It’s a truism that the best Android phones often turn out to be the best Samsung phones. That’s because Samsung’s sheer scale enables it to make superb devices at every point in the market from cheap and cheerful to frighteningly expensive, and all stops in between. And right now, the very best Samsung phones are the Samsung Galaxy S21 and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
That doesn’t mean these are the best Samsung phones to buy for absolutely everybody: if you’re on a budget you’ll find slightly less powerful Samsungs in our guides to the best Android phones and the best cheap phones. But in 2021 they are the best phones Samsung has ever made, and while they have a lot in common there are also some crucial differences between them.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 is Samsung’s equivalent of the iPhone 12. It’s the pick of the range for the vast majority of people: it’s fast, it’s flexible and it does almost everything very well. In a word, it’s good. But the Galaxy S21 is good-er. It’s the premium option, the ultimate version, the one you buy if money’s no object or you flatly refuse to compromise. But are its improved specs worth the significantly higher price tag? Let’s find out.
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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: design and display
The most obvious difference between the two Samsung S21s is their size. The S21 has a 6.2” display delivering 1,080 x 2,400 while the S21 Ultra has a 6.8” display delivering 1,440 x 3,200. Size apart, they don’t look that different although the Ultra comes in more sober colours than the S21, which is a bit more fun. But when you hold them you’ll spot another big difference: the S21 case is plastic while the Ultra is aluminium. It’s heavier in the hand at 227g compared to the S21’s 169g.
We think these are both very good looking devices, with unobtrusive front cameras, edge to edge displays and camera bumps that aren’t too ugly. But while both of these displays run at 120Hz refresh rates the S21 screen is noticeably inferior to the one in the S21 Ultra – and the Ultra’s screen works with the S Pen, which the S21 doesn’t support.
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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: processor, storage and connectivity
Both of these devices ship with either a Snapdragon 888 or an Exynos 2100 processor depending on where you are in the world, but the S21 gets 8GB of RAM while the S21 Ultra gets 12GB or 16GB.
Storage options differ too: the S21 has 128 or 256GB while the S21 Ultra comes in 128GB, 256GB or 512GB. The Ultra has a bigger battery: 5,000mAh to the S21’s 4,000mAh. Both batteries support 25W fast charging, 15W wireless charging, 4.5W reverse wireless charging and USB Power Delivery 3.0.
Both of these phones have Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and Bluetooth 5.2, and they work with Samsung’s DeX system (wired and wireless) that turns phones into the hub of a laptop-style system. The S21 Ultra also supports Ultra-Wideband connections.
Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: cameras
The S21 Ultra cameras are what sets it apart from its smaller sibling. It’s a four-camera setup with 108MP/10MP/10MP/12MP, HDR10+ support and the ability to shoot 8K video at 24fps. The front camera is 40MP and capable of shooting 4K at up to 60fps. Where the S21 has 3x optical and 30x Space Zoom, it has 10x and 100x respectively. The sensors and Samsung’s AI features for photography deliver truly stunning images and video.
In any other company the cameras in the S21 would seem pretty good, but the three-camera setup on the S21 isn’t close to the Ultra. The rear camera assembly is 64MP/12MP/12MP and the front-facing camera is 10MP. You can still shoot 8K video at 24fps with the rear camera and 60fps 4K with the selfie camera, and the 64MP main camera on the back is no slouch: it delivers much better results than many other flagships. The cameras in the S21 are very good. But the ones in the S21 Ultra are great.
Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: pricing and verdict
If you buy direct from Samsung you’ll pay £769 for the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G and £1,329 for the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. That’s a big difference, and if you aren’t a photographer or a movie-maker and you don’t mind the significantly lower resolution display then we’d recommend that you buy the Galaxy S21. It is a very good smartphone.
That said, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is even better than very good. It takes everything that’s good about the S21 and adds more premium materials, more memory, a much better display and absolutely spectacular cameras.
There’s no doubt that this is an expensive device – and you’d think at this price Samsung would include an S Pen instead of making you buy it separately – but if you can afford it, you won’t regret buying it.
As we said in our Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review, “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.”
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