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Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review: Samsung's best S series for $200 less than last year's model

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Written by Matthew Miller on
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9.7

Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G

Spectacular
$1,000 at Samsung$1,149.97 at Amazon$1,098.95 at eBay
Like
  • Lovely design with matte finish back
  • 5G support for all bands
  • Advanced multiple cameras
  • S Pen support
  • Competive pricing
  • High end internal specifications
Don't Like
  • No MST support

Samsung shifted its annual Galaxy S series launch about a month to the left this year, and given the challenges we all faced in 2020, it is nice to see 2021 start off with some fresh phones from Samsung with a significant price drop. We were sent a new Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G to evaluate and will be following up this review with more articles since there is a lot to unpack.

Also: Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: Entry-level flagship drops $200 with few compromises

The Galaxy S21 phones are the first to launch widely with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor inside and 5G support for Sub6, mid-band, and mmWave so buyers are covered across the 5G spectrum with any of the three S21 models available from Samsung. We see improvements across the board in the display, cameras, software, and more. In addition, the S21 Ultra 5G supports the S Pen and just about everything we see in the Note series.

Also: Samsung Galaxy Note's future in question amid Galaxy S21 Ultra launch

The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G offers all you could want in 2021 and sets the bar for Android smartphones this year. The phone is available for pre-order with all kinds of trade-in and launch offers as well. If you are considering this phone and have an older phone sitting around then now is the time to purchase it since Samsung's trade-in deals change significantly after the phone launches and the pre-order period expires.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G specifications

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
  • Main display: 6.8 inches, 3200 x 1440 pixels resolution (515PPI), Dynamic AMOLED Infinity-O with adaptive 120Hz refresh rate
  • Operating system: Android 11
  • RAM: 12GB/16GB LPDDR5
  • Storage: 128/256/512GB internal storage options
  • Cameras: 10MP rear f/4.9 telephoto with 10x optical zoom and a second 10MP f/2.4 telephoto camera with 3x optical zoom, 108MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (120 degrees field-of-view). 40MP f/2.2 front-facing camera.
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.0 LE, GPS/Galileo/GLONASS/Beidou, NFC, UWB
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, Barometer, Ultrasonic Fingerprint Sensor, Gyro Sensor, Geomagnetic Sensor, Hall Sensor, Proximity Sensor, RGB Light Sensor
  • Dust/water resistance: IP68 rating
  • Battery: 5000mAh non-removable with fast wireless charging. Wireless PowerShare is also available.
  • Dimensions: 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm and 229G
  • Colors: Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy, and Phantom Brown

In the past, users had to choose from a lower resolution to enjoy the highest 120Hz refresh rate, but with the S21 Ultra, you can now toggle on the Quad HD Plus setting and the adaptive 120Hz refresh rate. The display also offers 25% more brightness than any previous Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

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The display is constructed of Corning Gorilla Glass Victus on both the front and back, so we'll have to see how durability tests hold up to the claims.

Also: Samsung's Galaxy S21 is official: Release date, price, features, specs, and everything else you need to know

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra works with S Pen. 

Samsung

Hardware

The most striking new hardware feature on the S21 Ultra is the new Contour Cut camera housing that extends the metal frame out from the right side and around the back. The cameras are surrounded by this frame piece, providing a rather unique camera array design. Like the S20 Ultra from 2020, cases are likely to be released to accommodate this camera bump and make the back of the device flat so it doesn't rock when placed back down on a surface.

The camera on the S20 Ultra was disappointing in some areas but was improved through software updates. Initial test comparison photos, check out our embedded image gallery, show that results from the S21 Ultra are clearly better than the S20 Ultra. With two telephoto cameras, a 108MP camera, and enhanced camera software we will provide a camera deep dive article in the future as we continue to test night mode, portrait mode (Live Focus renamed), and much more.

The other significant hardware improvement in the S21 Ultra is support for the S Pen experience. The S21 and S21 Plus do not have this support while the S21 Ultra includes Wacom technology. I tested out this new S Series capability using S Pens from the Galaxy Tab Active3, Tab S7 Plus, and Note 10 Plus. All functions of the S Pen, including screen off memos, work on the S21 Ultra with the exception of Bluetooth Air Actions. There is no way to store and charge an S Pen on the S21 Ultra so it is not expected that Air Actions would be supported. Samsung will be offering three accessories for the S Pen experience, including an S Pen for the S Series. 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is a gorgeous piece of hardware with minimal top and bottom bezels, no side bezels, and a small hole-punch centered front-facing camera. The power/Bixby and volume buttons on the right side with nothing on the left side. The sides have a bit of a flat surface so the phone feels a bit like a Note with less curve on the edges.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review: in pictures

The Super AMOLED display is obviously stunning and I'm sure will earn the highest title of any smartphone display soon. Samsung continues to improve its display, even when it seems there is little to improve since Samsung sets the bar for display technology on smartphones. Higher brightness, improved contrast ratio, and Eye Comfort Shield is incorporated in the S21 Ultra.

Another change that may concern enterprise customers is the lack of support for microSD in any Galaxy S21 model, including the S21 Ultra. Swappable, expandable storage has always been a staple of Samsung smartphones and may be missed by some. For just $50 more you can jump from the entry 128GB of storage to 256GB while the jump all the way to 512GB (and accompanying 16GB of RAM) is $180. I never took out my microSD card and $50 extra for 256GB, don't forget the entry price is $200 less than last year's S20 line, is a reasonable strategy. Samsung's integrated storage is the fastest available on Android so while some may lament the end of microSD I'm not concerned with the change.

Wi-Fi 6E support is included in the S21 Ultra, but I wasn't able to test this out since I do not have access to a 6E network. It's great to have as it provides some future-proofing to Samsung's latest flagship smartphone. UWB is also present and offers a bit of future-proofing since we are just starting to see applications for UWB technology.

Also: Samsung Galaxy S21 starts at $799.99, launches Galaxy S21 Plus, Galaxy S21 Ultra with camera upgrades

Software

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G launches with Android 11 and Samsung One UI 3. The January 1, 2021, Android security update is present on our review unit. We may receive more updates on these evaluation units prior to public availability later this month.

I've been using One 3.x on a Galaxy S20 Ultra for a few weeks and am satisfied with the user interface. One thing I am pleased to see is the update to the launcher where Google Discover now appears as an option on the far left home screen panel. You can still switch to Samsung Free, but it's great to see Samsung providing users with options. In the past, I always turned off this panel because I didn't find Samsung's offering very compelling. This is the same for me with OnePlus and its old Shelf home screen panel.

Facebook is installed by default, but rather than just disable it you can now fully uninstall it, and I certainly did as soon as I fired up the app launcher. We still find some Samsung apps, such as Internet, Messages, Samsung Notes, Samsung Health, and a few others, but you are given the option to select these apps during setup so you do not have to install them all and have more control over your phone than you did in the past.

DeX wireless support is provided so you can connect the S21 Ultra to a PC or monitor and enjoy a PC-like experience powered by the S21 Ultra. We also see excellent integration with Microsoft Outlook, To-Do, and Teams, which is perfect for enterprise customers.

The camera software has been improved with a new feature called Director's View that is designed to help with collaboration, especially during these times of social distancing and remote work. With Director's View enabled you can quickly toggle between the different rear cameras on the phone while having the option to record yourself side-by-side or picture-in-picture format so that you can share information better with your teams. This seems like a great option for my on-site shipyard inspection team to share fabrication, installation, and testing experiences with me located in a home office thousands of miles away.

Daily usage experiences

The two default S21 Ultra colors, Phantom Black and Phantom Silver, are perfect for business use. The other three colors are Samsung.com exclusives and offer a professional look with a bit of flair. I'm seriously considering the Phantom Brown color as brown is one of my three favorite colors and it looks sharp on the Samsung website. The S21 Ultra will launch on Jan. 29, starting at $1,199.99. There are pre-order offers and trade-in offers available, too.

Samsung sent along the S21 Ultra with the best specs, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of internal storage, so this beast has been able to handle everything we've thrown at it so far. I've played CPU demanding games, opened up several apps and many in split-screen mode, watched videos, and more to see if there were any impacts on performance, but never noticed any reduction at all. The speakers sound awesome and I've enjoyed Star Wars movies playing with no connected headset.

As I stated earlier, I've been taking photos with the S21 Ultra and other phones, but have to spend more time with it to pass final judgment. So far I like what I am seeing, but also enjoy the output from the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Stay tuned for a future article on the cameras of this stunning phone.

I wasn't trying to conduct any durability tests, but my daughter set the S21 Ultra down on a book and due to the slippery nature of the phone it slowly slid down the book and then headed down. The book was on a granite island about four feet high so the phone fell down eight inches to another granite counter and struck that on the side (taking out a small chunk of my granite counter) and then another three plus feet screen down on the hardwood floor. There was no damage to the phone, except for a minor scratch on the edge, with more damage done to my counter. It looks like Victus glass is holding up well.

Samsung reigns supreme when it comes to cellular reception and call quality. I've only been out and about to a few locations over the past week so will continue to test these functions, but callers say I sound crystal clear and coverage has been rock solid with both LTE and 5G showing up everywhere I've traveled.

It's been a couple of years since I personally considered a Galaxy S series for myself since I've been enjoying the Note line and new Z Fold models, but the S21 Ultra 5G gets just about everything right and is gorgeous. I love that it is a few millimeters narrower than the iPhone 12 Pro Max and that the zoom cameras provide something unique with solid quality. The price is right for the S21 Ultra 5G and I don't know how I am going to resist ordering my own in the next week.

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