Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra initial review: The top dog?
Samsung moved fast to launch its new flagship phone range in January 2021, with the Galaxy S21 Ultra sitting at the top of the pile.
Having created the Ultra tier in 2020, the new S21 Ultra feels like an opportunity to address what didn’t work with that old phone and try to create the super phone that Samsung wants.
We’ve spent a little time with the new device to bring you our first impressions.
- 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm, 228g
- Metal and glass build
- IP68 waterproofing
Samsung put a lot of time into talking about the black finish on its phone at the launch of the new devices. Saying that less is more will raise an eyebrow among those looking at new S21 Ultra, into which Samsung clearly has put everything.
But there’s no questioning that the Phantom Black S21 Ultra is something to behold. Once you get past the size of the camera housing, with those large lenses looking at you, you’ll appreciate what Samsung was talking about.
Black phones have often been glossy. Often highlighting the use of glass, big phones have suffered from that problem of always being smeary, with black looking particularly bad. The matte finish is welcome, the Gorilla Glass Victus rear of this phone looking more like black metal.
That the finish also flows across the camera housing too helps to camouflage it to a degree, and moreso than some of the contrasting finishes that Samsung has used on the smaller S20 and S21+ models.
The frame of the phone remains glossy black and extends up around the edges of the camera housing so it looks more integrated and it’s a unique design, something we’ve not seen before – which is very welcomed on a smartphone.
The essentials are still in place, like the IP68 waterproofing you’d demand of a premium flagship, but there’s no escaping that is a big phone, and weighty too.
Flip to the front and the curves to the edge of the display continue Samsung’s trick of hiding the edge bezels for a more seamless look – and that’s something that the regular S20 and S21+ no longer offer. There’s touch of bezel to the top and bottom of the screen and the front punch hole camera is kept small – but it’s all very similar to other, recent, Samsung phones.
- 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X
- Quad HD+, HDR10+ support
- Adaptive 10-120Hz refresh rate
- 1500 nit
- S Pen support
Samsung phones are all about the display. Packed with a 6.8-inch AMOLED, this is a typical Samsung experience, with our first impressions being of a punchy and vibrant display. Samsung says that this is its brightest at 1500 nits, but there are some important changes that have taken place under the surface.
The S21 Ultra adopts the Note 20 Ultra’s adaptive motion smoothness to solve one of the big criticisms of the previous S20 Ultra. That old device only offered 120Hz at 1080p resolution, which hardly seemed premium. Now the phone can select refresh rates from 10-120Hz to suit the content.
That will save battery, because it means you’re not pushing 120Hz when you’re reading a static page, but you have the fluidity when you’re scrolling or gaming where faster refresh rates are supported. Some will notice the refresh rate more than others, so it’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s good that Samsung has addressed this.
Samsung sticks to offering a top resolution at 3200 x 1440 pixels, but that’s not turned on by default. The default is still 2400 x 1080 pixels and you have to look hard to notice the difference. That’s also the top resolution of the new S21+, with Samsung seemingly accepting that some people just don’t need those pixel popping resolutions.
On top of this is the support for the S Pen. This has been the preserve of the Note in previous Samsung phones and the widening of the support for stylus input adds an interesting option. While the S21 Ultra doesn’t come with a stylus, you can either buy one or use one from an older device. You don’t get all the S Pen Air Commands that you do on the Note, but there’s plenty you can do.
- Quad rear camera:
- Main: 108-megapixels, 0.8µm pixel size, f/1.8 aperture, OIS, laser autofocus
- Ultra-wide: 12MP, 1.4µm, f/2.2, 120°
- Telephoto (3x): 10MP, 1.22µm, f/2.4, OIS
- Telephoto (10x): 10MP, 1.22µm, f/4.9, OIS
- Selfie camera: 40MP, 0.7µm, f/2.2
As we’ve only had the S21 Ultra for a limited time, we’ve really not had the chance to dive into the performance of the camera – that’s going to take a lot more testing to see if Samsung has addressed some of the problems encountered with the previous model.
There have been changes: there’s a new 108-megapixel main sensor which claims to be a better performer and it’s supported by a new laser autofocus system. That should address the previous focusing issues that people had, but it does leave the larger question of which is the best approach to mobile photography.
The S21 Ultra takes 12-megapixel photos as standard and the pixel are only 0.8µm a fraction of the size you get in lower resolution sensors, like on the Pixel or iPhone. Ultimately it gathers more data, but can’t absorb as much light through each pixel on the sensor. We’ll be looking at how the AI wizardary handles these images to see how they compare if they can compete in low light.
While the front camera and ultra-wide camera remain the same as the old model, it’s in the telephoto that things have changed the most. Samsung is keen to hang onto the 100X Space Zoom as a flagship feature. Previously, the zoom was good, but beyond about 30x, it really started to lose sharpness and colour, not to mention being hard to keep stable.
There are now two 10-megapixel lenses on the back of the S21 Ultra, one offering 3x telephoto and the others, a periscope lens, offering 10x optical. They work in combination, so from the camera app it’s a seamless transition from one to the other so you’re getting the best lens for the job. We’re yet to fully test it, but certainly, it looks like that 10x optical zoom will give some decent results.
Samsung has also made a point of boosting the video skills. This is an area where Apple has generally performed better than many rivals, so there’s a lot to explore to see how the S21 Ultra competes.
There are new modes and new skills in the camera to explore, but we’ll be bringing you a full verdict on their performance once we’ve spent longer with the phone.
Hardware and specs
- Exynos 2100/Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, 5G
- 12/16GB, 128/256/512GB
- 5000mAh, 45W charging
With a new device comes new hardware, pushing along Samsung’s One UI 3.1, based on Android 11. That brings the software fully up to date (other Samsung devices are currently on One UI 3.0 at the time of writing).
The phone is now powered by the Exynos 2100 or the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, depending on where you buy the phone. This is a new generation of hardware and first impressions are of a snappy phone. We’re using the Exynos version and we suspect that the two versions of the phone will be closer in performance than they have previously.
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There’s a big 5000mAh battery with support for faster wired and wireless charging, but there’s a lot of testing before we can judge whether Samsung has managed to boost the endurance.
Initial impressions of the Galaxy S21 Ultra are of a phone that’s now better looking than it was before. It’s a phone with a lot to prove – even though it is available slightly cheaper than the model it replaces, there’s always the risk that it will be undercut by its own lower-spec sibling, the Galaxy S21+.
We’re going to putting the S21 Ultra through a lot of testing over the coming weeks, but we’ll bring you a full evaluation of Samsung latest phone as soon as we can.