Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra hands-on: The best just got better
Samsung meant business when it unveiled the Galaxy S20 Ultra last year. It was an absolute spec monster and one of the best Samsung phones to come out in 2020. So the Galaxy S21 Ultra has some pretty big shoes to fill.
Much like its predecessor, a separate Galaxy S21 Ultra hands-on is well deserved. There’s just so much to unpack here, so let’s dive right in. If you’re interested, do check out our Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ hands-on as well.
Big, bold, and beautiful. These three adjectives are perhaps the best representation of what the Galaxy S21 Ultra is. Its sheer size is nothing to be worried about. You can absolutely use it as a daily driver.
You get a gorgeous metal and glass build that feels every bit as premium as you’d expect. The back gets Gorilla Glass Victus protection. The new Contour Cut housing for the rear camera is a sight to behold. Made from metal, the housing seamlessly blends into the frame for a look unlike any other. It’s truly one of a kind and the fit and finish on it is just excellent.
If you felt a bit underwhelmed by its predecessor’s design, Samsung has truly redeemed itself with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The clever use of metal and the matte finish make it one of the most strikingly beautiful devices in the Galaxy S family.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra features a 6.8-inch WQHD+ resolution Dynamic AMOLED 2x Infinity-O display with an adaptive refresh rate. It’s capable of adjusting the refresh rate from all the way down at 11Hz to 120Hz depending on what’s being viewed. The device automatically switches to a lower refresh rate in order to save battery life when it can.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra’s display doesn’t have an adaptive refresh rate. It only supports 120Hz at FHD+ resolution. On the other hand, the Galaxy S21 Ultra can even run at 120Hz on WQHD+ resolution. That might draw a bit more power from the battery but at least you now have the option to crank it all up to the absolute max.
Samsung only offers the curved display panel on one of the three new models that it has unveiled today – the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s also the brightest of the bunch, capable of reaching a searing peak brightness of 1,500nits. We never have any complaints about the displays on Samsung’s flagship devices because they always tend to be exceptional.
It’s a similar story with this device. The colors are excellent and the viewing angles are the best of any device. There’s Gorilla Glass Victus on the front as well for maximum safety. The slim bezels and the subtle curves make content consumption a joy on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Qualcomm’s latest ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is embedded in the display. It’s both larger and faster than the one on the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra has another trick up its sleeve. It’s the first Galaxy S series device to have support for the S Pen. You can use the accessory on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Any Wacom stylus works so if you’ve got a spare S Pen from an old Galaxy Note lying around, you’ll be able to use it.
It definitely felt a bit unusual to use a stylus on a Galaxy S device. We’ve become so used to only having a stylus with the boxy, square-ish Galaxy Notes. It does what it’s supposed to on the Galaxy S21 Ultra but you don’t get many of the features that you do on a Galaxy Note. Since the S Pen is sold separately for this device, it’s more of an option for those who absolutely feel the need to use one.
One UI 3.1 comes pre-installed on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s the latest version of Samsung’s custom Android skin that’s applied on top of Android 11. As such, you can expect to find some general UI improvements and a handful of new features.
An enhanced Single Take mode is among the new features that have been introduced to the handset with One UI 3.1. Private Share is another great feature that provides you with more control when sharing files and media content with other people. Most of these new One UI 3.1 features are bound to trickle down to older handsets in the future.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra was Samsung’s everything and the kitchen sink device, as far as the camera is concerned. It’s no different for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The device has a grand total of four camera sensors in addition to a laser autofocus module. That ought to fix some of the focus issues that early Galaxy S20 Ultra owners experienced.
There’s a 12-megapixel Dual Pixel ultra-wide f/2.2 sensor with a 120-degree field of view and a 108-megapixel Phase Detection f/1.8 wide-angle sensor with Optical Image Stabilization. You also get two telephoto or zoom cameras. They include a 10-megapixel Dual Pixel f/4.9 sensor with OIS and 10x optical and a 10-megapixel Dual Pixel f/2.4 sensor with OIS and 3x optical zoom. A 40-megapixel front camera rounds it all off.
The time we got to spend with the Galaxy S21 Ultra wasn’t enough to really put the camera setup through its paces. We did notice improved clarity at high zoom levels while the Zoom Lock feature helps reduce shakiness as well. This happens to be the first camera setup on a Samsung smartphone that allows 4K 60fps video recording on all lenses. It’s a welcome change.
There are several new camera features that make the most of this hardware as well. With Director’s View, you can switch between angles without interrupting the shot. In Vlogger View, you can capture video using the front and rear cameras at the same time. It’s also possible to capture ultra-high res photos during 8K video recording.
We’ll put all of these features to the test in our full Galaxy S21 Ultra review.
Battery and charging
The Galaxy S21 Ultra features a 5,000mAh battery which should be enough to provide it with all-day battery life. We haven’t had the device for long enough to test that out but we can be cautiously optimistic about this claim.
What we don’t like is how the fastest charging speed that this handset supports is only 25W. The Galaxy S20 Ultra supported 45W even though that charger was to be bought separately. Speaking of chargers, you won’t find one inside the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s box. The earphones have not made the cut, either.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the first flagship smartphone of 2021 and it’s definitely going to be the one to beat. Samsung has packed impressive tech inside this slab of metal and glass. It has made some much needed refinements to camera and software. On paper, it seems like there will be little to complain about with this device.
It’s a difficult time for flagship smartphones. Their sales had already been declining prior to the pandemic due to rising prices and the fact that people are now holding on to their devices for long. The pandemic has forced a lot of people to make changes in their lives and luxuries like flagship smartphones are often the first to be on the chopping block.
Samsung has been mindful of this which is why the Galaxy S21 Ultra is around $200 cheaper than its predecessor. But is the price cut enough to justify not providing a charger and earphones with the device? You’ll also be forced to pay more if the 128GB of internal storage on the base model isn’t enough for you since the device doesn’t have a microSD card slot.
Be that as it may, the top-of-the-line flagship does appear to provide a lot of value for money. We’ll have a full Galaxy S21 Ultra review up for you in the near future. So stick around for that. In the meantime, let us know what you think of the Galaxy S21 Ultra and whether you plan on buying one in the comments section.