Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra vs Galaxy S21 Ultra: What are the differences? Should you upgrade?
Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra seems at first glance like a significant upgrade over the Galaxy S21 Ultra. After all, it brings an entirely new design, with a new hardware component never seen in the S line before: a built-in S Pen. But if you ignore the S Pen and the harder/sharper corners of this year’s model, the Galaxy S22 Ultra is actually an iterative update of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, offering very similar user experiences. The camera hardware, in fact, remains mostly unchanged from last year. Heck, one could argue the Galaxy S series made bigger leaps forward in the previous two years — the Galaxy S20 Ultra over the S10 Plus; then the Galaxy S21 Ultra over the S20 Ultra.
But this doesn’t mean Galaxy S21 Ultra owners can conclude there’s no reason to upgrade. Samsung has made subtle refinements that add up to more than the sum of its parts. Plus, if you do care about the S Pen, that’s immediately a differentiator.
Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra vs Galaxy S21 Ultra: Specifications
|Specifications||Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra||Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra|
|Dimensions & Weight||
|RAM & Storage||
|Battery & Charging||
|Security||Ultrasonic in-Display fingerprint scanner||Ultrasonic in-Display fingerprint scanner|
|Audio||Stereo speakers||Stereo speakers|
|Software||One UI 4.1 over Android 12||One UI 3.1 over Android 11|
||Single physical SIM in Korea and US; dual physical SIM in most other regions|
Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra vs Galaxy S21 Ultra: Hardware and Design
One phone is easily more comfortable to hold than the other
I know I’m not alone in feeling this, but I have always thought the boxy design language of the last few Galaxy Note phones looked great (the hard corners evoke the feelings of authority in my opinion). but they didn’t actually feel great in the hand. The same is true with the Galaxy S22 Ultra because it really is just a renamed Galaxy Note. I love how the Galaxy S22 Ultra looks in product photos, when it’s standing upright on a table, towering over everything with an intimidating menace like the monoliths in 2001: Space Odyssee. But within a few minutes of holding the actual thing, I start feeling the constant jabs at my palm from the hard corners.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra has no such problems. It’s rounder, curvier, nestling in my palm in a softer, more gentle manner. Both phones technically have the same screen size, but the Galaxy S22 Ultra has a bit more screen because its corners are angled, unlike the rounded corners of the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The bezels around the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s display are a bit thinner too. Even if it doesn’t feel as good in the hand, the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s front looks a bit better in my opinion.
Beautiful, vibrant OLED panels on both — but one is more battery efficient
The display in the Galaxy S21 Ultra was the best in the industry at the time of release last year, and even now, the screen holds up and looks virtually as good as any 2022 flagship screen so far. However, if we nitpick, then the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s display is a bit superior. The latter’s screen gets brighter, at 1,750 nits of max brightness to the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 1,500 nits (though this difference isn’t as notable practically for a variety of reasons, including our inability to perceive brightness linearly). And while both phones have variable refresh rates that can go as high as 120Hz, the Galaxy S21 Ultra screen can drop to as low as 1Hz, while the Galaxy S21 Ultra screen only gets to 10Hz. This last bit is important, as it improves power consumption efficiency.
Despite both phones having the same 5,000 mAh battery capacity, I find the Galaxy S22 Ultra to offer noticeably better battery life. This is likely due to the combination of the newer device’s OLED panel that is able to achieve a lower refresh rate, and the newer, more power-efficient SoC. I am a very heavy user on weekends, where I tend to be out for 10-12 hours taking dozens of photos and videos and constantly streaming music during bus rides and social media. And the Galaxy S22 Ultra can last a full 12 hours out and still return home with like 30-35% battery. The Galaxy S21 Ultra under the same scenario would be teetering dangerously close to under 10%.
I must remind you again — I am testing the Snapdragon variants. My colleague Adam says the Exynos version of the Galaxy S22 Ultra has sub-par battery life, amongst other differences.
SoC and Performance
The Galaxy S22 Ultra obviously runs on a newer processor, running on either a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 or Exynos 2200 compared to the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100. I have only tested the Snapdragon versions of this device (lucky me, as the Exynos Galaxy S22 Ultra is far inferior according to my colleague Adam Conway’s testing), and to be honest, the newer SoC is hardly noticeable in normal day to day use, with perhaps the only noticeable difference coming in camera performance (more on this later). The Snapdragon 888 is still more than powerful enough for 99% of consumers. Benchmark numbers, of course, favor the newer chip — no surprises there.
The biggest difference between the two devices is the S Pen: the Galaxy S22 Ultra has one built into the phone, free of charge. The Galaxy S21 Ultra can support one, but it costs extra and you have to use a special case to house it with the phone. The added effort and expense of needing to buy a separate S Pen and a case means most people owning the Galaxy S21 Ultra just use the phone as-is, without the S Pen.
The S Pen experience on the Galaxy S22 Ultra is Samsung’s best-ever phone stylus experience: the latency has been lowered to 2.8ms (the Galaxy S21 Ultra, if you were to pay for that additional S Pen, produces 9ms of latency), and all the features Galaxy Note users have been used to, such as off-screen memo, or using the S Pen as a Bluetooth remote, are here. Whether or not these features bring a lot of value depends on the person. For me personally, every time I have reviewed a Galaxy Note phone in the past, I’d play with the S Pen for a few days, then sort of forget it’s there. The Galaxy S22 Ultra doesn’t change that. The S Pen to me is still a nice bonus but not essential. But that’s me. There are plenty of loyal Note users who vehemently disagree with me, and that’s okay. And if you’re in that camp, you don’t even need this article — you’ve probably already purchased the Galaxy S22 Ultra.
But even if I use the S Pen only once in a blue moon, the fact it’s here, included free of charge and not affecting battery capacity, is great. It’s basically a free bonus — and this automatically adds value proposition to the Galaxy S22 Ultra.
Almost the exact same camera hardware — but newer ISP and superior software smarts make a difference
Samsung promised major improvements to the Galaxy S22 Ultra, which was bold claims considering it brings back almost the exact same camera hardware as the Galaxy S21 Ultra, just with apparently superior glass lenses. Otherwise, the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s main camera system still consists of the same quad-camera system covering the wide, ultra-wide, 3x, and 10x focal range and the image sensor sizes and aperture are all the same too.
This means the camera improvements come entirely via the new ISP in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 and Samsung’s own software tweaking. And after taking dozens of photos with both phones side-by-side, I can conclude that the Galaxy S22 Ultra cameras do bring noticeable improvements, but you have to know where to look. If you’re just taking a photo in favorable conditions (you’re not shooting against harsh backlight, it’s not particularly dark or contrasty) then photos captured by the two phones are identical.
Where the Galaxy S22 Ultra wins is if you take photos in tougher situations, like 10x zoom shots. Even though both phones have identical 10x zoom Periscope camera hardware, Samsung’s newer software processing and Snapdragon 8 Gen 1’s ISP is able to recover more details and maintain lighting consistency. In low light situations, like the second set of 10x samples below, the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s shot is noticeably sharper with less noise too.
Both Ultra devices can digitally zoom up to 100x, and since at this point it is more about software fine-tuning than hardware prowess, the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s superior software produces a slightly better image too. It’s still far too blurry or noisy a photo to upload to social media, but it is a step up from the impressionist painting vibe of the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 100x zoom. The “Zoom Lock” feature, which uses AI to lock onto subjects from far away, works a bit better on the Galaxy S22 Ultra than on the Galaxy S21 Ultra too.
The Galaxy S22 Ultra’s main camera is also better in low light performance due to a new software trick Samsung introduced, “Adaptive Pixel,” which essentially lets the Galaxy S22 Ultra combine data from a 108MP shot and a pixel-binned 12MP shot (whereas the Galaxy S21 Ultra can only shoot in either 108MP or 12MP shots). This allows the Galaxy S21 Ultra to achieve a larger micron-pixel size with software trickery. See the below samples for yourselves, it’s subtle, but the Galaxy S22 Ultra shot has less noise and more accurate colors.
Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra vs Galaxy S21 Ultra: Software
The Galaxy S22 Ultra ships with One UI 4.1 over Android 12, while my unit of the Galaxy S21 Ultra is still on One UI 3.1 over Android 11 (although the One UI 4 update has rolled out in other regions). Overall UI aesthetics remain similar across both devices. App icons, notification panel, settings panel mostly look the same. The “sharing” menu has been streamlined a bit.
All the new Android 12 addition has carried over to the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s, including a customizable color palette that tries to match the phone’s UI to wallpaper colors, and the light indicator that shows in the upper right corner of screens whenever the phone’s cameras or mics are being accessed.
Obviously, having the newer version of Android is better, so right now the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s software is superior, but the Galaxy S21 Ultra is getting this same update across regions, so these two phones should have the same UI. Samsung also upgraded its update promise with the launch of the Galaxy S22 series: you now get four generations of Android updates and 5 years of security updates on both devices. However, since the Galaxy S22 Ultra is newer and launches with a newer Android version, it will stay updated for another year and generation beyond the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra vs Galaxy S21 Ultra: Which one to buy?
If we tick off typical smartphone review boxes, the Galaxy S22 Ultra is clearly the superior device — more powerful SoC, a 1TB storage option, longer battery life, slightly brighter screen, better low light, and zoom camera performances. However, there are other factors to consider, such as price and in-hand comfort. As I said up top, I am not a huge fan of how the Galaxy S22 Ultra (or the last few Galaxy Note phones) feel in my hand due to the pointy corners. Not everyone will feel this way, and if you get a Galaxy S22 Ultra case, that could help fix the issue. But for me, I constantly prefer holding the Galaxy S21 Ultra more.
And of course, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is cheaper. Currently, the Galaxy S22 Ultra retails for $1,200 for 128GB of storage, though you get 8GB of RAM on it. While there are deals that could shave some off the final price tag, there is no way the Galaxy S22 Ultra won’t be the pricier of the two devices. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, meanwhile, can currently be found listed at the same price on Amazon, but you get 12GB of RAM. Prices should drop more in the coming weeks as the Galaxy S22 Ultra rolls out to more countries. I think in another month, there should be a $300 price gap between the two.
If you don’t need the S Pen, it’s worth saving money and opting for the Galaxy S21 Ultra instead. Yes, I did say the Galaxy S22 Ultra has better battery life, and a better camera system, but these improvements did not go from a C to an A, they went from like an A+ to an A++. The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s battery life is still enough to last a whole day of heavy use, that screen is still going to be absolutely stunning to your eyes, photos will still be really good. For this reason, if you already have the Galaxy S21 Ultra, you don’t need to upgrade to the Galaxy S22 Ultra. There is a regional caveat here: if you live in a region like India, which is now getting the Snapdragon version of the flagship, creating a noticeable delta in gaming performance between the two generations — then there is more of a case wherein it might just make sense upgrading from the Galaxy S21 Ultra to the Galaxy S22 Ultra.
As a standalone comparison and not a year-on-year upgrade: if you know you want the latest and absolute best, with money being a non-issue, or if you really want the S Pen, then the Galaxy S22 Ultra is an easy decision.