Last year, Samsung released its most ambitious (non-folding) phone to date: the Galaxy S20 Ultra. It didn’t go over especially well. A sky-high $1400 price tag and unremarkable camera performance torpedoed the phone outright in our final assessment, a rare miss for Samsung in the premium smartphone segment.
In 2021, Samsung is trying to reboot the Galaxy S20 Ultra formula with the S21 Ultra. And while the differences on paper (and often in practice) aren’t what you’d call huge, the end result is a more palatably priced phone with a much-improved camera system — notably addressing our two biggest gripes.
I’ve been using the S21 Ultra for nearly two weeks now, and this feels very much like the phone the Galaxy S20 Ultra should have been. And while I think the price is still eye-popping in its own right, it’s also no longer bizarrely out of step with the iPhone, lending Samsung more credibility with customers leery of the Ultra’s value proposition. For the Samsung fan who wants a massive, uncompromising phone, this is as good as it gets. It also happens to be the best camera phone I’ve ever used.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
The Galaxy S21 series doesn’t mark a radical design departure for Samsung’s flagship smartphone brand, but does substantially improve on the look of the previous generation. The S21 Ultra looks much better, in particular, with a frame that wraps around the edges of the large camera array, giving the phone a more seamless and integrated appearance. The camera “hump” is still quite large, though, and all but necessitates a case if only to stop the phone from wobbling incessantly when used on a flat surface. And, given it’s $1200 and made of glass on the front and back, a case is probably a very good idea on this phone regardless.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra in no way feels like a compromise on hardware compared to last year’s phone, despite being $200 cheaper.
Samsung fans will lament the passing of two long-standing hardware features on the S21 series — Galaxy Pay MST support and a microSD slot — but I think their removal will be inconsequential for most. Like the headphone jack, both served user bases that are still out there but are also inevitably shrinking with each passing year. That all but ends the days of the microSD card in the premium smartphone segment, and would seem to seal the fate of MST permanently, as Samsung owns the intellectual property which powers it. Those legacy omissions aside, though, the Galaxy S21 Ultra in no way feels like a compromise on hardware compared to last year’s phone, despite being $200 cheaper (though I contend that’s because the S20 Ultra was terribly overpriced).
As always, Samsung puts its best foot forward on the display, and the S21 Ultra’s screen is just about the best I’ve ever seen. It achieves admirable daylight legibility, and the 120Hz adaptive refresh rate makes for buttery scrolling and smooth transitions. There’s also the assorted Samsung bag o’ tricks: IP68…