Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: The Android flagship to beat

The S21 Ultra offers all the things you would expect from an Android flagship, and then some.


Samsung has been the only smartphone brand that seems to be unaffected by supply chain issues that delayed the launch cycles of many of its competitors. Like clockwork, Samsung released the Galaxy S21 series in January, much ahead of the traditional timeline for Galaxy S-series devices, which is sometime in February.

 Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: The Android flagship to beat

The S21 Ultra visually differentiates itself from the other S21 variants launched this year. Image: Tech2/Nimish Sawant

With the Samsung Galaxy S21 series, we have three variants:

  • Galaxy S21 starting from Rs 69,999
  • Galaxy S21+ starting from Rs 81,999
  • Galaxy S21 Ultra starting from Rs 1,05,999 (our test model)

Samsung introduced the Ultra series last year as its top-of-the-line variant for the S and Note series. The S21 Ultra visually differentiates itself from the other S21 variants launched this year. It looks like Samsung has reserved the best features for this variant, at the cost of the S21 and S21+. But will the Rs 1 lakh-plus price point be appealing to new buyers? That is the question I will try to answer in my review. But first, let’s get the major specifications out of the way and start off with the camera section.

Specifications

Display: 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED, 120 Hz, 1440 x 3200 pixels at 515 PPI

Chipset: Exynos 2100 (1x 2.9 GHz Cortex X1 + 3x 2.8 GHz Cortex A78 + 4x 2.2 GHz Cortex A55)

Graphics: Mali G78 MP14

RAM + Storage in GB: 12 + 128; 12 + 256 (Under Test); 16 + 512

Expandable storage: None

Primary Camera: 108 MP with 1/1.33-inch sensor, f/1.8 aperture with OIS

Secondary cameras: 10 MP periscope telephoto at f/4.9 aperture and 10x optical zoom + 10 MP telephoto at f/2.4 and 3x optical zoom + 12 MP Ultrawide at f/2.2

Selfie Camera: 40 MP with f/2.2 aperture

Battery: 5,000 mAh

Software: Android 11 with OneUI 3.1

Colours: Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy, Phantom Brown

Brilliant camera setup, but low light performance needs improvement

The cameras are going to be a deciding factor for Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra buyers. If you want the short version - the Galaxy S21 Ultra cameras more than deliver on their promise. Read on for the bits that don’t shine.

Image: Tech2/Nimish Sawant

The cameras are going to be a deciding factor for Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra buyers. Image: Tech2/Nimish Sawant

Like last year, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra comes with a 108 MP primary camera which sports a new sensor offering nonapixel binning to deliver a 12 MP image, unless you specifically select 108 MP mode to shoot at the native resolution. The primary camera has an f/1.8 aperture and a sensor size of 1/1.33-inch. It is ably supported by a 10 MP periscope telephoto camera which offers 10x optical zoom, and a 12 MP ultrawide camera with an f/2.2 aperture. The S21 Ultra also comes with an additional 10 MP telephoto camera which can shoot 3x optically zoomed images. The ultrawide camera can also serve as a macro camera if your object focussing distance is a few centimetres. On the front, there is a 40 MP selfie camera with f/2.2 aperture. There’s even a dedicated laser AF on the rear side, which certainly helps in locking focus faster. All in all, the camera section of the S21 Ultra is packed to the gills. There are no useless camera specs such as a depth sensor or dedicated 2 MP macro cameras and so on. Every camera has a specific purpose which it serves with aplomb.

I am not even going to bother talking about daylight photography, as there is little to complain about there. You can take a look at the many daylight photos shot on the primary camera to get an idea. Photos come out packed with detail, high dynamic range and the 3x and 10x optical zooms produce good images. Any zoom range apart from 3x and 10x will result in digitally-zoomed images where softness will be noticeable. I found images up to 30x zoom were quite usable, but anything higher than that should only be employed in emergencies.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
One of my gripes with the “100x Space Zoom” in last year’s S20 Ultra was that it was a pain to use for the poor image quality you eventually got. While the 100x hybrid zoom still makes you tear your hair out when it comes to getting the camera to lock on to your subject steadily, I was quite impressed with how well it was able to capture the moon. There is a focus lock mechanism this time around, which helps you compose your frame at 100x zoom by locking on to the focus after you see the yellow indicator in the top right corner. Just hold steady for a couple of seconds when you see that yellow indicator to get a fairly usable image. Here’s a sample of the zoom range offered; certainly a conversation-starter. (Here are the links for the original samples: Ultrawide and 100x Space Zoom for the shot below)

Zoom range. Image: Tech2/Nimish Sawant

Zoom range. Image: Tech2/Nimish Sawant

Photos shot in low light situations suffer from over-aggressive noise reduction algorithms, giving you relatively softer images, especially when you use any zoom functionality. Switching to “Night Mode” certainly helps, but I noticed that compensation for hand shake wasn’t the best. This is particularly noticeable when some exposures are close to 5-secs long. This is a bummer, as the “Night mode” shots come out well but if you are even so much as breathing, it will cause some shake in the final output. We have seen many smartphones in the past tackling this well, especially Huawei P20 Pro, whose use of AI processing after shooting a long exposure shot was excellent. But back then, we didn’t have to deal with 108 MP sensors. Something’s gotta give.

S21 Ultra Photos (97)

The S21 Ultra with the Night Mode gives good photos in tricky lighting situations such as these, but you need to be rock steady.

There are a gazillion features in the camera app to play around with, such as “Single Take” - which takes a bunch of photos and videos with just one click; “AR Doodle”; “RAW Mode”; “Portrait” modes for both stills and videos; “Hyperlapse”; “SuperSloMo” and much more. With all this talk of RAW modes, a comparison with the iPhone 12 Pro is expected, but we will do a separate story on that in the near future; for now, we will just focus on the S21 Ultra camera performance.

 ProVideo interface. Image: Nimish Sawant

ProVideo interface. Image: Nimish Sawant

Selfies came out well and there wasn’t any unnecessary face-brightening or other gimmicks. The portrait mode is a hit and miss, though. Low light selfies weren’t impressive, as there was a noticeable lack of skin texture. The front camera is also capable of shooting 4K 60 FPS videos, but these will be without any image stabilisation.

S21 Ultra Photos (9)

Selfies generally come out well.

The video performance on the S21 Ultra is impressive in daylight and dusk situations. Post sunset, the video footage starts getting progressively softer with many instances of noticeable focus hunting. The S21 Ultra is capable of shooting FHD, 4K at 60 FPS, but the ‘SuperSteady’ image stabilisation is only offered for FHD at 60 FPS - yet another generation where you will need to use a gimbal for shooting steady 4K 60 FPS footage; Apple has been doing stabilised 4k 60 fps since the iPhone X. Walking and shooting at 4K will lead to jarring footage and while the ‘SuperSteady’ stabilised footage is quite good, there is noticeable softness in the final output. You can also shoot 8K video at 24 FPS, but it severely crops the frame. Needless to say, you will need to use the phone with a gimbal or have it on a tripod when shooting 8K video, as even the slightest shake translates to the footage. While you can shoot at 4K 60 FPS on all cameras, you can’t switch between the lenses unless you are shooting at 4K 30 FPS or under. One mode I really loved while shooting was the “Director’s view”, which activates both the front camera and any of the three rear cameras for you to shoot as you are walking around. I see vloggers using this feature a lot, as it lets you be part of the frame. It’s good to see these kinds of video features being offered natively, and one not needing to download expensive apps to do this.  

S21UltraVid (10)

Director’s View lets you use the front camera as well as any one of the three rear cameras simultaneously.

The microphone quality on the S21 Ultra is pretty impressive and it has this feature called “Zoom-in Mic”, focuses the microphone according to the camera zoom to provide better quality audio.

Excellent Display: One area where no other Android device can touch Samsung

The Galaxy S21 Ultra continues Samsung’s tradition when it comes to offering excellent displays. The 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED Infinity-O display has a native resolution of 1440x3200 pixels, which translates to a dense 515 PPI pixel density. It supports a 120 Hz refresh rate for not just the FHD+ resolution, but also the native resolution - which is really impressive. The S21 Ultra has a variable refresh rate based on what is being viewed on the screen, and this lets the phone display operate from a low of 10 Hz to the highest end of 120 Hz. The display is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass Victus.

Image: Tech2/Nimish Sawant

The 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED Infinity-O display has a native resolution of 1440x3200 pixels, which translates to a dense 515 PPI pixel density. Image: Tech2/Nimish Sawant

It is rated for a peak brightness of 1500 nits, which is only visible when it’s playing back HDR10+ content across popular streaming platforms such as YouTube, Netflix and Prime Video. The display offers “Vivid mode” where you also get the opportunity to tweak the screen temperature and “Natural mode”, which has relatively muted colours. With maximum resolution and high density, it is a joy to read on this display. I finished a major part of an ebook I was reading on my Kindle on the S21 Ultra. However, holding the phone for long periods did lead to hand fatigue, as this is a heavy device. Brightness levels on the phone were excellent even when using the device outdoors. I faced no issues while composing photos in bright conditions - I never had to squint to see what’s on the display.

Playing games such as Alto’s Adventure and Call of Duty Mobile on this display was pure joy. Many movies were also enjoyed on the phone. The Dynamic AMOLED ensures that the contrast is great, blacks are deep and the display offers great dynamic range. Samsung has added an “Eye Comfort Shield” option in the display to provide added blue light filtering, so that there is less strain on your eyes. On the whole, there is barely anything to complain about on the display front.

Build Quality is great, with an unconventional camera module design

One of the most noticeable things about the previous generation Galaxy S20 Ultra was its massive camera module. It made the smartphone look larger on top of the already massive size of the phone. The Galaxy S21 Ultra also has a large camera module, but it has been integrated on the phone in a much more interesting manner. Called the “contour-cut” camera module, the top and left hand side of the camera module seems like it’s an extension of the glossy frame. There’s an inverted L-shaped protrusion on the back, which is unique in camera module design.

The next thing that gets your attention is the matte black finish which Samsung has called “Phantom Black”, and it looks gorgeous. Thankfully, the back isn’t a smudge magnet and the only areas where fingerprints are noticeable are around the glossy frame. Samsung has dropped the dedicated Bixby button (about time) so the left hand edge is clean, except for two antenna cuts. The top portion is clean, with just the mic. The volume rocker and power/standby buttons are on the right-hand side and at the base, you have the USB Type-C charging/data transfer port, dual SIM card slot and a speaker grille. The camera module on the back has four cameras, a flash unit and a laser autofocus module, none of which jut out beyond the module.

The front portion is a 6.8-inch slab of AMOLED display protected by Corning Gorilla Glass Victus, with a selfie camera located in the centre. Samsung has done a great job of concealing the earpiece speaker. The display curves ever so slightly around the edges. Given the 6.8-inch diagonal display size, forget using it one-handed. The S21 Ultra feels heavy at 227 grams, but is 8.9 mm thick, which isn’t too chubby for phones. As always, it comes with IP68 water and dust resistance. All in all, this is one good-looking Samsung flagship, which has excellent build quality.

Performance and OS

As is the case with most of Samsung’s flagship phones, the India-market Galaxy S21 Ultra comes with Samsung’s Exynos 2100 SoC and not the Snapdragon 888 which is seen in the North American models. The S21 Ultra I am testing sports 12 GB RAM and 256 GB of UFS 3.1 storage. Unlike yesteryear S-series flagships, Samsung has ditched the microSD card slot on this one.

PC Mark

PC Mark

The overall performance is top-notch and at no point did the phone slow down. The only issue I faced in terms of speed was when I was switching between portrait and landscape orientations when the camera was on. I noticed that the landscape orientation stuck around even in the portrait mode, rendering the camera unusable and required waking up the smartphone again. This is an issue which could be fixed in a future software update, as it seems like a software glitch. But otherwise, games, apps and heavy websites ran without any hitches. The 120 Hz display on the maximum resolution was also quite smooth, and I never noticed any instance where the scrolling wasn’t buttery.

Geekbench Single core

Geekbench Single core

The ultrasonic fingerprint scanner is super-quick when it works, and is certainly a lot more responsive than the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which required many attempts for the phone to unlock. But if your finger is moist, the S21 Ultra won’t unlock that quickly. Call quality on the S21 Ultra is excellent, and I must reiterate how wonderfully concealed the earpiece speaker is and even so, doesn’t affect audio quality. The stereo speaker quality is good as well; I saw a couple of movies with just the speakers, and it was a great experience.

Geekbench Multi core

Geekbench Multi core

The phone does tend to heat up while playing high-end games for longer than 20 minutes, as well as while using certain camera modes such as 8K video recording, 108 MP camera mode or while zooming. It never got unbearably hot, and if you leave the phone be for a few seconds without doing anything, the heat levels come down.

With the S21 Ultra, you get the OneUI 3.1 user interface atop Android 11. On most fronts, the OS is polished, but Samsung also tends to throw a gazillion features at you. Even something as simple as the quick notification bar is filled with as many as 19 icons. The Settings menu of the S21 Ultra provides you many options to tweak the phone the way you like it. I wouldn’t hold it against Samsung, but for a regular user, that can get a bit overwhelming. Some features such as the option of locking up to three apps in RAM are helpful. You will also find some bloat in the form of Samsung’s system apps but thankfully, they can be uninstalled. There are the Microsoft group of apps such as Office, OneDrive, Outlook and LinkedIN which are preloaded, but this is certainly of value to many potential buyers of this device.

The most surprising thing to see was advertising on Samsung’s system apps such as Weather and Game Launcher. Why Samsung would think that this is acceptable on a six-figure smartphone is beyond me.

Why would Samsung have ads in its native apps on its flagship device?

Why would Samsung have ads in its native apps on its flagship device?

Battery Life impresses, but you’ll have to buy a charger separately

Ever since the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco, Samsung has been conservative about the batteries in its smartphones. The S21 Ultra comes with a 5,000 mAh battery, which is good. But there is no charger in the box of the S21 Ultra. After all that mocking Samsung did when Apple announced its iPhone 12 series without any chargers, Samsung went ahead and did exactly that. It looks like everyone will now try to show how “environmentally-friendly” they are by not bundling a charger. So you will have to either buy a Samsung charger or use the ones you have. Samsung says the S21 supports up to 25W fast charging, USB PD 3.0 and wireless charging is rated at 15W fast Qi standard.  

Samsung S21 Ultra Battery Life

Samsung S21 Ultra Battery Life

As Samsung offers various modes to configure the display settings, these are the settings on which I used the device: Vivid mode, Dark Mode, Adaptive refresh rate, 3200x1440 pixels. With regular usage which involved messaging over three apps, two email accounts on sync, calling, shooting 20-30 photos/videos a day, gaming for 20 mins, video and audio streaming for a couple of hours, I was able to extract just over a day of battery. On weekends, when my use was lower than normal, I could go over two days. But on days when I had to put the phone through its paces from 9 am, I noticed that I had to put the phone on charge by bedtime (around 12am). Overall, no complaints with the battery life.

Since Samsung doesn’t bundle its own charger, how fast the phone will charge depends on which charger you have. I used the USB PD charger bundled with my Pixel 3A XL, and it took around 80 mins to charge the S21 Ultra fully. I used the OnePlus Dash Charger once, and it took around 70 mins to fully charge the S21 Ultra. The charging pace slows down noticeably from 90 percent onwards. Those using recommended chargers from Samsung may experience a faster charging time.

Verdict and Price in India

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is definitely recommended for those of you who have been using flagships from three generations ago and don’t mind the six-figure pricing. Those with the S20 / Note 20 Ultras need not bother - the S21 Ultra isn’t an earth-shattering upgrade.

While globally, Samsung’s prices were lower than the S20 Ultra at its launch, that wasn’t the case in India due to the various taxes and duties. It is still priced lower than Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro series, not that Apple buyers would consider Android flagships.

The S21 Ultra offers all the things you would expect from an Android flagship, and then some. The design, camera stack, fabulous display, great battery life are impressive. There is definitely scope for improvement with low light photography and video recording, but those are the only drawbacks on this otherwise flawless phone. It supports 5G, for those interested, and also supports the S-Pen.

Long story short, as far as Android flagships are concerned, the S21 Ultra will be the phone to beat for everything that follows in the near future.


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