Samsung shifted its annual Galaxy S series launch about a month to the left this year, and given the challenges we all faced in 2020, it is nice to see 2021 start off with some fresh phones from Samsung. We were sent a new Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G to try out and will be spending considerable time with the new phone over the next few weeks.
The Galaxy S21 phones are the first to launch widely with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor inside. We see improvements across the board in the display, cameras, and more. In addition, the S21 Ultra 5G supports the S Pen and all it offers. We still need to figure out how well it is supported given there is no S Pen included and there is no silo for carrying the S Pen, so right now, it’s a bit of a confusing story.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G offers all you could want in 2021 and sets the bar for Android smartphones this year. The phone is available for pre-order with all kinds of trade-in and launch offers as well.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G specifications
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
- Main display: 6.8 inches, 3200 x 1440 pixels resolution (515PPI), Dynamic AMOLED Infinity-O with adaptive 120Hz refresh rate
- Operating system: Android 11
- RAM: 12GB/16GB LPDDR5
- Storage: 128/512GB internal storage options
- Cameras: 10MP rear f/4.9 telephoto with 10x optical zoom and a second 10MP f/2.4 telephoto camera with 3x optical zoom, 108MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (120 degrees field-of-view). 40MP f/2.2 front-facing camera.
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.0 LE, GPS/Galileo/GLONASS/Beidou, NFC, UWB
- Sensors: Accelerometer, Barometer, Ultrasonic Fingerprint Sensor, Gyro Sensor, Geomagnetic Sensor, Hall Sensor, Proximity Sensor, RGB Light Sensor
- Dust/water resistance: IP68 rating
- Battery: 5000mAh non-removable with fast wireless charging. Wireless PowerShare is also available.
- Dimensions: 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm and 229G
- Colors: Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy, and Phantom Brown
In the past, users had to choose from a lower resolution to enjoy the highest 120Hz refresh rate, but with the S21 Ultra, you can now toggle on the Quad HD Plus setting and the adaptive 120Hz refresh rate. The display also offers 25% more brightness than any previous Samsung Galaxy smartphone.
The display is also constructed of Corning Gorilla Glass Victus on both the front and back, so we’ll have to see how durability tests hold up to the claims.
The most striking new hardware feature on the S21 Ultra is the new Contour Cut camera housing that extends the metal frame out from the right side and around the back. The cameras are surrounded by this metal frame piece, providing a rather unique camera array design. Like the S20 Ultra from 2020, cases are likely to be released to accommodate this camera bump and make the back of the device flat so it doesn’t rock when placed back down on a surface.
Much of our time working on the full review will clearly be spent with this updated camera system. The camera on the S20 Ultra was disappointing in some areas but was improved through software updates. Hopefully, Samsung has released a fully capable camera system with outstanding performance on the S21 Ultra.
The other significant hardware improvement in the S21 Ultra is support for the S Pen experience. The S21 and S21 Plus do not have this support while the S21 Ultra includes Wacom technology. We understand there is limited S Pen functionality at launch with more support coming in future updates. I spent a few minutes using the S Pen from a Note 10 Plus and Galaxy Tab S7 Plus to try out this feature but will go into more detail in the full review.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is a gorgeous piece of hardware with minimal top and bottom bezels, no side bezels, and a small hole-punch centered front-facing camera. The power/Bixby and volume buttons on the right side with nothing on the left side. The sides have a bit of a flat surface so the phone feels a bit like a Note with less curve on the edges.
The Super AMOLED display is obviously stunning and I’m sure will earn the highest title of any smartphone display soon. Samsung continues to improve its display, even when it seems there is little to improve since Samsung sets the bar for display technology on smartphones. Higher brightness, improved contrast ratio, and Eye Comfort Shield is incorporated in the S21 Ultra.
Another change that may concern enterprise customers is the lack of support for microSD in any Galaxy S21 model, including the S21 Ultra. Swappable, expandable storage has always been a staple of Samsung smartphones and will be missed. My review unit happens to have 512GB of internal storage, so I can’t imagine storage will be an issue with this model in hand. I am also testing the model with 16GB of RAM.
Wi-Fi 6E support is included in the S21 Ultra, but we won’t be able to test this out since we do not have access to a 6E network. It’s great to have as it provides some future-proofing to Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G launches with Android 11 and Samsung One UI 3. The January 1, 2021 Android security update is present on our review unit. We may receive more updates on these evaluation units prior to public availability later this month.
I’ve been using One 3.x on a Galaxy S20 Ultra for a few weeks and am satisfied with the user interface. One thing I am pleased to see is the update to the launcher where Google Discover now appears as an option on the far left home screen panel. You can still switch to Samsung Free, but it’s great to see Samsung providing users with options. In the past, I always turned off this panel because I didn’t find Samsung’s offering very compelling. This is the same for me with OnePlus and its old Shelf home screen panel.
Facebook is installed by default, but rather than just disable it you can now fully uninstall it, and I certainly did as soon as I fired up the app launcher. We still find some Samsung apps, such as Internet, Messages, Samsung Notes, Samsung Health, and a few others, but you are given the option to select these apps during setup so you do not have to install them all and have more control over your phone than you did in the past.
Initial usage experiences
The two default S21 Ultra colors, Phantom Black and Phantom Silver, are perfect for business use. The other three colors are Samsung.com exclusives and offer a professional look with a bit of flair. The S21 Ultra will launch on Jan. 29, starting at $1,199.99. There are pre-order offers and trade-in offers available, too.
Samsung sent along the S21 Ultra with the best specs, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of internal storage, so this beast should be able to handle anything we throw at it with ease. We’ll test some powerful games, connect and run DeX, and see if this new S21 can help us get work done in any situation.
I’ve only spent a few hours with the S21 Ultra, but one of the first things I did was pull out an S Pen from a Note 10 Plus to see what the S21 Ultra could do. I was frankly quite surprised to find the same S Pen experience available on the S21 Ultra, including screen off memo support. I was under the impression there were going to be some limitations, but so far I haven’t found any. There’s the issue of carrying and charging up the S Pen so there is still more to explore and see what Samsung comes up with for supporting S Pen use on the S21 Ultra.
Full review testing plan
My T-Mobile SIM is in the Galaxy S21 Ultra and it will be my daily driver for the review period. Here’s what I plan to focus on, but please leave comments and let me know what else you would like addressed:
- Speed and responsiveness
- Cellular reception
- Battery life
- Camera performance compared to iPhone 12 Pro Max, Pixel 4A 5G, and more
Feel free to interact with me here or on Twitter as I work on the full review and other S21 Ultra articles.