Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: the real deal

Samsung’s “Ultra” phones are meant to be the absolute pinnacle of the company’s (non-folding) mobile technology. And so the Galaxy S21 Ultra — the third Ultra phone after the S20 and Note 20 Ultras — spares very few expenses. The price is lower than before, starting at $1,199.99, but the phone itself is a perfect example of what happens when Samsung goes all-out.

It’s also a perfect example of how Samsung often whiffs on its first attempt at something but presses on anyway, eventually achieving the original vision it couldn’t the first time. The original Galaxy S20 Ultra from last year promised much more than its parts could achieve. The Note 20 Ultra fixed the worst bugs but didn’t improve image quality. Thus far, the “ultra” line hasn’t been especially ultra.

This year, I’m hard pressed to find major faults with the Galaxy S21’s hardware. (Software, unfortunately, is another story.) The S21 Ultra is a huge phone and an expensive one, so it won’t appeal to many — but if you’re okay with those qualities, then it is also the best Android phone right now.

I guess third time’s the charm.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has Gorilla Victus glass on the back

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has Gorilla Victus glass on the back

Galaxy S21 Ultra design

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is another in a long line of truly massive Samsung phones. The screen measures 6.8 inches diagonally, which is basically tablet territory. If you are keeping score — and you know that Samsung is — the S21 Ultra’s screen spec is 0.1 inches bigger than the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max. (If you account for the curved corners on the screen, the viewing area on both phones is technically smaller.)

Samsung kept the curved edges on the screen

Samsung kept the curved edges on the screen.

The metal rail blends into the camera bump

The metal rail blends into the camera bump.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra vs the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The Galaxy is narrower and easier to hold

The Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The Galaxy is narrower and easier to hold.

Big Android phones are common now, though, so Samsung’s job is to not only make a powerful phone but to make one that feels well-made. Mission accomplished: the S21 Ultra looks great and feels better. It’s much more comfortable to hold than the iPhone 12 Pro Max because it is a little narrow and because it has curved edges.

Samsung’s main design change was to blend the metal rails on the sides into the camera array on the back. It looks as good as last year’s mesa-like camera bump looked bad. I’d become a little blind to just how weird and bad most camera bumps look, and the Ultra is a reminder that they can be better designed. Though, of course, there are five big holes (four cameras, one for the laser-focusing system) which are kind of a lot to look at.

There’s no getting around that this is a massive, relatively heavy phone. But Samsung also has a ton of experience making gigantic phones, and it has applied everything it has learned here. For example, contrary to the current trend, the screen is still just a little curved on the sides. I think it was the right call — it narrows the bezels on the left and right just that much more, making the phone easier to hold.

As you may have heard, Samsung is proud of its new, matted “phantom black” finish on the Gorilla Victus Glass on the back of the phone. It is indeed very black and it repels fingerprints well. However, I am a little worried about its durability. We have already put a tiny scratch on ours that shows through as silver simply by setting the phone down on concrete to take a photo of it. Something to watch out for.

Samsung’s One UI on the Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung’s One UI on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Galaxy S21 Ultra specs and performance

Funny story: usually when Samsung introduces a new flagship phone, its reps will talk my ear off about the technology and quality of its new, big screen. This year, the company simply pointed out that it supports an adaptive refresh rate up to 120Hz at its native 3200 x 1440 resolution and left it at that. If there had been a mic to hold on the video conference call, it could have been dropped.

Left unsaid because Samsung rightly knew it could be assumed: this is the best screen on a smartphone. Samsung’s default color balance choice is a little intense, but there’s a Natural option and even the ability to custom tune the Vivid option to your liking. It can reach up to 1,500 nits of peak brightness in HDR video, as well. Samsung’s “Eye Comfort” setting for turning down blue light at night is still a little ham-fisted compared to the iPhone, but that’s my only real complaint.

Internally, the S21 line is the first set of mass market phones with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 888 processor. Samsung says it is utilizing the extra features in this chip to improve image processing and add the variable refresh rate (which runs from 10Hz up to 120Hz) at full resolution. It also supports Wi-Fi 6E and both flavors of 5G. The chip doesn’t benchmark as well as the iPhone’s A14 Bionic, but in single core marks it beats other Android phones with the older 865 chip handily.

More important to me is that it feels fast. I never perceived any major lag anywhere in the phone. It also might be providing some battery efficiency improvements. For my testing, I turned on every bell and whistle: max resolution, adaptive refresh rate, high brightness, always-on screen. Even when shooting a ton of photos, 4K and 8K video, and playing games, the 5,000mAh battery lasted through the next morning consistently. With less intense usage this is easily a two-day phone.

If you’re looking at this phone, you will want to step up from the default 128GB of storage. The 256GB option only costs $50 more, while 512GB (which also has 16GB of RAM instead of 12) costs $180 more.

Getting more storage on this phone is important because unlike previous S-series phones, there’s no microSD card slot on the S21 Ultra. Perhaps it was inevitable as a cost-cutting measure (along with nixing the AC adapter and MST payment tech that worked with standard credit card readers), but it’s a bummer nonetheless. A phone that encourages you to take 8K video and 108-megapixel photos needs more than 128GB of storage, at the very least.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is also the first S-series phone to get support for Samsung’s S Pen stylus, though it’s sold separately and you’ll need to figure out a way to carry it (Samsung will happily sell you a bundle with a case). Later this year, Samsung will sell an S Pen Pro that adds in Bluetooth so you can use it as a remote for you phone if you like.

I didn’t get the S Pen to test so I can’t speak to whether it’s any good, but I don’t have any reason to expect it would be too different from the stylus experience on the Note line of phones.

But of all the specs I’ve listed — both good and disappointing — the one that had the biggest tangible effect on my experience was the new in-screen fingerprint sensor from Qualcomm. It’s both bigger and faster, and it means I can just quickly tap to unlock the phone without needing to aim that carefully. Because we unlock our phones so often, even tiny changes make a huge difference in reducing a sense of friction. It finally feels on par with rear-mounted fingerprint sensors. And of course, it works when you’re wearing a mask.

There are five cameras on the S21 Ultra, plus a laser autofocus sensor on the back

There are five cameras on the S21 Ultra, plus a laser autofocus sensor on the back.

Galaxy S21 Ultra camera

It should come as no surprise that Samsung can make a big phone with good specs and a great screen. What is really supposed to make the Galaxy S21 Ultra “ultra” is the camera system — it’s the most important differentiator from the other Galaxy S phones and the place where Samsung wants to rack up the biggest numbers.

However, racking up megapixels and zoom lenses does not guarantee either good photos or a good experience. Look no further than the original Ultra phone, last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra. It suffered from serious focusing issues and generally didn’t justify its higher price. The Note 20 Ultra added laser autofocus, but it still didn’t do as much as it should have.

To justify its price and size, the Galaxy S21 Ultra needed to overcome years of stasis and finally bring Samsung up to par with the competition.

It has.

The S21 Ultra’s color is usually accurate, but sometimes a little brighter than the scene

The S21 Ultra’s color is usually accurate but sometimes a little brighter than the scene.

The camera system on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best I’ve used on any Android phone and is extremely competitive with the iPhone 12 Pro Max. And with telephoto shots, it usually wins outright.

Dynamic range isn’t bad

Dynamic range isn’t bad.

Portrait Mode has the usual hair foibles, but a nice bokeh dropoff

Portrait Mode has the usual hair foibles but a nice bokeh drop-off.

Night mode

Night mode

Surprisingly, the S21 Ultra’s focal plane doesn’t seem as narrow as the S21, allow more of close subjects to stay in focus

Surprisingly, the S21 Ultra’s focal plane doesn’t seem as narrow as the S21, allowing more of close subjects to stay in focus.

I came into this review with a lot of skepticism. Anytime a company promises camera improvements — especially when they are promised on the back of more megapixels and more cameras — skepticism is the right attitude. On both of those fronts, Samsung is not shying away from promises. There are five image sensors, none of them throwaways:

  • Main wide angle: 108-megapixel, OIS, f/1.8, 0.8μm
  • Ultrawide: 12-megapixel, 120-degree field of view, f/2.2, 1.4μm
  • Telephoto 1: 10-megapixel, Optical 3X, OIS, f/2.4, 1.22μm
  • Telephoto 2: 10-megapixel, Optical 10X, OIS, f/4.9, 1.22μm
  • Selfie camera: 40-megapixel, 80-degree field of view, f/2.2, 0.7 μm

The fifth hole on the back of the phone is for the laser autofocus sensor, which was added to help with some of the focus issues on the main sensor. That main 108-megapixel sensor is also a second-generation sensor, capable of 12-bit color and featuring what Samsung says is a new “remosaicing” process for converting 108-megapixels into the default 12-megapixel images. (Getting 12-bit color requires diving into the settings and using Pro mode.)

The San Francisco skyline, shot on S21 Ultra

The San Francisco skyline, shot on S21 Ultra.

I am happy to report that nearly every problem I had with the original Galaxy S20 Ultra’s camera system has been resolved. Focusing is fast and accurate, the focal plane seems bigger, there’s no discernible shutter lag, and most of all: the pictures look better.

The main sensor also simply feels more predictable. It focuses where I tap, and parts I’d expect to get some bokeh have a nice blur. In the dark, it switches over to night mode and produces images that have significantly less noise than before (though a touch more noise than the iPhone 12 Pro Max).

Galaxy S21 left, iPhone 12 Pro Max right. Samsung brightens images more.

Samsung continues to tune photos differently than I prefer. Compared to the iPhone, it aims to make things a little brighter and the colors a little more intense, while Apple seems to more confidently let shadows be shadows. However, the S21 Ultra often provides better sharpness and detail.

Where the S21 Ultra really shines is on zooming. It has two telephoto lenses and I found myself believing in the utility of having both. Proper optical zoom at 3X makes a big difference, and Samsung uses data from multiple lenses up to 10X. Samsung still has its gimmicky “Space Zoom” that works up to 100X, but I couldn’t get anything usable beyond 30X and even then it required a lot of light to create something passable.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra left, iPhone 12 Pro Max right; Approx 10x zoom on each.

As for video, we are equally impressed. The S21 Ultra does a very good job with dynamic range and adjusting exposure on the fly as you pan the camera through a scene. Stabilization is improved, too.

Some of you might be surprised that I haven’t mentioned the Pixel 5 yet. Well, it has fallen behind. Both the S21 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max have switched to physically larger sensors and it has revealed the limits of computational photography.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra left, iPhone 12 Pro Max right; night mode

As for the head-to-head with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, here’s where I have landed. If you were to take 50 photos or videos, 30 of them would be a toss-up based on your personal preference, seven or eight would be clearly better on the S21, and 12 or 13 would be better from the iPhone. They’re very close.

But Samsung has those telephoto options. And it also has compensated for the relative dearth of high-quality third-party Android photo apps by building in its own features. Samsung has added a “director’s mode” that lets you switch lenses on the fly while shooting video in 1080p, but I found that I preferred shooting in 4K. You can shoot in 8K and pull out a still photo, you can use “Single Take 2” to let the AI try to make a bunch of amusing photos and video effects. Samsung’s Pro modes for both photo and video are excellent. You can shoot in RAW, too, although it is a standard RAW, not an Apple-style ProRAW that has some of the benefits of HDR mixed in. (I’ll leave a full Samsung RAW vs. iPhone ProRAW competition for others.)

Even in Portrait Mode, face smoothing can finally be fully disabled.

Even in Portrait Mode, face smoothing can finally be fully disabled.

Overall, there are just a thousand different ways you can work with this camera, and it can be a little overwhelming. But the good news is that the experience of just snapping a photo will yield better results than before.

I’ve saved my favorite news for last: Samsung has finally, finally given us the option to fully turn off face smoothing. Behold, my wrinkles and blemishes. No more Hamcam.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra

The Galaxy S21 Ultra

Galaxy S21 Ultra software

Here’s how Samsung’s versions of Android work: they get way way too messy and complicated, everybody complains, and eventually Samsung simplifies things. Then the cycle starts again.

Right now, we’re still heading toward the land of complication. Samsung’s One UI interface is still good for big screens, but there are just so many options in quick settings, many of which mean nothing to the average person. Unforgivably, there are still ads built into Samsung’s default apps. The biggest thing on the default home screen is a weather widget. Tap it and the next biggest thing you’re likely to see is the kind of ad that’s normally at the bottom of a crappy, overloaded website.

Bixby, Samsung’s digital assistant, is still the default, and it’s difficult to switch away from it (you need third-party software). Surprisingly, it’s somewhat better than the last time I used it, but it’s still brittle. When I asked it to set a second alarm for 15 minutes, it consistently canceled my first alarm and set one for one second. If you set it up and set SmartThings up for your smart home and live an entirely Samsung-based life, Bixby is passable. But it’s also not necessary. The Google Assistant is still here and still better.

Then there’s texting. In the US, Samsung ships these phones with Samsung Messages by default, whereas everybody else in the world gets Android Messages and therefore RCS. Some US carriers support RCS on Samsung Messages, but badly. AT&T’s version of RCS doesn’t interoperate with other carriers yet, for example. I know Samsung isn’t to blame for RCS’s problems, but as the biggest Android seller in the US, you’d like to think the company would try to fix this.

But if you know your way around Android, you can make the S21 Ultra a really amazing and powerful phone. Dodge or disable all those ads and install all the non-Samsung versions of software, and it’s a powerful and sometimes elegant experience.

Samsung is also better at letting customers customize its software for gigantic phone screens than Apple is. You can split-screen apps, convert apps to little pop-up floating windows, turn on a slide-over bar with access to your clipboard and calendar, and much more.

Getting to all that power requires wading through a lot of complexity, but I’ve always found it to be worth the effort. I just wish Samsung wouldn’t make it so difficult in the first place.

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra

Usually, a review of a superpowered phone from Samsung consists of a bunch of promises and then a bunch of reality checks on those promises. With the Galaxy S21 Ultra, there are fewer caveats than before. The battery lasts beyond a full day. There’s a beautiful new design. It has the fastest speeds, best camera system, and nicest screen of any Android phone right now.

If you’re wondering how the smaller Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus compare, we’ll have follow-up reviews on those — but as a spoiler, I’ll just tell you both are much more iterative.

The biggest reality check is the software, which suffers from Samsung’s heavy-handed attempts to build its own ecosystem and further monetize an already expensive phone. I doubt that the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra will convince many iPhone users to switch — the ecosystem lock-in on iOS is too strong for that and getting the most out of Samsung’s version of Android is daunting.

If you can navigate the software, the size, and the price tag, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best Android phone available today. I don’t know how long it will be able to hold on to that crown, but it’s got it now.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is finally worthy of the name.