The Samsung Galaxy lineup welcomed additions to the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21+, and Galaxy S21 Ultra, launching virtually at CES last week. The Galaxy Unpacked event showed the new S21 devices and the new Galaxy Buds Pro. You can read my full take here.
Previously, the Galaxy S20 smartphone lineup was one that I spent much time within the past year, and I was excited to see the upgrades that would come with the Galaxy S21 line. You can read my full review of the S20 Ultra here. I was interested to see if Samsung would keep its foot on the pedal of developing leadership smartphones.
The new S21 Ultra 5G sits at the top of the S21 premium lineup. There is no doubt that this smartphone is in the top tier in terms of hardware and design, and I would argue sitting at the top position currently. I recently spent a few days using it as my primary device, and I wanted to share my thoughts.
Right out of the box, I can tell that the S21 Ultra resembles a more finely tuned version of the S20 Ultra. The display is still large at 6.8″, but slightly smaller than the 6.9″ display of the last generation. It feels like Samsung went through the S20 Ultra design with a fine-tooth comb and make small improvements to an already great design. The angle of the curve on display is hitting a sweet spot. The display can also pair the S21 Ultra with an S Pen, a first for the S Series of devices.
The S21 and S21+ come with many color options, including Phantom Violet, Phantom Pink, Phantom Grey, and Phantom White. The S21 Ultra, on the other hand, comes in just two color options with Platinum Black and Platinum Silver, my review unit came in Platinum Black. The limited color options don’t matter much to me as I always opt for a thin case, but more color options would be excellent.
The front camera is in the top center portion of the display, which I like. It also looks like Samsung implemented some user feedback around the giant protruding camera bump we saw on the S20 Ultra. The camera bump on the S21 Ultra is undoubtedly less noticeable, but I would still recommend a case. The in-display fingerprint scanner was slightly more extensive this time but always fast and gave me nearly instance login access. Samsung went with a super sleek, minimalist approach on the exterior buttons on this device, including just a power button, USB-C charging port, and volume up and down control.
I also paired the Galaxy Buds Pro with my S21 Ultra to enhance the experience. I connected to the earbuds with ease, and out of the gate, I am happy with my experience. One of the most valuable features of the earbuds so far is the ability to toggle from automatic noise canceling (ANC) to ambient noise automatically when I start to speak. As soon as I talk, even when audio is playing, the Galaxy Buds Pro switches from ANC to ambient sound, which allows me to hear the other person talking. There is nothing more annoying than having to rip your earbuds to respond to someone. I have only spent a day with the Galaxy Buds Pro so far, and I will provide a full review soon.
Excellent quad cameras
The S21 line has incredible cameras to pair with the device. The S21 and the S21+ come with a 10MP Dual Pixel front camera, 12MP Ultra Wide F2.2 camera, 12MP Wide-angle Dual Pixel AF F1.8 camera, and Telephoto 64MP Optic 3x F2.0 camera. With the S21 Ultra, the cameras get an even further upgrade. The front camera is now a 40MP Phase Detection AF F2.2 camera, and it has a quad-camera versus the triple camera of the other models. The other camera solutions include a 12MP Ultra-Wide Dual Pixel AF F2.2, 108MP Wide-angle Phase Detection AF F1.8, 10MP Telephoto Dual Pixel AF F2.4 with Optical 3x, and finally a Telephoto 10MP Dual Pixel AF F4.9 with Optical 10x. The S21 Ultra also boasts 100X Space Zoom and a laser AF Sensor. Samsung made sure to call out its first-ever 4K 60FPS on all cameras.
The 12MP Ultra-wide camera was fun to use. I love the ability to zoom way out without having to take three steps back from the camera subject. I tested out the 100X Space Zoom feature on the S21 Ultra, and it remains not super practical. I love the ability to zoom in that closely, but I found there are very few instances that I need to zoom past 30x. 30x zoom lock also got an upgrade with AI-powered image stabilization to minimize shakiness. I took some photos with the 40MP selfie camera, and the images are noticeable sharper than most other smartphone selfie cameras I have used.
Several software features enhance the photography and video on this device. Users can now preview live thumbnails and switch angles, zoom, or orientation. One new model that I believe could be very useful for creators is Vlogger View. Vlogger View gives the user the ability to use the front camera and a rear camera simultaneously. It creates a split-screen video playback, which is quite handy. Enhanced Single Take will like you to take a video and snap photo simultaneously as well. With Multi Mic Recording, you can utilize both the Galaxy Buds Pro and the S21 Ultra to pick up different audio paths. The 8K video train will continue to roll with the S21 Ultra; while its not a massive use case for me, bragging rights remain in Samsungs corner. The S21 Ultra gave me more features and camera options than I will be able to utilize.
120Hz display strikes again
The S21 Ultra’s 6.8″ Edge WQHD Dynamic AMOLED 2x Infinity-O display is incredible. Its no surprise that this display is as great as advertised. Samsung is a global leader in display technology with its Smart TVs and smartphones. In recent years, the company has been leading in displays. Not only is this display crisp with high resolution at 3200 x 1440 resolution, but it is also 120Hz. The display comes out of the box configured at 2400 x 1080, assumingly to save battery life, so be mindful that you will have to up the resolutions within the settings.
I have had issues in the past quantifying the real value of 120Hz display versus standard 60Hz. It is an easy sell to PC gamers and maybe a little harder sell for smartphone users. I can’t speak highly enough of the 120Hz display on the S21 Ultra. Every action feels exceptionally responsive and smooth. Launching apps is incredibly fast, scroll through web pages is soft, and hitting keys to send a text is very accurate.
You genuinely don’t understand what you are missing till you try one of the 120Hz displays from Samsung.
The S21 Ultra inherited the same massive battery as last year’s S20 Ultra at 5000mAh. The 5000mAh battery is an excellent step up from the S21, which comes with a 4000mAh. The larger battery could be necessary to power the higher resolution display, but you should expect to elongate your uptime on the device when scaling down the resolution. It supports fast wireless charging 2.0 with eligible stands and pads as well as Wireless Power Sharing.
I used the S21 Ultra on both 2400 x 1080 and 3200 x 1440 resolutions, 120Hz, and continuous sub-6GHz 5G coverage. Undoubtedly, I got better battery life at the lower resolution, but I was able to get a full day’s use with both resolutions. Since most smartphone users aren’t power users using their phones as a PC replacement, I believe most will see a full-day use on a single charge. I didn’t take the 45W fast charger for a spin on this go around, but if it works anything like last gen, I am sure it will replenish battery life at a much faster rate than the 25W charger.
Samsung has positioned the S21 Ultra at the top of the Smartphone heap in terms of hardware. All of the S21 lines of smartphones come with the 5nm Snapdragon 888 Octa-Core CPU. My review unit came with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage, while there are other configurations with 12GB of RAM and 128/256GB of storage. 512GB of storage is a massive amount in a smartphone, and I am happy to see Samsung continue that trend with the S21 Ultra 5G.
With 16GB of RAM present Samsung is pushing for the S21 Ultra to be a “do everything” type of device, including replacing your laptop with a smartphone when applicable. Enterprise users will love the hardware specs of this device and, indeed, will feel future-proofed for the time being.
This device’s connectivity is very impressive, with support for all 5G bands, including mmWave, SA, NSA, and Sub6. I whipped out an older iPhone 10 to use the 5GE coverage from AT&T, and the T-Mobile 5G I used on my S21 Ultra 5G blew it out of the water in terms of load times. The S21 Ultra 5G also supports Wi-Fi 6E, unlike the S21 and S21+.
Last year, I told readers that now was the perfect time to switch from an iPhone to an S20 device. With the richer feature set, excellent display, and phenomenal quad camera, I can say that now there is an even smaller reason to choose an iPhone over the new S21 Ultra. If you are considering an ultra-premium smartphone, I am confident that the S21 Ultra can meet your needs in virtually every category, and in most, it will probably be overkill. Samsung is committed to delivering the best premium smartphones on the market, and I believe enthusiasts and enterprise users will be delighted with the S21 Ultra.
The S21 Ultra will go on sale starting at $1,199.99 and is available for pre-order. Pre-order customers can get up to a $200 Samsung credit and trade-in eligible phones for up to $700.00.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.