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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: Samsung’s Best Yet

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The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung’s bet for early 2021, boasting a new 108-megapixel main camera, and both 3x and 10x optical zoom cameras, along with many other top features.

Samsung’s Galaxy S Series smartphone range has always promised excellent camera performance but hasn’t always delivered. Phones like the Galaxy S10 Plus and the S20 Ultra struggled to meet the challenge presented by Apple and Huawei when they were released, despite high-spec hardware.

Excitingly, the tech advancements translate into excellent performance, showing that after several years of trying, Samsung is now not only at the top of its photographic game, but it’s leading the industry too.

Design, Build, and Camera Hardware

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is a big smartphone. The Dynamic AMOLED screen measures 6.8-inches, the chassis is 8.9mm thick, and in all the phone weighs 227 grams. It’s comparable to the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, but a little more compact than the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. The large camera module in the back is made from metal and is blended into the chassis itself, rather than mounted separately on the glass back panel. It gives the S21 Ultra a distinct, modern style.

Samsung’s build quality is always superb, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra feels every bit as expensive and well made as the $1,200 price suggests. You’re paying for the beautiful screen — it has a maximum resolution of 3,200×1,400 pixels, a 120Hz refresh rate, and up to 1,500 nits of brightness —- the top Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, and the impressive camera tech. It’s all absolutely worth the premium you pay over the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus, which do not have the same camera system and are made from different materials, making them arguably much less desirable.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the S21 series phone to get, particularly if you want the best camera performance Samsung offers at the moment. The main 108MP, f/1.8 aperture camera, which uses Samsung’s latest ISOCELL HM3 1/1.33-inch sensor, has Phase Detection Autofocus, laser autofocus, a 0.8nm pixel size, and optical image stabilization. It’s joined by a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera with a 120-degree field of view and dual-pixel autofocus, and a pair of 10MP telephoto cameras. The two telephoto cameras both have optical image stabilization at 3x and 10x optical zoom, and dual-pixel autofocus.

All of this adds up to Samsung’s most advanced, feature-packed camera system yet. However, Samsung has excelled in camera hardware specs before, but this time things are different because it has improved the software and artificial intelligence to really make the best use of the camera’s ability.

Software Features

Before we get into how the software affects photos, let’s talk about the many features inside Samsung’s camera app. The phone uses Samsung’s OneUI 3.1 user interface, set over the top of Google’s Android 11 operating system, and the camera app is fast and easy to use. That said, sometimes it’s not entirely logically laid out, mostly due to the mass of features it has to pack in.

What do you get? There’s a Portrait mode to add an artificial background blur, a Pro mode for manual control, a full 108MP stills mode, up to 8K video recording at 24 frames-per-second, or FHD and UHD at 60fps, and some unusual features like Director’s View and Single Take. More on those in the video section.

All of these features are clearly marked in the camera app and don’t require you to stare at an instruction manual to understand. However, experimentation is key to getting the most from the S21 Ultra’s camera. Dig in, try things out, and have fun. The good news is, the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera is so capable, and repeatedly takes superb photos, you’ll want to get out and experiment.

Image Quality

Main camera

What’s instantly apparent when you start taking photos with the Galaxy S21 Ultra is how much Samsung has improved the balance in its photos. Prior Galaxy S Series phones have often over-saturated the scene, but the S21 Ultra is far better at balancing blues and greens, due to drastically improved HDR.

The colors, shadows, and ambiance in the photo above are just right. The trees reflected in the river retain their color, the water has movement and texture, and the white and grey clouds in the sky are properly represented. It sounds like a small thing, but many smartphone cameras wouldn’t get the balance right, focusing too much on the blue sky or green grass. Samsung used to be one of them, but not with the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Wide-angle

The wide-angle camera is the least impressive camera in the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s arsenal. It certainly doesn’t take bad photos, but the issues are just more obvious. There is some noticeable distortion at the edges of the wide-angle shots — see the building in the left-hand side of the example image below, as they don’t lean this way in real life — and the balance that’s so vastly improved in the main camera, is not always repeated with the wide-angle camera.

It’s a little inconsistent though, as when conditions are right it does take better photos, but I’d find myself favoring the main camera to get the best final image without editing, rather than risking a slightly dull wide-angle shot. The large sensor size ensures photos are an improvement over previous Samsung wide-angle cameras, but the f/2.2 aperture hurts it in low light.

3x Zoom

A 2x, 3x, or even a 5x optical zoom is not an unusual feature on a smartphone. The Apple iPhone 12 Pro has a 2x optical zoom, and Samsung’s own Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a 5x optical zoom. Before talking about the photos it takes, it’s worth noting there are times when 3x does get too close to a subject, and a 2x optical zoom often feels more usable, more often. Deviate from the 3x mode and the zoom will be a hybrid of optical and digital zoom on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, meaning the quality may not be quite as high as you’d hope.

The photos it takes are decent, although I don’t think they’re as eye-popping as the 10x optical zoom shots. Unless you tap the screen to fix the focus, it can sometimes focus on an area you don’t expect it to, which diminishes the final photo’s appeal. I also found the colors are more muted than the S21 Ultra’s other cameras. I certainly found myself wanting to play with the 10x optical zoom more than the 3x zoom.

10x Zoom

The Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10x optical zoom camera is superb, surpassing the quality of the 3x optical zoom camera. Apart from the obvious benefit in detail and clarity of an optical zoom over digital, the 10x zoom gets the color balance and dynamic range just right too, and all this means the photos you take with it are bright, colorful, and detailed. The Galaxy S21 UItra’s 10x optical zoom is wonderfully usable, and the photos are instantly shareable. You’ll be proud of the shots it takes.

This small piece of moss was on a roof a considerable distance away from where I was stood, yet it’s captured in wonderful pin-sharp detail, right down to the texture on the roof tiles. That’s all before you see the deep, natural depth of field, due to the large sensor size. The depth of field the S21 Ultra produces throughout the camera is always excellent.

The S21 Ultra’s 10x optical zoom is definitely not a gimmick, and aside from the Huawei P40 Pro Plus, it’s a highly unusual feature on today’s smartphones. Together, these four modes — primary, wide-angle, 3x, and 10x optical zoom — make the Galaxy S21 Ultra extremely versatile, and the results are almost always uniformly excellent.

30x Zoom

Moving beyond the main cameras, let’s look at some of the other modes. The 30x zoom is digital, and therefore the quality dramatically drops compared to the 3x and 10x shots. However, it’s much better than many of the implementations we’ve seen before, including Samsung’s own Galaxy S20 Ultra’s 30x zoom.

The squirrel is captured effectively, in that it’s not an entirely pixelated mess, and there’s texture in its fur and tail. The colors are muted though, and clearly it’s not a photo you’d instantly share, but it’s far better than one would normally expect from a 30x digital zoom on a smartphone.

100x Zoom

It’s a similar story for the 100x zoom. The quality of the digitally zoomed photo isn’t great, but the improvement over the S20 Ultra’s 100x zoom level is considerable.

This sign was shot at 100x zoom, and while the photo is pixelated and low quality, the words on the sign are readable, and the subject is recognizable. You may not use 100x zoom very often, but when you do, you’ll actually be able to tell what it is you’ve taken a photo of. In the past, this wasn’t guaranteed at all.

Macro Mode

Here’s another great example of how general software improvements have enabled Samsung to include new, very effective features. The wide-angle camera has a macro mode feature for close-up images. Just get into within 10-centimeters of your subject, and it automatically activates. This photo of a Casio G-Shock watch face shows how it performs. There’s noticeable edge distortion, but a pin-sharp center of focus.

Apart from the high degree of detail, the color and balance is excellent, just like the main camera. The gold color, the brushed effect on the dial, and the individual pixels on the digital display are all expertly captured. It’s another fun, creatively inspiring feature.

Portrait Mode

Samsung rebranded its artificial bokeh mode in OneUI 3.1, shifting from the Live Focus name to the more standard Portrait Mode. Software improvements and the laser autofocus system has kept it competitive, but it’s still not quite as effective as Apple’s portrait mode on the iPhone 12 Pro.

The edges of the bear are clearly artificially “cut out” from the background, although it has captured the individual strands and clumps of fur effectively. However, the wooden top on the right has not been isolated, likely due to the similarity in color to the bear’s fur. It’s good, but obviously artificially generated.

Night Mode

Shot inside in very low ambient light, the S21 Ultra can take detailed photos using Night Mode, with realistic colors and a good level of detail. The image below required a three-second exposure, which is judged and implemented by the camera app, so all you have to do is press the shutter button. It was handheld and there’s no evidence of blur. You can even make out the Lego stamp on some of the studs.

With almost no light at all the results are nowhere near as good, when even a six-second exposure doesn’t pull in enough light to show your subject. Still, Night Mode also works with the zoom and the wide-angle cameras, again increasing versatility.

Video Features

Everything you can do with the stills camera you can also do with the video camera, from the zoom mode to Pro mode. Samsung promotes the ability to shoot 8K video, but in truth it’s not only a little pointless if you don’t have an 8K TV to play the video back on, but it’s also a massive memory hog — just one minute takes up a massive 580MB of storage space. There is a handy shutter button to take 36MP stills when filming though.

More successful is Samsung’s Super Steady video stabilization mode, which keeps the video steady even when running to an uncanny degree. Director’s View records video using all the cameras at once, including the 40MP, f/2.2 aperture selfie camera, allowing you to “direct” your movie by switching between the cameras as you go. It’s an interesting addition, even if its uses are limited due to an inability to manually edit the view to select different sections of video once it has been shot.

Finally, Single Take takes a video clip of up to 15-seconds, then creates a selection of edits — up to 15 different clips, ranging from filtered stills to slow-motion video clips — from it. It’s great for capturing a special scene effectively, without the fear of missing something as you decide between using the stills camera or video.

A Much-Improved, Reliable Camera Experience

Throughout my time with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, my trust in the camera has only grown, to the point where I’m happy to take photos and not immediately check the Gallery app to make sure the shot is what I wanted: I trust it took something excellent. This is important to note because I’ve not had this experience with a Samsung camera before due to problematic over-saturation, focus problems, and issues in difficult lighting. The S21 Ultra’s camera is reliable, incredibly capable, and the best I’ve used on a Samsung phone.

Shooting with the main cameras reveals very few downsides. Yes, the 3x zoom isn’t quite as impressive as the 10x zoom, and shots taken with the wide-angle camera may need an edit, but there are no deal breakers here. Some of the additional features, like 8K video recording and Director’s View, are a bit gimmicky, but you don’t have to use them. The phone’s overall size is of greater concern, as it may be too large for some people.

Are There Alternatives?

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is challenged by the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, which equals it in size and price and also has an extraordinarily capable camera system. If the size of the phone puts you off, the Google Pixel 5 may not have the same optical zoom system, but Google’s computational photography expertise means it’ll still take incredible photos in most situations.

Should You Buy It?

Yes. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the very best smartphones you can buy today, even without taking the camera into consideration. Add in the superb camera, and the S21 Ultra becomes a must-buy for anyone who demands the very best in mobile tech.

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