Many people seems to think Apple is Samsung’s biggest smartphone competitor. That’s the easy—and North American-centric—narrative. The reality is Chinese brands, such as Huawei and Xiaomi, are likely bigger direct threats to Samsung’s mobile business. After all, studies have shown Apple users are fully immersed in the company’s ecosystem and unlikely to switch; and it’s Xiaomi and Huawei (not Apple), that’s been eating into Samsung’s pie all over Asia and Europe in the last few years.
And so when Samsung released the maximal Galaxy S20 Ultra last year, with a stuffed spec sheet full of eye-popping numbers, it felt to me like the phone was an answer to Chinese flagships rather than Apple’s—the latter’s phones still sit on the conservative side with specs and numbers.
But the S20 Ultra had some flaws, namely a camera system that focus-hunts a bit more than usual, and an, in my opinion, inelegant design with a giant camera bump. Samsung fixed most of those issues with the excellent Note 20 Ultra last fall, but it’s further polished and corrected those mistakes with this year’s S21 Ultra.
I’ve been testing the S21 Ultra for nearly two weeks, and it is an absolute apex piece of slab smartphone hardware. I can’t image normal slab phones getting much better this year.
Design and hardware
Last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra had a camera bump that many, including myself, found unsightly. It was huge, felt like it was just floating on the back of the device, and had a tacky “Space Zoom 100x” print on it—made worse by the fact its 100x zoom was nearly unusable.
The S21 Ultra is, at least to my eyes, a huge jump. The camera bump is still large, but this time it feels more purposeful: Samsung blended half of the module into the phone’s aluminum chassis. It now feels like an artfully designed camera module rather than a thing that just stuck out. My review unit looks very nice in silver, but I find the black unit even more sleek and sexy.
I’ll get to the cameras soon, but let’s run through the rest of the hardware first. The S21 Ultra’s screen is a 6.8-inch panel that refreshes anywhere from 10-120Hz. The idea is that the screen will crank up the refresh rate when it needs to (games and scrolling through articles benefit from a higher refresh rate) but lower the rate when it doesn’t need to (when viewing a still photo or watching a movie shot in 24fps).
Needless to say, the screen looks brilliant with buttery smooth animations. It’s also the brightest screen used in a portable device ever, with a maximum brightness of 1500 nits.
Under the hood, the S21 Ultra runs on either Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 (North America and China) or Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 (just about everywhere else). My unit runs on the 888 and performance has been no issue as expected. Qualcomm’s latest is a 5nm chip that’s going to be the most powerful chip in Android this year—though it still falls short of Apple’s A14 Bionic in some computational tasks.
The S21 Ultra is undoubted a hefty phone—it measures 165.10 x 75.60 x 8.90mm and weighs 228g—but due to the narrow aspect ratio of the phone and the subtle curvature (both the screen and glass panel on the back curves), it’s still somewhat comfortable to hold. It definitely feels a lot better in the hand than the wider, blocky iPhone 12 Pro Max.
Cameras: the most versatile system in the industry right now
The fundamental technology behind the lenses mostly remain the same as last year, just improved all around. The main camera system of the S21 Ultra is still a 108-megapixel sensor with a large 1/1.33” sensor. It’s still used to capture pixel-binned 12-megapixel shots that contain technically 108 million pixels worth of data into one shot. But the S21 Ultra’s sensor can now focus much better thanks to software tweaks and an additional laser sensor (one of the smaller circles on the camera module).
Photos captured by the main camera look great in almost any conditions. Samsung’s tendency to dial up contrast in shots is not everyone’s cup of tea—but I like it.
The ultra-wide angle camera, too, feels familiar at first, until you realize the S21 Ultra’s lens now has auto-focus and can double as a very good macro camera. This means with one lens, you can capture sweeping landscape shots and super up-close photos as seen in the collage below.
Where you’ll find the largest improvement is in the zooming system. Last year’s S20 Ultra (and the Note 20 Ultra) only used a single Periscope zoom lens that can capture 5x optical zoom. This year’s S21 Ultra has two zoom lenses: a 10-megapixel 3x optical telephoto camera, and a Periscope camera that can grab 10x optical zoom shots. This means 3x and 10x shots with the S21 Ultra is near lossless quality—and 3x and 10x are arguably more useful zoom focal lengths than the 5x of last year, which is neither here nor there.
The S21 Ultra, like last year, can max out at 100x “Space Zoom,” and while photos at that level is still a bit blurry, it’s far more usable this year because of a new software trick called “Zoom Lock,” which uses AI algorithms to lock focus on a subject/object. The results are quite stunning. In the video below, you can see the S21 Ultra remains steady even as I zoom to 100x while holding device with one hand. Other phones at even lesser zoom levels exhibit significant jerkiness.
Of course, lower that zoom level to 10x, or even 20x and 30x, and you can get some surprisingly sharp, Instagram-ready images.
Around the front you have a 40-megapixel selfie camera, hidden in a tiny hole drilled into the screen. It’s far less intrusive than the notch of an iPhone, and the selfie camera works well.
Throw in the ability to capture some very stable video during the day (at night, its stabilization still falls short of that iPhone 12), and the S21 Ultra is easily the most versatile and capable camera system on the market as of this time.
I say “as of this time” because Huawei potentially could release another flagship this year that may retake the lead. Due to the uncertainty with Huawei’s mobile business because of U.S. sanctions, however, it’s hard to tell if that phone is coming. But in an alternate reality in which Huawei wasn’t being hindered by the U.S. government, it almost certainly would have released something that could at least match the S21 Ultra’s zoom prowess.
Software: Samsung’s best software skin ever
Samsung’s Android overlay software used to be the butt of many jokes—and deservedly so. But Samsung’s cleaned up its skin quite a lot in recent years, and the One UI 3.1 that runs on top of Android 11 this year is a joy to use. It’s a clean UI that doesn’t get in the way of Google much, but offers enough useful extra features, like the ability to launch two apps at the same time in split-screen mode, or double tapping the screen to turn on or off the display.
The S21 Ultra also supports Samsung’s “S-Pen” stylus—this is a first. Users can either use one of the existing S-Pens from an older Galaxy Note phones or purchase a bigger one built specifically for the S21 Ultra. I’m of the belief that the S-Pen is not a necessity, but a nice bonus to have.
However, unlike the Note phones, the S21 Ultra does not have a slot to house the stylus, so you’ll have to carry it separately or buy a case with a slot.
A much more useful software feature in my opinion is Samsung DeX, which essentially is Samsung’s version of a desktop computer software. Simply connect the S21 Ultra to a smart TV or monitor (this can be done wirelessly via WiFi or with a USB-C cable) and Samsung DeX boots up. Once DeX is running, users can access any app or content on their phone, but they open in a horizontal, computer-like UI instead of a smartphone UI.
Pair a keyboard and mouse with the phone and you have yourself a fully functional computer. I can see this being very useful for business travelers who can potentially leave their laptop behind and just use the hotel TV and a bluetooth keyboard for work.
Battery life, other bits and conclusion
The S21 Ultra has a 5,000 mAh battery, which sounds huge, but it has to power the brightest, most high-res, fastest refreshing screens around in the mobile industry. So for a heavy user like me, the phone is able to last an entire 14-hour day out and about, but just barely. However, other reviewers in the U.S., likely because they’re staying inside most of the day, report better battery life.
Overall, I find the S21 Ultra, along with last year’s Note 10 Ultra, to be Samsung’s two most polished flagships with no compromises ever. Prior to these two releases, I had found Samsung phones from 2017 to 2019 to be lagging behind the best Chinese phones. I have no doubt in my mind the continual hardware breakthrough made by Huawei and aggressive release strategies of Xiaomi and Oppo have made Samsung step up its game. And Samsung’s absolute best effort, is still enough to take the crown.
At $1,299 in the U.S. and around HK$8,800 in Hong Kong, the S21 Ultra is not cheap—but this price is actually lower than last year’s S20 Ultra price, and this year’s phone is much better. I think objectively, if you’re willing to spend over $1,200 on a phone right now, the S21 Ultra offers better value than the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
Of course, there are better value phones out there. Xiaomi’s Mi 11, which I’m reviewing next, is something like 90% as capable and technically impressive as the S21 Ultra, but costs several hundred dollars less. But if you want the best of the best right now, it’s the S21 Ultra.