’s just beyond irritating!

The selfie images are among the best we’ve ever seen from a smartphone, so that’s the silver thread.

The resolved detail is plenty, the dynamic range is great, the colors are spot-on, everything looks good and not over the board.

Video recording and quality

The Galaxy S21 Ultra supports 4K video capturing at 60fps across all five cameras, selfie included. Additionally, you can also shoot 8K@24fps clips with the primary cam, even if the chipset is theoretically capable of 8K@30fps.

The default codec for videos is h.264, but you can switch to the more efficient h.265 in the app menu. 8K is encoded using h.265 regardless of that setting. HDR10+ capture is also possible, a format you can then display on the phone itself, but also on a wide selection of compatible TVs.

Audio is always captured stereo with 256Kbps.

Pro video mode opens up some more frame rate possibilities – 4K and 1080p at 24fps for that cinematic look, as well as 1080p at 120fps, the non-slow-mo variety. Naturally, this mode allows for a lot more creative control and lets you tweak image parameters and monitor and adjust mic gain and direction of pick up.

The 8K footage has a bitrate of 80Mbps, and it’s not good at all. In fact, we still think of this option as overkill and a PR stunt, but hey, it’s there. The 8K videos coming out of the Galaxy S21 Ultra are barely usable in full res as they suffer from compression artifacts, plus they are awfully soft.

7.      Alternatives the verdict pros and cons

Alternatives

The new Galaxy Ultra impresses with three key features, and it will be remembered for those novelties – the new 120Hz Quad HD OLED and its S-Pen support, and the versatile quad-camera on the back that relies on real optics instead of some hybrid trickery.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

Yes, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the all-powerful Galaxy right now, and that alone is enough to sell it. It’s the Ultra model – meaning there is no better phone on the market today. Indeed, there isn’t.

The Xiaomi Mi 11 Pro isn’t even official yet, Huawei is yet to unveil the P50, and we are yet to see recent Huawei devices with Google app integration. The OnePlus 9 is unannounced as well, while the next iPhones are far ahead in the future.

Speaking of iPhones, Samsung really outdid itself by dropping the charger immediately after Apple’s done it. It could have waited a year or announced it a year ahead to allow a transition period, but it’s Samsung – some things are done in the heat of the moment. Like saving the planet, for example.

And that’s the reason while the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max comes as our first suggestion. The Max costs as much as the Ultra, and subjectively, it’s the prettier and supposedly sturdier device. The iPhone also impresses with performance and LiDAR scanner if you have the use of it, that is. The camera performance is somewhat on par with the Galaxy as far as primary and ultrawide shooters are concerned. The iPhone cannot match the zoom capabilities of the Ultra, plus it runs on iOS, so if you’ve invested in Android apps, there are two major deal-breakers right there.

Thinking about the camera, we just can’t but mention the elusive Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra (about $950). It’s officially sold only in China, but if you value a complete package with an outstanding camera – this is the one, folks. It has a 120Hz 1080p OLED, Snapdragon 865 chip, and stereo speakers to get you started, but we found its quad-camera (0.5x + 1x + 2x + 5x) to be among the best on the market as far as photo quality is concerned. This Ultra also comes with a 120W adapter, which recharges its flat battery for 27 minutes, so there is that, too.

Another limited-edition phone that comes to mind is the Google-less Huawei P40 Pro+. It has a 1200p 90Hz OLED and one of the best camera configurations money can get you on a handset – 50MP primary, 8MP 3x, 8MP 10x, 40MP ultrawide, and 3D ToF. Indeed, that’s a similar setup to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and Huawei’s cameras save some incredible photos. The P40 Pro+ stock is scarce but not that hard to find. It costs about €800/£900 – meaning it is cheaper than the Ultra. Then again, no Google on it.

Back to more popular and easier to find choices – the OnePlus 8 Pro seems relevant even 10 months after its launch. It solved the 120Hz Quad HD OLED conundrum way before Samsung; it runs on a powerful Snapdragon 865 chip; and it offers a reasonably good quad-camera on the back with a 48MP primary, 8MP 3x tele, 48MP ultrawide, and a 5MP color filter cam intended for some artsy shots. The OnePlus 8 Pro runs on the especially smooth Oxygen launcher and is €500 cheaper than the Galaxy. Sure, it can’t offer 20% more powerful chip, 10x zoom and S-Pen support, but do these cost €500? You decide.

My verdict

If you’ve stayed with us that long, you’ve probably noticed we are conflicted about this Galaxy S21 Ultra. It is the perfect smartphone on paper, even without a microSD expansion and a bundled charger. But we’ve had ups and downs while using it for the past week. By the end of this review, we realized the good stuff far outweighs the bad. And most of what we didn’t like could be fixed with an upcoming update.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra absolutely deserves its Ultra insignia. It has the best OLED screen with a Wacom layer at that, the most powerful hardware, one of the largest batteries, good stereo speakers, and a pretty advanced camera system. We were thoroughly impressed by the screen performance. The battery endurance, like the UI and the S-Pen features. And soo many good photos and videos saved by the various snappers.

We aren’t huge fans of the new industrial design – mostly how the camera on the back was made. The phone is large and slippery, making it very uncomfortable to handle without a case. The photo quality wasn’t always flagship-grade. Samsung needs to tone down its image processing even if it results in some noise or lesser dynamic range. We’ve always preferred images with natural-looking processing, and so far, both Apple and Samsung have failed us. Here’s hoping that at least Samsung does something in this direction with a software update.

If you are after the best and newest phone on the market – look no further – that’s the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It has its issues, but the overwhelmingly good features elsewhere and a patch or two will make up for everything. Samsung is definitely off to a good start this year with its Ultra!

Pros

  • The best OLED screen, 1000+nits, 1440p, 120Hz, HDR10+, S-Pen.
  • Phenomenal fingerprint scanner performance.
  • Outstanding battery life, fast to top-up the 5,000mAh battery.
  • Stereo speakers with good loudness.
  • The fastest Android chipset, 5G, Wi-Fi 6E, Ultra-Wide Band.
  • OneUI is super smooth, clutter-free, S-Pen support.
  • The daylight photos are good across the board even if a bit overprocessed.
  • The selfies are excellent.
  • The 4K30 videos are great.

Cons

  • Somewhat bulky and slippery.
  • The image processing needs further refinements.
  • We don’t miss the microSD slot, but some of you might.
  • No charger, no headphones in the box.
  • Uses different chipsets in different regions.

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