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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: The Ultimate Android Phone Right Now, In Every Possible Way

Vishal Mathur
·11-min read

I have probably said it before, and I’ll say it again. There aren’t many Android phones that I genuinely wait for every year, but the annual refresh of the flagship Samsung Galaxy S series is right up there in what is a very short list otherwise. Last year, it was the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra that well and truly reset the benchmark for Android phones at the time. Less than a year later, it is the turn of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra to take over the reigns as the flagship Android phone and indeed the most expensive Android phone in Samsung’s smartphone line-up. You will be able to buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra in India in two variants, and that’s your choice between the 12GB RAM and 256GB storage or the fully loaded option with 16GB RAM and 512GB storage. You can have this in the new Phantom Black and Phantom Silver colour options, and what you see photographed here is the gorgeous matte finish of the Phantom Black.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is priced at Rs 1,05,999 for the 256GB variant and Rs 1,16,999 for the 512GB variant. There are a whole bunch of preorder offers that you can take advantage of right now and for the next few days, before the phone officially goes on sale on January 29. There is also the offer for HDFC cards which get a Rs 7,000 instant cashback. On the Samsung E-shop, there is an exchange offer with up to Rs 40,999 for your old phone, depending on the phone and condition you are trading in. Samsung is offering the bundle for the Galaxy Watch Active2, otherwise priced at Rs 23,990, for just Rs 990. All this adds value, if you take advantage of the right offers.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Let us first look at the highlight specs of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. And let us get this out of the way first and foremost—this is the first time the Samsung Galaxy S series phones are getting the S-Pen. The S-Pen stylus, till now, was exclusive to the Samsung Galaxy Note phones. Not getting into any speculations whatsoever about the possible future of the Galaxy Note series of phones, but the addition of the S-Pen does make the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra a no-holds barred flagship Android phone. It also eliminates the uncomfortable choice that some potential buyers may have had to make. That being said, the S Pen is an optional accessory that you’ll have to buy separately. That, to be honest, doesn’t exactly sound fair.

Nevertheless, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra makes up for the optional S Pen with the rest of the spec sheet. This is powered by Samsung’s latest Exynos 2100 processor (at least in the Indian market), whereas the US units are powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip. These newest pieces of processing power are the biggest testament to the big performance leap that the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra gets over the already very powerful Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. In terms of the performance, this is without doubt faster than last year’s Exynos 990, and there is a specific reason for that—it remains cooler for longer. In my opinion and based on what I have experienced, the Exynos 2100 does a significantly better job of staying cool, at least comparatively, which means it is able to hold performance for longer and battery life also remains robust. You may not exactly notice the definite performance boost for the most part because we are comparing this with a predecessor that is already very powerful, but you’ll certainly see the improvements when you game or really multitask on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

There is a lot of RAM too, irrespective of which variant you pick, and the storage has been upgraded to a faster UFS 3.1, swapping out the UFS 3.0—that means much faster read and write speeds, which add to the overall performance experience. Then there are the certain advantages of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra running Android 11 along with the One UI 3.1 wrapper. These two sets of software bring their own bundles of performance improvements, optimizations and visual upgrades. In my experience, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra again resets the performance benchmark for Android phones, at least for the time being. Much like its predecessor had. It doesn’t break sweat even if you leave more than a dozen apps running in the background, and doesn’t start heating up if you use the camera a lot or do a quick splash and dash on Forza Street (by the way, you must download this game from the Samsung Galaxy Store app).

The Dynamic AMOLED is now 6.8-inch instead of 6.9-inch and retains the same 3200 x 1440 resolution as before. The thing is, this still remains one of the best smartphone displays in the Android ecosystem, if not the best—and that depends on subjectivity. However, the big upgrade is that this can now do the faster 120Hz refresh rate at the full 1440p resolution. In the predecessor, you got either the 1440p at the 60Hz refresh rate or if you wanted to experience the goodness of the smooth 120Hz, you’d have to drop down to the FHD resolution. That’s no longer a compromise now. That being said, we must note that this is an adaptive refresh rate display, which means that irrespective of whether you select 60Hz or 120Hz, that’s essentially the maximum it’ll go to. Depending on what’s on the screen at the time, it’ll intelligently clock down the refresh rate to as low as 10Hz in order to save battery.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s display tops out at 1500nits of brightness, which means it is incredibly rich and bright. You will definitely not be squinting as you want to read something on email while outdoors on a bright sunny day or if you are trying to shoot the right photo as the sun beats down in the afternoon. Colors in the Natural screen mode look nice and subdued, great if you are working on documents, browsing the web or even reading. Switch to the Vivid option, and everything just livens up ever so slightly, and that’s apt for Netflix and Amazon Prime Video streaming sessions.

Even as I use the phone, there is just something about the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s design that often makes me flip it around and just admire the back. It’s the matte finish of the Phantom Black that just has a charm that’s difficult to describe. It is incredibly attractive and great to hold. That dark personality, thanks to the Phantom Black colour, looks like it is made to look gorgeous, something that a lot of black phones haven’t able to replicate in the past. And that led to a perception that black colored phones are boring. They most certainly aren’t, and Samsung is showing the way forward. The dimensions are largely similar to the predecessor, give or take a few. Its only very slightly heavier too. Ruggedness is a strong point of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. It gets the Corning Gorilla Glass Victus on the front and back of the phone, and that is by far and away, the most rugged glass layer for smartphones right now.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

At the back sits the quad camera setup, immediately an upgrade in terms of the implementation and the specifications. We are used to camera modules sitting on a thicker ridge, but not many camera implementations in smartphones look as pretty as this. In fact, on our review unit, it is easy to appreciate how the module itself has been given a different matte finish compared with the rest of the phone—something that’s accentuated when light falls on it.

But one thing needs to be addressed about the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. There is no integrated cradle for the S Pen, like how the Galaxy Note series phones do. That means you’ll not only have to buy an S Pen, but also have to carry it around and remember to not misplace it. Most definitely not a hardship, but I suspect that Samsung will perhaps refine the design enough by the time the next generation of the Galaxy S series phones comes around, to integrate a cradle. For now, you’ll need to use the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Silicon Cover with S Pen or the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Smart Clear View Cover with S Pen to store it safely. If like me, you don’t like to use a case on your phone, you’re out of luck.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

There is a significant overhaul of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s cameras, and that gains even more importance after the slow and inconsistent focus issues that the predecessor faced. This time, leading the photography duties is the upgraded 108-megapixel ISOCELL HM3 which will join the data from 9 pixels into 1 large pixel, if you are shooting with the standard modes. Immediately, the sensor hardware as well as the image processing software updates mean that the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra focusses faster, retains focus and tracks focus better than its predecessor did, at least till the software updates for the latter alleviated the issue somewhat.

There are significant changes in the rest of the quad camera configuration as well. There is a 10-megapixel periscope camera that enables 10x optical zoom, a 10-megapxiel telephoto lens that enables 3x optical zoom and a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera. It is the 10x optical zoom coupled with a more usable than before 30x zoom and a party piece albeit limited genuine utility 100x, that makes the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera stand out. In my humble opinion, the ability to drag fantastic 10x optical zoom thanks to the dual zoom system, from your smartphone really is a priceless upgrade. No longer do you need to compromise with the lossy digital zoom. And to be fair, even at 30x, the photos that the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra pulls out are really good—and if you don’t tell your friends this was shot from a far-off distance at 30x, they wouldn’t realize it anyway.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

If I am to speak my mind freely for a moment, I’d be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of AI modes in smartphone cameras. They usually tend to overdo things, particularly with colours, leaving you with unbalanced colours when you want to edit later. When I took the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra for a spin for the very first time, I did forget to turn off the scene optimizer AI mode in the camera, and as luck would have it, took a photo of some delicious food on my plate. The results were surprising, in the most pleasant way possible. Took the same photo without the scene optimizer, and things just weren’t the same. Scene optimizer, on.

A lot of phones claim a lot about the night mode photography capabilities. Fair enough, the low light photography has become significantly better over time. Yet, I have to say that no Android phone has impressed as much, yet, with low light photos. Yes, you need to keep the hand stable for a couple of seconds for the camera to take multiple exposures which it can then work with before you are served the final photo. There is that gentle illumination boost which brings life to photos, and that comes with very limited distortion, if at all, nicely separated colours and a nice rhythm to how the photos look without being too bright or too dark.

There are still some shortcomings that cannot exactly be ignored. There is no microSD card slot to add more storage—that could be a problem if you’re eyeing the 256GB storage option and aren’t really big on cloud storage. Secondly, Samsung has lowered the fast-charging speeds—the 5000mAh battery on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra now tops out at 25-watt, instead of 45-watt of the predecessor. At the same time, there is also the well documented removal of the charger from the box that you need to factor in.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

The Last Word: Just The Necessary Upgrades To Push The Flagship Goalposts

It was always going to be tough for the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra to follow the fantastic phone that is the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, at least as far as the experience is concerned. Yet, Samsung clearly has taken pains to find those specific points on the spec sheet, which needed an upgrade. And the results show. The more powerful processor was to be expected, but this seems to have really knuckled down on staying cool too. The display gets the 120Hz goodness across the board and the adaptive refresh rate saves battery too. The camera gets new hardware and software, and the photography performance is absolutely fantastic. It’s these upgrades that come together with a completely new gorgeous design and the optional S Pen capabilities that really make the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra the benchmark phone in the Android ecosystem.