To bring you this Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review, I've been testing the phone out since January's Samsung Galaxy Unpacked event at CES. After more than six months of using the phone, I'm well placed to tell you all about it why it's one of the very best phones (and, indeed, best Samsung phones).
Following on from one of best best Android phones, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, the S21 continues Samsung's winning streak. In fact, the phone has won the prestigious and much wanted Best Phone award at the T3 Awards 2021. Following on from that, of course, there's the Galaxy S22 Ultra, which steps things up a notch with a newer design and integrated S Pen stylus.
This review is broken down into a few key scoring areas including the camera system, design, screen, performance and its wealth of features. I'll also go through the phone's price and release date, as well as where to pick up the best deals. But first, we've got an overview review video of the entire Samsung Galaxy S21 range.
Samsung Galaxy S21 range review video
The above video runs through the entire Samsung Galaxy S21 range, explaining the key specs and features of each phone. It shows what each phone is like in the hand, too, so if you want to see the Galaxy S21 Ultra moving and manipulated in real life then it is well worth a watch.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: price, release date and deals
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra price starts at $1,199 in the USA, £1,149 in the UK and AUD$1,849 in Australia. It launched on 29 January 2021. Today's best Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra deals can be viewed directly below, discounts applied.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: camera system
One of the foremost reasons I think anyone would pick up the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is for its camera system, so that is where the written part of this review begins.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 40MP front-facing camera and a quad-camera rear setup with an Ultra Wide 12MP camera, a second generation Wide 108MP camera and two 10MP telephoto cameras. It has 10x optical zoom and Samsung's famous 100x Space Zoom (see image galleries below for samples; click the arrow buttons or swipe at the sides to scroll through images).
The S21 Ultra has a faster laser focus sensor than the other phones in the range, too, 12-bit HDR, 64x more colours and a faster, brighter noise sensor for better low-light photography.
As for video the S21 Ultra can shoot 8K video at 24fps and 4K at 60fps with stereo sound recording, and it comes with both optical and electronic stabilisation. The front-facing camera can record in 4K at 30 or 60fps.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: 100x Space Zoom image galleries
As can be seen from the above image galleries, the level of zoom delivered by the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is very impressive, with multiple set zooms partnered by complete manual control to zoom in or out as the user wishes.
As I noted last year with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, the quality of the zoomed image remains strong even into the 30x-50x range, so you can legitimately use it to capture distanced objects or scenes.
However, despite noticing small improvements over last year, as soon as you really push the zoom up towards 100x image quality degrades rapidly, culminating in the same watercolor effect at maximum zoom. Check the nearby zoom galleries to see what I mean.
As such, while technically impressive, I feel the 100x zoom will have very limited usage in the real world.
The impressive levels of zoom though are just one part of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra's camera system, which is undoubtedly impressive in scope, features and quality.
Shooting modes are bountiful an include a fully manual Pro mode as well as Panorama, AR Doodle, Food, Night, and Portrait, the results of the latter clearly shown above. Samsung has really got Portrait mode on-lock now, with subjects captured and lit wonderfully, and backgrounds blurred out with subtle and not overbearing bokeh.
There's a load of video shooting modes, too, including Portrait video, Pro video, Super Slow-mo, Slow-mo, Hyperlapse and Director's view. Director's view is neat as it lets you capture video from both the rear and front lenses simultaneously, so if you're a frequent vlogger or YouTuber, you'll be able to capture your reactions as events unfold.
The 108MP main snapper is the everyday workhorse of the camera system, though, and remains a very impressive piece of kit. Detailing is high, noise is low and color balance and definition excellent in taken photos (see above image gallery), and what's even better is that unlike last year the camera's autofocus works quickly and as it should.
I think at this point Samsung really is going toe-to-toe with Huawei over the best smartphone camera system crown, with Google, Apple and Sony making up the rest of the top five. I'm not professional photographer, but I could not pick a flaw or notable absence from the S21 Ultra's camera offering, while image quality to me is right up there with the best on the market.
Samsung's useful Single Take function also returns on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. This mode works by recording an action over a period of 5 to 15 seconds (determined by the user) with all of the phone's rear camera lenses and then providing a range of shots and a video to choose from afterwards.
It's a really great feature in my mind as it makes getting the ideal shot of something far easier and less error prone. Instead of constantly pulling the trigger on single images, this model uses AI to take multiple versions of the same event, as well as let you select your own golden moment from the captured video.
For example, above you can see a small selection of the Single Take images supplied when asked to capture the dancing girl. You can then select which you prefer and even go on to edit it further on the phone.
And speaking of AI, the S21 Ultra's camera system is loaded with it, and in my mind at least it is utilised in a really nuanced and unobtrusive way – it simply helps you shoot better shots. For example, the phone has a built-in scene optimiser and, if you turn it on, a shot suggestion tool, too.
Then there's loads of other automatic goodness, like tracking auto-focus (this keeps the subject in focus even if they move) and auto HDR, as well as built-in video stabilisation.
Naturally, though, if you want to shoot without any fancy AI then you can also turn it all off. However, I think anyone but the most experienced of professional photographers will benefit from it being left on.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: design and screen
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra - Geekbench 5 scores
Single-Core Score: 1,109
Multi-Core Score: 3,674
The hardware spec on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra reads like a phone enthusiast's dream setup, and the screen is just the start.
This handset comes with a huge 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED panel that also supports a buttery smooth 120Hz refresh rate and a WQHD+ 3200 x 1440 resolution which, crucially, can now both be enabled at the same time. Throw in HDR 10+ and a max brightness of 1,500 nits and you've got a display that matches and, whisper it, maybe even outpunches that on the OnePlus 8 Pro.
The screen is simply gorgeous as a result and aside from the pin-hole selfie camera hole that sits top-center, is an uninterrupted slab of visual goodness that displays anything on it brilliantly. From lusciously smooth scrolling through Twitter, to immersive eye-popping colors in the latest HDR movies, and onto viewing art, digital magazines, art and more, it really is a pleasure to use.
The screen, as you would expect, also displays mobile games brilliantly and I was genuinely taken back when watching the Wild Life graphical benchmark on it.
In terms of design, the big change this year is that the phone's rear camera array now has a housing that blends into the phone's framing on the left and top edge. This results in a more sympathetic look, and does go a little way to hide how much the camera lenses protrude from the backplate. But if truth be told this is still a phone design that leans towards case usage.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: hardware and battery
That level of top-end premium is carried through to the core hardware spec, too, with the very latest Qualcomm flagship Android system on chip (SoC), the Snapdragon 888, sat at its heart. And this, in partnership with 12GB of RAM and an Adreno 660 GPU meant the S21 Ultra turned in some very impressive benchmark scores.
While last year's S20 Ultra delivered a Single-Core Geekbench 5 score of 939, and a Multi-Core score of 2,815, the Galaxy S21 Ultra posted 1,109 and 3,674 respectively, which is a marked improvement.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra - 3DMark scores
Wild Life: 5,687 (Average frame rate = 34.10fps)
Sling Shot: 8,846
Sling Shot Extreme (OpenGL ES 3.1): 7,769
This enhanced performance carried over in terms of Geekbench 5's compute benchmark tests, too, with the S21 Ultra posting an OpenCL score of 7,398 and Vulkan score of 6,419.
And this performance was doubled down on when I ran 3DMark's graphical benchmarks on the S21 Ultra. Last year the S20 Ultra managed to post a score of 6,765 in Sling Shot Extreme (OpenGL ES 3.1), while this year the S21 Ultra managed to best that with a score of 7,769.
It also delivered really well in 3DMark's new graphical test Wild Life, outputting a score of 5,678 and an average frame rate of 34.10. And as you would expect, this meant that any mobile game that I threw at the S21 Ultra ran flawlessly – as a gamer this is a phone that delivers.
That powerful hardware works in-sync with an Android 11 OS and Samsung's own One UI 3.1, which remains the best-in-class Android skin on the market. Combined these two mean that navigation around the phone is super rapid and very intuitive. Moving between apps is especially rapid, something also helped by the return of Samsung's Edge Screen, and loading happens instantaneously.
Finally in this Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review we have to talk about its new standout feature – the fact that it now supports digital stylus use. Now, to be very clear, the Galaxy S21 Ultra does not come with a digital stylus, and unlike the Note series phones the stylus cannot be charged and stored in the phone.
Samsung's solution to this is to introduce its new S-Pen case, which is an optional extra that protects the phone and holds a stylus, as well as enable any stylus from its previous Note range to work with the phone. You can also buy new styli separately if you fancy an aftermarket S21 Ultra case with stylus support.
I was not supplied with the new S21 Ultra stylus case for review and as such tested the new functionality with a Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus stylus.
The results? The stylus works exactly the same way as on the Galaxy Note phones. When the tip approaches the screen the contextual stylus menu panel appears and allows you to access to features like note taking, document annotating, illustrating, and remote image taking.
The inability for me to dock the stylus in the phone, charge it, or carry it around with me though did highlight how essential that extra spend will be if you genuinely want to make use of this feature.
Samsung's really got this stylus functionality on-lock, though, and in truth no other maker offers anything like it. And with the flagship S series now offering the both the Note's historic strengths, in a very large screen and stylus functionality, it really does seem like the bell is tolling for it.
Overall, I welcome the addition of stylus functionality to the S range, but I can't help shake the feeling that it isn't particularly well or cleverly implemented right now.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: verdict
It is impossible for me not to recommend the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. It's a hyper-premium handset that delivers across the board, from internal hardware to camera system, screen space and fidelity to battery life, and onto advanced features like reverse wireless charging and the laptop-aping DeX Mode.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra also makes history in offering support for a digital stylus, which had been the preserve of the Galaxy Note series alone (since the S22 Ultra replaced the need for the Note, as it comes with an integrated stylus).
Yes, the phone remains very expensive, despite a price cut over time, but I honestly don't know what to say to that other than to shrug. This is a phone that has more powerful specs and performance than many laptops, and will easily see its owner not just a year or two, but in my mind going on half a decade (ignore screen scratches and the desire for the latest and greatest tech, of course).
As I've said before when reviewing Samsung's Ultra phones, this isn't a handset for everyone, but it's not built to be – it's another slice of smartphone royalty from the South Korean maker, and it will appeal massively to well-heeled phone enthusiasts and first adopters.