We've been using the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (see our full review) for more than a week and it's pretty clear this model is more than the typical consumer-focused S series of the past. We also spent a month with the Note 20 Ultra and had that phone at the top of our list for best phone for business.
In the past, the Note series launched with the newest innovations from Samsung, but last year the timing was shifted and the Note 20 Ultra ended up as a S20 Ultra with support for the S Pen and compromises made in the camera department. It seems the future of the Note series remains to be determined.
Samsung's S21 Ultra launches with best specifications of any current Samsung smartphone and sets the bar for other Android phones launching in 2021. Reviewers across the mobile community universally laud the new phone with most agreeing it matches the best Apple has to offer with the iPhone 12 Pro Max so that choice primarily comes down to an operating system and ecosystem preference. However, the question for Samsung users is whether or not to leave the Note 20 Ultra behind.
Tale of the tape
Specifications don't provide the complete picture regarding the capabilities of a smartphone, but they are useful for comparison purposes and to provide you with an indication of what each device offers.
|Feature||Galaxy S21 Ultra||Galaxy Note 20 Ultra|
|Display size||6.8 inches||6.9 inches|
|Processor||Snapdragon 888||Snapdragon 865+|
|Dimensions||165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm||164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1mm|
|Rear cameras||Four: 10MP tele (10x), 10MP tele (3x), 108MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide||Three: 12MP tele, 108MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide|
|Front cameras||One 40MP||One 10MP|
|Other||WiFi 6E, larger ultrasonic fingerprint sensor||microSD card|
Both Samsung devices have an adaptive 120MHz refresh rate display, fast wireless charging, IP68 dust/water resistance, wireless powershare capability, UWB, and 5G so the differences are minor in most specifications. The S21 Ultra does include the newest Qualcomm Snapdragon processor.
In the past, the key difference between the S series and Note series was the S Pen. That is no longer the case as the S21 Ultra 5G supports S Pen functionality. There is no S Pen included and no integrated silo to store it, but you can purchase accessory cases and an S Pen to use with the S21. You can also use S Pens from a Note phone or a Samsung tablet.
The only current limitation on S Pen use with the S21 is in regards to Bluetooth Air Actions. However, in the future Samsung plans to release an S Pen with this support for the S21.
Given that the S21 Ultra now supports the S Pen, it is the better buy with improved cameras, the newest Qualcomm processor, matte finish Gorilla Glass Victus material, and Wi-Fi 6E. The only reason you may want to consider the Note 20 Ultra is the microSD card slot, unless you actually use the Air Actions with the S Pen.
We will continue to use the S21 Ultra here at ZDNet in the coming weeks so stay tuned for more coverage on the camera performance, S Pen, and more.