Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

I’ve had my Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra for a couple of weeks now, and I can tell you without hesitation that “Ultra” is a fitting name for this smartphone. While the S21 line follows the recent industry trend of making affordable flagship phones, the S21 Ultra isn’t for people looking for a bargain. It is the very definition of a premium experience and it is priced to match. If you are looking for the very best Android phone available today, look no further. Here’s why.

Specifications

First, the specifications for the S21 Ultra are impressive. If you are interested in the numbers, you’ll find them here. With numbers out of the way, let’s dive into what I really like about the S21 Ultra and where there’s room for improvement.

Hardware

I never (and I mean never) care about the color of a smartphone. Like most people, I always encase my phones in impact-resistant shells and the cases always cover everything but the screen. So, color is always meaningless. That said, Samsung sent my S21 Ultra review unit in Phantom Black. It’s a matte black finish that just made me smile. I still put the phone in a case, but to give credit where credit is due, the matte black finish immediately sparked joy. The S21 comes in a bunch of other “Phantom” colors, if color is your thing.

The S21 Ultra weighs 229g (8.08 oz.). That’s over half a pound. Add a case, and you know you’re holding a “big” phone. The 6.8″ screen is absolutely manageable. Most adults will be able to “one hand” some of the functions, but like all flagship phones, it’s a two-hand device.

Speaking of the 6.8-inch SuperAMOLED display, it has a 120Hz refresh rate and uses the same Adaptive Refresh Rate tech we’ve seen in previous high-end Samsung devices. Geeks, if you care about resolution and refresh rate, the S21 Ultra can display 1440p at 120Hz. The difference is subtle but noticeable.

Back to the physical features. The lens package literally sticks out. But form follows function, and you won’t mind the multi-lens array once you experience the way Samsung combines these optics with computational photography.

The Camera

If your primary use for your smartphone is “network-connected camera,” the S21 Ultra was designed for you. Samsung’s very clever use of optics, sensor arrays, and computational photography/videography software makes an unbeatable combination. The S21 Ultra is a creator’s dream device.

Camera capabilities are the main battleground for flagship phones. To be fair, for any given feature, one phone will be better than another on any given day. Zoom or low light or portrait, etc. While the S21 Ultra may not win in every category, when you take all of its image-making capabilities together, it would be my “go to” or “desert island” device.

You can do just about anything with the camera in the S21 Ultra. That’s a big deal when you don’t know when you’re going to need to shoot a quick video, make a meme, grab a still, do some gifs, zoom in 100x, shoot a macro, etc. The S21 Ultra did a “good enough” to “outstanding” job no matter what shot I tried to take. Calling it a Swiss Army Knife camera would not do it justice. The S21 Ultra is best-in-class or runner-up in almost every category of image-making.

Other Stuff

Battery life is good. The fingerprint sensor is good. The addition of S Pen compatibility has the pundits speculating about the end of Samsung’s Galaxy Note line. Samsung is silent on that idea, but I’m not sure you’ll care about the optional S Pen.

Annoying Stuff

The S21 Ultra is not all sunshine and unicorns. Samsung chose to remove the microSD external storage slot. Considering the device’s image-making capabilities and the fact that you can shoot in 8K (7680×4320), this makes less sense than ever. External storage has been synonymous with the Samsung brand. No longer. The company also dumped the wall brick, so you get a cable, but no plug. Apple did this with the iPhone 12 line. I’m not sure it was a great idea to fast follow Apple here. The software in the S21 Ultra is the same as in the lesser S21 devices. It does a better job with the features, but if you don’t need the nth degree of awesome, you can probably get away with one of Samsung’s less expensive devices.

Lastly, the bloatware and intrusive advertising that come preinstalled on the S21 Ultra feel out of place on a premium device. It’s not “on brand” for Samsung, and they should stop doing it.

The Bottom Line

If you’re looking for the very best Android phone Samsung has ever made, this is your smartphone. If you’re wondering if it’s worth the money, it is. If you’re wondering if it will replace your iPhone 12 Pro Max, it won’t. If you are an iPhone person, only an iPhone will do. However, if you are wondering if it will replace any other Android phone you own, it will, and you will be very happy with your purchase.

I am rarely delighted with a smartphone. I’m spoiled. I’ve been getting review units of every smartphone from almost every manufacturer for more than a decade. Each new phone has a slightly better screen, slightly better battery life, a slightly better camera, etc. At first glance, the Samsung S21 Ultra would be just another new flagship phone. But on closer inspection, it truly stands out from the crowd.

Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it. Samsung is a featured partner of the Shelly Palmer Innovation Series.

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication and the CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, writes a weekly column for Adweek, and is a regular commentator on CNN and CNBC and writes a popular daily business blog. He’s the Co-Host of the award-winning podcast Techstream with Shelly Palmer & Seth Everett and he hosts the Shelly Palmer #CryptoWednesday Livestream. Follow @shellypalmer or visit shellypalmer.com.

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