Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: A premium Android smartphone like no other

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra looks nothing like any other smartphone, and for a good reason

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a premium smartphone that impresses on all fronts, including the hard-to-get-right areas like design, imaging and value-added features. The top-end model in the Galaxy S21-series, it shows the South Korean electronics maker’s innovation competence with regard to technology. Among many other notable upgrades, the smartphone has got a complete design makeover which looks fascinating and novel. Besides, it is the first smartphone in the Galaxy S-series to support the otherwise Galaxy Note-series-exclusive Samsung’s digital stylus (SPen – sold separately). Priced Rs 1,05,999 onwards, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is quite unique in its own right if you compare it with the other Galaxy S-series smartphones that came before it. But is it worth your money? Let’s find out:

Galaxy S21 Ultra: Design

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra looks nothing like any other smartphone, and for a good reason. It’s big, heavy and bulky, but the smartphone does not look excessive; if anything, that lends it a bold outlook. It boasts a premium glass-metal construction with novel ‘phantom black’-themed frosted glass on the back and two-side curved glass on the front. Sandwiched between the front and rear glasses is a glossy metallic frame, which extends around the rear camera module. With frame engulfed around, the otherwise protruding rear camera module looks part of the overall package and not a disarrayed unit slapped on the phone. Though the redesigned frame brings uniformity to the phone’s overall design, it is the ‘phantom black’-themed glass back cover that adds novelty here, and it looks stunning from all sides. Besides, the frosted finish profile prevents fingerprints and smudges. It also aids the phone’s in-hand feel by making it less prone to accidental slips.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s design is novel and intriguing but not without minor flaws. The protruding camera module on the back makes the phone wobble a bit on flat surfaces. This issue is not unique to the Galaxy S21 Ultra but most pronounced here. It compels you to operate the phone while holding it in hand which might not be suitable every time, especially if you are using the SPEN-centric features. The razor-thin power button and volume rocker keys on the right side of the frame are other design elements that are not as user-friendly in operations. Though within reach, they are somewhat hard to press and require an effort every time you need to press them.

Galaxy S21 Ultra: Display and audio

AMOLED displays have been Samsung’s core strength and the Galaxy S21 Ultra gets the best of it. It will not be wrong to say the dynamic AMOLED 2x screen of the Galaxy S21 Ultra is among the best you get in any smartphone. It is a 6.8-inch two-side curved screen panel of WQHD+ resolution that stretches from edge to edge to cover the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s entire front. Thus, the bezels are non-existent. However, the tiny punch-hole on the screen accommodating the front camera seems to be a distraction, especially when the screen is on.

As for quality, the screen is bright, vivid and responsive. One must give it to Samsung for delivering a screen experience that is next to none at present. The screen boasts an adaptive refresh rate, which automatically switches between 10Hz and 120Hz based on on-screen content requirements. Importantly, the adaptive refresh rate is now available at WQHD+ resolution. In real-life usage, the content appears sharp, thanks to the WQHD+ resolution, and the user interface transitions appear smooth. The screen is surprisingly bright and has class-leading contrast, which makes the on-screen content appear lively by rendering deep blacks and clean whites. Moreover, the colours appear natural, not saturated, something that cannot be said for many AMOLED displays. However, if you prefer saturated colours, there are colour profiles available in display settings to tune it to your preference.

The stellar display is complemented by stereo speakers powered by Dolby Atmos. The speakers are loud and clear, and have a good surround-sound effect. For gamers, there is a dedicated ‘Dolby Atmos for Gaming’ audio profile in sound settings; it amplifies the speakers’ performance in select game titles. The Galaxy S21 Ultra appears to have one of the best speaker set-ups for gaming and multimedia.

Galaxy S21 Ultra: Camera

Samsung has upgraded the imaging sensors, fixed the issues that marred last year’s Galaxy flagship smartphones, and thrown in loads of value-added feature in the Galaxy S21 Ultra to deliver a power-packed imaging solution. Starting with the sensors, the Galaxy S21 Ultra boasts a quad-camera set-up on the rear, featuring a 108-megapixel primary sensor, a 12MP ultra-wide-angle sensor, a 10MP telephoto sensor, and a 10MP periscope telephoto sensor. On the front, the phone has a 40MP camera sensor for selfies, videos and face unlock.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is an imaging powerhouse unlikely to be matched by any other smartphone camera in the photography and videography. The phone’s primary 108MP sensor captures detailed frames, irrespective of light conditions. Thanks to the 9-in-1 pixel-binning technology, the photos are modest in size (usually around 3MB) without compromising on details like composition, contrast, dynamic range, etc. The sensor is aided by optical image stabilisation, which comes in handy in long-exposure shots in low-light conditions, enabling impressive hand-held photography in dim-lit conditions. There is a dedicated mode to use the primary sensor at its native resolution that captures even more detail. However, it is not best suited for low-light conditions.

Aiding the primary camera is an ultra-wide-angle sensor, which lacks the massive megapixel count of the primary sensor but is in no way incompetent. It captures a good amount of detail with enhanced colour range, contrast and dynamic range. Importantly, it manages to straighten the side curves to make the photos look uniform. This sensor doubles up as a macro sensor to capture close-up shots, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra is as proficient in macro imaging as it is otherwise. This is because Samsung has learnt a thing or two from peers like OnePlus and widened the utility of the ultra-wide sensor beyond its regular usage. To do so, Samsung has added a feature called ‘focus enhancer’, which automatically enables the ultra-wide sensor as soon as the camera recognises a frame apt for close-up imaging. This not only makes the ultra-wide sensor a better camera for close-up shots but also streamlines the whole process for better user experience.

For zoom, there is a telephoto lens for up to 3x optical and a periscope telephoto for up to 10x optical zoom. The zoom lenses are good but what is better is the implementation of dual-zoom sensors. The Galaxy S21 Ultra smoothly zooms from 1x to 10x and beyond; at no point do you see a jump from one sensor to another. Besides, the zoom capability is real, and it shows up in the photo samples. The Galaxy S21 Ultra goes all the way up to 100x zoom, and it works better than before at peak zoom levels.

Coming to the front camera, it is a good performer and takes decent portraits with a balanced mix of natural details and artificially induced beauty. It creates a smooth bokeh in daylight conditions but struggles in low light. Thankfully, there is a dedicated night mode for lowlight selfies, and it works well in most cases.

Besides still photography, Samsung has made some strides in videography, too. The Galaxy S21 Ultra can record videos at up to 8K resolution at 24fps. Moreover, it is capable of recording 4K videos at 60fps from each camera sensor, including the front camera. Surprisingly, you cannot switch between sensors while recording a 4K video at 60fps. It is, however, possible in 4K videos at 30fps. As for the value-added features, you can now pull out a high-resolution screen grab from 8K videos. Moreover, there is a new director’s view mode, which shows videos from each rear sensor in real time. This feature adds good value to user experience, especially for content creators.

There are many other value-added features, including the Pro mode for photos and videos, super slow-mo videos, hyperlapse, and portrait videos.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: SPen and productivity suite

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is as good a productivity-centric device as the Galaxy Note-series. It supports the SPen and most of its features that were exclusive to the Galaxy Note-series smartphones until now. With SPen, you can take notes and save them automatically to the Samsung Notes app, which supports text highlight, dragging and dropping files, annotating, recording voice messages, and saving notes as Microsoft PowerPoint files. As for productivity features, the phone comes with the Microsoft productivity suite pre-installed. It includes Outlook for mails, OneDrive for cloud storage, Office, and LinkedIn. There is a close integration of these services in the operating system which elevates the productivity experience. Besides, there is Microsoft’s ‘Your Phone’ app with ‘Link to Windows’ integration. It is a simple and convenient way to send messages, manage notifications, sync photos and make and receive calls from your Windows 10 PC. Besides Microsoft tools, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra boasts Google’s messaging app. It is a tailor-made app for Samsung smartphones that is exclusive to the Galaxy 21 Ultra as of now.

Galaxy S21 Ultra: Performance

Powered by the Exynos 2100 system-on-chip, paired with up to 16GB RAM (LPDDR5), and 512 GB (UFS 3.1) of on-board storage, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a performance powerhouse. Unlike the previous Exynos-powered Samsung flagship smartphones, the Galaxy S21 Ultra suffers no thermal issues and the performance is consistent, irrespective of usage. The phone boots Android 11 operating system-based OneUI 3.1 user interface, which is one of the best custom Android UIs for smartphones. The UI is a delight to look at and easy to operate. However, there are instances of advertisements in the user interface that look cheap and hamper the overall user experience.

Galaxy S21 Ultra: Battery

The smartphone is powered by a 5,000 mAh battery, supported by 25W fast wired charger (sold separately) and 15W wireless charger (sold separately). You get around a day of on-battery time if you use the phone for general operations while keeping the display set to use adaptive motion smoothing at the WQHD+ resolution. While the on-battery time is remarkable, the charging time is not. It takes around three hours for the battery to charge from zero to 100 per cent using a supported 25W fast charger. Wireless charging is slow and sluggish and takes about five hours to fully replenish a completely drained battery.

Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Verdict

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is an all-purpose premium smartphone that brings the best of both worlds — Galaxy S and Galaxy Note series. It is a premium Android smartphone like no other. Its novel and bold design, exceptional display, top-notch imaging, sleek performance and productivity-centric value-added features justify the ‘Ultra’ moniker, and thus the phone’s premium pricing. Go for it if the price is not a deal-breaker for; there is no other Android smartphone yet that offers a similar experience.

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