Anton D. Nagy contributed to this post.
There is a simple way for a company to spare a product from being forgettable, and that’s to actually walk the talk. If you’re gonna call your phone Ultra, price it like a MacBook Pro, and paint 100X zoom on the camera hump, you’re automatically setting the bar really high for when testing begins.
I’m not gonna call the Galaxy S20 Ultra a bad phone, but its flaws made it quickly forgettable. It was full of nice ideas, but sadly, the implementation made it really hard to recommend. I even felt it was ahead of its time, and the proof was seen with how well the Note 20 Ultra came to save face. It shows how second-generation products are always a better investment.
Now, what happens when you get to the third generation? What if the idea matured to where there is no more need to boast numbers on a chassis, fan-favorite features are finally added, and the price dropped in such a way that you can almost forgive the other important features that were removed.
Well, this is the Galaxy S21 Ultra, what Samsung calls an Ultra that easily lives up to its name, which is actually a statement that I’m willing to agree on in almost everything. After about a week in a half of testing, there is a lot to Unpack.
The opposite of the word forgettable is memorable, and by definition, to achieve that, a product has to be both special and unusual. I think the biggest problem with the S20 Ultra is that Function didn’t follow the Form. It was unusual, but couldn’t really nail the special part reliably. The massive phone, camera hump, and price intended to give you the best camera experience you could buy and fell short.
The S21 Ultra intends to fix that. Unusual shouldn’t really mean ugly, and I’m just gonna say that I think this is the best looking Galaxy, ever. Samsung’s new contour design intends to be more cohesive. The camera hump is now less pronounced, and designed to sort of blend in with the aluminum side rail. And since the back is as matte as can be, it remains clean for longer, and the shiny border only helps that stand out. Yes, this is still a large and heavy two-handed phone, but there are some clear improvements in weight distribution. You’d assume this phone is lighter than the S20 Ultra, but in reality, it’s the other way around.
Another welcomed change is that Samsung is no longer competing for the largest display on a phone, finally! Samsung’s Dynamic AMOLED 2X continues to reign supreme as the standard to beat with its color reproduction and HDR10+ support, but at 6.8-inches diagonal, it’s a hair shorter than before, and also better in every other metric. It’s now brighter at up to 1500 nits, has additional improvements for eye strain management, we finally get a 120Hz refresh rate at QuadHD+ resolution, and given the minor bezels and loud dual speakers, it is a joy for content consumption.
By default, the screen is set to 120Hz at Full HD+, but after two weeks of testing, I have no problem in recommending that you max out the settings. Since the panel offers a variable refresh rate that switches between 10 and 120Hz depending on what you’re doing, this larger-than-average battery has lasted me at least a day and a half, every single time, and that’s with moderate to heavy use, and while on Verizon’s 5G speeds.
A lot of the legwork for these results comes from the new set of internals. The 5nm process on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 is far more power-efficient. Other essentials like the RAM and Storage options, matched with the updated Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and even the multiple flavors of 5G are all the fastest in the industry. And sure, you also get the usual perks like water resistance, reverse wireless charging, and even Ultra-Wideband, but I suggest you choose your storage option wisely as it’s no longer expandable.
And that’s just one of the reasons why I use the word Almost Ultra at the beginning of this review. At this price, you’ll also have to invest in headphones and a charger that doesn’t come in the box. I’ll be sure to recommend some of my favorite options in the description.
Also, keep in mind that the Gorilla Glass Victus that surrounds this phone is not indestructible, or scratch-free.
Now, I never thought I’d ever say this from a Samsung phone, but the main reason why I’ve switched to this as my primary Android phone is because of the experience using it, given some added perks in hardware, and very desired updates in the software. The first is that the new Ultrasonic fingerprint scanner is significantly faster and far more convenient during this pandemic. The second is finally, S-Pen support.
Not sure what took Samsung so long to bring a Wacom digitizer to the S Line, but this finally feels like an Ultra that envies nothing from last year’s Galaxy Note. Yes, you’ll have to buy one separately, and you’ll lose the Bluetooth Air Gestures, that I honestly never used. My advice is that you use an older S Pen, or choose from a bevy of third-party options. Sadly Samsung’s silicone case with S Pen is really bad quality. If anything, it keeps the taller S Pen included, cause it’s more convenient, but the flimsy material in the case is a lint magnet that subtracts from the phone’s badass finish.
In everything else, the S21 Ultra works and feels like a Galaxy Note. You can call on screen off memos, your Samsung Notes now sync even with Microsoft OneNote, and yes, this means the entire Microsoft Office Suite fully supports it. You can use it as a surrogate mouse, and pretty much every other trick the Note can do.
And, as for the desired software updates, One UI 3.1 includes a few perks that last year’s Galaxy phones still don’t offer on version 3. For example, on this phone, you can now choose the Google Feed to the left of the launcher, finally! And hey, if you don’t want that, Samsung Free is pretty good. It actually ports the free TV Channels and entertainment that Samsung TV owners get. In everything else, from the new aesthetics to the faster navigation of the UI, to the edge menu for multi-tasking, to Android 11’s new way to stack notifications and home devices… If you’re gonna have a large phone, this is one of the few that can actually take advantage of the added canvas.
Now, Samsung’s definition of Ultra is mostly about what these cameras can do. The new array follows more of the Huawei P40 Pro Plus arrangement, with one massive primary sensor, an ultra-wide, and two telephotos at different focal lengths, all assisted by laser autofocus. You might think it’s overkill, but I seriously feel this is what allowed the module to be less prominent.
As a result, pretty much everything but the color science that I praise from Leica and Huawei is seen here, but since Samsung has toned down its oversaturation and over-sharpening dramatically, the results during the day are fantastic. Switch to any of the 4 focal lengths and prepare to be mind-boggled by the amount of detail. I seriously prefer a jump to 3X for street photography instead of 5X like we had with the old Ultra. Optical 10X is just fabulous for skylines, and I’d say you can get perfectly usable photos up to 30X digital. So yeah, forget about the 100X option. There are tricks I disabled like Focus Assist for closeups, as I prefer the natural bokeh of the primary sensor. What it’s doing is actually switching to the Ultra-Wide for more detail overall if that’s your jam, but it’s also quite convenient for Macros.
Night mode is available on all focal lengths, but I recommend you stick to the primary if you’re looking for detail, less motion blur, and just an overall better-balanced shot. The Ultra-wide does try hard but will be mostly grainy, and any zoom shots are really just a digital crop of the primary. Surprisingly though, the only exception I recommend is for taking photos of the moon, as the phone’s AI does a really good job at metering to catch it in all its glory.
Selfies are also crazy detailed after you switch off beautification, rendering some of my favorite results if you have enough light, though portraits can sometimes be hit or miss with my ears.
When it comes to video, I see some dramatic improvements. In 4K we have far less warping, if any from the primary camera, fantastic stabilization even without super steady, and probably the best dynamic range I’ve seen come from an Android phone. In low light video the EIS you’ll still get some minor warping as you walk, but perfectly usable. I’m really just struggling with selfie video, which seems a bit less detailed than I’d like, a bit of grain even in brightly lit scenarios. It’s still perfectly usable, but it might not be your favorite choice for a stabilized shot as you walk.
I won’t bore you with gimmicks like Director’s View because I was seriously expecting all cameras to record simultaneously, instead of just giving me a choice for a picture in picture video, or birds-eye view of the others to switch. And sure, 8K is here, but still not a fan of the crop to be willing to recommend. Clearly, this is still just a work in progress.
To conclude, did anyone keep track of how many times I repeated the word Finally? I’ve counted six, and it’s not just because of this phone. This is clearly a new Samsung we’re talking about here. The frenzy of bigger is better, or the more the merrier has been toned down. The mentality of Samsung services versus Google services is now pretty much gone. It’s as if instead of just throwing everything they can do at you, they instead decided to listen to consumers.
If we focus on this phone, we can clearly see how three generations of Ultra has matured into a more desirable product. It’s my favorite design on an Android phone so far. It’s got the latest chip and network technology. It’s got the best display on a phone, that now gets S Pen support. The camera can do things most other phones can’t, and the software finally almost everything we want. Match to that the fact that it became $200 less expensive, and that even if you didn’t pre-order the phone, the amount of trade-in deals available right now is still pretty irresistible. You’ll compensate easily for the accessories that are not in the box, so I’ll be sure to link to all that in the description.
Bottom line, all that’s holding this phone back from total dominance is timely software updates. In absolutely everything else, I think the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best Android phone you can buy right now. It doesn’t just pack the numbers for bragging rights. This time, it actually delivers on them so well, that I’d call it memorable.