The Galaxy S21 Ultra follows on from a few hits and misses from Samsung in recent years. The Galaxy S20 series was a touch on the uninspired side, and while the Note line is an excellent option for on-the-go artists and doodlers, the Note 12 Ultra wasn’t quite perfect. Despite being one of the best-looking smartphones of all time, outside the US, it sported inferior internals and got a bit toasty. Additionally, when we tested it, the screen’s extreme curve resulted in some frustrating accidental touches.
The S21 Ultra has plenty to prove and looking at the top-line features, Samsung isn’t playing around. It looks like it'll soon shoot to the top of our best smartphones list. First up, it sports the most specced out screen we’ve seen on a smartphone. It’s also loaded up with a 10x zoom camera, as well as a 13mm ultrawide angle, giving it more range than anything else on the market. Inside, Samsung’s latest interface is smarter than ever, and as the first Galaxy S-series phone to support an S Pen, Samsung’s Wacom-powered stylus, there’s creative appeal too.
At $1,199/£1,199, the S21 Ultra isn’t cheap; and it doesn’t come with a power brick in the box, stripping back the value even more. That said, if you’re like us, you’ve got a drawer of them, so we’re not too fussed about that. What we’re more concerned about is the phone itself – following on from a recession year, can anyone other than Apple really charge almost $1,200/£1,200 for a phone?
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Design and screen
Depending on where you buy the S21 Ultra, you’ll have different colour options. Samsung.com exclusives include Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy and Phantom Brown. Meanwhile, Phantom Black and Phantom Silver are the widely available colour choices. What’s so ‘Phantom’ about the S21 Ultra’s design? The matte finish around the back; the latest trend in glass-backed smartphones. What’s enjoyable about Samsung’s implementation is how fingerprint resistant the results are. Compared to last year’s S20 line, which got grubby as sin with its high-gloss finish, this is a welcome move.
The phone’s big; a bit taller and thicker than an iPhone 12 Pro Max, though slightly narrower. As with most top-end phones, there’s no headphone jack, just a USB-C port at the bottom. The front is all-screen, with tiny bezels on all four sides. Unlike iPhones, there’s no intrusive notch at the top, just a small round cutout for the 40MP selfie camera.
Where Samsung flexes its design chops is around the back of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, with a bold, prominent camera. Bleeding in from the top and top-side of the phone, the S21 Ultra’s camera is a statement piece, confidently celebrating the extra thickness added by all that imaging tech.
The final component in the S21 Ultra’s design stack is that screen. It becomes part of the design story, encompassing the front of the phone with a 90 per cent screen-to-bezel ratio. Samsung’s been clever with its wallpapers, with a heavy stroke of black elements. Owing to Samsung’s class-leading 2x Dynamic AMOLED tech and its benchmark contrast ratios, blacks are endless so when enjoying dark content, you don’t know where the screen ends and the phone’s frame begins.
The S21 Ultra is also the first phone to feature a 120Hz display while displaying 2K resolution. While last year’s Galaxy S20-series downsampled the screen’s resolution to Full HD when it bumped up the refresh rate, in 2021, the S21 Ultra stays both sharp and smooth.
So the screen’s a knockout, Samsung could have stopped there, but it didn’t. For the first time ever, an S-device gets S Pen support. If you haven’t read any of our Samsung Galaxy Note reviews, this means the Wacom tech that lives in the Samsung Galaxy Note family, with up to 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity can be enjoyed on the S21 Ultra. The result is a best-in-class screen.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Camera
Samsung’s always been one of the best at making smartphone cameras, but lately hasn’t quite managed to pip the likes of Apple and Huawei to the post and claim the crown. With the S21 Ultra though, Samsung’s dogged determination shines.
The specs alone are staggering. There’s a 108MP camera leading the charge, a 12MP ultrawide camera, which is one of the widest around, matching that of the iPhone 12 series. Where Samsung beats Apple is optical zoom. With a 3x zoom and a 10x zoom camera, the Ultra trounces Apple’s 2.5x zoom.
For those familiar with photography lingo, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max caps out at 65mm (35mm film equivalent focal length), the S21 Ultra reaches a staggering 240mm. With its widest angle being 13mm, the extreme range offered by the S20 Ultra – 13-240mm – outclasses any other smartphone camera on the market.
For the most part, the S21 Ultra's camera results back up the specs. The phone's 108MP main camera grabs the best photos of the four rear snappers. Its pictures are loaded with depth and detail, matched with rich colours and plenty of punch.
If you’re tossing up between an iPhone 12 Pro Max or a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and photo quality is the only consideration, there isn’t a huge amount in it, with each bettering the other at different things. Samsung’s look is poppy and Instagram-ready, however, in challenging scenes, processing can be heavy-handed so shots lack nuance. Apple’s photo style looks more natural, and generally, the iPhone edges ahead when it comes to quality as far as our tastes go, but factor in the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s zoom, an extensive range of shooting modes and customisable camera UI, and as a package, it’s at least neck and neck.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra also impresses with its 8K video. The sky high-resolution footage can be paused to create sharp, shareable photos, and with optical image stabilisation and electronic stabilisation at play, its footage looks steady.
With a slew of modes, including a new Director’s View, which will be a favourite for hobby filmmakers, not to mention Pro Video mode, the Galaxy S20’s video credentials are top-tier, and it can even grab 4K video from its 40MP selfie camera.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Performance and specs
Another area the Galaxy S21 Ultra triumphs is its user interface. Between the UI colour choices, smooth interaction and ample customisation options, it’s a great canvas to make your own. It betters iOS in three key ways in particular: S pen input, split-view multitasking and Samsung Dex.
As with the Note line, the S Pen adds Wacom tech to the S21 Ultra (not the S21 or S21 Plus), and the phone comes complete with Samsung Notes. This pre-installed app is a smart notepad with a host of pen and brush options. Good for notes and doodles, it can convert handwriting int searchable text, and export notes to PDF or JPEG.
Samsung Notes also syncs with OneNote or Samsung’s own cloud platform. Third-party pen compatible apps also work well on the S21 Ultra, including favourites like Adobe Draw and Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, though if you’re an iPad user who loves Good Notes and ProCreate, you won’t find them in the Android ecosystem.
With access to the Google Play Store, the S21 Ultra still supports a huge number of apps. and you can even pair two for quick split-screen multitasking, taking full advantage of the 6.8-inch display.
If 6.8 inches isn’t quite enough for you, you can also activate Samsung’s desktop UI: DeX. Plug the S21 Ultra into a Mac or PC, or just hook it up to a screen with a USB-C to HDMI converter and you’ll add a whole new level of functionality to your workflow as the Samsung UI is redrawn across a larger display. Long-form document editing, Instagram uploads from a computer and more suddenly become viable, make the experience practically useful, helped along with drag and drop file transfer your DeX UI and computer.
With flagship 2021 internals, 128GB, 256GB or 512GB storage, as well as 12GB RAM or 16GB RAM, performance is unsurprisingly excellent. There’s also fast wired and wireless charging support and the phone’s battery lasts a full day comfortably.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Verdict
You’ll be hard-pressed to take issue with the Galaxy S21 Ultra once you get past its high price and hefty frame. Its screen is a beauty, watching content back on it is a treat and with S Pen support, not to mention the most versatile camera system available, it’s also a creative suite unto itself. With fewer shortcomings than possibly any flagship phone on the market, Samsung is once again back on top.
Read more: iPhone 11 vs Samsung Galaxy S20: Which is for you?