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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: All of Android for somewhat less

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is a new kind of value proposition from Samsung. It’s not just bigger than the lower-end models with a better camera, like last year’s Ultra. You’re also getting a much better screen, Wi-Fi 6E, S Pen support, and way more RAM. Whether you need those things is still up for debate, but if you want them, the S21 Ultra is well worth the upgrade from the S20 Ultra or the $200 step-up from the S21+.

Michael Simon/IDG

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has Samsung’s best display ever.

That’s mainly because the Ultra’s premium price comes at less of a premium this year. Where last year’s price tag put the S20 Ultra firmly in the upper end of the stratosphere, the S21 Ultra starts at $1,199. You can max it out with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage for $1,380, $20 less than both last year’s entry-level S20 Ultra and a fully loaded iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Update 3:15 PM: The Galaxy S21 Ultra is $200 off at Amazon today.

Even if it cost the same as the S20 Ultra, the S21 Ultra would still be one of the best phones ever made, maybe one worth spending upward of $1,700 on. But Samsung’s aggressive pricing makes the S21 Ultra’s spec sheet even more attractive and proves that you can have it all without actually spending it all.

Upgraded elegance

The S21 Ultra has the same design as the S21, which I reviewed last month, and it’s just as impressive. The camera array is no longer a bulbous bump floating in the top left corner, but a much more subtle one that seamlessly extends from the sides of the phone. It’s still quite big, but the new placement feels more balanced than in the previous generation’s S20, and it doesn’t bump into my fingers as often. The matte back is elegant and luscious and does an excellent job at repelling fingerprints.

The S21 Ultra is a giant phone, even it’s technically smaller than last year’s S20 (165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm vs 166.9 x 76 x 8.8mm). It’s basically impossible to use with one hand, and at 6.8 inches still feels very much at the upper end of how big of a phone people are willing to handle. The fact that it’s a tenth of an inch smaller than the S20 Ultra and the same size as the Note 20 Ultra seems to suggest we won’t see a 7-inch Galaxy phone anytime soon, unless it folds.

s21 ultra side camera Michael Simon/IDG

The S21 Ultra’s camera array nicely blends into the sides of the phone.

Like the cheaper S21 phones, Samsung has removed a few features from the S21 Ultra, namely MST for using Samsung Pay at terminals that don’t support NFC, and the microSD card slot. The lack of expandable storage hits particularly hard, because the S21 Ultra is meant to be the highest of the high end. I assume its target audience would be inclined to use a microSD card. But alas, it’s gone.

Easiest on the eyes

If you can handle the size and static storage, however, the S21 Ultra has the best screen Samsung has ever made, which is no small feat. It debuts a number of new features for a Samsung display and sets the bar incredibly high for the rest of its 2021 competitors, including the next-generation iPhone Pro.


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