Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review: Android’s top dog

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_Main

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is a great phone and comes loaded with all the bells and whistles. I mean if a phone that costs upward of a lakh isn’t great, then there’s something wrong with it, right? But, being just great doesn’t cut it anymore, and definitely not in 2021. Now, as much as the Galaxy S phones have been known to offer the best all-round flagship experience, especially the Snapdragon-powered phones; over the years the Exynos variants have been receiving quite the flak. Particularly with reasons that relate to overheating. Which brings me to the burning question — does the Exynos 2100 SoC inside the Galaxy S21 Ultra overheat? Let’s find out in our full review.  

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G: Hardware and performance

We’ll get to the display and design part in a bit. For this review, let’s start off by talking about the phone’s hardware. Yes, I know this phone comes with a beautiful QHD+ (1440 x 3200 pixels) curved OLED display, there’s a 108-megapixel camera at the rear, there’s a second-gen ultrasonic fingerprint sensor embedded inside the display etc. But, according to me, the real highlight of this phone is truly the Exynos 2100 SoC, and boy does it live up to the mark. 

Now, to answer the question — does the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G overheat? In one word I’d say, no.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_rear panel

Before I get to the explanation, let me give you the phone’s specifications. In India, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is powered by the 5nm octa-core 2.9GHz Exynos 2100 SoC. The phone comes in a choice of two variants — 12GB LPDDR5 RAM coupled with 256GB of UFS 3.1 storage (Rs. 1,05,999), and 16GB LPDDR5 RAM coupled with 512GB of UFS 3.1 storage (Rs. 1,16,999). Sadly, the microSD card option is not present on this phone, so be extra careful while choosing your storage. So, how do these numbers stack in the real-world?

Now, I haven’t ever had the chance to test Snapdragon 800 variants of the Galaxy S phones, but I do know for a fact (and because I’ve personally used Exynos powered Samsung flagships) that the Exynos phones do get hot, and during long sessions of gaming, or taking photos or videos, or when you’re performing any sort of intensive task; the Exynos chipsets in the past did use to get hot. That changes now.  

I can finally say that the Exynos 2100 inside the Galaxy S21 Ultra is “the” chipset that I expected it to be. General performance was great, of course, but even when I pushed the chipset by playing graphics-intensive games such as Genshin Impact for long stretches, or clicking a lot of photos and videos; the phone did get warm, but never did it overheat or became uncomfortable to hold. Even when I ran the Antutu benchmark five times in a row, I did notice that the phone does get hot while the benchmark is running but trust me the temperature comes down immediately once the scores are out. Now I know, no one is going to run Antutu benchmarks like crazy (the way I did), just to see if a phone overheats, but I just wanted to see it for myself, that’s it. 

That said, I have no complaints regarding the phone’s battery performance (more on the battery life later) or for that matter, the phone’s general performance. Apps open fast, loads of RAM  makes sure that multitasking is a breeze, and smooth animations plus transitions make sure that everything looks and feels fast.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_apps

You’ll also be able to play all sorts of games without having to worry about the phone getting hot. I played Call of Duty: Mobile and Asphalt 9: Legends (my usual) at the highest graphics settings and I didn’t come across any significant problems. Noticeable frame drops have been brought to a bare minimum and you can now expect a very smooth and stable gameplay experience in terms of FPS in graphics-intensive games. 

I also played a lot of Genshin Impact on this phone, and this game, by the way, did manage to get the phone warm around the camera module, but otherwise, I didn’t see a drop in performance. By the way, an hour of playing this game drained about 12% of battery, which I think is great. I also loaded up the PPSSPP emulator on this phone, to catch up on some old PlayStation classics. Overall, no complaints when it comes to the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s gaming performance.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_genshin impact

One last thing that I would like to add about this hardware is that I am genuinely in love with the S21 Ultra’s vibration motor. Literally, I can’t express in words but I can go on record to say that this phone has the best vibration motor, period. Haptic feedback is superb, precise and on-point. Especially when you enable and disable toggles, the haptics are so satisfying and the buzz you hear; you have to test it out to feel it. By the way, do check out the Fireworks vibration pattern for calls in Sounds and vibration settings, it is truly satisfying. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G: Software

Alright, now that I have touched down upon hardware first, let’s get on to the software bit, before jumping on to the phone’s design, display and cameras. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_software

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G comes loaded with One UI 3.1, which is based on Android 11. Now, I have already tested One UI 3 on the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, and on this phone, the overall experience only gets better. In terms of features, as usual, Samsung’s software is loaded to the brim. For that matter, the Galaxy S21 Ultra brings a few neat features of its own along with One UI, which I feel are very good. For example, you can now change the video resolution directly from the viewfinder, it’s right there; no more you need to specially go into settings. Besides, video recording gets a brand new feature called Director’s View, which basically lets you record footage from all the cameras (front and rear) at the same time; an exciting feature for vloggers.

I still can’t believe how good Samsung Dex is. And I know it has its shortcomings, and it does need more polishing, but having the ability to connect my phone to a display and using it as a computer; I don’t see any reason to complain much about this. And so, overall I feel that One UI 3 is not only visually appealing but is also very functional. 

However, I do have one issue with the software, something that I did not encounter during my review of the Galaxy S20 FE. I am talking about ads and spam notifications, and trust me, I didn’t encounter even one when I reviewed the S20 FE. But they are here on the S21 Ultra and that bothers me. I mean I can still uninstall or disable notifications for My Galaxy app and I would stop receiving spam notifications, but how do I cure the ads? I mean why am I seeing “Starting at Rs. 69,999” Galaxy S21 ads, on the top of the line Galaxy S21 model which costs over a lakh! Not cool. And while we are talking about not being cool, duplicate apps are still there, that you can get rid of manually by uninstalling but why are they here in the first place?

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_ads

Although, a pleasant surprise is the inclusion of Google Discover page when you swipe right from the homescreen. I remember calling out Samsung on this one in the Galaxy S20 FE review, and good to see that the company is listening to its user base. Now you can still opt to use Samsung Free (they renamed it), instead of Google’s offering, but that’s totally your choice. For me, Google Discover is here, Samsung is listening, and I am happy. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_google now

Rounding this off, I will say, overall One UI 3 is a very capable software, comes with loads of features and to be honest, it is evident that Samsung’s software has evolved over the ages, and in a good way, of course. Now, I won’t advocate the ads, the duplicate apps, the spam notifications, because if you are paying this much for a phone, these things should be taken care of. But otherwise, if you can give One UI a chance, look past the occasional ads, uninstall the apps that send you spam notifications; then my friend you won’t be disappointed with One UI. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G: Display and design

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G features a large 6.8-inch QHD+ Super AMOLED display, which Samsung calls Dynamic AMOLED 2X. This panel comes with a variable screen refresh rate of up to 120Hz and is drop-dead gorgeous to look at. In terms of quality, there’s no doubt that this is one of the best displays that you can get on a smartphone right now. Colours look punchy, you get wide viewing angles, content looks great and it gets plenty bright, whether you use it outdoors or indoors. A welcome addition is that you can now use the display refresh rate set at 120Hz along with QHD+ resolution, something that wasn’t possible to do in the Galaxy S20 series.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_display

Now personally, I am not a fan of curved displays but this panel is ever so slightly curved at the edges, unlike Samsung’s earlier curved panels. I have to say, this panel has been growing on me! And it’s not only just the quality since everyone knows Samsung makes one of the finest OLED displays. In terms of aesthetics as well, I think this panel looks super cool. So, if we are getting curved panels like this on other phones as well, please go ahead, I would love them. That said, in my opinion, flat displays are the best and still remain my first preference. 

As for the design and build, this is a large phone and there’s no denying that. However, the matte texture on the rear, the shiny aluminium frame, the way the frame merges into the phone’s body and the large camera module makes this a very good looking phone. By the way, both the front and rear glass is protected by Corning’s latest Gorilla glass Victus. That said, this is without a doubt a very heavy phone (about 227 grams) and at the same time very cumbersome to hold (8.9mm thick). To be honest, I did face a lot of difficulties while using the phone with one hand. Not to mention that the phone is also very slippery. So, if you’re okay with the fact that you can live with a phone which is not only large but also heavy, you won’t regret purchasing the Galaxy S21 Ultra. By the way, the phone’s weight does add to the premium in-hand feel. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_weight

Moving on, the phone’s power button is situated on the right, while the volume buttons are found on the left. The buttons are extremely clicky and offer amazing tactile feedback. At the bottom, there’s a USB  Type-C port, a primary microphone, the dual-nano SIM slots and a speaker. At the top is the phone’s earpiece which also doubles up as the secondary speaker and a couple of microphones, yes there are two microphones at the top. 

Beneath the display is the second generation ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, which has a 77% larger surface area in comparison to the first generation sensor found on the Galaxy S20 series. Now, initially, I did feel that this fingerprint sensor was quite finicky. But over time as I have developed the muscle memory, and I know the exact placement of the sensor, I have had no major complaints about the fingerprint sensor’s accuracy and speed of unlocking the phone. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_fingerprint sensor

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G: Multimedia performance

You’ll be mesmerised by the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s OLED display because this really is one of the gorgeous displays you can get on a phone. Content consumption is a pleasure and you’ll have a blast watching movies, playing games or simply browsing your Instagram feed. Now, I have already mentioned above that the display gets plenty bright, but to put this in numbers, Samsung says the panel can hit up to 1500 nits of brightness. And while I did not get a chance to test the numbers for myself, I can say that this display is one of the best and brightest you can get right now. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_brightness

In terms of audio performance, the stereo speakers on offer are very pleasant to hear. Not only are they loud, but they also sound very clear and crisp. Even at high volumes or for that matter max volumes, I couldn’t come across any distortion in the audio output. Whether you’re listening to songs, or watching a movie, or even playing a game, the audio experience is truly amazing. Not to mention, you also get Dolby Atmos for media playback as well as for gaming. 

In terms of both wired and wireless audio performance, I didn’t have any complaints at all. For the wired experience, I used the stock AKG headphones that were supplied with my old Galaxy S10+ along with a dongle, and I think the audio output was great. As for the wireless audio performance, I used my AirPods Pro for usually watching a lot of Netflix and listening to songs on YouTube music. Overall, no complaints about the wireless audio performance, since the AirPods Pro sounded top-notch and I also didn’t come across any connectivity problems as well. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G: Battery and connectivity

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G gets a 5,000mAh battery under the hood, which supports 25W fast charging, 15W fast wireless charging and 5W reverse wireless charging. 

Battery life on this phone has been amazing! The S21 Ultra is easily a one day phone if you’re a heavy user. A casual user can even get about a day and a half with ease. That’s not all, during my testing, I thoroughly tested the phone with the display resolution set at QHD+ along with a 120Hz screen refresh rate at all times, and still I never had a feeling that the phone might end up running out of juice earlier than usual. Surprisingly, standby times on this phone are also greatly improved. I mean, about a 3-4% drop in battery levels overnight, I will gladly take it.

Although one gripe that I do have with this phone is that it maxes out at 25W in terms of wired charging speeds. Considering phones such as OPPO Reno5 Pro 5G and Realme X7 Pro, which cost about Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 40,000, can go from 0 to 100% in just about 30 minutes and I really think Samsung needs to up their game in this department. Taking around an hour and a half to fully charge the Galaxy S21 Ultra is not cool. And by the way, you no longer get the charging brick inside the box, so there’s that as well. 

In terms of connectivity of course the phone is 5G ready for the future. It also supports most of the major Wi-Fi bands along with support for the latest Wi-Fi 6E standard. This phone also comes with Bluetooth 5.2 and NFC. Throughout the review period, I tested the Galaxy S21 Ultra on Jio’s 4G network, and I didn’t face any problems regarding network connectivity or call drops. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G: Camera

Finally, the cameras! On the rear, you see a quad-camera system that comprises a second-generation 108-megapixel primary camera, with f/1.8 aperture, laser autofocus and OIS. This is accompanied by a 12-megapixel ultra-wide-angle camera, with f/2.2 aperture, a 10-megapixel telephoto camera with OIS and 3x optical zoom and finally a 10-megapixel periscope lens with OIS and 10x optical zoom. For selfies, there’s a 40-megapixel front camera with f/2.2 aperture, situated in the centre-aligned punch hole. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_rear camera

In terms of performance, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s main camera captures detailed 12-megapixel pixel-binned photos by default. Colours are of course on the saturated side, however, personally, I prefer Samsung’s take on image processing, and I really love the output on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Primary camera

Primary camera

Primary camera

Primary camera

Primary camera

Primary camera

As for the photos taken in full 108-megapixel resolution, the level of detail is on another level. Overall, photos come out crisp and the dynamic range is excellent. 

Primary camera (108MP)

Primary camera (108MP)

The ultra-wide-angle camera on the Galaxy S21 Ultra offers a pretty wide field of view. Photos look good in terms of colour reproduction and dynamic range. In terms of details, of course, this lens comes nowhere close to the main 108-megapixel primary lens.

Ultra-wide-angle camera

Ultra-wide-angle camera

Ultra-wide-angle camera

Ultra-wide-angle camera

That said, go near an object, and the ultra-wide-angle lens transforms itself into a macro lens. And this time around, in terms of close-up photos, details are extremely sharp and colour reproduction looks fabulous. 

Ultra-wide-angle camera (Close-up)

Ultra-wide-angle camera (Close-up)

Ultra-wide-angle camera (Close-up)

Ultra-wide-angle camera (Close-up)

While we are on the topic of details, both the 3x telephoto camera and the 10x periscope capture some amazing pictures of far-off objects. Now, I don’t see much use of zoom cameras generally, but these cameras are here, you get the options, and these lenses deliver. 

Primary Camera (1x)

Primary Camera (1x)

Telephoto camera (3x optical zoom)

Telephoto camera (3x optical zoom)

Periscope camera (10x optical zoom)

Periscope camera (10x optical zoom)

Talk about zoom, how can I forget about the advertised 100x space zoom feature. While I don’t see it as a feature that I would often use but I also don’t see it as a gimmick anymore, which I used to think in previous Galaxy S20 series. Actually, I managed to take a photo of the full moon, and I know it is not the most detailed photo in the world. But being able to capture a half-decent photo of the moon from a smartphone was simply an eye-opener for me. Respect!

Primary Camera (1x)

Primary Camera (1x)

100x Space zoom

100x Space zoom

In terms of clicking photos at night, I was once again impressed by the overall performance of the camera. While night mode does help in getting brighter images whenever the need is, partially thanks to the bright night sensor; it is the photos that I took without night mode that made me realise how good the phone’s still photography skills are during the night. 

Night mode on

Night mode on

Night mode off

Night mode off

Night mode on

Night mode on

Night mode off

Night mode off

Night mode on

Night mode on

Night mode off

Night mode off

Coming to the front camera, the 40-megapixel lens at the front takes some amazing 10-megapixel pixel-binned photos by default. The camera now lets you choose a colour tone for your selfies, i.e. Natural or Bright. Personally, I went ahead and made the setting to Natural. In well-lit conditions, the camera does a good job of capturing colours and dealing with skin textures. During not so ideal lighting conditions, sometimes the colours do appear to look a bit washed out in photos, but nothing major.

Selfie (Indoors)

Selfie (Indoors)

Selfie (Outdoors)

Selfie (Outdoors)

Selfie (Night time)

Selfie (Night time)

As always, it is the portrait mode that made me go in awe! I have said it before and I will repeat it once more, according to me, I don’t think any other phone does better portrait mode than a top of the line Samsung Galaxy phone. Be it the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra or the Galaxy S20 FE which I recently reviewed, according to me, portrait mode is undoubtedly better on Samsung phones.

Portrait selfie (Outdoors)

Portrait selfie (Outdoors)

Portrait selfie (Indoors)

Portrait selfie (Indoors)

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G: Video Quality

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G can shoot 8K videos at 24fps from its main camera. Apart from that, all the lenses at the back and the front camera can record up to 4K videos at 60fps. 

In terms of general performance, videos shot during the day exhibit good colour reproduction and dynamic range, whether you shoot at 4K or full-HD, the resulting output is pretty good overall. While the stabilisation is handled well in both 4K and full-HD, I actually felt that the pans and movements were slightly better in full-HD mode. 

As for the footage shot during the night, I would only say that this is the best smartphone camera that I have used to shoot videos at night, period. I mean it is not just the colours or details that look good during the night, but the way this camera kept noise and distortion at a bare minimum was truly amazing. 

Three cool features I would like to mention before I close the camera section. I think with Director’s View, the ability you get to record footage from all the lenses at the same time is something spectacular. I mean this is a kind of feature which vloggers would truly appreciate. The Super Steady video mode, which uses the ultra-wide angle camera to create a crop, is able to record some of the most smooth-looking videos that you can get on a smartphone. Finally, there’s Portrait Video, that allows you to shoot subjects with a pleasant background blur around them. Now, just like other phones which do portrait videography, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is also not perfect, but if I have to choose the best phone that does portrait videos on the market, without a doubt it will be the Galaxy S21 Ultra. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G: Verdict

So, do I recommend the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G or not? Well, this is a tricky question. And I am not calling this tricky because the phone is bad, definitely not. Instead, it is one of the best phones out there. But the thing that comes to my mind before I go on a fray recommending this phone is its price.

First things first, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is an amazing big phone or honestly speaking, the best big phone (my personal opinion) that money can buy right now. It scores high on the looks, features a beautiful display, feels solid in the hands, comes with awesome cameras and has good battery life. But to get all of this, you have to pay a cost, and that cost is pretty steep. 

And we are back to square one — is the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G worth recommending? Okay, I would put it this way, if you are in the market for the best that Android has to offer in terms of everything and you don’t mind spending over a lakh, I strongly suggest to close your eyes and get the S21 Ultra. However, if you think that your budget doesn’t allow or even if your budget allows, you think putting this much amount of money on a smartphone is plain stupidity, then that’s fine. Because, to be frank, getting a good phone these days doesn’t require you to spend insane amounts of money. For example, you can get the Galaxy S20 FE for about Rs. 41,000 right now. And while the Galaxy S21 Ultra is without a doubt the superior and the better phone between the two. Is it Rs. 65,000 better than S20 FE? I don’t think so. 

So, there you have it guys. This was my review of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. To be honest, after a very long time, I have genuinely enjoyed using an Android phone. So much so, that I have actually started neglecting my iPhone and I only use it at times whenever I have to make payments or make FaceTime calls. Otherwise, everything that I do these days, be it watching YouTube, playing games, listening to music, or anything, I do it on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. And I am not even exaggerating, but trust me when I say this, if budget is really not a problem and you want to purchase the best Android phone out there? The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the one to get. That said, share your thoughts about this smartphone with me in the comments. Thanks for reading! 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G_Final

 

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Aman Rashid
aman.rashid@u2opiamobile.com

Aman is the Video-Head for Mr Phone's YouTube channel, based out of New Delhi. He's a true blue sneakerhead, is an avid WWE follower, loves all things tech, and is a huge DragonBall fanboy. He follows a simple mantra in life — Live, Laugh, Love! 💛