Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. Galaxy S20 Ultra: What's different?

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra
(Image credit: Future)

A Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra comparison reveals a lot of upgrades, but the biggest and most welcome difference is the price. Samsung has chopped $200 off for the S21 Ultra, so you're getting more phone for less money — for the most part. 

The S21 Ultra delivers a more dynamic and brighter display than its predecessor, more speed via its Snapdragon 888 chip and, most notably, better cameras. You now get two telephoto lenses for better zooming performance along with a host of other camera improvements. Plus, the S21 Ultra is the first Galaxy S series phone that supports the S Pen.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra isn't better in every way. You don't get a microSD card slot to expand storage, and there's no charger in the box. But otherwise the S21 Ultra looks like a very impressive flagship. 

Use this Galaxy S21 Ultra vs S20 Ultra guide to see if Samsung's new phone is right for you. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 specs

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Row 0 - Cell 0 Galaxy S21 UltraGalaxy S20 Ultra
Starting price$1,199$1,399
Screen size6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED (3200 x 1440; adaptive 10Hz - 120Hz)6.9-inch AMOLED (3200 x 1440) 120Hz
CPUSnapdragon 888Snapdragon 865
RAM12GB, 16GB12GB, 16GB
Storage128GB, 256GB, 512GB128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Rear cameras108MP (f/1.8) wide; 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide; 10MP (f/2.4) telephoto with 3x zoom; 10MP (f/4.9) telephoto with 10x zoom108MP (f/1.8) wide; 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide; 48MP (f/3.5) telephoto with 4x zoom
Front cameras40MP (f/2.2)40MP (f/2.2)
Battery size5,000 mAh5,000 mAh
Wireless5G, Wi-Fi 6E, UWB5G, 802.11ac Wi-Fi
Size6.5 x 3 x 0.35 inches6.6 x 2.7 x 0.34 inches
Weight8.04 ounces7.7 ounces
ColorsPhantom Silver, Phantom Black, Phantom Navy (Samsung only), Phantom Titanium (Samsung only), Phantom Brown (Samsung only)Cosmic Black, Cosmic Gray

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra: Prices

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra costs $1,199. That's $200 less than the $1,399 price the Galaxy S20 Ultra debuted at a year ago. If you want 256GB of storage instead of the standard 128GB, you'd pay an extra $50. The 512GB Galaxy S21 Ultra costs $1,379, which is still less than Galaxy S20 Ultra base model.

Samsung hasn't announced new prices for the Galaxy S20 Ultra in light of the Galaxy S21 Ultra's release. (When the S20 came out a year ago, Samsung immediately cut prices on the S10 models.) Prices on older phones do tend to drop after the new models come out, so the Galaxy S20 Ultra may be available for less now that the S21 Ultra is here.

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra: Design

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra made a statement with its camera bump, but it was just too big. The S21 Ultra uses a new contour cut design to better integrate the camera into the glass back, so the overall look is sleeker.

In terms of colors, the S21 Ultra is available in Phantom Black and Phantom Silver, compared to Cosmic Gray and Cosmic Black for the S20 Ultra. And Samsung will be making exclusive colors available for the S21 Ultra at, including Phantom Navy, Phantom Titanium and Phantom Brown. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

Another important design upgrade is that the on-screen fingerprint reader is now larger, so it should be easier to unlock the device.

However, the S21 Ultra is larger and heavier than its predecessor. The S21 Ultra measures 6.5 x 3 x 0.35 inches and weighs 8.04 ounces, while the S20 Ultra was a bit more compact and lighter at 6.6 x 2.7 x 0.34 inches and 7.7 ounces.

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra: Display

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra's 6.8-inch display is a bit smaller than the 6.9-inch panel on the S20 Ultra, but the new panel is better in a few key ways. For starters, you can now get a 120Hz refresh rate at the highest QHD resolution; with the S20 Ultra you had to choose between 120Hz and full HD.

The S21 Ultra's panel is also dynamic, which means it can scale from 120Hz all the way down to 10Hz, which saves battery life. With the Galaxy S20 Ultra, 120Hz mode is simply on or off. 

In addition, the S21 Ultra's display is rated for a peak brightness of 1,500 nits, compared to 1,200 nits for the S20 Ultra. Other improvements include a 50% better contrast ratio and an Eye Comfort Shield feature for reducing eye fatigue. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra: Cameras

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

I'm glad that Samsung added a laser focus sensor to the S21 Ultra, because the S20 Ultra was slow to focus, especially when shooting video. But the biggest camera upgrade on the S21 Ultra involves the dual telephoto lenses, which offer 3x and 10x optical zoom, up from a single 4x optical zoom lens on the S20 Ultra.

The zooming performance on the S21 Ultra gets another boost with a new Zoom Lock feature. Using AI, the new S21 Ultra can identify the subject and keep it steadier, so you should experience less shake vs the S20 Ultra. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 offers a few other notable upgrades. The main 108MP sensor can now capture 12-bit HDR photos with 64x richer color, There's even a 12-bit RAW file option in Pro mode for power users. Plus, night mode photos are now improved, thanks to a faster Bright Night sensor and other enhancements.

On the video front, you can record at 8K at up to 24 fps like you could before, but now the S21 Ultra is capable of 4K 60 fps on all of its lenses. Plus, there's a new vlogger mode that lets you record with the front and back cameras at the same time. 

Samsung has also improved its Single Take feature with Single Take 2.0, which allows you to take several photos and videos at once. One of the new options is an auto-generated Dynamic Slow Mo video.

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra: S Pen

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the first Galaxy S series phone to support the S Pen, which means you can use a stylus to draw, take notes and more right on the display like you can on a Galaxy Note phablet. The S20 Ultra doesn't offer this perk. 

However, you'll have to pay extra for the S Pen on the S21 Ultra — it's sold as a separate accessory for $40 — and you'll likely want to pay for a case that comes with a holster for the pen. Those cases cost $69.99.

Later this year, Samsung is releasing an S Pen Pro that will have Bluetooth connectivity, turning the stylus into a remote control. No price has been set.

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra: Performance

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

No surprise here. The Galaxy S21 Ultra packs the new Snapdragon 888 processor, which should offer a boost in both CPU and graphics performance over the Snapdragon 865-powered Galaxy S20 Ultra. 

You get the same RAM and storage options as you did before. The S21 Ultra starts with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. But you can upgrade the storage to 256GB, or really splurge for the top-end S21 Ultra model and get both 16GB of RAM and 512GB.

It may be worth paying extra for at least 256GB of storage, as there's no microSD card slot on the S21 Ultra. The S20 Ultra had a slot that supported up to 1TB of extra storage.

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra: Battery and charging

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

The bad news is that the Galaxy S21 Ultra has the same size battery as the S20 Ultra at 5,000 mAh. The good news is that this is a very big battery, and should last you pretty much all day on a charge. 

More good news: Samsung says that it's using AI in the S21 Ultra to better monitor your usage patterns and decrease power consumption. And the fact that the S21 Ultra moves from a 7nm to a more efficient 5nm processor should help as well. 

On the charging front, the S21 Ultra supports 25W fast charging. The S20 Ultra supported up to 45W charging, but Samsung says it has improved the charging speed of the S21's charger. So the numbers don't tell the whole story. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra: Bottom line

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy S20 Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

If you bought the Galaxy S20 Ultra for $1,399, chances are you're not willing to upgrade to the S21 Ultra. And it probably stings that the new phone costs $200 less. But overall the upgrades are fairly significant. 

The S21 Ultra offers a brighter and more dynamic 120Hz display and much more versatile and powerful cameras. You should expect better performance in low light along with an even more powerful (and steadier) zoom. Having S Pen support onboard is a bonus, especially if you don't want to wait for the Galaxy Note 21 to debut later this year.

Not having a charger in the box stinks, and the lack of a microSD card slot is arguable worse, but overall the S21 Ultra looks like a truly superior phone to the S20 Ultra.

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.