Tech

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: an annoyingly hit-and-miss phone

Samsung must be feeling the pressure. The smartphone market’s growth had slowed before 2020. Covid-19 has set it into full contraction mode. The virus has made everything so much worse, a phrase that seems to work in all contexts.

Samsung’s phone shipments last year failed to reach 300 million for the first time in nine years, not helped by Chinese manufacturers like Oppo, Realme and Xiaomi finally nibbling into Western markets.

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 series is a response. We see cuts. You don’t get a charger. Glass backs are off the menu under £950 and much of the line-up is disappointingly same-y.

But there’s still hope for the tech fan, in the shape of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. There’s no plastic, no obvious steps back in build to save pennies on its manufacture. And some real progress in the camera tech.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has one of the most useful, most fun-to-use camera arrays ever put into a phone. Its 10x lens is an impressive technical achievement, and nothing seems more apt at a time when “getting close” yourself is, at times, illegal.

But if ultra-long battery life and superlative camera quality are the parts of a top-end phone we actually appreciate after the excitement wears off, the Samsung’s Galaxy S21 only gets half-way there. The battery lasts longer than the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s, but not as long as the best. And unless you buy Samsung’s £45 aftermarket charger, the Galaxy S21 Ultra charges at a slower rate than phones Realme sells for under £200.

Who’s it for

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s equivalent to the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max. Price, large screen size, the extra camera hardware and higher-than-average weight put these phones into a category intended for people who love tech, or, at the very least, have large hands. It’s a classic “more is more” product, which in turn is classic Samsung.

The main reasons you’re likely to regret buying a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra are that it is a little too heavy, or a little too large. Again, much like one of Apple’s Max-series phones.

You need to be able to appreciate at least one of the ways it differs from the lower-end S21 phones to make this the right choice. These are its XL-size 1440p resolution screen, its support for the S-Pen — usually only available with Galaxy Note phones — and the hugely upgraded camera array. And if you aren’t wedded to the idea of buying a Samsung, that last part is probably the only one that truly matters: the camera.

Design

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: an annoyingly hit-and-miss phone

When Samsung announced the Galaxy S21 family we published a piece about how you lose as much as you gain with this new crop. The standard Galaxy S21 has a plastic back. Samsung’s Plus model doesn’t have a curved glass front.

None of that applies to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. You get all the accoutrements designed to tell hands and eyes the £1,200 was well-spent.

The front and back glass panels curve at the sides, if not quite as much as the cheaper OnePlus 8 Pro. Its sides are glossy coated aluminium. And the six ringed elements of the rear camera sit on a metal raft that stands a millimetre or so proud of the back.

Reactions to this come in various shades of “wow”. You get awe from the tech heads, and ambivalence from everyone else as they come to terms with how big that camera platform is.

But, whichever you fall into, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is undeniably distinctive. The camera housing becomes part of the look here much more successfully than it did in the Galaxy S20 Ultra. You can’t mistake an S21 phone for anything else, even in the moody all-black version Samsung sent us.

Other changes are minor. You lose the microSD slot present in older Samsung flagships, which is not a big deal if you buy the 256GB version for £50 more. The fingerprint scanner seems faster than ever, but mostly because Samsung’s in-screen pads are typically slower than the competition’s. That is no longer the case.

Living with it

The day-to-day Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra experience will not seem all that groundbreaking if you have a top Samsung from the last year or two, though, because they already set such a high bar.

Its 6.8-inch screen is superb, with perfect contrast and vivid colour that can be toned down if you find the OLED panel cartoonishly rich. This time you can use both the full 1440p resolution and 120Hz refresh rate if you like, for the sharpest image and the smoothest scrolling.

High refresh rates are no longer reserved for the phone equivalent of the rich and famous, but ultra-high brightness is. Samsung says the Galaxy S21 Ultra peaks at 1,500 nits, and the display is clear whatever the weather. A cold and dark January is not the best of times to test this power, but it’ll come in handy during the summer.

You’ll really notice it when trying to take photos on a bright day, which is when the specific appeals of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra bloom. It has four rear cameras. The other two blobs on the back are for the flash and a laser focus aid.

All four are excellent, with none of the filler seen in 90 per cent of quad-cam phones. The ultra-wide is a 12MP sensor that takes better pictures than an iPhone 12’s wide camera. The main camera has a new 102MP sensor that takes 12-megapixel images, but can shoot at 102MP when asked. And these shots really do have far more detail than the 12MP ones, at a cost of lesser dynamic range enhancement and a 40MB file size.

Samsung pushes dynamic range processing further than ever in the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Shadows are lifted to the extreme, and in a manner that doesn’t have the flattening effect seen in earlier (non-Samsung) phones that take HDR too far.

At times you can see this DR boost straining against the very limits of the hardware. Even with 9-in-1 pixel binning and the best multi-exposure techniques to come out of South Korea, scenes with extreme light contrast do show some muddying of detail in the darker areas. But Samsung knows as well as we do most S21 Ultra aren’t going to go pixel peeping through photos of their weekend walk to look for flaws. They’ll simply appreciate how bright and lively they look.

The zoom cameras, which have separate 3x and 10x lenses, dig at the extremes of phone photography. Samsung set the standard with last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, and continues to do so now with quite simply ridiculous compositional potential.

We are surprised by how much you can do with the 10x camera, and how it lets you escape from the boring identikit approach you often fall into when travelling around with a 28mm camera lens mindset. It sounds like overkill, but lets you approach city and nature photography from a completely different angle.

It’s probably clear by now. We like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera. Its image character hasn’t changed much, though, with a tendency to make skies bluer than a Pixel 5 would. Samsung is all about detail and colour pop, and is not afraid to manipulate contrast.

Killer feature

If this is just one of many articles you’ll read about the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, you may be left unsure about the 10x zoom. In some comparisons its images don’t look all that different to those of other superzoom cameras like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Huawei P40 Pro or Oppo Find X2 Pro. But this is a step up.

You have to dig far farther into the zoom range, which extends to a mushy 100x, before the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra takes on that plastic look of an over-processed digital zoom image. Its photos are excellent at 10x and still very good at 30x, where others tend to have that “fake” plasticised look well before this point.

You’ll even see some natural subject-isolating blur at 10x when there’s a good distance between your subject and the background. It actually feels like shooting with an optically stabilised 10x zoom, which is quite remarkable given the aperture is a narrow f/4.9 using the 10x lens. The ease with which you can shoot an image, virtually hand judder free, alone is impressive.

All five of the cameras, selfie included, can use Samsung’s multi-exposure Night mode, too, adding another layer to what is arguably the most versatile phone camera to date.

And there’s another hit Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra feature: S-Pen support. You don’t get one in the box but Samsung sells them for £35, or a standard Note 20 stylus works just fine.

Pressure sensitivity, tilt and the side button all work as expected. Sure, you don’t get the Note series’s largely pointless Air Gestures and the stylus doesn’t slot into a phone. But if a little digital art might help your mental health, and avoid getting acrylic paint splashes over your carpet, it’s a worthwhile add-on.

Why oh why…

We don’t mind having to pay for the S-Pen. But you also have to pay for a power adapter. Less easy to swallow. All you get in the box is a charge cable.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra supports speeds up to 45W, but the only Samsung charger we had to hand was an 18W, which was slow. Adapters from masters of fast charging like Oppo and OnePlus won’t work (at high speeds) either because they use a different high-current standard.

To see the phone at its best you’ll have to spend an additional £45 on Samsung’s 45W charger.

This would not matter so much if the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra had sensational battery life. But it doesn’t, particularly if you use the phone to its fullest with 120Hz Adaptive refresh and its maximum screen resolution.

The new Exynos 2100 processor seems a marked improvement over last year’s Exynos 990. There’s much less battery drain when you do virtually nothing with the phone. It will reliably last a full day for most people most of the time. The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra often won’t.

But the Galaxy S21 Ultra still isn’t at the level of the iPhone 12 Pro Max or the longer lasting phones from Xiaomi and Huawei. If you could add that sort of stamina to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera array you’d have a near-perfect, if somewhat heavy, phone.

So, should I buy it?

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra takes what made the S20 Ultra great and adds to it in style. It’s a more striking phone, and pushes further at the limits of mobile photography with advanced HDR and a dedicated 10x zoom. This is a phone for photo fans, for the scenes it lets you capture rather than the purity of the image character.

S-Pen support is a huge benefit for some, too, particularly as it is so much cheaper to buy than Apple’s Pencil.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra will be too big and bulky for some, however, and despite improvements over recent Note phones it still doesn’t have an ultra-reliable battery to complete the “dream phone” picture. Apple’s top iPhone 12 lasts longer.

A £200 drop from last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra is nice, too, but is less profound that it sounds – 5G hardware used to be extremely expensive. Now it isn’t. Simple as that.

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