Description

The new Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s new ‘everything phone’ with more cameras, beefier specs, and even S Pen compatibility to eclipse the very likable Note 20 Ultra. If you’re dismayed about rumors of the end of Note series, just try the S21 Ultra.

This is Samsung’s vision of smartphone excess for 2021: five cameras led by a 108MP sensor, two telephoto cameras, 100x zoom and 40MP selfies, plus 5G, all-day battery life and up to 16GB of RAM – all packed into an Android phone with a 6.8-inch 120Hz Quad HD display and an upgraded in-screen fingerprint sensor that has a 1.7x larger surface area than the one on last year’s phone.

It was one of the first new smartphones we tested in 2021, along with the Samsung Galaxy S21 and Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus, and it set the bar high – much higher than last year’s problematic ‘Ultra’ phone. Samsung has retooled its main camera with lasers – yes, lasers – to remedy the autofocus issues on the Galaxy S20 Ultra, and also upgraded the specs to keep up with the demands of processing those large 108MP photos, 40MP selfies, and 8K video without as much as a hiccup.

Photos look sharp, dynamic range is impressive and Samsung’s ‘tripod lock’ software feature steadies the 30x and 100x zoom levels on subjects to prevent the viewfinder image from jumping around. It’s much easier to pull off the 100x ‘Space Zoom’ now, although punching in 100x is limited to being a neat party trick due to grainy images, while 30x is passable in the right light.

It’s the S21 Ultra’s 10x and 3x optical zoom levels that nailed the photos we wanted every time – more than any other smartphone telephoto camera. Our side-by-side comparisons with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which tops out at a 2.5x optical zoom, bore that out. Apple’s main camera captures cleaner photos in some low-light situations, but Samsung’s night mode has improved enough to almost close that gap after sunset or when you’re snapping away indoors – and its default camera app is more feature-packed and easier to use than Apple’s.

This is a tale of design beauty and the performance beast.

Photography and speed are only two-thirds of the story here. This is a tale of design beauty and the performance beast, with a gently curved edge-to-edge display, smaller rear camera bump and mesmerizing matte Phantom Black color option that’s like a black hole sucking in your gaze (other colors are available). It’s hard to look away. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s best-looking phone ever.

Welcome amid an economic slowdown, the overhauled look and boost in performance haven’t led to a price increase over last year’s S20 Ultra – Samsung has actually made this phone significantly cheaper. Granted, we felt like the first Ultra phone was overpriced, and the S21 Ultra is still mighty expensive – it’s more than the iPhone 12 Pro Max – but Samsung gives you a bit more for the extra cost: a larger, brighter and more capable curved screen, 10x optical camera zoom (vs 2.5x on the iPhone), and stylus support, something Apple has yet to offer on any iPhone.

Depending on what’s important to you, then, Samsung may be offering more value for your money.

What’s the catch? We started out saying that the S21 Ultra is Samsung’s vision of excess, but you’ll have to let go of what doesn’t fit into the company’s roadmap. Gone is the microSD card slot for expandable storage, and say goodbye to MST (being able to use Samsung Pay with credit card machine even if they didn’t have NFC). You won’t find a charger inside of the box either; like Apple, Samsung cites e-waste as the reason the power brick isn’t included.

If you only just got over the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack in Samsung smartphones, brace yourself for these changes – we have seen some diehards in our YouTube video comments proclaim “no microSD, no sale”. But there’s enough positive change here to offset any minor discomfort, enough that we’re now confident this ‘Ultra’ phone finally lives up to its name.