A new star has joined the vast Samsung Galaxy – the S21 Ultra is the latest flagship phone from the Korean electronics giant. Despite its name, it’s not the 21st iteration of the now infamous Galaxy S phones. But it’s certainly the most impressive and polished one yet combining over a decade of learning and experience Samsung has gained in the industry. And the Ultra added to the name isn’t just a marketing gimmick either. The S21 Ultra costs upwards of $1800 and packs the very best of smartphone technology to date to create a device that absolutely belongs in the hands of James Bond.
Spoiler alert — I really like it. After three weeks with the S21 Ultra, I’m struck by how good this phone is and the potential it holds within. Whether you are a power user who does a ton of email and office work on the go, or a content creator taking tons of photos and videos or maybe you just love playing Genshin Impact on your commute, the S21 Ultra performs with an ease and excellence few other phones can.
Design and build
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Samsung knows how to design and build beautiful phones and the S21 family are its best work yet. Our unit is the Phantom Black model which is a special blend Samsung concocted. It gives the phone an air of sophistication and class that’s honestly hard to hate.
The metal and glass merge together in a beautiful symphony especially with the rear camera array forming a single piece that flows into the metal side rails of the phone. These rails curve gently allowing the phone to cradle comfortably in your grip while that camera bump offers a resting point for your forefinger.
However, glass is generally a recipe for a slippery phone which is why Samsung uses new Corning Gorilla Glass Victus which is supposedly much tougher than anything before it for greater drop and scratch protection. I didn’t even try to test that as you can imagine. But, it’s still glass and it will inevitably scratch or crack. My review unit came with a small hairline scratch so do yourself a favour – get a good screen protector and a case.
Even with all that glass and metal, the S21 Ultra is surprisingly easy to keep clean since it repels fingerprints and smudges; a problem common to black phones. If you don’t like the black, there’s also Phantom Silver and special edition Phantom Brown, Phantom Navy and Phantom Titan colorways.
While I did somehow survive without a case, I strongly advise against it. This is a big, slippery glass phone that you’ll definitely want to keep safe. I love big phones but this is still one of the heftiest phones I’ve ever used – and that’s saying a lot from someone who loved the enormous Asus ROG Phone 3.
My pinky fingers got painfully strained after my first few days of using the S21 Ultra because I kept resting the phone on them to use it one-handed. I had to minimize single handed use as much as possible so I could recover. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the great height also made phone calls a serious challenge. Since the ear piece is so far up the top of the phone, I’d always position it too far above my ear canal effectively muting my callers.
The best display on a smartphone
Even if you don’t like the physical design of The S21 Ultra, I guarantee you’ll be totally enamoured by it’s incredible 6.8-inch Infinity-O display. The display is a Dynamic AMOLED with a sharp WQHD+ resolution of 1440 x 3200 which is almost the same as an Ultrawide desktop monitor.
You can also turn it down to a less power hungry FHD+ resolution and not even notice the difference. Ironically, this is how the default resolution the phone sets up with and you manually have to choose the higher. As a pixel peeper, I’m mighty impressed that even I could barely notice the differences so if battery life is your priority, stick with the lower resolution.
AMOLED screens are renowned for their color vibrancy but this one really takes things up a notch. It adds HDR10+ and an insane peak brightness of 1500nits. This means even in the blistering sun, it’s bright enough that you won’t need to shade your phone. Also, HDR movies and games look gobsmackingly gorgeous.
Helping things even more is the adaptive refresh rate that goes from 10Hz to 120Hz. This fast refresh makes animations on the screen look smoother as the phone can display twice as many frames per second compared to 60Hz smartphone displays. This is great for gaming where everything I played felt smooth and responsive. The phone can automatically lower the refresh rate to as low as 10Hz to save your battery throughout the day when you aren’t using it or you’re looking at photos or text.
Not everything on the front of the S21 Ultra is about consuming content. The display also has an under display fingerprint scanner and a punchhole selfie camera. The new in-screen fingerprint sensor is bigger, faster and more accurate than previous models. I didn’t like the fingerprint scanner on my wife’s two year old S10+ because it was finicky, inaccurate and a pain to situate your finger.
The S21 Ultra improves upon that one significantly. The only time it failed to recognise my fingers were when they were wet. Otherwise, it took less than a second from touching the icon to unlocking the phone. But like everything on the S21 Ultra, there’s so many ways to do a thing. The selfie camera also allows for facial id recognition although I didn’t have as much success with this. It would fail too often to recognize my face leading me to just use the fingerprint scanner.
A new power in the east
Powering the S21 Ultra is Samsung’s latest processor — the Exynos 2100. This new processor also has a multiband 5G chip and a powerful Mali G78 graphics processor which, paired with 12GB of fast memory and 512GB of UFS III storage makes the S21 Ultra like Usain Bolt on steroids.
Samsung’s One UI 3 operating system makes great use of all that hardware for a very smooth and enjoyable Android experience. Building off the latest and greatest Android 11, One UI offers a ton of features to make the phone your own unique experience, There’s honestly too many features and options that it would take a whole other article. It can be downright overwhelming but it’s very well designed to be as simple or technical as you need it to be.
In practice, that means the S21 Ultra works well for hardcore productivity nerds who like using multiple apps on screen at once to customization geeks to Easy mode for when you lend it to your toddler to play games. Heck, you can even use the S21 Ultra as a desktop computer using Samsung Dex feature — all you need is a screen. Improving on previous iterations, Dex now works completely wirelessly with compatible TV’s or Monitors.
One thing worth calling out that is more shady than deal breaker is the abundance of ads that litter One UI. From Samsung Pay app to Galaxy Store, you’ll keep encountering adverts in the interface – strangely ads for the S21 as well! For the life of me, I couldn’t find any way to turn them off so it’s clearly a priority for Samsung that you see them.
Move over Switch
It goes without saying that everything about the S21 Ultra lends itself perfectly for mobile gaming. Games look absolutely fantastic on the 6.8″ display and the fast refresh rate makes them feel smooth and fluid. This responsiveness is more apparent in first person shooters and racing games which require precise and quick control.
I was shocked how many times I was MVP in Call of Duty Mobile, a game I barely touch because of poor touch screen experience. Other games like Genshin Impact are simply mind blowing and prove that immersive, blockbuster titles aren’t the domain of consoles any more. And let’s not forget services like the incredible Xbox xCloud that lets you stream games right on your phone. Add an accessory like the Razer Kishi gamepad or just pair your Xbox One controller and you’re off to the races.
One UI’s Game Booster app shows Samsung’s seriousness about gaming. This launcher manages your game library and autotunes the phone to prioritize game performance and enjoyment. Adding to the great gaming experience are the impressive speakers. They aren’t front facing like the ROG Phone 3 but still manage to sound amazing with great stereo separation.
They aren’t as good as those on the ROG Phone 3 but they are loud, clear and sound rich. Sadly, it’s so easy to cover the lower speaker when holding the phone in landscape which muffles the sound. This isn’t a deal breaker since you can just use wireless headphones which should sound better anyway.
5G is here, if you can find it
Ah yes, 5G another buzzword for smartphones this year. The S21 Ultra supports 5G in SA, NSA, Sub6 and mmWave varieties. As much as I’d love to tell you how fast and revolutionary 5G is, I’m an Optus customer living in the burbs outside of Brisbane where I never got a single bar of 5G despite Optus’s coverage map telling me otherwise.
I suspect this will be the case for many Aussie who buy these phones and don’t frequent the CBD’s. No doubt, the S21 Ultra is fast when you can actually get 5G but even without it, the 4G LTE speeds were plenty fast for me and I never had any problems with reception. Calls on the Ultra were crystal clear and my wife even joked that video calls from the phone looked much sharper than on my Pixel 4XL.
Since most of us are spending far more time at home than ever, a bigger ask for me is WiFi 6 compatibility which the S21 Ultra does have. This means faster speeds on WiFi with great reception and I had no issue with this; the caveat being you need a WiFi 6 router to enjoy the benefits.
One of the most obvious things about the S21 Ultra is its large camera system on the back. It’s potentially the most complete if not best camera system on a smartphone. Not only are there 5 lenses but also a ton of tech and AI smarts that practically ensure you’ll never take a bad picture. Suffice to say, whether you are a casual photo shooter or serious film maker, Samsung has you covered.
Here are the specs of the five cameras:
- 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 main wide angle camera takes excellent shots with a ton of detail thanks to a pixel binning process that shrinks 108MP photos into shareable 12MP ones. Colors are punchy, details are extremely sharp and the dynamic range is great. And because of the very fast f1.4 aperture, low light photos are great with minimal noise or grain.
The camera is also surprisingly consistent whether you take low light shots, portrait mode, ultrawide angle shots. Samsungs Scene AI does a great job. It can know if you are taking a photo of a person, food or landscape and adjust settings accordingly. A laser scanner helps the S21 Ultra focus extremely fast, even in the dark so you’ll rarely ever get a photo out of focus.
Portrait shots on the S21 Ultra are on par with my Google Pixel 4XL which has long been the king. Edges are clean even with people wearing glasses or hair blowing in the wind. This year, portrait mode even extends to videos though the results are hit and miss. Speaking of portraits, selfie and vlogging lovers will enjoy the 40MP front facing camera that also records video in 4K.
But possibly most impressive is the pair telephoto lenses that can work together to offer 30x zoom. This produces some really good shots and I never stopped being amazed by some of the things I could capture. Push it even further and the cameras shift to digital zoom up to 100x. This isn’t as sharp as the optical zoom and your results will vary but it’s overall very impressive. But what truly blew my mind is that you can actually take shots of the Moon.
Filmmakers mobile studio
If the 8K recording wasn’t a giveaway, there should be no doubt that Samsung wants videographers to take this phone seriously. The s21 Ultra is a fantastic video shooter with a variety of modes for you to choose from. You get super slow motion 720p at 960fps to capture your kid blowing out their birthday candles. Budding YouTubers can shoot 1080p at 30/60/120fps or 4K 30/60fps and if you so dare, 8K at 24fps.
Samsung offers a Pro mode to give you precise control over your exposure, shutter speed and ISO though most of us will be more than happy with the pedestrian mode. Filmmakers and vloggers will also love the Directors View mode which displays the view from all the cameras- including the selfie camera so you can get the best shot. Samsung takes things even further by allowing you to use an external microphone via Bluetooth or USB — even your Bluetooth headphones.
Like with every other thing about the S21 Ultra, you can be as simple or pro-level as you wish. Samsung gives you all the tools though you’ll have to dig around the camera UI to find most of them and I doubt many people will ever bother with these. The automatic shooting modes are great for most things anyway.
The S21 Ultra has a 5000mAh battery which consistently got me through a day and half to two days with 6-8 hours of screen on time. Of course, your figures will vary as the phone learns your particular usage patterns but rest assured, this phone will get even heavy users comfortably through a whole day. I was doing a lot of testing games and apps, taking lots of pictures and video and all this with the screen on highest refresh and resolution.
The S21 Ultra doesn’t come with a charger in the box. Samsung believes that reduces e-waste and expects you already have a charger. That’s true, but for the price you pay, that should be a free option for you to choose or pass on. If you do have the right charger though, the S21 Ultra supports 25W fast charging which will get the phone from empty to 50% in about half an hour.
The other cool thing is that the phone can also charge your other devices via Reverse Wireless Charging. Once activated, you just need to place your device such as earbuds or smartwatch on the back of the S21 Ultra to trickle charge; very handy for when you are out with friends and one of them needs a quick top up.
So there you have it. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is really the best Android smartphone I’ve ever used and I highly doubt any other phone is going to offer a better all round package than this in 2021. Samsung has gotten practically everything about this phone right. To be clear, it’s not for everyone given how big it is. Even I second guessed my love of big phones after using it. But for those who want uncompromising performance, breadth of capability and complete confidence that their smartphone won’t let them down then the S21 Ultra is damn near perfect.
Considering all the facts, it’s really elementary dear Watson – if you want the best phone money can buy, get the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Samsung Australia loaned PowerUp! the Galaxy S21 Ultra for the purpose of this review.
Gorgeous design and build
Fantastic 6.8″ high refresh display
Exceptional battery life
Most complete and capable camera system
Great gaming and productivity
No charger in the box
The best Android in 2021