Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review

GSMArena Team, 25 January 2021.

Design, build, handling

There are two ways to look at the new Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra - as a welcome redesign and a fresh take on a rather dull shell, or a ruggedly handsome attempt gone sideways and looking like a project done in haste instead.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is remarkably successful in pulling the sleek industrial look; we'd give it that. While its front is entirely screen, like on all recent Galaxies, the frame and the back are different. See, Samsung made the aluminum frame wider, and the rear panel now has shorter curves.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra reviewS20 Ultra and S21 Ultra

Then there is the glass back, which is now matte, and we love the frosted feeling we get while touching it. It's awfully slippery, yet thoroughly enjoyable.

Finally, there is the new camera island, wait, no, it's a whole continent now! And the frame extends unnaturally around this monstrosity in an odd attempt to make everything click, but instead breaking the design. And this is where the Galaxy S21 Ultra becomes a take-it-or-leave-it affair. You either see the beauty in this awkwardness, or you are looking at a deal-break.

The new Ultra isn't as large as the old one. In fact, due to the slightly smaller screen, it is a tad shorter. But even though it is no thicker or heavier than the S20 Ultra, the S21 Ultra feels bulkier because of its shorter curves.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

While it's mostly a matter of perception, we can't simply ignore the feeling. The new Ultra feels big and bulky. We thought the same for the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but having spent some time with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, we would definitely pick the new iPhone over this Ultra as far as design is concerned, of course.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra reviewThe iPhone 12 Pro Max and the S21 Ultra

But design isn't everything, is it? And since it is entirely subjective, we are putting a stop to the shapes and feelings talk and moving on to the essential things. Build and features!

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a brand-new Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen, and it's the most premium panel Samsung has put on a smartphone to date. It's a 6.8" 1440p OLED with an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate. You can enjoy fluid 120fps on the native 1440p resolution this time. It is not a curved screen but is protected by the latest Gorilla Glass Victus with a 2.5D edge, so the front isn't entirely curve-less.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

This new screen also features a Wacom-sensor layer for S-Pen support. The Ultra has no stylus socket, but you can get a case that allows you to holster one along with the phone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

There is a small punch-hole for the big 40MP selfie camera, just like on the S20 generation and the rest of the S21 series. Above the screen is the earpiece behind a barely noticeable grille. This is also one of the two stereo speakers.

Invisible to the naked eye is the under-display fingerprint scanner. It is the latest Qualcomm's 3D Sonic Gen 2 sensor, which promises a 77% larger area and 50% speed increase over the Gen 1 used on S20 and Note20 series.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

It turns out the sensor isn't as invisible as we thought. Expose the screen to some bright light, and voila - we can see the fingerprint sensors on both the S20 Ultra and S21 Ultra. And the new one is promisingly larger - it is indeed an 8mm square, while the S20's was a 4x9mm rectangle. It works peachy, too, so we do believe what Qualcomm's promised is true.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra reviewYou can see the larger fingerprint sensor in bright light

The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes with a thin plastic protector pre-applied in the factory. It works great with this type of scanner, but it sure isn't the best shield as far as cracks are concerned. But if you opt for a third-party glass, it may and probably will diminish the ultrasonic scanner's accuracy and speed, so be warned.

Now, let's take a peek at the back. The rear panel is also a Gorilla Glass Victus piece, and it is curved towards the frame. The curves aren't as long as the ones on the S20 Ultra hence the bulkier impression.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

The back Gorilla piece has a matte finish, and it looks marvelous and feels lovely when touched. It is as slippery as the S20 Ultra's glossy back but is far less prone to fingerprints. Even after a day of use, the back looks relatively clean, which is something we rarely see these days.

Then there is the new Ultra quad-camera sitting at the top of a metal mountain. The first column contains the 12MP ultrawide camera, the 108MP primary and the 10MP 10x telephoto. The second one has the laser-AF tech, the LED flash, and the 10MP 3x snapper.

The whole piece seems somewhat fitting the design - as if the phone had been one big solid block before the camera island was chiseled out. We'd leave for you to decide whether that's cool or not.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

The metal plate has a brushed finish and fits perfectly next to the matte glass. Here fingerprints stick easier, though.

The phone wobbles a lot, but given the size of the camera - it's to be expected.

The aluminum frame is glossy, including its camera extensions. It gets smudged in seconds and isn't that easy to clean. Its top has two lonely mics, while there is nothing on the left.

The right side packs the volume and the power keys.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

The bottom is rather crowded - it has the (dual) SIM slot, the mouthpiece, the USB-C port, and the second stereo speaker. The microphone is next to the SIM tray and looks just like its ejection hole, so be careful there.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn't offer a 3.5mm jack as it was retired a while ago. But it also omits a microSD expansion, and we can officially name the S21 generation 'the SD killer'.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

Handling the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a mixed bag. The phone's weight increases the risk of dropping it. It is especially uncomfortable to hold with one hand when shooting photos or videos, so we would strongly recommend buying a case.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra reviewGalaxy S21 and S21 Ultra

We feel like Samsung made all the right choices for the Galaxy S21 Ultra design - it is a phone of a great and solid build of premium materials. We do like the new matte back and frosted metal around the snappers. It is as water-resistant as always, but we aren't sure everyone will appreciate the new look and approach to the main camera. It is also one of the slipperiest phones around, so extra care, or better a case, is a must.

Reader comments

  • CalGal99

Had this phone for nearly a month now and can definitively say that if this is the best on the market, mankind is doomed. Frustrations abound. I expected to love it, but now I wish I'd stayed with an Apple product. Go to take a picture and ...

Since you bought it only 4 days ago, best return it & get a new one from the customer care.

Got mine a couple of weeks ago. 12/256 Had a Oneplus 7T earlier. First major difference I have experienced is the weight. It feels much heavier. The camera makes up for it though. Have not experienced any heating issues yet, fingers crossed ! F...