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The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a market leader which justifies its high price tag.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best gimmick-free flagship Android on the market.
Any time a £1,000+ smartphone hits the scene, it has to work hard to justify that kind of price – and boy does the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra do just that. A triple threat, it looks the part with top-quality design and a killer screen, it packs performance in spades – power, party tricks and a long-lasting battery, and then there’s that camera. Sporting one of the best zooms of any smartphone around, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra gets you right up close to the action. In fact, it does pretty much everything right on paper, but you know what? So do a few phones out now.
Battling stiff competition from the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, the OPPO Find X3 Pro and Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra, not to mention the much more affordable OnePlus 9 Pro, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra has its work cut out for it. Also, while the phone introduces note-taking and doodling to the Galaxy S line thanks to clever S Pen support, unlike the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, it doesn’t come with an S Pen. Therefore, to get the full experience, you’re talking about a cost of £1,199 and an extra £34 for the pen from Samsung’s official store.
Its price sounds (and is) high, but on paper, its specs still put the S21 Ultra in a strong position for the smartphone top spot. After all, it’s the only phone that can do everything – pen input, a 10 times zoom camera system, a world-class screen and more. So if big phones are your thing, and you want quality across the board, keep reading to see what it’s like living with what could be the best Android phone of 2021.
Ultra by name… Samsung’s back on top
Every year, a smartphone maker launches its technology showcase – that one device that’s loaded with cutting-edge everything; and in 2021, for Samsung, that showcase is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The S21 Ultra is the phone for Samsung fans who consider themselves power users. Its screen is big, bright, bold, sharp and smooth. It’s also smart, with as many as 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity when paired with an S Pen. That means the pen input matches that of pro-grade graphic designer tablets – impressive stuff.
What about the S21 Ultra’s camera? Most flagship phones sport three these days – a primary camera, an ultra-wide camera, and a zoom camera. Some phones like the Google Pixel 5 even get away with just two cameras around the back. As for the S21 Ultra, it packs no less than four rear cameras, featuring not one but two zoom cameras.
Add to the Galaxy S21 Ultra mix a host of other flagship elements – Samsung’s feature-packed OneUI interface, top-tier flagship power and impressive battery life, and it isn’t a stretch calling the S21 Ultra a total package smartphone.
It’s very hard to call any £1,199 smartphone good value for money per se – there’s no which way about it; the S21 Ultra is one of the priciest smartphones you can buy. Set it alongside the £1,000+ competition though – Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max, OPPO’s Find X3 Pro and Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra, and value fast becomes relative – the S21 Ultra stacks up very well.
If all you want is a great camera and flagship power, of course, there are other phones that check those boxes for less. What the S21 Ultra does, however, is cram best-in-class features across the board without gimmicks. In turn, despite its price, the S21 Ultra is indeed decent value, even though much of what makes it great – that 10 times zoom and S Pen support – are nice to have features rather than essentials.
Turn on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and it’ll beam brightly and vibrantly, glamouring you with its first charm – that killer screen. On paper, the S21 Ultra’s screen checks all the right boxes. It’s AMOLED technology, for starters, which is Samsung’s special brand of OLED screen. When you see ‘AMOLED’ anywhere, you can be confident the screen’s blacks will look endless and inky, while colours jump out with punch and zing. Matched with that quality, the S21 Ultra screen is also smooth, with a 120Hz refresh rate, meaning it glides when scrolling and swiping through menus and web pages. By comparison, the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s screen caps out at 60Hz, so it's around half as smooth. The S21 Ultra’s screen is also sharp too, making it a complete package and arguably the mightiest mobile display on the market.
That slick screen matches mighty performance, thanks to the Exynos 2100 power inside the S21 Ultra, so the S21 Ultra is perfectly suited to mobile gaming, especially when factoring in the expansive stereo sound that booms from the speakers. One potential blip – there’s no headphone port in sight, so you’ll need to use Bluetooth headphones or an adapter that plugs into the USB-C charging port if you want to connect your cans.
With fast 5G mobile data speeds, if you’re in an area that supports 5G and it’s included in your mobile contract, you can get broadband-grade download speeds on the go on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Practically speaking, you can download a roughly 1GB movie in under a minute, though be mindful, heavy 5G use will drain a phone’s battery faster.
The smarts keep coming with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and just like the Note 20 Ultra and Samsung’s entire flagship line, DeX is back. What’s DeX? Connect the phone to a computer monitor or a TV (via the USB-C charging port), and a Windows-style desktop experience Samsung created for the big screen is displayed – that is DeX. If you connect a keyboard and mouse via Bluetooth, you can comfortably type and edit long documents, watch movies, and even play games using a full-sized display, all powered by the Galaxy S21 Ultra. There are limitations to DeX – it won’t run advanced apps like Photoshop, for example. However, for basic web surfing or document and presentation edits, it’s more than up to the task.
The S21 Ultra’s screen makes for a fantastic canvas for Samsung’s S Pen (sold separately), turning the phone into a palm-sized, high-tech notepad and sketchpad. With 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, the harder you press on the S21 Ultra’s screen when writing or drawing with the pen, the thicker the stroke. This is the same kind of technology found in professional graphic designer tablets and as good as it gets on mobiles. The Samsung Notes app is also loaded up to get you started. It can convert your handwritten words into searchable, selectable text and syncs them with Microsoft OneNote for easy access on other devices.
Battery life is another area of the Galaxy S21 Ultra that lasts all day and then some. The phone packs a huge 5000mAh battery – a much higher capacity than almost all its competitors. In turn, while Samsung’s other big-screened beauty, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra just about makes it through a full day (with its 4500mAh battery), the S21 Ultra goes the distance with a bit of juice left in the tank, even if you stream a couple of episodes or game here and there.
You can stretch out the S21 Ultra’s battery life even further thanks to its ‘Power saving’ mode. Within the phone’s settings, select ‘Battery and device care’. Here, you can get a sense of how long you have left before your phone runs out of juice, and it’s also where you activate ‘Power saving’. Turn on the feature, and the phone disables power-drains like 5G, maximum screen brightness and full-power processing, and stops apps from sapping power in the background.
Fast 25W charging means the S21 Ultra can charge fully in around an hour and 10 minutes. That speed pales in comparison to phones like the OnePlus 9 Pro or the OPPO Find X3 Pro, which take just over 30 minutes to charge. However, it's better than the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which powers up to 100 per cent in nearer 90 minutes.
Without a doubt, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of, if not the most, versatile camera phones money can buy right now. With no less than four cameras around the back and not one but two zoom cameras, it gets you a front-seat view wherever you’re sitting.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera story starts with a 108MP high-resolution main camera sensor. Instantly, you’re talking about loads of pixels, which means high-detail, crisp photos. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s main camera has some unique characteristics – punchy colours, impressively shallow depth of field (background blur), and pleasing dynamic range. That last one means even when you’re taking photos with bright spots in your scene – a backlit subject or neon lights, for example – the S21 Ultra manages to pull out an impressive amount of tonal detail.
Onto the S21 Ultra’s two zoom cameras – three and ten times zoom – and the first question to answer is – why are there two zoom cameras? If the phone featured just a three times zoom, it wouldn’t be able to get you close to the action as key competitors like the Huawei Mate 40 Pro with its five times zoom. By including a huge reach, it holds onto the top zoom and makes for a handy phone in a concert or when you’re creeping on friends from a distance. That said, if the S21 Ultra only had a 10 times zoom, then the more practical zoom range of three to nine times wouldn’t look great because it would just be photos taken on the main camera cropped heavily into. By featuring both 10 times and three times zooms, Samsung covers all the key bases, and the S21 Ultra retains its camera champion status.
The fourth and final snapper on the S21 Ultra’s camera bump is a 12 MP ultra-wide. Ultra-wides are the opposites of zoom cameras. Like the cameras estate agents use to get make a box room look like a suite, they often border on having a skewed fisheye look, with a similar field of view to a GoPro action camera. Also of note, the S21 Ultra is able to shoot super-close-up shots with its ultra-wide camera, giving it macro photography capabilities in line with the best out there.
Day or night, photos from the S21 Ultra pop, and with a 40MP front camera, even selfies look impressive. Thanks to the phone’s massive megapixel counts, the selfie camera shoots up to 4K resolution video, and the rear camera captures future-proofed 8K content which is steady, crisp and impressive.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a big phone, so if you can get to a phone shop before picking one up, that’d be our recommendation. Get it in your (sanitised) hands, and make sure you can work its 6.8 inches of screen comfortably. Provided it fits in your palm and pocket, you’ll have fancy, frosted glass and polished metal mobile to look forward to. Available in Phantom Black, for a more conservative finish, or an elegant Phantom Silver, both options are IP68 dust and water-resistant, so can take a splash or even a dunk in freshwater without short-circuiting.
As far as apps go, the Galaxy S21 Ultra supports all the good ones, given it runs Android. Unlike Huawei phones, it also has full access to Google services, including Maps, Google Play Games, and YouTube. Thanks to Samsung’s smart software experience: OneUI 3.1, you also get that excellent S Pen integration, as well as helpful setup software.
If you’ve already got a Samsung smartphone, then you can look forward to a headache-free setup process when you move your mobile life over to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, thanks to Smart Switch. This Samsung service migrates everything, from photos and videos and even your old phone’s apps and home screen layout. Samsung’s alternative to an iCloud backup, the feature makes sure anxiety around upgrading your phone fast becomes a thing of the past.
Running Google’s Android 11, the phone also supports Google’s own auto-login feature, so apps like Netflix and Spotify will likely log you in automatically. There will be a few third-party apps that might require a username or password. However, these were in the minority in our experience with setting up the phone.
Also handy, you can choose between Google Pay or Samsung Pay, two ways of getting using your phone as a contactless payment system, with most major cards supported between the two solutions.
If you’re someone who wants the best Android powerhouse around – and you’re not quite ready for a foldable – then the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the obvious choice. It really is an across-the-board champion, even going toe-to-toe with the Galaxy Note with support for Samsung’s S Pen. This edges it ahead of iPhones for creatives, while the camera range makes it more versatile than the best Android phones out there. Meanwhile, wireless charging, a smart interface, and great performance leave no box unchecked. So while some phones may charge faster, cost less, or pack a rear display, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best gimmick-free flagship Android on the block that packs all the right punches in all the right places.
Design and set-up: 4.5/5
Overall rating: 5/5
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is available off contract at:
Or on pay monthly contracts from: