Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: Refined Experience for Less Money

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DROID LIFE Editor's ChoiceLast year, Samsung released the Galaxy S20 Ultra for $1,400. At the time, I said it was nearly the perfect phone even at that high price, but the phone did have a few shortcomings. In 2021, we have the new Galaxy S21 Ultra, and spoiler alert, Samsung is offering one mighty fine package here. We have the year-over-year improved specs, the addition of S Pen support, a guarantee that you’ll receive 3 major Android updates, plus an improved camera system. I mention all of this because Samsung has made the S21 Ultra cheaper than last year’s S20 Ultra. $200 cheaper, mind you.

But still, $1199 is a large sum of money during times such as these, so in order to help you decide whether you should make such a purchase, we’ve run the phone through the paces. Allow us to share our thoughts.

This is our Galaxy S21 Ultra review!

What’s good about the Galaxy S21 Ultra?

All the specs. As one might expect, the S21 Ultra is packed with all of the top specs you could need and want in 2021. There’s a high resolution display with high refresh rate, the latest Qualcomm silicon, plenty of RAM, a massive battery, and they even integrated the Galaxy Note series’ S Pen. Oh, and they did all of this while lowering the price. Not bad, Samsung!

To paint the full picture for you, the Galaxy S21 Ultra features a 6.8″ QHD+ Infinity-O display (3200 x 1440) with refresh rate of up to 120Hz (QHD at 120Hz is supported), Snapdragon 888 processor, 12GB+ RAM, 128GB+ storage, 5,000mAh battery (fast wired and wireless charging support), stereo speakers, IP68 rating, upgraded ultrasonic fingerprint reader, a quad rear camera system (108MP wide angle + 12MP ultra-wide + 10MP telephoto + 10MP telephoto), 40MP front camera, and Android 11 running One UI 3.1.

For a complete Galaxy S21 lineup spec rundown, look here.

Besides a desire for Samsung to include either expandable storage or more base storage, as 128GB isn’t very generous, the S21 Ultra isn’t missing much. Some may point out that the phone doesn’t include MST for Samsung Pay, but with NFC adoption at an all-time high, it doesn’t seem like that should be a dealbreaker for most buyers. This phone has most of what anyone may need.

This Display. It’s bright, it’s crisp, and it flies at 120Hz. I’m not sure if DisplayMate has given it their A+++ rating yet, but I assume they will, as Samsung has provided what my eyes believe to be the best display in a smartphone yet. Colors pop, blacks are black, it gets exceptionally dark when you need low light to help not strain your eyes, it gets crazy bright in sunlight, and it just plain looks damn good. At 6.8″, it’s much larger than I’m used to coming from the Pixel 5, but when you’re consuming videos and playing games, it really is nice to have plenty of screen real estate. The display supports Always-on Display, Adaptive Brightness, and also allows the user to choose between screen modes like Vivid and Natural. The screen modes function isn’t new, but if you’re unfamiliar, the user can manually customize RGB values as well as white balance for the display itself. Pretty nice.

I’d love to also discuss the higher refresh rate, but that’s also not new. I can safely assume that everyone here understands the benefits of a higher refresh rate when it comes to smoother animations and performance appearance, but what is cool is Samsung’s Adaptive setting that allows for auto toggling between 10Hz and 120Hz. This ability should help the device conserve power when it needs to, but simultaneously, I do wish there was a way to lock in that 120Hz behavior. Battery life be damned.

Software. Loaded onto the Galaxy S21 Ultra is Google’s Android 11, with Samsung’s own One UI 3.1 custom skin on top. While I know there are plenty who aren’t down with Samsung’s skin, I’ll be blunt and let you know that One UI 3.1 is awesome. A major change is Samsung’s acceptance that it’s possible no one wanted to use Bixby, so now they are allowing for users to integrate Google Discover into the launcher application. That change automatically makes the software experience 100x better in my book. On top of the fine things that come inside of One UI, Android 11 itself is good.

We’ve discussed Android 11 and its changelog tirelessly, so I see no need to repeat myself, but Android 11 does include some great changes. For example, Bubbles for your messaging apps, a notification pulldown broken into useful sections, one-time permissions for apps, and built-in smart home controls.

  • 3 Major Android Updates:  I’d be crazy not to mention that Samsung is providing 3 years of major Android OS updates for its latest devices. That’s right, this phone will eventually receive Android 14. When you think about buying a very expensive smartphone, it’s an investment, and Samsung is providing another reason why it’s a good decision to buy your next Android phone from them.

A few of the Galaxy S21 Ultra software things I’d like to highlight include most of what’s inside of the Advanced Features menu. Inside this menu is where you’ll find things like Samsung’s DeX (a full desktop interface for a computer monitor), Link to Windows (there’s actually a ton of Windows integration built into the device), plenty of motion gestures to learn, a sweet one-handed mode which is useful for such a large device, Bixby Routines (eye roll), as well as a built-in screenshot and screen recorder software. There’s an absolute ton of things built into the software of the Galaxy S21 lineup, and if you’d like a complete breakdown in the form of a Tips & Tricks video, look a bit lower in the Videos section of this review.

She’s fast. Thanks to what could be labeled as an abundance of RAM and the new Snapdragon 888 processor, performance on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is top notch. I will note, I have used only the 12GB + 128GB model, so I imagine the 16GB model could be even better, but for the most part, 12GB should be more than fine for buyers. I mean, what the heck do you need all that RAM for anyway? I’ve played games, I’ve multitasked and this 12GB amount seems fine. Now, that 128GB of storage is unfortunate, as it might be easy to fill up that much space and there’s no expandable storage, so I’m not saying this is the perfect setup. However, from what I experience the past week and a half, it’s a very well performing device.

Now, these new Android phones that appear to be fast to the human eye do have the upped refresh rate on the display partly to thank. On this Galaxy S21 Ultra, you can get up to 120Hz, which for your gaming is mighty fine. Heck, even scrolling through menus and playing with settings is nice to look at with these new devices. I see some folk say they can’t see any difference, but for me, even coming up from the 90Hz rate on the Pixel 5 is quite telling. And lord help you if you’ve been on a 60Hz device and then buy into 120Hz. It’s completely night and day.

She’s pretty. I’m a big fan of the new aesthetic for Samsung’s Galaxy S21 lineup. The way the cameras are integrated into the body just looks clean and quite unlike everything we’re seeing on the market right now. Not sure why it took so long for a company to come along and realize it’s not attractive to throw a square or rectangle on the backside of a phone, but here we are and many devices are looking the same these days. This Galaxy S21 Ultra looks unlike everything on the market, and frankly, I like it. I have the Mystic Black color option, which is a true matte black color, another first for Samsung. In past years, we have seen plenty of glossy options from Samsung, but to my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve had a true matte option. It handles fingerprints and grease so well, it’s amazing.

Cameras. There are a total of five cameras on the S21 Ultra, four on the back and one on the front. On the backside, there’s the 108MP ultra wide angle lens, 12MP wide angle, plus a pair of 10MP telephoto lenses. All of these lenses combine to make a very versatile camera system, capable of going super wide and super close with 100x Space Zoom, with both tight and wide functionality retaining a good amount of visual detail. I’m still not completely sold on Space Zoom, as many shots continue to look like oil paintings when not using a tripod, but the private eyes among us may get a kick out of it. For me personally, I still to shooting in 4:3 at 12-megapixels. You can enable the 108MP option in 4:3, but photos come in at over 15MB a pop and with there being a limited amount of storage on this phone available, it’s not really smart to use all of the phone’s capacity on high resolution photos. Same can be said for 8K video recording. While that’s awesome, you’d be surprised at how much storage a minute-long 8K video can take up (my testing is over 0.5GB every time), so a lot of those high-end features are going to cost you in the end in terms of raw storage.

When out and about with the regular 12MP shooter, there’s a lot to love here. The camera is insanely fast to focus on subjects, with its auto exposure capabilities quite good. I can simply point, shoot, and get many shots off in just a few seconds and the results are great. Even with the lower resolution, shots are plenty detailed and have lots of color pop. I also played around with Samsung’s stabilization for videos, and yes, it’s really, really good.

Software wise, there’s everything you might need. There’s Portrait mode, Pro Video Mode, Night mode, Super Slow-Mo, Hyperlapse, the new Director’s View, as well as Samsung’s beloved Single Take. It’s all in there and a lot of fun to play with.

Check out some photo samples below. Besides being resized, no edits have been made.

Space Zoom Examples (No Tripod)

Low Lighting Texture Fun

Macro Example

Night Mode Examples (No Tripod)

10x Magnification (No Tripod)

Battery life. With its 5,000mAh capacity and after a few days to learn my usage, this phone has fantastic battery life. Charging speeds are maxed at 25W, though, you do get fast wired and wireless charging. The phone also supports Wireless Powershare, which allows you to charge other devices via the phone’s backside. Nice.

For me, my day is usually around 7AM to 11PM, and I’m always getting at least 5 hours of screen on time. Most days I had enough juice to leave my phone unplugged overnight and still have about 30-40% of battery in the morning, so I’ve been nothing but content with my battery experience so far.

What could use some help?

S Pen feels like afterthought. While the Galaxy S21 Ultra does support Samsung’s S Pen stylus, the implementation feels a bit like an afterthought. On a Galaxy Note device, the S Pen has been outfitted with Bluetooth for remote functionalities, but the standalone $40 S Pen Samsung is selling on its store doesn’t feature Bluetooth. Plus, the cases they are selling that house your phone and S Pen appear to be garbage.

While the S Pen on the Note lineup has impressed me as of late, this does not. In terms of S Pen functionality, it’s like taking a big step backwards. However, this could change when Samsung decides to release the S Pen Pro, what we assume will be a larger $99 Bluetooth-powered stylus for supported Galaxy devices. Why they couldn’t push up the launch to coincide with the release of this phone, I have no idea, but I feel like people are getting ripped off if they’re purchasing a $40 S Pen and not really getting all of the features we know this system is capable of. Pretty lame.



First 10 Things to Do

Tips & Tricks


Should you buy a Galaxy S21 Ultra?

Straight up, if you’ve purchased Samsung devices in the past and want another one, you should buy the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s a fantastic device that I have zero complaints about. Now, does that means I will personally keep using it? Heck no, it’s way too big for me, but I can admit that it’s 1000x the phone my Pixel 5 is and it’s not even close. Yes, it’s quite a bit more expensive than the Pixel 5, but that price is getting you a phone that does everything well. It has the excellent battery life, great cameras, amazing performance, plus major Android software support for the next three years.

I hate to say it, but I don’t see any other OEM making a case for your money right now. If you’re in the market for a phone, you’re only doing yourself a disservice to consider something other than a Samsung phone. Pixel fanboys will hate me (don’t hate me, I’m one of you), but there’s no denying that Samsung is currently the unchallenged Android king and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.



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