The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is the company's most premium smartphone yet, with a strong focus on cameras. Just like the Galaxy S20 Ultra (Review), this new model boasts of 100X “space zoom” and 8K video recording, but with an improved shooting experience and even better image quality.
We've already talked about the design and main specifications of the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G in our recent first impressions article, so for this review, we'll dive straight into the cameras and system performance first. If you're serious about photography or capturing video, then you should be interested in the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which is the most capable of the three Galaxy S21 models. However, is the price justified? Let's find out.
Before we begin, let's quickly go over the variants of the Galaxy S21 Ultra that are available in India. In other countries, Samsung has reduced the launch prices of the Galaxy S21 series, however due to taxes and currency rate fluctuations in India, the prices have gone up a bit compared to last year's models. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G starts at Rs. 1,05,999 for 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, and there's a second option priced at Rs. 1,16,999 which has 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.
It's pricey for sure, but still costs less than what Apple is charging for its iPhone 12 Pro series. The base variant of the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G seems like it should be the more popular model of the two, but keep in mind that there is no microSD card slot for storage expansion this time, so if you think you'll be shooting a lot of 8K video, you might want to consider the higher storage variant instead.
While the camera capabilities of the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G remain largely similar to those of its predecessor, Samsung has reworked the implementation, especially of the telephoto cameras. There's a new-generation 108-megapixel primary camera which does nona-pixel binning, combining information from nine pixels into one, for more detailed 12-megapixel photos.
There's a 12-megapixel ultra-wide-angle camera and two telephoto cameras. The latter both have 10-megapixel sensors, but with different types of optical zoom lenses. One has a 3X optical zoom, while the other is capable of 10X, with a periscope-style lens. There's no mention of hybrid zoom this time, however there's still some AI processing being applied at higher magnification levels.
Samsung continues to market Space Zoom, which on the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, goes all the way to 100X. At such a high magnification, it can get very tricky to frame shots correctly. especially if you're shooting handheld, which we experienced with the Galaxy S20 Ultra. This is where the new Zoom Lock feature comes in. When you go beyond 20X magnification, you get a little preview window in the viewfinder to help you find your subject better. If you hold the frame steady enough for one and a half seconds or tap the preview box, the camera will lock focus on your subject and stick to it (the preview box turns yellow to confirm this), making it much easier to get a properly framed shot.
The new telephoto lenses along with this zoom lock feature means that zoomed-in shots look better and are slightly easier to capture. The camera app offers the same hard stops at 3X, 4X, 10X, 30X, and 100X, or you can use the slider to pick the exact zoom level you need. The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G will use digital zoom between 1X and 3X, before it switches to the first telephoto camera, and then again between 3X and 10X when it switches to the second telephoto camera. Image quality is noticeably sharper at the native optical zoom levels, compared to any level in between. At 100X, image quality is comparatively much weaker but AI processing does help in getting usable shots.
In low light, most smartphones ditch their telephoto cameras and just use the primary camera with digital zoom because of their more favourable apertures, but the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G will still use its telephoto cameras as much as possible despite their narrow apertures. The results are predictably poorer, but if you use them with Night mode, the results are surprisingly good. In such cases, the zoom range is limited to 10X and the phone sticks to the 3X telephoto camera even at that level, since the 10X camera has a very narrow f/4.9 aperture. I managed to get very good shots from the telephoto camera at night.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G can also capture native 108-megapixel images using its main camera, allowing you to magnify and crop around your subject later, which in theory has the same effect as zooming in. However, I noticed that the image quality isn't the best, and you're better off using the telephoto cameras. This goes for shots taken in daylight as well as low light.
Pixel-binned 12-megapixel photos taken with the main camera in good light looked excellent. Dynamic range was good, there was plenty of detail, and colours looked natural. Autofocus was quick and precise thanks to the laser AF sensor, like we saw on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. If you go too close to your subject, the camera's ‘focus enhancer' kicks in, switching to the ultra-wide angle camera for a super-macro shot. I found this annoying since it tends to activate even if you aren't too close to your subject and the image quality is a bit weaker compared to what the main camera can capture. Thankfully, a little toggle icon in the viewfinder lets you switch it off immediately.
Close-ups look great, with rich details and colours. Samsung's Live Focus mode is now simply called Portrait and offers the same bokeh patterns to choose from as before. The ultra-wide camera is also competent when it comes to shooting landscapes, with a similar colour tone as the main camera. In low light, the primary and ultra-wide cameras continue to impress even without Night mode, however you can expect better exposed images when using Night mode.
There's a new video shooting mode called Director's View, which offers live previews of what the ultra-wide, main, and 3X telephoto camera can capture while you're recording, so you know what to expect before switching. You can also enable a live feed from the selfie camera, with a split-screen or picture-in-picture window, which Samsung calls ‘Vloggers view.' I personally didn't find much use for this shooting mode, but it could be useful for some people. The rest of the shooting modes are similar to what we saw last year, including Single Take, Portrait Video, Super Slow-mo, etc.
Samsung has made some changes to the video recording capabilities of the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, but they're still not as extensive as I would have liked. You can now shoot 4K 60fps video with any of the cameras, something that Apple introduced with the iPhone 11 Pro. However, you cannot switch between cameras on the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G once recording has begun, which is a little limiting. For this, you'll need to shoot at 4K 30fps.
Samsung is still hyping 8K video recording, which is now stabilised, but it also heavily crops the frame. Video quality is good in daylight, but is very grainy in low light. There's no limit on the recording length. The big disappointment for me though is that 8K video is still limited to 24fps, like on the Galaxy S20 series. Video quality overall is very good, with sharp detail, good stabilisation, and natural colours in footage shot in the daylight. Videos shot in poor lighting, even with the 3X telephoto camera, were also impressive.
Overall, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G has a mighty impressive set of rear cameras, and all of them have important roles to play, unlike phones with dedicated depth or macro cameras. The selfie camera is also equally competent here. It has a 40-megapixel sensor and captures binned 10-megapixel photos by default. It has autofocus, and can shoot 4K 60fps stabilised videos. Image quality in daylight and low light, especially with Night mode, is very good.
Other than excellent camera performance, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is also a true-blue flagship with cutting-edge components. The Indian version is powered by Samsung's Exynos 2100 5G SoC, which is similar to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 SoC in terms of fabrication process and the types and number of ARM CPU cores used. The 12GB RAM variant that I had for review posted strong benchmark numbers. It scored 5,70,453 points in AnTuTu, and 960 and 2,995 points respectively in Geekbench's single-core and multi-core tests. These numbers are still behind what Apple's A14 Bionic in the iPhone 12 series can produce, but honestly, you'd be hard pressed to tell any difference between these phones with regular use.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G easily ran graphically intensive games such as Call of Duty: Mobile and Asphalt 9: Legends at the QHD+ resolution. Gameplay was smooth with solid framerates. The upper half of the metal frame did heat up very quickly when gaming, which you will feel if you use this phone without a case. In fact, this heating was noticeable even when using the camera app. The phone never got uncomfortably hot for me, and neither did this seem to throttle performance, but your mileage could vary.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra also fully supports Samsung's S Pen, which is sold as an accessory. I couldn't test this since Samsung didn't send it along with the phone, but I imagine that the experience should be similar to using the latest Galaxy Note series phones. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra also supports Wi-Fi 6E and has an Ultra Wide Band (UWB) chip, which should allow the phone to be used as a digital key to unlock your car (when compatible models are launched).
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G doubles up as an excellent device for media consumption. The 6.8-inch AMOLED display gets incredibly bright, and colours look rich and punchy. The QHD+ resolution offers very good sharpness, which is useful when reading text. The biggest new feature, as I mentioned in my first impressions piece, is that you can use the 120Hz refresh rate at the native resolution. It's also adaptive, which means when no touch input is detected, or if you're watching a video, the refresh rate automatically scales down to 60Hz. Samsung says it can go down all the way to 10Hz to save power, but I wasn't able to test this claim.
Videos in general look great on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G's display. Watching dark scenes in movies isn't a problem as the AMOLED panel can achieve impressive black levels. Audio from the stereo speakers is also very good thanks to the Dolby Atmos enhancement. You get high-fidelity audio playback with support for the DSD 64/128 and 32-bit PCM formats over a wired headset.
Other flagship features include an IP68 rating for dust and water resistance, Samsung Pay via NFC and MST, and a whole lot of sensors including a new-generation ultrasonic fingerprint sensor. Samsung claims this is about 1.7X larger than the previous model, and in my experience, it worked very well. All that's needed is a quick tap for successful authentication. Face recognition is supported too, and is also reliable.
I found battery life to be pretty solid. The 5,000mAh battery capacity is the same as what the Galaxy S20 Ultra had, and easily lasts for more than a full day of heavy to medium usage. With lighter use, I was able to prolong the battery life to a little more than a day and a half. This was with the display set to QHD+ and the 120Hz adaptive refresh rate enabled. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G lasted for 15 hours and 37 minutes in our HD video loop test, with the screen at the default resolution (full-HD+).
The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G supports fast charging but only at up to 25W, with a compatible USB PowerDelivery (PD) Type-C adapter. This is something you'll have to buy separately, either from Samsung or a third party vendor, since you don't get a power adapter in the box anymore. In fact, you get only a USB Type-C cable and the SIM eject tool.
I tried charging the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G with a 27W Motorola adapter and OnePlus' 65W adapter which ships with the 8T, and in both cases, I was able to get about a 70 percent charge in one hour. You can tell that the phone is charging rapidly as a “super fast charging” message appears on the lockscreen. This phone can also wirelessly fast charge with a compatible charger, and reverse wireless charging is also possible.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G runs OneUI 3.1, and it worked smoothly with no real hint of lag or slow-downs in the week that I had to review this phone. This is the latest version of Samsung's custom skin, and is based on Android 11. It looks and feels slick. Familiar Samsung gestures and shortcuts such as the Edge Panel are all present, which should make existing Samsung users feel right at home. Unlike the iPhone 12 Pro Max, you can make better use of the large display by opening two apps in split-screen. Samsung DeX is present, which I found super useful for transferring files from my laptop to the phone and vice versa, wirelessly.
I did get some spam notifications from the Samsung Shop app when I first began using the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, despite unchecking all the boxes to not receive marketing information, but this stopped after a day or two. However, what I didn't expect to see were third-party ads in some of Samsung's own apps such as Weather and Game Launcher. These are static ads and aren't really intrusive, but you really shouldn't have to see them on such an expensive smartphone. If you open the weather app or Game Launcher, they're right there at the top.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G packs in a lot of features, but all of this comes at the slight cost of ergonomics. It's a massive phone by any definition, and in fact, it's even a bit thicker and heavier than the Galaxy S20 Ultra. It's also quite top-heavy, and you can feel this imbalance, even with two-handed usage. I'm not complaining too much, though, since coming from the iPhone 12 Pro Max, I find it a bit more comfortable for one handed use thanks to the rounded sides.
The new design makes the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G look way better than previous models. Samsung's new contour-cut design for the camera module is unique, and manages to mask the camera bulge pretty well. You also get premium materials all around, with Corning Gorilla Glass Victus for the front and back, and a metal frame.
For a long time, Samsung's Galaxy S flagships in any given generation were mainly differentiated by display and battery size, with the ‘plus' models benefiting more. This changed last year when Samsung introduced a third ‘Ultra' model with a focus on cameras. This year, Samsung is trying to create an even larger gap between its models. The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G continues to be the hero product, but the Galaxy S21+ 5G and Galaxy S21 5G now have lower-resolution (full-HD+) displays, and the latter even ditches the glass back for plastic. Samsung did something similar with the Galaxy Note 20 series last year, with the Ultra model getting a premium treatment, while the standard model had to live with big compromises.
We're yet to review the Galaxy S21 5G and Galaxy S21+ 5G, so I'll reserve my judgement for them till we do, but it's clear that Samsung wants to push users who want the most premium experience towards the Ultra model, even if they don't care that much about cameras.
Samsung has bumped up the prices of all its Galaxy S phones this year, but the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, in particular, is still worth the premium in my opinion. It offers better value than the iPhone 12 Pro Max (Review), is similarly powerful, and has one of the best telephoto camera implementations in the market. Add to that the excellent build quality, great display, strong battery life, and productivity features such as S Pen support, and this is easily the best Samsung flagship to date.
Is Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra the most complete Android phone yet? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.