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Hands on: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

Samsung’s ‘Ultra’ done right, 11 months later

What is a hands on review?
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
(Image: © Future)

Early Verdict

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is launching earlier than we’d anticipated, and that’s good news if you’re due for an upgrade and want the best of everything that Samsung can pack into an Android phone. Its five cameras, 108MP sensor and 100x zoom offer more photo variety than an iPhone 12 Pro Max, while its 6.8-inch screen, 16GB of RAM and new S Pen support make the phone feel like a mini tablet.

For

  • Five cameras
  • S Pen support
  • Quad HD + 120Hz – finally

Against

  • Expensive at any level
  • No microSD card slot
  • Just 128GB of storage to start

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s vision of smartphone excess, with five cameras, a 108MP sensor, two telephotos cameras, 100x zoom, 5G, up to 16GB of RAM and S Pen stylus support – all packed into a single Android phone with a 6.8-inch 120Hz Quad HD display.

This is the first new Android phone we’ve tested in 2021, along with the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus, and it sets the bar high. Samsung has retooled the autofocus of its camera system to remedy the problems we had with last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, tweaked the specs and features for faster performance, and comes in at a significantly cheaper launch price.

It’s still mighty expensive to buy the S21 Ultra for most consumers – more than the iPhone 12 Pro Max even – but Samsung is offering a larger, brighter and more capable curved screen, 10x optical camera zoom (vs 3x), and stylus support, something Apple has yet to do on any iPhone. Depending on what’s important to you, 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. You’ll have to let go of what doesn’t fit into the company’s new roadmap. Gone is the microSD card slot for expandable storage, and you won’t find a charger inside the box. Like Apple before it, Samsung is citing e-waste as the reason this power brick is no longer included. 

If you just got over the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack in smartphones, brace yourself for more change. But all of the positives of the Samsung S21 Ultra offers outweigh any minor discomfort for a phone that should land on our best phone page after further testing.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra release date and price

Samsung has set the Galaxy S21 Ultra release date for Friday, January 29 2021 after the phone was unveiled on January 14. Pre-orders for the handset are now live in the US, UK and Australia.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra price is high, especially when compared to the cheaper-than-expected Samsung Galaxy S21, but it’s notably cheaper than the Galaxy S20 Ultra was at launch.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra price starts at $1,199 / £1,149 / AU$1849 for a version with 128GB of storage and 12GB of RAM. There are also 256GB and 512GB of storage variants with that largest model sporting 16GB of RAM, but we’ve yet to hear exact pricing for those.

Last year’s Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra was a good deal more expensive than this handset is at launch, particularly in the US, with the same 128GB / 12GB variant costing $1,399 / £1,199 / AU$1,999 when it went on sale.

While it is notably cheaper, this is still a very expensive smartphone – and for many it will simply be too expensive. If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus are both solid options, but the specs aren’t as high as this device.

Design and display 

The S21 Ultra features a dull matte finish in two colors: Phantom Black and Phantom White. Whichever you choose, the finish is a significant improvement over last year’s S20 series, which had a reflective sheen that looked a little plasticy and cheap.

The Ultra lives up to its name as a smartphone that’s big where it needs to be, yet it minimizes everything you don’t want to see. For example, while the 6.8-inch display stretches your hand, the curved edge-to-edge screen virtually eliminates bezel, and the aperture for the 40MP front camera is a tiny punch hole that’s easy to ignore when watching a video.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

The two shades of the Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Future)

Samsung’s new, redesigned in-screen fingerprint sensor is making its debut on the Galaxy S21 series, and Samsung touts that it’s both faster to unlock your phone and also larger than before, so easier to hit. We need to do more testing to see just how fast it is, and how forgiving it is of our often wayward thumb placement.

The S21 Ultra display gets incredibly bright – up to 1,500 nits bright – and that’s going to be important when your phone is in direct sunlight (when we get to go outside again). A lot of flagship phones, including the iPhone 12 and even the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus, top out at 1,200 nits.

You’ll want a Galaxy S21 Ultra case for more than protection. There’s a folio case that holds a special S Pen – which is larger and more comfortable to hold than the one that tucks inside of the body of Galaxy Note phones – and it’s sold separately. Exactly what you do with the stylus without buying this folio case is currently unclear, but it neatly slots into the inner spine of the folio case and feels secure there.

We were able to jot down quick notes and bring up all of the Air Command options that include a variety of features you can use without touching the phone’s screen. We appreciated the fact the the S Pen in larger and not like gasping a toothpick-sized Note S Pen. 

Missing from the S21 Ultra S Pen are Bluetooth shortcuts for the camera and off-screen notes, like on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. But they may come with an even more special S Pen Pro model launching later this year and first announced during the Galaxy Unpacked event.

Even with all of the hype around an S Pen on an S phone, we fully expect the Note 21 Ultra in the next six to seven months (six it comes early and seven months if Samsung sticks to its usual August time frame). There's still an audience for that phone and being able to embed the stylus inside the handset.

Camera and battery 

The cameras and battery life are two areas in particular where we need to do additional long-term testing of the S21 Ultra, as there’s more to unpack than usual. Samsung’s 108MP camera returns, along with two 10MP telephotos cameras that switch between to offer an improved 100x zoom, and a 12MP ultra-wide camera.

The 108MP camera and both telephoto cameras capture larger individual pixels than their counterparts on the S20 Ultra did (the ultra-wide seems to be unchanged), but we’re more eager to see how the new laser-assisted phase-detection autofocus (LAPDAF) performs.

We ran into a bunch of problems last year when Samsung used PDAF (minus the laser-assisted perk introduced later in the Note 20 Ultra), instead of finding a way to use the superior dual pixel autofocus that’s possible on smaller 12MP main cameras. It made the 108MP and 100x ‘Space Zoom’ options almost not worth using, with many of our photos coming out blurry and out of focus.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

The 100x ‘Space Zoom’ returns here, and this time Samsung wants it to be more than a gimmick and ‘gee-whiz’ tech demo. We’re certainly ready to give it another chance to be more than a party trick, and see how well it zooms into the Statue of Liberty, for example, compared to the Note 20 Ultra’s 50x zoom.

The addition of a ‘tripod lock’ setting steadies the 100x camera on a subject and prevents the viewfinder from shifting around, something that could be jarring when zooming in that tightly on the S20 Ultra. After a second, the S21 Ultra camera fixes onto a subject that it outlines in yellow on the small zoomed-out corner reticle, and the shakiness is magically dialed down.

The 40MP front camera also returns, enabling you to take highly detailed selfies, and Single Take mode once again enables you to capture videos and photos simultaneously using all of the various cameras – and this year, Samsung has incorporated slow motion into what it’s called Single Take 2.0. Brand new is a mode called Director’s View, which lets you capture video with both the front and back cameras simultaneously, a neat idea that you don’t get on most phones (the iPhone 12 series requires a third-party app to pull this off).

Performance and software 

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)
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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

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The S21 Ultra specs are more than what most people need – in most cases. The option of 12GB or a ridiculous 16GB of RAM is more than many of the best laptops on sale, while 128GB seems kind of limited when there’s no microSD card slot on this phone – Samsung is willing to sell you on the 256GB or the 512GB model, but for a lot more money.

The S21 Ultra marks the debut of two new smartphone chipsets, and which one you get comes down to where you live in the world. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 is in US-bound phones, while Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 chipset will be in the phone in most other countries. We haven’t tested a phone running on either processor before, and it’ll be interesting to see if Android phones will be able to close the gap with Apple’s often faster A series of chipsets.

The S21 Ultra runs One UI 3.1 and Android 11, meaning you’re getting the latest software from Samsung and Google; however, don’t expect Android 12 to come to this phone until early next year, even if Google releases its update in August.

One thing we found interesting, besides testing out all of the Note-like Air Commands, was the left-most menu. Instead of the usual Bixby menu, it was dedicated to Google Assistant (formerly Google Now). We’re intrigued to see if that’s available in the final version of the phone.

Early verdict

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is easily Samsung’s best-looking phone in two generations, especially in the matte Phantom Black color. But it’s more than just looks – honestly. We’re digging this smartphone for its five cameras, which include a 108MP main sensor with improved autofocus, and two telephoto cameras in addition to the ultra-wide camera. 

The only catch is that you have to give up the microSD card slot and charger that’s no longer included.

We hope zooming in 100x with the tripod lock makes a world of difference. Another game-changer is the fact that in the US this phone is a full $200 cheaper than the S20 Ultra – it’s cheaper in the UK and Australia too.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.