Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Hands-on: The new Zoom King by a mile
Samsung has just announced its Galaxy S21 series, which as expected includes three phones. We will have coverage of all three devices, but in this piece, we’re focusing on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which is Samsung’s new top dog smartphone and represents the very best Android has to offer right now – and perhaps for all of the first half of this year. After spending some time with it in Hong Kong, here are our first impressions!
Samsung Galaxy S21 series: Specifications
|Specifications||Samsung Galaxy S21||Samsung Galaxy S21+||Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra|
|Dimensions & Weight|
|RAM & Storage|
|Battery & Charging|
|Security||Ultrasonic In-Display Fingerprint Scanner||Ultrasonic In-Display Fingerprint Scanner||Ultrasonic In-Display Fingerprint Scanner|
|Front Camera(s)||10MP, f/2.2, 1.22µm, 80° FoV, Dual Pixel AF||10MP, f/2.2, 1.22µm, 80° FoV, Dual Pixel AF||40MP, f/2.2, 0.7µm, 80° FoV, PDAF|
|Port(s)||USB 3.2 Type-C||USB 3.2 Type-C||USB 3.2 Type-C|
|Software||Samsung One UI 3.1 based on Android 11||Samsung One UI 3.1 based on Android 11||Samsung One UI 3.1 based on Android 11|
Galaxy S21 Ultra Design: A big improvement over the Galaxy S20 Ultra
When you pack as much camera technology into a phone as Samsung, the camera bump is going to be huge. Last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra had a design that in many opinions looked inelegant — it was just a bulky camera island that protruded from the back of the phone, made worse by that tacky “100x Space Zoom” label. Samsung improved matters by the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra last year, but with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the company has found a new design language of which I am a huge fan.
Samsung calls the camera module design “contour cut,” and it essentially has part of the camera module blend seamlessly into the aluminum chassis of the phone. It not only looks unique in a sea of four-sided, offset camera islands, but helps reduce the wobble effect when pressing on the phone while it’s lying flat on a table.
The elegance of the design looks particularly great on the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus, partly because the camera module is smaller — housing just a triple-lens array — and the purple glass back with gold camera module make for the most striking look in my opinion. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a larger camera module due to its more advanced camera system, and surprisingly, it only comes in silver or black. With that said, I am a fan of matte black products and I find the black version of the Galaxy S21 Ultra to be very sleek and stylish.
Elsewhere, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s design will feel very familiar for those familiar with Samsung flagships. The 6.8-inch display is vibrant, gorgeous and still curved on the left and right side. But although I wasn’t able to confirm this with Samsung personnel, it feels to me the curvature is more subtle/less dramatic than even last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra, which already lessened the curves. In fact, during my hands-on session, I grabbed a Galaxy S21 Plus, which has a flat-screen, and thought it was the S21 Ultra for a good minute before I realized I grabbed the wrong phone. The point I am trying to make is that the curve feels fairly subtle this year.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Camera first impressions: The new Zoom King
Disclaimer first: I only had about an hour with the phone in a controlled environment, plus Samsung did not allow media to remove photos from the phone for publication, so this is by no means an in-depth camera review. Despite these limitations, I can say the Galaxy S21 Ultra makes a huge leap in zooming capabilities, not just over last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, but even the previous zooming king, Huawei P40 Pro Plus.
Samsung managed to do this by mostly using Huawei’s tricks. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera module features a 10MP Periscope zoom lens that, as far as I can tell, looks noticeably larger, and goes “deeper”, than the one seen in the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Samsung hasn’t revealed much beyond the fact that this is a 10x optical zoom lens, but I’m guessing it managed to do so by building more prisms (2 instead of 1) into the Periscope — just like what Huawei did with the Huawei P40 Pro Plus’ Periscope lens that uses 3 prisms plus an extra set of turn mirrors.
That’s not all, Samsung added a shorter 3x optical telephoto zoom lens to help cover the shorter zoom distances, which is a trick also used by the Huawei P40 Pro Plus). This way, any zoom at 1x, 3x, and 10x will in theory be lossless. And from my testing, the shots definitely looked crisp.
What blew me away is when I attempted a longer zoom. Even at 20x and 30x, the shot appeared clean to me, at least on the phone screen (I wasn’t able to examine the photo on a larger monitor). And at 100x — which Samsung calls “Space Zoom” — the shot is surprisingly detailed. In fact, Samsung has managed to improve stabilization at this zoom range in ways I’d never seen before. Words can’t do it justice, so watch the video: I’m holding the Galaxy S21 Ultra with one hand, zoomed at 100x, and the image is stable.
Other phones that can zoom this far (the Galaxy S20 Ultra, Huawei P40 Pro Plus, and the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra, all three of which I tested extensively) showed very, very shaky images, which is expected behavior, hence my surprise with the new Samsung.
The Huawei P40 Pro Plus had previously been the best zooming camera system I’ve ever seen (it was better than Samsung’s 2020 offering by some distance), but Samsung has regained the lead with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. This is the new zoom king.
I didn’t have much time to test the 108MP camera, but it should perform great, since the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra’s main camera was already among one of the best.
Another new feature to the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the ability to shoot in 4K/60fps across every lens, and “Director’s View,” which basically allows the user to record a video showing both the front and back view (the selfie camera and main camera system). There’s even a preview thumbnail showing previews of the ultra-wide angle camera, main wide camera, and 3x telephoto zoom camera for instant preview of every angle in real-time. Given the space and time constraint, I couldn’t really test this thoroughly, but switching lenses appeared smooth enough.
Galaxy S21 Ultra: S Pen support
A new feature on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is that it supports the S-Pen stylus that has been a trademark of the Galaxy Note series. Any older S Pen from the Note series or even Wacom stylus will work on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but the device doesn’t have a slot to house the stylus. To that end, Samsung is selling an official case that houses an S Pen. This S Pen is larger in size and feels closer to the SPen that comes with the Galaxy Tab S7 rather than any Note series’ S Pen.
Sketching and jotting down notes on the Galaxy S21 Ultra felt natural, but the S-Pen lacks any of the Bluetooth controls Samsung introduced to the Note series in recent years.
There were two cases on demo at the session I attended: a folio type case with a flap that offers all-around protection, and a more traditional case that leaves the front uncovered. Both cases have a slot on the left side to house the S-Pen.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Early Thoughts: Slab phones have reached their Apex
Truth be told, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra had already nearly perfected the “slab smartphone” in my opinion. It had a beautiful design, bleeding-edge screen technology, and a very capable camera system. The Galaxy S21 Ultra mostly improves on these slightly — the SoC is a bit better, video performance a bit better, overall design a bit better.
Where the Galaxy S21 Ultra really makes a leap is the zooming system. I’m blown away by what I saw and as someone who loves snapping photos of random life around the city for Instagram, I’m excited to make this my daily driver.
We at XDA will have review units of the S21 Ultra soon so stay tuned for more coverage including a full in-depth review.