Samsung Galaxy S21 & S21 Ultra hands-on review

GSMArena Team, 19 Jan 2021.

Design and handling

The Samsung Galaxy S21-series is a small but noticeable departure from the Galaxy S20 lineup in terms of design. The camera positioning is the same, and so is the front design. But the devil lies in the details. Let's talk about that huge bump on the back.

Although large and protruding quite a bit, the camera bump on the back is what makes the Galaxy S21 Ultra stand out. We like what Samsung has achieved with the design here. The module is one whole piece of aluminum and seamlessly transitions into the frame.

The glass on the front of the Galaxy S21 Ultra is Gorilla Glass Victus, while the one on the back is Gorilla Glass too but of unspecified generation.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra - Samsung Galaxy S21 & S21 Ultra hands-on review Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra - Samsung Galaxy S21 & S21 Ultra hands-on review Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra - Samsung Galaxy S21 & S21 Ultra hands-on review
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Honestly, it's an unwieldy phone, sitting at 227g and measuring 8.9mm in thickness, not accounting for the camera bump. But that's understandable given that the device is made of glass and metal and houses a 5,000mAh battery. The camera hardware probably adds some extra weight, too.

Samsung Galaxy S21 & S21 Ultra hands-on review

The frosted glass feels soft, nice and premium. Fingerprints don't stick, too, at least on the black version of the phone we got. Unfortunately, there's no way around the slippery nature of the finish. That's its only weakness.

Flipping the phone around reveals little change on the front. The centered-punch hole is there, and the subtle curvature on the left and right edges too. Gone are the days of curved Galaxies. The curvature is so small that it merely serves aesthetic purposes by making the bezels look smaller. It also helps with the grip a little.

Yes, we know it's 2021 already, and we take thin bezels for granted, but the ones on the new Galaxy S21s are even thinner, even though the size reduction is small. You can mostly see in the bottom bezel, which is sensibly smaller than before but still ever so slightly thicker than the rest.

Samsung Galaxy S21 & S21 Ultra hands-on review

We are quite impressed with the top loudspeaker, which doubles as an earpiece too. It's so small that you can barely notice it. A fingernail barely fits, and you have to hold the phone at the right angle to see it. However, the sound coming from it is powerful. Can't wait to see how it fares in our loudspeaker loudness test.

Samsung Galaxy S21 & S21 Ultra hands-on review

And as for the buttons and the fingerprint reader - they are all well-positioned and within comfortable thumb reach without requiring finger gymnastics.

Hardware overview

When it comes to upgrades, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is in stark contrast to its smaller siblings - it has quite a few upgrades over its predecessor, while the Galaxy S21 and S21+ are more modest upgrades.

Let's start with the display. It's still Dynamic AMOLED 2X, but this time around, it can support 1440p+ resolution at 120Hz. The adaptive refresh rate control is as advanced as on the Galaxy Note20 (10Hz to 120Hz) but offering even more granular control, depending on the scenario. It's also brighter, supporting an S Pen. It doesn't have a holster for the pen, but it's the first Galaxy S flagship to offer Galaxy Note's stylus functionalities.

Samsung Galaxy S21 & S21 Ultra hands-on review

Perhaps Samsung wants to make a steady transition before axing the Galaxy Note-series. Those who want a big screen without the S Pen don't have to pay a price premium for it. And those that can't do without one - have another phone model to choose from.

The annual chipset upgrade is also at hand. Those living in South Korea, China and the US get the Snapdragon 888-powered version while the rest get the Exynos 2100. Both chipsets are based on the 5nm node, but this time around, Samsung promises that it has finally closed the gap between the two SoCs. In fact, preliminary benchmarks suggest the Exynos 2100 is actually faster in some cases compared to the Snapdragon 888. We will make sure to check those claims in the full review.

The camera department has gotten some love from Samsung, too. The upgraded 108MP ISOCELL HM3 sensor from Samsung with nona-binning promises better overall performance in all scenarios - including the autofocus, which was the biggest issue with the previous generation.

There's also an optical 10x zoom camera, which uses a 10MP sensor, and the periscope zoom refracts the light just two times as opposed to the 5 times the Huawei P40 Pro+ does, ensuring a clearer, sharper image.

Samsung Galaxy S21 & S21 Ultra hands-on review

An identical 10MP sensor is used for a more mid-range 3x optical zoom when 10x is just too much. This makes the Galaxy S21 Ultra one of the most versatile camera experiences on the market. The 12MP ultrawide gets a decent upgrade with its autofocus, which allows for better close-up shots.

Lastly, the cutout on the front houses a 40MP camera capable of recording up to 4K@60fps videos.

We feel like we should also mention the upgraded fingerprint reader. It's still ultrasonic, but it's now bigger and faster. We can definitely feel the difference - just a light touch is enough to unlock the device within a matter of milliseconds.

Among all those upgrades, here comes a shortlist of downgrades. There's no microSD card slot available, and the device still starts at 128GB. The wired fast charging is now limited to 25W, and you don't get any charger in the box too. It's surprising how quickly Samsung is following Apple in this move.

Samsung Galaxy S21 & S21 Ultra hands-on review

Reader comments

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  • Mpsb

Id love to have some RAW files to download and edit!