Samsung's Galaxy S21 line has plenty going for it. The displays have been improved, the processor has gotten faster and the cameras have been upgraded to take sharper photos and videos. And at a $200 cheaper starting price than the Galaxy S20, they are once again an enticing alternative to Apple's latest iPhones.
Samsung's S21 Ultra launches with best specifications of any current Samsung smartphone and sets the bar for other Android phones launching in 2021. Reviewers across the mobile community universally laud the new phone with most agreeing it matches the best Apple has to offer with the iPhone 12 Pro Max so that choice primarily comes down to an operating system and ecosystem preference.
However, the question for Samsung users is whether or not to leave the Note 20 Ultra behind.
Both Samsung devices have an adaptive 120MHz refresh rate display, fast wireless charging, IP68 dust/water resistance, wireless powershare capability, UWB, and 5G so the differences are minor in most specifications. The S21 Ultra does include the newest Qualcomm Snapdragon processor.
Sure, some of these changes should no longer be a surprise. Last year's Galaxy S20 line didn't have a headphone jack, and most pricier phones have said goodbye to the port as companies push Bluetooth earbuds and headphones.
(Samsung unsurprisingly unveiled its latest $200 Galaxy Buds Pro earbuds at the same event as the S21.) This year Samsung, like Apple with the iPhone 12, went a step further and also removed the included wired headphones, which makes sense as it clearly wants people to buy its wireless buds.
If you’re looking at this phone, you will want to step up from the default 128GB of storage. The 256GB option only costs $50 more, while 512GB (which also has 16GB of RAM instead of 12) costs $180 more.
Getting more storage on this phone is important because unlike previous S-series phones, there’s no microSD card slot on the S21 Ultra. Perhaps it was inevitable as a cost-cutting measure (along with nixing the AC adapter and NFC & MST payment tech that worked with standard credit card readers), but it’s a bummer nonetheless.
A phone that encourages you to take 8K video and 108-megapixel photos needs more than 128GB of storage, at the very least.
But of all the specs I’ve listed — both good and disappointing — the one that had the biggest tangible effect on my experience was the new in-screen fingerprint sensor from Qualcomm.
It’s both bigger and faster, and it means I can just quickly tap to unlock the phone without needing to aim that carefully. Because we unlock our phones so often, even tiny changes make a huge difference in reducing a sense of friction. It finally feels on par with rear-mounted fingerprint sensors. And of course, it works when you’re wearing a mask.
The fifth hole on the back of the phone is for the laser autofocus sensor, which was added to help with some of the focus issues on the main sensor.
That main 108-megapixel sensor is also a second-generation sensor, capable of 12-bit color and featuring what Samsung says is a new “remosaicing” process for converting 108-megapixels into the default 12-megapixel images. (Getting 12-bit color requires diving into the settings and using Pro mode.)
Samsung continues to tune photos differently than I prefer. Compared to the iPhone, it aims to make things a little brighter and the colors a little more intense, while Apple seems to more confidently let shadows be shadows. However, the S21 Ultra often provides better sharpness and detail.
Apple's 5-watt USB chargers that have been included with most iPhones for years are largely wasteful in 2021, ending up in a drawer or staying in the box. It would've been great for Apple to include a faster USB-C charger as it did with the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, but in ditching the slow charger the company could pretty easily claim it is helping the environment because so many people have the same charger from various other Apple products they've purchased over the years.
Samsung, like Apple, says it is dropping the included power brick to help the environment. Federico Casalegno, Samsung's senior vice president of experience planning and its design innovation center, explained during Thursday's virtual press conference that "many of our users prefer to reuse their current chargers and earphones and to leave the new ones in the box, unused." Just like Apple, Samsung is shrinking its packaging for the S21 line in a bid to reduce its footprint.
Given that the S21 Ultra now supports the S Pen, it is the better buy with improved cameras, the newest Qualcomm processor, matte finish Gorilla Glass material, and Wi-Fi 6E. The only reason you may want to consider the Note 20 Ultra is the microSD card slot, unless you actually use the Air Actions with the S Pen.
We will continue to use the S21 Ultra here at Biovolt Technologies in the coming weeks so stay tuned for more coverage on the camera performance, S Pen, and more.