Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review: Samsung's premier phone is pretty badass
With an elegant design, lower price and S-Pen support, the second time's the charm for Samsung. The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G earns a CNET Editors' Choice Award.
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Patrick HollandManaging Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
If you want the absolute best specs and features, the S21 Ultra is undoubtedly appealing. The phone will also attract camera nerds, thanks to the improvements. The addition of S-Pen support -- it's the first Galaxy S phone to support the stylus -- will likely catch the eye of Galaxy Note users looking for a different option.
Last year's Ultra model seemed like it came out of nowhere. It was a phone all about excess that, by sheer fate, was launched at the beginning of a global pandemic and recession. Its bold, behemoth take on the Galaxy S line was undercut by its $1,400 (£1,199, AU$1,999) price and issues with its nearly domino-size camera system.
Overall, the S21 Ultra is a major update both in terms of hardware and software over the S20 Ultra. And when you factor in a lower price, it all kind of makes sense. And that's why the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra earned a CNET's Editors' Choice Award. The whole Galaxy S21 lineup is available to purchase -- here's how you can buy one.
Watch this: We review the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G and its bonkers cameras
I wouldn't call the S21 Ultra's design radically different, but my review unit has the best black finish I've ever seen on a phone. It's the stuff that goth dreams are made of. The color is called phantom black, and seeing it in person makes you understand why Samsung made a nearly three-minute video explaining the blackest black finish. The S21 Ultra also comes in phantom silver and there are limited-edition phantom finishes in titanium, brown and navy, which can only be found on Samsung's website.
The camera bump is large and melts into the sides of the phone, which are glossy black. And while the regular S21 and S21 Plus looks snazzy in their two-tone colors, the all-black S21 Ultra is cool, elegant and badass all at the same time.
The S21 Ultra is heavier than last year's S20 Ultra and the iPhone 12 Pro Max. It's the second heaviest phone I have tested in the past year, just behind the Asus ROG Phone 3.
The display is brighter and adds S-Pen support
Around the front is one of the most impressive displays I've seen. It has a Wide Quad HD resolution and a variable refresh rate between 10 and 120Hz, which is determined by what's on the screen. And just to be clear, it can be set to 120Hz without the hit to resolution that the S20 Ultra had. The 6.8-inch display is bright and the contrast is gorgeous. Covering the front and back is Corning's Gorilla Glass Victus.
Under the screen is a larger ultrasonic fingerprint reader which feels peppy. I had a hard time telling if it was faster than the one on the S20 Ultra. The display also has S-Pen support.
The Galaxy Note phones line always tempted me, but I didn't think I'd use the S-Pen enough to justify getting one. I like the iPad Pro-Apple Pencil approach Samsung took with the S21 Ultra. Without an S-Pen, you can still enjoy using the S21 Ultra. But if you're S-Pen curious, you can buy a new S-Pen or find an old one and it will work. There's a lot you can do like draw, take notes and sign documents. I love editing photos and making adjustments with the S-Pen.
There are a few S-Pen considerations. The S21 Ultra doesn't come with an S-Pen and doesn't support Bluetooth or gesture functionality. For example, the S21 Ultra can't send you a notification if you leave your S-Pen behind. Also, the Ultra doesn't have a built-in slot to store an S-Pen. Samsung does sell cases for the phone that include S-Pen storage.
The 108-megapixel sensor on the main camera is new and has better autofocus for both photos and videos. There's even a new focus enhancer tool that pops onscreen to help the phone focus faster. The tool looks like it might be switching to a wider view to do so.
The dual-telephoto cameras add a number of benefits. One has 3x magnification and the other 10x. This means when you zoom in, there are two places in your zoom range where the image isn't cropped and where you'll capture the best image quality. Another benefit is stability. The two cameras are paired to help make zooming in, even at 100x, easier and more steady.
At 30x or higher, a zoom guide appears to help you find the specific spot that you're zoomed in at. You can lock it so the cameras don't move, which turns the guide yellow. This works quite well. Obviously you have to be careful not to move the phone around too much, but it's less finicky and frustrating than the S20 Ultra.
Photos from the S21 Ultra are excellent, with good detail and a wide dynamic range. There is a 108-megapixel mode, but I found that the 12-megapixel photos that come from pixel binning look consistently great.
Below are several photos I took with the S21 Ultra.
In low light, the S21 Ultra's night mode is outstanding. Flaring on the lens is minimized and photos look bright without a bunch of image noise or noise-reduction smearing. Below are a few night mode photos I took:
For selfies there's the same 40-megapixel camera that the S20 Ultra had. You now have an option to change the color tone to either bright or natural which is excellent.
Samsung added the ability to take raw 12-bit color photos. There's a new video feature called Director's View, which gives you a thumbnail preview of the video feeds coming from all of the cameras on the phones. As you record, you can switch between them. Within Director's View, there's a vlogger setup that gives you a side-by-side video view or a stacked one if you're shooting vertically. This means you can record yourself with the selfie camera and show what you're seeing or reacting to with any of the rear cameras.
On paper, Director's View seemed like something I might try once and not really use. But after some time using it, some people will definitely be into the feature. A downside to Director's View is that the final video is saved in HD instead of 4K or 8K. I'd love to see a similar thumbnail preview interface of all the rear cameras when recording a regular 4K video.
I'm excited to pit the S21 Ultra and its cameras against the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Google Pixel 5. Each phone takes a different approach to photography and will appeal to different people.
S21 Ultra has a Snapdragon 888 chip and 12 or 16GB of RAM
Powering the S21 Ultra is the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip, along with 12GB of RAM, or 16GB in the most expensive model -- which also has 512GB of storage (see the chart below for prices). In my benchmark tests, the S21 Ultra scored better than last year's S20 Ultra. And in use, it handled everything I threw at it, even playing Xbox Game Pass Ultimate games on it.
Supplying juice to the phone is a 5,000-mAh battery. I've easily been averaging a day and a half on a single charge. Battery tests on the S21 Ultra for continuous video playback on Airplane mode clocked an average of 22 hours and 57 minutes with the refresh rate set to Auto 120Hz. That's actually an hour less than the S20 Ultra lasted in the same test. Though keep in mind, in real world use my colleague Jessica Dolcourt found the S20 Ultra's battery drained like it was being bitten by a "thirsty vampire."
Below are the results of my benchmark tests for the S21 Ultra.
Android 11 and 5G support
The Galaxy S21 Ultra runs Android 11 with Samsung's OneUI 3.1 top layer. And I like it a lot. I can now default to Google Pay or Google Discover News feed instead of Samsung's versions. The look for everything from settings to pop-up windows is clean and contemporary. And with a phone this big, OneUI helps make it easier to use one-handed.
Last, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has 5G and supports both sub-6 and mmWave flavors of 5G. You shouldn't get the Ultra for its 5G. But as 5G networks get better, so will your 5G speeds and connection. And then we'll really have something to talk about.