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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra one year later: Is it still worth buying?
At the end of 2021, Android Authority readers voted the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra as the year’s best phone. It faced some tough competition, most notably from the Google Pixel 6 series, of which the vanilla model was our Editor’s Choice pick for 2021. But we’re a year on from the phone’s launch now, so how does the Galaxy S21 Ultra stack up in 2022?
Obviously, this phone is still a favorite among our readers, so we know how you all feel. However, today we need to view the Galaxy S21 Ultra through a 2022 lens. Not only do we have the Galaxy S22 series right around the corner — which we know from all the leaks will include a Note-flavored Ultra variant — but we also have heavy-hitters from OnePlus, Google, and Xiaomi to think about.
With all that in mind, is it still worth buying this phone today? Let’s dive into our Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra long-term review and find out.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review recap
For our original review of the phone in January 2021, we awarded the Galaxy S21 Ultra a score of 4.5/5 stars, putting it among the best phones of the year. We were floored by what the phone offered across the key processing, display, and camera departments. Especially when compared to the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which we weren’t as impressed with, particularly regarding its design.
Six months after the phone launched, we were still impressed. Even when compared to Samsung’s new slate of foldable phones, the Galaxy S21 Ultra was still a worthwhile buy. Its $1,200 starting price didn’t deter us from continuing to recommend it.
With another six months gone, it’s time to give the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra the long-term review it deserves.
How has the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra aged?
So far, the closest and newest 2022 Android competitor to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra we’ve seen is the OnePlus 10 Pro — a phone you can’t even buy yet outside of China. Interestingly, most of that phone’s specs either match or are weaker than the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
For example, the battery sizes are the same (5,000mAh). The displays are also very similar: huge WQHD AMOLED screens with 120Hz adaptive refresh rates. Meanwhile, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a higher maximum RAM count (up to 16GB) and a higher maximum internal storage amount (up to 512GB). The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera specs also far outmatch the OnePlus 10 Pro’s.
Except in two areas, the Galaxy S21 Ultra's spec sheet is still better than the OnePlus 10 Pro's.
In fact, the OnePlus 10 Pro only beats the Galaxy S21 Ultra in two areas: the processor and charging speeds. The processor in the 10 Pro is the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, which is the 2022 flagship. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s year-old Snapdragon 888 and Exynos 2100 are, by definition, not going to match it. However, those chipsets are still monsters — just not as much of a monster as the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1.
Really, the 10 Pro’s charging speeds are the only thing Samsung just can’t compete with. The 10 Pro’s speeds are literally three times as powerful as the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s for both wired and wireless connections. This is a shame and we sincerely hope Samsung rectifies this disparity with the Galaxy S22 series.
Outside the Android ecosystem, Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro Max launched in late 2021 and is a notable competitor to the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Again, Apple’s A15 Bionic processor is a little more powerful but not so much as to meaningfully separate the day-to-day experience. Samsung’s phone remains competitive in the display, storage, and charging departments. The Galaxy S21 Ultra also offers a more flexible and robust camera package than Apple’s latest premium iPhone.
The Galaxy S21 is already running Android 12, with two more OS updates to come.
Regardless, the point is that, even in 2022, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is still a beast of a phone when it comes to raw specs. Even one year later, the phone can compete with other premium flagships. On the software side, the handset has already received an update to Android 12 with Samsung’s own One UI 4 improvements on top. You can read more about what’s new at the link below.
Read more: Hands-on with all the new One UI 4 features
Minimalist design pays off
Great specs are integral to making a terrific phone, but design matters, too. After all, a lackluster design can make a phone seem out of date one year later, just because it would stick out like a sore thumb compared to its more modern counterparts.
Thankfully, during my time testing the phone for this Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra long-term review, I never once felt that it didn’t look and feel great. This is notable because it wasn’t the case for the 2020 model. It’s great that Samsung moved away from the brutalist — and I’ll just say it: ugly — design of the Galaxy S20 Ultra. The S21 Ultra’s subdued camera bump built into the side of the device and curvy (but not too curvy) sides give it a minimalist elegance that might look modern even five years from now.
Samsung's S21 Ultra exudes minimalist elegance that should look modern even five years from now.
Of course, this is still a huge and heavy phone. At up to 229g — depending on the model— the Galaxy S21 Ultra will be a brick in your pocket, if it even fits there. Holding its massive frame will be a bit of a burden if you don’t have fairly large hands, and trying to use the device one-handed is basically a fool’s errand.
However, people who want phones in this category already know and have accepted this. Folks like me wish there was a way to get all the specs and features of a Galaxy S21 Ultra in a smaller, lighter form factor, but that’s not happening any time soon. For what it is, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is still a beauty.
Is the Galaxy S21 Ultra camera experience still good?
One of our biggest problems with the Galaxy S20 Ultra was its camera. Despite having some stellar hardware, the phone had trouble with some basic tasks, such as autofocus. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, though, fixed all the problems we had with its predecessor, making it easily one of the best smartphone cameras in 2021 — or any year, at that.
Unsurprisingly, the camera is still astounding today. Not only does it produce terrific photographs, but its dual-telephoto system — which includes a periscope lens — allows for plenty of versatility. Focus is no longer a problem and the latest One UI 4.0 software is rich with shooting options, including the classic portrait and night modes. Combined with the aforementioned Snapdragon 888 processor, capturing photos and videos is lightning fast.
Speaking of video, the phone can shoot up to 8K at 24fps or 4K at 60fps, with the latter also available from the front camera. The rear cameras all benefit from solid stabilization and Samsung has a few extra software tools to help shoot footage too. Director’s View allows you to switch between wide and zoom lenses while shooting or you can use Single Take to auto-generate shot clips of a moment as well as assorted pictures.
The S21 Ultra's versatile setup held out as the best camera package of 2021.
Below, you can see some photos shot with the Galaxy S21 Ultra since receiving the One UI 4.0 update in late November 2021:
Obviously, nothing is ever perfect and the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera still has room for improvement. Samsung can still oversaturate colors in certain instances, for example, and sometimes the software gets a little overzealous with the sharpening processing pass.
If those two things irritate you, though, you can always use the new-ish Expert Raw camera app from Samsung. This app essentially takes Samsung’s computational systems out of the equation and gives you full access to the S21 Ultra’s camera hardware. We wouldn’t recommend this to casual users, but if you feel the general camera software takes things too far, you’re probably not a casual user anyway.
Related: The best camera phones you can get
Some things aren’t so ‘Ultra’ though
When Samsung minted the “Ultra” moniker, it was clear the company was reserving the title for phones that had everything you could ever want. In fact, some might even argue the Ultra phones we’ve seen so far have been overkill in some areas — 16GB of RAM is wholly unnecessary, for example.
Unfortunately, the Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t live up to its name in some respects. Here’s where the phone is missing out.
No expandable storage
Both of Samsung’s other Ultra phones to date — the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra — have had expandable storage. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the odd one out here, and it’s pretty disappointing.
Granted, expandable storage is starting to become very much like headphone jacks, by which I mean they are disappearing from premium flagships at an astounding rate. Samsung could be forgiven here for just going along with the trend, but I think we need to hold anything with the word “Ultra” in its name to a higher standard.
This is especially disappointing when you remember the phone is capable of shooting 8K video, which records files at an average of 10MB per second. Sure, the 512GB variant of the phone solves that problem, but a microSD card slot would be cheaper and more user-friendly.
Rumors suggest the Galaxy S22 Ultra could also lack expandable storage, so this is just me yelling into the wind. Still, it’s a shame for power users looking for more storage options.
Slower-than-average charging (even if you know which one to buy)
As mentioned earlier, charging speeds and standards are the weakest aspect of the Galaxy S21 Ultra when compared to the competition. OnePlus has trounced Samsung for years when it comes to charging speed, although long-term battery health is another issue. Nowadays, even the Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro charge faster in both wireless and wired modes when compared to the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
This isn’t helped by the fact that a charger doesn’t come in the box with a Galaxy S21 Ultra. While there are fair environmental reasons to exclude a charger, buying an appropriate one for Samsung flagships is something of a confusing mess. The general consumer doesn’t have any idea what a USB PD PPS charger is, but they’ll need to know if they want to see even the relatively slow maximum wired charging speed of 25W for the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Rumors abound that the Galaxy S22 Ultra will support 45W wired and 25W wireless charging speeds. Those would be welcome upgrades, for sure. Unfortunately, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is stuck forever with 25W wired and 15W wireless charging.
No aptX HD support
Lots of companies have proprietary Bluetooth codecs. Sony has LDAC and Samsung itself has its Samsung Scalable Codec (SSC). Some of the best around are aptX HD and the newer aptX Adaptive, which are Qualcomm’s high-end codecs. Unfortunately, the Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn’t support these standards.
Find out more: Bluetooth codecs 101
For folks out there who aren’t audiophiles, this likely doesn’t mean anything to you. However, a Venn diagram of people who want a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and people who take music listening very seriously will have a fair amount of overlap. Why couldn’t Samsung throw those people a bone and include support for the aptX HD codec? This is especially problematic when you consider there’s no headphone jack on the Galaxy S21 Ultra and no 3.5mm dongle in the box, either, so customers are heavily encouraged to use Bluetooth.
Granted, if you use Sony-branded or Samsung-branded Bluetooth headphones, you’re going to be fine with LDAC or SSC. Having the option for aptX HD or Adaptive would be nice, though, and it’s a shame Samsung didn’t bother.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra long-term review: The verdict
Despite a few grievances, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is still a terrific smartphone. It’s got all the power you need under the hood, looks great, feels great, and still has two more years of Samsung’s stellar software support. It’s even becoming easier to find for much lower than its $1,200 list price, which is great news.
Normally, I would point to the next iteration of a phone as a caution against buying last year’s model. However, the Galaxy S22 Ultra looks like it could be a very different phone from the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Simply put, the Galaxy S21 Ultra might be the last of its kind, as the Galaxy S22 Ultra looks to have more in common with a Galaxy Note device than it does with its predecessor.
Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra might be the last of its kind, so don't hold back from picking one up.
With that in mind, I don’t need to warn anyone about holding back from getting the Galaxy S21 Ultra in 2022. If you don’t have any interest in the Galaxy S22 Ultra but like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, you should buy it right now.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra one year later: Should you still buy it?
Obviously, there are still plenty of other 2022 phones on the horizon to get excited about. Folks on the fence about the Galaxy S21 Ultra might want to wait for the aforementioned OnePlus 10 Pro. We also expect an Ultra model within the Xiaomi 12 series that might be worth a look. It’s also likely there will be a Google Pixel 7 Pro sometime in 2022, which could be a good alternative to the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
If you don’t want to wait, though, don’t bother doing so. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is still a marvel in 2022.
Do you think the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is still worth buying a year later? Let us know in the poll above and in the comments.