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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: the smartphone world has a new champion

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: the smartphone world has a new champion

Threatened by an increasingly innovative Huawei and by a fast-growing Apple, Samsung presented its very first “Ultra” smartphones last year. This new, more elite lineup, which brought two devices to life (the Galaxy S20 Ultra and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra ), is supposed to show the world the maximum of what Samsung can do. The technical sheet of the S20 Ultra had enough to coax any fan of new technology (5000 mAh battery, 108 Mpix sensor, x5 periscope zoom, 6.9 inch giant screen…) but unfortunately the reality was a little more disappointing. We had a lot of criticism about the Galaxy S20 Ultra like its sloppy design, poor battery life, and camera that didn't live up to the promise.

With its Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung is responding to criticism. While innovating even more (state-of-the-art LTPO panel, x10 periscope zoom, larger fingerprint sensor, etc.), the Korean's new flagship device erases the flaws of its predecessor. For two weeks, we made it our main smartphone.

An LTPO screen, a great first for a smartphone
The advantage of being called Samsung is that you can easily negotiate the acquisition of latest generation screens with Samsung Display.

Thus, next to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, all smartphones (except the Note 20 Ultra which served as its precursor) seem out of date. Its brightness is breaking records (1010 cd / m 2 according to measurements from the 01net.com laboratory), its definition is worthy of the high-end (Quad HD +) and it benefits from a great innovation: its adaptive refresh rate, which automatically oscillates between 11 and 120 Hz to preserve the autonomy of your device. Unheard of for a smartphone - some connected watches have a similar function, however. In practice, this means that the Galaxy S21 Ultra displays 120 fps in the most dynamic applications, 60 fps on YouTube and switches to 11 fps when displaying a still image, such as surethe Always-on-Display .

To achieve such a level of excellence, Samsung uses an LTPO OLED panel, a technology not yet available for other manufacturers, but which should be used more and more in the coming months (we are talking about Oppo, Xiaomi and Apple ). This screen technology, which succeeds LTPS, adds a kind of “brain” directly under the slab. The latter can automatically vary the brightness, definition and refresh rate of the screen ... all without ruining the battery (16% energy savings compared to an LTPS panel according to Samsung). In short, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has the most advanced screen on the market.

In use, it all really feels. The 6.8-inch screen of the S21 Ultra may be very large, but it offers unparalleled ease of use. Its very slight curvature is not annoying, it is narrower than other mobile phones with smaller screens (like the iPhone 12 Pro Max) and, above all, its refresh rate is a joy for the eyes. The 120Hz of the S21 Ultra is so smooth that rolling back to a 60Hz or 90Hz mobile breaks our hearts every time. The only complaint we could make with Samsung, why configure the display of colors to be “vivid” by default? (Delta E = 5.89 according to our laboratory measurements). In “natural” mode, the result is much more correct (Delta E = 2.48). However, we remain far from Apple's excellence in this area.


A subjectively elegant design
Another point on which Samsung has improved considerably, the design of its smartphone. Aware of the awkwardness of his S20 Ultra (messy back, record thickness, very bulky camera module, screen not easy to handle ...), the Korean has been very careful this year.

Besides being narrow enough to be used easily, the S21 Ultra is much prettier than its predecessor. All this is of course subjective, but we find that its back, in matt glass, is one of the most splendid on the market. The black model we tested is a marvel in addition to being resistant to fingerprints. Another change, its camera module is now completely integrated into the chassis and does not seem to have been improperly affixed by a designer in search of inspiration. We also note that Samsung has taken care to align the USB-C port, the speakers and the SIM card drawer at the bottom of the device. There is real progress this year!

However, it would be impossible for us to tell if this design is perfect. If we find the S21 Ultra successful, it still looks like a big baby. In terms of its camera module, the smartphone is 8.9 mm thick, which is huge! Beside, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, already considered a smartphone a little too big, is almost anorexic (7.4 mm). This thickness, in addition to the 228 grams of the mobile, still makes it a little too large for many users.


Samsung's Exynos 2100
You may know, Samsung usually comes in two versions of its premium smartphones. Many countries, including the United States and Korea, are eligible for models equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. Elsewhere, such as in Europe, Samsung offers internally developed chips, the Exynos. For two years, we have been getting annoyed about this situation regularly… The 2020 Exynos 990 , which consumes a lot of energy, was a source of immense frustration for us. The European Galaxy S20s were much less durable than those sold elsewhere, in addition to being less efficient.

This year, with its Galaxy S21, Samsung is doing a kind of mea culpa . If the Korean brand continues to offer an Exynos model in Europe, its new chip is clearly going in a different direction. Rather than developing its own cores, Samsung now uses pure ARM cores (in this case, the Cortex-X1). So the Exynos aren't that much different from the Snapdragons, which allows them to behave more rationally.

Engraved in 5 nanometers, the Exynos 2100 turned out to be quite efficient in our tests. Almost as good as Apple's A14 Bionic, Samsung's new SoC allows the Galaxy S21 Ultra to still perform very well without consuming too much energy (beware of its temperature, however, the S21 Ultra heats up quickly, up to 42.8 degrees according to our measurements). In use, it simply gives one of the best experiences on the market. We have not experienced any slowdown with this device.


Hardware: Samsung still king
In this paragraph, let's briefly mention the "secondary" characteristics of the Galaxy S21 Ultra. These won't revolutionize your life but could come in handy at some point. It is also proof that Samsung, attacked by Huawei who has wanted to steal its title of king of hardware for several years, still has some nice arguments to make today.

Compatible with 5G and Wi-Fi 6, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the world's first smartphone compatible with the future Wi-Fi 6E standard which uses the 6 GHz band. Water resistant (IP68), with a dual Nano SIM port and eSIM compatibility, the Samsung mobile also has great stereo speakers. Compatible with wireless charging, the S21 Ultra can also charge another phone or headphones thanks to a reverse charge feature. Finally, it is also the first Galaxy S compatible with the S-Pen styluses of the Galaxy Note and the Galaxy Tab. It is therefore possible to take notes, annotate an image or color on this mobile… provided you already have a stylus. Bluetooth functions, such as the ability to make gestures, are not supported. Finally, the S-Pen cannot be recharged on an S21 Ultra.


A slightly larger fingerprint sensor
Another change put forward by Samsung, the Galaxy S21 Ultra uses a “second generation” ultrasonic fingerprint sensor. Two years after introducing this technology, Samsung is enlarging the sensor that allows you to unlock your smartphone with your finger. However, we remain unsatisfied. The recognition area may be larger (8x8mm), the change is more than minimal in our opinion. It's not big enough for you to blindly touch your screen, you always have to aim. Fortunately, Samsung's sensor is still the fastest on the market. An ultra-brief tap is enough to authenticate yourself, even underwater.


Micro SD and ultra-fast charging take their reverence
Unfortunately, with this material excellence comes some disappointments. True to the Micro SD port for over a decade (if we condone a gap with the Galaxy S6), Samsung is abandoning it this time for good. It is not possible to expand the storage of your S21 Ultra, you have to be content with the built-in 128, 256 or 512 GB. It's a shame, but rather understandable. The industry is moving in the direction of miniaturization.

Another major absence is the charger. For "ecological reasons", Samsung has decided to follow Apple and include only a USB-C to USB-C cable in the box of its new smartphone. Unfortunately, the Korean is not content with this withdrawal. The S21 Ultra is incompatible with the ultra-fast 45W recharge of the S20 and is satisfied with a traditional classic 25W recharge. It took us 1:09 to recharge it with a Samsung charger capable of this power, which is satisfactory but far from the half hour of recharging that some Chinese mobiles are capable of. Fortunately, bilateral wireless charging is still there.


A satisfactory autonomy
After a disappointing Galaxy S20 Ultra, has Samsung finally found a way to improve the autonomy of its smartphones? We have good news and bad news. The first is that the S21 Ultra is a tough smartphone, the second is that it is not as amazing as some people claim. In use, we easily went past the day's use on a single charge. However, don't expect to go any further. With basic use, you will necessarily have to recharge it the next day. If you take a lot of photos (on vacation, for example), don't expect to last a whole day. The battery percentage is collapsing at an astonishing rate (almost 30% in an hour).

The 01net.com laboratory confirms our impressions. In our versatile battery life test, the Galaxy S21 Ultra withstood 2:00 pm in 11-120 Hz mode and 2:36 pm with its screen set to 60 Hz (36 minutes difference is not much. The LTPO works). These two measurements are good but correspond more to the average for high-end smartphones than to the elite (7:59 p.m. for the iPhone 12 Pro Max, 5:25 p.m. for the Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro). In video streaming, we were able to link 1:18 p.m. of programs on the S21 Ultra. In communication, it was possible for us to telephone 31:32 with the mobile, screen off. It is therefore excellent.

Thus, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a durable smartphone, but not fantastic. Its excess energy consumption leads us to believe that Samsung has not yet solved all the problems with its Exynos chips. Once again, mobiles with a Snapdragon processor seem favored.


Four cameras to dominate them all
Before starting this sub-section, let us specify that in the coming weeks we will be offering you a complete and detailed test of the Galaxy S21 Ultra cameras. We will have the opportunity to analyze his photos in more detail on this occasion.

In the meantime, here is our first review of the Galaxy S21 Ultra after two weeks of use. On its back, there is a quadruple camera module with a second-generation 108 Mpix main sensor (26 mm equivalent, f / 1.8), an ultra wide-angle attached to a 12 Mpix sensor (13 mm equivalent, f / 2 / 2), a telephoto lens with x3 optical zoom attached to a 10 Mpix sensor (70 mm equivalent, f / 2.4) and, finally, a periscope module with 10 x optical zoom attached to a 10 Mpix sensor (240 mm equivalent, f /4.9). Difficult to do more complete. In addition to all this, the smartphone has a laser auto-focus.

With the camera module of the S21 Ultra, Samsung once again fixes the problems of the S20 Ultra. Too violent smoothing of faces, a major problem with Samsung's first 108 Mpix sensor, is no longer relevant. The 108 Mpix photos are now successful (they are 12 Mpix photos thanks to a nona-binning process , nine pixels merge into one).

In our opinion, the Galaxy S21 Ultra belongs to the elite without a problem. While it is no better than its main competitors (Apple, Google, Huawei), it is 99% successful in doing as well. Given the level of satisfaction that our smartphones have been giving us in photos for a few years, it would be difficult to complain about it. The S21 Ultra is excellent! Only when it comes to night photos that one could hope for a little better, Samsung's software algorithms are even less talented than those of its competitors.

As for the ultra wide angle, we are quite disappointed. Its quality is satisfactory but, unlike Huawei, Samsung is satisfied with a small sensor that does not offer a very good sharpness. On the high end, we are entitled to hope for better.

The biggest advantage of the S21 Ultra is its zoom. From x1 to x2.9, it uses its 108 Mpix sensor to offer you a very good quality digital zoom. From x3 to x9.9, when the light conditions allow it, it uses its telephoto lens to take sharp photos. Finally, from x10 and up to x100, its periscopic zoom performs miracles. With the exception of the Huawei P40 Pro +, no smartphone is capable of such a feat. Up to x30, most photos are really excellent. What a feat!

Thus, the Galaxy S21 Ultra wins the battle of versatility. Its photos are not necessarily the best but, in terms of possibilities, this smartphone really excels.


Video: one of the most complete devices
Capable of filming in 8K thanks to its 108 Mpix sensor, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is limited, like its predecessor, to 24 frames per second. The result is not very stable and does not really make us want to use this function. On the other hand, the possibility of filming in 4K 60 fps on all the sensors is more than welcome. Few mobiles are so versatile, especially since the quality is really there.

We also really welcome the addition of a new director mode that allows you to film your face in a corner of the screen in addition to a video made with one of the back sensors (what Nokia called in 2017 "bothie"). You can also preview the view of the first three cameras on your smartphone… but you can only film with one. We still find this director mode very funny.


One UI 3.0, still great
Finally, let's end this test with a point on the software. Shipped under Android 11, the Galaxy S21 Ultra still uses Samsung's One UI overlay. Version 3.0 introduces some interface changes, the possibility of keeping two grouped applications in multitasking and some new features pushed by Google, such as a new bubble-based conversation management. One UI is still very nice. We particularly appreciate some changes such as the ability to display the "Google Discover" menu on the left of the home screen to replace the Bixby Home menu (now called Samsung Free) or the ability to more easily choose the service Google autofill in the settings. Samsung has listened to our complaints and is improving the user experience.

However, we can only deplore the presence of advertisements in the interface of Samsung applications like Samsung Pay . By multiplying this kind of practices, the Korean may disgust its users. It's a shame, his smartphones are really excellent.

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Guest Kang Cheol

Let's not mince words, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best smartphone on the market. With its photo versatility, its new kind of screen, its good performance and its finally satisfactory autonomy, the new device from the Korean manufacturer ticks almost all the boxes. It's hard to find a true rival to the Galaxy S21 Ultra today even if logic dictates that Samsung's competitors respond quickly. At 1,259 euros, the Galaxy S21 Ultra remains despite everything a smartphone reserved for a certain class of the population. Hopefully its price drops quickly so that as many people as possible can take advantage of it. In any case, we highly recommend it! 

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Guest Kindambi maru

With its Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung is fixing just about all the shortcomings of the Galaxy S20 Ultra from last year. More enduring, more versatile, even more gifted in photography and above all much prettier, the first smartphone of 2021 sets the bar very high.

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