Last year, Samsung released its most ambitious (non-folding) phone to date: the Galaxy S20 Ultra. It didn't go over especially well. A sky-high $1400 price tag and unremarkable camera performance torpedoed the phone outright in our final assessment, a rare miss for Samsung in the premium smartphone segment.
In 2021, Samsung is trying to reboot the Galaxy S20 Ultra formula with the S21 Ultra. And while the differences on paper (and often in practice) aren't what you'd call huge, the end result is a more palatably priced phone with a much-improved camera system — notably addressing our two biggest gripes.
I've been using the S21 Ultra for nearly two weeks now, and this feels very much like the phone the Galaxy S20 Ultra should have been. And while I think the price is still eye-popping in its own right, it's also no longer bizarrely out of step with the iPhone, lending Samsung more credibility with customers leery of the Ultra's value proposition. For the Samsung fan who wants a massive, uncompromising phone, this is as good as it gets. It also happens to be the best camera phone I've ever used.
|Performance||A very fast phone (in spite of Samsung's slow animations), if not a very noticeable upgrade over 2020's flagships.|
|Materials and design||I actually think Samsung improved build quality on the S21 Ultra versus the S20 Ultra. This phone looks and feels nicer.|
|Cameras||The new 10x zoom is legitimately impressive, and Samsung has really toned down its processing. I've also seen some amazing night shots.|
|Updates||It feels like a dream, but Samsung's strict monthly security patch policy and a commitment to three years of OS updates makes it second only to Google on software support.|
|Display||The adaptive refresh OLED panel is as good as you're going to find. Truly an excellent phone for videos and gaming.|
|Software bloat||I still find the animations and general layout of One UI to be clunky and overstuffed. And the settings app is a nightmare for finding anything. Also, the phone advertises to you. Gross.|
|Price||Even with a $200 cut compared to the last phone, this phone is still really, really expensive.|
|Huge||A phone this big and heavy is absolutely not for everyone and will be polarizing, especially once a case is applied.|
|5G||This is US-specific, but the 5G experience on any phone here right now mostly sucks.|
|Speaker||The speaker on this phone is loud but grating at high volumes.|
Design, hardware, what's in the box
The Galaxy S21 series doesn't mark a radical design departure for Samsung's flagship smartphone brand, but does substantially improve on the look of the previous generation. The S21 Ultra looks much better, in particular, with a frame that wraps around the edges of the large camera array, giving the phone a more seamless and integrated appearance. The camera "hump" is still quite large, though, and all but necessitates a case if only to stop the phone from wobbling incessantly when used on a flat surface. And, given it's $1200 and made of glass on the front and back, a case is probably a very good idea on this phone regardless.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra in no way feels like a compromise on hardware compared to last year's phone, despite being $200 cheaper.
Samsung fans will lament the passing of two long-standing hardware features on the S21 series — Galaxy Pay MST support and a microSD slot — but I think their removal will be inconsequential for most. Like the headphone jack, both served user bases that are still out there but are also inevitably shrinking with each passing year. That all but ends the days of the microSD card in the premium smartphone segment, and would seem to seal the fate of MST permanently, as Samsung owns the intellectual property which powers it. Those legacy omissions aside, though, the Galaxy S21 Ultra in no way feels like a compromise on hardware compared to last year's phone, despite being $200 cheaper (though I contend that's because the S20 Ultra was terribly overpriced).
As always, Samsung puts its best foot forward on the display, and the S21 Ultra's screen is just about the best I've ever seen. It achieves admirable daylight legibility, and the 120Hz adaptive refresh rate makes for buttery scrolling and smooth transitions. There's also the assorted Samsung bag o' tricks: IP68 water resistance, fast wireless charging (and reverse wireless charging), 25W quick charging, and S Pen compatibility — a new addition to the Galaxy S family, and one exclusive to the S21 Ultra. The short version is that Samsung will sell you an S Pen separately (for $40), but yes, that the S21 Ultra should work with any S Pen from a Galaxy Note smartphone. Notably, the Bluetooth features will not work, meaning certain S Pen functionality is disabled (my guess: Samsung doesn't have a way to wirelessly pair it). Samsung says a Bluetooth-enabled S Pen Pro will launch later this year for the S21 Ultra, but has declined to say how much it will cost.
Perhaps the most notable thing about the Galaxy S21 Ultra is its size: this phone is huge. Despite being ever so slightly narrower and shorter than its forebear, the S21 Ultra still takes me to the edge of my personal limit on phones. And once a case is on this thing? Forget about it — it's downright unwieldy. Don't get me wrong, I love having the big screen, but it's not going to be for everyone. I actually strained my shoulder watching too much TV in bed on this phone — consider yourself warned.
The S21 Ultra resolves all my previous complaints about Samsung's ultrasonic scanners.
While I generally find Samsung's hardware to be about as close to Apple quality as you can get in the Android world, I do think they continue to do a medciore job with their phones' speakers and haptic feedback. The S21 Ultra's speaker is quite loud but shrill and muddy at high volumes, and haptic feedback feels kind of faint. I've heard anecdotally this is because Samsung moved the actuator responsible for haptic feedback to the top of the phone for packaging reasons, though I'm unsure if this is actually true (I'll be waiting for the iFixit teardown). Finally, let's discuss the fingerprtint scanner: Samsung claims it's 70% larger and significantly faster than the previous generation. I don't think the speed claims are going to be noticeable to anyone (the longest part of the process is positioning your finger and waiting for the scanner to wake up), but failed reads are largely a thing of the past. The phone unlocks on the first try for me well over 95% of the time in my experience, and the S21 Ultra resolves all my previous complaints about Samsung's ultrasonic scanners.
In the box, you won't find a charging adapter, because that's now a thing (and here are some if you need one), but you will find a USB C to C cable and a SIM ejector.
Software, performance, battery life
I've spent the better part of a decade variously praising and picking apart Samsung's software, and in all that time, two basic things remain true: there is nothing about One UI (formerly TouchWiz) that really breaks Android or makes it meaningfully more difficult to use, but there's a whole lot of stuff I'd really rather just wasn't there to begin with. Be it the cluttered notification shade UI, spam from Samsung's various apps advertising to me (there are banner ads in the freaking weather app), or just the mildly obnoxious act of remapping the phone's power key to be a power key — Samsung makes variously baffling and anti-consumer decisions throughout its software.
In 2021, it's pretty trivial to "Googlify" Galaxy phones.
Fortunately, living with Samsung's software is not an all-in or all-out proposition. Ridding yourself of — or at least mitigating — these issues is relatively easy, and Samsung's phones can even be made to feel quite Pixel-y if you're willing to get more aggressive with your customizations. I generally split the difference: disabling or uninstalling unused or unwanted apps, and replacing many others (calculator, calendar, keyboard, gallery, browser, dialer, file browser, SMS, and notes) with their Google counterparts. In 2021, it's pretty trivial to "Googlify" Galaxy phones to the point where Samsung's software largely falls into the background, and while I find the animations and gestures a bit awkward for navigating in One UI, it's a fine place to be. Personally, I like the new aesthetic introduced with One UI 3, and the addition of the Google Discover feed to Samsung's stock launcher has focused my previously wandering eye — there's no real reason for me to look to a third party one anymore.
The most important change to Samsung's software of late, though, is how it is updated. The Galaxy S21 family will receive three major OS updates, and three full years of monthly security patches, which Samsung has generally been very on the ball with for its newest high-end smartphones. That's a lot more consequential in my book than whether or not Samsung makes Google Messages the default SMS provider.
Performance on the S21 Ultra has been strong for me, with no issues to report. This is the Snapdragon 888 version of the phone, which most prominently features upgrades to GPU performance, with a claimed 35% uplift versus the Snapdragon 865. Playing Fortnite in Ultra mode at 1080p, I found the S21 Ultra easily held its own running at around 40-50FPS, with no signs of heat-induced slowdowns. Day to day performance is very good, but if you were to ask me if I could tell the difference between the performance of this phone and, say, my OnePlus 8T, I'd struggle to find ways the S21 Ultra is obviously faster. It's a fast phone, but it's not a tremendously faster phone than fast phones that came out last year.
If 5G is a real reason you're thinking about upgrading, you can continue to safely hold off.
5G, briefly, is only useful for the portion of the population covered by T-Mobile's mid-band network here in the US. If you're on AT&T and Verizon, you'll very likely get 5G connectivity at this point, it will just be no faster (and quite possibly slower) than your 4G. If 5G is a real reason you're thinking about upgrading, you can continue to safely hold off.
Battery life has been very good for me, but really not much better than the S20 Ultra or Note20 Ultra in 2020. Depending on the day and use pattern, I get anywhere between six and eight hours of screen time, and that's kind of what we've come to expect in most flagships today. 25 Watt fast wired charging will get that chunky 5000mAh battery full relatively quickly (an hour and fifteen minutes or so, in my experience), and you've also got wireless charging for when that extra speed isn't necessary.
The S21 Ultra's cameras bring some major improvements for Samsung. I've seen some incredible night time shots from this phone, and Samsung has really evened out the super vivid colors its processing is typically known for. Those are both great news, but I think my greatest excitement has come from using the 10x telephoto lens, which is just an absolute gem. Explaining why I love it so much in words seems pointless when I've got pictures that can do the talking.
Impressed? I certainly was. This is easily the sharpest telephoto smartphone camera I've ever used, and the processing in good light is simply outstanding. I can't heap enough praise on this thing, and it's quickly become the only lens I want to use to take a picture of anything with. The clarity, sharpness, and relatively restrained processing make for photos you simply don't see from smartphones, because you can achieve perspectives and angles that would be difficult to shoot with even the S21 Ultra's standard 3x zoom sensor.
The main camera seems quite good, too, and I think that's mostly down to the processing changes and the fact that Samsung is using its new HM3 sensor, a relatively minor update on the hardware found in the Note20 Ultra and S20 Ultra that adds support for 8K30 video capture, 12-bit still image capture, and some tweaks to HDR and noise reduction.
Should you buy it?
Yes. Samsung's come back with a phone that is both better and cheaper than the one that came before it. That's not usually how things go, but then again, it's not at all "usual" to price a phone at $1400. In general, I'm still reluctant to give our editor's choice award to phones that cost well over a thousand dollars — it's difficult to square that kind of pricing relative to the actual utility of the product you're purchasing unless you are very confident you plan to use this phone for a full four years and that you will be happy with it. I also feel compelled to weigh the fact Samsung phones generally only cost what the sticker says if you're a hapless boomer in a carrier store, but the ball is still in Samsung's court there: that's the price they gave the phone, and that's how it's going to be reviewed.
The less-spoken truth is that only suckers pay full price for a Samsung phone that doesn't fold.
So, is the S20 Ultra "worth" $1200? No. But the less-spoken truth is that only suckers pay full price for a Samsung phone that doesn't fold. That's been the truth for years now, and Samsung just makes it clearer and clearer with each generation. Just look at its trade-in values for the Galaxy S20 family this year — they were ludicrously generous, with the smallest phone in the S21 family costing just $100 if you upgraded from a Galaxy S20. For those people — for the annual Samsung upgraders — the S21 Ultra is a totally decent reason to make the move. For someone staring the full $1200 right in the eyes? Not so much.
With all that hemming and hawing about value out of the way, Samsung has really righted its course on the camera. While I haven't done extensive night testing, the samples I've seen from other reviewers are quite impressive (if slightly overcooked, but that's Samsung). The less intense processing has made images from all of the cameras a lot more palatable, but specifically, I think Samsung has just done an incredible job on this 10x optical zoom. It's the most fun I've had shooting with a smartphone in years, and that's down not just to the perspective it provides, but how Samsung processes the images it captures. So, I'll give you the payoff from the title: I think this is, overall, a better smartphone for photography (and likely videography) than any Pixel. The versatility, combined with the quality of the images themselves, just makes the S21 Ultra a more powerful and capable camera, and I really enjoy shooting with it.
When you take what to me is now the cream of the smartphone camera crop and combine it with the latest, fastest processor in the Android world, Samsung's new update policy, and the larger set of features this phone offers, it's hard to think of a better "total package" phone. Yeah, it sends you stupid advertisements sometimes, and no, One UI is not everyone's cup of tea. But these are relative quibbles in the larger scheme, and Samsung has a clear winner on its hands with the S21 Ultra even with them considered. If you're on the fence about an upgrade, let me push you over: you will be happy with this phone. You'll just be even happier if you can score a deal on it.
My only other question: When can we expect these awesome cameras in smaller phones, Samsung?
Buy it if
- Having the best camera is a high priority
- You can get some form of discount or incentive
Don't buy it if
- Really big phones are not your thing
- Purity of software really, really matters to you