Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G… the name itself is long enough to check all the right boxes.
Is it the best Galaxy phone? Ya sure, it’s an S series.
Is it the biggest and baddest of the lot? ‘Ultra’ is in the name and from the size of it, I am sure it is!
What about 2021 features, what am I missing? Nothing really but if you’re squeezing a lakh on this, there’s 5G and an array of cameras enough to make Nolan jealous.
I heard the box is small and there’s no power brick?You’re rich, time to start thinking about the environment.
That’s pretty much the gist of what the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G has in store for you. It’s Samsung’s premium flagship with the best of the best Samsung tech crammed into it and placed on your palm. It’s so high up the food chain that barely few Indians will bother getting their hands on it and the one’s that do, will only want to know one thing, is it good enough or Apple’s Pro Max contraption is more lust-worthy?
Smartphone manufacturers, even with all their fancy gradients and shiny colours, will always have a black variant to play it safe. After all, black goes with anything and is accepted by the masses. The S21 Ultra black is a different kind of black. In essence, it’s a matte black finish but I wouldn’t be so dismissive about it. It’s the kind of black that Batman would want to wear and, if I am being honest, this Phantom Black is genuinely a beautiful shade. Even the haze finish on the glass back is soft and smooth on the skin. It’s protected by Gorilla Glass Victus on both sides so it's elegant and strong. The camera bump has a soft matte finish that blends in with the rear glass’ look and feel, and literally blends with its metal frame too.
Yes, the camera bump looks different this time. How else will smartphones look apart, right? It’s quite similar to the Note20 Ultra 5G which we reviewed back in August last year. The only difference is that Samsung has now melded the module into the frame and frankly, I like it more this way.
Although the camera bump still sticks out like a sore thumb, Samsung assumes you’ll flaunt it rather than complain. The massive camera bump is also not for aesthetic purposes. It’s packing the best smartphone camera tech money can buy. We pit it against the iPhone 12 Pro and the myriad of lenses on the S21 Ultra 5G have their advantages over Apple’s premium banger.
In terms of camera quality, everything boils down to personal preference. I quite like how Samsung played with reds and greens this time. It’s not your typical oversaturated Samsung shot this time, and it sometimes made the iPhone’s shots feel a bit unnatural. That’s a big deal! The Samsung S21 Ultra 5G has traded the aggressive saturation of its predecessors for deeper colours and natural-looking tone. Apple’s dynamic range is still the best but Samsung has charted its own processing style which I frankly love too.
In no way you can choose one smartphone over the other for just its image processing. There’s also variety on Samsung’s camera module that you won’t find on Apple’s. The 10x optical zoom is leagues ahead of iPhone’s 10x digital zoom. There’s also this telescope contraption that can take shots of the moon! We tried it and it reminded us of the Huawei flagships of yesteryear. It’s no different than the Note20 Ultra we reviewed but it’s not just a rebranded Galaxy phone. There’s a wee-bit polish here. Although I personally prefer the iPhone and Pixel’s viewfinder for its simplicity, Samsung’s viewfinder is a bit busier than usual. That’s no thanks to a catalogue of modes and features crammed into the camera app. Then again that’s how Samsung smartphones have always been and this is no different. It does try to not appear daunting at first and there are new features like the Director’s View and Single Take to keep you busy with its camera.
For the pro users, Director’s View fires up every single camera lens on the phone. Yes, that means the front and the back three are shooting at the same time and you’ll be able to see every frame from every lens on the viewfinder and switch easily between the three without compromising the angle on the subject. Cinema nerds might appreciate this but for regular users, the Single Take is more useful. It basically keeps the camera running for about 5 to 15-seconds and captures a video, some portrait shots, even a few wide-angles and also creates a random compilation of them all with music and even adds filters to some shots it thinks are the best. For a tech nerd like me, I prefer to use the camera myself but I can totally see my old folks getting behind this. Being able to capture moments and having them edited and given to you with options is a good way to indulge the non-nerdy crowd with its camera.
Androids have had RAW capture and manual mode for the camera for a good time now. Meanwhile, Apple just entered the space with its ProRAW feature that keeps all the computational smarts from Apple’s camera in a RAW file. This is somewhat possible on Samsung as well. You can keep the Pro mode settings to automatic and the smartphone will shoot in JPG and RAW. Although, it’s not as simple as Apple’s ProRAW which is only exclusive to iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max devices.
However, aside from taking the shots of the moon, everything else on the 100x zoom is less than desirable. Subjects that are lathered in sunlight and have simple patterns are decent but something complex like human subjects is not what you’d want to point the telephoto/telescopic lens at.
iPhones, in general, have really amazing human tone detection and portrait cut-outs. Samsung is not far behind here but I feel for human shots, especially for the up close and personal portraits, the iPhone 12 Pro produces likeable shots. For portrait shots, Samsung is probably third on the list after Google’s banger but alas, the latest Pixel smartphone never landed on our shores.
This is also the largest in the S21 series. Spanning 6.8in diagonally, the display is anything but small. It’s huge and heavy enough to be used as a bludgeoning device. Samsung’s idea of the best smartphone means your arms need to rival WWE wrestlers. It’s a sharp contrast to the Apple iPhone 12 Mini we reviewed recently but if you think that a Mini version of the Ultra is a must, without the compromises, of course, the S21 ticks all the right boxes too. It’s not the smallest but at least it won’t require prosthetic fingers and a gym membership.
But leave it to Samsung to use that space to its advantage. The 6.8in display is downright fantastic. I’ve yet to see a better display on a smartphone. The iPhone 12 Pro doesn’t come close! Just look at the display spec sheet yourself. It’s a 6.8-inch Edge QHD+, Dynamic AMOLED 2X, Infinity-O Display (3200x1440), 515ppi, HDR10+ certified and Adaptive 120Hz refresh rate (10~120Hz). What do these numbers mean? Well, a lot but all you need to know is that it’s frankly the best display on a smartphone.
Watching Netflix or sports matches on Hotstar is a treat with inky blacks and punchy contrast with audio to match. Very few smartphones have such a good display and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is on top of that list. The sound quality is fantastic as well. Not that we hopped onto a flight in this pandemic but if we did, the S21 Ultra is enough to keep you entertained throughout.
The battery life is here to last and with 5000mAh, you’ll be finding more reasons to drain it quickly but that’s not to say it's everlasting. Throw in a small gaming session, some YouTube along with WhatsApp conversations in a multi-window setup and you’ll find yourself looking for the charger by the end of the day. Sadly, you won’t find the said charger in the box. Samsung has booted the charging brick. Where once Samsung included a silicone case, charging brick and audio jack adapter, now it has none of it. Following the money-hungry footsteps of Apple, you’ll only get the smartphone and a Type-C cable.
The display is power-hungry, especially if you’re rocking the highest resolution at 120Hz refresh rate. For our review purposes, we used the phone at max resolution and max refresh rate because why not? If you’ve paid a lakh and six thousand for a smartphone, it better do all that without any compromises, right? It uses smart-AI-voodoo to determine which apps, content and UI elements need 120Hz or lower. Even capable of dipping down to a ridiculous 10Hz to match the content frame rate. And according to Samsung, this helps preserve battery life at some level too. We got about three to four hours of screen-on-time with the S21 Ultra and that’s not a good sign for such a massive phone. Once you bring down the resolution and framerate, the battery life and heating issues disappear.
One UI takes full advantage of that 120Hz, or at least it feels like it does because navigating through S21 Ultra is fast. It’s so fast that I had to get accustomed to its smooth refresh rate after coming from Apple’s tortoise-like 60Hz. Although I don’t think anyone other than The Great Khali will be able to navigate its UI with one hand. It’s heavy and often loves to leave my palm and kiss the pavement. It’s not all bad though. You can watch Premier League matches and message your buds on WhatsApp at the same time. That the massive display is quite sufficient for multi-tasking and quite smooth.
But push it too hard and it might heat up the phone really quick. Yes, just like the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra suffers from heating issues. Forget intensive gaming, that’s bound to heat up any smartphone, right? But general stuff like video call with friends on WhatsApp or even watching a video on Google Chrome can heat up the smartphone faster than you’d expect. It’s this randomness with heating that’s been confusing me as to what is happening under the hood. When the opposite side of the camera module starts to heat up, the metal band around the phone can really sting your skin with the heat. We had a difficult time recommending the S20 FE because of its heating issues and I think the S21 Ultra will suffer the same fate.
It could just be the Exynos 2100 processor variant that we get in India. I am not sure about the Snapdragon variant which is only available in the US market but so far it’s not looking nice for the S21 Ultra. Its performance is top-notch. Smooth as a lakh rupee phone should be, but it also heats up, unlike any other lakh rupee phone. In our testing, watching a sports match on Hotstar didn’t produce as much heat as getting on a video call with friends on WhatsApp. Which is strange. After leaving the 120Hz goodness for a mere 60Hz and dropping the resolution to FullHD, the phone stops heating up. Which is to say you have some compromises to make if you really want to enjoy this flagship as an everyday smartphone.
The most premium Samsung flagship has a lot to uphold, especially because of the fact that it's the only Android phone that matches the Apple iPhones in terms of price and build. Other Android competitions at this level have either been booted out of the market or have not launched in India and for good reason.
It also has all the making of a premium flagship. Water resistance, durable glass in front and back with fast charging (wired and wireless), Ultra-wideband capabilities (UWB) to open car doors and find lost items, support for Wi-Fi 6E and also has one of the fastest ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensors I’ve ever used. Yup, this is packed to the brim with the latest and greatest. Oh, and you can use the Galaxy Note S Pen with the S21 Ultra but that’s a separate purchase and you’ll have to buy a case for the S Pen housing.
The gorgeous display and the buttery smooth performance is here to rival the best and the camera is frankly bonkers. The battery life is not what we expected though. If you want to use it to its full potential, then you’ll have to deal with heating issues and measly battery life.
It’s a thoroughbred Samsung Galaxy device and locks down every feature you’d want under the sun. But that comes at a steep cost, steeper than the six-digit figures you’d put down for it, and that is heating issues. Much like the S20 FE, the S21 Ultra is a fantastic phone but only if used in moderation.