(Pocket-lint) - Samsung moved fast to launch its new flagship phone range in January 2021, with the Galaxy S21 Ultra sitting at the top of the pile - above the S21 and S21+ models.

Having created the Ultra tier in 2020, the S21 Ultra feels like an opportunity to address what didn't work with the previous phone and try to create the super phone that Samsung - and we all - want.

The Ultra is designed to be the best of everything phone: the best camera, the best display, the most powerful. But has Samsung managed to deliver a top tier experience with the second-generation Ultra?

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Design

  • Dimensions: 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm / Weight: 228g
  • Build: Metal and glass construction
  • IP68 waterproofing

At the launch of the S21 devices, Samsung spent a lot of time talking about the finish of its Phantom Black design. Saying that less is more will raise an eyebrow among those looking at new S21 Ultra, into which Samsung clearly has put everything.

But there's no questioning that the Phantom Black S21 Ultra is something to behold. Once you get past the magnitude of the camera housing, with those large lenses looking at you, you'll appreciate what Samsung was talking about.

Black phones have often been glossy. Often highlighting the use of glass, big phones have suffered from that problem of always being covered in smeary fingerprints - with black looking particularly bad. The matte finish of the S21 Ultra is therefore welcome, the Gorilla Glass Victus rear looking more like black metal. There's a silky texture to it, mercifully keeping clean when handled, so it looks much better than the older S20 Ultra.

That the finish also flows across the camera housing helps to camouflage it to a degree - more so than some of the contrasting finishes that Samsung has used on the smaller S20 and S21+ models.

The frame of the Phantom Black phone remains glossy and extends up around the edges of the camera housing so it looks more integrated. It's a unique design, something we've not seen before - which is very welcomed on a smartphone.

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However, there's no escaping that this is a large phone -  it's a little thick and a little heavy too - but at least the display fills the front, so it doesn't feel like space is wasted.

Flip to the front and the curves to the edge of the display continue Samsung's trick of hiding the edge bezels for a more seamless look - and that's something that the regular S21 and S21+ no longer offer. There's a touch of bezel to the top and bottom of the Ultra's screen, while the front punch hole camera is kept small - but it's all very similar to other recent Samsung phones.

Samsung has stuck to offering stereo speakers, and while the Dolby Atmos effect adds a boost and there's appreciable volume without losing the bass and becoming tinny, we don't think this is the best arrangement of speakers in a phone. The ear speaker serves as one speaker, the second being on the base of the phone, so it's really easy to cover with a hand when holding the phone in landscape, which is downside for gamers. For those watching video, the experience is rather better, as with a looser grip and that virtualised Dolby Atmos effect really adds some punch to audio. 

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There's another minor design annoyance and that's the location of the mic. Samsung has moved the SIM tray to the bottom of the phone and this has resulted in the mic hole being moved closer to the centre of the phone, next to the USB-C port. The problem is that it's really easy to cover when supporting the phone. Why? Because with a phone this size, it's common to support it with a finger under the phone. Invariably, especially if holding the phone in your right hand, you'll cover the mic and that will hamper voice detection, so you might have to adjust your grip.

Display

  • 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X
  • Quad HD+, HDR10+ support
  • Adaptive 10-120Hz refresh
  • 1500 nits brightness
  • S Pen support

Samsung phones are all about the display. Packed with a 6.8-inch AMOLED panel, this is a typical Samsung experience with a bright and vibrant delivery of the visuals. Samsung says that this is its brightest yet - at 1500 nits maximum - but there are some additional important changes that have taken place under the surface.

The S21 Ultra adopts the Note 20 Ultra's adaptive motion smoothness to solve one of the big criticisms of the previous S20 Ultra. That old device only offered 120Hz at 1080p resolution, which hardly seemed premium. Now the phone can select refresh rates from 10-120Hz to suit the content. It will also offer these refresh rates at all resolutions, so it's a win-win situation.

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That will save battery, because it means you're not pushing 120 refreshes every second when you're reading a static page, yet you'll get the fluidity when you're scrolling or gaming where faster refresh rates are supported. Some will notice the refresh rate more than others, so it's not the be-all and end-all, but it's good that Samsung has addressed this sticking point from the previous iteration of this phone.

Samsung sticks to offering a top resolution - it's QHD+, which is 3200 by 1440 pixels - but that's not turned on by default (which is 2400 by 1080 pixels). One thing worth noting is that this is the only S21 model that offers a Quad HD resolution, with Samsung making a slight departure from its previous position where higher resolutions were offered on the regular Galaxy S models too. 

Samsung's default display setting is vivid and we can't help feeling that most will stick with that setting to get the pop that this display offers - the best part being that you can tune it, shifting the white balance to suit your preference. Samsung has a more advanced "eye comfort shield" now too, which can adapt the tones of the display throughout the day, rather like Apple's True Tone display. We found the Ultra's display to be a little dim by default, but after you nudge it up a little it seems to learn your preference.

For those who wear polarising sunglasses you'll find the display dims fairly radically in landscape orientation - i.e., when taking photos - but you can still make out most of what's on the screen, so it's not a disaster.

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On top of this screen goodness is the support for the S Pen stylus, which is a big addition to this series. This had previously been the preserve of the Note - making us wonder what will happen to that series in 2021 - and while the S21 Ultra doesn't come with a stylus in the box, you can either buy one or use one from an older device.

You don't get all the S Pen Air Commands that you do on the Note, but you can interact with the phone without putting your fingers all over it, you can scribble in the Notes app or use it for precise things like video editing, without having to look past your fat fingertip when scrubbing along a timeline. 

Camera

  • Quad rear camera:
    • Main: 108-megapixels, 0.8µm pixel size, f/1.8 aperture, optical stabilisation (OIS), laser autofocus
    • Ultra-wide (120° angle of view): 12MP, 1.4µm, f/2.2
    • Telephoto (10x): 10MP, 1.22µm, f/4.9, OIS
    • Telephoto (3x): 10MP, 1.22µm, f/2.4, OIS
  • Selfie camera: 40MP, 0.7µm, f/2.2

In the Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung follows the path it set out with the S20 Ultra: it goes for high resolutions, looking to beat other devices on the spec sheet. It's still a slightly puzzling position, considering that both the Galaxy S21 and S21+ don't follow this line, opting for a 12-megapixel main camera instead of the 108-megapixel sensor found here. Samsung appears to be taking entirely different approaches - one based around pixel binning, the other based around larger sensors and no binning.

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But there have been other changes since the last generation: there's a new 108-megapixel main sensor supported by a new laser autofocus system, designed to ensure that things stay in focus. The S21 Ultra takes 12-megapixel photos as standard with 108-megapixel remaining as an option. It's not a hugely useful option - but you can, in good light, capture detail that you won't get in 12-megapixel mode.

That potentially means you can crop into an image to get to that detail, but with a wealth of telephoto options too, it might not be worth the effort. Samsung's Gallery app is really useful here, as you can easily zoom in on a photo you've taken and crop a new image from it, using that full resolution detail.

We've often been skeptical of high resolution sensors before, but side-by-side with the base Galaxy S21 with its 12-megapixel camera, the Ultra is easily the better performer, producing sharper images both in night and day. While both offer the same general set of features, it feels like Samsung has really looked to ramp up the results of the S21 Ultra.

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One area that seems to have got a bigger boost is night shooting. If you're using Samsung's scene optimiser, it will give you those longer night exposures, but flipping to the dedicated night mode is always worthwhile in low-light conditions. The results are very usable mobile shots, able to deal with some tricky situations, and even in very dark conditions we've got some decent results.

Night mode works on the front and the back cameras, but cleverly the front camera will use a little display illumination to give your face some light to make sure you get something usable. Shots are usually a couple of seconds long - averaging about 5-seconds - with the ability to turn a dark scene into something much lighter. Yes, you lose the darkness, but you get a usable photo, which is the point.

There are now two 10-megapixel cameras on the back of the S21 Ultra making up the new telephoto system: one offering 3x optical zoom; the other a periscope lens offering 10x optical zoom. They work in combination, so from the camera app it's a seamless transition from one to the other so you're getting the best lens for the job.

There's some intervention from the camera app here, as you'll sometimes find the 3x zoom is still coming from the main lens, likely to give the illusion of a seamless transfer as you pinch from one to the other. The thing to watch here is the aperture, as the 10x optical is f/4.9, meaning you need good light to get good results from it. We noticed that far zoom shots are noticeably different in colour to the other lenses too.

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You can get good results from the zoom lenses, with the whole system feeling more usable than it did before. The 100x 'Space Zoom' is still pretty much nonsense - with results looking more like abstract art - but there's a new stabilisation system that aims to keep your handshake at bay and keep the subject steady.

You're supposed to tap in the preview box to lock on, which is more useful at 30x zoom than at the 100x far-end, but keeping the phone steady and tapping the screen takes some doing. Still, you get better zoom images than you do from cameras without such optical wizardry going on. The 10x images that are pretty good, while at 30x you can still achieve useful results. 

But it can also be a little confusing. While there are lens icons in the viewfinder, when you tap them a selection of numerical zoom buttons appears when you start using zoom, ranging from 0.6x up to 100x, so you then have 11 different buttons relating to zoom options on the display. The puzzling thing is that one of these is 2x and one 4x - while tapping the lens button gives you optical 3x - so there's a strange crossover.

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We've also found that - despite being 10-megapixel sensors on the spec sheet - the output from the telephoto lenses is 12-megapixels. We've asked Samsung why this is the case. The answer? Consistency. Whichever of the lenses you're using to shoot you'll get a 12MP result.

There are other options that might add to the confusion too. You can pinch zoom when you're using the 108MP mode. This is a slight oddity, because the whole setup of the Ultra is about using those dedicated lenses to give you better quality results. So to provide the means to digitally zoom based on the full resolution main sensor seems rather random - not to mention that the results aren't good (as shown in the samples below). We get the feeling that Samsung just wanted to put everything into this camera without thinking about how it might get used.

There's certainly no shortage of options, with the fun Single Take being a great way to capture moving images, and the new Director's View offering thumbnails live from the other cameras while you are filming. It means you can see what that view looks like on the ultra-wide angle, for example, then switch to that lens. Clever, although we do wonder how many people will bother to do that. The Director's View will also let you do picture-in-picture, including the front camera in the recording, so you can include your own reaction - a 'Vlogger's View', if you will. 

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That obviously highlights one of the new skills: the power to handle all these simultaneous feeds and give you access to all the cameras at higher capture rates than before. You can capture 4K 60fps from all the lenses, whereas previously you could only have 4K 30fps from some lenses. That means you can keep the quality and switch between lenses for more creative effects, or not have to sacrifice quality because you want to use the ultra-wide angle, for example.

There's still the option for 8K video capture, limited to 24fps, which sort of undermines the message from Samsung about capturing stills from 8K video - the so-called 8K Photo. As the frame rate is lower, these images are more likely to be blurry than an image taken from 4K 60fps - or just from the camera.

The high-resolution front camera remains, giving you the option of 40-megapixel selfies. Why you'd want those, we can't imagine, but the regular selfie mode's results are 6.5-megapixels. There's a slightly wider angle image available too, which gives you a 10-megapixel photo, and there's very little difference in performance between all those options. Samsung has dropped the "live focus" naming and plumped for "portrait" instead, which makes things easier to understand now, and increased the number of background options available, including some iPhone-like studio-style shots. Edge detection is reasonable and the results in both night and day are good, but it will still get confused when dealing with tricky edges and backgrounds.

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Overall, there's masses in the S21 Ultra's camera offering. Much of it is more convincing than the previous S20 Ultra - and better than the likes of the S20 FE and S21 that we tested it alongside - so it's a step in the right direction, although it still feels so busy that we suspect people will ignore most of it and just point and shoot. Thankfully, with the scene optimiser turned on, it's generally very capable when used like that.

Hardware performance and software

  • Exynos 2100/Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
  • 12/16GB RAM, 128/256/512GB storage
  • 5000mAh, 45W fast-charging
  • 5G connectivity
  • UWB

With a new device comes new hardware, pushing along Samsung's One UI 3.1, based on Google's Android 11 operating system. That brings the software fully up to date (other Samsung devices are currently on One UI 3.0 at the time of writing), with a wealth of features on offer. The phone is now powered by Samsung's own Exynos 2100 or the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, depending on the region in which you buy the phone. Unlike previous years, the design of these two platforms is pretty similar and we're not expecting a huge gulf in experience.

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We've been using the Exynos 2100 - which is the version you'll get in Europe - and we've found it to be a slick experience. It's better than the Galaxy S20 FE we've had alongside it - that device running on Snapdragon 865 (but admittedly with less RAM) - and that's particularly noticeable when gaming with a more responsive experience in games like Call of Duty Mobile and PUBG Mobile. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra delivers a great experience on these powerful games - accepting the speaker issue we talked about above - with the Game Booster offering some options to enhance. It doesn't go quite as far as you'll get from dedicated gaming devices like the Lenovo Legion Duel, but it does so without getting hot.

It's unfortunate that the microSD card slot has been removed, as this removes one of the plus points that Samsung has offered for some time. It seems like a strange change in direction, but with the advent of 5G - meaning faster streaming for those who have access - and the growth of streaming services and online storage, it feels like the age of local storage might be coming to an end.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn't escape the battery life issues that are often associated with flagship Samsung products. There's a large 5,000mAh cell - and no charger in the box, just as an FYI - and while that's an appreciable capacity, there's plenty to drain the battery too. This is particularly noticeable when you start prolonged gaming, but the big and bright display and the demands of the camera can leave it struggling to make it to the end of a day. During testing - which involved a lot of screen time and camera use - we typically had to top up during the day.

Sure, you can improve things by turning down the brightness - or there's even an option to limit games to 48fps - but the Galaxy S21 Ultra won't win any awards for battery life. It comes with the territory.

As always, there's a complete reworking of Android 11 in Samsung's One UI software, which we've found to be slick and clean. It's a complete reworking, but we've long felt that this is the best total overhaul, a step above the likes of Xiaomi or Oppo in terms of what it offers. That will, of course, be subject to personal taste, but there's a growing "Google-iness" to this software. The biggest real change is that you can swipe to Google Discover from the home screen, with Samsung perhaps realising that Bixby Home, Upday, Flipboard or whatever else has sat in that position in the past, just isn't what people want. 

While there's still a good deal of pre-loaded content, some duplication or substitution of apps with Samsung alternatives, it's not too difficult to manage. Yes, the best experience comes when you embrace the Samsung account, but you don't have to, just as you don't have to use Bixby, ever. You'll be left with a folder of junk Samsung apps, and we'd still recommend switching to Gboard, Chrome and Google's own Messages and Phone apps - all of which are available in the Play Store - for the best experience. 

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra feels like a different phone to the S20 Ultra. It now feels like a flagship with more purpose and intent.

With the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ moving slightly down the spec ladder, the Ultra clearly sits pride of place as the premium flagship offering in this new 2021 family.

But there's no avoiding that it is an expensive phone - and with expected launches on flagship hardware from rivals, we're sure there will be plenty of choices for those wanting something more wallet friendly.

Performance is at the heart of what the Galaxy S21 Ultra offers and it's hard to be disappointed with the experience. It might take a little tinkering to get One UI software running at its best, but with a magnificent display, comprehensive cameras, and loads of power, there's very little that the S21 Ultra doesn't deliver.

Importantly, in a change from 2020, we get the feeling that the S21 Ultra will now attract those who want the best from Samsung, leaving the other models in the S21 family slightly more adrift.

Also consider

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

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Apple's top phone comes the closest in terms of size, ambition and price. Although, surprisingly, it's a little more affordable that Samsung's device.

Writing by Chris Hall.