The S21 Ultra has a very handsome design thanks to the incorporation of the camera system into the phone’s frame. Photo: Sam Spiller
The S21 Ultra has a very handsome design thanks to the incorporation of the camera system into the phone’s frame. Photo: Sam Spiller

Review: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra - Top of the pile

By Sam Spiller Time of article published Feb 23, 2021

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In the year 2021, you would swear there are too many Samsung smartphones to choose from. This is especially the case in the upper market tiers where in the last 12 months the manufacturer has thrown everything and the kitchen sink into a wide range of its flagship devices. The desire to match the name of your phone to the year (2021, S21, get it?), compromising the value of other devices (the case with the Note 20, we’ll get to that), and pushing a future where we fold our phones in half.

In this heated moment, Samsung presents us with the Galaxy S21. The phone’s been making waves for a number of reasons such as its design, build characteristics, and its place in the greater market. Prices for the S21 start at R18 999, then R21 499 for the mid-range S21 Plus, and R27 999 for the top of the pack and today’s review phone, the S21 Ultra. Here are the headlines.

The S21 Ultra has a very handsome design thanks to the incorporation of the camera system into the phone’s frame. Photo: Sam Spiller

I am shocked. The idea to incorporate a phone’s big camera system into the frame is such a simple and ingenious idea that I’m not sure why it took this long to happen. The S21 looks great, unlike any other phone thanks to that slick rear design and good colour choices. You can’t go wrong with a solid black and the Phantom Violet option for the S21 and S21 Plus is very contemporary.

Make no mistake, the S21 Ultra packs a weight and size worth its price, weighing 227 grams and measuring 165.1mm in length and 75.6mm in width. However, while I cannot fault build quality, I must question the durability of the phone’s glass back. It’s very nice to handle, but it can be vulnerable to the odd scuff.

On the front, Samsung has kept its display game up with a 6.8-inch AMOLED HDR+10 display with a 120Hz refresh rate. The lack of waterfall edges is a good thing, both aesthetically and for the fact that the S21 Ultra comes with stylus support. Samsung will now sell you an S-Pen for R999 and while that has the potential to upend sales of its Note 20 Series (a range of phones that many suspect Samsung will kill off soon anyway), it’s a nice addition that the target of content-creating customers can appreciate.

Hiding a highly-responsive fingerprint scanner underneath, the display is bright, clear, and thanks to dual speakers it’s nice to watch stuff on.

The S21 Ultra comes with stylus support, which when armed with an S-Pen makes for great doodling on the completely flat display Though it brings into the value of its older sibling, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, into question. Photo: Sam Spiller

Powering the S21 Ultra is an Exynos 2100 chipset with an Octa-Core processor, using either 12GB or 16GB of RAM and up to 512GB of storage. So 5G capability is now a given for this price range. But an important thing to note is that the S21 range does not offer expandable storage. The tin foil hat on my head tells me it’s a push to promote cloud storage (or probably to cut costs as the S21 came in slightly cheaper than its predecessor), but it’s important to remember if you’re using the Ultra’s camera to shoot and edit 8K video, which will fill up the space quickly.

Performance stats are very good but something that’s plaguing my phone, and some others according to other reviews, is that it can heat up when you’re on calls. Using WhatsApp video chat, I found the device getting more hot than it would with more laborious processes such as gaming. The S21 Ultra’s 5 000mAh battery pack, which comes equipped with 25W Fast Charging and 15W Wireless Charging, is good for around two days, two-and-a-half if you have conservative usage patterns.

Software wise, the S21 Ultra packs all of the bells and whistles. It benefits a great deal from partnerships with the likes of Netflix and Spotify, pre-installed apps that you will actually use. And as always, Samsung’s One operating system tied with Android 11 is one of the easiest User Interfaces to acclimatise to.

Samsung’s OS remains one of the easiest to get used to. Everything is where you expect it to be. Photo: Sam Spiller

A big number that gets pushed around when talking about the Galaxy S Series is with the camera. Like the S20, this year’s Ultra comes equipped with a quad-camera system with an eye-popping 108MP main angle lens. It’s built to pop eyes with its extreme zoom function and high levels of detail, and all that is there.

Accompanying the main lens is a 12MP Ultrawide, and two 10MP telephoto lenses equipped with 3x optical and 10x optical zoom respectively. The camera delivers on that detail thanks in part to clever AI interventions (selecting the Food setting on it, you’d swear what I had cooked was edible), although with Samsung’s trend of brightening up the picture and flooding it with colour. The 40MP selfie camera is also a highlight for its overall picture quality. But realistically speaking about that zoom function, shots taken with anything higher than 30x are pretty unusable.

Where the camera really shines is with its night mode and video recording. This is a phone that can search the pitch black of night and find colourful flowers, or when taking a shot of a city skyline. is able to accentuate cloud formations above the bright lights. It really is impressive. The same goes for shooting 4K and 8K video, as well as a library of recording options such as Slow Motion and Hyperlapse.

Samsung likes to push their phones as content creation devices and the S21 Ultra fulfills that perception well.

Though boasting very impressive detail, the S21 Ultra like other Samsung phones has a tendency to saturate colour. And don’t bother zooming beyond 30x, there’s not much to make out that far. Photo: Sam Spiller

Summary

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a great phone peppered with weird little shortcomings. The lack of expandable storage, and construction material that has me concerned for durability, are some of them. And Samsung’s pricing continues to not make sense thanks to its own line-up (the base-model S21 in particular. due to the fact it competes with the very popular Galaxy S20 FE). But it remains a very good device thanks to its display, camera and software.

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