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Andrew Hayward / Lifewire
Huge, amazing screen
Zippy 5G speeds
No microSD slot
Charges slower than S20 Ultra
No charger included
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is a whole lot of phone, but if that’s what you’re looking for (and are willing to pay for), then you’ll probably be plenty pleased.
We purchased the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra so our reviewer could put it to the test. Keep reading for our full product review.
The annual Galaxy S has long represented the pinnacle of premium smartphone design and technology, but Samsung switched things up this year. The new base Galaxy S21 model has seen a series of downgrades to trim down the price tag, but those tweaks have resulted in a phone that—while still very capable and stylish—isn’t quite as exciting this time around.
It’s the pricier Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra that holds onto that mantle. At $1,200, it’s a big, beastly phone that is packed with perks, including a massive QHD+ screen that smoothly hits 120Hz without breaking a sweat, as well as two separate telephoto lenses that enable impressive zoom functionality up to 10x. Granted, not everyone needs a phone this big or wants to pay 50 percent more than the standard Galaxy S21, but if you’re looking for the best high-end Android phone on the market right now—regardless of cost—it’s this one.
With a 6.8-inch screen, it’s no surprise that the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a large handset. What is surprising is that it’s thicker and heavier than the S20 Ultra before it, combatting the constant trend towards lighter, thinner phones. I like a huge phone, personally, and typically carry Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max as my everyday phone. They’re pretty comparable in footprint and both heavy, weighing just over half a pound each. Samsung’s phone is a bit narrower at just under 3 inches wide, but it’s also 1.5mm thicker than the iPhone. It’ll take a large hand to hold, in either case.
Like the smaller Galaxy S21 models, the S21 Ultra adds a design flourish with its new camera module, which now seems to emerge out of the aluminum frame with an alluring beveled edge. It’s an upgrade from the huge, floating module on the S20 Ultra before it, but it still looks enormous here. The skinnier module on the S21 and S21+ works better because it’s a design accent, not a dominant element. You do get glass backing here, though, unlike the plastic-backed core Galaxy S21. Paired with the ever-so-slightly curved screen and glossy frame, the Galaxy S21 Ultra looks and feels like a premium phone.
But camera module design aside, it doesn’t stand out that much from the pack of top-tier Androids—unlike, say, last fall’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra. It’s also a bit slippery in the hand, which can be troublesome for such a large and heavy phone, plus the bulky camera module results in some extra wobble when being used on a flat surface. In short: it’s a good-looking phone, but not a head-turner like the new iPhones nor as precisely tweaked and tuned.
This Phantom Silver version has a subtle rainbow flourish to it, while the Phantom Black is a matte option. Samsung also offers special edition Phantom Titanium, Navy, and Brown versions via its website that have a unique texture on the camera module, but are “made to order” and currently have shipping estimates more than a month out from ordering.
Interestingly, and also curiously, the Galaxy S21 Ultra supports the S Pen stylus that was previously exclusive to the Galaxy Note line. But unlike all Note phones, there’s no slot for the S Pen to rest in when not in use, nor does the stylus come with the phone. You’ll have to buy it separately or use an older one if you have one handy, but then carry it around. Samsung has released a special case for the S21 Ultra that includes a larger S Pen and has a slot to hold it, but that just adds more bulk to what’s already a big, hefty phone.
I still have last year’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G kicking around, so I grabbed the S Pen from that—and yes, it works just fine on the S21 Ultra too. My favorite use of the S Pen is to scribble notes on the locked screen, but with no pop-out action to remove the stylus, it doesn’t trigger automatically on the S21 Ultra. Still, it’s not difficult to tap the little button on the S Pen itself to bring up the feature. You can also use the S Pen for more extensive doodling, highlighting text, converting handwriting to text, and more.
It’s a handy addition, but as an add-on accessory that you can’t slot within the phone, it’s very niche in appeal. I always test S Pen capabilities when reviewing Note phones, but have to make an effort to remember to actually use the thing when not actively testing the phone. If I carried the S21 Ultra as my everyday phone, I wouldn’t bother popping the tiny stylus into my pocket, nor would I want the bulky case for it.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra does lose something from its predecessor, much like the other S21 models: the microSD card slot. Now there’s no option for expandable storage, which has been a key part of the Galaxy S experience for most of its lifespan ‘til now. The base model ships with 128GB of internal storage, and at least the upgrade to 256GB is only $50—the 512GB model is $180 more than the base model, though. At least waterproofing is still intact, with an IP68 dust and water resistance certification and rated to withstand up to 30 minutes in up to 1.5m of freshwater.
There are a lot of great smartphone screens out there today, and many of them are made by Samsung—even on other company’s phones. But this one is the best of the best right now, rising above by pairing razor-sharp resolution with stellar smoothness, brightness, and Samsung’s typically bold, vibrant AMOLED coloring and contrast. It’s slightly curved along the left and right sides, and it’s massive at 6.8 inches.
While the other S21 models drop down to Full HD+ resolution, the Galaxy S21 Ultra sticks with the incredibly crisp QHD+ (3200x1440) at a blistering 515 pixels per inch (ppi). You can still drop down to Full HD+ if you want to save on battery life, and truth be told, the difference in clarity is not that significant. But it’s a little easier to spot the individual pixels on a large screen like this, graphics aren’t always as smooth-looking, and there’s a general softness that’s missing at the QHD+ setting. If you’re buying a $1,200 phone, you might as well make the most of it.
Unlike last year’s S20 Ultra, which only supported QHD+ resolution at the normal 60Hz refresh rate, the S21 Ultra features an adaptive refresh rate that can automatically crank up to 120Hz for visibly added smoothness when it’s needed. That means menu animations, transitions, and web browsing gains the benefits of the silky refresh rate, but it sticks to battery-friendlier lower settings when you won’t notice the difference. As with the standard Galaxy S21, the in-display fingerprint sensor is solidly responsive here and definitely an improvement over past models.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra sets up like nearly any other Android handset these days. Just hold the power button on the right side of the phone to turn on the screen, and then follow the software prompts to execute setup. It’s an easy enough process that includes reading and accepting the terms and conditions, choosing from a few basic settings, and logging into a Google account (and a Samsung one too, if you choose).
“If you’re looking for a super-premium, extra-large Android, there’s no better phone around.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra features the most powerful Android processor on the market right now, the brand new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. It comes with 12GB RAM in the base model and the one with 256GB of storage, or 16GB RAM in the 512GB storage edition.
Unsurprisingly, the Galaxy S21 Ultra feels super responsive to your actions, with the smooth refresh rate only amplifying the speedy sensation of browsing around Android, loading up apps and games, and more. Benchmark testing suggests that the Snapdragon 888 isn’t dramatically faster than its predecessor, the Snapdragon 865, with PCMark’s Work 2.0 benchmark giving a score of 13,006 on the S21 Ultra vs. 12,176 on last fall’s Note20 Ultra. That still makes it the fastest Android around, however, as the first major phone to carry the new chip.
It must be said, however, that the Snapdragon 888 doesn’t make a huge dent in the performance gap vs. Apple’s own A14 Bionic chip in the iPhone 12 Pro Max. PCMark isn’t available on iOS, but in Geekbench 5, the iPhone 12 Pro Max put up scores of 1,594 in single-core testing and 4,091 in multi-core testing. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s scores of 1,091 in single-core and 3,139 in multi-core testing lag well behind. Both phones are very powerful and feel just as fast in most respects, but Apple’s advantage in raw power is still significant.
No doubt, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the best gaming phones on the market right now, thanks to the big, beautiful screen and that ample power within. You can still snag Fortnite from Samsung’s Galaxy Store, and it runs nicely here: I was hitting 50+ frames per second at maxed-out settings on the S21 Ultra. Other high-performance games like Call of Duty Mobile and Asphalt 9 Legends also run well, as expected.
At QHD+ resolution, GFXBench’s Car Chase benchmark topped out at just 32 frames per second but bumped up to 55fps at 1080p. That’s a little bit less than the 1080p Galaxy S21 hit, delivering a solid 60fps. At least the less-intensive T-Rex benchmark was no sweat for the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which delivered the expected 120fps on this adaptive 120Hz screen.
“There are a lot of great smartphone screens out there today, but this one is the best of the best.
Samsung’s latest flagships support both the sub-6Ghz and mmWave types of 5G connectivity. The former is more prevalent but only offers modest gains over 4G LTE, while the latter is very sparsely deployed at present but delivers incredibly fast speeds within limited areas. I tested the Galaxy S21 Ultra on Verizon’s 5G network, which includes both technologies.
On Verizon’s 5G Nationwide (sub-5Ghz) network, which is widely distributed, I recorded a max download speed of 103Mbps, which is about double the typical LTE speed in my testing area just north of Chicago. Meanwhile, on 5G Ultra-Wideband (mmWave) coverage, which is limited to the outdoors in typically high-foot-traffic areas, I registered a top speed of 2.22Gbps, or more than 21 times faster than the Nationwide result. I’ve seen even faster speeds on other recent 5G phones, but I have no doubt the Galaxy S21 Ultra can match them. In my experience, Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband signal can be a bit fickle and varies widely in speed from test to test.
Between the bottom-firing speaker and the very slim earpiece above the display, the Galaxy S21 Ultra delivers strong, balanced stereo sound for all needs. Whether it’s playing music when you don’t have speakers to pair with or watching videos, the S21 Ultra provides clear, loud playback. That’s great for speakerphone usage, too.
“It’s a good-looking phone, but not a head-turner like the new iPhones nor as precisely tweaked and tuned.
Samsung takes aim at the smartphone camera crown with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, delivering the most versatile setup you’ll find in the U.S. market today. A 108-megapixel wide-angle camera is your main shooter, and it’s augmented by three other cameras: a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera ideal for landscapes and other zoomed-out views, a 10-megapixel telephoto camera for 3x optical zoom shots, and another telephoto camera alongside for 10x optical zoom shots.
Essentially, it’s the same sort of core triple-camera setup that we’ve seen on other Samsung flagships and Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro models, but then Samsung takes things to another level by plunking in yet another ultra-zoom camera alongside. It might make the camera module look absurdly large, but the added 10x zoom option is incredibly cool.
Right after I started testing the Galaxy S21 Ultra, my partner spotted a flock of mourning doves in the tree outside our house. Wanting a closer view without disturbing our new feathered friends, I grabbed the phone, slowly inched down the window, and was able to snap solid up-close photos of the birds with the 10x sensor. You’ll need stellar lighting to make the most of it, but the clarity can be staggeringly good at times for something that’s so far away. It’s a bonus feature, in my view—probably not something I’d use very often, but certainly, something that I’d appreciate having in my bag of tricks when snapping photos. There’s also a hybrid digital zoom option that ranges up to 100x, but that’s more useful for scoping out far-off curiosities than actually snagging a clear-enough, worthwhile photo.
Elsewhere, it’s no surprise that Samsung has packed in its best cameras on this super-phone. The 108-megapixel main sensor takes hyper-detailed photos, and while Samsung’s processing can go a bit overboard at times and punch up the contrast too much, most of the time the results were excellent. Likewise, the ultra-wide and 3x telephoto cameras deliver nearly-as-strong shots, and the ability to swap between them at will—as well as shoot up to 8K resolution video—makes this arguably the most useful camera setup you’ll find today.
In head-to-head comparison shooting with its closest rival, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, I couldn’t pick a clear winner between them when it comes to the typical trio of cameras. At times, I saw more all-around detail in the S21 Ultra photos, but the iPhone sometimes delivered more balanced results and seemed to be the more consistent shooter from moment to moment. And in nighttime shooting, it could go either way depending on the shot. But it’s the added zoom capabilities—not only 3x on the S21 Ultra versus 2.5x on the iPhone, but especially the 10x option—that ultimately give the S21 Ultra a notable edge.
Thankfully, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a beast of a battery to contend with a beast of a phone. The 5,000mAh pack here is as large of capacity as any other major phone on the market today, and it thankfully provides a more robust well of power than the standard S21 with its 4,000mAh pack. In my testing, an average day of usage usually left me with about 30-40 percent of battery life remaining by bedtime, which means you have a solid buffer for longer days and/or heavier usage. The core S21, by contrast, left me with 20 percent or less many days.
Oddly enough, the Galaxy S21 Ultra charges slower than its predecessor. While last year’s S20 Ultra allowed for very fast 45W wired charging, the S21 Ultra maxes out at 25W. That’s still fast, but it’s a notable downgrade all the same. Here’s the more obvious downgrade, though: this $1,200 phone doesn’t come with a charger. Samsung has followed Apple’s lead on that front, even after mocking Apple just months back. True, I already have a bunch of power bricks around, and you might too—but a phone this expensive shipping without a charger just feels cheap. And if you don’t have a 25W-capable charger around, you’re sure to be frustrated.
The S21 Ultra can also be wirelessly charged at speeds of “10W+” according to Samsung, with a compatible charger. Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max can hit a faster 15W, but only using Apple’s own snap-on MagSafe Charger. Samsung’s top phone also lets you wirelessly share some of your charge with another wirelessly-chargeable phone or accessory simply by placing it on the back.
“It might make the camera module look absurdly large, but the added 10x zoom option is incredibly cool.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra ships with Android 11, and Google’s latest and greatest mobile OS version runs as smooth as you’d expect on this hardware. Samsung’s skin is attractive and refined, with silky transitions that benefit from the 120Hz screen and easy access to all of the features and functions you need. Samsung’s included wallpapers on the S21 line, including the animated lock screen versions, are especially beautiful too.
Samsung promises three years’ worth of Android updates on its phones now, too, so the S21 Ultra should still be getting new OS upgrades and tweaks into early 2024.
No doubt, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a very expensive phone at $1,200 for the 128GB base model, making it one of the priciest phones on the market today. On one hand, it’s $200 less than the S20 Ultra was at launch, and it doesn’t lose as many features as the standard Galaxy S21 compared to its own predecessor. The missing microSD port is the biggest of them, but it’s a feature that not everyone necessarily cares about. Besides, you can double the internal storage for $50 more.
If you’re looking for a super-premium, extra-large Android, there’s no better phone around. But if you’re willing to concede a few details, you can save a few hundred dollars by opting for a less-robust alternative. For example, last fall’s Galaxy S20 FE 5G has a 120Hz 1080p 6.5-inch screen, a nearly-as-fast processor, great cameras, and sub-6Ghz 5G support, and it sells for $700. It’s not as flashy-looking, but it’s a great value that keeps many of the best features mostly intact.
The long-standing battle between Samsung and Apple flagships has gone back and forth over the years, and when it comes to both companies’ current super-sized 5G super-phones, it’s a very close showdown. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has a significant edge in design, in my view, with an eye-catching and startlingly thin look that stands above the chunkier and slightly slippery build of the S21 Ultra. Samsung’s screen, meanwhile, benefits from the smoother 120Hz refresh rate, while the iPhone sticks to the standard 60Hz (which is fine).
Both phones are fast and responsive, but Apple’s performance advantage in benchmark testing is still a bit shocking. And while overall camera results are pretty close between them, Samsung’s added 10x telephoto cameras is a benefit that Apple can’t match in any way. I’d be happy to carry either of these phones in my pocket knowing that I have a fast 5G phone with a gorgeous screen, long-lasting battery, and capable cameras. Apple’s phone is $100 cheaper, which is worth noting—although if price is a serious consideration in your decision, I wouldn’t advocate any $1,000+ phone given the wealth of great options for $800 or less these days.
The Ultra option is a powerhouse.
Any $1,000+ smartphone is a tough swallow these days, and I’d argue that the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has more than most people need from a modern phone. But for the heavy users who want the best of the best and don’t mind paying extra for it, there’s no better Android option than Samsung’s robust Galaxy S21 Ultra. It lives up to the Ultra branding with its dazzling screen, fantastic cameras, long-lasting battery, and stellar performance. And while it loses a couple of features from last year’s model, it also sheds $200 off the price tag in the process.
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