Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G review – For the one percenters

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Over the years Samsung has had great fun mocking Apple for certain decisions only to implement the same solutions in its smartphones.

First the headphone jack was culled and now chargers are the enemy of the planet causing more ewaste than we can imagine – a statement we still don’t really buy but we also aren’t privy to the data these firms have.

Going into this review the lack of a charger left a sour taste in my mouth and it has continued to vex me throughout the review period. We’ll talk more about this in the section about the battery life but let’s work through this methodically, shall we.

Internals

Inside our review unit we have an Exynos 2100 chipset which houses an octa-core CPU. This coupled with 12GB of memory and 256GB of storage. There is no micro-SD card slot.

Rather than the usual configuration which can be a combination of either two dual-core CPUs coupled with a quad-core CPU or a pair of quad-core CPUs, Samsung has opted for this rather strange cluster configuration.

  • 4 cores @ 2.21GHz
  • 3 cores @ 2.81GHz
  • 1 Core @ 2.91GHz

This arrangement should net a 30 percent improvement in multi-core performance compared to the Exynos 990 which was found in both the Galaxy S20 Ultra and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

This is good news for anybody editing video or images on their handset and for those who want to do a bit of gaming.

Unfortunately, in our testing we never saw the claimed 30 percent improvement in multi-core performance and it was closer to 15 percent but that’s why Samsung uses the qualifier “Actual performance may vary depending on device and user environment”.

With that having been said, this is still a notable upgrade from the S20 Ultra and an even better improvement from the Galaxy S10+.

The only Android smartphone that beats the Samsung S21 Ultra in the GeekBench benchmark is the OnePlus 8. Unfortunately, OnePlus is not officially available in South Africa so if you’re looking for the cream of the crop, Samsung is the way.

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Samsung spent a lot of time touting the gaming performance of this handset so we were curious to see how well it compared to a console.

Firstly, while the S21 Ultra sports a 120Hz display, don’t expect frame rates even close to that figure.

During a stress test using the Wild Life benchmark from 3D Mark we noted frame rates of 30 – 36fps before that figure dipped to as low as 24fps in some instances.

On average you can expect frame rates of up to 30fps in games that push the internals.

However, when we switched to benchmarking with Slingshot the Galaxy S21 Ultra, framerates shot up to an average of 51fps. it should be noted that this higher frame rate comes at the cost of comfort because this handset gets hot. While the internal temperature of the CPU recorded a one degree Celsius increase in Wild Life, in Slingshot Extreme where the internals are able to run at max performance, temps climbed a full four degrees and it was noticeable.

Overall, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G has enough compute power to play games comfortably despite the temperature increases.

We’re rather impressed with these numbers and actually using the handset feels like a worthwhile upgrade from our daily driver.

Camera

Four lenses festoon the rear of the Galaxy S21 Ultra and this is where the handset starts to lose points.

The camera is serviceable but we found that at stock settings, our Galaxy S10+ took a better photo, especially when that photo contains dark elements. Take the image below which we’ve zoomed in on so you can see what we’re talking about.

Not only does the S21 Ultra’s image look more washed out, a lot of the detail we can see in the S10+’s image isn’t present.

However, when we shot the same good boy in brighter light, there was better contrast which you can see below. Once again, Samsung stumbles when it comes to low-light photography.

Photos are serviceable but we feel let down by the experience, especially when we compare photos side-by-side with other handsets.

The camera has time and time again proved that this is where Samsung should be focusing its research and development, or at least a larger portion of it. Apple is the gold standard when it comes to smartphone photography and just once we’d appreciate if Samsung emulated that instead of ditching chargers and headphone jacks.

What is really confusing is that despite having a 108MP sensor, the capabilities of this handset’s video capture is identical to the features in the Galaxy S21. Do you want to record 8K video at 24fps? Both handsets can do that.

How about 1080p ultra slow-motion video at 240fps? Both handsets can do that as well.

The only time you can even use the massive sensor is when you’re shooting in a 4:3 aspect ratio which limits the frame substantially and to our mind is a worse format for photos than 16:9.

Sure, you can zoom in up to 100x on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but why anybody would choose to do that is beyond us as the image quality dips significantly when doing this.

A gallery of snaps follow below.

Battery life

Samsung is losing points here for not including a charger that supports 25W Fast Charging.

When we asked Samsung for a charger to test the smartphone’s charging capabilities we were sent the same 13W charger you’d find in the Galaxy S10+ box.

This means that charging this handset from empty to full will take you over two and a half hours which is the same time it takes to charge the 4100mAh battery in the Galaxy S10+.

The good news is that after removing the charger at 7AM, we only needed to recharge the handset the next evening. Two days on one charge is nothing to scoff at and this is impressive, it’s just a pity that we have to go out and buy a fast charger.

Something worth mentioning is that when the handset is completely dead you will need to leave it to charge for 10 – 20 minutes before you are able to power the handset on.

Considering that the Galaxy S21 Ultra houses a 5 000mAh battery, this delay makes sense.

Conclusion

Samsung has a problem with it’s premium-tier flagship smartphones – they make no sense.

Sure, four camera lenses is impressive, a 120Hz display is gawk-worthy and the new silicon is fast.

But the same could be said for the far more affordable Samsung Galaxy S21 5G.

The trouble Samsung has is that when it comes down to a spec for spec analysis, it’s Ultra series of phones really just feel like they have more expensive dressing.

When it comes down to what matters, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G doesn’t have anything extra that we feel is vital to the experience.

While the battery might be bigger, that might actually help the Galaxy S21 as it may take less time to charge.

Then there’s the matter of price.

At R27 999, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the most expensive of the trio of handsets and looking at my review and Robin’s review of the Galaxy S21 5G, I’m inclined to recommend that handset over this one.

Unless you’re a one percenter, this handset is not for you and even if you have a lot of money to burn then, you might want to consider an Apple iPhone, at least it has a camera that could pass for professional.

Disclaimer: The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G was sent to Hypertext for the purposes of this review. Samsung South Africa had no influence in the review. The device will now be sanitised and returned to Samsung South Africa. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G

5 Score

Too pricey

Review Breakdown

  • Score 0
Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz writes news, reviews, and opinion pieces for Hypertext. His interests include SMEs, innovation on the African continent, cybersecurity, blockchain, games, geek culture and YouTube.

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