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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: The Best Android Smartphone That You Can Buy?

Does the Galaxy S21 Ultra truly hold the “Ultra” mantle? Or it’s just another upgrade that is incremental. Mainly, with the price tag of Rs 1,05,990, is this the iPhone 12 Pro killer? Here is our Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review.

February 03, 2021 / 08:46 PM IST
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde)

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde)


Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has been among the most talked-about smartphones before and after its launch. Before its launch, the smartphone was a rumour mill-favourite, which ran at full capacity to churn out the leaks. Now that the phone has launched, people, us included, continue to talk about how the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G has surprised with its performance and features. What are these features that we are talking about? We have used the device for exactly two weeks before publishing this Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review. Does the phone truly hold the “Ultra” mantle? Or it’s just another upgrade that is incremental. Mainly, with the price tag of Rs 1,05,990, is this the potential iPhone 12 Pro Max killer? Here is our Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review

There’s a lot to talk about the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. And it should be the case as it is the company’s flagship smartphone that packs the latest and greatest combination of hardware and software available. To start with, let’s get to the overall aesthetics of the phone.

Design and Display

Upfront, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra might look exactly like its predecessor. An Infinity-O hole-punch display that is huge even for big hands. The S21 Ultra’s display is now 6.8-inch tall, which is 0.1-inch smaller than its predecessor. Adding to the immersive experience is that marginally curved edge-to-edge display that is bright and vibrant. I thoroughly enjoyed using the Galaxy S21 Ultra for streaming and creating content (more on this in the camera section of the review) during my recent trip to Triund, where I also used the phone as my daily driver. 

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde)

The Dynamic AMOLED screen comes with a peak brightness of 1500 nits, which is more than bright for use even in direct sunlight. The screen supports HDR10+, which means you get excellent colours and contrast while viewing content on the screen. It also has an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate screen. Two minor-yet-major improvements here that Samsung has made - 120Hz at WQHD+ resolution, and an adaptive refresh rate screen.

Unlike the Galaxy S20 Ultra, you can use the S21 Ultra 5G’s display at its peak resolution and highest refresh rate support. I personally used the phone at FHD+ resolution and 120Hz all the time to get some extra battery life but in case you are someone who wants to use the display at its full capacity, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has got you covered. The display’s refresh rate is also adaptive, meaning that it automatically changes the refresh rate between 10Hz and 120Hz depending on the task on the screen. I did not notice any stutter and the overall experience was smooth.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde)

When you turn the phone around, you will notice how refreshing the design is. Samsung has gone back to the drawing board and given the Galaxy S21 Ultra a major, major design upgrade. First things first, that Phantom Black colour. We are going to just put it out there that the Galaxy S21 Ultra has the best “Black” colour on any smartphone. The rear panel has a matte finish, which feels premium to the touch while keeping fingerprints away. 

What’s even better though is the camera module design that makes the phone look premium from a distance. Samsung has integrated the camera bump into the phone’s frame, which looks quite unique. At over 225 grams in weight, the tall phone might feel bulky but we felt the weight distribution is on point. I used the phone without the case cause using one would hide the gorgeous colour and the design, and that would be a shame. I also dropped the phone more than thrice but there wasn’t a scratch or crack. You could say the Corning Gorilla Glass Victus did its job here.

There’s also IP68 certification for water, dust resistance and dual speaker setup. The speakers are loud and clear. Like most flagships, there is no 3.5mm headphone jack on the S21 Ultra.

Enough about the design and display, let’s get to the highlight feature - The camera.

Camera

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G has the most versatile camera system that you can find on a smartphone to date. It has an improved 108MP primary camera, a 12MP ultrawide sensor, and two telephoto lenses - 10MP f/2.4 with 3x optical zoom, and 10MP f/4.9 with 10x optical zoom and up to 100x digital zoom.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde)

The versatile camera hardware is not just strong on paper as it also delivers in the real world. The improved Samsung 108MP ISOCELL HM3 sensor clicks excellent images. Photos shot using the main sensor offer rich, vibrant colours and ample detail. The dynamic range and contrast too are impressive. I also liked the performance of the camera in low light. In Night mode, the camera manages to retain good details in the shadows without overblowing the highlights. Samsung has also fixed the focusing issues that plagued the S20 Ultra with the Laser Autofocus. The ultrawide camera too is quite good. Yes, there is slight distortion around the edges but that is the case with most ultrawide shooters. However, the colours are pretty accurate and the temperature matches that of the main sensor.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde)

The two telephoto lenses are more than just gimmicks. Both lenses combined can shoot up to 100x zoom. I was quite impressed with the overall performance of the two lenses. If you want the best, useable photos, try sticking to zooming up to 30x. Anything further will result in loss of detail and introduce noise. That being said, the 100x zoom is no more a gimmick. Depending on what you are shooting and how far the subject is, the camera hardware, coupled with the software, manages to get the best possible results in decent lighting.

I shot the moon multiple times during my Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review period and was blown away every time with the results. Samsung is using AI software tricks to complement the hardware and offer better results. Key features like focus tracking within the camera app and Optical Image Stabilisation aid in faster focusing, especially when you zoom into objects.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde)

For selfies, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 40MP front camera. Images overall are quite sharp and detailed as expected. The colours are also quite close to real and there is no skin smoothening as such. Samsung does ask you upon setup whether you want “Natural” or “Bright” selfies, which is a good touch, in my opinion. Portrait mode offers good edge detection and a bunch of modes. It mimics the iPhone’s low-key and high-key mono modes. People on Twitter voted in favour of the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s portrait mode against the iPhone 12’s 12MP selfie. 

How does it fare against the iPhone 12 or the iPhone 12 Pro? In terms of overall colours and details, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is very close to the iPhone. While the iPhone 12 colours are close to real, the Galaxy S21 Ultra shoots more vibrant images without over-saturating the images. Night mode performance too is quite good but the Galaxy S21 Ultra gets the crown here for offering Night Mode support across the four sensors. Click on the Flickr slideshow below to check some of the images we shot for the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera review.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Performance and Software

Prior to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung flagships in India often received criticism when it came to overall performance. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G and older flagship models came with an Exynos processor in India that was not only weak when compared to the Qualcomm Snapdragon counterpart but also offered poor efficiency. 

Things have changed with the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s Exynos 2100. When Samsung said “Exynos is back”, they probably meant it this time around. The 5nm-based Exynos 2100 comes very close to Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 SoC, as per online benchmark tests. Even if you don’t care about benchmark scores, the Exynos 2100 SoC would not disappoint you. Samsung has surprised us with the overall performance of the S21 Ultra 5G.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde) Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde)

During our Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review period, we played multiple games like Call of Duty, Asphalt 9, etc. There wasn’t a hint of lag even at the highest possible setting. Surprisingly, the device did not get too hot while gaming and was only warm to the touch. It was when we recorded some videos that the top portion near the camera module did get slightly warm.

Battery life too is quite impressive. For a phone that ran on 120Hz all the time with FHD+ resolution, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G’s 5,000 mAh battery gave me more than 6 hours of screen-on time (SoT) on most days. The day I shot many photos and videos is when the battery died within 5 hours of SoT. You are likely to get lesser juice if you use the QHD+ resolution at 120Hz refresh rate. Oh, by the way, Samsung has pulled an Apple here by not providing a charging adapter inside the box “for the environment”. It is a bummer for a device that costs over a lakh and Samsung should have provided an option to bundle a fast charger with the box. You can charge the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G with any charger that supports 25W fast charging. It took me a few minutes over an hour to charge the device completely.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde) Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde)

 The performance upgrade is not just limited to the hardware but also the software. OneUI 3.0 is a lot cleaner now and continues to be feature-rich. Samsung’s strong suit here is the gestures onboard coupled with excellent optimisation for the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. The device also supports S Pen now - something that has been a feature only for the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and the likes. It does miss out on a few S Pen features though and needs to be purchased separately.

Lastly, there is an in-display fingerprint scanner which is quite quick to unlock the phone. For reasons unknown, face unlock failed to detect my face multiple times even when I was not wearing a mask. Regardless, the fingerprint scanner is a better and secure alternative in the world of masks and covered faces.

Verdict

The main question - Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra?

The Samsung Galaxy S21 price in India starts at Rs 1,05,990 at the time of writing this review. The phone is for someone who wants the best that Samsung has to offer. There is a lot to like about the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. It could simply be the gorgeous design, the brilliant display quality, the excellent camera system, or the powerful performance.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde) Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image: Pranav Hegde)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra does not compromise on the key parameters that we judge when it comes to recommending a smartphone. Unlike previous Galaxy flagships, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is very close to the iPhone when it comes to overall performance - be it in the camera department or performing intensive tasks. There are areas where we feel the Galaxy S21 Ultra has an edge over the iPhone 12 or the iPhone 12 Pro, especially in the design and display department. The telephoto capabilities widen the gap further as the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s camera can zoom only up to 12x zoom digitally.

There are a few drawbacks though. Not providing a charger even as an option is a bummer. There is also no expandable storage either. Most importantly, it is expensive. It may look like I am nitpicking but the Galaxy S21 Ultra is indeed a “Pro” device that is likely to be used even by professionals as a content creation tool. If you ignore these minor shortcomings, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is the best Android smartphone to buy currently in India.
Pranav Hegde

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