The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s new superphone for 2021 – and comes out firmly as the best of its type, with a price to match.
Equipped with a new more powerful camera system – with not one but two optical zoom lenses on the back for a huge 10x optical zoom – it costs from £1,149 and leads Samsung’s 2021 mobile line, which also includes the smaller and cheaper £769 S21 and £819 S21+.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra looks broadly the same as its predecessors – all-screen on the front, aluminium sides and a glass back. The most distinctive change is a large camera lump blending into the side.
The 6.8in screen is marginally smaller than the Note 20 Ultra and S20 Ultra from last year, but is crisp, colour rich and super bright. If you want big-screen entertainment in your pocket it delivers while its 120Hz refresh rate (double that on an iPhone) makes scrolling through feeds super smooth.
The S21 Ultra is a very large and relatively heavy oversized phone putting it in competition with the Note 20 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro Max. I could just about use it with one hand, but most will need two hands to use it safely without using some form of phone grip.
Main screen: 6.8in QHD+ Dynamic Amoled 2X (515ppi) 120Hz
Processor: Samsung Exynos 2100 (EU) or Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 (US)
RAM: 12 or 16GB of RAM
Storage: 128, 256 or 512GB
Operating system: One UI 3.1 based on Android 11
Camera: Quad rear camera: 108MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, 10MP 3x and 10MP 10x telephoto, laser autofocus; 40MP front-facing camera
Connectivity: 5G, dual nano sim, USB-C, wifi 6E, NFC, Bluetooth 5, UWB and location
Water resistance: IP68 (1.5m for 30 mins)
Dimensions: 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm
35 hours of battery life
The S21 Ultra ships with Samsung’s just-released Exynos 2100 processor in Europe (as tested) or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 in the US. Both variants come with 12GB or 16GB of RAM depending on model.
Performance was excellent all-round. The S21 Ultra feels noticeably snappier than the Note 20 Ultra from last year; from unlocking the phone to launching apps, every action happens just a little bit quicker.
Battery life is also strong. The phone easily outlasts a full day of heavy usage. I get in excess of 35 hours between charges – 7am on day 1 until 6pm on day 2 – with my general usage, which includes more than 5.5 hours of screen-on time split between chat apps, Chrome, Gmail, Evernote, the Guardian, Spotify and many others, shooting about 15 photos and spending about three hours on 5G, the rest on wifi.
That is longer than the 30-hour battery of the Note 20 Ultra, but slightly short of the S20 Ultra from last year and far behind the 48-hour battery of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Changing the screen from the default dynamic 120Hz refresh rate and FHD+ resolution to the higher QHD+ resolution reduced the battery life by a couple of hours.
Samsung does not provide an estimate of the number of full-charge cycles the battery should last. Batteries in similar devices can typically last for 500 cycles while maintaining at least 80% of their original capacity.
The phone is generally repairable and comes with a 24-month warranty. Screen repairs for its predecessor the S20 Ultra cost £269. The battery is replaceable by authorised service centres at a cost of no more than £59.
Samsung offers trade-in and recycling schemes for old devices, but the smartphone does not include any recycled materials. The company publishes annual sustainability reports but not impact assessments for individual products.
The S21 Ultra does not ship with headphones or a power adaptor in the box, just a USB-C charging cable, reducing its carbon footprint.
One UI 3.1
The S21 Ultra is one of the first smartphones to run Samsung’s latest version of Android 11 called One UI 3.1.
It inherits most of the new features from Android 11 including: separation of conversation, media and other alerts in the notifications shade; conversation bubbles; and additional privacy controls over location and other permissions.
A new partnership between Samsung and Google brings the search firm’s Discover feed and Messages texting app to the S21 series. Various Microsoft apps and systems for linking data and apps into Windows 10 are also present, which work well too.
There is a bit of app duplication, including two different SMS apps both called “Messages” – one made by Samsung and the other Google – but overall One UI 3.1 continues to be one of the most refined and best heavily customised versions of Android.
Samsung has pledged to support at least major Android version updates and monthly security patches, which is good for Android devices, but pales in comparison with Apple’s five-plus years of support for its phones.
The S21 Ultra is the first Samsung smartphone to feature a new quad-camera with a 12MP ultrawide, 108MP standard wide and not one but two 10MP telephoto cameras – one with 3x and one with 10x optical zoom.
It is one of the most adaptable camera systems available, out zooming all but Huawei’s P40 Pro Plus from last year. The main camera shoots very good photos, with improved low light performance and better processing than last year’s S20 Ultra. The ultrawide camera is great in bright light, but can start to look a bit dark and overly sharpened compared with the main camera in lower light levels.
Both the 3x and 10x cameras produce really good, crisp images even in the relatively dim light of stormy weather. The 3x camera is ideal for zooming in on people and other objects a few metres away, while the 10x magnification enables you to meaningfully close the distance to subjects significantly further away.
The camera system can also smoothly zoom from 1x to 10x magnification using hybrid and optical zoom from a combination of the cameras with impressive results.
Above 10x magnification, Samsung’s “Space Zoom” system applies a digital zoom to the 10x telephoto camera. Photos shot up to 30x are very good indeed. Carrying on up to the 100x maximum zoom the images are clearly artificially enlarged, but are still a marked improvement from the 100x zoom on Samsung’s previous top smartphones. A new “zoom lock” system helps stabilise your shaking hands at 30x or above. Tap a small preview window and the phone locks in on that patch of the image often turning a blurry mess into a surprisingly sharp image.
Samsung’s night and portrait modes are also improved. A new macro mode Samsung calls “focus enhancer” uses the ultrawide camera to produce some really sharp and good images too. The single take feature, which captures videos, photos and produces animations all at once is great fun and is now faster and smarter. The 40-megapixel selfie camera is one of the best available too.
The cameras also shoot excellent video up to 8K with a range of useful tools such as a “director view”, which shows you the view from three of the rear and the selfie camera at once. Samsung continues to lead Android rivals on video.
Call quality was really good both normally and on speaker.
Focus enhancer occasionally triggered when just trying to shoot using the main camera, resulting in overly sharpened images.
The three preview thumbnails in directors view are simulated from the ultrawide camera, but the main view switches to the appropriate camera when selected.
The S21 Ultra supports Samsung’s S Pen stylus similar to the Note 20 Ultra which can be bought as an optional extra.
For comparison, the Galaxy S21 costs £769, the Galaxy S21+ costs £819, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra costs £1,179, the Galaxy Z Flip costs £1,300, the Galaxy Z Fold 2 costs £1,799; the OnePlus 8 Pro costs £799 and the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max costs £1,099.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s latest big, heavy and expensive superphone that makes meaningful improvements to both the camera and general usability.
All the usual top-quality elements are there. The screen is stunning, performance is good, battery life is excellent and the software is the latest available. But it is the much improved fingerprint scanner that makes the biggest difference to day-to-day usage – it’s fast, accurate and responsive in a way Samsung’s previous efforts just weren’t.
The new dual-telephoto camera system is also a marked improvement, providing a level of flexibility and optical zoom that you just can’t get with other mainstream rivals.
Samsung provides at least three years of major software updates, which matches the best of Android rivals but lags behind Apple’s five years of iOS updates.
If you want the best Android superphone the Galaxy S21 Ultra is it and will take some beating this year.
Pros: big 120Hz screen, 5G, great and flexible camera, 3x and 10x optical zoom, dual sim, One UI, wireless charging and powershare, good performance, long battery, fast fingerprint scanner.
Cons: huge, heavy, very expensive, no headphone socket, only three-plus years of software updates.