Samsung Galaxy S21 S21 Ultra review
What you need to know: If you’re not looking for a nearly 7 inch phone but still want top of the line 2021 features, the Galaxy S21 is really the complete package. A 6.2 inch screen is plenty for most, and it acts as a viewfinder for a wide, ultrawide and telephoto lens setup. And at $799, we’re confident the Snapdragon 888 processor inside will be zippy for many years to come. Comparatively, the S21 Ultra raises the bar with six cameras in total, including a wide 10x optical lens. It also stretches the screen to 6.8 inches while delivering a higher resolution experience. And yes, it features 100x Space Zoom versus just 30x on the S21.
How they compare: Year over year, the S21 is a small upgrade over the S20 a refreshed design, a newer processor and faster cameras. So if you own an S20, this is not an upgrade must, although Samsung’s trade in deals do their best to persuade you otherwise. The S21 Ultra delivers a terrific 10x optical lens and is no longer hampered by some camera options, as was its predecessor, making for a much more uniform experience compared to the S20 Ultra. In short: It blows past the Note 20 Ultra and other premium Android phones. Both the S21 and S21 Ultra stand as class leading smartphones that can go head to head with the iPhone 12 line, and surpass Google’s Pixel 5 with performance.
While the front of the S21 is glass and the sides are metal, the back is plastic or polycarbonate, leading to a lighter feel (the S21 weighs only 171 grams). Samsung traded glass for plastic here, as it did on the S20 FE and Note 20. It’s not a deal breaker and doesn’t make the device feel super cheap, but it’s a notable difference. The Google Pixel 5, iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 all feature higher end materials at similar price points. Ultimately, it feels like a cost saving measure from Samsung that really shouldn’t be a factor on a flagship smartphone. As a consumer spending nearly $800, we expect a device that mirrors that price point. It’s a light device, which makes sense because of the materials being used, but pairing metal with plastic feels like a mismatch here.
A 12 megapixel ultrawide lens: This is likely our favorite lens after a week of use, thanks to its 120 degree view of the world. Bigger isn’t always better, but when capturing epic shots, it’s the way to go. It’s an identical 12 megapixel lens to last year, but it’s on par with competitors and captures many details.
A 12 megapixel wide lens: When you open up the camera, it presents the primary 12 megapixel wide lens. It’s handy for simple shots of multiple objects or people alike.
A 64 megapixel telephoto lens: Space Zoom is, of course, in full force on the S21, and this 64 megapixel telephoto powers the experience. Physically, it has a 3x optical lens, and Space Zoom is a hybrid zoom onto this maximum zoom. It’s improved with AI stabilization, and the result is generally a clearer picture.
As we do with every device we test at CNN Underscored, we ran the Galaxy S21 through a series of benchmarks. One standard is GeekBench 5, and this runs the phone through a series of tasks in a stress test formation. The Galaxy S21 scored a 1,110 on single and 3,477 on multi core. That’s only slightly behind the S21 Ultra, which got a 1,122 on single and 3,489 on multi core. It’s a set of scores that’s in line with our daily use and proves that the S21 carries a super impressive amount of speed.
The Galaxy S21 lasted for 12 hours and 10 minutes, which surpasses the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, which lasted 10 hours. The battery is impressive any way you try to slice it. And you can charge the phone in two key ways: via a plug, thanks to the USB C port on the bottom, or via a Qi enabled wireless charging pad on the hermes blanket replica grey
back. When connected to power via hardwire, the Galaxy S21 can charge at 25 watts. You won’t get a plug in the box this time around, though like Apple, Samsung is ditching the included accessory and requiring you to bring your own.
The refresh rate is also more impressive here compared to the S21, as it can get as low as 10 Hz and can scale to 120 Hz. That’s similar to how the refresh rate works on the Apple Watch Series 6 to show the minute hand moving. That lower Hz means the S21 Ultra can be even more efficient, and on a larger display, that’s important. Here’s the real kicker: On the S20 Ultra, you couldn’t run the display at WQHD+ and scale to 120 Hz refresh rate. Samsung’s fixed that here, and in our testing, it doesn’t destroy the battery life.
And for the first time, the S Pen is arriving on a Galaxy S phone. It’s not as integrated as on the Galaxy Note, and after some testing we found it to be far from vital for the S21 Ultra. With a large 6.8 inch display that supports Wacom technology, it’s a great way to quickly jot down notes or scribble out a doodle. And if you’re coming from a Galaxy Note or Tab S7, you can use that same S Pen here. Samsung is also selling two cases that come bundled with an S Pen, or you can get a stand alone stylus. You’ll have full access to Samsung Notes and the ability to write on the screen when it is locked for a quick note, and you can use it to control the user interface.
A 12 megapixel ultrawide lens: This is the same 120 degree ultrawide lens as on the core S21. It lets you capture a whole lot more in just one shot without moving.
A 108 megapixel wide lens: We found ourselves leaning on the default lens a lot more on the S21 Ultra. With a higher number of megapixels, along with a bigger lens, it captures more detail and keeps the clarity. By default, this will deliver those 108 megapixel images as 12 megapixel shots. It saves space and does so through a nona binning process, essentially combining pixels to deliver a sharper image.
Dual 10 megapixel telephoto lenses: This turned out to be a game changer. These are the lenses that accomplish 100x Space Zoom. Both of these lenses are 10 megapixels, but one has 3x optical (like on the S21) and the other has 10x optical. With a 10x physical zoom, you can capture a lot more details and reduce the noise in a shot.
A laser autofocus sensor: This was first introduced on the Note 20 Ultra, and it’s here to improve focusing times. Additionally, it aims to reduce noise with zoom shots.
We have several shots captured from The Edge a skydeck 100 stories above NYC of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the Freedom Tower. Safe to say, especially at 100x, it’s a blurry shot that keeps some details. The lenses also appeared to be struggling with lower light conditions. It is very neat to say we got an up close shot of the Statue of Liberty from several miles away, though. So, to a degree, it’s still a gimmick, and we don’t anticipate that you’ll be shooting at 100x all too often.
Truly the star of this setup is the telephoto lens that features a 10x optical lens. It’s really a game changer for mobile photography, and we desperately wish it were on the S21, S21+ and other phones on the market. It’s perfect for long range shots and delivers a usable image one that you’re proud to share across the internet. It’s also a better base for the 100x Space Zoom shots. With those, it’s a fusion between the 3x optical and the 10x optical, along with artificial intelligence and many rapid captures. It all comes together to deliver a blurry yes, blurry image captured at extreme zoom.
Despite us testing that higher RAM model, our experience on the S21 Ultra in comparison to the S21 was nearly identical. As we anticipated, it’s not so much the RAM that factors into everyday use, but it’s really all about the efficiency and power that the Snapdragon 888 processor can deliver. Sure, processing an image might have been a hop faster, but nothing really noteworthy. And that’s really good news, as you shouldn’t need to get the most expensive model with a giant screen to get the best performance especially if you want a smaller phone.
Low band is the one that’s more available here in the United States and is similar to 4G LTE. Don’t expect 2,000 Mbps down with this, but closer to 200 Mbps when it’s fast. Low band is all about more room on the network for a plethora of devices to connect simultaneously. As 5G devices become more common, this will help reduce congestion. Low band is easier to roll out and less of a finicky technology. You don’t need to be directly in line of sight with a 5G tower, and you’ll see it in more wireless markets from AT and Verizon.
In our week of testing, we headed to supposed 5G ultra wideband sites across New Jersey and New York City. When we could see a Verizon 5G cell site and had our S21 or S21 Ultra pointed at it with nothing blocking it we could hit download speeds of up to 2,000 Mbps. Neither device got warm, though we did see the battery trickle down after several tests. It was similar to our iPhone 12 testing, as walking down the street or taking a few side steps resulted in us losing the ultra wideband connection.
The S21 and S21 Ultra also carry the other crucial forms of connectivity: Wi Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.0/LE and, notably, ultra wideband. Don’t be concerned with 6E on the back of Wi Fi; it’s the latest standard and acts as a form of future proofing. We’re starting to see the first routers with Wi Fi 6E starting to ship, and chances are it will take some time before you adopt it. Bluetooth is handy for earbuds, headphones and a plethora of accessories. Ultra wideband doesn’t have a ton of use right now, but it can be helpful for location and tracking.