By ARGENTINEMEN - April 01, 2021

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the phone the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra should have been. Last year’s phone was a massively powerful handset that, in some areas, was coarse around the edges – and as such fell from grace in terms of receiving a perfect score.

The S21 Ultra, while not perfect, builds upon and refines what was there last year, as well as offering functionality that up until now hasbeen the preserve of the Galaxy Note series alone. It’s still a very expensive flagship phone, and certainly not for everyone, but now it’s one with fewer flaws and more overall usage potential. One of the foremost reasons anyone would pick up the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is for its camera system, so that is where we’ll begin. A 40MP front-facing camera is bundled with a quad-camera rear setup made up of an ultra-wide 12MP camera, a second-generation wide 108MP camera, and two 10MP telephoto cameras. It has a 10x optical zoom, and Samsung’s famous 100x ‘Space Zoom’ digital zoom. You also get a fast laser focus sensor, 12-bit HDR, and a brighter noise sensor for low-light photography. Shooting modes are bountiful, and include a fully manual Pro mode. 

Samsung has really got Portrait mode sorted now, with subjects captured and lit wonderfully, and backgrounds blurred out with subtle rather than overbearing bokeh. Samsung’s useful Single Take function also returns. This mode works by recording an action over a user-defined period of up to 15 seconds with all of the phone’s rear camera lenses, and then providing a range of shots and a video to choose from afterwards, using AI to take multiple versions of the same event.

Video star

There’s a load of video shooting modes, too, including Portrait video, Pro video, super slow-mo, ordinary slow-mo, hyperlapse and Director’s View. That last one is neat, as it lets you capture video from both the rear and front lenses simultaneously, so if you’re a frequent vlogger or YouTuber, you’ll be able to capture your reactions as events unfold. The S21 Ultra can shoot 8K video at 24fps and 4K at 60fps with stereo sound recording, and it comes with both optical and electronic stabilisation. The front-facing camera can record in 4K at 30fps or 60fps.The level of zoom delivered by those rear cameras is very impressive, with complete manual control to zoom in or out as the user wishes. As with the S20 Ultra, the quality of the zoomed image remains strong even into the 30x-50x range, so you can legitimately use it to capture distant objects or scenes. However, as soon as you really push the zoom up towards 100x, image quality degrades rapidly, culminating in a watercolour effect at maximum zoom. As such, while technically impressive, the 100x digital zoom will have very limited usage in the real world. The 108MP main snapper is the everyday workhorse of the camera system, though, and remains a very impressive piece of kit. Detailing is high, noise is low and colour balance and definition excellent. What’s even better is that, unlike last year, the camera’s autofocus works quickly and as it should. Samsung is going toe-to-toe with Huawei right now for the best smartphone camera system crown, with Google, Apple and Sony making up the rest of the top five. Image quality really is right up there with the best.

Display of affection

The hardware spec on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra reads like a phone enthusiast’s dream setup. The huge 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED panel comes with a 120Hz refresh rate and a WQHD+ 3200 x 1440 resolution. Crucially, both of these can be enabled at the same time. Throw in HDR10+ and a max brightness of 1,500 nits and you’ve got a display that matches and maybe even beats that on the OnePlus 8 Pro. The screen is simply gorgeous, and aside from the pin-hole selfie camera hole that sits top-centre, is an uninterrupted slab of visual goodness that displays anything brilliantly. 

From lusciously smooth scrolling through Twitter to immersive eye-popping colours in the latest HDR movies, it really is a pleasure to use.In terms of design, the big change this year is that the rear camera now has a housing that blends into the framing on the left and top edge. This goes a little way to hide how much the camera protrudes, but it’s still a design that needs to be put in a case. That level of top-end quality is carried through to the core hardware, too, with the very latest Qualcomm system-on-a-chip, the Snapdragon 888, sat at its heart. This, in partnership with 12GB of RAM and an Adreno 660 GPU, means the S21 Ultra turns in some very impressive benchmark scores. 

While last year’s S20 Ultra delivered a single-core Geekbench 5 score of 939, and a multi-core score of 2,815, the Galaxy S21 Ultra posted 1,109 and 3,674 respectively, which is a marked improvement. And this performance is also reflected in 3DMark’s graphical benchmarks. Last year the S20 Ultra managed to post a score of 6,765 in Sling Shot Extreme (OpenGL ES 3.1), while this year the S21 Ultra managed to best that with a score of 7,769. It also delivered really well in 3DMark’s new graphical test Wild Life, outputting a score of 5,678 and an average frame rate of 34.10. As you would expect, this means that any mobile game you care to throw at the S21 Ultra runs flawlessly – this is a phone that delivers.

That powerful hardware works in sync with Android 11 and Samsung’s own One UI 3. 1, which remains the best Android skin on the market. Combined, these two mean that navigation around the phone is super rapid and very intuitive. Moving between apps is especially rapid, something also helped by the return of Samsung’s Edge Screen, and loading happens instantaneously

Return of the S-Pen

The standout feature of the S21 is that it now supports digital stylus use. However, it does not come with a digital stylus, and unlike the Note series phones the stylus cannot be charged and stored inside the phone. Samsung’s solution to this is to introduce a new S-Pen case, an optional extra that protects the phone and holds a stylus, as well as enabling any stylus from its previous Note range to work with the phone. You can also buy new styli separately. 

The result? The stylus works inexactly the same way as on the Galaxy Note phones. When the tip approaches the screen the contextual stylus menu panel appears, and allows you to access features such as note taking, illustrating, and remote image taking. The inability to dock the stylus in the phone, charge it, or carry itaround highlights how essential the extra spend on a compatible case will be if you genuinely want to make use of this feature. Samsung’s really got this stylus functionality worked out, though,and in truth no other maker offers anything like it. With the flagship S series now offering both of the Note’s historic strengths – a very large screen and stylus functionality  – it really does seem like the bell is tolling for the business-focused line. Overall, we welcome the addition of stylus functionality to the S range, but can’t shake the feeling that it isn’t particularly well or cleverly implemented right now. 

Despite this, it is impossible for us not to recommend the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s a hyperpremium handset that delivers across the board, from internal hardware to camera system, screen space and fidelity to battery life, and even with advanced features like reverse wireless charging and the laptop-aping DeX Mode. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra also makes history in offering support for a digital stylus, which up until now has been the preserve of the Galaxy Note series. Indeed, the fact that the S21 Ultra now works with an S-Pen really adds a new dimension to the Galaxy S range and finally removes any reason why an enthusiast would wait for the top-spec Note each year.The phone remains, despite a price cut, very expensive, but this is a handset that has more powerful specs and performance than many of today’s laptops, and will easily last not just a year or two, but perhaps as much as half a decade.And when you take that into consideration, suddenly its high price is easier to swallow. 

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