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Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: Taking The Android Flagship To A New Level That Will Be Hard To Beat

The Samsung Galaxy Series has come a long way since its inception. It has finally culminated in an almost perfect smartphone with the S21 series this year. After years of experience in launching premium smartphones, Samsung may have finally got almost everything right with the S21 Ultra. I have been using Samsung's latest flagship for almost a week now and my experience with this smartphone has left me wanting to make this phone my primary device in 2021. From the camera to the performance to the build quality, everything seems right about the Galaxy S21. Here's what I think about Samsung's latest flagship that will be hard to beat this year.

Design and Display 

Hands down, my favourite thing about the S21 Ultra has to do with the build quality and the tone of the 'Phantom Black' colour. It's the blackest of black you can find on a smartphone and to be fair, pictures really don't do justice for the beautiful design Samsung has opted to use this year. The Galaxy S21 Ultra makes other premium smartphones feel cheap with the exception of the iPhone 12 Pro. The Galaxy S21 Ultra makes smartphones like the OnePlus 8 Pro feel like budget offerings which is a testament to what Samsung has achieved with this phone. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra Review© MensXP/Akshay Bhalla

At the back, you will find a very minimalistic look with a camera module at the top left corner. There is a more prominent bump this time around which didn't really bother me as much as I thought it would. It looks quite good and doesn't really interfere with the overall experience of the smartphone. Sure, you will have to use a case in case you want to keep the smartphone flat on a surface, however you will need to purchase that separately. Apart from the massive camera module, the design of the smartphone is fairly simple and elegant. We do have to mention that the phone feels great to hold in the hand, thanks to its aluminium frame. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra Review© MensXP/Akshay Bhalla

Much like any Samsung flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has IP68 water and dust resistance rating, supports wireless charging and uses the Infinity-O display design. Having said that, Samsung has removed the ability to expand storage, as the phone does not have a microSD slot in the SIM tray this time around. This might be disappointing for existing Samsung users who require extra storage space for apps, games and pictures.

Galaxy S21 Ultra Review© MensXP/Akshay Bhalla

Samsung is known for using the best display units for its flagship phones and the case remains the same with the Galaxy S21 Ultra as well. In fact, it may just be the best display we've used on a smartphone yet - even better than the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The phone has a fairly large 6.8-inch WQHD+ display with a resolution of 3,200 X 1,440. The display does have a slight curve to it but it's rather easy to use. The display also uses an adaptive refresh rate up to 120Hz where the screen can go as low as 10Hz for maximum battery output. Browsing on the S21 Ultra was a delight, thanks to the animations and scrolling speed optimised for OneUI 3.1. The combination of the vivid display and the great implementation of the adaptive refresh rate is by far the standout feature on the S21 Ultra here.

Galaxy S21 Ultra Review© MensXP/Akshay Bhalla

Needles to say, the display quality is second to none and watching movies, TV shows, Twitch and gaming is a sublime experience on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Colour calibration on the display is extremely accurate and is not over saturated either. The display also supports HDR10+ content which makes watching content on apps like Netflix feel like a dream. In addition, users can also use the display with Samsung's stylus, the S-Pen as it now supports all the features you can use on the Galaxy Note Series. You will have to purchase the S Pen and the case separately so that you can use it more effectively.

Camera

The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes with a wide array of sensors such as a 12MP wide-angle camera, a 108MP main sensor with OIS, a 10MP 3x optical telephoto sensor with OIS, and a 10MP 10x optical telephoto sensor. In our experience, the S21 Ultra can capture some incredible images with great detail. We particularly like the 'Single Take' feature quite a bit which was also present in the Galaxy S20 Ultra as well.

Galaxy S21 Ultra Review© MensXP/Akshay Bhalla

The S21 Ultra's dual telephoto lens setup does help in capturing images from afar with better detail, however we do feel the images feel a bit soft. The 10X telephoto lens needs a bit of work in our opinion as the final image doesn't really feel like an image shot using optical zoom. Having said that, Samsung has improved the stability in this mode as the S22 Ultra shakes far less when zoomed as compared to its predecessor. 

Similarly, the S21 Ultra's night mode could also use some improvement in order to catch up with its competition i.e. the iPhone 12 Series. For an Android device, the Night Mode works fairly well and beats most of the other Android devices with ease. Portrait mode on the S21 Ultra is accurate most of the time at detecting edges of people, however we do feel that there haven't been any noticeable improvements from its predecessors. Overall, the images do look quite impressive and for once, feel more balanced instead of having the usual Samsung tuning with pictures looking a bit oversaturated. Pictures look crisper than usual, however we did notice a bit of softness in low-light images taken without the Night Mode. 

Some housekeeping notes about the camera app - it does feel a bit unintuitive to use as some features are buried deep into menus. It would be prudent if Samsung could streamline some of the key features and bring them to the forefront such as Night Mode, rather than have a user dig these features from the 'More' section. Samsung could also implement something similar to Apple where the cameras toggle night mode automatically if there isn't enough ambient light. 

If you want to get a better idea of the Galaxy S21 Ultra's picture quality, have a look at the gallery below:

Performance and Battery Life 

Galaxy S21 Ultra Review© MensXP/Akshay Bhalla

Now, this is a hot topic for Indian consumers since Samsung uses Exynos chipsets for its smartphones that are sold in the country. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is powered by Samsung's latest 5nm Exynos 2100 chipset and unlike past experiences, Samsung has sorted out most of its silicon problems on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Right out of the box, we did not see any throttling of any kind or any overheating issues unlike the Galaxy Note 20 from last year. In fact, the Exynos 2100 may just be the best chipset Samsung has ever made and trust me when I say this, they have listened to fans this time around. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra Review© MensXP/Akshay Bhalla

The Exynos 2100 is surpassingly well optimised in terms of performance. In some of our graphic tests, it even beat the iPhone 12 Pro this year. For example, in our 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme test, the Exynos version scored 7523 points in the test and in comparison has better performance than its predecessor, landing it a spot amongst the top five performing smartphones. Having said that, the Exynos 2100 does need better-sustained GPU performance in games like Genshin Impact or with games that have to render more assets. 

Stability is a slight issue for larger open-world games at the moment which may be fixed in a future update. We do have to point out that games like Genshin Impact have not been optimised for Samsung's new chipset yet which could be the reason behind the stability problems. This isn't really Samsung's fault as the developer needs to optimise the game for the chipset and not the other way around. However, you should face no problems in competitive games like Call of Duty or upcoming MOBA games like League of Legends: Wild Rift. We did not notice any frame rate drops in any of our gaming sessions which is the ideal situation you want any smartphone to be in. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra Review© MensXP/Akshay Bhalla

If you are wondering about CPU performance, after a recent update, there was a huge difference in performance which left me quite surprised. In our Geekbench 5 test, the S21 Ultra (Exynos) scored 1035 (single-core) and 3136 (multi-core) points which are at par with recent flagship smartphones. In real life usage, the phone performed reliably well and did not falter in the overall experience. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is by far the most balanced smartphone yet, made with a chipset that may not be the popular choice amongst Android fanboys but it really does hold its own.  

I also have to give a special shoutout to the software team at Samsung mobiles for the incredible experience we got with OneUI 3.1. The software is highly optimised for the hardware and has become our favourite Android skin this year, overtaking OxygenOS 11. Samsung has made improvements to the overall software experience that in my opinion is the best you can get right now. It feels more streamlined, stable and looks absolutely phenomenal. The only issue I have is the lack of using my own icon packs natively. Features like Samsung DeX, Link to Windows, a dedicated Kids Mode are some of the thoughtful features other phones lack. Other features like connectivity with Galaxy Buds Live, Buds+ and other Samsung accessories is flawless and is the only thing that comes close to Apple's offering.

When I say the phone is highly optimised for the hardware, it also reflects in the battery life of the phone. The Galaxy S21 Ultra can easily last you 1.5 days, thanks to its massive 5000mAh battery. However, if you do use the display in WQHD+ mode, you can expect it to go down a bit, especially if you have adaptive refresh rate turned on for the higher resolution. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, unfortunately, does not come with a charger in the box, however the good news is you can use any third-party Power Delivery (PD) charger with the phone. The phone supports up to 25W PD fast charging and 15W wireless charging which makes it easier for existing Samsung/Android users to use their previous chargers. 

The Final Say 

Samsung has really knocked it out of the park with the Galaxy S21 Ultra this time around with a great software experience, improved performance and a premium design that is currently unmatched. With one of the best displays we've ever used on a smartphone to offer great flexibility with its cameras, the S21 Ultra will be setting a new standard for flagship devices in 2021.


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