The term ‘flagship’ has been thrown around quite a bit in the smartphone industry and as a result, has come to lose its meaning and value. For the uninitiated, a flagship is a no-compromise smartphone which comes toting the best features money can buy. To that note, Samsung’s latest handset, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is a flagship in the truest sense. It’s big, has oodles of horsepower under the hood and a camera setup that can click beautiful images across a range of different scenarios. So, what’s the catch? Well, Samsung wants prospective buyers to shell out upwards of Rs one lac for the phone and for that price, the S21 Ultra 5G leaves very little room for error.
What’s more, following into Apple’s footsteps, the company has omitted essential box accessories from the retail packaging of the S21 Ultra, including a case, a set of earbuds and a wall charger. This draws even more scrutiny to the phone’s sticker price, as everywhere across the globe, the S21 Ultra has been priced lower than the S20 Ultra launched last year. However, in India, the company has launched the phone at a higher starting price compared to last year’s model.
It goes without saying that the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a lot riding on its shoulders, so let’s see if it makes the cut for the best flagship phone launched in 2021 so far.
Samsung knows a thing or two about designing good-looking flagships – after all, the company has been finetuning its craft for almost a decade. To that note, the S21 Ultra 5G looks and feels the part of an expensive product. The handset personifies luxury and comes toting a metallic chassis with a contoured camera module sticking out from one side. Speaking of which, the S21 Ultra’s camera setup is reminiscent of the one on the Note 20 Ultra (review), albeit isn’t as chunky, or boxlike for that matter. Instead, it incorporates wavy and rounded off corners, lending the smartphone a somewhat unique look.
Add to that the unit’s stealthy Phantom Black colourway and the design of the S21 Ultra 5G is, in my books, equal parts quirky and equal parts understated. I for one, absolutely adore the design of the phone and from where I stand, there’s but one thing that I feel could’ve been better. You see, the frame of the S21 Ultra 5G is glossy, which sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to the classier matte finish on the back. But, barring that, I have no doubt in my mind that those opting for the handset will be singing praises of the phone’s aesthetics too.
On to the ergonomics now and here, the S21 Ultra 5G leaves much to be desired. In Samsung’s defence, the brand has done the needful to make this otherwise ginormous and heavy phone (227g) feel comfortable and one-hand friendly. But, chamfered edges and a swooping back can only do so much for the in-hand grip, especially when the smartphone in question feels top-heavy and has uneven weight distribution across its chassis too.
It goes without saying that you should put a case on the S21 Ultra and not rely on its IP68 certification or its Gorilla Glass Victus layering to save the day. Better safe than sorry, amirite?
Before I wrap up the design section, allow me to answer some FAQs about the phone –
Q1 – Does the camera bump look bad and will the phone wobble when set on a flat surface?
Well, the looks of a phone are quite subjective but I prefer this design over the boxier camera module of the S20 Ultra. And, unfortunately, the phone does wobble when placed on a flat surface.
Q2 – Do we get an S Pen with the S21 Ultra?
The S21 Ultra is the first S-series flagship that officially supports the S Pen. However, I didn’t have a Note device to test the company’s claims and the phone doesn’t ship with one either. I should also point out that the S Pen bundled with the Note 20 Ultra features a battery and charges when it’s tucked inside the phone’s chassis. As such, the company has stated that the S Pen for the S21 Ultra will not support any Bluetooth or wireless features.
Q3 – How’s the haptic feedback on the phone? Are the buttons too stiff?
If you are big on texting, then you’ll absolutely revel typing on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. The haptic feedback is extremely tight and refined, and the buttons offer excellent tactility too.
Q4 – Does the S21 Ultra come with expandable storage?
Unfortunately, the S21 Ultra doesn’t come with a microSD card slot and consequently, you will have to rely on cloud-based solutions once you run out of the phone’s built-in storage.
Samsung phones are touted to have the most stunning displays in the biz and the S21 Ultra 5G is no exception to this rule. In fact, having used the phone for almost a week, I feel confident in saying that the phone’s 6.8-inch, Dynamic 2X AMOLED panel is easily the best I’ve seen on any phone. The display is extremely sharp, thanks to its WQHD+ resolution which outputs a pixel density of 551 pixels per inch. Not to mention, the panel can get incredibly bright at 1,500 nits, so outdoor visibility shouldn’t be an issue either. I’d also like to add that the panel exhibits extremely dark blacks and deep contrast, which make consuming content on the phone an absolute treat. Speaking of which, the phone does indeed come with Widevine L1 certification and can play shows in HDR from popular OTT platforms like Netflix too.
I spent a good chunk of my review period watching Lupin and Dark on the phone and the shows exemplify the panel’s merits to the fullest. Both the shows have been shot in a somewhat dark setting but, thanks to S21 Ultra’s HDR-compliant screen, I could easily make out everything on the screen without upping the screen’s brightness. Furthermore, I didn’t run into any black crush issues either and all in all, the viewing experience offered by the S21 Ultra 5G is in a league of its own.
And, that’s not all, as the S21 Ultra 5G also features a 120Hz Adaptive refresh rate display which can drop all the way down to 10Hz for static content, thereby bettering the phone’s battery life. While I would’ve liked to have an option to lock the display refresh rate at 120Hz, I will admit, I rarely ever noticed the animations or transitions stutter on the phone. Moreover, unlike the S20 Ultra, you can even use Adaptive motion smoothness at WQHD+ resolution, which is a big plus. You can obviously drop down to 60Hz and variate the screen resolution to FHD+ too, but for the best experience, I’d advise you to keep the phone running at WQHD+/FHD+ and 120Hz refresh rate.
Samsung flagships seldom offer sub-par cameras and you’d be glad to know that the S21 Ultra 5G too offers what is in my books, the best point-and-shoot experience. In fact, the company has bettered the phone’s camera prowess over its predecessor, which is no small feat as the S20 Ultra (review) already shipped with god-tier cameras. But, before I talk more, allow me to get the specs out of the way first.
Starting with the main camera, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra features a 108MP ISOCELL HM3 image sensor which works alongside two 10MP telephoto lenses with f/1.8 and f/2.4 aperture respectively. Lastly, the handset also gets a 12MP ultra-wide angle lens towards the back which offers an FoV of 120-degrees. I should also add that the phone gets a dedicated laser autofocus unit, as well as OIS on its main camera. For selfies, the device gets a 40MP selfie-shooter upfront.
Coming to the daylight shots, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra will enamour you with gorgeous stills that offer plenty of vibrancy and details. While the smartphone does over-saturate the photos, the company has improved the post-processing quite a bit and the images don’t appear doctored. Case in point, the comparison shots I’ve attached from the S20 Ultra and the S21 Ultra 5G. With the scene optimizer enabled and HDR set to auto, you’ll notice that the S20 Ultra’s image is grossly colourified, which is apparent from the navy blue hue of the sky. Furthermore, the handset has also played up the contrast quite a bit, which can be seen if you glance at the darkened generator and the bushes surrounding it. The S21 Ultra’s post-processing, on the other hand, is much more desirable as the phone fills the shot with punchy colours but it does so whilst keeping the dynamic range in check. So, highlights are exposed properly and information from shadows (the darker parts) are brought up appropriately too.
During my testing, I found this to be the biggest differentiator between the two phones. While the S20 Ultra is a capable shooter too, the S21 Ultra 5G dials that experience up a notch by offering more realistic colours, better dynamic range and faster focussing speeds. And, it only gets better. You see, while the S20 Ultra shipped with a remarkable 48MP periscope lens allowing buyers to use 4x optical zoom and 10x hybrid optical zoom, the S21 Ultra refines that approach too. With the newer model, you’ll get two separate telephoto lenses, one of which can optically zoom at 3x and the other, can make a 10x crop. Correspondingly, the S21 Ultra doesn’t just offer more versatility across the board, but it also offers much sharper images at a higher crop.
Case in point, this shot of a red flower in my society and here, you’ll notice that the leaves, as well as the red petals, all appear sharper on the S21 Ultra’s photo. Not to mention, the bokeh effect created by the phone is phenomenal too. During my testing, I noticed that shots taken at 3x and 10x retained bountiful information and added a gorgeous bokeh effect around the subject. Moreover, the dynamic range was spot on too, and the colour temperature disparity between the standard, the 3x and the 10x lenses was kept under the lid as well. Everything considered, the S21 Ultra 5G greatly mitigates the need to edge closer to the subject whilst framing a shot.
I should also add that photos which make use of digital zoom on both the phones appear sharper on the S21 Ultra 5G too. For instance, this next shot of a pigeon which was snapped at 30x on the two devices. Here, once again, the S21 Ultra’s image appears sharper and has better detailing across the board. And, fret not as the smartphone also comes equipped with the company’s marquee Space Zoom feature which allows users to zoom up to 100x into the viewfinder. That said, the feature still remains more or less a party trick and you’ll seldom find scenarios that would benefit from this crazy zoom, primarily because you’ll have to mount the phone on a tripod to assuage the shakiness and keep the frame absolutely still.
As for the ultrawide sensor, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G leaves a little to be desired here. While the images offer plenty of sharpness around the centre of the composition, the corner details are quite lacklustre. Thankfully, the phone somewhat makes up for it by clicking good-quality images in lowlight scenarios. With the night mode enabled, I noticed that the phone could resolve instances of lens flaring much, much better. In the gallery attached above, you’ll notice how the phone has kept unnecessary glares from the red led strip wrapped around the tree, as well as the billboards emanating light to a minimum with the feature enabled. What’s more, there’s plenty of details to go by in the shots and at a closer crop, the images don’t feel overtly oversharpened either. If anything, I noticed a purple-sky effect when clicking photos in night mode, however, the issue is easily fixable via an OTA update.
If like me, you too enjoy clicking selfies then you’ll find the S21 Ultra 5G to be right up your alley. The smartphone’s 40MP selfie shooter clicks extremely detailed photos under ideal lighting conditions. The images also boast natural skin tones and evince a stunning bokeh effect should you snap photos in portrait mode. And, for all the videographers in the audience, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra can record incredible videos in a variety of different resolutions and frame rates. In fact, you can even have the phone snap 8K videos, should you please. However, seeing how that’s a bit overkill for my usage, I stuck with 1080p 30fps and 60fps clips which offered rich colours, excellent stability and phenomenal dynamic range too. So much so, despite shooting under harsh sunlight, the subject’s skin tone was never over exposed and the background was exposed properly too.
Audio, Connectivity and Biometrics
Much like other recent Samsung flagships, the S21 Ultra too omits the headphone jack. Making matters worse, the company has decided to ship the phone without the iconic AKG earphones too. Consequently, the listening experience on the S21 Ultra, out-of-the-box, is somewhat limited. That said, the handset does ship with a stereo speaker setup which gets quite loud and doesn’t crackle at high volume levels either.
It should come as no surprise that the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is 5G-ready. However, seeing how 5G is still ways away in India, I tested the phone on my Airtel 4G Postpaid SIM and got stellar download and upload speeds. Moreover, I didn’t drop calls during my stint with the phone either, so no complaints here.
In terms of biometrics, the smartphone comes with an in-display fingerprint sensor which has seen noticeable improvement over the one on the S20 Ultra. In fact, when using the two phones side by side, I almost always got into my home screen quicker on the S21 Ultra 5G when compared to its predecessor. You also get face unlock with the phone which gets the job done flawlessly when there’s ample light around. However, you might be better off using the fingerprint sensor in lowlight conditions.
Performance, Battery life and Software
Samsung launches two variants of its flagships every year – one which comes equipped with a top-of-the-line Qualcomm SoC (at the time of the phone’s launch), and the other which uses the company’s in-house Exynos processor. The latter is distributed in India and to cut a long story short, it’s what has kept me from using Samsung flagships over an extended period. You see, Qualcomm SoCs have always offered more compute per buck spent and as someone who plays a lot of mobile games, I couldn’t compromise on my daily driver’s performance.
Well, it seems like the company finally has a capable SoC to go toe-to-toe against Qualcomm’s offering as the S21 Ultra 5G features the all-new Exynos 2100 octa-core processor which has the same core structure as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chip. In essence, much like the Snapdragon 888 processor, the Exynos 2100 also features a single Cortex-X1 core, three Cortex-A78 cores and a cluster of four Cortex-A55 cores. The smartphone even comes with up to 16GB of LPDDR5 memory and up to 512GB of UFS v3.1 storage.
That being said, I noticed that the benchmark scores for the phone were lower as compared to a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip, which can be accredited to Exynos 2100’s relatively less powerful Mali G-78 MP14 GPU. Thankfully, the processor was extremely snappy in day to day usage and showcased perceptible improvement over last year’s Exynos 990 SoC too. I’d also like to add that the SoC was able to run graphically intensive titles flawlessly. In CoD Mobile, I was able to game smoothly on Max Frame rates, and that’s with the graphics setting set to the Very High preset, as well as with other visual tweaks including ragdoll effects and water reflections enabled. The gaming experience on the phone was outstanding too, mind you. Thanks in no small part to the handset’s rather large display, my fingers were rarely ever fighting for space on the screen. What’s more, Samsung’s decision to opt for a metal chassis has paid dividends here too, as the S21 Ultra body dissipates heat really well. As a result, you’ll never feel the heat of the battle get to your palms (pun intended).
What wouldn’t suffice, however, are the phone’s slow charging speeds. I don’t understand why the company opted to remove support for 45W fast charging from the S21 Ultra 5G and as things stand, the handset maxes out at 25W for wired charging, and 15W for wireless charging. Since the phone doesn’t come bundled with a charger either, I had to resort to using OnePlus’ 65W brick which comes bundled with the OnePlus 8T (review). With it, I could top up the phone in an hour. And, for anyone who uses it, the phone also lets users reverse-charge their accessories or secondary phones as it features 4.5W reverse wireless charging.
On the software side of things, the Galaxy S21 Ultra boots the company’s OneUI 3.0 which runs on top of Android 11. The custom skin brings about a handful of cosmetic changes, including a tastefully revamped notification shade which envelopes the screen in a gaussian blur whenever you bring it down. The skin also offers smoother animations, along with the company’s brand-new news aggregator, Samsung Free, which can be accessed by swiping to the left most page on the home screen. That said, you can disable it or select Google’s Discover feed by long-pressing on the home screen and navigating to the Samsung Free tab.
Other than that, the custom skin retains a lot of useful features, including the ability to record calls, put apps to deep sleep, a built-in screen recorder, Samsung Dex and numerous screen on and off gestures. Media centre, another useful utility, makes a return too and it can be accessed by tapping on the ‘media’ prompt whenever you pull down the notification tray. Doing so will let you change your audio output on the fly, a particularly nifty trick for anyone pairing multiple audio devices to their phones.
There isn’t a whole lot of bloatware on the phone either and on the whole, the UI feels extremely fluid as well. If anything, I wish the company would add support for third-party icons on the phone. Currently, the selection in the Galaxy theme store feels quite uninspired and while I could shift to a custom launcher like Nova, the phone’s navigational gestures refuse to play well with it.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G starts at Rs 1,05,999 for the 12GB variant I tested, with the 16GB RAM SKU retailing for Rs 1,16,999 in the country. I won’t beat around the bush at all – paying upwards of Rs one lac for a phone is too rich for my blood and I’m assuming a lot of prospective buyers will feel the same too. That said, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G symbolises the pinnacle in smartphone tech. The handset is built on excess and comes toting a capable SoC, the best display I’ve ever used on any phone and an incredible set of cameras. While you could make the case against the phone’s slow charging speeds and its barebones unboxing experience, truth be told, you wouldn’t care about any of that once you start using the phone – it’s that good.
That said, the S21 Ultra 5G is the first of many flagships to launch in 2021 and we can expect quite a few others based on the upcoming Snapdragon 888 chipset. So you’d need to decide if you want to wait for those. Moreover, if you’re platform agnostic, then you can also go for the iPhone 12 series. While these miss out on a high-refresh rate display and versatile telephoto cameras, they will surely offer a long shelf life.
All things considered, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is a remarkable phone that doesn’t feel limiting in any aspect. Of course, good things seldom come cheap but I’m positive that the phone will go down as one of the best flagships of the year.
Editor’s rating: 4 / 5
- Flagship-grade performance
- Great cameras
- Stunning display
- Long-lasting battery life
- Uneven weight distribution
- No expandable storage
- Purple-sky effect in lowlight scenarios