LOS ANGELES (KTLA) — The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphone takes new steps forward, but at least a few back. Still, it’s a major improvement over last year’s model, which had focus issues. This year, the issues are mostly ironed out and the S21 Ultra is easy to recommend if you like a big phone that has every feature under the sun. Well, almost. Read on.
For starters, the S21 Ultra is Samsung’s top of the line smartphone, just under the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. I’d actually argue that the S21 Ultra is the better handset. It has some notable software improvements and it’s easier to hold and it even has stylus support.
There are other, lower-end models that have a lower price tag in the S21 series. They’re not the focus of this review since they will offer a similar experience without all of the bells and whistles of the Ultra. Notably, you get a lesser screen, lesser camera, lesser memory, and lesser materials.
With the Ultra, you get a massive 6.8-inch screen and on the back, four cameras. That’s Ultra Wide, Wide, and two telephoto lenses. Zoom on this device is incredible. You get 10x optical zoom and up to 100x zoom in total using some software smarts.
The camera can best be described as “versatile.” There are so many modes you’ll never be able to use them all. I also find that they are a bit tricky to quickly switch between. But, they’re there and give you many, many options for capturing unique photos and videos.
I love the director’s view, which lets you record up to two cameras at once and even place them side by side on the screen or picture in picture.
Space Zoom, as Samsung calls the 100x zoom on the camera, is vastly improved this year. That’s because the camera is now using AI and stabilization to help you “lock” into your subject, even when it’s far away. The feature was pretty much unusable on last year’s model, and this year it’s fun, although still not all that useful.
Everyday photos and videos from the S21 Ultra look great. Low light pictures are also better and you won’t believe how well it takes pictures of the moon. Samsung programmed in a special AI mode that triggers when you aim the phone at it.
The focus issues I identified in last year’s model are mostly fixed. The camera still has a few soft edges and ghosting around the edges of certain subjects, but it’s not a giant issue. Also, Samsung is smarter about identifying close-up photos and switching to the lens that can best accommodate them for a sharp pic.
There are lots of nice touches to the S21 Ultra, like the ability to use a stylus for the first time. It can be a new stylus sold by Samsung, or you can use an S-Pen from a previous Note device. As for the fingerprint reader, I find it to be faster and more efficient than last year.
Still, some things are gone, like the ability to add a memory card. Also, a special MST antenna Samsung phones were sort of known for is gone. The antenna would allow Samsung Pay to work in places that didn’t typically accept tap to pay. Finally, there is no charging plug in the box, just a USB-C cable.
Samsung’s software continues to evolve in a good way. The latest includes a new feature called “object eraser” which is handy for one tap to remove unwanted people or things from your pics. It’s pretty slick and works really well.
There’s also a privacy feature that allows you to remove the location data from a picture before you share it. I’m personally very excited that they’ve also built in the Google Discover feed to the left of the home screen, so all of your top stories are just a swipe away.
Overall, this is the best Android smartphone on the market. All of my issues with previous Samsung’s have been resolved. I still think social media looks better on the iPhone and certain popular apps are more optimized for iOS, but this is a solid choice for a smartphone that has more bells and whistles than most.
The S21 Ultra starts at $1200, which is $200 less than last year.