There’s no denying that Samsung has a truly powerful phone out this generation with the new Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. On paper, this phone is a beast sporting the latest Snapdragon 888 with 12GB RAM onboard. It’s currently one of the most power full phones you can pick up here in the United States and one that is being supported by all the carriers here. It continues Samsung’s tradition of dominance over here, being one of the most popular Android brands and packing together a list of some of the most impressive specs you can find. However, what’s written on paper doesn’t always meet expectations. So is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G everything they say it is or is this Ultra just an ultra dud?
Note: Samsung was kind enough to send us the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G Unlocked for your testing and evaluation. We are using it with our own AT&T sim card on their 5G network here in Miami, FL.
First up, a little backstory on where I’m coming from with this review. Since 2016, I’ve been pretty much an exclusive LG smartphone user, mainly with their V-series phones. Starting with the brilliant LG V20, I’ve had every V-series phone since then – V30, V40, V50, and V60. While these phones were never as popular as any of the S-series Samsung phones, LG dared to make phones that were a little different, often with little unique features not found on other phones, mainly the use of some sort of second display. I was hoping for an LG V70, but that’s looking less and less like a possibility based on many of the current LG rumors. Anyways, I digress.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m really coming into this Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review with a fresh set of eyes and no real preconceived notions of what a Galaxy S-series phone should be or how they’ve been over the past number of years. My last real experience with Samsung was with a Galaxy S7. That’s a good long while ago. Anyways, I needed the new, new and the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G seems to check all the right boxes with what I’m looking for. Could it be that I finally make the switch back to Samsung? Read on to find out.
I covered a lot of this in my initial impressions post about the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, but I’ll go over it again as some of my opinions have changed a bit since I’ve had more time with it now. Again, the version of the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G I have here is the one in Phantom Black. I’ll also make a quick note here that Samsung ditched the charger in the box so you’ll either have to make do with what you got or shell out some extra dough for a fast charger.
Let’s start with the front again and talk about the display. The display is absolutely gorgeous. I’m coming from an LG V60 which also has a 6.8″ screen, but only had a FHD+ (1080 x 2460 @ 395 ppi density) display with a 60Hz refresh rate. It was far from what I’d call flagship for MY2000. The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G blows those specs away with a QHD display running at 1440 x 3200 resolution @ 515 ppi density. It also has an adaptive refresh rate that tops out at 120Hz. Needless to say, the display blows me away with its buttery smooth performance. Everything is so crisp and vivid. I don’t see how I can ever go back to anything less now.
The display does have some really thin bezels on the top and bottom, though the bottom one is a bit thicker. The side bezels are also super thin and that’s probably thanks to the slight curve at these edges. The curve here is just the perfect amount giving it a super-premium look, while also not getting in your way. I haven’t had any issues thus far with accidental palm touches.
On a sad note, while the glass is Gorilla Glass Victus and is suppose to be the strongest glass out there right now, I was still able to lightly scratch it. I found a small hairline surface scratch on it that I probably got during my photoshoots. I only blame myself for this.
Anyways, at the top of the display, there’s a tiny pinhole selfie camera in the center. I will say I prefer this over having a small notch or having it in the corner. On top of that, we have the integrated earpiece/speaker that is very thin and barely noticeable. In fact, it’s so thin I didn’t even know it was there, to begin with.
Lastly, the fingerprint reader is up front and under the display. Apparently it’s larger than last year’s unit. All I know is that it works, it’s very fast, and I haven’t had any issues unlocking the phone with it.
Moving on to the sides, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G features aluminum metal rails. The rails here are very curvy and very smooth and feature a glossy black paint job. They look very good, though the glossy black does pick up a lot of fingerprints. All the buttons are located on the right side of the phone. There’s a volume rocker up top with the power button below that. Up top are two mics. On the bottom are the USB-C port, another mic, and the second speaker. The sim card tray is also located here. There is no SD Card support this time around. There is no audio jack.
Now on to the back, which is where we’ll find the most noticeable changes that give the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G its distinctive look. The rear is also Gorilla Glass Victus, but in matte. The Phantom Black looks really slick here and looks so much better in this finish than it would if it were glossy. Not only that, the matte finish keeps the fingerprints away and gives the phone an overall much cleaner look. The glass here also curves at the edges and feels super smooth to the touch. It is fairly slippery, however. The glass is finished off with a glossy Samsung logo etched in.
Now on the top left corner is where the distinctive design is. Samsung calls this the “Contour Cut Camera” and it certainly is striking. On the Phantom Black, the entire camera element is finished off in matte black, surrounded by a glossy black metal trim. This trim seamlessly blends into the side rails making this new camera design much more fluid and integrated. It no longer looks like an afterthought.
You’ll notice too here that there are four cameras on the back, which we’ll go more into later on in this review.
Overall, Samsung’s new design language with the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is amazing and beautiful. They’ve really elevated things here and the design here helps differentiate them from everyone else with the same “me too” designs. This includes Apple. In fact, I dare say that the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G and its smaller siblings are much better looking than any iPhone out today. The phone itself is also very comfortable to hold with no sharp edges digging into your palms. It is however a bit on the heavy side. My only issue so far is how slippery it is, which a case definitely helped with that. I should mention that covering it up with a case doesn’t diminish how cool the phone still looks since the main component, the cameras, still get featured.
When it comes to the best of what Samsung has to offer, the Ultra is where you need to look. The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is the best that the S21 series has to offer. That means it boasts better specs than that of the smaller Galaxy S21 and S21+. While the base specs are very similar, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G takes it a bit further to give you that truly, top of the line feel.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G rocks Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 888. This Octa-core processor comes mated with the Adreno 660 GPU and 12GB RAM. If you shell out the extra money for the 512GB model, you’ll get 16GB RAM. The phone also features Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/6, Bluetooth 5.1, NFC, A-GPS, GLONASS, GALILEO, and BDS.
Battery-wise, we’re getting a Li-Po unit rated at 5,000mAh that can be fast-charged up to 25W. This lags behind some of the competition however which can fast charge in excess of over 45W. The OnePlus 8T can fast-charge at 65W for instance. I do suggest you pick up a 25W charger though just to make use of what it’s got.
A neat feature though since we’re on the topic of charging is reverse-charging. That mainly just means you can wireless charge other devices using your Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G – such as earbuds, watches, and even other phones.
And before I forget, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G does have one trick up its sleeves that the other S21 phones don’t. That would be the inclusion of S-Pen support.
Lastly, I mentioned that the Galaxy S21 series does away with expandable storage, which does for all phones in this series, including the Ultra. I’m not really too happy about this as in the past, I could easily transfer all my media by just swapping my SD card out. That’s no longer the case. It’s something I guess I’m going to have to live with. I guess it’s time to fully embrace cloud life.
We’ll mention camera specs when you get down to the camera section of the review.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G comes standard with Android 11 running Samsung’s OneUI 3.1 launcher. For the most part, it’s similar to stock Android 11 with a few areas here and there that are a little different. For instance, I’ve never used Bixby before and I don’t plan to.
While Samsung has gone to lengths to make OneUI 3.1 more Google-like, it’ll be the differences here that we’ll be highlighting since that is what will make the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G unique among its peers.
For instance, Samsung DeX is an amazing piece of software that many may not even use. Basically, if you connect your phone to a TV, external display, or even your computer, you can bring up a desktop mode that acts just like a regular desktop computer. It’s like carrying around a laptop in your pocket, but without all the heft. You do need some extra bits of hardware to make it work, however.
Another exclusive feature is Google Discover, which lives in the left-most pane of your home screen. This is similar to the Google Feed to other phones have, but allows you to discover new items and not just what your interests are.
There are also features Samsung has integrated that makes it very “Apple-like”. For instance, if you own other Galaxy devices, you can continue using apps on other devices. It’s also possible to take calls from other devices, such as a Galaxy tablet or Galaxy watch. There are also a ton of services and extras you can get if you create a Samsung account.
Samsung’s OneUI 3.1 also supports Themes so you’ll be able to change full themes, wallpapers, icons, and fonts through a dedicated Samsung Themes app. There are both paid and free themes to choose from.
Is Samsung’s software perfect though? Not entirely. There are still a few quirks here and there. For instance, there are ad notifications from many of Samsung’s built-in apps. While annoying, you can disable notifications for these, but it’s just odd seeing this. Also, Samsung has moved a few things here and there from where they are in stock Android. There’s a Device tab in the pull-down notification menu that’s normally a power button shortcut and part of the power menu. Another missing feature is the ability to hide silent alert notifications from the status bar.
Overall though, OneUI 3.1 is pretty good. It seems to be highly customizable and there’s a lot of little extras you can enable or disable to your liking.
One of the best features of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is support for the Samsung S-Pen accessory. This is normally exclusive to the Galaxy Note series, but Samsung extended support to the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. Any S-Pen will work with it including those from any generation Note-series phone. I’ve tested this out with an older Note 4 S-Pen and even an S-Pen from an old Galaxy Note 10.1. Both worked well and even had proper pressure support.
There are quirks with how the S-Pen functions though. Apparently the Galaxy S21 Ultra only supports handwriting. No matter which version of the S-Pen you use, that’s all it will do and will not support that more advanced Bluetooth features. You’ll have to wait until Samsung upgrades S-Pen support on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
If you plan on using Samsung Note or the PENUP app, you’ll want to pick up an S-Pen regardless of the missing Bluetooth features.
This may or may not be important to some of you, but I love gaming on my smartphone. I play all sorts of games on here such as Brave Frontier, Brawl Stars, Call of Duty Mobile, and Genshin Impact just to name a few. For the most part, I haven’t had any issues running these on previous-gen devices like the LG V60 ThinQ running the Snapdragon 865. Sometimes you’d get a hiccup here and there, but nothing game-breaking. With the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, gaming is a near-perfect experience.
The Snapdragon 888 destroys anything you throw at it and the 12GB RAM keeps things running smoothly. Not only that, gaming looks absolutely amazing on in QHD @ 120Hz.
Aside from that, Samsung also includes some interesting game enhancements you’ll want to take note of. There’s an included Game Launcher app that is like a central hub for all your gaming needs. You can launch all your games from here as well as keeping track of playtime what type of games you play the most. From here you can also discover new games to play including Instant Play games that require no download. Here you can also see if Samsung has any special offers for the games you play.
On top of that, there are also game tools to help optimize your gaming experience. This includes items a Game Booster that can prioritize gaming over everything else. It also monitors phone temperature and memory and lets you know how much actual game time you have left with the current amount of battery power you have. You can also lock the navigation bar, lock the touch screen and take a screenshot. There are also Game Plugins you can download for further game enhancements such as a Game Booster Plus, Gif Creator, and Gaming Limits.
This is probably one of the best mainstream devices for gaming, that isn’t a dedicated gaming smartphone. In fact, this an example of why you probably don’t even need a dedicated gaming smartphone with something like this around that does more than just gaming.
One of the biggest improvements to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is in the camera department. There are now no less than four cameras sitting on the rear with two of them being zoom cameras.
- 12MP F2.2 Ultra Wide Camera, 120? FOV
- 108MP F1.8 Wide-Angle Camera, 83? FOV
- 10MP F2.4 Telephoto Camera (3X), 35? FOV
- 10MP F4.9 Telephoto Camera (10X), 10? FOV
- Space Zoom (30X – 100X) Dual Optical Zoom 3X, 10X
Focusing has also been enhanced with a new Laser AF sensor for enhanced autofocus at close range and in low light environments. This differs from the smaller S21 and S21+ as those two phones do not have Laser AF.
Video Recording is also enhanced here and can output the following:
- 8K video recording at 24 fps (7680×4320)
- 4K UHD video recording at 60 fps (3840×2160)
- 1080p FHD video recording at 60 fps (1920×1080)
- 720p HD video recording at 30 fps (1280×720)
- Super Steady 1080p video support at 60 fps
- Super Slow-mo 720p video support at 960 fps
- Slow motion 1080p video support at 240 fps
- Hyperlapse 4K video support at 30 fps
The optical image stabilization does wonders here in keeping video looking smooth
The forward-facing Selfie Camera is a 40MP F2.2 unit with an 80? FOV. That’s better than some rear cameras on other phones. Again, this is better than what’s found on the regular S21 and S21+ that only have 10MP Selfie Cameras.
Let’s talk about the quality of photos that the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G captures. Most flagship Samsung phones have been known to take some fantastic-looking photos, and the new Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is no different. Photos are very bright and vivid and full of detail. There isn’t much noise you can see at all, though Samsung’s processing does make the details a bit smoother than they should be. You can’t really tell though unless you zoom all the way into your photos. Honestly, for the most part, a lot of flagship phones now take fantastic photos and you’d be really hard-pressed to tell the difference between them.
However, to me, the coolest thing about Samsung’s cameras right now is the optical 3x and 10x zoom and what Samsung calls Space Zoom. First, the 3x and 10x zoom for me is already a huge plus as sometimes, you just can’t get close enough to your subject. Digital zoom usually is just a crop and the quality of the photo usually suffers. That’s no the case with optical zoom and you’ll get just as much detail here as you would with the normal angle camera. Now the Space Zoom is technically a digital zoom from my understanding and utilizes both the optical 3x and 10z zoom lens. The camera uses AI to enhance the images and calls is Super-Resolution Zoom. It’s actually a very cool feature and while at 30x and 100x, quality does suffer, there’s a tremendous amount of detail you can see. I mean I’m able to see things at a distance that I couldn’t even see with my own eyes. Samsung has also figured out a way to stabilize long zoom images making it much easier to take photos without you having to worry about camera shake. While not really something you’d use all the time, it is a neat feature.
Focusing on the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G also seems to be amazingly quick. I haven’t had any issues thus far focusing on anything at close range. Speaking of which, the phone seems to be able to take some pretty detailed close-up photos (macros). The Camera app does this on its own and you’ll know it’s happening when you see the screen display”focus enhancer turned on for better focus”. You can get pretty close up too, like somewhere around 1cm in distance away from the object.
Aside from the regular photos and videos you can take, there are also several other camera modes to choose from.
- Pro (Manual Mode)
- Portrait Video (Manual Mode)
- Pro Video
- Super Slow-mo
- Director’s View (Records both front and rear cameras at the same time)
There is one other rather interesting mode in the Samsung Camera app and that’s the Single Take mode. Basically what this does is it captures a handful of shot types within a 5-10 second time frame. This includes – Filtered Videos, Filtered Photos, Speed Effect Clips, Portraits, Wide/Cropped Shots, and Highlight Videos. It does this all on its own and it’s a neat way to take different kinds of photos and videos automatically without much thought. Would you use it all the time? Probably not, but it’s cool for occasional use.
For more photo samples, check out my Flickr album.
So what haven’t I mentioned above that I really like so far? For starters, the fingerprint reader is pretty good. I haven’t had too many issues with it and it does seem to read your print quite quickly. When your phone is off, you’ll have to get used to where exactly you need to put your finger unless you double tap the screen or use AOD to see where your finger should go. I also like the option of using facial recognition to unlock the phone as this was something missing from my last phone. This is also really fast and seems to also work in dimly lit areas as well.
The speakers on the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G are also really good. The speakers are loud and clear and I can use them for most of what I need. They’re especially good for gaming and watching videos when you’re by yourself. When there are instances when the speakers won’t cut it or I just want to listen to my stuff privately, I’ll throw on a set of wireless headphones.
I highly suggest picking up an S-Pen, whether used or brand new. Writing with an S-Pen is so satisfying as is using it to draw. I’ve spent hours just playing with the Samsung Notes app and honestly, the S-Pen experience is one of the best around. You will have to figure out how to carry the S-Pen around with you though as there isn’t a place to store it on the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G like there is on a Note series device. I mainly just use the S-Pen at home at my desk.
Lastly, I highly recommend picking up a case. While the Galaxy S21 Ultra is supposed to be more durable, I wouldn’t take the chance. Get something with good shock protection and plenty of grip. My favorites come from both Urban Armor Gear and Speck. A case will not only help protect your expensive investment but also make the Galaxy S21 Ultra much easier to hold. You’ll also be able to flatten out that camera hump on the back.
WHAT WE DON’T LIKE
As amazing as the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is, there are a few things I’m not a fan of. For starters, I mentioned this earlier but I don’t like the fact that Samsung removed the option for expandable storage here. While it’s true that I might not ever really use up all the space, I liked having the option of adding additional storage. Not only that, I had made it a habit of using an SD card for all my media, including photos, music, and movies. This just made it so much easier to move all my stuff to a new phone because all I had to do was pop in my card and everything was there. Without it, I basically have to move all my stuff manually now, that or I need to rely on the cloud now.
There’s also the issue of the lack of an AUX jack. I know this isn’t the first S-series phone without one, and I know its days are numbered. The thing is, headphones aren’t the only accessories that make use of this. You could possibly use a USB-C to AUX adapter, but that’s just another thing you have to buy.
You’ll also have to provide your own charger. One doesn’t come in the box this time around. I can understand what Samsung is trying to do here, trying to be environmentally friendly. Those who have already had Samsung phones before will probably not really care, but those who will be brand new to the Samsung ecosystem will lament the fact that they’ll have to purchase a 25W charger separately.
On this subject, you may also not like the fact that it only super fast charges at 25W and not 45W (Super Fast Charging 2.0) like the old Galaxy S20 Ultra. This is considered a downgrade to many out there. Another off quirk I’ve noticed is that if you use something like a 65W charger, it won’t super fast charge like it would on a 25W charger and only charges like an 18W one. I think it all depends on how your charger can regulate the output because I have a 100W charger that can put the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G into Super Fast Charge mode. So just take note of this when looking for a charger.
And that’s pretty much it. Aside from these issues, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is near perfect. Many of these little complaints I have can be remedied easily, though they shouldn’t have been issues to begin with.
While not perfect, I think the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is pretty close. It’s missing some features that I’ve grown accustomed to with my previous phones, mainly expandable storage, and an AUX jack, but I believe the additions make up for the subtractions. The cameras are by far way better than anything I’ve had in the past, especially with the zoom, and the QHD display with the adaptive 120Hz refresh rate is beyond gorgeous. It’s basically ruined me and I don’t think I could go back to anything less.
Battery life has been decent and I’m getting around a full day of use which includes gaming, emails, catching up on news, watching YouTube, checking my stocks, music, and occasionally drawing something with an S-Pen. I usually unplug at around 6:30am and don’t plug back in until 11:00pm with roughly 20% battery left. I’m sure I could squeeze more out of it if I cut back on some screen time and optimize a few settings here and there.
I should mention that Samsung does have a an exclusive features not found on other phones. Specifically, the integration with Microsoft’s Your Phone app, which allows you integrate your phone with a Windows 10 desktop. Mainly the addition of being able to use your Android apps on the desktop is a Samsung only feature at the moment and not available with any other phones.
Lastly, I’m wondering if we’ve reached peak performance now. I mean the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G basically runs everything so buttery smooth that I don’t even know if it’s necessary to go any faster. Will it even be necessary for me to upgrade my phone yearly now? Being a techie, I’m sure I’ll find a reason. As for now, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is as near perfect as you can get (aside from the expandable memory omission).