After two months of testing the Galaxy S21 Ultra Read also: The best mechanical keyboards for 2021: Comparison & Test. along with other flagship phones, we’ve revised this review to downgrade its rating from 4 to 4.5 stars and award it our Editors’ Choice award. Additionally, US wireless carriers have revealed C-band 5G plans that the S21 Ultra is well-positioned to take advantage of, and the phone is now widely available for less than its hefty list price.
It’s like an anime title: “Galaxy S: Redemption.” The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is, overall, what the Galaxy S20 Ultra should have been. It’s a solid, high-end phone, with a unique superzoom camera (for the US), a gorgeous display, and future-proof network capabilities. The S21 Ultra sets the performance bar for Android in 2021 and its superzoom camera will make you look at the world in a new way.
The top of the Metropcs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung offers three models in its flagship Galaxy S 2021 series: the small S21, the medium S21 Plus and the large S21 Ultra. They all have the same basic processor and modem. The S21 and S21 Plus are similar except for their screen and battery size. The S21 Ultra offers features the other two don’t: 108-megapixel main camera, 40-megapixel selfie camera, 10x optical zoom camera, S Pen support, Wi-Fi Fi 6E and UWB directional positioning.
The prices for these phones have been a bit odd, and the original price point led us to downgrade them – perhaps more than we should have. List prices are $799.99 for the S21, $999.99 for the S21+, and $1,199.99 for the S21 Ultra. But they’ve cost a lot less pretty much everywhere since their launch. The S21 Ultra is down to $999.99 on Amazon and Best Buy as of this writing, and Samsung has an intense trade-in program in place. This makes the S21 Ultra effectively cheaper than the iPhone 12 Pro Max ($1099), which is rarely on sale.
Sleek design with built-in cameras
The S21 Ultra starts with a case that looks less tinkered with than the S20 Ultra. The unit I reviewed is a solid matte block that resists fingerprints much better than last year’s glossy models. With dimensions of 6.50 x 2.98 x 0.35 inches (HWD), the S21 Ultra is slightly shorter than the S20 Ultra (6.57 x 2.99 x 0.35 inches), but taller and narrower than the iPhone 12 Pro Max (6.33 x 3.07 x 0.29 inches). The phone is heavy as a brick, however, at 8.08 ounces – heavier than the Galaxy S20 Ultra (7.76 ounces), iPhone 12 Pro Max (8.03 ounces), or Samsung Note 20 Ultra (7 .34 ounces).
The matte back of the S21 Ultra is less slippery and more attractive than the glossy back of the S20.
The biggest and best design difference from the S20 is the better-integrated camera module. Instead of being an inconspicuous, hard bump on the back, it’s now built into the corner of the phone. There’s still a ledge where it falls, but it’s much less troublesome and less likely to snag in your trouser pocket.
The phone is rated IP68 for water resistance and comes in a range of very discreet colors (some only available if you buy the phone directly from Samsung): black, brown, grey, navy and silver. If you’re looking for poppy red, rose gold, or purple, you’ll want to go for one of the smaller units.
The S21 Ultra models are offered in very professional colors.
You can opt for 128 GB or 256 GB of storage with 12 GB of RAM, or 512 GB of storage with 16 GB of RAM. There is no microSD card slot. Slots and ports in general are, alas, going the way of the dodo; too few people use them, and the built-in memory has faster performance. If you absolutely need expandable memory, go for the Note 20 or Note 20 Ultra.
Qualcomm’s new second-generation ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is noticeably faster and more accurate than that of the S10 and S20. On the other hand, facial recognition repeatedly failed to recognize my face (with or without a mask).
The 6.8-inch, 3,200-by-1,440-pixel screen is covered in the new Gorilla Glass Victus. It didn’t scratch after a few days of testing, an improvement over the Galaxy S20+ screen, which scratched quickly.
Samsung claims the screen is 25% brighter than the Galaxy S20 Ultra, with a peak brightness of 1,500 nits. More importantly, it has 50% better contrast ratio, and I can see the difference. Samsung displays have always been vibrant, but this one really stands out. You can set the screen resolution to 1080p or quad HD to save battery and boost the frame rate of games, but the option to manually switch between 60 and 120Hz refresh rates is gone; instead, the screen automatically switches from 10 to 120Hz depending on what you’re watching.
The S21 has a truly gorgeous display.
The Ultra is the only member of the S21 family that works with Samsung’s S Pen, the active, pressure-sensitive stylus previously reserved for the Note series. I tried it with a Note 20 stylus, a Note 9 stylus, and a Note 4 stylus; all worked. If you don’t have an old Note, you can buy an S Pen for $40, or a stylus and phone case combo for $70.
The S21 has the same super-low 9ms latency as the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, updating the screen with its 120Hz virtual ink. The pen button, which allows you to “click” on the screen, works , but Bluetooth functions such as air controls and using the pen as a remote camera shutter do not work. Samsung says a special S Pen will be available later this year that will come with these features.
We’ve heard rumors that there may not be a Galaxy Note phone this year due to a global processor shortage. If so, that makes the Galaxy S21 Ultra, with its pen case, the go-to phone for former Note owners and anyone who wants to doodle.
You can use any Note pen to write on the S21 Ultra screen.
Choose the right model
As always, there are several different sub-models of the Galaxy S21, indicated by a letter at the end of the product reference. We tested the unlocked Model U, intended for the United States. The Model U has a single SIM slot, a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, e-SIM functionality disabled, and all appropriate bands for all US 5G networks, including millimeter wave and upcoming C-band. Here are the other models listed on the Samsung site:
W: For Canada. Snapdragon processor, single SIM plus eSIM. 5G similar to US, but no mmWave.
B: Exynos processor, single SIM plus eSIM. Has 5G bands 3/7/28/41/78, so it won’t work on a low-band US 5G network.
N: For Korea. Exynos processor, single SIM and eSIM. Only the 5G band is 78.
0: For China. Snapdragon processor, dual SIM.
If you’re using your phone outside of its home region, you can expect it to have all the good 4G bands but it’s missing some of the roaming region’s 5G bands, and you won’t probably won’t be able to use Wi-Fi calling or similar features.
CPU: Lucky Number 888
The Galaxy S21 models are the first phones to use Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 888 processor. The chip enables new features without really improving the rated speed. However, in the long run, features are probably more important.
The S21 Ultra scored 1,128 on single-core Geekbench and 3,500 on multi-core Geekbench, up 15% SC and just 7% MC from last year’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. On the GFXBench Car Chase benchmark, off-screen frames increased from 57fps to 65fps, a 14% increase. Is this an improvement? Sure. Will you notice it? Maybe not.
The Apple A14 processor in the iPhone 12 Pro scores noticeably higher on both benchmarks: 1,599 SC/4,006 MC on Geekbench, and 70fps on the off-screen GFXBench Car Chase benchmark.
Likewise, while the Basemark Web browsing score jumped from 322 on the Note 20 Ultra in WQHD+ resolution to 498 on the S21 Ultra, and from 486 in 1080p resolution to 605, the iPhone 12 Pro already scores 600.
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Weird things are happening that make me doubt the value of these numbers. The PCMark and AIMark benchmarks seem to be broken on the S21 Ultra, delivering scores that are obviously way too low. It could be due to the 888 itself or Android 11, but either way they don’t seem to give good indications. The S21 Ultra significantly outperformed the S20 Ultra on AI Benchmark, but again, I’m not sure whether to trust it or not. We are working with Samsung to resolve this issue and will update this article as soon as we know more.
What interests you most is that the 888 allows the S21 Ultra to do some awesome new tricks. For example, the 888’s image signal processor lets the S21 Ultra combine its two telephoto cameras for much better 10x-30x zoom than last year, and a new Director’s Mode video feature lets you switch to smoothly between cameras on the fly. AI abilities improve Night Mode. Wi-Fi 6E requires a component in the 888, as do some of the new 5G features. So even without reliable benchmark numbers to quantify speed and power, it’s clear that this is a big step up from last year’s models.
A simplified Android experience
The Galaxy S21 Ultra runs Android 11 with Samsung’s OneUI 3.0 extensions. Samsung told me it was committed to updating the phone to Android 14.
The bloatware situation on unlocked units isn’t bad at all, but you should expect the usual dozens of unwanted apps on carrier-locked models, especially AT&T. Samsung preloads Facebook, but it’s deletable.
Samsung’s voice assistant, Bixby, is still on this phone, but the Bixby home screen to the left of the main home screen is gone; instead, you now see the Google News Feed. If you want to disable Bixby button presses and turn the power key into a real power key, you can do that in the settings.
Samsung is getting rid of its unloved Bixby home screen and putting Google’s browser front and center.
It’s worth pointing out that Samsung does its best to tie in with other Galaxy devices and Windows laptops, the same way iPhones tie in with Macs. OneUI 3 lets you call and text from Galaxy tablets or speakers. On Windows laptops, you can reply to text messages, check notifications, or mirror your phone screen. You can also put the S21 into multi-window Dex mode for big screen presentations or use an additional keyboard and mouse.
Samsung’s home screen design will still not be confused with Google’s, with its own colors, icons and dialer. But OneUI 3.0 works hard to bring in all the features of Android 11 while keeping Samsung’s identity strong, and it doesn’t push custom browsers or messaging apps on you when it knows Google’s apps are what you really want. Besides, Samsung’s overall success in the market testifies to the accessibility of its user interface for users.
A powerful battery
The S21 Ultra has a 5,000 mAh battery. In our standard test, which involves running a YouTube video at full brightness over Wi-Fi, we got 11 hours and 20 minutes of battery life, which is on par with other big phones. Changing the screen resolution and refresh rate doesn’t matter here, because the refresh rate adapts to the content: If you’re showing video at 60 frames per second, the refresh rate won’t be higher than 60fps, even if you set it to 120fps. The Ultra posted about an hour longer playtime than the smaller S21.
5G has a very strong impact on the battery. On AT&T’s network, streaming over 5G rather than Wi-Fi resulted in three hours of battery drain in testing. It’s not possible to turn off 5G natively on AT&T or Verizon, but it is possible on T-Mobile. There is a third-party app called Samsung Band Selector that can let you force your phone to use 4G, but it’s not supported and can be turned off at any time.
S21 phones support 25W wired charging and 15W wireless charging. Samsung no longer ships chargers with these phones, claiming that’s because most people already have USB chargers they can use. However, most USB chargers you’ve accumulated over the past few years have USB-A ports and Micro USB cables, which are unnecessary for the USB-C to USB-C cable included in the S21’s box. Even if you have a USB-C charger handy, its vintage and power will make a difference. Plugged into a 22W Galaxy Note 20 Ultra charger, the S21 Ultra hit 37% in 20 minutes and fully charged in 70 minutes. But plugged into a Galaxy S20 FE charger, it only reached 22% after 20 minutes, and it took 110 minutes in total to fully charge the phone. You can always opt to skip the cable issue altogether and get yourself a Qi-compatible wireless charging pad.
Networking ready for 2022
The Galaxy S21 series is ready for 2022 networks, and they’ll arrive before you know it.
The S21 phones are the first US models to feature Qualcomm’s new X60 modem. The X60 allows phones to combine non-contiguous 5G channels, something previous devices couldn’t do. In theory, this improves 5G performance. In practice, the networks are not quite ready for this yet.
C-band is also supported, the new fast frequencies for which operators have just spent more than 80 billion euros. Verizon says it will cover 100 million people with C-band access by next March, which will likely triple the carrier’s 5G speeds. Given Verizon’s poor 5G performance nationwide, I think anyone investing in a flagship phone for the next few years on Verizon needs to make sure it has C-band.
I tested the S21 on AT&T and T-Mobile. (Our Verizon SIMs are fried right now.) 4G and 5G performance on AT&T was very similar to last year’s flagship devices. AT&T will use the X60 to improve 5G performance nationwide in the future by adding new 5G channels. In the meantime, there’s not much new to see here. Across 11 sites, the S21 Ultra averaged 113 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up on AT&T’s “nationwide 5G” network, while an iPhone 12 got 111 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up.
On T-Mobile, things got interesting. The T-Mobile network forced my S21 into ‘standalone 5G’ mode. Most 5G connections in the US right now are at least half 4G. Standalone 5G, which ignores 4G, gives you lower latency and less chance of overloading networks in congested conditions, but you get lower overall speeds because you lose the extra 4G components.
With standalone 5G, I averaged 87 Mbps down and 31 Mbps up with 12ms latency, which was much slower than my Galaxy S20+ and iPhone 12. standalone using a field test screen, speeds increased to 258Mbps down and 69Mbps up on average, with a latency of 26ms. These results are very similar to those of the S20+ and the iPhone 12. T-Mobile told me, basically, that their engineers were experimenting in my neighborhood and they were going to fix the problem.
At T-Mobile, the S21 should be able to combine the carrier’s current two main forms of 5G – the n41 and n71 bands – in a way that no phone has been able to do so far, but I didn’t see that happen; the phone was still on n41 or n71. It’s not the phone’s fault, however. The network just wasn’t ready.
When it comes to Wi-Fi, the S21 Ultra is the first phone to feature Wi-Fi 6E, the new form of Wi-Fi that enables extremely high speeds on the new 6GHz band (which is not the same as 6G). I couldn’t test it; the first 6E Wi-Fi routers have just been released and cost $500 or more. Wi-Fi 6E seems to be a much bigger leap forward in performance than moving from Wi-Fi 5 to Wi-Fi 6. My Wi-Fi 6 devices still tend to max out at speeds of 600Mbps in the real world, but Wi-Fi 6E promises more than one gigabit per device. This will be especially important when connecting your phone to multi-gigabit home internet service, if that happens in the next few years.
With UWB, smart tags can tell you not only if you are near them, but also in which direction they are.
The Ultra also supports UWB, a new wireless technology that I haven’t found a use for yet. UWB adds a directional element to short-range wireless, resulting in, for example, a virtual car key app that opens your car door when you point at it, or a smart tag that not only tells you if you are near it, but also in which direction it is. For now, its only use is a ‘nearby sharing’ feature that lets you share files between two phones, and honestly, it works just fine over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
Bluetooth 5.2 allows the phone to send streams to two devices simultaneously; how this works in practice will depend on the Bluetooth devices in question. With Galaxy Buds Pro, this means the phone streams to each earbud independently rather than going to one primary earbud, which relays to the other. This allows for more stable connections.
In the meantime, we are losing a key wireless technology: MST. Samsung phones worked with older credit card readers that did not have Apple/Samsung Pay specifications. It was an advantage of Samsung over Apple. The S21s don’t have that.
With all this data talk, we haven’t forgotten about using your phone to, you know, make phone calls. Call quality hasn’t been an issue on high-end Samsung phones for a few years now. The quality of Bluetooth calls and speakers is perfect. If you want to use a wired headset, it must be USB-C; there is no headphone jack. I was very happy to see that Wi-Fi calling was finally available on my unlocked model on all three major US wireless carriers. Samsung repeatedly promised AT&T Wi-Fi calling on the unlocked S20, but never delivered.
The unlocked US model we tested has a single SIM slot. The phone technically supports eSIM, but it has been disabled on this model, and Samsung has shown no sign of enabling it. Treat this phone as a single physical SIM card phone.
Phone camera zooms out
The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s cameras are what the S20 Ultra were meant to be. It has a 108MP main sensor that typically takes 12MP photos, along with a 12MP 120-degree ultra-wide camera, two 10MP telephoto lenses (3x and 10x) and a focus sensor dedicated. This focus sensor is essential. The main 108MP sensor uses phase-detection rather than dual pixel autofocus, and on the S20 Ultra that meant slow and often inaccurate autofocus. This problem no longer exists. At 1x, images have better contrast than photos taken by the S20 Ultra, and are much sharper around the edges of the frame.
In my close-up shooting test, I found the S21 Ultra fixed another of the S20 Ultra’s shortcomings: a painfully narrow plane of focus that meant most objects in the shot were n were not developed. The S21 was much better at focusing the different elements of a setup, although its photos weren’t as sharp as those of the iPhone 12.
Photos taken with the S21’s Night mode are much better than the darker, muddy snaps of the S20 series, but the iPhone 12 is still king of the night. Its Night mode turns night into day with a sharpness the S21 can’t quite match.
What you don’t see in the images here is that the device is noticeably faster and easier to use than the S20 series devices. It takes the same night shots, but with about a second less of a wait. High-level zoom, which is very choppy on the S20 series, is now stabilized and it’s much easier to lock onto the part of the image you need.
The S21 has a 40-megapixel front camera that normally takes 10-megapixel images. The big difference between this device and the S20 generation is the night mode; the S21 has one, so you can finally take decent selfies in the dark. Are they sweet? Yes. But the fact that they still come out is a positive point.
In good light, that front camera is actually excellent, with more detail than the S20 Ultra, and better contrast than the iPhone 12.
The S21 Ultra’s zoom cameras are a big part of what makes it worth its price. The phone has 3x and 10x zoom cameras for, according to Samsung, up to 100x zoom. Things are beautiful up to 10x. It’s safe to say that if you want to live at 10x, this is the phone for you. Beyond 10x, the zoom is fully digital on the 10x lens. But since it’s a native 10x digital zoom, images aren’t so bad up to around 30x.
The S21 Ultra shines in daylight with 10x and 30x zoom. The 10x shots are actually distinct, and while the 30x shots are definitely soft and digitally zoomed in, they’re not the soft haze you get with the S20 series or the little S21.
At 100x zoom, things are definitely impressionistic. But the 100x zoom isn’t useless like the S20 Ultra was. The viewfinder stabilizes so it doesn’t wobble all over the place, and handheld shots are better. Not great, but better.
It’s worth noting that the S21 Ultra can record 4K60 video at 10x zoom, and can record 8K video at 24fps with its primary lens. While recording 8K video, you can take 33MP photos.
Is the price justified?
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is an impressive, high-quality superzoom camera phone. When we first reviewed it in January, we were a bit hesitant. It was big and heavy, its list price was high, and operators had yet to release their C-band plans.
I’ve been using this phone as my main device for a while now, and things have changed. On the one hand, the list price is a lie; no one seems to pay for it. On the other hand, Verizon will launch into C band in less than 12 months. And the more uses I find for the 10x zoom and the games I play on the big, bright screen, the more I appreciate how well-designed this phone is.
Samsung also has a few accessories to sell you: a watch, earbuds and a smart locator.
The S21 Ultra’s main competitors, as big phones, are Samsung’s Note 20 Ultra at $1,299.99, Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max at $1,099.99, and the OnePlus 9 Pro at $969. $99. The Note 20 comes with an S Pen and a microSD memory card slot, but the S21 Ultra is more forward-looking as a long-term investment. The iPhone has nothing to do with the superzoom of the S21 Ultra, but it does have slightly better nighttime performance and, for serious photographers, a much better ecosystem of third-party camera apps and integration with Mac computers. The OnePlus 9 Pro has fast, sleek software and is also a great choice, but the S21 falls just short of it in terms of radio performance and superzoom. The verdict is in:
- Beautiful design and solid construction
- Excellent photo quality with up to 10x zoom
- Equipped with next-gen C-band and Wi-Fi 6E connectivity
The Galaxy S21 Ultra offers a high-quality superzoom camera that really works, supports Samsung’s excellent S Pen and sets the bar for smartphone features in 2021. Read also: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 Ti Founders Edition review: Test complete and notice 2021 .
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