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- Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra has the most performance and camera hardware of any phone we know about.
- The phone differentiates itself from its less expensive siblings with extra memory and camera components.
- While the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s extra features may be worth the additional $200 for some users, it’s not necessary for most.
- For Android users looking to buy a big phone, the Galaxy S21 Plus offers 95% of the experience for $200 less.
- See our picks for the best phones of 2021 so far.
No surprises here: the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a $1,200 Samsung phone, so, of course it’s a good phone.
Among other things, S21 Ultra has the latest specs, a pretty design, great battery life, the best screen in the business, and 5G. But, so do the other cheaper phones in the series: the $800 Galaxy S21 and $1,000 S21 Plus.
To make it stand out among its cheaper siblings, Samsung has graced the Galaxy S21 Ultra with camera hardware that the company hopes you think will be worth the extra $200. Indeed, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a quad-lens camera system with two different zoom lenses for 3x and 10x zoom, a 108-megapixel standard wide lens, and an ultra-wide lens.
That sounds great, if you’re a photographer. For everyone else who runs their regular gamut of apps, the Galaxy S21 Ultra lacks another special reason to make you click the buy button at the full $1,200 price tag.
Arguably, however, no one really pays full price for a Samsung phone. The company, retailers, and carriers have innumerable discounts and trade-in offers to stop you from paying full price.
But still, there are a few more things about the Galaxy S21 Ultra that are different from the regular S21 and S21 Plus you should know about, just in case you find a good deal.
Design and display
Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra is tastefully plain. The front is pretty much what you’d expect on a phone — it’s a slab of glass with slightly curved edges.
The back is also glass, but this time Samsung has opted for a frosted matte glass texture rather than the usual clear glass from previous generations. It’s a better look that doesn’t attract as many fingerprints, and it feels more premium than clear glass, too. With that said, the S21 Ultra is only available in rather drab colors, including black, silver, titanium, navy, and brown.
If those aren’t to your taste, the S21 and S21 Plus are available in more vibrant colors, like violet, pink, red, gold, as well as gray and black.
The large camera module takes up a good chunk of the back — bigger than the S21 and S21 Plus, and it also has the wrap-around effect on the top left corner of the phone. It looks great, but it does cause the phone to wobble significantly when placed flat on a table. The other Galaxy S21 phones also suffer from the wobble, so it’s not an S21 Ultra-specific thing. That wobble could be remedied with a case, though.
Being a phone with a large 6.8-inch screen, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a large and heavy phone. Reaching for on-screen items at the top of the screen with a single hand will force you to adjust your grip, which can feel like a chore with this hefty 229g device, and even precarious. It’s not a design flaw, as the same can be said for most large phones.
While on the topic of heft, the Galaxy S21 Ultra sure is heavy at 229g, even for its size. The Galaxy S21 Plus is marginally smaller with a 6.7-inch screen, but it weighs 29g less, making it more comfortable to handle and manage.
As for the display, Samsung phones are rarely beat. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s display can get incredibly bright at 1,500 nits that makes easy work of sunlight. Apart from extraordinary brightness, you get Samsung’s usual AMOLED experience with excellent contrast, and deep and rich colors.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s display is set to 1080p resolution by default, with the exclusive option to bump it up to 1440p resolution — the other S21 phones are limited to 1080p. It’s also capable of the ultra-smooth 120Hz refresh rate, as are the S21 and S21 Plus, but the S21 Ultra manages that at both resolutions. With that said, you’ll get better battery life by keeping the phone at the 1080p setting, which is absolutely sharp enough — I never wished apps, games, or videos were sharper while using the phone at 1080p.
Samsung decided to flatten the screens for the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus, but it kept a slight curve on the edges for the S21 Ultra. The curve is less pronounced than previous generations, and the S21 Ultra is a better phone for it. The gentler curves make the screen feel less narrow, and videos, apps, and anything else on the screen doesn’t feel as though they’re trying to get away from you.
Built into the display is a fingerprint sensor that’s still somewhat unreliable. There are still instances when it simply refuses to accurately register my fingerprint — it’s a persistent problem I’ve experienced with Samsung’s in-display ultrasonic fingerprint sensors. When I could, I used the S21 Ultra’s basic facial recognition that uses the hole-punch-style selfie camera. But, when ambient lighting is too dark for facial recognition, the fingerprint scanner is the next best thing. The inconsistent experience of unlocking the phone diminishes its usability — it should be a flawless and fast experience, especially for something as trivial yet important as unlocking a phone.
Performance and battery life
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s cream of the crop, and it works as such. Running on the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor means the Galaxy S21 Ultra can run anything you throw at it with ease. Combined with 12GB up to 16GB of memory (RAM), power users who use a lot of apps consistently throughout the day will have no problem switching between them quickly and smoothly.
With that said, the 8GB of RAM you’ll find in the standard S21 and S21 Plus combined with the same Snapdragon 888 processor proves more than enough for the vast majority of users.
In our battery life test, where we continuously played a YouTube video at 1080p resolution (the same resolution the S21 Ultra’s screen was set on) with dynamic drone footage until the battery died, the Galaxy S21 Ultra lasted an astounding 16 hours and 42 minutes.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra charges at a top speed of 25W, but the company is following Apple’s lead by not including a charger with the phone. If you don’t have a charger that can support up to 25W of charging, the company leaves you to buy your own, which is a poor move on Samsung’s part for a $1,200 phone. You can buy Samsung’s own 25W charger or RavPower’s 61W PD 3.0 Wall Charger to max out the S21 Ultra’s charging capabilities.
All four of them. Indeed, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 108-megapixel standard wide lens, a 12-megapixel ultra-wide lens with 120-degrees field-of-view, 10-megapixel 3x zoom lens, and a 10-megapixel 10x zoom lens that’s capable of digitally zooming up to 100x.
Getting straight to the chase, don’t buy the Galaxy S21 Ultra for its 100x zoom. In fact, anything beyond 20x zoom isn’t really worth it. Photos start getting blurry and generally look bad at that point.
Having those two zoom lenses lets you capture clear and sharp photos from medium (3x) and long (10x) distances by reducing the need for digital zoom that dramatically reduces picture quality. And for that, the S21 Ultra has unmatched versatility for photography.
The 108-megapixel standard wide lens takes 12-megapixel photos by default, but you can switch to the 108-megapixel mode to get photos with more detail than phone cameras with standard 12-megapixel lenses. Those extra details from the 108 megapixel lens won’t typically be seen when looking at a photo normally, but you’ll see the extra detail when you zoom into the photos you’ve taken.
The 108-megapixel lens also affords good photos when ambient light is low. In Night mode, the camera bins together the megapixels from 108 to 12 so they can absorb more light.
Still, the Galaxy S21 Ultra falls victim to Samsung’s insatiable lust to over-process photos by boosting brightness and colors. It can be a desired effect, but Samsung tends to go overboard with this, often resulting in photos that look like they’ve been poorly edited.
Here’s a photo taken with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which has more natural colors without much boosting.
And here’s the same photo taken with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which looks comparatively boosted and unnatural.
Most of the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s drawbacks are nitpicks and simply elements that should be considered, like its hefty weight, poor unlocking experience, and over-eager cameras.
One thing that is outright unacceptable on a $1,200 phone is the ads you’ll see on the built-in weather app. It doesn’t ruin the phone’s usability and it really isn’t such a big deal, but Samsung should be called out for this, as it cheapens the brand and its phones, overall.
If budget isn’t an issue and you’re looking for the best of the best in the Android ecosystem, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra is your phone.
But, don’t stretch your budget to meet the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s $1,200 price tag. The $1,000 Galaxy S21 Plus gives you 95% the experience of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and it costs $200 less.
The last 5% in the Galaxy S21 Ultra includes the extra RAM and camera hardware, but unless I know for a fact you’d benefit from the extra RAM, 108-megapixel camera, and 10x zoom lens, I can’t see myself telling you “yes, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is worth the extra $200.”
With the overall experience in mind, the Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t differentiate itself much from the Galaxy S21 Plus. Performance between the two phones is largely the same and there’s only a 0.1-inch difference in screen size. Even if you get a deal or trade in your phone for a hefty discount on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, keep in mind that the Galaxy S21 Plus is a lighter and more comfortable phone to handle.
And, if you prefer smaller phones, the standard Galaxy S21 is essentially a smaller version of the Galaxy S21 Plus.
Pros: Premium build and design, excellent AMOLED 120Hz screen, excellent battery life, incredibly versatile camera
Cons: Heavy, zooms beyond 20x looks plain bad, cameras can over-boost photos, charger not included, inconsistent in-display fingerprint sensor, ads in the built-in weather app