The Galaxy S21 Ultra is hallmark Samsung. It is also peak Samsung. But most importantly, it is a return to form for Samsung.
You’ve got to give props to Samsung for not giving up on its ‘ultra’ ambitions just because the last one(s) didn’t exactly set the stage on fire. But that’s just how Samsung is. It simply refuses to give up on something it believes has potential. Maybe it has access to another—a higher—dimension or something, but clearly, it sees something you and I, can’t. And then just like that, it comes back, stronger and better. The S21 Ultra is hallmark Samsung in that way.
That it is peak Samsung, conventionally speaking, is a given. It is the latest and greatest ‘non-foldable’ phone that Samsung makes today, period.
A return to form, as it turns out, was inevitable.
Design and build quality
The design of the S21 Ultra is not ‘brand new’ so to say, and yet the phone feels completely re-designed from scratch. Instead of going all-out on something different, Samsung has focused on general refinement—relative to the S20 Ultra—across build materials, styling, and ergonomics.
Expectedly, the S21 Ultra has top-notch build quality with Samsung using all high-quality materials here. This is a combination of Corning Gorilla Glass Victus and metal. The latest ‘protective’ glass from Corning focuses largely on drop protection which is usually inversely proportional to scratch resistance—my review unit is scuffle-free so far but that is something you should keep in mind.
The phone’s most striking aspect is its new contour-cut camera module. As opposed to the S20 Ultra’s island styling, Samsung has fused the camera module in the S21 Ultra with the outer frame at one end. While still a workaround—until brands find a way to get rid of camera-bump-gate completely—this allows Samsung to not compromise on camera hardware and somehow make the phone look and feel less obnoxious, while also ensuring that it does not wobble on a surface without so much as a conscious effort.
The S21 Ultra’s other striking bit is Samsung’s choice of colours. It comes in white and the best version of ‘stealthy’ black I have ever seen—Bruce Wayne would totally approve.
Coming back to the familiar elements, the S21 Ultra is built like any other Samsung flagship which is to say that it is built very well. With its sharp, understated look and satin matte finish, the S21 Ultra is a very desirable piece of hardware you would absolutely want to have if money is not a constraint. The S20 Ultra with its glossy, smudge-haven design, seems like an afterthought now.
It is safe to say the S21 Ultra does not pull any punches when it comes to size and form factor. It is a big phone. It is as big as the iPhone 12 Pro Max and thicker. While I do like the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s squared-off edges more, the S21 Ultra is taller—also, curvier—and more forgiving when it comes to handling. It is a little slippery though. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is wider, but it has a more even distribution of weight—it is not as slippery either. Clearly, there is no clear winner here.
Rounding off the package is IP68 dust and water resistance, dual stereo speakers, and a dual-SIM slot—staple for all high-end Galaxys. Additionally, the phone also supports 5G, Wi-Fi 6E and ultra-wideband (UWB) tracking for seamless integration with Samsung’s SmartTag trackers (sold separately). What is missing though is a micro-SD card slot, charging brick/earphones in the box, and Samsung Pay’s MST (Magnetic Secure Transmission) functionality—but it is what it is.
Just like the design, the story here is also one of refinement. Samsung makes the best smartphone displays, so if anything, things should only get better—and they do.
The phone has a 6.8-inch Quad HD+ ‘dynamic’ AMOLED 120Hz display. This is adaptive—or variable refresh rate—capable of going as low as 10Hz ‘automatically’ depending on the content, to keep a check on battery life, same as the Note 20 Ultra from last year.
Brightness can go all the way up to 1500nits. Contrast is ‘vivid’ straight out-of-the-box. Samsung gives you enough options to fine tune things as per your liking. Viewing angles are excellent. The punch-hole cut-out is unobtrusive—mostly—and the screen curves ever so slightly on the left and right to give a sense of immersion. It does not get any better than this.
In a first for any Samsung phone, the S21 Ultra also lets you run 120Hz at Quad HD+ resolution.
The ultrasonic in-display fingerprint scanner has also received a refresh—finally. It covers a larger area of the screen now. It is significantly better—faster—too.
Finally, the S21 Ultra is the first Galaxy S series phone to support Samsung’s S-Pen stylus accessory, though, there is no silo to stash it and it is not bundled in the box for free. While I have not had access to Samsung’s new S-Pen, the one that comes with the Note 20 Ultra works just fine with the S21 Ultra. And before you ask, Samsung has confirmed the Note series is not going anywhere just yet.
Performance, battery life
The S21 Ultra is powered by the Exynos 2100 in India. Successor to the Exynos 990 seen inside last year’s Galaxy S20 and Galaxy Note series, the Exynos 2100 cranks things up with an ‘improved’ tri-cluster structure made up of a single powerful ARM Cortex-X1 core clocked at 2.9GHz, three high-performing Cortex-A78 cores clocked at 2.8Ghz and four power-efficient Cortex-A55 cores clocked at 2.2Ghz. The 8-core chip is also based on a more ‘advanced’ 5nm EUV process technology.
The major takeaways are two. The Exynos 2100 is said to be 10 per cent faster while consuming 20 per cent less power compared to the chip that it is replacing. For some more context, the new chip is claimed to offer 30 per cent ‘enhancement’ in multi-core performance.
The bigger deal is the new Mali-G78 GPU that Samsung says will offer over 40 per cent better graphics over its predecessor. Lastly, the chip’s tri-core NPU can perform up to 26-trillion-operations-per-second (TOPS) with more than 2x efficiency.
Those facts and figures needed to be shared because conventional wisdom dictates that Exynos is generally not as powerful/power efficient as its Qualcomm counterpart (this is Snapdragon 888 in the S21 Ultra sold in the US) or at least this was the case until last year. This year, Exynos is getting close to Qualcomm, as far as paper specs are concerned. That is a good thing really, but those specs do not mean much unless there is a ‘consistent’ real-world advantage. Now I can’t tell you if the Exynos 2100 is better—or worse—than the Snapdragon 888 because unfortunately there is no phone to benchmark it against in India at this point of time. As a reference point, I can tell you that it scores lower than Apple’s A14 Bionic seen inside the iPhone 12 series in synthetic benchmarks. Again, that does not mean anything for average users.
So, here’s the thing: there is no denying that the S21 Ultra is a fast phone, heck, it is the fastest Android phone in India today. Question is, for how long. Eventually, the market will see a swarm of Snapdragon 888-phones and only then we will see the tangible benefits—I guess, a long-term S21 Ultra review is in order—until then you and I can only hope. Hope that the Exynos 2100 can put up a fight.
I have had no complaints with the S21 Ultra—so far—no lags, no stutters, whatsoever. The phone feels buttery smooth, plays demanding games without breaking a sweat, and does not get toasty—though it does get warm when stressed, which is not unheard of in such powerful pocket-sized computers. There is ample RAM (12GB/16GB) for smooth multitasking. Storage tops out at 512GB. Lack of expansion slot is a bummer. Software inside the phone is Android 11-based OneUI 3.1 which works as effortlessly on big phones like these as it did in its last version.
I have been impressed with the phone’s all-round performance, but I have been even more impressed with its battery life. This is the first time, in what seems like a long time, that Samsung seems to have cracked this code. The new chip has a big role to play in this, I am sure, but Samsung’s adaptive variable refresh rate also deserves some credit. Plus, the phone packs a sizeable 5,000mAh battery—which is always a nice thing to have. Not just good battery life, the S21 Ultra has consistently good battery life—it is easily a 1-day phone with screen specs maxed out (Quad HD/120Hz), and in some cases, it can go longer too.
Fast charging numbers are still mediocre though compared to the rest of the Android world (even the S20 Ultra). The S21 Ultra supports 25W fast wired charging (this was 45W in S20 Ultra), 15W fast wireless charging and wireless power share.
The S21 Ultra has five cameras in all. Just like with the S20 Ultra, Samsung has put every plausible spec—lots of megapixels, multiple zoom lenses, what have you—and feature it could in the S21 Ultra. There is no holding back. The thing with smartphone cameras though is, specs and features, often, don’t tell the complete story. The S20 Ultra was all racked up, but the experience—and picture quality—sadly was not up to the mark. Therefore, the bigger challenge for Samsung was to go back to the drawing board, and you know, make those specs and features do the talking. It did more than that. Samsung made them sing in ensemble.
Here are the specs:
- 108MP main camera (Samsung ISOCELL HM3 sensor), Phase Detection AF, OIS, f/1.8, 0.8µm—nine-pixel binning for 12MP default photos
- 12MP ultrawide-angle camera, Dual Pixel AF, 120-degree field-of-view, f/2.2, 1.4µm
- 10MP telephoto camera, Dual Pixel AF, OIS, f/2.4, 1.22µm—3x optical
- 10MP periscope telephoto camera, Dual Pixel AF, OIS, f/4.9, 1.22µm—10x optical
*like the Note 20 Ultra, the S21 Ultra also has laser autofocus.
- 40MP front camera, Phase Detection AF, f/2.2, 0.7 µm
No beating around the bush: the S21 Ultra is the best camera phone in the market today. In both picture quality and versatility. All the focusing issues of the S20 Ultra are gone. Samsung, in fact, took the effort of adding dedicated tools like focus enhancer—with its own dedicated toggle in the view finder—to ensure better results. The result being, the S21 Ultra is fast(er) to focus, holds on to your intended subject more consistently, and captures shots quickly without any perceivable shutter lag—across all lighting scenarios. That consistency—which extends to colour science—is what sets the S21 Ultra apart from any other Samsung phone in the past.
And before I forget, using the S21 Ultra extensively has made me realize how underrated—and underappreciated—a good telephoto camera is in smartphones. More power to telephoto lenses.
Unlike the Note 20 Ultra and S20 Ultra, the S21 Ultra offers more flexibility up to 10x zoom range, while you are free to go up to 30x (hybrid) without sacrificing quality—though this is subjective. 10x is clearly the sweet spot but 30x photos are serviceable which is a major improvement over Samsung’s past attempts. Speaking of which, 100x ‘space zoom’ returns—with vengeance, I daresay—and even though it is still a fancy gimmick, Samsung’s improved focusing paired with a few other software chops, means the S21 Ultra can ‘clearly’ shoot for the moon with a tripod. The S21 Ultra is the only phone in the market that can do all this today.
The star of the show is the new HM3 sensor though that brings with it, among other things, support for 12-bit colour photos (in pro mode). Most importantly, it raises the bar for smartphone photography making every other smartphone camera—aside from the iPhone 12 Pro Max—seem redundant. The output is hallmark Samsung, which is to say, photos are still bright(er), contrasty, even too good to be real sometimes but there are ‘ultra’ improvements in areas that matter—dynamic range, detail and sharpness.
I prefer the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s more natural colour palette—and the fact that it lets shadows be shadows and generates relatively less noise especially in tricky and low light—but I can see how most people would incline towards the Galaxy, just because photos shot with it seem tad larger than life. It is a close call and probably the right time to say, Samsung has finally caught on.
Portrait mode works well (enough) and the S21 Ultra is smart enough to automatically switch to the ultrawide-angle camera during close-ups—this is a welcome relief.
The front camera, which is 40MP, is excellent but the bigger highlight here is Samsung finally giving you an option to disable smoothening of faces entirely.
All the cameras in the S21 Ultra can record generally well stabilized videos in 4K@60fps. The iPhone 12 Pro Max beats it when it comes to overall quality, but the S21 Ultra gives you more options to play around including shooting in 8K (though still @24fps) and a new ‘director’s mode’ for v-log 1080p videos from both front and rear cameras simultaneously.
Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra?
The S21 Ultra starts at Rs 1,05,999 for the variant with 12GB RAM and 256GB storage going all the way to Rs 1,16,999 for the model with 16GB RAM and 512GB storage. The pricing, though high, is well within familiar territory. The S20 Ultra cost Rs 97,999 at launch.
There are definitely areas where Samsung has cut some corners—lack of micro-SD, slower charging, no charger in the box, for instance—but it has made ‘significant’ improvements/additions in all the other areas, those that matter, so much so it is easier to look past those minor idiosyncrasies because on the other side, is a phone that is worthy of its name—ultra.
If the S20 Ultra was all about setting great expectations, with the S21 Ultra, Samsung has finally met those expectations. The design and build are spot-on. The performance is great across the board. So is the battery life. In some cases, it has even exceeded those expectations. Case in point: the S21 Ultra camera system is fantastic.
The S21 Ultra is Samsung’s redemption song. It is the third ultra to have come out of its banner and as they say, third time’s the charm.
- Premium design, build quality
- Fast, immersive display
- Fast performance
- Loud stereo speakers
- Fantastic cameras
- Great battery life
- S-Pen support
- No micro-SD card slot
- No charger/earphones in the box
- No MST for Samsung Pay