Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: A redemption masterclass

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Last year was arguably a tough road for Samsung flagships. They had a number of issues which Samsung could not fully rectify following their launch. Naturally, a lot of eyes were on this year’s Galaxy S21 Ultra, a flagship that had to deliver not just for Samsung’s fans but also for the company. Having used the device extensively now, there are tremendous improvements. We are delighted to see Samsung addressing the criticism delivering an experience that is difficult not to recommend.

Design and build quality

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra sees a much needed design refresh compared to its previous models. Even though it is 227 g and 8.9 mm, Samsung’s new design language makes it extremely manageable, even with one hand. We think this is due to Samsung’s tremendous weight distribution and design language. On all of the Samsung Galaxy S21 series, you find a ‘Contour Cut Camera Design’. Essentially, this allows the smartphone’s camera bump to be concealed using its aluminum frame on one side. On the Galaxy S21 Ultra, this allows for a flush look making the camera bump seem smaller than it is. Moreover, we found that the design allows the phone to stay wobble free when used on a flat surface.

We love the design of the Galaxy S21 Ultra

This design choice also pairs nicely with Samsung’s color finishes on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Arguably, our Phantom Black finish looks the cleanest among all the rest of the colors but it is nice that Samsung is giving you these options. We would have definitely liked to have seen a flashier color though, akin to the perhaps the Galaxy Note10 series’ Aurora Glow. The matte feeling back is also protected with Gorilla Glass Victus, just like the front.

Thankfully, the design does not accumulate dust

Regardless, we have not faced any issues with durability. The phone has stayed scratch-free and smudge free. The latter is something we appreciate, which keeps the smartphone looking classy at all times. For some people, the back may seem slightly slippery but this is not a big deal and something that can be easily fixed with a skin or case. Unfortunately unlike the previous years, there is no TPU case provided out of the box.

We would have liked to see the microSD card slot stay

Aside from the camera, which we will address in a later section, the back of the smartphone is bare. On the edges, you find your general suite of I/O. The left edge is bare whereas the right edge houses the power and volume keys. We think because of these residing on the ‘Contour Cut Camera Design’, taking a screenshot using both buttons simultaneously is just a bit difficult. The top edge houses two microphones for noise-cancellation whereas the bottom edge has the speaker grill, the Type-C USB port for charging and data transfer as well as the SIM slot. Access to the SIM slot this year is next to the primary microphone of the device, so there might be some confusion here given the engineering oversight. But more importantly, there is no access to microSD card expansion on the Galaxy S21 series, an omission that will be missed by a lot of Samsung fans.

Display and multimedia

If there is one aspect of a flagship smartphone that Samsung consistently does well, it is the display. This year, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X panel with a 3,200 x 1,440 WQHD+ resolution. It sports HDR10+ support as well as a peak brightness of 1,500 nits. There is also a slight curvature to the display of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, however it is much less pronounced than what we saw from Samsung’s previous flagships. This design gives the Galaxy S21 Ultra display just the right amount of immersion. You get an 88.9 per-cent screen-to-body allowing for a gorgeous look. The top and bottom bezel of the display are different by the smallest margin however this is not something that bothered us during daily use. The minimal O-dot design also never got in the way when using the panel.

Using the display of the Galaxy S21 Ultra is amazing

Aside from the fantastic contrast levels and colors of the display, it also sports up to a 120Hz refresh rate. This means the display can automatically adapt from a display refresh rate of 10Hz to 120Hz depending on what you are viewing. With this adaptive refresh rate, every element of interaction on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is smooth and fluid. This year, you can also use the display at 120Hz and WQHD+ resolution simultaneously, a feature that was not available with last year’s Galaxy flagships. We appreciate Samsung addressing this, although out of the box, you will have to manually switch to WQHD+ to benefit from the full effect.

If you want to take full advantage of the display, make sure you switch its resolution to WQHD+

Using the panel otherwise has been a delight. Whether it was for watching shows on Netflix or YouTube videos, the Galaxy S21 Ultra performed exceedingly well. Various issues about green tinting on Samsung flagships also creeped up last year but it seems Samsung has been able to manage this well on the smartphone. Of course, the display also features an in-screen ultrasonic fingerprint reader for biometric authentication. With Samsung making this region slightly larger, the reliability of the scanner has definitely improved. But we think in addition to this, the scanner is faster and works well with damp fingers too.

Any Galaxy Note-series S-Pen will also work with the Galaxy S21 Ultra

Of course, capping the display experience off is its support for an S-Pen. This year, only the Galaxy S21 Ultra is capable of using the S-Pen, bringing Galaxy Note-like features to the Galaxy S-series. The S-Pen in question is a lot bigger and requires a separate case to be accommodated. It does not need Bluetooth connectivity to work and functions as normal. While we were not able to fully try this out, avid Galaxy Note users should feel at home here. Alongside the display, you also find a set of stereo speakers on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. To us, the stereo speakers seem full, immersive and loud. Tuned by AKG, we could easily use the speaker setup in a loud environment without facing any issues. But if you want extremely detailed audio, a pair of dedicated headphones should come in handy. With the Galaxy S21 Ultra pre-orders, Samsung is aptly bundling a pair of Galaxy Buds Pro which could come in handy just for this.

Specifications and user experience

A large part of the improvement on the Galaxy S21 series is due to Samsung’s new processors. Addressing complaints about the Exynos 990, we have the Exynos 2100 CPU on our Galaxy S21 Ultra. This is a 5 nm processor clocked at 2.9GHz pairing well with the Mali-G78 MP14 GPU. In addition to this, you find support for up to 16GB of RAM and 512GB of UFS 3.1 storage. Our unit comes with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of UFS 3.1 storage, and with there being no microSD card expansion, there is no flexibility to add storage at a later stage.

We like OneUI 3.1 and how it functions

But with what is available on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, you benefit from zippy and reliable performance. This is something we did see with the Exynos 990 as well, however this does not result in any adverse effects anymore. For example, the smartphone does not heat up to the same extent nor is there is an issue with choppy performance. Whether you are scrolling through social feeds, browsing or using the camera application, there is no evidence of throttling but the smartphone does become unusually warm to touch at times near the camera during heavy multitasking. Perhaps a software fix this alter this could be on the cards. Moreover, the Galaxy S21 Ultra does well to keep a lot of applications in memory, which is expected with 12GB of RAM. We think a big part of this is also Samsung’s OneUI 3.1, running on top of Android 11. It brings with it a great deal of helpful features, without being too intrusive. Contrary to what other people think, it is one of the better OEM skins out there.

Games that use the GPU of the phone tend to struggle but this could be an optimisation issue

For those who want use the Galaxy S21 Ultra for gaming, you will not be too disappointed. Popular titles like PUBG Mobile and Call of Duty: Mobile allow you to take a good advantage of the power on board. You will be able to benefit from smooth 60 fps gaming here, with frames dropping to 57 fps at times. But more GPU intensive games such as Genshin Impact and TauCeti push the smartphone. Here, dropped frames are evident, especially on TauCeti where frames drop all the way to 12 fps at times. This may not be fully a fault of the smartphone though, with much of gaming performance boiling down to developer optimisation. But weirdly, Asphalt 9 remained capped at 30 fps regardless of setting, which is something that was unexpected.

You are covered when it comes to connectivity, including NFC for payments

A large part of the usage experience is also defined by connectivity. The Galaxy S21 Ultra features 5G support here, which we were able to benefit from in an area that had it. Load times were impressive and equally impressive is the smartphone’s WiFi 6E support, which makes it a worthy candidate for connectivity in the future.

Primary camera photo performance

With a quad-camera setup on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, it has you covered for a variety of situations. There is a 108MP f/2.2 camera, a 10MP f/4.9 telephoto camera with 10x optical zoom, a 10MP f/2.2 telephoto camera with 3x optical zoom and a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera. Aside from the latter, all the other three cameras sport optical image stabilization (OIS). Moreover, there is also a dedicated Laser AF unit to support these cameras when taking pictures.

The quad-camera setup on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is feature rich

One of the biggest issues with last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra was its inability to focus on close subjects. With this dedicated hardware, you get a much improved experience on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Samsung has also gone one step further by bundling a ‘Focus Enhancer’ software mode here. With this, the camera application can automatically switch to the ultra-wide lens for better focus. This works great when lighting is ideal however it results in quality loss in low-light conditions, where you are forced to use night-mode. The feature also does not work in the default camera sections of social applications such as WhatsApp or Instagram. As such, we often found ourselves switching to the smartphone’s camera application to take a close-up photo and then send it to its intended recipient. This is a viable workaround but is not always convenient in practice. Perhaps Samsung can amend this in a future software update.

In high dynamic range situations, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera is impressive. It can capture accurate colors with good detail. The added 108MP camera mode is helpful although it only improves detail slightly and sometimes, this is at the expense of dynamic range. But Samsung has tuned its cameras extremely well. Switching from the wide to the ultra-wide view maintains color consistency which is something we appreciate. This time, the ultra-wide angle camera can also take close-up macro images, which is great fun and an exclusive feature to the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

We like that all lenses on the Galaxy S21 Ultra are reliable

The dedicated telephoto lenses at different optical zoom ranges also help with consistent images. Some of the detail captured was incredible with these, making the Galaxy S21 Ultra a very reliable smartphone camera in all aspects. We do not think up to 100x zoom images are usable but Samsung has gone the extra mile of allowing for added stabilization when taking these, a neat software touch. Even when taking night-time images, the smartphone help up well in low-light situations, without having to revert to its dedicated night-mode. When it did use night-mode, the results impressed us even further. You can check out all the images we took with the device and judge for yourself.

Primary camera video performance

Accompanying the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s solid camera hardware, Samsung has addressed video capabilities here too. This year, all lenses on the Galaxy S21 Ultra can be used to film up to 4K 60 fps video. But instead of it just being available, it is very much usable in a number of situations. The dedicated OIS on all the camera lenses goes a long way in making sure that video footage is useful. Our only complaint is that the smartphone’s ultra-steady mode is abysmal, which is something Samsung needs to fix. During the day, you can easily use 10x video as long as you remain relatively stable. This may not be useful on a regular basis but it is certainly impressive when you need it. During the night, up to 3x video is usable and beyond that, things start to fall apart. But that is still impressive to say the least.

Video performance up to 4K 60 fps is outstanding, even when using the telephoto lenses

You also find 8K 24 fps video support on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. You can only film at 8K using the wide lens and the overall experience seems to be have improved slightly over the Galaxy S20 Ultra. While its detail is impressive, we think its stabilization needs more work. But if you want a reliable video experience, using the Galaxy S21 Ultra at 4K 30 fps or 60 fps should be your best bet.

Front camera performance

The front camera of the Galaxy S21 Ultra also offers a good suite of features. It is a 40MP sensor which is set to 10MP by default. Personally, we found the experience here to be good too. There is a feature here which we think is particularly useful. In the past, selfies from Samsung smartphones were brighter than in reality. Now, you get the option to process selfies using a ‘Bright’ or ‘Natural’ mode. We think this is environment dependent however, we have preferred using the ‘Natural’ setting in most cases.

Edge detection in portraits and night-mode from the front camera is fairly good too. When it comes to the 40MP setting though, we are not convinced. With this, you get a slightly wider selfie which does have more detail. But colors in the selfie deviate between it and what is seen at 10MP. We prefer the color from the default 10MP mode however this comes down to personal preference. For videos too, I think the front camera is a decent option for a lot of people. It gives you up to 4K 60 fps video that is reliable and stable.

Battery life

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra features a 5,000mAh battery. This is the same as the battery you got with the Galaxy S20 Ultra however with optimization improvements, performance is a lot better. Firstly, given that the phone remains relatively cool during usage, you do not experience unnecessary battery drain. And secondly, endurance from the battery is greatly helped thanks to the smartphone’s adaptive display.

Samsung has made sure the Galaxy S21 Ultra delivers above average battery life

During our usage, the Galaxy S21 Ultra was kept at WQHD+ resolution and adaptive 120Hz refresh rate. On a light day involving social media and multimedia usage on WiFi, the smartphone pushes up to 10 hours of screen-on time. This is extremely impressive and a pleasant refresh compared to last year’s Samsung flagships. On a heavy day filled with 5G and camera usage, the screen-on time from the smartphone drops to 6 hours, which is still not bad. We think your average day should fall anywhere in between these two ranges.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra supports up to 25W fast charging. This is slower than other smartphones including the Galaxy S20 Ultra, which was capable of 45W fast charging. There is support for wireless charging up to 15W as well as 4.5W reverse wireless charging. With there being no charging brick in the Galaxy S21 Ultra box, you will have to buy one separately or use a brick already at home. We think the exclusion of the charging brick should have waited one more year but alas, there is nothing we can do.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a fantastic device. It not only covers all the essentials of a flagship but goes well beyond. A great camera package, fantastic battery and reliable performance are just some of its highlights, with the phone being one we thoroughly recommend.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has fixed all the problems its predecessor faced

Currently, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is on pre-order, available for Dh4,899. This is Dh400 more than last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, without a charging brick or headphones included. However, the smartphone’s default storage starts at 256GB as opposed to 128GB last year. Plus, you benefit from a pair of Galaxy Buds Pro as mentioned earlier, a Galaxy SmartTag to keep track of your belongings and a free year of Samsung Care+. You can also get up to Dh2,800 off using Samsung’s trade-in policy for further discounts.

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