The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra just got launched. Another year and we have another ‘Ultra’ phone in the Samsung paradise. And when Samsung attaches the word ‘Ultra,’ the hopes remain the same: sky-high. With great on-paper specs including a big screen, a beefy 108-megapixel main rear camera, the ‘awe’ worthy design, and Oh, the S Pen support, we have ourselves a 2021 Android flagship that is bound to attract attention.
And, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has attracted mine. That too, when the predecessor (the Galaxy S20 Ultra) left on a note where the successor is deemed to take over, sort all the issues, and emerge as the ultimate ‘Ultra’ model.
I had the opportunity to use the device for over two weeks and here’s whether or not this time the ‘Ultra’ charm worked.
Design: It’s matte and it’s good to look at
Samsung has been experimenting with the design for its high-end phones. We saw a new pattern (although slightly new) with last year’s Galaxy S20/Note 20 series and this year too, it thought of bringing about a change. And the change is visible; the huge camera bump speaks for itself. You get a huge, matte device with a protruding rear camera module, which invites contracting opinions. Some will like it, some will dislike it, and I fall in the first category.
We often complain about the monotony smartphones are following these days and Samsung is trying to break it, even if it’s a slight attempt. The phone clearly says it belongs to a premium segment and that’s what we would want to get when we spend over a lakh.
There are two colors to choose from: the Phantom Silver and the Phantom Black. And, the Phantom Black is love, my friend. It’s matte and it’s good to look at. This huge matte slab has some elements of gloss: the glossy Samsung logo at the back and the reflective rear cameras; all these elements balance all the matte out. Aesthetics-wise, there is a USB Type-C port, speaker grille, and a SIM slot (barring expandable storage) at the bottom end. The top-end gets just the mic. While the left side is left bare, the right side has the volume rocker and power on/off button.
But, not all’s well with the looks and the design. The smartphone is heavy and you can feel it while using it. One-hand usage is also difficult, especially when you are lazing around. For those who are suckers for lightweight design, this might be a bit of a turn-off for you. But, the design makes me forget the heavyweight.
Having said that, there is one thing that is of concern. While the looks are killer, it’s high maintenance too. With a huge price, the responsibility to handle it with care follows and you will have to be quite careful with the phone, for it is fragile.
That said, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is bound to turn some heads. Even if you don’t like its design, you will end up talking about it, and the purpose is solved.
Display: Always a winner
Another ‘Ultra’ thing about the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the display. The phone spans 6.8-inch, which is slightly smaller than the 6.9-inch screen seen on its predecessor. The edge Quad HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2x Infinity-O display gets a punch-hole and adaptive 120Hz refresh rate. By an adaptive refresh rate, it means that the display will adjust the refresh rate (from 10Hz to 120Hz) depending upon the usage and will save you some battery. There is also a Standard option, which enables 60Hz by default.
Much like with the Galaxy S20+, the 102Hz screen has proved to be smooth. Its adaptive nature ensures I save on some battery too. And when you get to enable 120Hz with WQHD+ (you had to choose either one previously), you know you got yourself a good deal.
Needless to say, the display has been amazing. The slightly curved edges allow for really fewer bezels, which calls for good viewing. Samsung is known for making stellar displays and I won’t contradict. My experience has been quite good.
You get yourself a bright, color-popping screen, which makes content viewing a delight. Binge-watching on YouTube, Netflix, or any video-streaming service you name, was a wholesome experience. The display is undoubtedly vivid and the Samsung-proprietary sense of color enhancement makes the viewing eye-pleasing. You get to adjust the display in two modes, Vivid and Natural. While the latter tones down the color production, both of them end up giving you a good experience.
The display comes with various other features: improved dark mode, eye comfort shield, the ability to choose the screen resolution, an easy mode for a much easier interface, accidental touch protection, and Always-on-Display, which is perfect to keep an eye on all the notifications you get.
This time, we get a next-gen ultrasonic in-display fingerprint scanner by Qualcomm with some more area and snappier performance. It is indeed quite fast and unlocks the device in a jiffy. But, there isn’t a drastic difference we are looking at.
Cameras: Zoom, zoom, and boom! A good shot
The one area that always gets me excited and in Samsung’s case, something I look forward to is the camera department. Samsung has continued with its adoption of a 108-megapixel main camera but this time, we get it with an improved sensor. The primary sensor supports PDAF and OIS. There are three more sensors, a 12-megapixel ultra-wide lens with dual pixel autofocus and two 10-megapixel telephoto lenses. The first one supports 3x zoom while the other supports 10x zoom. Both zoom lenses get dual pixel autofocus. Another inclusion is that of the laser autofocus to mend the mistakes of the past (we all have heard of the focus issues the previous S Ultra phone had). There is also a 40-megapixel front snapper with PDAF.
Other interesting features include the ability to record 8K videos, much like last year, slow-motion videos, improved Single Take feature, food mode, portrait mode, hyper-lapse, night mode, and the new Director’s View for users to shoot with both the front and rear cameras.
Let’s start with big numbers. The 108-megapixel main camera is well, really good. Details clubbed with good color reproduction results in a picturesque image you would love. Samsung flagships are capable of giving out eye-pleasing images but this year’s start seems close to perfect with the color accuracy you get.
The images are close to natural colors and produce a balanced image. The camera, by default, churns out images in 12-megapixel, which is equally good, and when you enable the 108-one, the goodness turns into awesomeness. The difference is that the 12-megapixel mode slightly overexposes, while the 108-megapixel mode tries going for natural colors, something that is close to the iPhone territory. The ultra-wide lens is pretty good too and captures a good area. This time we don’t see much of a color-shift and Samsung seems to be improving in this area.
But what is even more amazing is the presence of two zoom lenses. Both of them will help you capture objects far-off. The 3x is good and gives you a closer look at a person standing at a distance and helps you figure out if you know them.
The 10x zoom is the one to capture the monkey up on a building in front of you and see what it’s up to. Both of them work really well, but the 10x zoom is really good. Yes, the details do get lost but the images are far decent and I am quite impressed after the slight disappointment I had to face with the S20+ 30x zoom.
The 100x Space Zoom grabbed eyeballs last year but failed to make a significant mark. This year, it is on the right path. I was surprised by the kind of moon photo the S21 Ultra took even without the need for a tripod. When you exceed the 10x zoom mark, a box appears on the viewfinder to help you focus on the distant object and capture what you want. It can often lag; you might face issues while trying to focus on the object you want to capture but when you do, you get something you will adore. After all, I adored the moon photo I took.
The front snapper, this time, is an improvement. Samsung has paid heed to the request for better, natural selfies and we can now get them by selecting the Natural mode. There is also a Bright mode to throw some more light on the image.
My selfies, both in normal and ultra-wide mode, turned out pretty good. It manages to capture details intricately but the phone still can’t help but make the image slightly white even in Natural mode. I am hoping this will get better with time and Samsung, thanks for the consideration!
Among others, the video recording has been super. There is good stabilization, the colors are good, and you get details. Although, there was a slight focus issue but nothing too prominent. Director’s Cut mode is a refreshing addition and the vloggers will love it.
The Portrait mode did a good job but there is a hint of an unnatural bokeh effect (the ability to adjust the effect is always welcome), the food mode clicks some Instagram-worthy photos, Night mode is good (although the smartphone does a fairly decent job without it too), and Single Take mode will please you.
Performance, Battery, OS: It’s a beast
The S21 Ultra has the best assortment of specs right now. There is the latest Exynos 2100 SoC (Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 for other markets), up to 16GB of RAM, up to 512GB of storage, a 5,000mAh battery, and the latest Android 11 with Samsung One UI 3.0 on top.
With the Exynos 2100 and 12GB of RAM, my time with the smartphone was just good. It is a beast in reality and never came a time when it stuttered. The usage was smooth with a number of apps running in the background, 120Hz refresh rate enabled, and the screen resolution maxed out.
From watching videos to scrolling through the apps to playing games, to taking images, I had myself a device that handled it all well. I played a couple of high-graphic games including Call of Duty: Mobile (CoD) and the latest FAU-G, and it never created any problem with the gameplay. Although, there was slight heating of the device while gaming.
The 5,000mAh battery is goooood. It can last you for up to two days with all the things I just said in the play. When we use a smartphone a lot, we need a good battery to support all the usage and the S21 Ultra is ‘Ultra’ long-lasting. The UI has improvements too; you get a much cleaner interface with all added perks of Android 11. There is a better notification system, an edge panel to do multitask with ease, improved caller app UI, better dark mode, and a near-stock Android experience.
But, rose beds have thorns too. And the thorns over here are the lack of an in-box charger, expandable storage, and in-box earphones. While Samsung followed the lead of Apple and Xiaomi and removed the in-box accessories we always got, at least it should have provided an alternative. This topic has already attracted all the negative light and I won’t counter. But then, it shouldn’t be a problem if you are all set to spend this much money. We do get good internal storage options but for people who need to store a lot of data, this can be slightly alarming.
The S Pen is supposed to be one of the major highlights. Unfortunately, we did not get it to see how it works. Among other things, the audio this time, is really good, thanks to the dual stereo speakers. The audio output is loud and clear and boy, you are going to enjoy it.
Verdict: A Superhero?
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra packs in tons of features that make it the best Android phone right now. With improved cameras, super performance, amazing display, and more it has safely attained the ‘best’ mark in reality too.
At a starting price of Rs 1,05,999, it sure is pricey. But, Samsung is in a league where no one currently is and is doing things to justify the pricing it chooses. The smartphone has drawbacks too: you don’t get expandable storage, in-box charger, and earphones, the design is fragile, and there can be further improvements here and there.
But, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has managed to work its ‘Ultra’ charm this time and if you have the money and the urge to buy it, you won’t be making a bad choice!