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Samsung S21 Ultra review

Samsung's flagship phone does not disappoint, with incredible cameras and a stunning screen.
Image: Uswitch

Pros

  • Amazing cameras with 30x optical zoom
  • Stunning AMOLED screen
  • All-day battery
  • Fast and fluid performance

Cons

  • Large and a bit difficult to handle
  • High price tag for casual users

Samsung surprised us all by releasing its S21 range earlier than expected this year. And amongst the glittering array of shiny new phones, the jewel in the crown is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. The top-end smartphone of Samsung’s flagship fleet is an all-powerful phone with a sizable price tag. But what exactly do you get for your money with the S21 Ultra?

Samsung S21 Ultra first impressions and design

Frame 15 Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

As always, Samsung has done a great job of making its flagship phone look amazing. The new ‘Phantom’ colours range really leans into the sleek and stylish aesthetic for the new S21 range. So much so that you’ll think twice about covering it up with a case.

Available in Phantom Black, Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy, Phantom Brown and Phantom Silver (shown here), the matte finish means fewer fingerprint marks and gives the S21 Ultra a sturdier and more expensive feel.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is an impressive looking device. And on first glance, the first two things you’ll notice are the size of the screen and the size of the camera unit. With a 6.8-inch screen, the S21 Ultra is a big phone, which has its pros and cons. Watching content on that screen is a delight, but you might struggle to fit the S21 Ultra into the pocket of your skinny jeans.

The camera unit has a similar look to last year’s S20 Note Ultra, this time housing five camera lenses in that outcropping frame. And while it brings the focus onto the impressive camera array, it does also add to the weight and bulk of the device.

Samsung S21 Ultra Display

s21 ultra screen Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

Having a big handset does have its disadvantages, but one area where bigger is almost always better is the screen. The Samsung S21 Ultra features a large, 6.8-inch display, and the curved edge-to-edge screen means there’s hardly any bezel left to obscure your view. The front-facing 40MP camera sits behind a small punch-hole that, from its position next to the date and carrier status, goes almost completely unnoticed.

The S21 Ultra’s 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display is bright, vibrant, and smooth. The screen brightness goes up to 1,500 nits, which is a few hundred more than the rest of the S21 range, meaning that the screen is beautifully bright and visible even in sunlight.

The S21 Ultra is capable of running at a 120Hz refresh rate, which is a first among Samsung devices, and runs in Quad HD resolution. What this means is that video and animation looks smoother than on any previous Samsung smartphone. It delivers an incredible amount of resolution, making binge-watching shows on your phone a joy.

However, it’s worth remembering that watching all your content on Quad HD will drain your battery life faster. So it could be worth switching down to 1080p resolution to save on juice.

Note: Where you’ll really want to ramp up the resolution is when you’re using a VR headset. With the pixels so close to your eyes, the Quad HD resolution will make the experience feel so much more real.

In comparison to other devices, the S21 Ultra is a similar size to the iPhone 12 Pro Max. At 6.7 inches, the Pro Max is a tiny bit smaller than the S21 Ultra, however the Ultra’s curved display and thin build make it a little bit easier to hold and operate one-handed than its Apple counterpart.

Samsung S21 Ultra in-screen fingerprint scanner

The in-screen fingerprint scanner on the S21 Ultra uses Qualcomm ultrasonic technology. The invisible biometric pad sits beneath the screen and has 1.7 times more surface area than its predecessor. This makes it a little easier to use and reduces the number of errors when you place your thumb down at an angle. In a world where masks have made face unlock a serious pain, you’ll appreciate the improved fingerprint scanner more than ever.

Samsung S21 Ultra camera review

Frame 16 Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

Here’s the fun part. The Samsung S21 Ultra camera is, as you’d expect for the top-of-the-line device, exceptional. There are five rear-facing cameras that range from a 12MP ultra-wide lens to a 108MP wide sensor. This is in addition to the 40MP front-facing camera.

The camera unit also features a laser auto focus sensor, which helps you snap crystal clear images. Each one will help you capture a different type of image, from picking up intricately detailed landscape shots, to adding depth and blur to selfies and portrait photos.

The S21’s 108MP main camera captures 12-bit HDR images, meaning your photos have 64 times richer colour data and over three times the dynamic range of the S20 Ultra. All this basically means that your S21 Ultra takes more photos and records more data with each shot, giving you stunningly clear photos with rich colours and deep contrasts.

Frame 20 Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera is a major upgrade from its predecessor, the S20 Ultra, with additional lenses and seriously enhanced optical zoom capabilities. The cutting-edge technology incorporated in the S21 Ultra makes this the best cameraphone we’ve ever tested. You will notice the difference the second you open up the camera app and start taking photos.

Samsung’s intuitive interface, and the S21 Ultra’s stunning AMOLED screen work together to make photos look even sharper. Anyone buying the S21 Ultra is about to notice a serious upgrade in their smartphone photography.

Samsung S21 Ultra camera specs

  • Main camera is a 108MP camera with a 26mm lens and f/1.8 aperture.
  • Ultrawide lens, 13mm focal length, with less resolution and a slightly smaller aperture (12MP and f/2.2 respectively).
  • Two telephoto cameras, the near-distance 70mm lens with an f/2.4 aperture and the eye-popping 240mm lens with an f/4.9 aperture.
  • Front-facing 40MP camera with Phase Detection Auto-Focus (PDAF) and 4K video capture up to 60fps

A lot of the focus is on the S21 Ultra’s 108MP camera, which includes a large aperture to allow lots of light to enter the lens and create a shallow depth of field. The camera aperture is the size of the opening through which light enters the lens. Wider apertures, confusingly, have smaller f/ numbers, with f/1.8 being the standard maximum aperture for quality lenses.

This made the S21 Ultra perfect for portrait pictures and good for general focal lengths. This means that all your photos will be bright, crisp and clear.

The ultrawide lens is brilliant at capturing more of an image. This is particularly useful if you want to get in as much of the scenery as possible, or make room for lots of people in a photo.

The ultrawide camera is also great for close-up shots and macro photography. So, it’s perfect if you’re looking to snap close-up pictures of nature for a more creative look.

The front-facing camera is also a significant upgrade from other Samsung models, even going so far as to include 4K filming in up to 60fps if you want to record slow motion selfie movies in intricate detail. The 26mm lens also lets in plenty of light and allows for a shallow depth of field, creating plenty of bokeh and background blur for Instagram-worthy snaps.

But, by far the most impressive element, is the S21 Ultra’s industry-leading 10x optical zoom. In contrast, the iPhone 12 Pro only offers 2.5x optical zoom, relying heavily instead on its digital zoom technology.

All in all, as you would expect, the S21 Ultra’s camera is incredible, and probably the best we have ever tested. Whether you’re snapping selfies or taking more creative photographs, you can feel confident that the S21 Ultra will help you take professional-looking shots with very little know-how.

Natural light photography

Natural light photos samsung S21 ultra Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

The S21 Ultra’s main camera easily captures very high-quality images in good lighting conditions. Its HDR technology produces clear images with brightly lit backgrounds.

When images are cropped, you can sometimes see a haloing effect around the edges of the main focal point. This is when you can see a bright line appear in areas of high contrast of your photo. For instance, when a darker subject is against a bright background such as the sky. This is due to the HDR processing. But, we didn’t notice this when viewing photos at normal resolution.

Portraits and selfies

Natrual light selfie Samsung S21 Ultra Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

The improvement to the front-facing camera shows that selfies are clearly a high priority for Samsung users. But the upgrade goes beyond the extra megapixels. In an effort to help you capture more natural-looking selfies, Samsung has incorporated new AI technology that automatically detects faces within the shot.

The software then separates the faces from the rest of the scene, allowing you to add natural enhancements, such as bringing out details in the eyes, hair and facial features, while adding effects to produce a natural skin tone.

The new Portrait Mode even works when you’re using Night Mode, enhancing your late-night selfies in a similar way. Snapping a picture in Portrait Mode pretty much guarantees a great selfie.

night mode selfie Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

The main downside of taking any kind of selfie on the S21 Ultra is the size and handling of the handset itself. It’s a big phone and can be quite awkward to hold, especially if you’re trying to take landscape selfies.

Wide-angle shots

20210202 162431 Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

The wide-angle camera offers a fantastic field of view, allowing you to fit more into your frame. This allows you to capture more landscapes and group pictures. However, the wider field of view does result in a slight “fishbowl” effect, where objects in the shot can seem a little distorted.

The 12 MP 1/2.55-inch sensor and f/2.2-aperture lens allow you to capture sharp, clear photos with the ultrawide camera, aided by a Dual-Pixel autofocus system that can help achieve better macro shots.

However, some limitations were noticeable in indoor conditions and in low light, and it didn’t perform quite as well as the Huawei P40 Pro.

S21 Ultra enhanced zoom

The S21 Ultra enhanced zoom really helps it stand out from its competitors. As we mentioned earlier, other top-end smartphones have a limited 2.5x optical zoom, relying on their software to digital zoom in further. However, the S21 Ultra captures up to 10x zoom with just the quality and precision of its lenses. The device can then use digital zoom technology to further zoom in up to 100 times.

Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

This means that, unlike those smartphones that rely on digital zoom, the image captured on the sensor is 10 times more detailed. Therefore, there is no loss of quality in detail when you zoom in, and images can then be enhanced further with digital zoom if you want.

The benefits of 100x zoom are fairly limited. It’s very difficult to capture the image you want, with the slightest movement sending your focus point miles in a different direction. And, of course, the quality of the photos is fairly low. Images captured at 100x zoom appear very processed without much detail.

So, while you could technically snap a pic from miles away, it would be a frustratingly fiddly task and you probably wouldn’t be able to make out much detail anyway.

At first, trying to focus on a point while using 100x zoom was almost impossible, as the slightest twitch could move the focus of your phone way off target. However, simply tapping the screen beforehand activates the new Zoom Lock feature, helping you to take a much steadier photo from afar.

Low light photos

Getting great photos in low light will always be a challenge. Lenses with wider apertures can let in more light and allow you to capture details without having to rely on digital processing to get a clear low light picture. This is why photos taken at night can have more “noise” and seem less sharp, or look a little over-processed.

You can see this much more clearly in the photos below of The Gherkin, which begins to look fuzzy when the camera zooms in closer.

Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

The S21 Ultra’s main camera has an f/1.8 aperture, which is about as wide as they come. This means you can soak in plenty of light when taking photos after dark.

It also features a 1/1.33-inch sensor, far larger than your typical smartphone camera. The sensor acts like the camera’s “film”, for those old enough to remember. It’s where the camera captures the light and records the image. The larger the sensor, the more information the camera is able to capture in each photo, resulting in clear detail and colours that pop.

While there is some loss of detail when taking photos in low light, the S21 Ultra still performs brilliantly. Of course, you will see quite a dramatic drop in quality when using digital zoom. Since there’s less light and less information for the S21 Ultra to work with, zoomed-in photos seem heavily processed and, in the case of the 100x zoom, quite hard to make out at all.

Pro mode

The S21 Ultra’s camera is incredibly powerful and intuitive, using a combination of high quality lenses and top-of-the-range software to create classically stunning images. However, if you want to have more control over the type of photos you take, you can switch to Pro Mode.

Pro Mode simulates a lot of the functionality you would have when taking photos on a professional DSLR-style camera. You can manually adjust the settings of your camera, including ISO, shutter speed, white balance, and manual focus pulling.

This is a great way to learn more about how to take more professional photos. And if you have an interest in photography, these settings will already be familiar to you.

Note: If you have never heard of ISO or shutter speed, you might want to stick to the normal shooting mode for now, so that you can guarantee you still take good photos.

Even if you don’t use Pro Mode, the S21 Ultra will automatically set your camera to take bright, well-exposed photos. But if you’re looking to take more artistic and creative shots, you’ll want to take control of your camera settings to create different exposures and different looks.

For example, being able to manually set a slower shutter speed means you can capture blurred shots like running water or light trails from traffic.

Shooting in Pro Mode also gives you the option to show in Pro mode, which captions 12-bit RAW files. RAW files, unlike the usual JPG files your camera takes, means you’re capturing even more raw data from each shot. This allows you to adjust and edit your photos to a greater degree with programs, such as Photoshop and Lightroom.

Camera verdict

There’s no doubt that the Samsung S21 Ultra camera is fantastic, with AI-powered technology, five different lenses, laser autofocus and the best optical zoom we’ve seen on a smartphone yet. Paired with a bright and beautiful screen, it’s really easy to capture clear details and vibrant colours.

The biggest drawback is the phone’s size. Given its weight and the positioning of its camera unit, it can be top-heavy and difficult to get a good grip on. While not really a problem in everyday practice, those wanting to explore interesting angles and take creative photos and videos, not being able to manoeuvre with their device may be a significant minus. If you’re used to smaller smartphones or taking photos with a DSLR, the S21 Ultra could be a tricky device to master.

But for those with big hands and big ambitions to improve their smartphone photography, the Samsung S21 Ultra would be an ideal choice.

Samsung S21 performance and battery life

Frame 13 Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

Powered by Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 chip, the S21 Ultra provides a minimum of 12GB of RAM alongside a more streamlined version of its software with the OneUI 3.0 interface in Android 11. This makes the S21 Ultra incredibly fast and as easy to use.

Probably one of the biggest pain points of the S21 Ultra is the lack of a microSD card slot, meaning that there’s no option to expand your storage memory. This means that the choice of internal storage options is more important than ever. The standard S21 Ultra comes with 128GB of internal storage, with 256GB available in higher-spec models.

The S21 Ultra’s battery lasts longer than any other premium phone we’ve tested lately. Its 5,000mAh battery will easily give you a full day of use on a single charge, averaging out at over 11 hours of heavy app usage and browsing on 5G.

Of course, some activities use up more battery than others. So if you’re making full use of that liquid 120Hz refresh rate and Quad HD resolution while watching videos, you’re likely to use up your battery faster.

The S21 Ultra should be set to 1080p out of the box, and the 120Hz refresh rate is variable, meaning it’s only used when necessary. For instance, it won’t be on when reading an eBook but it will come on when you’re playing a 3D game.

S Pen compatibility

The Samsung S Pen is usually only an accessory for its Galaxy Note range. And while the S Pen doesn’t come included with the S21 Ultra, the option to use it or any other stylus pen opens up a world of functionality.

The S Pen on the S21 Ultra allows for a lot of the same functions, including writing notes, annotating work and performing Air Command options. The biggest drawback of the S21 Ultra’s S Pen is that there’s nowhere to house it on the handset itself. You’d need to buy a case with a slot to hold the new S Pen if you wanted to be sure you had it with you at all times.

Galaxy Buds Pro

Frame 14 Image: Nick Baker/Uswitch

The S21 Ultra pairs perfectly with a set of Galaxy Buds Pro, which offer noise-cancelling, virtual surround and improved sound. Priced at £219, they sit in line with Apple’s AirPods Pro.

Though a little bulkier than their iPhone counterparts, the Galaxy Buds Pro are still compact and fit snugly into your ear without any fear of losing them.

They’re also water resistant up to one metre for up to 30 minutes, making them some of the most water-resistant earbuds available.

Value and verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a gorgeous phone. The new colours are great and the cameras are unsurprisingly incredible. The optical zoom is the standout feature, but the usability of the cameras is fantastic and colours and details really pop on the beautiful AMOLED screen.

All in all, this is a top-end smartphone which, as expected, comes at a top-end price. Samsung S21 Ultra deals start at £1,149 sim-free or around £45-£65 a month on a mobile phone contract.

However, if you’re looking for a smartphone that can do it all, and comes with an incredible camera array, lightning fast processing speeds, a beautifully clear screen, a battery that lasts all day and 5G compatibility, the S21 Ultra could be the phone for you.

Category: Reviews
Tagged: samsung, galaxy s21
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