Review: Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra sets the standard for smartphones in 2021

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra in Phantom Black.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra in Phantom Black. Photo credit: Newshub.

Samsung has kicked off the 2021 smartphone battle early with its massively-hyped latest flagship model.

The S21 Ultra sets an intimidating new standard for a premium 5G Android device.

It comes after last year's S20 Ultra suffered a few issues that meant it wasn't a resounding success - has this year's model addressed them all? Does it have any new problems?

And although most of the S21 range is cheaper than the previous lineup, the new Ultra model will set you back nearly $2200 at least.

So is it worth it?

I've been using an S21 Ultra for the past few weeks and here are my thoughts.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review by Daniel Rutledge at Newshub, New Zealand.
The 6.8-inch screen offers a display area of 1440x3200 pixels. Photo credit: Newshub.

The design

This is definitely one of the nicest looking phones on the market, especially the gorgeous matte black version.

The Contour Cut Camera design has the metal casing of the camera module integrated into the sides of the phone so it's all kind of flowing.


Those sides are shiny, too, to contrast with the matte look of the phone's back, which has a really tasteful, classy finish.

The one thing about the design that isn't great is that the phone doesn't sit flush on its back. This means if you want to use it with both hands at the same time, it'll rattle around on your table or desk and be a bit of a pain.

You can fix this with a case - there will soon be plenty of cases you can pick up that'll even it all out. But if you put one of them on it, you're covering up the beautiful finish.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra boasts a powerful quad back camera setup.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra boasts a powerful quad back camera setup. Photo credit: Newshub.

The cameras

Samsung phone cameras have a reputation for pushing the boundaries of excellence and the S21 Ultra definitely delivers.

There are new features like 'Directors View', which is likely to be a hit with content creators or anyone who wants to record picture-in-a-picture reaction shot videos and switch between different cameras on the fly, as if they're a studio director. 

You can film in HDR10+ at up to 8K resolution and can even record multiple audio inputs, too, making it easy to shoot professional-grade footage.

As for still photos - the quad camera setup including the new 10x optical zoom makes it a breeze to get stunning snaps.

I still like taking pics in 108MP mode the best, but there are plenty of options with this to take all kinds of images, including capturing 12-bit raw files.

The 100x zoom from last year's models is back, but still doesn't produce good images. It's a cool gimmick that's a lot of fun to play with and it does have better stability now - but any pic snapped at max zoom isn't going to look good.

The moon shot with a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra at 100x zoom.
The moon shot with a S21 Ultra at 100x zoom. Photo credit: Newshub.

However, photos taken while the camera is zoomed in 20x or even 30x can look fantastic. Even video I recorded while zoomed in 20x looks surprisingly good.

The S21 Ultra also takes great photos of subjects just a few centimeters from the lens thanks to its auto-macro mode. It does that with the ultrawide camera, which has a tiny minimum-focus distance for the autofocus. That's pretty great versatility.

Here's a few of the photos that I've taken with the Ultra, which have been compressed down in size and quality to be able to be displayed on this website but still give an idea:

Samsung's Galaxy S21 range shown off at event in Auckland.
Multiple Galaxy S21 models shot indoors with multiple light sources. Photo credit: Newshub.
Kohiawa beach photographed by Daniel Rutledge on a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Kohiawa beach. Photo credit: Newshub.
Burnt out car and horses in Waihau Bay, East Coast, New Zealand.
Waihau Bay. Photo credit: Newshub.
Feet in shallow river photographed on Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Karakatuwhero River. Photo credit: Newshub.
Waihi Beach at dusk photographed on Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultr.
Waihi Beach. Photo credit: Newshub.

While this phone is about as good as an Android phone currently gets in terms of cameras, people may want to compare it to the equivalent Apple tippy top flagship - the iPhone 12 Pro Max. I did, anyway.

Both phones take very, very, very good photos, but each has some interesting advantages over the other.

The S21 Ultra has way more features including the really handy pro video mode and aforementioned Directors View along with things like auto-macro, but the Pro Max has better portrait mode and night mode. To my eyes, anyway.

When zooming in on subjects, the S21 Ultra is the clear winner - that 10x optical zoom is really something.

But neither of these premiere flagship phones are going to disappoint in the camera department and it's hard to pick an overall winner - they're both extremely good.

The performance

The S21 Ultra is Samsung's first phone to be able to deliver a 120Hz refresh rate while in quad HD mode (1440x3200), which looks fantastic on the 6.8-inch screen.

It's also nice and bright - up to 1500 nits if you need it, say, if you're outdoors on a really bright day. I never had a problem seeing what was on the screen while on a trip around the East Coast of the North Island in dazzlingly-bright mid-summer.

The new Exynos 2100 chip drives this thing and it comes with at least 12GB of RAM, which is a lot of power that comfortably the latest games and switching between plenty of simultaneously running apps.

The device packs a 5000mAh battery, which I've yet to deplete in less than a day. You probably could if you were gaming on it solidly all day, or watching hours and hours of videos at 120fps and quad HD with the brightness right up.

But for normal usage, rest assured you won't have to reach for the charger until bedtime.

And as is the Samsung way, there's a huge array of features you can go through, most buried in the very deep settings menus. For a lot of people, they won't touch this stuff - but for some niche types, this is precisely what makes them buy this brand over any other.

Review: Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra sets the standard for smartphones in 2021.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is released in New Zealand on January 29. Photo credit: Newshub.

The gripes

After mocking Apple for controversially doing it last year, Samsung has followed suit and also stopped shipping a charger adaptor with their new smartphones.

You just get a USB-C to USB-C cable and if you don't already have an adaptor for that, it means a $35 purchase from the Samsung website - or maybe around $10 for an off-brand cheapo from somewhere else. 

You don't get earphones, either - but I don't think many people will be ticked off about that. If you're buying a phone this expensive, you'd be crazy to use those tinny little free things we used to use instead of a decent set of noise-cancelling headphones.

There's also no microSD expansion capability. If you're old-fashioned and not about the cloud life, this will be a problem as the cheapest Ultra has a capacity of 128GB. If you shoot 8K video on it - well, that capacity is going to fill up real quick.

The other thing that may annoy people is the camera bump meaning you can't use this flat on its back, unless you get a case.

The value

The Ultra model starts at $2199. If you get that on a 24 month plan with one of the telcos in New Zealand, you'll be paying $92 every month - on top of the base contract price - for two entire years.

There's no getting around how pricey that is and remember: that's the cheapest Ultra.

You'd think for all that money they'd throw in a charging adaptor, but we live in 2021 and free chargers with premium phones are going the way of headphone jacks.

Samsung had to cut corners somehow to stop the price spiralling out of control, and where they have done so makes sense to me.

Considering all the tech the Ultra is packing, that high price is actually very reasonable. A few years ago, getting a digital camera anywhere near as powerful as the one in this would set you back a few thousand dollars.

Then consider what a laptop would cost with at least 12GB of RAM and a chip as powerful as the Exynos 2100 - that's another $1000 at least.

But of course, value is in the eye of the beholder.

There are cheaper models in the S21 range. The Ultra is the flagship, it's priced accordingly and for what it's packing, it's a good deal.

Rear cameras of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 range features a 'Contour Cut Camera' design. Photo credit: Newshub.

The verdict

If you've been putting off upgrading your Android phone for a few years and want to invest in a new one for the next few, the S21 Ultra is a great option.

Samsung has smoothed over some issues the S20 Ultra had to deliver a truly fantastic flagship that sets a high standard for this year's other smartphone companies to try and beat.

The camera features are super impressive, it has a lovely stylish design, a great display, it's super powerful and has a long-lasting battery.

It's definitely not cheap and there are a few issues - outlined above - that may annoy some people, but I'd easily recommend this phone to anyone who is looking for something in this price range.

Newshub was supplied a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra for this review.