As a daily driver, this smartphone is almost perfect.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review One of the best Android phones you can buy
Atom Review Thursday, February 11, 2021 - 21:24

Every year, there is innovation and every other year there is refinement. The year 2021 is the latter for Samsung’s flagship S-series smartphone. While the pandemic year of 2020 saw Samsung unveil a mighty ‘100x zoom’ camera, 2021 has seen it tweak it for better success. In 2020, the company has decided to up its game with the new ‘Ultra’ models.

To that extent, while Samsung may have garnered many eyeballs in 2020 with its topped out specs and flashy design, it didn’t really help the company’s bottom line. Overall, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and its siblings didn’t sell nearly as much as the company anticipated.

In 2021, Samsung will more likely than not top its sales estimate because it has accomplished its goal and built one of the best Android phones you can buy, with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. They’ve done this by reducing the launch price vis-a-vis last year.

I’ve been using the S21 Ultra for over two weeks and I can fairly say that this is the best Android flagship I’ve ever used. As a daily driver, this smartphone is almost perfect. Let’s dive in.

Design

The glass camera module on the S20 Ultra has been swapped and integrated into the S21 Ultras metal frame. The camera bump isn’t as prominent as on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and one needn’t worry about accidentally scratching it when laying it down on a flat surface.

Samsung calls it a “Contour Cut” design. The company went with a matte-textured design that attracts that many fewer fingerprints than its glossy predecessor. The smartphone comes in Phantom Black and Phantom Silver.

The glass is the brand-new Gorilla Glass Victus flavour, which is on both the front and the back of the S21 Ultra. The smartphone offers a metal frame for durability and an IP68 rating. On the front, the display is ever so slightly curved. 

The right hand side houses the power button and volume rockers. At the top, there are two microphone holes. The left side has absolutely no buttons. At the bottom, there’ll be a USB-C port, a SIM card tray and a speaker. On the rear, you’ll notice the camera bump on the top left hand side and the Samsung logo near the bottom.

The S21 Ultra supports the S Pen accessory from Samsung. It may not come bundled with the device but it is a worthwhile accessory. It works beautifully well and you can do everything you could on the Note series.

Display

If you’re a fan of big displays, then you’re going to love the S21 Ultra. It’s got a 6.8-inch display and a lack of bezels. The display is vivid and bright, and one has no problems using this in the outdoors. 

It’s a WQHD+ dynamic AMOLED display (3200 x 1440 resolution). It’s one that can dynamically adjust the refresh rate from 10Hz to 120Hz depending on the content you’re viewing on the smartphone. With 120Hz refresh rate, everything is super smooth, whether it is scrolling and animations or playing games. It’s also Samsung’s brightest displays ever!

Last, but not least, there is an Infinity-O punch-hole camera at the top centre of the display. The S21 Ultra comes with a pre-installed screen protector. It's flimsy though and you'll want to change it almost immediately.

The under-display fingerprint sensor in the S20 Ultra was slow and sometimes inaccurate. The S21 Ultra has fixed that by including Qualcomm’s second-generation ultrasonic fingerprint sensor. It’s faster, more accurate and overall far superior. It can also work in the rain as it is ultrasonic in nature.

Performance

With Samsung’s latest in-house chipset, Exynos 2100, the company is bridging the gap with Qualcomm’s flagship Snapdragon 888. Unlike its predecessors, the Exynoss 2100 has barely any overheating problems, has good power efficiency and large performance gains.

The Eynos variant of the S21 Ultra is fast. Ultra fast. Nothing I threw at the phone made the chipset throttle. Whether it was playing games, clicking photos, opening 30+ Google Chrome tabs, editing photos, video calling for hours on end, and more. I only noticed minor heating issues when clicking photos for over half-an-hour at a stretch but that has mostly been fixed with the latest software update.

The base model has 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage while the higher variant has 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. There is no microSD slot, so one cannot expand the storage. With the cloud taking over, this shouldn’t be a problem going forward. The RAM and storage is more than enough for most needs. 

Audio and call quality

Like most flagships these days, the S21 Ultra omits the 3.5mm headphone jack. To Samsung’s credit, the stereo speakers on the S21 Ultra are fantastic. They’re loud and there is hardly a crackle even at the loudest of volumes. Dolby Atmos support is backed in. Call quality, on the phone and speakers is loud and clear. Absolutely no complaints.

Camera

For those who want it, here are the camera specifications:

Last year, Samsung’s 100x Space Zoom was pretty unusable. The images above 30x zoom were heavily distorted and not at all shareable. Thankfully, Samsung has fixed these problems on the S21 Ultra thanks to the brand-new ISOCELL Bright HM3 108MP sensor. This brings about improved focused and much better low-light performance. There’s also a new laser-guided focus assist that really helps while taking photos.

There is also the addition of a second telephoto camera. There's the 3x optical telephoto and a 10x optical telephoto camera alongside the main and wide cameras.

The 108MP main sensor is far better than it ever was before. Focusing issues on the S20 Ultra are a thing of the past. Daylight photos are absolutely brilliant. There is a good amount of detail in the photos and they aren’t oversharpued. It’s also not oversharpened. It reflects more of the natural tones. Wide-angle shots also came out quite well even if there was a bit of distortion.

Low-light performance has improved dramatically. Samsung has built in a shake-reduction system that kicks in when you zoom past 30x. There’s a small little square box that helps you aim, and once you’re relatively locked in to a subject, it’ll kick in. Portrait mode has gotten better but still isn’t perfect on the S21 Ultra as there were many instances where details behind the person were sometimes being considered as part of the subject.

Selfies are good, as always, and I have no complaints here.

Photo samples from the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

Battery life

The smartphone has a 5,000mAh cell which is about 7 hours of screen-on-time even with the display set to 120Hz and Full HD+ resolution. With medium-to-heavy usage, the smartphone easily lasted me into the morning of the second day. Switching to WQHD+ resolution along with 120Hz refresh rate and I needed to charge it before going to bed. Still, the battery should suffice for almost every kind of user.

Samsung, like Apple, decided to do away with a charger. There’s only a type-C cable in the box. The smartphone maxed out at 25W for wired charging, and 15W for wireless charging, coming in at slower speeds than last year’s S20 Ultra. The smartphone comes with reverse-charge (4.5W reverse wireless charging) which is good.

Software

The S21 Ultra is running One UI 3.1 (based on Android 11) out-of-the-box. It brings a number of brand-new features such as bubble notifications, quick access to widgets, Samsung Free and more. There’s also background call videos, Director’s View in video (shoot from both back and front at the same time).

Samsung also promises three years of Android version updates for its devices. 

Verdict

I’ve been testing the 12GB variant which comes in at Rs 1,05,999. The 16GB RAM variant retails for Rs 1,16,999.

Paying upward of one lakh rupees for a smartphone is mighty expensive. Saying that, if any smartphone is worth it on the Android side, it is the S21 Ultra. It’s everything one would want in a smartphone. If money isn’t a problem and you want the latest and greatest, then go out and buy the S21 Ultra today. You will not regret it.

All images by Sahil Bhalla. 

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