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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra revisited: This year's Galaxy Note
With no Galaxy Note 21 this year, the Galaxy S21 Ultra remains Samsung’s premium smartphone option in 2021 — outside of its swanky foldable products, of course. But the Z Fold 3 is prohibitively expensive for most consumers, while the Z Flip 3 doesn’t offer the same power-user experience as Samsung’s Note and Ultra products.
If you’re in the market for a new phone, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is far from the only ultra-high-end option on the market right now. There’s a growing list of premium-tier rivals including the Oppo Find X3 Pro, Sony Xperia 1 III, and the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra, among others. So does the phone still hold up as a solid purchase over half a year later? Let’s weigh up the good and bad in this Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review revisit.
Our original verdict: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review
We awarded the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 4.5/5 stars and our coveted Editor’s Choice award, so it’s no surprise that the handset still holds up very well over six months later. The mobile industry might move quickly but certainly not fast enough to leave Samsung’s best in the dust.
Cutting edge hardware
I could spend paragraphs on the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s excellent 120Hz AMOLED display, snappy performance (for both Snapdragon and Exynos variants), or IP68 rating for dust and water resistance, but these haven’t changed since our initial review and are still right up there with the best in the business. In fact, the entire hardware package is pretty much faultless for an ultra-premium smartphone. If you want it, the Galaxy S21 Ultra almost certainly has it.
There’s a dual-SIM option, 5G sub-6GHz and mmWave support, Corning Gorilla Glass Victus screen protection, the latest Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity, wireless and reverse charging, an in-display fingerprint scanner, and more. You’ll struggle to find a more comprehensive package on the market even over six months later.
Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra still offers one of the most comprehensive hardware packages on the market.
Not that there aren’t solid competitors on the market too, and some phones are pushing ahead with under-display cameras, faster-charging capabilities, and better audio setups. But Samsung’s premier offering has you covered for the most important bells and whistles as well as any other brand. That’s good news for customers who were perhaps holding out for a next-gen Note — typically Samsung’s technological showcase. While not a replacement for Note fans, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is definitely a phone built with power users in mind. The phone even plays nicely with an S Pen stylus, although there’s nowhere to safely stow it without a case.
Software and updates
As well as offering solid hardware, Samsung’s One UI software continues to go from strength to strength.
As we noted in our Galaxy S21 Ultra review, One UI is distinctively Samsung. The interface is heavily skinned and offers a number of features that go above and beyond the basic Android experience. It’s not one for the purists but those extras are what make One UI a haven for power users who can master the additional tools and options. I find Samsung’s Edge panels an invaluable multitasking tool and am a big fan of the range of camera shooting options. Samsung also goes further with Dex and cloud storage integration for enterprise users.
More on One UI: Everything you need to know about Samsung’s Android skin
One UI has one or two problems. Ads baked into its in-house apps are an annoyance that will, fortunately, be remedied before the end of 2021, while navigating the huge range of settings is verging on cumbersome. But overall, One UI is one of the best Android skins around.
Just as importantly, Samsung now has one of the best update pledges in the business too. The company promises three years of Android version updates not just for the S21 series but for all its recent smartphones. This is accompanied by four years of security updates, ensuring the S21 Ultra stays relevant until 2025. This greatly improves the phone’s long-term value proposition.
With a 5,000mAh battery onboard, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra easily lasts a full day of use — often two if you only require lighter workloads. Months down the line, the battery life is pretty much as good as day one. I’ve never had the phone run out on me mid-day, even when out shooting pictures for several hours.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra can take you through two days of use between charges.
Whether you need your phone for work or play, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has you covered. Plus you can always tweak the phone’s adaptive 120Hz display mode and power saver settings should you need the handset to last longer between charges.
With a large 1/1.33-inch 108MP main sensor, 3x telephoto, 10x periscope, and ultra-wide cameras onboard, the Galaxy S21 Ultra remains one of the most robust photography packages on the market right now. Paired up with 8K, 4K 60fps, and 960fps slow-motion video capabilities and a host of other software features, such as Director’s View and Single Take, the S21 Ultra has even the most demanding camera users covered.
Related: The best camera phones you can get
That said, it’s not completely flawless. Colors can still be a little oversaturated compared to the best in the business and you’ll spot the occasional sign of heavier processing on closer inspection of some photos. Even so, the camera hands in impressive and very consistent results, from portraits and selfies to nightscapes and long-range zoom.
Here’s just a small sample of the pictures I’ve taken over the past year:
Since launch, we’ve pitted the Galaxy S21 Ultra against virtually all of the best camera phones available and it has consistently come out on top, if not always with the very best images then certainly for its sheer versatility. The handset pipped other premium-tier smartphones to the post in our mid-2021 mega camera shootout, making it one of the best, if not the best camera phone to buy this year. If you’re after further head-to-head comparisons, check out our shootouts below.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera shootouts:
The not so good
Of course, Samsung’s phones are never entirely free from controversy. The lack of a microSD card expansion slot, no headphone jack, and the absence of a charger in the box are sure to grate on one or two potential customers out there. But in my time with the handset, I’ve come across a couple of other minor bugbears that detract from what is otherwise one of the best smartphones money can buy.
Although sporting similar hardware to last year’s models, Samsung redesigned the Galaxy S21 series with a sleeker camera housing and a more streamlined “Contour Cut” appearance. While this works for the regular S21 and S21 Plus, I’m less sold on the bulkier size and look of the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
At 227g and 8.9mm thick (~12mm if you include the camera housing), the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a hefty smartphone. Granted, that weight includes a big 5,000mAh battery, wireless charging, mmWave 5G, and a host of other technological goodies, so there has to be some give and take. Samsung managed to make the phone 2mm thinner than the S20 Ultra, but it’s still not what I’d call ergonomic and remains a distracting weight in your pocket.
That said, the design certainly isn’t bad. It’s still arguably better than the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max and its palm-slicing edges. However, after playing with the elegant Sony Xperia 1 III (186g) and the exquisite Oppo Find X3 Pro (193g), it’s hard to say that the Galaxy S21 Ultra looks or handles anywhere near as nicely as the swankiest phones in the business. If you’re spending money on a fashion statement, look elsewhere.
Slow and finicky charging
25W wired and 15W wireless charging is somewhat slow by modern standards, although prioritizing low temperatures over brute charging speed is a sensible decision for long-term battery health. I wouldn’t recommend buying a 100W charging phone instead.
See also: The best Samsung Galaxy chargers
Still, the phone’s 5,000mAh battery takes a rather sluggish 70 minutes to fill up using a 25W charger and a little over 90 minutes at 18W. Wireless charging is even slower, making it only suitable for a top-up throughout the day.
Be sure to grab a USB PD PPS charger to fast charge the S21 series.
While there are commendable reasons to drop the in-box charger, Samsung has compounded the problem by necessitating a USB Power Delivery PPS compliant charger to maximize the handset’s 25W wired charging capabilities. Pick a standard USB Power Delivery or other plug and you’ll be capped at 18W or even lower. Not providing a charger in the box makes it more likely that consumers will trip up and buy the wrong plug. Samsung offers compatible charging accessories for as little as $20, but there’s stiff competition from third-party alternatives too.
Speakers could be better
A more minor complaint I have is with the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s speakers. They offer plenty of volume, a reasonable stereo presentation, and sound decent enough for watching TV shows. But there’s something a little off about the sound that’s hard to pin down. It’s not muffled as such, but it’s not the punchy presentation you might expect from a phone at this price.
I think it’s because the lower speaker is responsible for most of the volume and bass. Meanwhile, the top speaker is more treble-heavy and seems to exist mostly to give the impression of stereo balance. There’s some trickery afoot and while it’s mostly well disguised, you will notice something a little off when listening to your favorite tracks.
The bottom speaker grille is also very easy to cover when holding the phone in landscape mode, so not ideal for gaming and movies. If phone speakers are a top priority for your next purchase, you can find better options out there with forward-facing speakers, such as the Asus ROG Phone 5.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review revisited: The verdict
While Samsung kept many and even cut some core specs from 2021’s Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus to lower their price, the Galaxy S21 Ultra stands out in the range for continuing to pack in the latest and greatest of Samsung’s features. The improved camera package, 1,440p 120Hz display, and S Pen support are well worth the $200 discount over 2020’s S20 Ultra.
Even so, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is not a cheap device, priced as it is at $1,200. It only becomes more expensive for power users who require 256GB or 512GB of storage, costing $1,250 and $1,380 respectively. At those prices, multimedia enthusiasts might want to check out the Sony Xperia 1 III ($1,299), while mobile gamers may prefer the Asus ROG Phone 5 ($999). However, you can now find the S21 Ultra with a $200 discount from Samsung and other retailers, making it practically a steal.
Is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra still a good purchase?
Without the Galaxy Note series this year, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the fall-back device for Samsung power-users who don’t want to dabble with Samsung’s foldables, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 ($1,799) and Galaxy Z Flip 3 ($999) — although calling it a fall-back is somewhat unfair to the Ultra and rather undersells its credentials. The phone remains one of the most accomplished technological showpieces the mobile industry has to offer and is still a recommended purchase for those who will make use of the phone’s technological prowess.