Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review: Samsung’s premier phone is pretty badass


The Galaxy S21 Ultra gets a fresh design and sports a gorgeous black finish.


Patrick Holland/CNET

The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, unveiled alongside Samsung’s Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus phones, proves that sometimes you have to do something twice to get it right. While just as bold as last year’sGalaxy S20 Ultra, the S21 Ultra is a refined second take on the concept. There’s still the100x Space Zoom, but it’s easier to use. There is still the “big for the sake of being big” design, but it looks more appealing. And there’s still a high price, but at $1,200 (1,149, AU$1,849) it costs $200 less than the S20 Ultra in the US.

If you want the absolute best specs and features, the S21 Ultra is undoubtedly appealing. The phone will also attract camera nerds, thanks to the improvements. The addition ofS-Pen support — it’s the first Galaxy S phone to support the stylus — will likely catch the eye of Galaxy Note users looking for a different option.

Last year’s Ultra model seemed like it came out of nowhere. It was a phone all about excess that, by sheer fate, was launched at the beginning of a globalpandemicand recession. Its bold, behemoth take on the Galaxy S line was undercut by its $1,400 (1,199, AU$1,999) price and issues with its nearly domino-size camera system.

Overall, the S21 Ultra is a major update both in terms of hardware and software over the S20 Ultra. And when you factor in a lower price, it all kind of makes sense. And that’s why the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra earned a CNET’s Editors’ Choice Award. The whole Galaxy S21 lineup is available to purchase —here’s how you can buy one.

Like

  • Gorgeous phantom black finish
  • Two telephoto cameras
  • The screen is spectacular
  • S-Pen support

Don’t Like

  • It’s heavy
  • Lacks a microSD card slot
  • $1,200 is still expensive

Read more: Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. S21 Plus vs. S21 Ultra

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has the best black finish

I wouldn’t call the S21 Ultra’s design radically different, but my review unit has the best black finish I’ve ever seen on a phone. It’s the stuff that goth dreams are made of. The color is called phantom black, and seeing it in person makes you understand why Samsung made a nearly three-minute video explaining the blackest black finish. The S21 Ultra also comes in phantom silver and there are limited-edition phantom finishes in titanium, brown and navy, which can only be found on Samsung’s website.

The camera bump is large and melts into the sides of the phone, which are glossy black. And while the regular S21 and S21 Plus looks snazzy in their two-tone colors, the all-black S21 Ultra is cool, elegant and badass all at the same time.

Read more:Galaxy S21 drop test: It broke on the first drop

The S21 Ultra is heavier than last year’s S20 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max. It’s the second heaviest phone I have tested in the past year, just behind the Asus ROG Phone 3.


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The display is brighter and adds S-Pen support

Around the front is one of the most impressive displays I’ve seen. It has a Wide Quad HD resolution and a variable refresh rate between 10 and 120Hz, which is determined by what’s on the screen. And just to be clear, it can be set to 120Hz without the hit to resolution that the S20 Ultra had. The 6.8-inch display is bright and the contrast is gorgeous. Covering the front and back is Corning’sGorilla Glass Victus.

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Support for the S-Pen means you can draw, write, edit photos and sign documents on the S21 Ultra.


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Under the screen is a larger ultrasonic fingerprint reader which feels peppy. I had a hard time telling if it was faster than the one on the S20 Ultra. The display also has S-Pen support.

The Galaxy Note phones line always tempted me, but I didn’t think I’d use the S-Pen enough to justify getting one. I like the iPad Pro-Apple Pencil approach Samsung took with the S21 Ultra. Without an S-Pen, you can still enjoy using the S21 Ultra. But if you’re S-Pen curious, you can buy a new S-Pen or find an old one and it will work. There’s a lot you can do like draw, take notes and sign documents. I love editing photos and making adjustments with the S-Pen.

There are a few S-Pen considerations. The S21 Ultra doesn’t come with an S-Pen and doesn’t support Bluetooth or gesture functionality. For example, the S21 Ultra can’t send you a notification if you leave your S-Pen behind. Also, the Ultra doesn’t have a built-in slot to store an S-Pen. Samsung does sell cases for the phone that include S-Pen storage.

The S21 Ultra has two telephoto cameras

The S21 Ultra’s camera system received several significant updates. There are four rear cameras: one wide, one ultrawide and two telephoto cameras. The time-of-flight sensor on the S20 Ultra is gone; in its place is a laser autofocus module.

The 108-megapixel sensor on the main camera is new and has better autofocus for both photos and videos. There’s even a new focus enhancer tool that pops onscreen to help the phone focus faster. The tool looks like it might be switching to a wider view to do so.

Read more: S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max vs. Pixel 5: Which phone has the best night mode?

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There are four rear cameras: wide, ultrawide and two telephotos.


Patrick Holland/CNET

The dual-telephoto cameras add a number of benefits. One has 3x magnification and the other 10x. This means when you zoom in, there are two places in your zoom range where the image isn’t cropped and where you’ll capture the best image quality. Another benefit is stability. The two cameras are paired to help make zooming in, even at 100x, easier and more steady.

At 30x or higher, a zoom guide appears to help you find the specific spot that you’re zoomed in at. You can lock it so the cameras don’t move, which turns the guide yellow. This works quite well. Obviously you have to be careful not to move the phone around too much, but it’s less finicky and frustrating than the S20 Ultra.

Photos from the S21 Ultra are excellent, with good detail and a wide dynamic range. There is a 108-megapixel mode, but I found that the 12-megapixel photos that come from pixel binning look consistently great.

Below are several photos I took with the S21 Ultra.

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The main camera was set to 12 megapixels, which uses pixel binning to combine nine pixels into one.


Patrick Holland/CNET

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One benefit of pixel binning is that it can bring out the details in a photo. Notice the different textures and details.


Patrick Holland/CNET

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I used the single-take mode in the camera app to capture photos and videos of this cute dog. Here’s one of the pictures my S21 Ultra chose.


Patrick Holland/CNET

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There’s so much for the S21 Ultra to capture correctly here: the barren tree branches, the water and the white fluffy clouds in the blue sky.


Patrick Holland/CNET

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Here are three different photos I took from the exact same spot using the wide 1x camera (left), the 3x telephoto camera (middle) and the 10x telephoto camera (right).


Patrick Holland/CNET

In low light, the S21 Ultra’s night mode is outstanding. Flaring on the lens is minimized and photos look bright without a bunch of image noise or noise-reduction smearing. Below are a few night mode photos I took:

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This might be my favorite night mode photo of the bunch.


Patrick Holland/CNET

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Here’s another night mode capture. I like how the S21 Ultra brought out the colors in the sculpture.


Patrick Holland/CNET

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Night mode on any of the S21 Ultra’s cameras. I took this shot with the ultrawide.


Patrick Holland/CNET

For selfies there’s the same 40-megapixel camera that the S20 Ultra had. You now have an option to change the color tone to either bright or natural which is excellent.

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Here is a selfie I took with the natural setting.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Samsung added the ability to take raw 12-bit color photos. There’s a new video feature called Director’s View, which gives you a thumbnail preview of the video feeds coming from all of the cameras on the phones. As you record, you can switch between them. Within Director’s View, there’s a vlogger setup that gives you a side-by-side video view or a stacked one if you’re shooting vertically. This means you can record yourself with the selfie camera and show what you’re seeing or reacting to with any of the rear cameras.

On paper, Director’s View seemed like something I might try once and not really use. But after some time using it, some people will definitely be into the feature. A downside to Director’s View is that the final video is saved in HD instead of 4K or 8K. I’d love to see a similar thumbnail preview interface of all the rear cameras when recording a regular 4K video.

I’m excited to pit the S21 Ultra and its cameras against the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Google Pixel 5. Each phone takes a different approach to photography and will appeal to different people.

S21 Ultra has a Snapdragon 888 chip and 12 or 16GB of RAM

Powering the S21 Ultra is the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip, along with 12GB of RAM, or 16GB in the most expensive model — which also has 512GB of storage (see the chart below for prices). In my benchmark tests, the S21 Ultra scored better than last year’s S20 Ultra. And in use, it handled everything I threw at it, even playing Xbox Game Pass Ultimate games on it.

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You can use the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate app to play Xbox games on your S21 Ultra.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Supplying juice to the phone is a 5,000-mAh battery. I’ve easily been averaging a day and a half on a single charge. Battery tests on the S21 Ultra for continuous video playback on Airplane mode clocked an average of 22 hours and 57 minutes with the refresh rate set to Auto 120Hz. That’s actually an hour less than the S20 Ultra lasted in the same test. Though keep in mind, in real world use my colleague Jessica Dolcourt found the S20 Ultra’s battery drained like it was being bitten by a “thirsty vampire.”

Below are the results of my benchmark tests for the S21 Ultra.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 single-core

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 multicore

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Android 11 and 5G support

The Galaxy S21 Ultra runs Android 11 with Samsung’s OneUI 3.1 top layer. And I like it a lot. I can now default to Google Pay or Google Discover News feed instead of Samsung’s versions. The look for everything from settings to pop-up windows is clean and contemporary. And with a phone this big, OneUI helps make it easier to use one-handed.

Last, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has 5G and supports both sub-6 and mmWave flavors of 5G. You shouldn’t get the Ultra for its 5G. But as 5G networks get better, so will your 5G speeds and connection. And then we’ll really have something to talk about.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra specs vs. Galaxy S20 Ultra, Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Galaxy Note 20

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra Samsung Galaxy Note 20
Display size, resolution 6.8-inch AMOLED 2X, 3,200×1,440 pixels 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X 6.9-inch; 3,088×1,440 pixels 6.7-inch; 2,400×1,080 pixels
Pixel density 515 ppi 511ppi 496ppi 393ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 2.97×6.5×0.35 in 2.99×6.57×0.35 in 6.49×3.04×0.31 in 6.36×2.96×0.33 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 75.6×165.1×8.9mm 76.0×166.9×8.8mm 164.8×77.2×8.1mm 161.6×75.2×8.3 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 8.07 oz; 229g 7.76 oz; 220g 7.33 oz, 208g 6.84 oz, 194g
Mobile software Android 11 Android 10 Android 10 Android 10
Camera 108-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 10-megapixel (3x telephoto), 10-megapixel (10x telephoto) 108-megapixel (wide-angle), 48-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (ultrawide), time-of-flight camera 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 108-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 12-megapixel (wide angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera 40-megapixel 40-megapixel 10-megapixel 10-megapixel
Video capture 8K 8K 8K 8K
Processor Snapdragon 888 Snapdragon 865 Plus Snapdragon 865 Plus Snapdragon 865 Plus
Storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB 128GB, 512GB 128GB, 512GB 128GB
RAM 12GB, 16GB 12GB, 16GB 12GB 8GB
Expandable storage No Up to 1TB Up to 1TB No
Battery 5,000 mAh 5,000 mAh 4,500 mAh 4,300 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screen In-screen In-screen In-screen
Headphone jack No No No No
Special features IP68 rating, 5G-enabled, 100x Space Zoom, 10W wireless charging, 10x optical zoom 5G enabled; 120Hz refresh rate; 100x zoom; water resistant (IP68) 120Hz screen refresh rate, 5x optical zoom, 120Hz display; UWB sharing, S-Pen stylus; 5G connectivity; Wireless PowerShare; water resistant (IP68) S-Pen stylus; 5G connectivity; Wireless PowerShare; water resistant (IP68)
Price off-contract (USD) $1,200 (128GB), $1,250 (256GB), $1,380 (512GB) $1,399 (128GB), $1,599 (512GB) $1,300 (128GB), $1,450 (512GB) $1,000
Price (GBP) 1,149 (128GB), 1,199 (256GB), 1,329 (512GB) 1,199 (128GB), 1,399 (512GB) 1,179 849 (4G) and 949 (5G)
Price (AUD) AU$1,849 (128GB), AU$1,949 (256GB), AU$2,149 (512GB) AU$1,999 (128GB), AU$2,249 (512GB) AU$1,849 (4G) and $AU$1,999 (5G) AU$1,499 (4G) and AU$1,649 (5G)

First published Jan. 21.



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