Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review. S21 ultra Samsung

The Galaxy S21 Ultra was the best Android phone yet — until the Galaxy S22 Ultra‘s arrival

Tom’s Guide Verdict

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best Android phone yet with dual zoom lenses, a stellar display and excellent battery life. The S Pen is just a bonus


  • Dynamic 6.8-inch AMOLED display
  • Dual telephoto lenses
  • S Pen support
  • Great battery life


Why you can trust Tom’s Guide?

Our writers and editors spend hours analyzing and reviewing products, services, and apps to help find what’s best for you. Find out more about how we test, analyze, and rate.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra led the charge for the best Android phones in 2021. It packs in all of the features you could possibly want in a phone, especially if you prefer big screens. While it lags behind some of other top contenders, it’s still a very good device for any Android fan out there.

For 1,199 — or 100 more than the iPhone 13 Pro Max — you a get dynamic 6.8-inch display and dual telephoto lenses for crazy zoom power. Plus, the S21 Ultra supports the S Pen, a first for the Galaxy S series.

Display: 6.8 inches AMOLED (3200 x 1400); 10 to 120Hz CPU: Snapdragon 888 RAM: 12GB, 16GB Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB Rear cameras: 108MP wide (f/1.8), 12MP ultra wide (f/2.2), 10MP telephoto (3x zoom, f/2.4), 10MP telephoto (10x zoom, f/4.9), laser AF sensor Front camera: 40MP (f/2.2) Video: 8K 30 fps/4K 60 fps Battery: 5,000 mAh Battery life: 11 hours 25 min (60Hz), 10:07 (adaptive) Wireless: 5G, Wi-Fi 6E, UWB Size: 6.5 x 2.97 x 0.35 inches Weight: 8.08 ounces

The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes in a sleeker design and offers faster performance from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chip. And, unlike the regular Galaxy S21, you don’t have to make nearly as many trade-offs. You get a better main 108MP camera, a glass back (instead of plastic), more RAM and a higher-res display.

Of course, since we reviewed the Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung updated its phone lineup with the Galaxy S22. The new top-of-the-line Galaxy S22 Ultra is an improvement over this model — our Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra comparison details in what ways — and we’d recommend the new device instead of this one.

Still, at the time of our Galaxy S21 Ultra review, this was one of the best phones money can buy for those willing to pay a premium and one of the best Android phones overall.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra release date and price

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is harder to find these days — Samsung doesn’t even offer it anymore. You can still find it from other retailers and wireless carriers, but make sure you’re paying less than the 1,199 debut price, as that will get you a newer Galaxy S22 Ultra. As of this writing, Best Buy is selling a carrier-tied version of the Galaxy S21 Ultra for 849, while unlocked versions can be found at Amazon for 750. Buying a refurbished Galaxy S21 Ultra could drop the price even further.

The entry-level S21 Ultra includes 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. You can also upgrade to 256GB of storage and to a model with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. The 256GB model used to cost 1,249 — basically an extra 50 — while you’d pay 1,379 for a Galaxy S21 Ultra with 512GB of storage. Make sure you check our Samsung promo codes page for any remaining offers and discounts on this older phone.

Over in the U.K, the Galaxy S21 Ultra debuted at £1,149 for the 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage base model. That price rose to £1,199 for the 256GB handset and topped out at £1,329 for the model with 16GB and 512GB of internal storage.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Design and colors

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a monolith of a phone. Yes, the contour cut camera design blends the camera bump into the glass back, but this is still a massive device you’ll want to use with two hands. We’ve recognized as the best designed device in our Tom’s Guide Awards 2021 for phones.

With its 0.35 inch profile and weight of 8.08 ounces, the S21 Ultra is thicker and heavier than the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The display is gently curved, unlike the fully flat regular Galaxy S21, but not annoyingly so. I never accidentally tapped something on screen as I did with last year’s Ultra.

Вся правда про справжній флагман 2021 року | Огляд смартфона Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes in just two colors from carriers: Phantom Black and Phantom Silver. I might go with black because of its slimming effect. is offering exclusive S21 Ultra colors, though, including Phantom Navy, Phantom Titanium and Phantom Brown. Best Buy has an exclusive Navy Blue colorway, also.

One of my favorite design upgrades is the 1.7x larger fingerprint sensor. It makes it easier to unlock the phone, and I found that the S21 Ultra didn’t ask me to press the sensor again like previous phones.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Display

The 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is simply one of the best screens on a phone. It’s bright, vibrant and doesn’t make you choose between the highest resolution and highest refresh rate like its predecessor.

Yes, you’ll be mesmerized when watching videos on this phablet. The colors are as rich as ever, and the viewing angles nice and wide when bing watching on Netflix.

But the Ultra surpasses the iPhone with its dynamic refresh rate. Not only do you get super smooth scrolling and gameplay, you now get 120Hz and quad HD resolution at the same time. So you don’t have to choose between the highest resolution and highest refresh rates.

The S21 Ultra is also Smart enough to automatically dial the refresh rate all the way down to 10Hz to help save on power.

samsung, galaxy, ultra, review

good news, the S21 Ultra’s display is easy to read outdoors, because it can reach a peak rated brightness of 1,500 nits. In our testing, the S21 Ultra averaged 821 nits, which beats the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s 654 nits.

The S21 Ultra’s screen proved plenty colorful in our lab tests, with the panel producing 81.4% of the demanding DCI-P3 color gamut, compared to 84.8% for the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

The colors on the iPhone were a bit more accurate, with its screen achieving a Delta-E score of 0.07, compared to 0.35 for the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Samsung says the S21 Ultra has a 3 million:1 contrast ratio, which is 50% higher than the S20 Ultra. And there’s an Eye Comfort Shield feature that’s designed to reduce eye fatigue by limiting blue light.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Cameras

It’s the cameras where the Galaxy S21 Ultra stands out the most against the S21 and S21 Plus. There’s a main 108MP wide sensor and 12MP ultra-wide camera, which is complemented by a laser auto FOCUS sensor.

But now that the Galaxy S22 is the new kid on the block, Samsung has announced that it’s bringing some of that phone’s camera features to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, like nighttime portraits with the telephoto lens.

The Space Zoom is so good it should not fall in the wrong hands. #GalaxyS21Ultra piccom/ONJPWtdUZYJanuary 15, 2021

The Galaxy S21 Ultra will make you feel like a secret agent as you zoom in. While the iPhone 12 Pro Max is stuck at 2.5x optical zoom, the S21 Ultra packs two telephoto lenses of 3x and 10x optical zoom.

I was amazed how close I got to this sign well across a highway. At 100x the zoom does get shaky but the new Zoom Lock feature can help you get a steadier shot with just a tap.

The 108MP main camera can capture 12-bit HDR photos with 64 times richer color data and more than three times the dynamic range of the S20 Ultra. Plus, there’s a 12-bit RAW file option in Pro mode.

I tested the camera out at a nearby store to capture a shot of produce, and the green peppers in the foreground look shiny and delicious. And you can make out a pretty amazing amount of detail when you zoom in. However, by comparison, the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s shot looks even more vibrant.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is also a great partner to have when you’re outdoors. Take this photo of towering trees I took at a nearby park. You can make out fine detail in the bark, and the phone does a great job capturing the clouds against the blue sky even while dealing with all of the shadows in the foreground. I slightly prefer the S21 Ultra’s photo in this case to the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but it’s really close.

Samsung says it has also improved the Portrait mode on the S21 by leveraging AI to better separate the subject from the background. The S21 Ultra delivers a great bokeh effect here. My skin tone is warmer on the iPhone 12 pro Max, but overall the S21 shot looks great.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra also performs quite well in low light, thanks to a faster Bright Night sensor and 12MP nona-binning technology for reducing noise reduction. In this comparison you can make out more of the stones and bushes in the foreground in the S21 Ultra’s photo compared to the iPhone 12 Pro Max, although the iPhone’s colors look more natural.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max pulls ahead in this photo of a golden retriever. The S21 Ultra’s pic is overly bright and a bit washed out, while his fur his more golden and natural looking with the iPhone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Video

On the video front, the Galaxy S21 Ultra can record 8K video up to 30 fps and all of its cameras can capture 4K video at up to 60 fps. But the coolest video upgrade is Director’s View.

There’s a new vlogger mode that lets you use the front and back cameras as the same time for recording video. And you can see live thumbnails of each camera while you’re recording video, so you can make a quick call if you want to switch.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s footage looks stunning. As I swept around a river with the S21 Ultra, it delivered near movie-quality results. The dark blue water, dock and puffy clouds all came through crystal clear.

And, yes, you can feel free to move around a lot while shooting. With Super Steady mode on the S21 Ultra engaged, I captured smooth footage even as I walked fast up a hill.

If you want to take photos and stills at once, the Single Take 2.0 feature on the S21 Ultra is pretty fun. It managed to capture my attempt at a reverse layup in slow mo and pick a pretty good photo at the top of the jump. However, the music Samsung chooses sometimes for its auto-generated video clips sounds cheesy.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Performance

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the first phones powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chip, which is complemented by 12GB or 16GB of RAM.

And this is one fast Android phone. The S21 Ultra didn’t flinch as I sliced through multiple enemies in Grimvalor while delivering console-quality visuals.

This flagship backs up my experience with impressive benchmark scores. On Geekbench 5, the S21 Ultra notched 3,440 on the multi-core test and 1,123 on single-core. That’s behind the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which cleared 4,100 and 1,600, but it’s still the best scores we’ve seen from an Android phone.

The S21 Ultra also fared well on the 3DMark Wild Life graphics benchmark, hitting 34 fps. The iPhone 12 Pro Max averaged 54 fps.

On our video editing test using the Adobe Premiere Rush app, the Galaxy S21 Ultra took 1 minute and 2 seconds to transcode a 4K video to 1080p. That’s faster than the Note 20 Ultra’s 1:16 but still well behind the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s 28 seconds.

Unfortunately, while you have a range of storage options to choose from for the S21 Ultra — 128, 256 or 512GB — Samsung ditched the microSD card slot. So you can’t expand.

Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Battery life and charging

If you’re looking for a phone that can last all day, this is it. On our web surfing battery test over 5G, the S21 Ultra’s 5,000 mAh endured for 11 hours and 25 minutes. That beats the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s 10:53 and lands the Ultra on our best phone battery life list.

Note that this time is with the standard 60Hz display mode turned on and that you’ll see less battery life with adaptive mode (up to 120Hz) engaged. In this mode we saw a runtime of 10 hours and 7 minutes.

The biggest bummer is that you don’t get a charger in the box. Yes, it’s the green thing to do, but if you haven’t bought a phone in the last couple of years and don’t have USB-C, it will mean more money coming out of your

Using a 25-watt charger, the S21 Ultra reached 56% in 30 minutes and 31% in 15 minutes.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: S Pen

For the first time ever, a Galaxy S device supports the S Pen, the S21 Ultra makes that happen with a Wacom digitizer built into the display. The S Pen, which is optional, lets you draw, sketch and take notes, just as you can on the Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra. It also comes in handy for quickly signing documents.

Just keep in mind that the S Pen is sold separately, and you’ll need to spring for a compatible case if you want to store the stylus on the go when it’s not in use. Samsung sells a Silicone Cover with S Pen included for 69.99.

I tried out this case, and it adds bulk to already bulky phone. The S Pen functionality worked pretty well, and you can enjoy features like Screen Off memo for quickly jotting down notes. However, because Bluetooth isn’t built in, you can’t use the pen as a remote control as you can with the Note 20 Ultra. So you can’t skip tracks with a button press or control slideshows.

Samsung is developing a second stylus. The S Pen Pro ships later this year for an undisclosed price, which will include Bluetooth connectivity.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: 5G, Wi-Fi 6E and UWB

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra supports all of the latest wireless standards, starting with 5G. The Qualcomm X60 modem inside this device is capable of carrier aggregation, which should result in higher peak speeds while delivering better power efficiency.

The performance was pretty solid in my neck of the woods on T-Mobile. I saw download speeds exceed 160 Mbps. It’s not fantastic, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max mustered only 100 Mbps in the same location when I popped the same SIM card in that phone.

In addition, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the first phones to support Wi-Fi 6E, a new standard that delivers faster speeds and more overall bandwidth when you have a compatible Wi-Fi 6E router.

Lastly, the S21 Ultra has UWB (ultra-wideband), which makes it easier to share files with other UWB devices, like the Galaxy S21 Plus. And you’ll be able to use this phone as a digital key for select 2022 cars.

Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Software and SmartTags

If you’re constantly losing stuff — like me — you’ll want to check out Samsung’s new Galaxy SmartTags. You can use this tag in combination with the SmartThings Find app to track down everything from your keys to your bag. You can also use the SmartThings Find app to locate other Samsung devices, including phones, smartwatches, tablets and earbuds.

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. Galaxy S21 vs Galaxy S21 Plus

We have a whole article dedicated to Galaxy S21 vs Galaxy S21 Plus vs Galaxy S21 Ultra, as there are many differences. But here are the key things to know. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has the highest resolution main camera (108MP vs 64MP for S21 and Plus), the most powerful zooms (100x vs 30x) and the sharpest display (QHD vs 1080p).

In addition, the screen on the Ultra is more dynamic, as it can scale from 120Hz all the way down to 10Hz, while the panels on the regular S21 and S21 Plus go down to 48Hz. This helps save on battery life. And the S21 Ultra has the largest battery at 5,000 mAh, compared to the S21 (4,000 mAh) and S21 Plus (4,800 mAh).

Lastly, the S21 Ultra has the most RAM at 12GB to 16GB, while the S21 and S21 Plus make due with 8GB. And only the S21 Ultra has a 512GB storage option. See our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review for more.

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 13 Pro Max

The biggest competitor for the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the iPhone 13 Pro Max. Apple’s phone delivers faster performance from its A15 Bionic chip, and you get a strong Ceramic Shield front display that’s designed to be more durable.

Apple really closed the gap this year by offering vastly improved battery life, a dynamic 120Hz display, and blistering performance. It also starts at 100 less than Samsung while offering better cameras to boot. If you’re platform-agnostic, there are few reasons to pick the Galaxy S21 Ultra over the iPhone 13 Pro Max.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. Galaxy Z Fold 3

The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is Samsung’s latest foldable, showcasing the company’s prowess when it comes to display technology and hardware design. The Fold 3 is a big, powerful phone that Samsung has intended to succeed the venerable Galaxy Note line (RIP).

The Z Fold 3 also has S Pen support like the S21 Ultra, though it has fewer cameras. Photography aficionados who prefer Samsung phones will want to stick with the S21 Ultra this year.

Our Galaxy Z Fold 3 vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra face-off breaks down the differences. But if you’re tired of the old smartphone design, then the Galaxy Z Fold 3 (or even Galaxy Z Flip 3) is worth looking at — bearing in mind that it’s quite expensive.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Android 12 update

Samsung released One UI 4 for the Galaxy S21 Ultra in mid-November 2021. This update brought Android 12, which offers several key improvements to the UI and privacy elements. You can now choose your system accent color with the Color Palette, or access the privacy dashboard to see which apps are using your mic, camera, and location.

While Samsung has modified something from what you’ll find on a Pixel phone, you can read our Android 12 review to learn more about what you can expect with the update.

As of this writing, One UI 4.1 is rolling out to Galaxy S21 models including the Ultra. One UI 4.1 delivers many of the Galaxy S22’s camera features to older Samsung flagships. These capabilities include Night Portrait, pet recognition, lighting position editing and support for Portrait mode when shooting video with the telephoto lens.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Verdict

Samsung nearly perfected the big-screen phone with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The display is best-in-class, the cameras are much improved and you can even use this thing as a Galaxy Note if you want to.

Personally, I see the S Pen support as more of a bonus because of the added cost. That’s another reason to get the Galaxy S22 Ultra, as that phone ships with an included S Pen.

There are some things I don’t like about this flagship. It’s a bit big and heavy, and the lack of a charger and microSD card slot both sting. And while the S21 Ultra is fast, it’s still a step behind the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Then again, Samsung’s phone lasts longer on charge and lets you do more with its cameras.

Overall, if you were looking for the pinnacle of Android phones, the S21 Ultra had been it. These days, though, the S21 Ultra has made way for the Galaxy S22 Ultra, and that’s only good news for Samsung fans.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review

I’m that 5G guy. I’ve actually been here for every “G.” I’ve reviewed well over a thousand products during 18 years working full-time at, including every generation of the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy S. I also write a weekly newsletter, Fully Mobilized, where I obsess about phones and networks.

The Bottom Line

The Galaxy S21 Ultra delivers a high-quality superzoom camera that truly works, supports Samsung’s excellent S Pen, and sets the bar for smartphone features in 2021.

PCMag editors select and review products independently. If you buy through affiliate links, we may earn commissions, which help support our testing.


  • Beautiful design and solid build
  • Excellent photo quality at up to 10x zoom
  • Equipped for next-gen C-Band and Wi-Fi 6E connectivity

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Specs

Name Value

Editors’ Note: After two months of testing the Galaxy S21 Ultra alongside other flagship phones, we have revisited this review to raise its rating from 4 to 4.5 stars and bestow our Editors’ Choice award. In addition, US wireless carriers have revealed C-Band 5G plans that the S21 Ultra is well positioned to take advantage of, and the phone is now widely available for less than its high list price.

It’s like an anime title: “Galaxy S: Redemption.” The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is, by and large, what the Galaxy S20 Ultra should have been. It’s a solid and premium-feeling phone with a unique (for the US) superzoom camera, a gorgeous screen, and future-forward network chops. The S21 Ultra sets the bar for Android performance in 2021 and its superzoom camera will lead you to look at the world in new ways.

Now that we’ve closely compared it with the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max and the OnePlus 9 Pro as well as Samsung’s own Note 20 Ultra, we can say with confidence that the S21 Ultra is our Editors’ Choice.

Since 1982, PCMag has tested and rated thousands of products to help you make better buying decisions. See how we test. (Opens in a new window)

The Top of the Galaxy S Line

Samsung has three models in its 2021 flagship Galaxy S series: the small S21, the medium S21 Plus, and the large S21 Ultra. They all have the same basic processor and modem. The S21 and S21 Plus are similar, other than their screen and battery sizes. The S21 Ultra pours on features the other two lack: a 108-megapixel main camera, a 40-megapixel selfie camera, a 10x optical zoom camera, S Pen support, Wi-Fi 6E, and UWB directional positioning.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Pricing on these phones has been a little odd, and the original pricing led us to downgrade them—perhaps more than we should have. The list are 799.99 for the S21, 999.99 for the S21, and 1,199.99 for the S21 Ultra. But they’ve cost considerably less pretty much everywhere since launch. The S21 Ultra is 999.99 at both Amazon and Best Buy at this writing, and Samsung has an intense trade-in game. That makes the S21 Ultra effectively less expensive than the iPhone 12 Pro Max (1,099), which is rarely discounted.

A Sleek Design With Integrated Cameras

The S21 Ultra starts with a body that feels less cobbled-together than the S20 Ultra did. My review unit is a solid matte block that resists fingerprints much better than last year’s glossy models. At 6.50 by 2.98 by 0.35 inches (HWD), the S21 Ultra is slightly shorter than the S20 Ultra (6.57 by 2.99 by 0.35 inches), but taller and narrower than the iPhone 12 Pro Max (6.33 by 3.07 by 0.29 inches). The phone is brick-heavy, though, at 8.08 ounces—heavier than the Galaxy S20 Ultra (7.76 ounces), the iPhone 12 Pro Max (8.03 ounces), or the Samsung Note 20 Ultra (7.34 ounces).

The biggest and best design difference from the S20 is the better-integrated camera module. Rather than a discrete, hard-edged bump on the back, it’s now merged into the corner of the phone. There’s still a lip where it drops off, but it’s a lot less annoying and less likely to catch on your pants

The phone is rated IP68 for water resistance and comes in a range of very low-key colors (some only available if you buy the phone directly from Samsung): black, brown, gray, navy, and silver. If you’re looking for poppy-red, rose gold, or violet, you’re going to have to go with one of the smaller units.

You can opt for 128GB or 256GB of storage with 12GB of RAM, or 512GB of storage with 16GB of RAM. There is no microSD card slot. Slots and ports in general are, alas, going the way of the dodo; not enough people use them, and built-in memory has faster performance. If you absolutely need expandable memory, stick with the Note 20 or the Note 20 Ultra.

The new, second-generation Qualcomm ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is noticeably faster and more accurate than the sensor on the S10 and S20. On the other hand, face recognition repeatedly failed to recognize my face (with or without a mask).

The 6.8-inch, 3,200-by-1,440-pixel screen is covered in the new Gorilla Glass Victus. It hasn’t scratched after a few days of testing, an improvement over the Galaxy S20 screen, which scuffed up quickly.

Samsung says that the screen is 25% brighter than the Galaxy S20 Ultra, at 1,500 nits maximum brightness. importantly, it has a 50% better contrast ratio, and I can see the difference. Samsung’s screens have always popped, but this one really stands out. You can set the screen resolution to 1080p or quad HD to save battery and increase game frame rates, but the option to manually switch between 60Hz and 120Hz refresh rates is now gone; instead, the display automatically changes from 10Hz up to 120Hz depending on what you’re looking at.

The Ultra is the only member of the S21 family that works with Samsung’s S Pen, the active, pressure-sensitive stylus previously reserved for the Note series. I tried it with a Note 20 pen, a Note 9 pen, and a Note 4 pen; all of them worked. If you don’t have an old Note, you can buy an S Pen for 40, or a bundle of pen and pen-holding phone case for 70.

The S21 has the same super-low 9ms latency as the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, updating the screen with its virtual ink at 120Hz. The button on the pen, which “clicks” on the screen, works, but Bluetooth functions such as making air commands and using the pen as a remote camera shutter don’t. Samsung says there will be a special S Pen available later this year that will have those features.

We’ve heard rumors that there may be no Galaxy Note phone this year (Opens in a new window) because of a global processor shortage. If that’s the case, it makes the Galaxy S21 Ultra, with its pen-holding case, the go-to phone for previous Note owners and anyone who wants to scribble.

Choosing the Right Model

As always, there are a bunch of different sub-models of the Galaxy S21, noted by a letter at the end of the product number. We tested the unlocked U model, destined for the US. The U model has a single SIM slot, a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, disabled e-SIM functionality, and all the appropriate bands for all US 5G networks, including millimeter wave and the upcoming C-Band. Here are the other models listed on Samsung’s site:

W: For Canada. Snapdragon processor, single SIM plus eSIM. Similar 5G to the US except no mmWave.

B: Exynos processor, single SIM plus eSIM. Has 5G bands 3/7/28/41/78, so it won’t work on any low-Band US 5G network.

N: For Korea. Exynos processor, single SIM plus eSIM. Only 5G Band is 78.

0: For China. Snapdragon processor, dual SIM.

If you use your phone outside of its intended region, you can expect it to have all of the right 4G bands but miss some of the roaming region’s 5G bands, and you probably won’t be able to use Wi-Fi calling or similar features.

CPU: Lucky Number 888

The Galaxy S21 models are the first phones to use Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 888 processor. The chip enables new features without really enhancing benchmarked speed. However, in the long run, the features probably matter more.

The S21 Ultra scored 1,128 on Geekbench single-core and 3,500 on Geekbench multi-core, a rise of 15% SC and only 7% MC over last year’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. On the GFXBench Car Chase benchmark, offscreen frames went from 57fps to 65fps, a rise of 14%. Is it an improvement? Sure. Will you notice it? Maybe not.

The iPhone 12 Pro’s Apple A14 processor scores noticeably higher on both benchmarks: 1,599 SC/4,006 MC on Geekbench, and 70fps on the offscreen GFXBench Car Chase benchmark.

Similarly, while the Basemark Web web-browsing score jumped from 322 on the Note 20 Ultra in WQHD resolution to 498 on the S21 Ultra, and from 486 in 1080p resolution to 605, the iPhone 12 Pro already scores 600.

There’s some weird stuff going on that makes me question the value of these numbers. The PCMark and AIMark benchmarks appear to be broken on the S21 Ultra, delivering scores that are obviously far too low. That could be something about the 888 itself or about Android 11, but in any case, they don’t appear to give good guidance. The S21 Ultra far outperformed the S20 Ultra on AI Benchmark, but once again, I’m not sure whether or not to trust it. We’re working with Samsung to figure this out and will update this review once we know more.

What you’re more likely to care about is that the 888 lets the S21 Ultra do some impressive new tricks. For instance, the 888’s image signal processor lets the S21 Ultra combine its two telephoto cameras for much better 10x–30x zoom than last year, and a new Director’s Mode video feature lets you smoothly switch between cameras on the fly. The AI capabilities lead to a better Night mode. Wi-Fi 6E requires a component in the 888, as do some of the new 5G features. So even without reliable benchmark numbers to quantify speed and power, it’s clear that this is a big step up from last year’s models.

A Streamlined Android Experience

The Galaxy S21 Ultra runs Android 11 with Samsung’s OneUI 3.0 extensions. Samsung told me it’s committing to updating the phone as far as Android 14.

The bloatware situation on the unlocked units isn’t bad at all, but you should expect the usual dozens of unwanted apps on carrier-locked models, especially on ATT. Samsung does preload. but it’s deletable.

Samsung’s voice assistant, Bixby, is still on this phone, but the Bixby Home screen to the left of the main home screen is gone; instead, you now see Google’s news feed. If you want to disable the Bixby button presses and turn the power key into a real power key, you can do that in settings.

It’s worth pointing out that Samsung does its best to link to other Galaxy devices and Windows laptops, similar to how iPhones hook up to Macs. OneUI 3 lets you call and text from Galaxy tablets or speakers. On Windows laptops, you can answer texts, check notifications, or mirror your phone screen. You can also put the S21 in multi-windowed Dex mode for presentations on a big screen or use an additional keyboard and mouse.

Samsung’s home screen design still won’t be mistaken for Google’s, with its own colors, icons, and dialer. But OneUI 3.0 works hard to integrate all of Android 11’s features while keeping Samsung‘s identity strong, and it doesn’t push custom browsers or email apps on you when it knows Google’s apps are what you really want. Besides, Samsung’s overall market success speaks to how accessible users find its UI.

Beefy Battery

The S21 Ultra has a 5,000mAh battery. In our standard test, where we run a YouTube video with full screen brightness over Wi-Fi, we managed 11 hours and 20 minutes; that’s on par with other leading large phones. Changing the screen resolution and refresh rate doesn’t matter here, because the refresh rate adapts to the content: If you’re showing a 60fps video, the refresh rate will not be higher than 60fps, even if you have it set to 120fps. The Ultra showed about an hour more playback time than the smaller S21.

5G does hit the battery pretty hard. On ATT’s network, streaming over 5G rather than Wi-Fi incurred a three-hour battery penalty in testing. You can’t turn off 5G natively on ATT or Verizon, though you can on T-Mobile. There’s a third-party app called Samsung Band Selector that might let you force your phone to use 4G, but it’s unsupported and could be disabled at any time.

The S21 phones support both 25W wired and 15W wireless charging. Samsung no longer ships a charger with them, claiming it’s because most people already have USB chargers they can use. However, most of the USB chargers you’ve accumulated over the past several years have USB-A ports and Micro USB cables, which are useless for the USB-C-to-USB-C cable that’s included in the S21 box. Even if you do have a USB-C charger handy, its vintage and power will make a difference. Plugged into a 22W Galaxy Note 20 Ultra charger, the S21 Ultra got to 37% in 20 minutes and reached a full charge in 70 minutes. But plugged into a Galaxy S20 FE charger, it only reached 22% at 20 minutes, and it took a total of 110 minutes to fully charge the phone. You can always opt to avoid the cable question altogether and get a Qi-compatible wireless charging pad.

samsung, galaxy, ultra, review

Networking That’s Ready for 2022

The Galaxy S21 series is ready for the networks of 2022, and they’ll arrive before you know it.

The S21 phones are the first US models with Qualcomm’s new X60 modem. The X60 lets phones combine non-contiguous channels of 5G, which earlier devices couldn’t do. In theory, that improves 5G performance. In practice, the networks aren’t quite ready for it yet.

There’s also support for C-Band, the fast new frequencies that carriers just spent more than 80 billion for. Verizon says it’ll cover 100 million people with C-Band access by next March, which will likely triple the carrier’s 5G speeds. Given the poor performance of Verizon “nationwide” 5G right now, I think anyone investing in a flagship phone for the next few years on Verizon needs to make sure they have C-Band.

I tested the S21 on ATT and T-Mobile. (Our Verizon SIMs are fried right now.) 4G and 5G performance on ATT was very similar to last year’s flagship devices. ATT will, in the future, use the X60 to enhance nationwide 5G performance by adding new channels of 5G. In the meantime, there’s not much new to see here. Over 11 locations, the S21 Ultra averaged 113Mbps down and 20Mbps up on ATT’s “nationwide 5G” network, while an iPhone 12 got 111Mbps down and 20Mbps up.

On T-Mobile, things got interesting. T-Mobile’s network forced my S21 into “standalone 5G” mode. Most 5G connections in the US right now are at least half 4G. Standalone 5G, which eschews 4G, gives you lower latency and less chance of overloaded networks in crowded conditions, but you end up with slower overall speeds because you’re losing the add-on 4G components.

With standalone 5G, I got an average of 87Mbps down and 31Mbps up with 12ms latency, which was much slower than my Galaxy S20 and iPhone 12. By forcing the phone into non-standalone mode using a field test screen, speeds rose to 258Mbps down and 69Mbps up on average, with 26ms latency. That was very similar to both the S20 and the iPhone 12. T-Mobile told me, essentially, that its engineers were experimenting in my neighborhood and would fix it.

On T-Mobile, the S21 should be able to combine the carrier’s two current main forms of 5G—bands n41 and n71—in a way that no phone so far has been able to do, but I didn’t see that happening; the phone was always on n41 or n71. That isn’t down to the phone, though. The network just wasn’t ready.

On the Wi-Fi side, the S21 Ultra is the first phone with Wi-Fi 6E, the new form of Wi-Fi that enables extremely high speeds on the new 6GHz Band (which isn’t the same as 6G). I couldn’t test it; the first Wi-Fi 6E routers are just coming out now, and they’re 500 or more. Wi-Fi 6E looks like a much bigger jump in terms of performance than Wi-Fi 5 to Wi-Fi 6 was; my Wi-Fi 6 devices still tend to max out around 600Mbps in real-world speeds, but Wi-Fi 6E promises more than a gigabit per device. This will become especially relevant when you’re hooking your phone up to multi-gigabit home internet service, when and if that appears in the next few years. It also helps with hotspot mode when you’re connected to millimeter-wave 5G, as those connections can already go over 2Gbps.

The Ultra also supports UWB, a new wireless technology that I can’t find a use for yet. UWB adds a directional element to short-range wireless, so you can eventually get, say, a virtual car key app that opens your car door when you’re pointing at the car, or a Smart Tag that tells you not only whether you’re near it, but which direction it’s in. For now, its only use is in a “nearby share” function that shares files between two phones, and honestly, that works just fine using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

Bluetooth 5.2 lets the phone stream to two devices simultaneously; how this works in practice will depend on the Bluetooth devices in question. With the Galaxy Buds Pro earphones, it means the phone streams to each earbud independently rather than going to one main earbud, which relays to the other. That makes for more stable connections.

Meanwhile, we lose one key wireless technology: MST. Samsung’s phones used to work with older credit card swipe machines that didn’t have the Apple/Samsung Pay specs. That was something Samsung had over Apple. The S21s don’t have that.

With all this talk of data, we didn’t forget about using your phone to, you know, make phone calls. Call quality hasn’t been a concern on high-end Samsung phones for a few years now. The company has speaker and Bluetooth call quality nailed. If you want to use a wired headset, it has to be USB-C; there’s no headphone jack. I was very happy to see that Wi-Fi calling was finally available on my unlocked model on all three major US wireless carriers. Samsung repeatedly promised ATT Wi-Fi calling on the unlocked S20 but never delivered.

The unlocked US model we tested has a single SIM slot. The phone technically supports eSIM, but it’s been disabled on this model, and Samsung has shown no sign of intending to enable it. Treat this as a single-physical-SIM phone.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra vs S21 Ultra: Two Years of Difference!

We pit these two Galaxy phones across various categories: we test their screens, performance speed, battery life and cameras, so read on!

Get Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra with free 512GB upgrade!

Get the Galaxy S23 Ultra starting at 449.99 with trade on Verizon or ATT (512GB version). Plus, you get exclusive Red, Blue, and other colors only at Samsung! The unlocked model starts at 449.99 for 256GB with trade. You can also get the Ultra for US Cellular, and there the phone starts at 449.99 with trade, too.

Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra gets an Amazon discount

Get the Galaxy S23 Ultra 512GB with a discount on Amazon. The same is applied to the Galaxy S23 Ultra in its 256GB storage variant.

  • Wider design with square corners vs narrower design with rounded corners
  • Brighter and more impressive display on S23 Ultra
  • S23 Ultra is significantly faster
  • But base S23 Ultra model comes with less RAM
  • S23 Ultra has double the storage in base model
  • Cameras have improved all around
  • S23 Ultra has longer battery life
  • S23 Ultra supports 45W charging vs 25W on S21 Ultra

Design and Display Quality

Small improvements add up on the S23 Ultra

The S23 Ultra feels much larger than the S21 Ultra despite the fact that both have a 6.8-inch sized screen. The reason for that is clearly the wider aspect ratio on the newer phone, which it inherits from the Galaxy Note series, while the S21 Ultra feels narrower with its rounded corners and narrower aspect ratio.

Both are quite heavy at slightly more than 8 ounces, so carrying them in a is definitely not very comfortable, but especially so for the S23 Ultra which has sharp corners.

The construction on both is glass and metal, and they both use aluminum frames, with the only notable difference being that the new S23 Ultra goes with the latest Gorilla Glass Victus 2, which is more resistant to drops compared to the Victus first-gen used on the S21 Ultra.

The S23 Ultra has got the S Pen built inside it, while the S21 Ultra does support S Pen input, but you need to buy the S Pen separately and if you want to have it always handy, you need to purchase a special case with an S Pen slot, which complicates the process a lot. So for those who want the S Pen, the S23 Ultra is just better.

Display Measurements:

The CIE 1931 xy color gamut chart represents the set (area) of colors that a display can reproduce, with the sRGB colorspace (the highlighted triangle) serving as reference. The chart also provides a visual representation of a display’s color accuracy. The small squares across the boundaries of the triangle are the reference points for the various colors, while the small dots are the actual measurements. Ideally, each dot should be positioned on top of its respective square. The ‘x: CIE31’ and ‘y: CIE31’ values in the table below the chart indicate the position of each measurement on the chart. ‘Y’ shows the luminance (in nits) of each measured color, while ‘Target Y’ is the desired luminance level for that color. Finally, ‘ΔE 2000’ is the Delta E value of the measured color. Delta E values of below 2 are ideal.

The Color accuracy chart gives an idea of how close a display’s measured colors are to their referential values. The first line holds the measured (actual) colors, while the second line holds the reference (target) colors. The closer the actual colors are to the target ones, the better.

The Grayscale accuracy chart shows whether a display has a correct white balance (balance between red, green and blue) across different levels of grey (from dark to bright). The closer the Actual colors are to the Target ones, the better.

The newer S23 Ultra gets brighter and is more comfortable for use outdoors. Color accuracy is improved, but the one thing we appreciate the most is that the S23 Ultra screen can get dimmer at night, so it’s much easier on the eyes when you use the phone in bed.

Both support dynamic refresh rate that can go up to 120Hz for buttery smooth scrolling, however the S23 Ultra can drop all the way down to 1Hz vs the 10Hz minimum on the S21 Ultra.

We did not notice any meaningful difference in biometrics. Both phones use an ultrasonic fingerprint scanner built into the screen, and it’s quite fast and accurate on both of them.

You can also use the front camera for face recognition, just keep in mind that it’s not all that secure using a 2D image that can be spoofed and it will force your screen to go extra bright when you use the face ID feature at night, which can be stressful.

Performance and Software

The biggest leap in speed in years!

(Image Credit. PhoneArena) The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 on the S23 Ultra is a massive improvement in performance speeds. Oh and you have the S Pen built inside!

With the Galaxy S23 Ultra, Samsung finally waves goodbye to its Exynos processors that it used in Galaxy models sold outside the United States, and this is a good riddance.

But even if you compare the Galaxy S23 Ultra to the Snapdragon-powered version of the S21 Ultra (aka the U.S. model), you will notice some significant increases in processing speed. Put simply, this is the biggest generational leap in performance power in years!

Performance Benchmarks:

As you can see in the benchmark scores above, the new Galaxy scores nearly 50% more on CPU performance, and brings nearly double the gaming performance, which is really, really impressive.

Many people might argue that phones are already fast enough and you wouldn’t notice those changes all that much, but we cannot agree completely with that argument. The S23 Ultra is so much faster it can be felt, and this speed will remain with you throughout the many years of using the phone.

We also love that the S23 Ultra has 256GB of storage in even the base model, which is double what you get on the S21 Ultra. Having more storage does not seem important when you first get the phone, but after a year or so of usage, many people realize they need more storage. Both the S23 Ultra and S21 Ultra do NOT have a microSD card slot for expandable memory, so keep that in mind.

For the first time, with One UI 5.1 and Android 13 on the Galaxy S23 Ultra, we finally also see the software catch up with the hardware. Previously jittery animations that were always a problem on Samsung phones now feel fluid and refined, much like on rival Pixels and iPhones. Samsung has finally nailed this after so many years!


200MP main camera brings big improvements to low-light shots

We like the new camera styling, each individual lens in its own enclosure, with a protective metal ring around it so that you don’t scratch the lens itself. But you have to know that this look is also an absolute dust trap on the S23 Ultra.

Anyway, you are not here for this though. You probably care about the new 200MP main camera on the Galaxy S23 Ultra and how it compares to the images from the S21 Ultra, so let’s take a look!

Main Camera. Day

During the day, the main change has got to be in the colors. The Galaxy S21 Ultra dialed down colors, then the S22 Ultra cranked them up to the extreme, and now the S23 Ultra is kind of the middle ground. Yes, it still captures more saturated colors than we have in reality, but compared to the bleaker colors out of the S21 Ultra, we do prefer this color rendition.

Detail, however, has gotten that typical smartphone look with a ton of oversharpening that you don’t really have on the older S21 Ultra, so in that regard, it might actually be a step back.

Main Camera. Night

There is no arguing that the bigger differences in photos comes at night time. The improved processing from the S23 Ultra results in superior images with more color and pop.


One of the big advantages of the Ultra series is zooming, and the S21 Ultra was the first to introduce a 10X zoom periscope camera for Samsung, and yet to this day detail out of it looks incredible.

However, you can’t help but notice how the new S23 Ultra does a much better job with colors when zooming and preserves a lot of those natural tonalities.

And at 30X and 100X zoom again the biggest change has got to be just about the more accurate colors out of the S23 Ultra.


The ultra-wide camera on the S23 Ultra follows the same pattern of change as the main camera, that is to say that it captures more vibrant colors compared to the S21 Ultra, and the biggest change is noticeable when you shoot photos at night.


Selfies out of the new S23 Ultra are sharper and lift up the shadows more for a less contrasty look. We’d say they are a step forward compared to the older model as well.

Video Quality

The S23 Ultra finally makes 8K video a practical solution as you no longer have a lot of crop to go with that footage like you used to have on the S21 Ultra, but still most of the time, we’d go with the more reasonable size of 4K footage.

Comparing the 4K30 video recordings above, you notice something interesting happens with the S23 Ultra: a ton of oversharpening! This is what we call the “smartphone look” and it’s not a compliment.

At the same time, you can see how there is less noise in the video and there is a huge improvement in the video stabilization when you use the 10X zoom camera.

Finally, in low light, the S23 Ultra is a big step up with more pleasing colors and that larger sensor captures a ton more light too.

Audio Quality and Haptics

The S23 Ultra finally brings a big overhaul to the speaker system with a boomier sound that is a big improvement from the very tinny sounding S21 Ultra which lacked sorely in the lower frequencies.

Music and games sound vastly better on the S23 Ultra, so if you can appreciate such a change, the S23 Ultra is well worth considering.

Unfortunately, haptic feedback on both these Samsung phones is just okay, it’s nowhere nearly as good, tight and controlled as on the industry leading smartphones like the iPhone and OnePlus 11.

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 and S21 Ultra deliver as premium Android smartphones

Samsung didn’t waste much time getting busy in 2021, already releasing its new line of Galaxy smartphones: the S21, S21 and S21 Ultra.

They still sport Space Zoom like their predecessors, but you’ll now be future-proofed and ready for 5G out of the box, thanks to the latest processor from Qualcomm. The S21 (starting at 799.99) and S21 (starting at 999.99) differ only in screen size — 6.2 inches and 6.7 inches, respectively. The 6.8-inch S21 Ultra (starting at 1,199.99), though, packs in additional memory while taking image capture to the extreme.

We’ve spent the past week with Galaxy S21 and S21 Ultra, and while there’s certainly plenty of overlap between the two, we found some clear differences.

The who, what and how

Who these are for: Samsung’s Galaxy S21 is a premium Android smartphone that excels with a fast processor, excellent camera and long battery life. If you’re looking to upgrade, it should be near the top of your list. The Galaxy S21 Ultra succeeds as the do-it-all option, with an incredible display and impressive photography chops. If you want a premium smartphone that can stand up to anything and can stomach a 1,199 price, it deserves a look.

What you need to know: If you’re not looking for a nearly 7-inch phone but still want top-of-the-line 2021 features, the Galaxy S21 is really the complete package. A 6.2-inch screen is plenty for most, and it acts as a viewfinder for a wide, ultrawide and telephoto lens setup. And at 799, we’re confident the Snapdragon 888 processor inside will be zippy for many years to come. Comparatively, the S21 Ultra raises the bar with six cameras in total, including a wide 10x optical lens. It also stretches the screen to 6.8 inches while delivering a higher-resolution experience. And yes, it features 100x Space Zoom versus just 30x on the S21.

How they compare: Year over year, the S21 is a small upgrade over the S20 — a refreshed design, a newer processor and faster cameras. So if you own an S20, this is not an upgrade must, although Samsung’s trade-in deals do their best to persuade you otherwise. The S21 Ultra delivers a terrific 10x optical lens and is no longer hampered by some camera options, as was its predecessor, making for a much more uniform experience compared to the S20 Ultra. In short: It blows past the Note 20 Ultra and other premium Android phones. Both the S21 and S21 Ultra stand as class-leading smartphones that can go head-to-head with the iPhone 12 line, and surpass Google’s Pixel 5 with performance.

Galaxy S21

At 799, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 is the starting point for its flagship Galaxy S smartphones. With a 6.2-inch screen size and three cameras on the back, it’s looking mighty similar to the previous Galaxy S20 — but it’s 200 cheaper than its predecessor.

Updating the classic slab

The classic rectangular slab is now more streamlined. The metal frame of the Galaxy S21 no longer acts as the main hull of the phone but now extends to the camera bump. It’s a really nice aspect of the design, but it’s not all rainbows and sunshine.

While the front of the S21 is glass and the sides are metal, the back is plastic or polycarbonate, leading to a lighter feel (the S21 weighs only 171 grams). Samsung traded glass for plastic here, as it did on the S20 FE and Note 20. It’s not a deal breaker and doesn’t make the device feel super cheap, but it’s a notable difference. The Google Pixel 5, iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 all feature higher-end materials at similar price points. Ultimately, it feels like a cost-saving measure from Samsung that really shouldn’t be a factor on a flagship smartphone. As a consumer spending nearly 800, we expect a device that mirrors that price point. It’s a light device, which makes sense because of the materials being used, but pairing metal with plastic feels like a mismatch here.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra VS S23 Ultra. WORTH THE UPGRADE? | 2 Year Review

But that’s really our own qualm, and one that the color options make up for. In fact, we’re currently scribbling love notes to the Phantom Violet color. It’s a two-tone design with a gold metal frame and a light purple plastic back. It reminds us of supervillain Thanos, but more importantly it stands as a smashing color combination.

And the rest of the S21 is pretty clean. You’ll find antenna bands and microphones etched into the frame, while the power and volume rocker live on the right-hand side. The bottom of the device features a USB-C port sandwiched between a speaker and SIM card slot. It’s not a combo slot, since Samsung is killing off the microSD card slot. That means no expandable storage — so choose the internal storage capacity wisely.

The Galaxy S21 features a modestly sized 6.2-inch display. Samsung has display chops, and it shows. Colors are consistently accurate, though vibrant when needed. Black points and contrast levels are seriously impressive here. These correlate to make even the most mundane things — like a timeline — pop, while the latest episode of “WandaVision” can really sparkle.

It’s not the highest panel that Samsung offers — the Galaxy S21 features a Full HD Plus Dynamic AMOLED 2X display. The screen is slightly higher than 1080p and is set in a taller aspect ratio. Even to a trained eye, that’s a sharp display with a 2400 x 1080 resolution. Its adaptive switch refresh rate — ranging from 48 Hz to 120 Hz — will intelligently adjust to conserve battery life, as constantly running at 120 Hz will quickly kill the battery.

Users have their pick between a vivid or natural screen mode. If you’ve been using Samsung Galaxys for a while, vivid is what you’ll be used to. It ups saturation and tends to lean on the warmer side for image reproduction. It’s different from natural, which doesn’t up these hues and is closely aligned with how an iPhone displays content. We prefer vivid on the S21, as it makes content a bit immersive.

Both S21s (like the S21 Ultra, which you can read more about below) feature a kickass fingerprint sensor in the display. It’s a serious improvement over any other in-screen unlocking method we’ve tested, surpassing the S20, S20 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra.

Now, technically, it’s a new optical fingerprint sensor from Qualcomm, and Samsung just opted to use it here. It’s much faster at adding a fingerprint, cutting the time in about half (and even more so if you’re coming from an S10). We also didn’t experience any missed scans, something that was very common on the S20 last year. It’s a fast and secure way to unlock your phone or authenticate a purchase. Best of all, you can use it while wearing a mask.

Samsung is continuing to push its imaging hardware with the S21. For the second year in a row, there are three cameras on the back. Truth be told, though, the 12-megapixel lenses don’t have many physical changes over those on the S20. The FOCUS in 2021, instead, is on faster processing and new AI tricks as Samsung works to go head-to-head with Apple and Google.

The Galaxy S21 sports the following lenses:

samsung, galaxy, ultra, review
  • A 12-megapixel ultrawide lens: This is likely our favorite lens after a week of use, thanks to its 120-degree view of the world. Bigger isn’t always better, but when capturing epic shots, it’s the way to go. It’s an identical 12-megapixel lens to last year, but it’s on par with competitors and captures many details.
  • A 12-megapixel wide lens: When you open up the camera, it presents the primary 12-megapixel wide lens. It’s handy for simple shots of multiple objects or people alike.
  • A 64-megapixel telephoto lens: Space Zoom is, of course, in full force on the S21, and this 64-megapixel telephoto powers the experience. Physically, it has a 3x optical lens, and Space Zoom is a hybrid zoom onto this maximum zoom. It’s improved with AI stabilization, and the result is generally a clearer picture.

And here’s the good news: The slow shutter speeds that we called out on the S20 are almost fixed here. You can easily switch between the lenses and capture Rapid burst shots. Even using 30x Space Zoom, it’s just faster all around.

Image quality is still quite sharp at un-zoomed levels, essentially when you’re just shooting from wide or ultrawide. Colors still skew a little more vibrant than the middle-of-the-road iPhone or cooler Google Pixel shots. Details are packed in, especially with the 12-megapixel wide and ultrawide lenses.

Opting to use Space Zoom is when blur and grain quickly come into play. It’s improved since last year, but you’re still trading details and clarity for a cool shot. For most zoom scenarios, we’d strongly recommend opting to stick within the 3x optical lenses reach. That’s what the actual lens can physically zoom to, and after that, you’re digitally zooming in on the shot. Samsung is also using some upscaling methods to improve the quality.

Samsung is really pushing Single Take on its 2021 lineup. Essentially, with this, you hit the shutter and can freely move around the S21 or S21 Ultra to capture content. The phone will intelligently capture stills, burst shots and even video. Year over year, it’s faster to process the files at the end. And Samsung is getting better at capturing the right shots and varying them up. You might be left with a few portraits, some stills with different effects, a time lapse and a normal video file.

Another mode we really liked was Director’s View, in which you can record with the front-facing and one of the rear lenses at the same time. It’s perfect for vlogging or when you want to narrate a sequence. While you can preview the other lenses that aren’t being used, you can only have one main lens selected at once. But, in our testing, it’s nearly instantaneous switching between the lenses.

On the front, Samsung tucked a 10-megapixel camera inside the pinhole at the top of the 6.2-inch display. It’s a solid front-facing lens that’s on par with the iPhone and Google Pixel devices. Like the rear cameras, and mostly a trait of Samsung’s processing, it does skew a little more vibrant in terms of color reproduction. We’re also incredibly happy that it no longer smooths our skin by default.

Like most flagship smartphones, every Galaxy S21 features a state-of-the-art processor from Qualcomm. Specifically for the S21, it’s the Snapdragon 888 processor paired with 8GB of RAM. It’s crafted on a 5-nanometer architecture and is the Android equivalent of the A14 Bionic inside the iPhone 12 family.

This setup makes Android 11 with Samsung’s One UX 3.1 truly fly. It all feels instant — the camera opens swiftly, for instance, and you can keep 20 applications open in the background while multitasking without any hesitations.

Over the previous Galaxy S20, everything feels more instantaneous. It’s only a hair faster than the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, though. Camera processes and intense tasks is where this new processor really shines. Specifically, when shooting in night or portrait mode, you’ll find the S21 can quickly capture a moment and render out the final image in record time.

The S21 never balked when we used our typical apps, including Outlook, Gmail, Slack, Trello, Microsoft Teams. Chrome, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Apple Music, Spotify, Google Home, SmartThings, Fortnite, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, Netflix, Hulu, Disney and GeekBench 5, among others. When playing “Real Racing,” we especially liked the adaptive refresh rate, which can scale to 120 Hz for a clean action-packed view when driving a car.

In comparison to previous Samsung interfaces, One UX 3.1 is less clunky and less gimmicky. There are still some annoyances — like out of the box, the Samsung Pay swipe-up is dangerously on top of the home button — but a big win is that the customized Bixby news screen is replaced by the standard Google one. It’s closer to a Pixel device in that sense and removes some clutter.

We’ve been testing an unlocked version of the Galaxy S21. There’s no carrier bloatware on it, but the ATT, T-Mobile or Verizon locked version will feature plenty of preloaded apps. Out of the box, you can expect the normal Samsung apps like AR Zone, Galaxy Wearable, Health, Samsung Members and other core ones. A folder with Google and Microsoft apps is here as well.

The other big news is that Samsung is still guaranteeing three years of Android updates. And we have no doubts that this Snapdragon 888 processor will last until then and likely surpass it — just see the benchmarks below. Most importantly, though, it expands the life cycle of your smartphone.

As we do with every device we test at CNN Underscored, we ran the Galaxy S21 through a series of benchmarks. One standard is GeekBench 5, and this runs the phone through a series of tasks in a stress test formation. The Galaxy S21 scored a 1,110 on single and 3,477 on multi-core. That’s only slightly behind the S21 Ultra, which got a 1,122 on single and 3,489 on multi-core. It’s a set of scores that’s in line with our daily use and proves that the S21 carries a super-impressive amount of speed.

The S21 — which features a 4,000mAh battery — easily made it through a full day before needing to be recharged. Similar to our software benchmarks, we ran the Galaxy S21 through our battery test. In this, we loop a 4K video in the VLC with the device set to airplane mode and the brightness set to 50%. We unplug the device when it reaches 100% and let it run until the device powers off. The test is monitored by two cameras to ensure accuracy as well.

The Galaxy S21 lasted for 12 hours and 10 minutes, which surpasses the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, which lasted 10 hours. The battery is impressive any way you try to slice it. And you can charge the phone in two key ways: via a plug, thanks to the USB-C port on the bottom, or via a Qi-enabled wireless charging pad on the back. When connected to power via hardwire, the Galaxy S21 can charge at 25 watts. You won’t get a plug in the box this time around, though — like Apple, Samsung is ditching the included accessory and requiring you to bring your own.

Galaxy S21 Ultra

At 1,199, the S21 Ultra is a premium device that corrects the missteps of the S20, namely in the world of imaging. To deliver a crisper 100x Space Zoom, Samsung has increased the number of cameras to five. Aiding in processing times will be the top-class Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, which is also tasked with powering this massive phone.

The new design language of the 2021 Galaxy lineup is supersized on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. External storage is still gone here — the bottom of the S21 Ultra features a SIM card slot, USB-C port and speaker. The power and volume rocker are built into the metal frame on the right-hand side. And etched into the metal frame, which is color-matched to Phantom Black or Phantom Silver, are the antennas and microphones.

The S21 Ultra is massive. Those with small hands will need to use two, and even one large hand might leave you with an unwieldy feeling at times. Still, even with a size that amounts to half a pound, it doesn’t feel like a brick that’s top-heavy with the camera bump.

And unlike the S21, which opts for a plastic back, the S21 Ultra goes high-end with a matte glass back. It also does a remarkable job of hiding fingerprints on its Phantom Black surface. Samsung’s new color is really just a deep matte black, and while it is nice, we wish there were an option for a pop of color. The Ultra only comes in more timid colors, Phantom Black or Phantom Silver, though you can customize it depending on availability via Samsung directly.

But this more uniform design does its job well on the S21 Ultra. The black metal from the frame stretches to the large camera bump on the back, which houses five lenses, an autofocus sensor and an LED flash. All of this works to give a premium feeling to the S21 Ultra.

The 6.8-inch display on the S21 Ultra isn’t just bigger, it’s a WQHD AMOLED. It’s higher than HD (1080p) at 3200 x 1440 and delivers the sharpest picture possible. Within settings, though, you can tone it down to FHD.

The refresh rate is also more impressive here compared to the S21, as it can get as low as 10 Hz and can scale to 120 Hz. That’s similar to how the refresh rate works on the Apple Watch Series 6 to show the minute hand moving. That lower Hz means the S21 Ultra can be even more efficient, and on a larger display, that’s important. Here’s the real kicker: On the S20 Ultra, you couldn’t run the display at WQHD and scale to 120 Hz refresh rate. Samsung’s fixed that here, and in our testing, it doesn’t destroy the battery life.

The display on the S21 Ultra is a key part of the phone: It’s the deeply immersive viewfinder for photography, video calling a loved one or taking in the latest film. In the full WQHD resolution with it set to vivid, colors really pop along with side dark points that immediately pull you into whatever’s on the screen.

And for the first time, the S Pen is arriving on a Galaxy S phone. It’s not as integrated as on the Galaxy Note, and after some testing we found it to be far from vital for the S21 Ultra. With a large 6.8-inch display that supports Wacom technology, it’s a great way to quickly jot down notes or scribble out a doodle. And if you’re coming from a Galaxy Note or Tab S7, you can use that same S Pen here. Samsung is also selling two cases that come bundled with an S Pen, or you can get a stand-alone stylus. You’ll have full access to Samsung Notes and the ability to write on the screen when it is locked for a quick note, and you can use it to control the user interface.

The S20 Ultra’s camera experience was slow to process, delivered blurry results and had an autofocus problem. Samsung’s fixed a lot of this with the S21 Ultra. Let’s familiarize ourselves with the hardware on the back:

  • A 12-megapixel ultrawide lens: This is the same 120-degree ultrawide lens as on the core S21. It lets you capture a whole lot more in just one shot without moving.
  • A 108-megapixel wide lens: We found ourselves leaning on the default lens a lot more on the S21 Ultra. With a higher number of megapixels, along with a bigger lens, it captures more detail and keeps the clarity. By default, this will deliver those 108-megapixel images as 12-megapixel shots. It saves space and does so through a nona-binning process, essentially combining pixels to deliver a sharper image.
  • Dual 10-megapixel telephoto lenses: This turned out to be a game changer. These are the lenses that accomplish 100x Space Zoom. Both of these lenses are 10 megapixels, but one has 3x optical (like on the S21) and the other has 10x optical. With a 10x physical zoom, you can capture a lot more details and reduce the noise in a shot.
  • A laser autofocus sensor: This was first introduced on the Note 20 Ultra, and it’s here to improve focusing times. Additionally, it aims to reduce noise with zoom shots.

As we did above, we’re embedding a selection of photos below that were all captured on the S21 Ultra. With — count ‘em — a total of five lenses, it’s really a complete photography system.

The ultrawide is just as strong here as on the S21, allowing you to capture a wider shot that doesn’t sacrifice image quality. Capturing New York City with it, both indoors and outdoors, was quite enjoyable for us. By default, Scene Optimizer is turned on, and this is an example of Samsung’s AI at work. In some cases during our testing, it resulted in a darker image lacking color. Turning it off fixed the problem, but it’s not as simple as just pointing and shooting in that case.

The nona-binning technique of combining pixels to deliver a 12-megapixel image has improved year over year. For starters, the processing time is closer to just a second, even shorter with images captured during the day with plenty of light. Zooming in on these shots keeps details in a slightly more saturated image. You can also opt to shoot in full resolution at 108 megapixels.

Where things get really interesting is with 100x Space Zoom. And we’ll say it up front: If you’re expecting there to be somehow no graininess at 100x freehand, you’re going to be disappointed.

We have several shots captured from The Edge — a skydeck 100 stories above NYC — of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the Freedom Tower. Safe to say, especially at 100x, it’s a blurry shot that keeps some details. The lenses also appeared to be struggling with lower-light conditions. It is very neat to say we got an up-close shot of the Statue of Liberty from several miles away, though. So, to a degree, it’s still a gimmick, and we don’t anticipate that you’ll be shooting at 100x all too often.

Truly the star of this setup is the telephoto lens that features a 10x optical lens. It’s really a game changer for mobile photography, and we desperately wish it were on the S21, S21 and other phones on the market. It’s perfect for long-range shots and delivers a usable image — one that you’re proud to share across the internet. It’s also a better base for the 100x Space Zoom shots. With those, it’s a fusion between the 3x optical and the 10x optical, along with artificial intelligence and many Rapid captures. It all comes together to deliver a blurry — yes, blurry — image captured at extreme zoom.

In our test shots without a significant amount of light, we saw a heavy amount of grain that blurred the image. And while some level of clarity missing is to be expected when shooting freehand at 100x zoom, we were just hoping for a bit more clarity. We’ve reached out to Samsung about the iffy performance with Space Zoom in low light but have yet to hear back.

The S21 Ultra has a tremendous amount of potential for photography. Single Take and improved scene detection will help you capture better shots no matter the lens. Portrait shots are also much improved, with better detection for hair and picking up where the FOCUS should start or stop. Like the iPhone 12 family, you can pick from different portrait lighting, and Samsung goes a step further by letting you adjust the level of blur in real time.

And if you’re a fan of selfies, it’s good news across the board. For starters, when you first flip to the front-facing camera, a pop-up will ask if you want natural selfies. Samsung is no longer pushing smoothing your skin or enhancing your face with AI. The S21 Ultra ups the quality of the front-facing lens to 40 megapixels.

As we mentioned above, the S21 Ultra is powered by that same state-of-the-art processor as the Galaxy S21. The biggest difference is the amount of RAM (memory) paired with that processor. And as Samsung has done in the past, the brand is packing even more RAM into the highest-end smartphone. It gives it a runway for intense tasks — think massive games and creative tasks like photo or video editing. It’s also enough to power five cameras on the back and the larger 6.8-inch display.

Opting for 128GB or 256GB of internal storage will mean 12GB of RAM inside. The largest 512GB variant of the S21 Ultra features a whopping 16GB of RAM, which is basically unheard of for smartphones.

Despite us testing that higher-RAM model, our experience on the S21 Ultra in comparison to the S21 was nearly identical. As we anticipated, it’s not so much the RAM that factors into everyday use, but it’s really all about the efficiency and power that the Snapdragon 888 processor can deliver. Sure, processing an image might have been a hop faster, but nothing really noteworthy. And that’s really good news, as you shouldn’t need to get the most expensive model with a giant screen to get the best performance — especially if you want a smaller phone.

The Snapdragon 888 on the S21 Ultra specifically fixes the slow processing time from the camera. It has plenty of cores inside to handle shooting with five lenses, stitching pixels together with nona-binning and the ability to add in light when it’s not there for Night mode shots. It’s really the processor that Samsung needed to beat the Note 20 Ultra, deliver a compelling experience over the S20 and try to steal users from the iPhone world.

Android 11 with Samsung’s One UX 3.1 really just flies on the Ultra in the same way it does on the core S21. It’s instant with every finger swipe.

As we do with every device we test at CNN Underscored, we ran the S21 Ultra through a series of benchmarks. One standard is GeekBench 5, and this runs the phone through a series of tasks in a stress test formation. The S21 Ultra got a 1,122 on single and 3,489 on multi-core. It’s a set of scores that’s in line with our daily use and gives this 1,299 smartphone a slight edge over the 799 S21.

The S21 Ultra — yes, even with the display set to WQHD – easily made it through a full day. It features a massive 5,000mAh battery. We trace this impressive battery life back to the processor’s efficiency, the ability to dynamically adjust the refresh rate and software optimizations.

Similar to our software benchmarks, we ran the Galaxy S21 Ultra through our battery test. In this, we loop a 4K video in the VLC with the device set to airplane mode and the brightness set to 50%. We unplug the device when it reaches 100% and let it run until the device powers off. The test is monitored by two cameras to ensure accuracy as well.

The S21 Ultra lasted a total of 15 hours and 57 minutes. Like the S21, the S21 Ultra supports up to 25-watt fast charging via the USB-C port. And you need to bring your own wall plug, as Samsung is no longer including one in the box. The S21 Ultra also supports Qi-enabled wireless charging.

5G is supported, but you’ll need to find it

As we did with our iPhone 12 reviews last fall and our Galaxy S20 reviews last spring, we hunted down 5G. Out of the box, the S21 and S21 Ultra come equipped with Sub-6 and mmWave bands for connecting to low-Band and ultra-wideband 5G networks. The latter is the 5G you’ve been promised, with upload and download speeds that zoom past your home Wi-Fi.

Low-Band is the one that’s more available here in the United States and is similar to 4G LTE. Don’t expect 2,000 Mbps down with this, but closer to 200 Mbps when it’s fast. Low-Band is all about more room on the network for a plethora of devices to connect simultaneously. As 5G devices become more common, this will help reduce congestion. Low-Band is easier to roll out and less of a finicky technology. You don’t need to be directly in line of sight with a 5G tower, and you’ll see it in more wireless markets from ATT and Verizon.

In our week of testing, we headed to supposed 5G ultra-wideband sites across New Jersey and New York City. When we could see a Verizon 5G cell site and had our S21 or S21 Ultra pointed at it — with nothing blocking it — we could hit download speeds of up to 2,000 Mbps. Neither device got warm, though we did see the battery trickle down after several tests. It was similar to our iPhone 12 testing, as walking down the street or taking a few side steps resulted in us losing the ultra-wideband connection.

As 5G gets more mainstream, and the networks are rolled out, the experience should get better. We hope the technology behind ultra-wideband or mmWave will mature as well. For now, if you’re in a market with either Band of 5G, you’re in for a treat. But also don’t be disappointed if you aren’t; opting for an S21 or S21 Ultra will be a method of future-proofing.

The S21 and S21 Ultra also carry the other crucial forms of connectivity: Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.0/LE and, notably, ultra-wideband. Don’t be concerned with 6E on the back of Wi-Fi; it’s the latest standard and acts as a form of future-proofing. We’re starting to see the first routers with Wi-Fi 6E starting to ship, and chances are it will take some time before you adopt it. Bluetooth is handy for earbuds, headphones and a plethora of accessories. Ultra-wideband doesn’t have a ton of use right now, but it can be helpful for location and tracking.

Bottom line

Samsung got a lot right this year. With the S21 Ultra, the company righted the ship. We’re still declaring that the 1,199 Ultra has a massive display, state-of-the-art processor with more RAM than most people need and six cameras in total, among other features. It’s really an ultra-premium smartphone that can best the Note 20 Ultra and compete with the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

If you don’t want a massive display or want to spend less, the Galaxy S21 is a terrific option. For 799, it delivers a versatile set of cameras, all-day battery life, the same zippy processor and a great display. It’s currently our favorite Android phone on the market. And if you want a slightly bigger experience, look at the 999 Galaxy S21.

The bars have been set — now let’s see how other brands compete and what Samsung will deliver later in 2021. The Galaxy S21, S21 and S21 Ultra are all up for preorder and will launch on January 29.

Note: The above reflect the retailers’ listed price at the time of publication.