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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: A justifiable expense?

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
1,149
inc VAT

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is full to the brim with features, but you might not like how much it costs

Pros 
Astonishing cameras
Beautiful 120Hz display
Noteworthy performance boost
Cons 
Xiaomi Mi 11 is (almost) half the price
Lacks microSD expansion
No charger in the box
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If there’s one thing we know for certain, it’s that Samsung doesn’t hold much back during its twice-annual flagship phone launches. As the year begins anew, we already have three new Galaxy S-series flagships to choose from, with the most expensive of the bunch being the appropriately named Galaxy S21 Ultra.

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As the title – and price – suggests, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is pretty much the be-all and end-all when it comes to flagship smartphones. Fitted with all the latest mobile tech, including a 108MP main camera, 120Hz WQHD screen and Samsung’s first 5nm chipset, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a long, long way from being affordable.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: What you need to know

But of course, that doesn’t necessarily matter, does it? The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the sort of phone that’s at the top of the list for the lucky few with deep pockets. And if, like me, there’s absolutely no way you can justify the expense, then it’s more of an aspiration than a possibility – something to admire from a distance rather than actually own.

The good news is that if you’re salivating for a high-end phone that can do absolutely everything without breaking much of a sweat, there’s no doubt this is it.

Sitting at the top of Samsung’s new flagship trio, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has everything you could want from a top-end flagship phone, including a gigantic 6.8in screen, a smattering of rear and front-facing cameras, up to 512GB of internal storage and the option to upgrade to a – frankly bonkers – 16GB of RAM. It’s also the first Samsung phone to come with Android 11 pre-installed, and it can record 8K video, just like last year’s Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Price and competition

Let’s get the bad news out of the way, then. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, like its predecessor, isn’t cheap. Starting at £1,149, it’s the priciest flagship smartphone on the market, costing slightly more than both the iPhone 12 Pro Max (£1,099) and Huawei Mate 40 Pro (£1,099).

However, despite costing the Earth, it could be argued the Galaxy S21 Ultra is actually better value than either of its rivals. The “cheapest” iPhone 12 Pro Max, which costs just £50 less, has half the RAM (6GB), a slightly smaller screen (6.7in) with a maximum refresh rate of only 60Hz, and a 12MP triple-camera array.

As for the Huawei Mate 40 Pro, the less said about that, the better. Like Samsung, the hardware on offer is top-notch but due to Huawei’s ongoing trade spat with the US government, it doesn’t run the officially supported version of Android. The current software offering is limited and it also lacks regular security patches.

If the S21 Ultra’s price is a tough pill to swallow, then there are two other S21 phones to consider this year. The cheapest of the three is the regular Galaxy S21, which starts at £769. Moving up the ladder, the Galaxy S21 Plus has a slightly bigger screen (6.7in) than the entry model, as well as a larger battery (4,800mAh), and costs £819. The Xiaomi Mi 11, which uses the same 108MP camera sensor as the S21 Ultra, costs almost half the price at £660.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Design and key features

Kicking things off, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a new design for 2021. Now coated in a matte finish and sandwiched between a protective layer of Gorilla Glass Victus, the S21 Ultra also has a new camera housing on the back, with its vertical line of cameras now blending neatly into the top-right corner of the handset with what Samsung calls the “Contour Cut”. The Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t come with the same lineup of colour choices as the rest of the range, though, and you can pick one up in either “Phantom Black” or "Phantom Silver".

It’s no surprise that the Galaxy S21 Ultra lacks a headphone jack but at least Samsung hasn’t included a dedicated Bixby button. The digital assistant is instead summoned when long-pressing the power button. The under-display fingerprint reader is now 1.7x larger than the one on last year’s model too, and works well even while it’s raining.

This is also the first Samsung phone to launch without a charger in the box. Following in Apple’s footsteps, Samsung says the charger’s removal is an effort to reduce the environmental impact of the phone, but it also says that it “removes any pressure that consumers may feel towards continually receiving unnecessary charger accessories with new phones”.

This is bad news for consumers who are looking to make the switch from iPhone to Samsung, since the Galaxy S21 Ultra charges via USB-C and thus doesn’t support Apple’s Lightning cable. Perhaps a more consumer-friendly tactic would be to provide a choice as to whether or not the charger was included, instead of removing it entirely.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Display

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has the biggest screen of the three new S21 phones, stretching out across 6.8in. It’s one of Samsung’s “Dynamic AMOLED 2x” panels and it now supports 120Hz at the native WQHD+ resolution (1,440 x 3,200) of the panel.

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It’s certainly no surprise that the quality of the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s display is absolutely sublime. According to my measurements using our X-Rite display colorimeter, the S21 Ultra peaked at a maximum brightness of 874cd/m2 with the auto setting engaged, and a blinding 1,548cd/m2 when displaying HDR content.

With two colour modes to pick and choose from, the S21 Ultra’s “Natural” setting most closely matches the sRGB colour profile, with a coverage of 94% and a total volume of 95.7%. The “Vivid” mode is pretty close to the DCI-P3 colour space, which is used in most HDR playback.

Something new this year is that the Galaxy S21 Ultra is also the first Samsung phone outside of the Note lineup to support Samsung’s S Pen stylus. Sold separately (£34), this new S Pen is built by Wacom and you can also purchase a stylus case, which features heavily in Samsung’s marketing materials. Neither of which was supplied for review.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Performance and battery life

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has the same Exynos 2100 chipset (it’s the Snapdragon 888 in the US) as the rest of the lineup. Unlike the other phones, however, you also get the option to upgrade from 12GB of RAM to a whopping 16GB, along with a choice of either 128GB, 256GB or 512GB of non-expandable storage. In my experience, 16GB of RAM is pretty much overkill for any smartphone – my MacBook Pro “only” has 8GB of RAM.

A choice you don’t have to make, however, is whether or not to pay extra for a 5G model. All three phones come with 5G at no additional cost this year and the Galaxy S21 Ultra even supports Wi-Fi 6E connections (the first smartphone to do so), although the number of people likely to have a new 6GHz router at home is vanishingly small right now.

Let’s move to the numbers-heavy portion of this review, then. In the Geekbench 5 CPU test, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s Exynos 2100 matched the single-core performance of its predecessor, the Exynos 990, found inside the S20 Ultra. Where it differs, however, is in multi-core performance. The S21 Ultra is roughly 24% faster here, which is a huge boost.

Overall, though, the S21 Ultra lags slightly behind the Snapdragon 888 (tested in the Xiaomi Mi 11) and is no match for the as-yet-unbeatable processing speeds of the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Where the Galaxy S21 Ultra has seen the biggest improvement is in the graphics rendering department. With an average frame rate of 93fps in the GFXBench Manhattan on-screen test (at native WQHD resolution), the S21 Ultra’s GPU performance is almost double that of last year’s S20 Ultra. Drop the screen resolution down to FHD+ and the frame rate jumps to 118fps.

The good news continues on the stamina front, too. This isn’t the longest-lasting phone we’ve tested, but it’s pretty darned close: the Galaxy S21 Ultra reached 22hrs 34mins during video playback at the default FHD+ resolution. Looking back, the S20 Ultra lasted just as long under the same conditions, and it beats the iPhone 12 Pro Max by over six hours.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Cameras

The cameras also receive their fair share of upgrades this year. Indeed, the Ultra is the only S21 phone to come with a 108MP (f/1.8) main camera and it also comes with a pair of 10MP telephoto lenses.

Why two? Samsung says the combination of 10x (f/4.9) and 3x (f/2.4) zoom cameras boost the quality of “Space Zoom” images, up to a maximum magnification of 100x. These cameras are backed by a fourth 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide sensor, as well as a front-facing 40MP (f/2.2) selfie camera.

Camera improvements include enhanced noise reduction in low-light conditions, as well as the ability to slow down multiple instances in a single slow-mo video. You can also grab a still image directly from 8K footage, and add virtual lighting in portrait pictures.

It should come as no surprise that the quality of the images that the Galaxy S21 Ultra is capable of capturing are nothing short of exceptional. As with other high-megapixel-count flagships, the S21 Ultra doesn’t capture 108MP images by default – although this can be enabled in the settings – instead taking 12MP pictures in the auto mode.

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Not that there’s much need to tweak the camera settings, though. Open up the camera app and you’ll be treated to wonderful, detail-rich images that are filled with vibrant colours and rich, intricate details. I was particularly impressed with the portrait mode, which you can see here side-by-side with the iPhone 12 Pro:

You can adjust the S21 Ultra’s camera zoom via an on-screen slider, or simply tap on the various quick-select zoom ranges (0.6x, 1x, 2x, 4x, 10x, 30x and 100x) if you need to zoom in on something quickly.

It’s easy enough to use, although it can be tricky to get whatever you want in the frame at anything above 30x zoom. The S21 Ultra’s stabilisation does help eliminate hand shake, but not by a huge amount, and the final image might not be what you were aiming at anyway.

On that note, it’s time to discuss why the S21 Ultra’s 100x zoom exists in the first place. In my view, it doesn’t really serve much of a practical purpose; it’s more of a marketing gimmick than genuinely useful. I did, however, manage to take a nice zoomed-in picture of the moon on an unusually clear London evening:

The 100x zoom might be quite situational, then, but lower magnifications of up to 30x are far more likely to come in useful. For instance, it allowed me to frame the O2 Arena nicely, while shooting from the opposite side of the Thames, without any noticeable loss in detail:

As for the S21 Ultra’s 8K video recording, footage is captured at 24fps (4K video is available at up to 60fps) and the quality is magnificent. It isn’t as stable as I’d like it to be during quick pans, though, and a handful of user-friendly camera features such as object focus-tracking go missing in this mode. You’ll need an expensive 8K TV or monitor to watch the footage elsewhere, too.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Verdict

The Samsung S21 is a fabulous smartphone and it comes packed with everything you could possibly want from a flagship. However, with a four-figure cost that zooms past its already-expensive rivals, it’s a tough sell, especially during the current period of economic instability.

Now, more than ever, consumers are keeping a watchful eye on their wallets and the Galaxy S21 Ultra might not be seen as a justifiable expense, especially when the regular S21 costs £380 less.

If you are lucky enough to afford one, then you likely won’t be disappointed. It’s brilliant. However, there are much better value options right now. Take the brand-new Xiaomi Mi 11, for instance, which shares the S21 Ultra’s 108MP camera and costs almost half the price. I know where I’d rather spend my money.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra specifications
ProcessorOcta-core Samsung Exynos 2100 (1x2.9GHz, 3x2.8GHz, 4x2.2GHz)
RAM16GB
Screen size6.8in
Screen resolution3,200 x 1,440
Pixel density515ppi
Screen typeDynamic AMOLED 2X
Screen refresh rate120Hz
Front camera40MP (f/2.2)
Rear camera108MP (f/1.8), 10MP (f/4.) 10x zoom, 10MP (f/2.4) 3x zoom, 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide
FlashLED
Dust and water resistanceIP68
3.5mm headphone jackNo
Wireless chargingYes
USB connection typeUSB-C
Storage options128GB; 256GB; 512GB
Memory card slot (supplied)No
Wi-FiWi-Fi 6
Bluetooth5.2
NFCYes
Cellular data5G, 4G
Dual SIMYes
Dimensions (WDH)165 x 76 x 8.9mm
Weight227g
Operating systemAndroid 11 (One UI 3.1)
Battery size5,000mAh

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