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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review (hands on)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is a beast with dual zoom lenses, a dynamic 6.8-inch display and S Pen support for a more affordable price

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review
(Image: © Future)


  • Dynamic 6.8-inch AMOLED display
  • 120Hz and QHD resolution at same time
  • Dual telephoto lenses
  • S Pen support
  • $200 cheaper than predecessor


  • No charger in box
  • Lacks microSD card slot
  • A bit bulky

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra stands out from the regular Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus in several ways to earn its name. This includes dual telephoto lenses for serious zooming; support for the S Pen (a first for Galaxy S phones); and a bigger, brighter and more dynamic 120Hz OLED display. The best part? The price isn't as Ultra as last year's model.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra specs

Display: 6.8 inches AMOLED (3200 x 1400); 10 to 120Hz
CPU: Snapdragon 888
RAM: 12GB, 16GB
Storage: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Rear cameras: 108MP wide (f/1.8), 12MP ultra wide (f/2.2), 10MP telephoto (3x zoom, f/2.4), 10MP telephoto (10x zoom, f/4.9), laser AF sensor
Front camera: 40MP (f/2.2)
Video: 8K 30 fps/4K 60 fps
Battery: 5,000 mAh
Wireless: 5G, Wi-Fi 6E, UWB
Size: 6.5 x 2.97 x 0.35 inches
Weight: 8.08 ounces

The Galaxy S21 Ultra starts at $1,199, which is $200 less than the ambitious but flawed Galaxy S20 Ultra. The new Ultra comes in a sleeker design and offers faster performance from Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 chip. Still, the new S21 costs $100 more than the excellent iPhone 12 Pro Max, so Samsung has a lot to prove. 

Samsung does make some trade-offs here. You won't find a charger in the box, and there's no microSD card slot for expanding the storage. But overall the S21 Ultra looks like the most versatile Galaxy phone yet and a serious contender for a top spot on our best phone list. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra cheat sheet

  • The dynamic display on the Galaxy S21 Ultra delivers a smooth 120Hz refresh rate and sharpest WQHD resolution at the same time. And it's amazingly bright and colorful to boot.
  • The dual telephoto lenses (3x and 10x optical zoom) get you very close to your subject, and the new Zoom Lock feature keeps things steadier with digital Space Zoom.
  • The S Pen support is nice to have, but you have to purchase the stylus and a case to hold it separately. 
  • At $1,199, the S21 Ultra isn't cheap, but it's $200 less than the S20 Ultra. However, you don't get a charger in the box or a microSD card slot.
  • The larger fingerprint sensor is welcome, making the S21 Ultra easier to unlock. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra release date and price

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs S21 Plus

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is available for pre-order starting January 14 at 11 a.m. ET. The release date for the Galaxy S21 Ultra is January 29. You'll be able to buy carrier and unlocked versions of the phone. 

The Ultra starts at $1,199 and includes 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. You can also upgrade to 256GB of storage and to a model with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.  The 256GB model costs $1,249 — basically an extra $50 — while you'll pay $1,379 for a Galaxy S21 Ultra with 512GB of storage.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra design and colors

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra back

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has a camera bump, but it doesn't jut out from the design as much as it did with the S20 Ultra. A new contour cut design better integrates the bump with the glass back and metal frame around the side. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra bottom SIM Card slot

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra colors are limited if you're buying through a carrier, with just Phantom Silver and Phantom Black as your options. But the matte look does come across as sophisticated and should resist fingerprints. will offer exclusive S21 Ultra colors, including Phantom Navy, Phantom Titanium and Phantom Brown. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

One welcome design upgrade is that the in-screen fingerprint sensor is now 1.7x larger, so it should be a bit easier to unlock this device. This is especially handy now that many of us are still wearing masks. 

Measuring 6.5 x 2.97 x 0.35 inches (165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9 mm) and weighing 8.08 ounces (229 grams), the S21 Ultra is larger and heavier than the S20 Ultra (6.6 x 2.7 x 0.34 inches, 7.7 ounces). The S21 Ultra is also noticeably thicker than the iPhone 12 Pro Max (6.33 x 3.07 x 0.29 inches, 8.03 ounces). This is definitely be a phone you'll want to use with two hands.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra display

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

The 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is simply on eof the best screens on a phone. It's bright, vibrant and doesn't make you choose between sharp QHD resolution and a 120Hz refresh rate like its predecessor. This phone lets you do both at the same time, so you can enjoy smooth scrolling and gameplay without having to drop down the pixels. 

The refresh rate scales all the way down to 10Hz (compared to 48Hz on the S21 and S21 Plus), which should help save on battery life. Plus, the S21 Ultra is designed to get super bright outdoors, going all the way up to 1,500 nits. The S20 Ultra maxed out at 1,200 nits. 

When watching Schitt's Creek on Netflix, Moira Rose's dark red lipstick and intense blue eyes popped, and I could make out fine fly-away blonde hairs as she complained about he movie premiere. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

Samsung says the S21 Ultra has a 3 million: 1 contrast ratio, which is 50% higher than the S20 Ultra. And there's an Eye Comfort Shield feature that's designed to reduce eye fatigue by limiting blue light. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra cameras

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

It's the cameras where the Galaxy S21 Ultra stands out the most against the S21 and S21 Plus. There's a main 108MP wide sensor and 12MP ultra-wide camera, which is complemented by a laser auto focus sensor.

The 108MP main camera can capture 12-bit HDR photos with 64 times richer color data and more than three times the dynamic range of the S20 Ultra. Plus, there's a 12-bit RAW file option in Pro mode.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

I tested the camera out at a nearby store to capture a shot of produce, and the green peppers in the foreground look incredibly vibrant. And you can make out a pretty amazing amount of detail when you zoom in. 

Samsung says it has also improved the Portrait mode on the S21 by leveraging AI to better separate the subject from the background. The phone did a good job with this portrait with a pleasing bokeh effect, and my blue sweatshirt and tan jacket have a fair amount of detail. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

But the headline camera feature is the Ultra's two telephoto lenses — one with 3x zoom and one with 10x optical zoom. The S20 Ultra had just a 4x optical zoom.

It gets better. While the 100x Space Zoom has returned with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, it's not as shaky as before. That's because there's a new Zoom lock feature that identifies your subject to keep it steadier in the frame. 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra should perform better than the S21 and S21 Plus in low light, thanks to a faster Bright Night sensor and 12MP nona-binning technology for reducing noise reduction. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

One shot I took outside looked brighter than in real life, but the Night Mode added a gold tint that's unrealistic. The S21 Ultra actually prompted me to fix the lighting, but the end result looked overly bright.  

On the video front, the Galaxy S21 Ultra can record 8K video up to 30 fps and all of its cameras can capture 4K video at up to 60 fps. But the coolest video upgrade is Director's View. There's a new vlogger mode that lets you use the front and back cameras as the same time for recording video. And you can see live thumbnails of each camera while you're recording video, so you can make a quick call if you want to switch. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

Another software upgrade is Single Take 2.0. Just like before, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is smart enough to capture several images and videos at once for easy sharing. But the AI can now analyze more frames per second for locating the best-looking shots while also creating a Dynamic Slow Mo clip. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 performance

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra features the new Snapdragon 888 processor from Qualcomm, which promises 20% better CPU performance, 30% better graphics and up to twice the AI performance. 

We'll be bringing you benchmark results with our final review, but overall the S21 Ultra seems very smooth and fast so far. It has no problem juggling multiple open apps, and I enjoyed console-like gameplay when slicing and jumping why way through Grimvalor. Even with multiple enemies on screen, the S21 Ultra didn't stutter.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra S Pen

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra S Pen

(Image credit: Future)

For the first time ever, a Galaxy S device supports the S Pen, the S21 Ultra makes that happen with a Wacom digitizer built into the display. The S Pen, which is optional, lets you draw, sketch and take notes, just as you can on the Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra. It also comes in handy for quickly signing documents.

Just keep in mind that the S Pen is sold separately — it costs $40 — and you'll need to spring for a compatible case if you want to store the stylus on the go when it's not in use. There are two case options with S Pen support, and both cost $69.99.

In addition to the S Pen — which is actually a slightly larger version of the one that ships with the Galaxy Note to improve its grip — Samsung is developing a second stylus. The S Pen Pro ships later this year for an undisclosed price. It's larger overall and offer Bluetooth connectivity.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: 5G, Wi-Fi 6E and UWB

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra supports all of the latest wireless standards, starting with 5G. The Qualcomm X60 modem inside this device is capable of carrier aggregation, which should result in higher peak speeds while delivering better power efficiency.

In addition, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the first phones to support Wi-Fi 6E, a new standard that delivers faster speeds and more overall bandwidth when you have a compatible Wi-Fi 6E router. 

Lastly, the S21 Ultra has UWB (ultra-wideband), which makes it easier to share files with other UWB devices, like the Galaxy S21 Plus. And you'll be able to use this phone as a digital key for select 2022 cars. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra software and Galaxy SmartTags

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra dock

(Image credit: Future)

If you're constantly losing stuff — like me — you'll want to check out Samsung's new Galaxy SmartTags. You can use this tag in combination with the SmartThings Find app to track down everything from your keys to your bag. You can also use the SmartThings Find app to locate other Samsung devices, including phones, smartwatches, tablets and earbuds. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra battery and charging

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra battery life

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has the same size 5,000 mAh battery as the S20 Ultra, but this phone should last longer on a charge. The 5nm processor inside this handset is more efficient, and Samsung says that it's leveraging AI to analyze usage patterns to reduce power consumption. We'll see how well the S21 Ultra performs on our battery test and if it can crack our best phone battery life list. 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra supports a fast 25W charger

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra outlook

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has all the makings of becoming the best Android phone around, at least for those willing to pay a premium. And it's good to see that Samsung has dropped the price by $200 vs the S20 Ultra. The biggest reasons to be excited about this phone are the dual zoom cameras and the fantastic 6.8-inch OLED display that gives you 120Hz and full quad HD resolution at the same time.

I see the S Pen support as nice to have, as I don't envision a ton of people taking advantage of it because of the added costs for the pen and case.

I's a bummer that Samsung doesn't include a charger in the box, and that you can't expand the storage. And while all the new camera tricks are cool, I'm more interested to see how well the S21 Ultra stands up to the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Google Pixel 5 in terms of image quality. Stay tuned for our final rated review. 

  • IBM296
    What date is the final review going to come??
  • Techgal2
    Just ordered ultra direct from Samsung. I am getting back what I paid for my S10. It's a great buy back. Plus they are including a free travel charger, free wireless earbuds, free wireless charger, free s pen, and a free case. No complaints. Only worried that this might be a behemouth.