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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best Android phone yet with dual zoom lenses, a stellar display and excellent battery life

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Future)

Our Verdict

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best Android phone yet with dual zoom lenses, a stellar display and excellent battery life. The S Pen is just a bonus

For

  • Dynamic 6.8-inch AMOLED display
  • Dual telephoto lenses
  • S Pen support
  • Great battery life

Against

  • Pricey
  • No charger or microSD card
  • A bit bulky

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best Android phone you can buy right now. It packs in all of the features you could possibly want in a phone, unless you like smaller devices.

For $1,199 — or $100 more than the iPhone 12 Pro Max — you a get dynamic 6.8-inch display and dual telephoto lenses for crazy zoom power. Plus, the S21 Ultra supports the S Pen, a first for the Galaxy S series.

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
Battery life: 11 hours 25 min (60Hz), 10:07 (adaptive)
Wireless: 5G, Wi-Fi 6E, UWB
Size: 6.5 x 2.97 x 0.35 inches
Weight: 8.08 ounces

The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes in a sleeker design and offers faster performance from Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 chip. And, unlike the regular Galaxy S21, you don't have to make nearly as many trade-offs. You get a better main 108MP camera, a glass back (instead of plastic), more RAM, and a higher-res display.

As you'll see in my Galaxy S21 Ultra review, there are some trade-offs, including the lack of a charger in the box. But overall, this is one of the best phones money can buy for those willing to pay a premium and one of the best Android phones overall. 

Editor's note: We crowned our picked in the Tom's Guide Awards 2021 for the phones category. The Galaxy S21 Ultra won the best phone design award and two highly recommended awards.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review 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. 
  • The 11.5 hours of battery life is excellent for a 5G phone. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra release date and price

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is available right now and you can 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.

Over in the U.K, the Galaxy S21 Ultra starts at £1,149 for the 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage base model. That price rises to £1,199 for the 256GB handset and tops out at £1,329 for the model with 16GB and 512GB of internal storage.  

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Design and colors

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review colors

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a monolith of a phone. Yes, the contour cut camera design blends the camera bump into the glass back, but this is still a massive device you’ll want to use with two hands. We've recognized as the best designed device in our Tom's Guide Awards 2021 for phones.

With its 0.35 inch profile and weight of 8.08 ounces, the S21 Ultra is thicker and heavier than the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The display is gently curved, unlike the fully flat regular Galaxy S21, but not annoyingly so. I never accidentally tapped something on screen as I did with last year’s Ultra.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes in just two colors from carriers: Phantom Black and Phantom Silver. I might go with black because of its slimming effect. Samsung.com is offering exclusive S21 Ultra colors, though, including Phantom Navy, Phantom Titanium and Phantom Brown. Best Buy has an exclusive Navy Blue colorway, also.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

One of my favorite design upgrades is the 1.7x larger fingerprint sensor. It makes it easier to unlock the phone, and I found that the S21 Ultra didn’t ask me to press the sensor again like previous phones. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Display

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review display

(Image credit: Future)

The 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is simply one of the best screens on a phone. It's bright, vibrant and doesn't make you choose between the highest resolution and highest refresh rate like its predecessor. 

Yes, you’ll be mesmerized when watching videos on this phablet. The colors are as rich as ever, and the viewing angles nice and wide when bing watching on Netflix. 

But the Ultra surpasses the iPhone with its dynamic refresh rate. Not only do you get super smooth scrolling and gameplay, you now get 120Hz and quad HD resolution at the same time. So you don’t have to choose between the highest resolution and highest refresh rates.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

The S21 Ultra is also smart enough to automatically dial the refresh rate all the way down to 10Hz to help save on power.

More good news, the S21 Ultra’s display is easy to read outdoors, because it can reach a peak rated brightness of 1,500 nits. In our testing, the S21 Ultra averaged 821 nits, which beats the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s 654 nits.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

The S21 Ultra’s screen proved plenty colorful in our lab tests, with the panel producing 81.4% of the demanding DCI-P3 color gamut, compared to 84.8% for the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

The colors on the iPhone were a bit more accurate, with its screen achieving a Delta-E score of 0.07, compared to 0.35 for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. 

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 review: 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.

See more

The Galaxy S21 Ultra will make you feel like a secret agent as you zoom in. While the iPhone 12 Pro Max is stuck at 2.5x optical zoom, the S21 Ultra packs two telephoto lenses of 3x and 10x optical zoom.

I was amazed how close I got to this sign well across a highway. At 100x the zoom does get shaky but the new Zoom Lock feature can help you get a steadier shot with just a tap. 

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.

I tested the camera out at a nearby store to capture a shot of produce, and the green peppers in the foreground look shiny and delicious. And you can make out a pretty amazing amount of detail when you zoom in. However, by comparison, the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s shot looks even more vibrant.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is also a great partner to have when you're outdoors. Take this photo of towering trees I took at a nearby park. You can make out fine detail in the bark, and the phone does a great job capturing the clouds against the blue sky even while dealing with all of the shadows in the foreground. I slightly prefer the S21 Ultra’s photo in this case to the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but it’s really close. 

Samsung says it has also improved the Portrait mode on the S21 by leveraging AI to better separate the subject from the background. The S21 Ultra delivers a great bokeh effect here. My skin tone is warmer on the iPhone 12 pro Max, but overall the S21 shot looks great.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra also performs quite well in low light, thanks to a faster Bright Night sensor and 12MP nona-binning technology for reducing noise reduction. In this comparison you can make out more of the stones and bushes in the foreground in the S21 Ultra’s photo compared to the iPhone 12 Pro Max, although the iPhone’s colors look more natural. 

The iPhone 12 Pro Max pulls ahead in this photo of a golden retriever. The S21 Ultra’s pic is overly bright and a bit washed out, while his fur his more golden and natural looking with the iPhone. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Video 

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)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra's footage looks stunning. As I swept around a river with the S21 Ultra, it delivered near movie-quality results. The dark blue water, dock and puffy clouds all came through crystal clear.

And, yes, you can feel free to move around a lot while shooting. With Super Steady mode on the S21 Ultra engaged, I captured smooth footage even as I walked fast up a hill. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review Single Take 2.0

(Image credit: Future)

If you want to take photos and stills at once, the Single Take 2.0 feature on the S21 Ultra is pretty fun. It managed to capture my attempt at a reverse layup in slow mo and pick a pretty good photo at the top of the jump. However, the music Samsung chooses sometimes for its auto-generated video clips sounds cheesy. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Performance

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the first phones powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chip, which is complemented by 12GB or 16GB of RAM.

And this is one fast Android phone. The S21 Ultra didn’t flinch as I sliced through multiple enemies in Grimvalor while delivering console-quality visuals. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

This flagship backs up my experience with impressive benchmark scores. On Geekbench 5, the S21 Ultra notched 3,440 on the multi-core test and 1,123 on single-core. That’s behind the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which cleared 4,100 and 1,600, but it’s still the best scores we’ve seen from an Android phone. 

The S21 Ultra also fared well on the 3DMark Wild Life graphics benchmark, hitting 34 fps. The iPhone 12 Pro Max averaged 54 fps.

On our video editing test using the Adobe Premiere Rush app, the Galaxy S21 Ultra took 1 minute and 2 seconds to transcode a 4K video to 1080p. That’s faster than the Note 20 Ultra’s 1:16 but still well behind the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s 28 seconds. 

Unfortunately, while you have a range of storage options to choose from for the S21 Ultra — 128, 256 or 512GB — Samsung ditched the microSD card slot. So you can't expand. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Battery life and charging

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra battery life

(Image credit: Future)

If you’re looking for a phone that can last all day, this is it. On our web surfing battery test over 5G, the S21 Ultra’s 5,000 mAh endured for 11 hours and 25 minutes. That beats the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s 10:53 and lands the Ultra on our best phone battery life list. 

Note that this time is with the standard 60Hz display mode turned on and that you’ll see less battery life with adaptive mode (up to 120Hz) engaged. In this mode we saw a runtime of 10 hours and 7 minutes. 

The biggest bummer is that you don’t get a charger in the box. Yes, it’s the green thing to do, but if you haven’t bought a phone in the last couple of years and don’t have USB-C, it will mean more money coming out of your pocket. 

Using a 25-watt charger, the S21 Ultra reached 56% in 30 minutes and 31% in 15 minutes. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: 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, 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. Samsung sells a Silicone Cover with S Pen included for $69.99.

I tried out this case, and it adds bulk to already bulky phone. The S Pen functionality worked pretty well, and you can enjoy features like Screen Off memo for quickly jotting down notes. However, because Bluetooth isn't built in, you can't use the pen as a remote control as you can with the Note 20 Ultra. So you can't skip tracks with a button press or control slideshows. 

Samsung is developing a second stylus. The S Pen Pro ships later this year for an undisclosed price, which will include Bluetooth connectivity. 

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

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review 5G

(Image credit: Future)

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.

The performance was pretty solid in my neck of the woods on T-Mobile. I saw download speeds exceed 160 Mbps. It’s not fantastic, but the iPhone 12 Pro Max mustered only 100 Mbps in the same location when I popped the same SIM card in that phone. 

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 review: Software and 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. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. Galaxy S21 vs Galaxy S21 Plus

We have a whole article dedicated to Galaxy S21 vs Galaxy S21 Plus vs Galaxy S21 Ultra, as there are many differences. But here are the key things to know. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has the highest resolution main camera (108MP vs 64MP for S21 and Plus), the most powerful zooms (100x vs 30x) and the sharpest display (QHD vs 1080p).

In addition, the screen on the Ultra is more dynamic, as it can scale from 120Hz all the way down to 10Hz, while the panels on the regular S21 and S21 Plus go down to 48Hz. This helps save on battery life. And the S21 Ultra has the largest battery at 5,000 mAh, compared to the S21 (4,000 mAh) and S21 Plus (4,800 mAh).

Lastly, the S21 Ultra has the most RAM at 12GB to 16GB, while the S21 and S21 Plus make due with 8GB. And only the S21 Ultra has a 512GB storage option. See our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review for more. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max

(Image credit: Future)

The biggest competitor for the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple's phone delivers faster performance from its A14 Bionic chip, and you get a strong Ceramic Shield front display that's designed to be more durable. The iPhone 12 Pro Max is also thinner and lighter.

But the Galaxy S21 Ultra has plenty of advantages over the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Samsung's phone offers more versatile cameras (especially when it comes to zooming), a 120Hz display, an in-screen fingerprint reader and longer battery life. I'd say that's worth the $100 over Apple's flagship. 

For more, see our in-depth Galaxy S21 Ultra vs iPhone 12 Pro Max face-off. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. Galaxy Z Fold 3

Samsung's new foldable phones are here. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the new kid on the block from Samsung, showcasing the company's prowess when it comes to display technology and hardware design. The Fold 3 is a big, powerful phone that Samsung has intended to succeed the venerable Galaxy Note line (RIP).

The Z Fold 3 also has S Pen support like the S21 Ultra, though it has fewer cameras. Photography aficionados who prefer Samsung phones will want to stick with the S21 Ultra this year. 

Our Galaxy Z Fold 3 vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra face-off update is in the works, where we'll pit these two phones against each other to truly see which behemoth is the best option for you. But if you're tired of the old smartphone design, then the Galaxy Z Fold 3 (or even Galaxy Z Flip 3) is worth looking at — bearing in mind that it's quite expensive.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Verdict 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

(Image credit: Future)

Samsung has nearly perfected the big-screen phone with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The display is best-in-class, the cameras are much improved and you can even use this thing as a Galaxy Note if you want to.

Personally, I see the S Pen support as more of a bonus because of the added cost. 

There are some things I don’t like about this flagship. It’s a bit big and heavy, and the lack of a charger and microSD card slot both sting. And while the S21 Ultra is fast, it’s still a step behind the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Then again, Samsung’s phone lasts longer on charge and lets you do more with its cameras. 

Overall, if you’re looking for the pinnacle of Android phones, the S21 Ultra is it. It does, however, face stiff competition from the excellent OnePlus 9 Pro for the title of ultimate Android phone.

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for nearly 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. 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.

  • Seanman
    I have owned the Ultra 21 for just under a week now. I have experienced terrible battery life. I've done several things in the settings to fix this but no luck. I am expecting about ten percent battery drain per hour with very light use. Others in the official Samsung forums have similar issues. A Samsung moderator posted that the adaptive battery should solve some of the issue, but some members are saying that even after a week they are seeing no change. This is something to be aware of. The issue seems to be mainly in America and Europe for whatever reason
    Reply
  • jwats
    Have you found a solution?
    Reply
  • Seanman
    I returned my original to Samsung and purchased another from my local dealer. This one is improved but still not stellar given that it is a 5000 mAh battery.

    Samsung has released an update for the Exynos version of phone designed to address the battery life issue that many have experienced. In the US, the phones use the Snapdragon version of the phone. To the best of my knowledge Samsung has not acknowledged any issues with the Snapdragon phones.
    Reply
  • jwats
    Sounds like a quality control issue. If I buy from Costco, I have a 90 day return, which seems like a smart way to avoid a problem
    Reply
  • Microphone
    Seanman said:
    I have owned the Ultra 21 for just under a week now. I have experienced terrible battery life. I've done several things in the settings to fix this but no luck. I am expecting about ten percent battery drain per hour with very light use. Others in the official Samsung forums have similar issues. A Samsung moderator posted that the adaptive battery should solve some of the issue, but some members are saying that even after a week they are seeing no change. This is something to be aware of. The issue seems to be mainly in America and Europe for whatever reason


    I joined the club and am leaving the Ultra 21 behind and we are getting our $$$ back. S10+ owner for two years and since my battery and my wife's on her S10 were starting to show signs of fading, it was a good time to jump to the S21 and S21 Ultra. Both of us experienced the battery drain on light use and both had problems with text messaging. It's not the network, I switched the SIM cards back to our S10's and the texting is fine. The side buttons , and this may be nitpicking, were awkward. Trying to do a screen shot didn't work and I can read directions. It didn't happen.

    Maybe we just had a bad experience, but just on our batteries alone, I give this phone 2*'s out of 5. I read from Tom there are battery fixes in the works and as long as that and the texting work, I'd give this another look this summer. For now a hard pass.
    Reply
  • eaglegrad16
    I experienced nothing but failures with this WAY overpriced piece of junk. Swapped out 4 times because of poor network, connectivity, dropped calls. Battery drain. Poor function. I've never owned a worse phone. The very last great one was the Note8, which Samsung stupidly discontinued. Verizon courteously canceled my lease bless them.

    I will happily look for a decent prepaid that actually works. This one is 1.5 out of 5.
    Reply
  • turk58guy
    Yeah I gotta say, as an average phone user, this phone makes no sense to buy. Coming from the S8+ has been a disappointing experience thus far. The phone tends to heat up and is extremely fragile. For something this expensive, they cut all the corners on the assembly and it really shows. I really don't notice much of a performance or battery life upgrade from my S8+ which is surprising since the battery life on my S8+ is declining. Cameras are nice but the rest of the phone needs to do its job too for such an expensive piece of equipment
    Reply