Samsung’s release schedule is early, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra is already among us. The first 2021 premium smartphone from the Korean manufacturer promises more performance, more cameras and more functions, with unprecedented compatibility with the S Pen, a pen that lands for the first time on a cell phone outside the Note line.
Like its predecessor, the Galaxy S21 Ultra continues to impress with huge numbers on its 6.8-inch screen, 5,000 mAh battery and four rear cameras that can reach up to 100x zoom. But is it really good? I used Samsung’s new expensive smartphone in the past few weeks and I will share my impressions below.
Galaxy S21 Ultra video review
THE Tecnoblog it is an independent journalistic vehicle that helps people make their next purchase decision since 2005. Our analyzes are not intended for advertising, so they highlight the positive and negative points of each product. No company has paid, reviewed or had early access to this content.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra was provided by Samsung on loan and will be returned to the company after testing. For more information, visit tecnoblog.net/etica.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra does not escape the origins, but is more refined compared to the previous generation. The set of cameras, which looked like a four-burner stove, became more integrated into the design of the smartphone, with a frame leaking to the side. And the frosted glass back is sober and elegant; maybe Samsung didn’t need to record a three-minute video just to talk about the black tone, but even I, who wrinkle my nose for cell phones with neutral colors, liked the result.
The size of the phone remains almost the same, despite the small reduction in the screen, which went from 6.9 to 6.8 inches. It may not fit in your pants pocket and, if it does, it will be felt at all times due to the 227 grams. In addition, to take advantage of S Pen support, you need to reserve extra space: as there is no hole to store the pen, unlike the Note line, the solution recommended by Samsung is to buy a special case with a side compartment.
The screen of the Galaxy S21 Ultra has excellent quality, as in all previous Samsung line tops, but one point caught my attention this year: the strength of the brightness. The company itself speaks at a peak of 1,500 nits, which is 25% brighter than the previous model and should guarantee a good experience when watching HDR movies or when you are on a sunny day. The superiority was noticeable as soon as I turned on the device and emphasized even when I put an iPhone 12 Pro next to it.
In addition to the higher brightness, which contributes to the contrast of a good AMOLED, the display gives a feeling of fluidity thanks to the variable refresh rate of up to 120 Hz. The screen can update only 10 times per second when displaying static content to save battery, but it’s fluid when it needs to be, particularly in games. Another novelty in relation to the Galaxy S20 Ultra is that the 120 Hz mode works even at the maximum resolution, 3200 × 1440 pixels, not just in Full HD +.
Beneath the screen glass, which has curved sides and Gorilla Glass Victus protection, the Galaxy S21 Ultra houses a 40-megapixel selfie camera in a very discreet hole and a new ultrasonic fingerprint reader, with an area 70% larger than in the past model, which means that you are more likely to hit where to put your thumb. Unlocking is quick and very useful in these pandemic times, which have removed the convenience of facial recognition.
But I can’t help but criticize the distance between the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the smaller siblings: the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 + have weaker brightness, more limited refresh rate range, flat screen, lower resolution and no support for the S Pen . It is not quite as visible as at the time of the iPhone XR with an LCD screen and the iPhone XS with OLED, but this significant differentiation at Samsung makes it appear that the less expensive models were stopped in the past generation.
Software and S Pen
The Galaxy S21 Ultra runs Android 11 from the factory with the One UI 3.1 interface, which brought minor refinements and breathed into what today is probably the most successful software experience on an Android. The situation has been better in the past, when there were no doubtful applications preinstalled, but it can be said that the work remains good, with well positioned elements, carefully designed screens and a consistent visual identity throughout the system.
As with other more expensive Samsung Galaxys, you will find the DeX mode completely wireless, which allows you to use your phone as a desktop connected to a monitor or TV, as well as features like the Bixby personal assistant, the Samsung Pay payment system and the Dolby Atmos technology to increase sound immersion.
But the big news and the biggest source of doubts is, of course, support for the S Pen. In the Note line, the use of the pen was more intuitive because it was already included in the device and was integrated into the design, with a compartment that served not only to avoid losing the accessory, but also to carry and stop it. On the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the operation is similar, but there are some fundamental differences.
The pen itself is passive and doesn’t need a battery or Bluetooth if you just want to write or draw; the recognition of the electromagnetic induction tip is due to the screen. The traditional side button, which is used to switch between pencil and eraser, or even execute secondary commands when the tip is close to the screen, also works, since it does not require electricity. This means that any Galaxy Note S Pen works (including a Lamy model I got a few years ago).
Latency is very low, with no noticeable delay when doodling in the Samsung Notes app. Because it has a special nib, the pen works well with me, as I am left-handed and I support my hand on the screen as I write – any technology simpler than that tends to be disastrous for me, and only those who smeared their whole hand with blue ink in school understand what that is.
A feature I really like on the Note line, that of writing with the screen “off”, is not so intuitive on the Galaxy S21 Ultra: instead of simply taking the S Pen out of the compartment and starting writing, I need to bring the pen closer to the screen , press the side button, wait for the recognition to occur and then yes, doodle. That was one of the reasons why I used the S Pen much less than if I was testing a Note.
In addition, no S Pen available for purchase at the time of writing this review works as a remote control, whether it is to slide the slide in a presentation, increase the volume of the music or take a group selfie from a distance. It is these small details that make me think of pen support as a useful addition, which may attract some users who previously only bought a Galaxy Note, but which still seems too “experimental” to represent the end of a line.
If the Galaxy S20 Ultra impressed with giant camera specifications, the Galaxy S21 Ultra doubles the bet. We continue with a main sensor of 108 megapixels, an ultrawide of 12 megapixels and not one, but two telephoto lenses: the first with 3x optical zoom, the second with 10x. In practice, this makes those photos with 100x digital zoom more usable (and it wasn’t even necessary to write that number in bold letters on the back this time).
Under favorable conditions, the Galaxy S21 Ultra takes good pictures with any of the four cameras. The dynamic range is excellent and does not disappoint even in the lenses that could do worse, such as the 10x periscopic telephoto lens. The colors have a small gain in saturation that does not leave the artificial result and makes the photos more “instagrammable” without the need for prior editing. I noticed a chromatic aberration in the corners of the ultrawide photos, but the problem was very subtle.
In night mode, photos with up to 3x zoom have good definition, little noise and a lot of saturation, with a reinforcement in the lighting points very characteristic of Samsung. Some may find that the photos at night look overly processed and artificial, even more so when compared to iPhones, but most must find the result quite pleasant. The colors of the Galaxy S21 Ultra photos do not represent reality, but reality is often too boring.
The 10x lens brought me mixed feelings. The positive point is that photos of objects at a distance, when there is good natural lighting, are with a clarity that I was never able to witness on a cell phone (the Huawei P30 Pro is the one that came closest, but still loses). Optical stabilization helps photography to happen even with natural hand shaking. In addition, combining digital zoom and reaching 30x, an even more absurd range, the photos remain good.
But of course, she does not work miracles. For starters, the 100x zoom, despite having a captive button in the camera app, is almost useless. Not only because the sharpness is terrible, but also because it is difficult to frame the subject. And the use of this lens is very restricted: because it has a very small aperture of f / 4.9, Samsung’s software prioritizes other lenses (such as the 3x telephoto lens with an aperture of f / 2.4) if the lighting is only one slightly below ideal, as in a cloudy evening.
If the aperture of the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s periscopic lens were larger, perhaps it would serve as a great macro lens – a feature that Samsung and especially Motorola try to include in simpler phones with a very disappointing implementation. As it is difficult to use this lens and the minimum focus distance is not so short, I only had my expectations for a Galaxy S22 Ultra that improves this aspect.
The selfies, on the other hand, continue to have a good definition, focus and an exposure that prioritizes the face, sometimes to the detriment of the landscape. Although I had no problems with skin tone on Samsung’s premium phones, I liked an additional option on the front camera: it is possible to choose between Claro mode, which makes the face whiter and rosier; and Natural, more to the taste of Brazilians and Westerners in general. The differences are subtle, but they should please more people.
For those who like to shoot, the Galaxy S21 Ultra continues with the same numbers, with maximum recording capacity at 8K at 24 frames per second. An interesting way is the Director’s Vision, which shoots with the front and rear camera at the same time, and also allows you to switch between three lenses at the rear, something very impressive not only from a creative point of view, but also from a processing point of view (it would be better if not limited to Full HD).
As these observations can make it seem like I’m complaining on a full stomach, it’s worth mentioning: yes, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has amazing cameras. Yes, photographic capabilities are at a new level, especially for those who like to zoom. And yes, it will be almost impossible to find anything much better than that anytime soon.
Hardware and battery
The hardware of the Galaxy S21 Ultra represents a breakthrough, but the smartphone ended up drawing more attention for what it failed to bring. The most commented absence, revealed exclusively by the Tecnoblog last year, it’s the charger, which no longer comes in the box. Samsung’s justification is the same as Apple’s: to preserve the environment by not sending things you already have. The headset was also left out; the device only has a charging cable with USB-C at both ends.
Inside the cell phone, there are two absences. One is the entry for microSD: if you use a lot of space, the solution is to send everything to the cloud or buy a version with more memory. The other is secure magnetic transmission (MST), a technology that simulates the magnetic stripe on the card and comes into play on Samsung Pay when the machine is not compatible with NFC. This decision places Samsung Pay, which had greater acceptance until then, on the same level as Apple Pay and Google Pay.
It is still possible to use two physical carrier chips simultaneously, or a physical chip and an eSIM. Support for the 5G, which was absent on the S20 line sold in Brazil, became standard on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Also present is the new ultra wideband chip (UWB), which works in conjunction with products like the Galaxy SmartTag +, a tracker that helps you find lost items out there.
In Brazil, the Galaxy S21 Ultra processor is the Exynos 2100, with eight CPU cores and a Mali-G78 MP14 graphics chip. I criticized the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s hardware because it brought a newer chip to the United States and left the rest of the world with an Exynos 990 that was no longer the best six months earlier. This time, the game between the Exynos 2100 and the Snapdragon 888 is more balanced – the differences exist, but only for those who care to show a print with 50 more points in a benchmark application.
As expected from an expensive Android, the performance is very good. Games run with graphics at maximum and constant frame rate, without gagging. I was only concerned with a very persistent feature of the Galaxy S21 Ultra: it gets too hot, especially in the upper left corner. It is clear that the heat waves in Brazil have not helped, but the Samsung device heats up more than the iPhone 12 Pro Max (which I already considered very warm).
Fortunately, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s firepower isn’t reflected in overconsumption. The 5,000 mAh battery did not abandon me on the test days: even in the most intense test, with 4h30min of screen on and 6h listening to podcasts via 4G in a hospital waiting room, there was still a little charge left at the end of the day. Although there was no game, the brightness was high most of the time and all settings were in the default, so the result is positive.
In the quarantine pattern, with three hours of streaming on Netflix, one hour of web browsing and half an hour of Asphalt 9, always with maximum brightness, in Full HD +, 120 Hz and connected to Wi-Fi, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s battery went from 100% to 64%. It is an excellent result, well above the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and slightly higher than the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the most durable top of the line I analyzed in 2020.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is a good generation upgrade, bringing a screen that tends to use less battery, a design with a more sophisticated finish and a camera with impressive optical zoom. It won’t make any Galaxy S20 Ultra users rush to buy the new model, even with 5G and S Pen support, but it’s an excellent top-of-the-line Android option for those who can spend so much money on a cell phone.
Between a Galaxy S21 Ultra and an iPhone 12 Pro Max, the Samsung device is a better option if you like to see further with the cameras and want a slightly larger screen, without such a flashy notch on the top. Differences in performance, battery and screen exist, but are not significant; most people should consider the operating system more as a purchase decision factor.
For those who are fans of the Note line, it is not yet time to migrate. The S Pen even works on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but it is clearly not a product focus. Even with a smaller battery, an older processor and slightly smaller (but still excellent) cameras, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is a more sensible choice. You can also expect: I am confident that we will have a new Note in the coming months.
Ultimately, the Galaxy S21 Ultra represents what is best to do on a traditionally shaped smartphone, without a pen compartment or a folding screen. The lack of a microSD port, the choice of the Exynos processor or the removal of the charger may even make Samsung lose a sale here and there – but the company continues to play it safe and deliver everything it has promised.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
- Battery lasts long
- Flawless cameras for photo and video
- This 10x optical zoom is powerful, see?
- Great performance for an Android
- High brightness display, excellent definition and 120 Hz
- We lacked a better integration with the S Pen
- Screen: Dynamic AMOLED 2X 6.8 inch WQHD + (3200 x 1440 pixels), HDR10 +, 20: 9, 10-120 Hz, Gorilla Glass Victus, maximum brightness of 1,500 nits, compatible with S Pen
- Processor: Samsung Exynos 2100 octa-core
- RAM memory: 12 GB or 16 GB
- Storage: 128 GB, 256 GB and 512 GB
- Back camera:
- Main: 108 MP, f / 1.8, 79º, 24 mm, OIS
- Ultrawide: 12 MP, f / 2.2, 13 mm, 120º, AF
- Telephoto 1: 10 MP, f / 2.4, 35º, 72 mm, OIS
- Telephoto lens 2: 10 MP, f / 4.9, 10º, 240 mm, OIS
- Frontal camera: 40 megapixels, f / 2.2, 80º, 25 mm, AF
- Drums: 5,000 mAh, fast charging, wireless charging and reverse charging (Wireless PowerShare)
- Operational system: Android 11, One UI 3.1
- Connectivity: USB-C, 4G, 5G, Bluetooth 5.0, Wi-Fi 6E, GPS and NFC
- More features: fingerprint reader under the screen, IP68 certified and ultra wideband (UWB)
- Dimensions: 75.6 × 165.1 × 8.9 mm
- Weight: 227 grams
- Colors: silver and black