Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra long-term review: Still one of the best

last class, Samsung released its most ambitious ( non-folding ) phone to date : the Galaxy S20 Ultra. It did n’t go over specially well. A sky-high $ 1400 price tag and everyday television camera operation torpedoed the telephone outright in our final judgment, a rare miss for Samsung in the premium smartphone segment .
In 2021, Samsung is trying to reboot the Galaxy S20 Ultra formula with the S21 Ultra. And while the differences on composition ( and much in practice ) are n’t what you ‘d call huge, the end solution is a more palatably priced earphone with a much-improved television camera system — notably addressing our two biggest gripes .
I ‘ve been using the S21 Ultra as my day by day driver for two months now, and this feels identical much like the telephone the Galaxy S20 Ultra should have been. And while I think the price is however dazzling in its own correctly, it ‘s besides no longer bizarrely out of step with the iPhone, lending Samsung more credibility with customers leery of the Ultra ‘s value proposition. For the Samsung fan who wants a massive, uncompromising phone, this is ampere well as it gets. It besides happens to be the best camera call I ‘ve ever used .
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THE GOOD

Performance A very fast phone (in spite of Samsung’s slow animations), if not a very noticeable upgrade over 2020’s flagships. Materials and design I actually think Samsung improved build quality on the S21 Ultra versus the S20 Ultra. This phone looks and feels nicer. Cameras The new 10x zoom is legitimately impressive, and Samsung has really toned down its processing. I’ve also seen some amazing night shots. Updates It feels like a dream, but Samsung’s strict monthly security patch policy and a commitment to three years of OS updates makes it second only to Google on software support. Display The adaptive refresh OLED panel is as good as you’re going to find. Truly an excellent phone for videos and gaming.

THE NOT SO GOOD

Software bloat I still find the animations and general layout of One UI to be clunky and overstuffed. And the settings app is a nightmare for finding anything. Also, the phone advertises to you. Gross. Price Even with a $200 cut compared to the last phone, this phone is still really, really expensive. Huge A phone this big and heavy is absolutely not for everyone and will be polarizing, especially once a case is applied. 5G This is US-specific, but the 5G experience on any phone here right now mostly sucks. Speaker The speaker on this phone is loud but grating at high volumes.

Design, hardware, what’s in the box


The Galaxy S21 series does n’t mark a radical design passing for Samsung ‘s flagship smartphone brand, but does substantially improve on the look of the previous generation. The S21 Ultra looks much better, in particular, with a frame that wraps around the edges of the big television camera array, giving the earphone a more seamless and integrated appearance. The television camera “ hunch ” is still quite large, though, and all but necessitates a event if merely to stop the phone from wobbling endlessly when used on a flat airfoil. And, given it ‘s $ 1200 and made of glaze on the front and back, a character is credibly a very good theme on this phone regardless .
The Galaxy S21 Ultra in no way feels like a compromise on hardware compared to final year ‘s earphone, despite being $ 200 cheaper .
Samsung fans will lament the happen of two long-standing hardware features on the S21 series — Galaxy Pay MST back and a microSD slot — but I think their removal will be inconsequent for most. Like the earphone jack, both served exploiter bases that are still out there but are besides inescapably shrinking with each passing year. That all but ends the days of the microSD calling card in the premium smartphone segment, and would seem to seal the destine of MST permanently, as Samsung owns the cerebral property which powers it. Those bequest omissions digression, though, the Galaxy S21 Ultra in no way feels like a compromise on hardware compared to last year ‘s call, despite being $ 200 bum ( though I contend that ‘s because the S20 Ultra was terribly overpriced ) .


As constantly, Samsung puts its best foot forth on the display, and the S21 Ultra ‘s screen is just about the best I ‘ve ever seen. It achieves admirable daylight legibility, and the 120Hz adaptive freshen pace makes for buttery scroll and legato transitions. There ‘s besides the consort Samsung base o ‘ tricks : IP68 urine resistance, fast radio charge ( and reverse radio receiver charging ), 25W immediate charge, and S Pen compatibility — a fresh addition to the Galaxy S family, and one exclusive to the S21 Ultra. The short version is that Samsung will sell you an S Pen individually ( for $ 40 ), but yes, that the S21 Ultra should work with any S Pen from a Galaxy Note smartphone. notably, the Bluetooth features will not work, meaning sealed S Pen functionality is disabled ( my think : Samsung does n’t have a way to wirelessly pair it ). Samsung says a Bluetooth-enabled S Pen Pro will launch later this class for the S21 Ultra, but has declined to say how much it will cost .


possibly the most celebrated thing about the Galaxy S21 Ultra is its size : this call is huge. Despite being ever then slightly narrower and shorter than its forebear, the S21 Ultra placid takes me to the border of my personal terminus ad quem on phones. And once a character is on this thing ? Forget about it — it ‘s absolute unwieldy. Do n’t get me amiss, I love having the large screen, but it ‘s not going to be for everyone. I actually strained my shoulder watching besides much television in bed on this earphone — consider yourself warned .
The S21 Ultra resolves all my former complaints about Samsung ‘s supersonic scanners .
While I by and large find Samsung ‘s hardware to be about angstrom close to Apple quality as you can get in the Android populace, I do think they continue to do a medciore job with their phones ‘ speakers and haptic feedback. The S21 Ultra ‘s speaker is quite loud but shrill and muddy at high volumes, and haptic feedback feels kind of faint. I ‘ve heard anecdotally this is because Samsung moved the actuator creditworthy for haptic feedback to the peak of the call for packaging reasons, though I ‘m diffident if this is actually dependable ( I ‘ll be waiting for the iFixit teardown ). ultimately, let ‘s discuss the fingerprtint scanner : Samsung claims it ‘s 70 % larger and importantly faster than the previous generation. I do n’t think the rush claims are going to be detectable to anyone ( the longest part of the march is positioning your feel and waiting for the scanner to wake up ), but failed reads are largely a thing of the past. The call unlocks on the first try for me well over 95 % of the time in my experience, and the S21 Ultra resolves all my former complaints about Samsung ‘s supersonic scanners .
In the box, you wo n’t find a blame arranger, because that ‘s now a thing ( and here are some if you need one ), but you will find a USB C to C cable and a SIM ouster .

Software, performance, battery life

I ‘ve spent the better part of a ten variously praising and picking apart Samsung ‘s software, and in all that time, two basic things remain true : there is nothing about One UI ( once TouchWiz ) that very breaks Android or makes it meaningfully more difficult to use, but there ‘s a whole bunch of stuff I ‘d very rather just was n’t there to begin with. Be it the clutter telling shade UI, spam from Samsung ‘s versatile apps advertising to me ( there are banner ads in the freak out upwind app ), or barely the mildly objectionable act of remapping the earphone ‘s might key to be a power key — Samsung makes variously baffling and anti-consumer decisions throughout its software .


In 2021, it ‘s pretty trivial to “ Googlify ” Galaxy phones .
fortunately, living with Samsung ‘s software is not an all-in or all-out suggestion. Ridding yourself of — or at least mitigating — these issues is relatively easy, and Samsung ‘s phones can even be made to feel quite Pixel-y if you ‘re bequeath to get more aggressive with your customizations. I broadly split the difference : crippling or uninstalling unused or undesirable apps, and replacing many others ( calculator, calendar, keyboard, gallery, browser, dialer, file browser, SMS, and notes ) with their Google counterparts. In 2021, it ‘s reasonably superficial to “ Googlify ” Galaxy phones to the point where Samsung ‘s software largely falls into the background, and while I find the animations and gestures a piece awkward for navigating in One UI, it ‘s a ticket topographic point to be. Personally, I like the fresh aesthetic introduced with One UI 3, and the addition of the Google Discover run to Samsung ‘s sprout launcher has focused my previously wandering center — there ‘s no very reason for me to look to a third party one anymore .
The most important change to Samsung ‘s software of late, though, is how it is updated. The Galaxy S21 class will receive three major OS updates, and three full years of monthly security patches, which Samsung has by and large been very on the ball with for its newest high-end smartphones. That ‘s a batch more consequential in my book than whether or not Samsung makes Google Messages the default SMS provider .

performance on the S21 Ultra has been potent for me, with no issues to report. This is the Snapdragon 888 version of the earphone, which most prominently features upgrades to GPU performance, with a claim 35 % uplift versus the Snapdragon 865. Playing Fortnite in Ultra manner at 1080p, I found the S21 Ultra easily held its own run at around 40-50FPS, with no signs of heat-induced slowdowns. Day to day performance is very dear, but if you were to ask me if I could tell the difference between the operation of this phone and, say, my OnePlus 8T, I ‘d struggle to find ways the S21 Ultra is obviously faster. It ‘s a fast telephone, but it ‘s not a enormously faster earphone than debauched phones that came out last year .
If 5G is a actual reason you ‘re thinking about upgrade, you can continue to safely hold off .
5G, briefly, is merely useful for the parcel of the population covered by T-Mobile ‘s mid-band net here in the US. If you ‘re on AT & T and Verizon, you ‘ll identical probable get 5G connectivity at this point, it will just be no fast ( and quite possibly slower ) than your 4G. If 5G is a real argue you ‘re thinking about upgrade, you can continue to safely hold off .
Battery life sentence has been very good for me, but very not much better than the S20 Ultra or Note20 Ultra in 2020. Depending on the day and use form, I get anywhere between six and eight hours of screen fourth dimension, and that ‘s kind of what we ‘ve come to expect in most flagships today. 25 Watt fast wired charging will get that chunky 5000mAh barrage full relatively cursorily ( an hour and fifteen minutes or sol, in my know ), and you ‘ve besides got radio receiver charging for when that extra speed is n’t necessary .

Camera


The S21 Ultra ‘s cameras bring some major improvements for Samsung. I ‘ve seen some incredible night shots from this telephone, and Samsung has truly evened out the super bright colors its serve is typically known for. Those are both great news, but I think my greatest excitement has come from using the 10x telephotograph lens, which is just an absolute jewel. Explaining why I love it so much in words seems pointless when I ‘ve got pictures that can do the talking .
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Impressed ? I surely was. This is well the sharpest telephotograph smartphone camera I ‘ve ever used, and the march in good light is simply outstanding. I ca n’t heap adequate praise on this thing, and it ‘s quickly become the only lens I want to use to take a picture of anything with. The clarity, asperity, and relatively restrained processing construct for photograph you just do n’t see from smartphones, because you can achieve perspectives and angles that would be difficult to shoot with even the S21 Ultra ‘s standard 3x rapid climb detector .
The chief television camera seems quite good, besides, and I think that ‘s by and large down to the process changes and the fact that Samsung is using its new HM3 detector, a relatively minor update on the hardware found in the Note20 Ultra and S20 Ultra that adds support for 8K30 video capture, 12-bit even image capture, and some tweaks to HDR and noise decrease .

Should you buy it? Rating 8.5/10

Galaxy S21 Ultra

Yes. Samsung ‘s come back with a earphone that is both better and cheaper than the one that came before it. That ‘s not normally how things go, but then again, it ‘s not at all “ common ” to monetary value a call at $ 1400. In general, I ‘m calm loath to give our editor ‘s option award to phones that cost well over a thousand dollars — it ‘s difficult to square that kind of pricing relative to the actual utility of the merchandise you ‘re purchasing unless you are very confident you plan to use this telephone for a full four years and that you will be felicitous with it. I besides feel compelled to weigh the fact Samsung phones broadly lone cost what the gummed label says if you ‘re a hapless baby boomer in a aircraft carrier store, but the ball is placid in Samsung ‘s court there : that ‘s the price they gave the call, and that ‘s how it ‘s going to be reviewed .
The less-spoken truth is that only suckers pay full price for a Samsung call that does n’t fold .
so, is the S20 Ultra “ worth ” $ 1200 ? No. But the less-spoken truth is that only suckers pay full price for a Samsung earphone that does n’t fold. That ‘s been the truth for years now, and Samsung barely makes it clearer and clearer with each generation. merely search at its trade-in values for the Galaxy S20 family this class — they were laughably generous, with the smallest call in the S21 family costing fair $ 100 if you upgraded from a Galaxy S20. For those people — for the annual Samsung upgraders — the S21 Ultra is a wholly becoming cause to make the move. For person staring the full $ 1200 right in the eyes ? not so much .
With all that hem and hawing about value out of the way, Samsung has actually righted its course on the camera. While I have n’t done across-the-board night testing, the samples I ‘ve seen from early reviewers are quite impressive ( if slightly overcooked, but that ‘s Samsung ). The less intense processing has made images from all of the cameras a fortune more palatable, but specifically, I think Samsung has precisely done an incredible job on this 10x ocular soar. It ‘s the most fun I ‘ve had shooting with a smartphone in years, and that ‘s down not merely to the perspective it provides, but how Samsung processes the images it captures. so, I ‘ll give you the payoff from the title : I think this is, overall, a better smartphone for photography ( and likely videography ) than any Pixel. The versatility, combined with the quality of the images themselves, just makes the S21 Ultra a more knock-down and capable television camera, and I in truth enjoy shooting with it .
When you take what to me is now the cream of the smartphone television camera crop and combine it with the latest, fastest processor in the Android universe, Samsung ‘s fresh update policy, and the larger set up of features this earphone offers, it ‘s hard to think of a better “ total package ” phone. Yeah, it sends you stupid advertisements sometimes, and no, One UI is not everyone ‘s cup of tea. But these are relative quibbles in the larger outline, and Samsung has a clear winner on its hands with the S21 Ultra even with them considered. If you ‘re on the fence about an upgrade, let me push you over : you will be happy with this earphone. You ‘ll just be even happier if you can score a cope on it .
My only other wonder : When can we expect these amazing cameras in smaller phones, Samsung ?

Buy it if

  • Having the best camera is a high priority
  • You can get some form of discount or incentive

Don’t buy it if

  • Really big phones are not your thing
  • Purity of software really, really matters to you

Buy Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

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About The Author

David Ruddock
( 3362 Articles Published )

David is the former Editor-in-Chief of Android Police and immediately the EIC of Esper.io. He ‘s been an Android user since the early days – his first smartphone was a Google Nexus One ! David graduated from the University of California, Davis where he received his knight bachelor ‘s degree, and besides attended the Pepperdine University School of Law .
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