Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review
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Each year, Samsung releases two major flagship smartphones: the Galaxy S in the first quarter, and the Galaxy Note in the third. In 2020 we saw that not even a pandemic changes this cycle, and this year, Samsung saw it fit to launch its latest Galaxy S21 series almost a full month earlier than usual.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the highest end of the three models in the S21 lineup. It’s not only the largest in size, it also packs the most features and additional hardware; Apple has the Pro, Samsung has the Ultra.

Design

We saw glimpses of the new S21 design months back through the usual leaks and rumours, but having seen it up close, the new Contour Cut Camera design is more than just a new design on the camera bump. There’s a certain rugged industrial design element to it that almost forces you to notice the five cutouts that houses the four (yes, four) rear camera sensors and the dedicated laser autofocus module.

The fact that the camera island is now also made of metal is an added bonus. Camera bumps across all smartphones in recent times have a full glass enclosure, and there’s an impression that the metal housing could protect the cameras better during accidental drops – which can really happen on a device this big and slippery!

The matte finish on the rear glass back (using Gorilla Glass Victus, no less) not only oozes class (especially on the Phantom Black model), but it also makes fingerprint smudges a thing of the past.

These two are the only major design enhancements between the S20 and S21 series. That may sound negative, but in all honesty these two changes are pretty big ones. Plus, given the maturity of smartphone design these days (besides the foldables), there really isn’t much room for new design elements.

One thing I was surprised about was the size of the S21 Ultra. Last year’s S20 Ultra was too heavy and bulky for my tastes, and I believe Samsung may have consumer feedback that reflected as much. As a result, the S21 is smaller in dimension, and has a marginally smaller 6.8-inch screen (it was 6.9 inches on the S20 Ultra). It is 7g heavier, but somehow as a whole, the S21 Ultra just felt smaller in the hands.

User Experience

As a Galaxy S20+ owner and having used Galaxy smartphones extensively in the past, the jump to the S21 Ultra is barely felt. Over the years Samsung has made it exceptionally easy to switch to a new Galaxy device with the Smart Switch app. The entire process of migrating all my various accounts, apps, and years’ worth of photos was sorted in just about half an hour.

There’s something important to note if you’re using e-wallets and Samsung Pay. You should log out of your e-wallet apps before logging into the one on your new phone. Different e-wallets have different security implementations, and logging out from your old phone before logging into your new one is an overall good move. Some e-wallets have a hard cap on the number of devices you can log in to over a lifetime (some say it’s just five), but logging out of the app removes the device count.

Meanwhile, other e-wallets may immediately detect that you now have the e-wallet app logged in and active on two devices. In the worst case scenario, you could be denied access on both phones pending identity verification, or you could simply need to confirm via a security call or SMS. Either way, it’s a hassle, so it’s a good practice to log out.

Meanwhile for Samsung Pay, you absolutely must remove your saved cards from your old phone before adding them back to the new phone. Due to the security implementations of Samsung Pay, all payment information (including credit card info) is stored locally on the device and not on the cloud. So, even if you log into Samsung Pay on your new phone, it will not carry over any of your saved cards and Boost account.

Another security layer will also prevent you from adding a card that is already saved on another device. So, just like the e-wallet thing above, you need to manually remove your saved cards and unlink Boost from your current phone before adding them back in your new phone.

Coming from the S20+, I’ve also gotten used to the buttery smooth high refresh rate display. The S20 range could only do 120Hz at FHD+ resolutions despite having QHD+ screens, but the S21 Ultra now lets you enable both QHD+ resolution at 120Hz. On paper that sounds great, but in reality, the differences in resolution is imperceptible – even on a 6.8-inch screen. But, if you’ve never tried a high refresh rate display before, you should be warned that it is a life-changing experience for many, and suddenly a 60Hz display becomes inadequate.

While most of the user experience is instantly familiar to me, there are some minor software changes that were quite beneficial. For example, the leftmost home screen can now be configured to display the Google Discover page.

Samsung’s also done a great job at the notification bar shortcuts. Swiping the notification bar down the first time gives access to six configurable shortcuts for your most commonly used ones, as well as the brightness control. Swipe down a second time and you’ll see a full army of icons for settings control – you can even add more than the 30 Samsung’s already done for you.

One huge improvement can be found in the new fingerprint sensor. The second-generation ultrasonic sensor is said to be 77% larger than the previous one that was fitted on the entire S20 range, and right off the bat, I can confirm that the larger sensor isn’t just more accurate, it’s faster and more sensitive as well.

However, some power users may not be happy about the omission of the microSD card slot for the whole S21 family. With a base storage that starts at 256GB for all S21 models sold in Malaysia, most users may not need one – but the complete removal of it is quite surprising, especially on the larger Ultra model.

Speaking of which, this is also the first of what will likely be a permanent omission of the charger and earphones in the retail box. This is somewhat controversial and will affect some more than others. Personally, this omission doesn’t affect me as much as I have a 25W Super Fast Charging charger from the S20+, and I also mainly charge my phone from my PC’s dedicated fast charging port while working. That said, someone who is upgrading from a phone that’s at least two years old will find the lack of a fast charger quite infuriating. It may have been better for Samsung to either offer a charger for a minimal fee, or provide the option for buying the phone with or without a charger (again, with minimal price differences). 

Galaxy S21 Ultra owners may realise they don’t need to charge their phones as often as they normally do. The massive 5,000mAh battery dropped down to 5% in the third day of use – but in this MCO environment and being home most of the time, this figure is not a reliable benchmark. I’d expect actual battery life to be closer to 1.5 to a full two days when combining a mix of home, office, and daily commuting. You’d definitely be able to further stretch this by reducing the screen resolution as well as disabling the high refresh rate.

Camera

Since the Galaxy Note 5 (and especially from the Galaxy S7 onwards), I’ve always enjoyed Samsung’s smartphone cameras – they’ve been my go-to devices in the past, but in recent years competitors have outpaced Samsung. Worse, the S20 series broke my years-long trust with the frankly disappointing S20 Ultra – even my S20+’s dual-pixel sensor wasn’t as good as Samsung’s previous dual-pixel cameras.

With the S21 Ultra, I had little expectations and was more than ready to be disappointed again. Thankfully, the experience was the complete opposite.

Where do we start? First, Samsung did what it does best to fix things: by adding more hardware. The S20’s focus issues were largely fixed with the introduction of the laser autofocus unit on the Note 20 Ultra, and in my week spent using the S21 Ultra’s camera I’ve not faced any autofocus-related issues. The 108MP main sensor on the S20 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra was upgraded, further improving autofocus speeds and sharpness.

Secondly, Samsung also fixed the slightly problematic 48MP 4x zoom sensor on the S20 Ultra by replacing it with not one, but two dedicated telephoto sensors – one a 3x unit and the other a “periscope” 10x unit. It’s a similar setup to Huawei’s P40 Pro+ rear cameras (both phones pack an ultra-wide angle sensor too), and the end result is a satisfyingly flexible and highly capable smartphone camera.

The S21 Ultra’s rear cameras are excellent. It was quite a joy to not only get spectacular results on the main 108MP sensor (which should be expected on a flagship device), but the real surprise was seeing how good the 3x and 10x zoom images were. In good lighting, even the 30x zoom shots didn’t yield a blurry mess. I felt like being one of the lab guys at CSI zooming in on a number plate.

If you wish to zoom further, the AI-assisted Zoom Lock helps you maintain your frame when zooming from 20x onwards and kicks in either by tapping the Zoom Lock viewfinder on the screen, or simply by maintaining the frame for two seconds. It’s helpful, for sure, but honestly you probably won’t use the camera beyond 10x zoom very often, let alone going the full 100x “Space Zoom” (which to me still feels gimmicky and more of a flex than a useful feature).

At the extreme other end of the spectrum, Samsung has introduced a new feature called Focus Enhancer. It’s enabled by default and is triggered when you move the camera closer to your subject, switching from the 108MP main sensor to the ultra-wide 12MP sensor, which has such a short focal length that it can be used as a pseudo-macro lens. As a result, you can now place your phone within centimetres of your subject and get a surprisingly decent close-up shot. 

In low-light conditions, the huge 108MP sensor coupled with Samsung’s improved computational photography algorithms produce solid photos in challenging lighting. Of course, you can also turn on Night Mode, which runs the risk of making nighttime shots look like it’s daytime.

Finally, the 40MP selfie camera remains unchanged from a hardware perspective, but there is one notable software addition where you can “choose” your skin tone between Natural and Bright (which also subtly softens epidermic imperfections).

Overall, it’s clear that the cameras on the S21 Ultra is the best Samsung has produced in years, and finally on par with its closest rivals. I thoroughly enjoyed the flexibility of being able to shoot across such a huge range and the confidence of knowing I’ll get a more than decent shot within the 0.6x to 10x range. I can already imagine how useful this will be when travelling, but alas…

Competition

The Galaxy S21 Ultra will retail at RM5,299 for the 12GB + 256GB variant, and RM5,899 for the range-topping 16GB + 512GB version. These are by no means affordable, and interestingly, represents a markup compared to the RM4,999 (12GB + 128GB) Galaxy S20 Ultra and even the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (12GB + 256GB) which retails at RM5,199.

Naturally, the S21 Ultra will draw comparisons with the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Price wise, the S21 Ultra is definitely more affordable – the 256GB iPhone 12 Pro Max retails at RM5,799 while the 512GB variant has a RM6,699 price tag. In that regard, the S21 Ultra immediately looks like the better value phone – but if you’re fully invested in the iOS ecosystem, it’s not easy (or affordable) to switch camps.

Meanwhile, in the flagship Android realm, there are few competitors – Samsung basically launched its 2021 flagship ahead of everyone else that it’s quite unfair to compare it to the 2020 flagship range. Huawei’s P40 Pro+ and Mate 40 Pro both carry powerful hardware at slightly lower price tag – but do not have Google Mobile Services onboard. Xiaomi’s rumoured Mi 11 Pro with similar camera specs as the S21 Ultra is said to be announced next month at the earliest. Similarly, the OnePlus 8 Pro is another 2020 flagship whose successor is only just hitting the rumour mills – an April 2021 launch is on the cards.

Some may also claim the S20 Ultra or the Note 20 Ultra as viable alternatives now that they will most likely be available at discounted prices. It’s not. The Exynos 990 chipset on both phones are known to be disappointing, and the S20 Ultra’s camera is still a hit-and-miss affair. More importantly, the S21 Ultra’s hardware upgrades help future-proof the device to (hopefully) provide a flagship-level experience for the full 3 years of promised software updates – and make the S21 Ultra a better long-term purchase than the two previous Samsung flagships. With this logic, the S21 Ultra’s hefty price tag actually represents better value than the S20 Ultra or Note 20 Ultra.

And while we’re at it, the pre-order and launch-day freebies do bring down the effective purchase price as well.

Conclusion

Ultimately, whether the S21 Ultra is worth buying depends on what you’re looking for in your next smartphone – and if you need to upgrade this year. The S21 Ultra features one of only three next-gen 5nm processors around, a fantastic camera system that can only get better with software updates, great battery life, and a cutting-edge display – the biggest and most important upgrades that make the S21 Ultra live up to the “Ultra” moniker.

If you’re in the market for a “do-it-all” phone, you can’t really go wrong with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

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