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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: Benchmark Display, Camera, And Hardware Performance
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra was an incredible attempt to spice up things for the decade-old Galaxy line-up. The flagship phone introduced many industry-first features and successfully started a new series that tried to offer the best of both worlds, i.e. Galaxy Note and the Galaxy S-series smartphones. But despite some incredible features, the S20 Ultra fell short of expectations in various performance parameters. The camera was certainly one of them where the S20 Ultra could have done better.
- Stunning Design
- IP68 Certified
- Gorgeous Quad HD Display
- Fluid 120Hz Refresh Rate
- Capable Camera Hardware
- Decent Battery Life
- Smooth Performance
- Bulky And Not Built For One-Hand Use
- No Charger or Earphones In Box
- Average Nigh-Time Camera
- No microSD Card Support
- Fast-Charging Capped At 25W
Fast forward to 2021, Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra tries to address major pain-points where the S20 lagged. It improves the camera performance with welcomed hardware upgrades, ups the chipset and display game, and further bridges the gap with the Galaxy Note series by offering the S-Pen support to make better use of the gorgeous 6.8-inch Quad HD display.
Having tested the Galaxy 20 Ultra, I used the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra as my daily driver to test what Samsung has improved in one year with the Ultra line-up.
Design That Screams Flagship
When I first came across the leaked renders of Samsung's 2021 flagship smartphones back in 2020, I wasn't quite convinced about the look and feel of the final product. It looked very industrial and more like those rugged phones that focus on function over design and looks. Now when I finally have the S21 Ultra, I must say that Samsung has managed to design one of the best looking Galaxy devices. The new smartphone looks absolutely premium and screams flagship from every corner. It sure has the elements of an industrial design but Samsung engineers have beautifully streamlined the overall look and feel to make the phone feel stealthily gorgeous in your hands.
Huge Camera Bump, No microSD Card Expansion Support
There's no way you can ignore the gigantic camera bump on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It can look out of the place to many at first glance, but I think it gives the S21 a unique design characteristic, something we haven't seen in the past. I believe the upcoming Note will also carry this hefty camera bump and it might even stay for at least two generations of the Galaxy S and Note series devices.
I found it to be a good design choice. The bigger size gives ample space to add capable camera hardware, and from the design perspective; the brushed metal plate creates a stark contrast by sitting on a minimally designed frosted glass back panel. The phone's aluminum frame has a glossy finish though.
The Type-C port sits at the bottom along with the second stereo speaker unit, microphone, and the dual-SIM card tray which does not offer any space for an external memory card. The volume rockers and the power button sits on the right side. Last but not the least, there's no 3.5mm headphone jack and you also don't get the connector (Type-C to 3.5mm) in the box. These are some major compromises that we were not used to facing while using the Samsung Galaxy devices.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra feels incredibly dense and solid, probably because it's ever so slightly smaller than its predecessor but 5 grams heavier. The front and back of the S21 Ultra have the latest Corning Gorilla Glass Victus layer and the frame is made up of aluminum. The back panel's Corning's Glass Victus has been given a frosted matte finish which feels very satisfying to touch and attracts very few or almost no smudges and fingerprints. It looks far better than the glossy back panels of the Galaxy S20-series devices.
The phablet is IP68 certified for dust/water resistance (up to 1.5m for 30 minutes). We are testing the Phantom Black color variant which looks dope but you can also buy the phablet in the Phantom White color option which looks very elegant and makes up for a great color variant.
Handle With Case
No, you didn't read the subhead wrong. Weighing 227g and measuring 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm, the S21 Ultra's matte finish back is extremely slippery. The big body, weight, and slippery material make it very uncomfortable to use the S21 Ultra with one hand. While a case will add more bulk to the already heavy and bulky device, it will ease up the handling process and will also prevent the device from unwanted damages.
Best-in-Business Quad HD AMOLED Display
The Galaxy S21 Ultra beats every smartphone in the market when it comes to displaying performance. The phablet features a 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen with 1,440 x 3,200 pixels resolution translating to 515ppi. It's a mindboggling panel for media consumption and basic usage, thanks to the HDR10+ support and 120Hz refresh rate respectively. The color reproduction is top-notch and makes for an immersive video playback experience. The screen also retains amazing visibility even under direct sunlight. If you prefer Samsung-styled vibrant colors, set the screen mode to 'Vivid' else the 'Natural' mode offers sRGB profile effectively and displays natural tones.
Run Display At 120Hz With Quad HD Resolution
Samsung has also addressed the resolution and the refresh rate limitation. You can now set the screen's refresh rate to run at 120Hz without lowering the resolution to Full HD; however, I would not wholly recommend doing it as the combination takes a toll on the battery life. Also, the difference in the 1080p and Quad HD resolution at 120Hz is not that visible to naked eyes.
The display feels extremely fluid when it is set to run in the adaptive mode. However, the phone applies the 120Hz settings only when you are navigating throughout the UI, scrolling on apps, watching HDR content on OTT apps/YouTube and playing games that support a higher refresh rate. Otherwise, it lowers the refresh rate to 60Hz for most tasks including the camera viewfinder and even maps.
Overall, the Galaxy S21 Ultra brings the best-in-class display user-experience on a smartphone. Even the latest generation iPhones are no match to its Quad HD (120Hz) HDR10+ enabled AMOLED panel.
S-Pen Support But Only For Limited Functions
Another important update to the Galaxy S21 Ultra's display is the stylus support. You can either purchase the newly designed S-Pen (with the unique case) for the new phablet or can now use any old S-Pen on the Galaxy S21 Ultra's gorgeous 6.8-inch AMOLED panel. The Galaxy S21 Ultra does not support all fancy S-Pen features (like the Air-gesture) but it supports the most useful functions like Screen Write, Screen-Off Memo, Notes app, Screen translate, GIFs, and Doodling. We have heard that Samsung will launch an intelligent 'Pro' version of the S-Pen for the Galaxy S21 Ultra with Bluetooth support to extend all unique features to the new phablet.
Samsung has equipped the Galaxy S21 Ultra with its most versatile camera hardware ever. In fact, I would say it is a complete camera system because you can perform almost every camera trick without the need for any additional lenses or mobile camera accessories. The camera system features a 108MP 1/1.33" wide-angle sensor which uses Samsung's latest ISOCELL HM3 sensor of f/1.8 aperture size. The 108MP sensor has a lens of 24mm equivalent focal length and applies 9-in-1 pixel binning on 0.8µm individual photosites to yield an effective pixel size of 2.4µmm.
This creates a pixel-binned image of 12MP effective resolution. Also, the primary lens of the quad-camera system has some impressive focusing capabilities. It supports PDAF, OIS and has the all-new Laser AF system which was not present in the S20 Ultra.
The primary sensor is accompanied by a 12MP ultra wide-angle lens (f/2.2, 13mm, 1/2.55", 1.4µm) which has dual pixel PDAF to offer Super Steady video recording. Next in line is a 10MP telephoto lens (f/2.4, 70mm, 1/3.24", 1.22µm) which also gets dual pixel PDAF and even OIS. This lens allows for 3x optical zoom on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Things get even interesting when you realize that Samsung has added a secondary telephoto lens to offer 10x optical zoom. This is essentially a 10 MP, 240mm, 1/3.24", 1.22µm lens with a darker f/4.9 aperture. This is also an optically stabilized sensor with dual pixel PDAF. For selfies, the Galaxy S21 Ultra boasts a 40 MP, f/2.2 sensor with PDAF (26mm wide, 1/2.8", 0.7µm)
This complex yet beautiful optical system gives the Galaxy S21 Ultra some serious video recording capabilities. The rear camera is capable of recording 8K@24fps videos. You can also record 4K@30/60fps, 1080p@30/60/240fps, and 720p@960fps videos. The camera also records HDR10+ videos with stereo sound recording. As far as the front camera is concerned, it records 4K@30/60fps and 1080p@30fps videos.
So what does this incredible camera setup means? It means some much-awaited improvements in the overall picture/video quality, improved autofocus mechanism, and better overall color reproduction. We are going to summarize the camera performance in easy-to-understand points to make it easy for you.
• The 12MP pixel-binned shots show excellent details, wide dynamic range, and have almost no visible noise in daylight.
• The distortion correction works wonders while clicking wide-angle shots.
• The 12MP ultra-wide sensor also captures impressive macro shots with automatic focus enhancer enabled. The images look sharp but some details are lost in the process.
• The 3x optically zoomed images, which are essentially 12MP shots, show good details, controlled noise, and accurate colors.
• Even the 10x optically zoomed shots have decent details and pictures show good contrast and impressive dynamic range. Colors also look vivid yet accurate.
• The Portrait mode can give DSLR grade shots when the camera is fed to ample lighting. The default 2x bokeh shots (cropped from 108MP sensor) look downright impressive as they give you a good perspective between the subject and the background. You can any time zoom out to 1x to add more elements in the frame to cover a wider area in the frame but the edge detection takes a slight hit.
• The 2x and 1x portrait perspectives make the Galaxy S21 Ultra a very impressive camera device for street photography. Enable the full-screen aspect ratio and focus on far-field subjects with the default 2x bokeh and see the magical outcomes on the gorgeous AMOLED display.
• The newly added portrait studio lighting effects (Low-key mono, High-key mono, Color point, Studio, and Backdrop) create wonderful results.
• The major improvements seem to be in the autofocus mechanism. The new sensor's focusing capabilities are very impressive and the best on a Galaxy device to date. You can even experience better autofocus across the sensors on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, even while taking extreme zoomed images via telephoto sensors.
• The Galaxy S21's 40MP selfie camera even beats some dedicated selfie smartphones. The images show excellent dynamic range, plenty of details, and are mostly free of unnatural skin softening, which is surprising for a Samsung camera and we are more than happy about it.
• The fact that you can record 4K 60fps videos from all five cameras is no less than a feat in itself. And the results are super crisp with video footage showing plenty of details and an excellent dynamic range.
• The autofocus works wonders even while shooting videos from all sensors.
• There's a Pro Video mode that offers a range of aspect ratios and fps combinations along with video stabilization, audio customizations, and basic camera settings such as ISO, autofocus, exposure, color temperature, etc. If you know your away to shoot a cinematic video, the Galaxy S21 Ultra can prove to be a mind-blowing video recording device. In short, it's a wonderful video recorder for content creators and travel bloggers.
• Last but not the least, the Pro mode on the Galaxy S21 Ultra supports HDR and 12-bit RAW files which is another step up for users who have a knack for photography.
What’s Not So Good?
• The white balance has improved a lot if we compare the overall results with the previous Galaxy devices but the end-results still have a slightly warmer tone. The skies and skin tones show excessive reds and yellows sometimes.
• Daylight images also show some excessive and unnatural sharpness. It seems the new sensor and the camera processing is trying very hard to maintain the crispness but goes overboard with the entire process. Samsung might resolve it with some software updates.
• The 10x low-light shots aren't good at all as the camera uses the narrow f/4.9 aperture and has to work around with just a 10MP sensor.
• Beyond 30x, the images are barely usable as the watercolor effect kicks in, and details are lost to over-processing.
• The edge detection is mostly accurate but it did give us some very unnatural and artificial results, even in the daytime when the lighting was abundant.
• I am not very impressed with the night-time results. The images look pretty average and not something we expect from a phone which has such incredible camera hardware. Nighttime images show average details, clipped highlights and excessive sharpness and noise. The camera sensor poorly handles light sources. Overall, Samsung needs to step up the nigh-time photography game to match up to Google, Apple and in fact some devices from Vivo, for instance, the Vivo X50 Pro can deliver better nigh-time results than the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
• Yes, you can capture the moon if you have a clear view. The 100x space zoom now offers better stability without the tripod but the results are not dramatically different from the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Hardware And Software Performance
Like every year, Samsung is selling the S21 line-up in India with its in-house Exynos chipset. But this time around, the stakes are even higher as there's very little room for mistakes. The Galaxy S21 Ultra makes use of Samsung's most powerful SoC to date- the Exynos 2100. The 5G-integrated CPU is built on the 5-nanometer (nm) process node which claims to allow up to 20-percent lower power consumption or 10-percent higher overall performance than the 7nm predecessor SoCs.
Samsung's new processor has a lot on its shoulders and it turned out to be a surprisingly good performer in our tests. We have been testing the 12GB RAM + 256GB ROM variant of the Galaxy S21 Ultra and this thing flies. The phone is extremely fluid and is mostly free of heating issues unless you are using gaming for an hour or using Google Maps for an extended duration. The 120Hz display and the OneUI 3.1 are two important contributors to the buttery smooth performance of the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The software feels more refined, welcoming, and is full of useful features translating to a joyful user-experience.
The 12GB RAM ensured a smooth multitasking experience throughout our testing duration. Not even once the phone lagged or showed any signs of performance drops. The only place where you can feel a slight delay is when the camera processes bokeh shots. And that's pretty much about it. Otherwise, the S21 Ultra is as smooth as a phone can get in 2021. Even the new ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is very snappy and accurate. It unlocks the device in a jiffy and has much lower recognition errors.
Smooth And Immersive Gameplay
Even with extended gaming sessions of COD Mobile, Asphalt 9, and Injustice, the phone never felt underpowered nor did the chipset throttle. And playing higher refresh rates games on the QHD 120Hz display is pure bliss. If you are looking for some game titles, try Shadowgun Legends, Dead Trigger 2, and Alto's Odyssey.
Now you must note that we are talking from our experience of testing the Exynos version and not the SD888 variant. We cannot comment on the performance of the SD888 variant and the performance differences between the two versions as we didn't have the other variant handy. So your experience (if you test both the variants side-by-side) may vary. But overall, the Exynos 2100 SoC seems like a major step up for Samsung's in-house chip manufacturing.
As far as benchmarks tests are concerned, the Exynos 2100 with its tri-cluster structure scored 14705 in PC Mark's Work 2.0 test, 1,024 in Geekbench's single-core test, and 3230 in the multi-core test. The Galaxy S21 Ultra scored 7293 in 3D Mark's Sling Shot Extreme- OpenGL ES 3.1 test and a staggering 618145 points in Antutu test.
No microSD Card, No 3.5mm Headphone Jack, And No Earphones In The Box
There's no doubt that the Galaxy S21 Ultra is every bit of a Samsung device but there are some compromises that can be very annoying if you are accustomed to Samsung's mobile ecosystem. The 3.5mm headphone jack is long gone but Samsung decided to remove the AKG-tuned earphones from the box, which comes as a big surprise. Now you have to spend some extra thousands to purchase wireless or Type-C port compatible earphones and the ones Samsung sells cost no less than ten thousand.
Further, the microSD card slot is excluded which means you have to choose between the three available variants, i.e. 128GB/ 256GB and 512GB. Whatever variant you will purchase, the internal storage has to be a major deciding factor, just like Apple iPhones. In short, gone are the days when you could have flaunted these extra freebies from Samsung to Apple fanboys. And if you were wondering that how can Apple take away the charger from the box, you must know that even the Galaxy S21 Ultra's retail box lacks one. You will only get a Type-C to Type-C charging cable in the box.
What surprised me, even more, is the lack of a bundled silicone case in the box. While the cases that Samsung, and in fact every other brand offer are among the worst ones in the business, they still give some sense of assurance to offer some degree of protection from scratches in case you cannot find a good case in the first one or two weeks of buying a new device.
Now even after spending a fortune, you have to purchase all necessary accessories separately for your new Galaxy S21 Ultra and that's a bummer.
Battery Life, Audio Performance And Connectivity
I am not thrilled by the battery life on the Galaxy S21 Ultra but am not disappointed either. The big phablet draws power from a 5,000mAh battery unit which lasted a little less than a full day with heavy usage with the screen resolution set to full HD (1080p) and refreshes rate to 'Adaptive'. The battery can last for up to 16-17 hours with moderate to heavy usage at QHD+ resolution, which is pretty good for a device with such a big screen. Video playback, gaming and extended camera usage take a certain toll on the battery life of the Galaxy S21 Ultra which is pretty understandable. The phablet takes its sweet time to recharge as the fast-charging speed maxes at 25W. There's no 45W fast-charging support this year which is a bummer.
As far as audio performance is concerned, the Galaxy S21 Ultra packs an incredible pair of speakers that produce loud and clear audio. The sound output is free of any unwanted distortion and the audio produced is very engaging. You can easily enjoy a movie or your favourite series on the Galaxy S21 Ultra even if you don't have earphones handy. The loud and clear audio also works wonders while playing games and makes for an immersive gameplay experience.
I tested the phablet on the Airtel 4G network in the Delhi NCR region and faced multiple call drops. And this is largely Airtel's fault which hasn't managed to resolve the connectivity issues, especially in my locality. When the calls went through and 4G was running at its best, I did not experience any connectivity issues on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is my current favorite Android flagship despite some of its shortcomings such as the lack of a microSD card and bundled accessories in the box. True to its Ultra moniker, the phone comes jam-packed with the best-in-class hardware, display, and a surprisingly versatile camera setup. Samsung's new in-house Exynos 2100 SoC has left us impressed this time with its raw performance.
The quad-camera setup with dual telephoto sensors and better autofocus lets you capture stunning pictures and videos. The night-time photography could use some improvements though. Moving on, the Galaxy S21 Ultra's 6.8-inch QHD+ 120Hz display is pure bliss and offers an unmatched multimedia playback experience. It's no less than a mini pocket TV to enjoy your favorite movies, series, and 3D games. The battery life is good but not exceptional. Overall, the Galaxy S21 Ultra still shines out among the competition in most of the performance parameters and is worth its high price.
The 12GB + 256GB variant of the smartphone is going on sale today at Rs. 1,05,999 and will be available across Samsung.com, Samsung Exclusive Stores, leading online portals, and leading retail outlets. You can avail a cashback offer worth Rs. 10,000 on HDFC debit and credit cards.