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The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra finally lives up to its moniker

The Galaxy S21 Ultra might mark the first time that a Samsung device lives up to the Ultra name, Hadlee Simons writes.

Published onJanuary 24, 2021

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra back on table at angle
David Imel / Android Authority

The year has just begun, but Samsung has already launched the Galaxy S21 series. This makes it the earliest ever launch for Galaxy S flagships.

Many eyes are on the base Galaxy S21 as Samsung has cut pricing to a sensible (for 2021) $800, down from the $1,000 base Galaxy S20 just a year ago. However, the biggest upgrades are reserved for the power user-friendly Galaxy S21 Ultra.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra becomes the third super-premium Samsung phone to bear the Ultra moniker, and with its latest entry, the line might finally be living up to the name.

Our verdict: Samsung Galaxy S21 reviewSamsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

Leaping up to the super-premium tier

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra display standing up 1
David Imel / Android Authority

Samsung’s Ultra phones are generally characterized by extensive spec sheets and expensive price tags. The Galaxy S20 Ultra set the bar high in both of these areas, particularly the latter. It launched at an eye-watering $1,400, but Samsung toned it down (if only a tiny bit) for the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, which came in at $1,300.

As for the specs, Samsung committed to an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach with the Galaxy S20 Ultra. Consumers got a 120Hz OLED screen, a 108MP main camera, a 4x periscope zoom lens, and a huge 5,000mAh battery. Yet, the device also had more than its fair share of troubles. Those included the inability to use the 120Hz mode at QHD+ resolution, notorious autofocus problems with the main camera, the awful and shaky 100x zoom feature, and an underpowered Exynos model.

Samsung's Ultra phones are characterized by extensive spec sheets and expensive price tags.

It’s understandable to have one or two niggles like these in any premium smartphone. However, it’s pretty hard to forgive when you’re paying $1,400 for a device.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra represented a step in the right direction for the Ultra line, as Samsung sought to improve matters in addition to the fractionally lower price. It added laser autofocus to improve focusing with the main camera, dialed back the zoom to a more realistic 50x, and upped the native zoom factor. The manufacturer also added the ability to use 120Hz at QHD+ resolution.

Unfortunately, the Note 20 Ultra still suffered from some of the same issues as the early 2020 release. There was the underpowered Exynos version, average battery life, and camera quality that wasn’t quite best-in-class. Nevertheless, it was clear that Samsung was on the right track.

Finally fulfilling the Ultra promise?

The Galaxy S21 Ultra definitely seems to live up to the promise set by the first Ultra device. A large part of that is due to the firm taking the time to get things right with this edition.

Those significant focusing issues finally seem to be a thing of the past for the most part. Our own David Imel confirmed “much better” performance in this regard than the S20 Ultra during his Galaxy S21 Ultra testing. That’s mainly due to the laser autofocus, as well as the new HM3 108MP sensor offering more accurate autofocus.

Samsung also devoted resources to delivering a better zoom experience, featuring not one but two telephoto lenses. Instead of a solitary 4x periscope camera, we’ve got a 3x telephoto lens and a 10x periscope snapper. The latter also results in a better foundation for 100x zoom, delivering more detail and making it halfway useable. It doesn’t hurt that Samsung also introduced a shake-reduction for long-range zoom.

Read more: Samsung Galaxy S21 vs S20 series — is it worth an upgrade?

Another way the Galaxy S21 Ultra grabs the Ultra mantle is by implementing S Pen support for the first time in the family. Sure, it lacks the Note line’s integrated S Pen slot and you’ll have to pay extra for one, but at least you can buy a case with a slot for your convenience. It also doesn’t hurt that Samsung continues the Note 20 Ultra trend of offering a dynamic 120Hz refresh rate at QHD+, giving users the best of both worlds.

All of these improvements also come at a cheaper price than last year’s top-end device. The S21 Ultra will set you back $1,200. It’s only $200 cheaper than the S20 Ultra and $100 cheaper than the Note 20 Ultra, but it still represents a pleasant change from last year’s prices, and upsets a growing trend of increasingly expensive Galaxy S flagships.

There are still a few complaints to be had nonetheless. The Exynos 2100 version still lags behind the Snapdragon 888 variant when it comes to graphics performance in particular. Yet, it’s clear that Samsung has narrowed this gap in 2021.

Samsung’s phones also lack expandable storage and chargers this year. The latter in particular is a major bummer due to the $1,200 price tag. This is doubly disappointing when Xiaomi charges the same price for the Mi 11 in China regardless of whether you want a charger or not.

Not just the best of a ho-hum bunch

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs S21 Plus vs S21 Ultra 1 1
David Imel / Android Authority

With its 2021 Galaxy S phones, Samsung has managed to strike a reasonable balance in terms of the features/spec gap between all three S21 series devices. This isn’t always a given either, as the Galaxy Note 20 series recently demonstrated.

The feature gulf between the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra was massive. The base model offered an FHD+ 60Hz screen, less RAM than even the previous year’s Note 10 Plus, a polarizing plastic back, and no microSD slot (sadly none of the S21 phones have this either). That’s without the downgrades that were slightly more understandable, such as a smaller battery and a less impressive camera combo. Even that wasn’t as pressure sensitive as the Ultra’s stylus. If you wanted a top-tier new Note phone in 2020, there was only one real option, making the “Ultra” the de facto device rather than the super-premium alternative.

Read: Galaxy S21 prices make this Samsung’s most inclusive line-up in years

Meanwhile, there wasn’t much of a reason to splash out on the S20 Ultra over the S20 Plus (or even the S20 for some people) earlier in the year. Sure, the Ultra model had that 108MP main camera, 4x periscope camera, and a big battery. However, everything else was nigh-on equal between the phones. The aforementioned autofocus issues and zoom gimmickry did no favors for the S20 Ultra either. You weren’t missing much by opting for an S20 Plus.

Moving to the Galaxy S21 series, it’s clear that the gap in features is much wider between the Ultra and other models. Some of the more notable features skipped over for the S21 and S21 Plus include a QHD+ screen, the higher megapixel main sensor and selfie camera, a true optical zoom experience, S Pen support, and Wi-Fi 6E compatibility. These Ultra-only features, on top of the other technical upgrades like more RAM and a bigger battery, earmark the Galaxy S21 Ultra as the bonafide big dog of the Galaxy S21 family.

I’m not saying the S21 and S21 Plus are bad phones — far from it. Unlike the Note 20, you’re still getting a great flagship experience. You still get the 120Hz OLED screen, improved camera software, and solid endurance. And all of this comes in at a starting price of $799. That’s $200 cheaper than the base Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy S20 to boot.

The widening feature gap isn’t the only reason why the Galaxy S21 Ultra looks like a great superphone though. It’s now more than a match for any super-premium phone on the market.

Do you think the Galaxy S21 Ultra lives up to the Ultra name?

547 votes

Even Apple’s $1,099 iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn’t quite offer the same proposition as the S21 Ultra, at least on paper. Sure, you might be spending $100 more by going for the Samsung phone, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max is essentially a glorified iPhone 12 Pro. It’s “Max” by name, but only in size, not its feature set. Say what you will about Android vs iOS and differences in design, but it’s tough to argue that Samsung isn’t stuffing in more features for the price.

That’s not to say that the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a perfect device. The lack of expandable storage and the missing charger are lamentable omissions. Power users might also still be mourning the loss of the 3.5mm port too. Yet, you can’t deny that the S21 Ultra earned the Ultra title.

Do you think the Galaxy S21 Ultra lives up to its name? Give us your thoughts by voting in the poll above or submitting a comment!

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