Last year, Samsung launched the first so-called Ultra model in the Galaxy S series. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra was undoubtedly a monster mobile unlike pretty much anything else we had seen before, but it was also somehow unfinished.
This year, Samsung is so ready with the successor Galaxy S21 Ultra to fix the beauty flaws that made us a little skeptical of its predecessor. It has even more power and a host of new features, but unlike last year’s flagship model, it has also become pretty to look at.
Design and construction
Last year, we called the predecessor, the Galaxy S20 Ultra, decidedly “ugly”. It was as if one had forgotten to involve the designers when first the engineers had finished stuffing the new mobile with features and the huge camera module.
But with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, other buns have been added to the soup this year. The design has been renewed with a camera module that is seamlessly integrated and aligns with the metal frame that surrounds the body of the phone, just as the new monster mobile comes in new matte colors, Phantom Silver and Phantom Black, which means that the phone does not collect greasy fingers and is has become significantly easier to hold in the hand.
The phone is largely frameless and has the front camera built-in as a punched hole in the screen. Both front and rear are Gorilla Glass Victus, while the narrow metal frame is made of hardened aluminum, which is colored black and thus looks like plastic, which is really our only point of criticism, as far as the mobile’s appearance.
There is nothing to blame for the build quality. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra weighs a bit more than its predecessor, but first and foremost it feels robust and solid – as if you could knock a nail into a wall with the phone in a tight turn if the hammer is gone. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is also IP68-certified, so it is quite official that it should be able to hold a little of everything.
Screen and sound
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra comes with a Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen with adaptive 120 Hz refresh rate, HDR10 + certification and a maximum brightness of up to 1500 nits. It is more than enough that you can easily use your mobile phone outdoors while the sun is shining from a clear sky. Something we even managed to confirm when the sun shone for a while through the January cloud cover. You obviously have to go all the way to the Sahara before it is no longer possible to see what is happening on the screen.
The refresh rate is adaptive to save on power consumption. In practice, this means that the screen frequency adjusts automatically, depending on what is happening on the screen. If you look at a photo, the frequency is lowered all the way down to 10 Hz. When watching video, the frequency increases to 60 Hz, while the maximum refresh rate of 120 Hz is active when scrolling on web pages, scrolling through menus, or playing games.
And while users of the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra were forced to choose between the high QHD + resolution and the high refresh rate, which was one of the major criticisms in last year’s test, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is able to maintain the frequency of 120 Hz in the high resolution. Neat!
In practice, this means that the Galaxy S21 Ultra offers a screen that is close to being unsurpassed. The screen is razor sharp and very bright, the colors are extremely strong, and it is a real pleasure to watch high quality content (eg from Netflix) on the HDR10 + certified screen. There is great depth in the image and the contrast level is the best we have seen. And the user experience when moving around in menus, on web pages and on the home screen is extremely fluid and fast.
Also when it comes to the audio experience, the Galaxy S21 Ultra delivers the goods. The mobile offers high-resolution sound using the built-in 32 bit DAC and supports i.a. Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus as well as of course aptX.
The sound quality when using the Galaxy S21 Ultra as a sound source for music streaming is really good, and there is also a set of good stereo speakers in the mobile, so it can be used with a clear conscience to watch short videos, play games or talk hands-free without headphones .
Everything else being equal, however, it is the camera that makes the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra stand out completely. Like last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, it has four lenses, but where the 2020 model came with a 48-megapixel telephoto lens and a dedicated DepthVision ToF lens to calculate the distance between mobile and subject, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is focusing on one sensor laser autofocus and two separate telephoto lenses of 10 megapixels each, where one comes with 3x optical zoom and the other with 10x optical zoom.
In addition, a standard wide-angle lens of insane 108 megapixels (f/1.8 with optical image stabilization) with 12 bit HDR and an ultra-wide-angle lens of 12 megapixels (f/2.2).
The result is quite convincing. As long as you stick to zooming up to 10x, the result will be largely noise-free and sharp images. Samsung has simply built a genuine paparazzi mobile that can get closer to the subject with usable results than any other mobile we have tested.
However, it must be emphasized that 100x Space Zoom, despite all the new technology, has not become any better than last year. It’s still a gimmick that can not produce proper images at all.
Of other camera news, it is worth mentioning that with the Galaxy S21 Ultra you can shoot video with up to 4K resolution and 60 fps with all the camera’s lenses. To get the most out of this technological advancement, Samsung has introduced a new camera feature called Director’s View, which lets the user manually switch between the camera’s different lenses when recording video.
At the same time, you can see yourself in the corner of the screen – and on the recordings – and we believe that the new feature will be loved by YouTubers and other influencers. In any case, the Director’s View is extremely easy to use in practice, and the result is a type of video we have not seen before on a mobile phone.
Of course, the many new features that were introduced last year along with the Galaxy S20 Ultra are still available. This includes the ability to take pictures with the 108 megapixel wide-angle lens.
Each time an image is taken, the camera combines nine pixels into one pixel (pixel binning). Thus, one can e.g. photograph a larger subject and then in the finishing – which takes place directly in the mobile’s Gallery app – zoom in on a specific section and then crop the image.
The new image will also be high-resolution and ultra-sharp, just as it is incredibly easy to use the crop function in the Gallery app. Here, Samsung has really come up with something ingenious, although one just has to remember that the original 108 megapixel images typically take up 30 megabytes in the phone’s storage. In addition, the camera can only capture 108 megapixel images in 4: 3 format, as it is the regular wide angle that does all the work. On the other hand, there is nothing to prevent the cropped images from being saved in other formats.
Pictures taken at night or in dark environments have also been improved thanks to artificial intelligence that makes the sensor faster so it lets in more light.
It’s hard to say whether the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has the best camera on the mobile market. Apple’s latest iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max also deliver impressive results, but surely, the new zoom features and functions like Director’s View has created a camera that is usable for most and even begs and begs to be used creatively.
Performance and features
Inside the Galaxy S21 Ultra we find Samsung’s brand new 5 nm 64 bit octa-core Exynos 2100 processor. In addition, the mobile comes with 5G (SA, NSA and Sub-6 / mmWave), Wi-Fi 6E, 25 watt fast charging as well as 15 watt wireless charging and the option to charge other devices wirelessly.
Like Apple, Samsung delivers its latest top mobile in climate-friendly packaging without the included charger. If you do not already have a charger and have to buy it as an accessory, the total price for mobile and charger is on a par with last year’s price for the corresponding Galaxy S20 Ultra including charger.
We have run all our current benchmark tests on mobile, and not surprisingly, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is pretty much the most powerful smartphone you can buy for money at the time of writing.
The closest competitor in the price range is the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and if we compare the test results, Apple wins, as far as the Geekbench 5 is concerned, which measures the overall performance of the CPU. In contrast, Samsung’s mobile is fastest in tests that measure graphics performance – such as GFXBench and 3DMark. In everyday use, it is difficult to feel any real difference.
The fact is that the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra performs like a nuclear power plant. Here there are no stumbles, everything goes lightning fast, and especially with the high refresh rate of 120 Hz, the user interface is oily smooth, and neither the heaviest apps (games like Asphalt 9) nor hefty multitasking give the phone sweat on the forehead.
Unfortunately, the huge processing power means heavy battery drain, which does not last as long in our benchmark test as was the case for last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra. It’s the only stain on this magnificent specimen of an Android mobile.
When we tested the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max a few months ago, we called it “the one the others have to beat”. Whether the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra can actually beat the iPhone 12 Pro Max is an open question. At some points it certainly can, while at other points the iPhone top model is still superior. But if you would rather have an Android mobile than an iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is without discussion the best smartphone (lots of) money can buy right now.
Last year’s Android king was the OnePlus 8 Pro, but if the Chinese mobile phone maker is to reclaim that title from Samsung this year, the upcoming OnePlus 9 Pro will have to provide more than a few magic tricks. Until that (maybe) happens, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is absolutely class-leading.