Next up on the review bench is Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Like most Samsung phones, it’s technically competent and features a new Snapdragon 888 SoC, a new 10x optical zoom camera, and Samsung’s, uh, interesting approach to charging. The big news is that the S21 Ultra is $200 cheaper than the S20 Ultra, and there aren’t many features missing. Cheaper is good! But other phones still offer better value for the money.
There’s not much new about the Galaxy S21 design. The phone has the usual metal frame with big glass panels on the front and back. The front looks almost exactly like previous models, with slim bezels and a centered front camera hole in the display. The sides of the display are curved ever so slightly, which serves no purpose and makes the edges of videos a tiny bit distorted. This is Samsung’s second generation of 120Hz display, and it comes without the tradeoffs of the first generation. Previously, the Galaxy S20 could only run either at max resolution or at 120Hz but not both at the same time. The S21 120Hz display comes with no such compromises.
The back contains most of the major design changes. The most noticeable is the crazy new camera bump, which is integrated with the corner of the phone. The whole camera bump is actually aluminum, as the aluminum sides wrap around the corner of the phone and join another flat aluminum plate that houses all of the cameras. The rest of the back remains glass. This year Samsung offers a matte finish to the glass, which does a great job hiding fingerprints.
Samsung’s main priority with the weird camera bump feels like it was “being different,” and if that was the goal, the company definitely succeeded. The back doesn’t look like an iPhone or like any of thousands of Android phones. But thanks to the camera bump being tall and lopsided, the phone is unstable when lying on a flat surface; tapping just about anywhere on the left side will make the phone tip over.
One of the best changes this year in terms of day-to-day usage is a bigger fingerprint reader. Samsung is the only major company shipping Qualcomm’s in-screen, ultrasonic fingerprint reader. Ideally, you would want a fingerprint sensor as big as your fingerprint, which would be something like 14mm×14mm. The S10 and S20 fingerprint sensors only measured a tiny 9mm×4mm sliver of your fingertip, while the S21’s 8mm×8mm sensor now offers a bit more wiggle room.
Ideally, you would want a fingerprint sensor that covers a huge chunk of the phone screen. The number one thing that makes these in-screen fingerprint readers fail is the user missing the fingerprint sensor location, so bigger is always better. It would be a huge improvement to just blindly slap your finger anywhere on the lower third of the phone screen and have it do a scan, but we aren’t there yet. Qualcomm announced what sounded like a major step toward this goal a year ago with the 3D Sonic Max, a crazy-big 30mm×20mm fingerprint sensor. Qualcomm originally said the sensor would be out in 2020, but a phone never launched with it. Now the company says that a phone with the new sensor will be out sometime in 2021.
As for the S21, there’s no denying that the bigger fingerprint sensor is an improvement. It’s easier and more reliable than it was last year, and I’d say it’s about as good at the optical readers that most other phones use. The fingerprint reader is always ready to scan your finger, even if the display is totally off, but by default the reader has no indicator when the screen is off, so good luck blindly hitting the bullseye. The best thing you can do to make the fingerprint reader better is to use the always-on display mode, which—besides displaying the time and notifications—shows you a target for the fingerprint reader.
|Galaxy S21||Galaxy S21||Galaxy S21 Ultra|
|SCREEN||2400×1080 6.2-inch 120Hz (424ppi) OLED||2400×1080 6.7-inch 120Hz (393ppi) OLED||3200×1440 6.8-inch 120Hz (516ppi) OLED|
|OS||Android 11 Pie with Samsung One UI|
|CPU||Eight-core, 2.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, 5nm|
|RAM||8GB||8GB||12GB or 16GB|
|STORAGE||128GB or 256GB||128GB or 256GB||128GB, 256GB, or 512GB|
|NETWORKING||802.11b/g/n/ac/ax, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC||(Same) 6GHz Wi-Fi 6E|
|5G support||sub-6 GHz and mmWave||sub-6 GHz and mmWave||sub-6 GHz and mmWave|
|REAR CAMERA||12MP Main
12MP Wide Angle
64MP Telephoto (1.06x optical)
12MP Wide Angle
64MP Telephoto (1.06x optical)
12MP Wide Angle
10MP 3x Optical Telephoto
10MP 10x Optical Telephoto
|BATTERY||4000mAh, 25W charging||4800mAh, 25W charging||5000mAh, 25W charging|
|STARTING PRICE||$799.99 at Samsung||$999.99 at Samsung||$1,199.99 at Samsung|
|OTHER PERKS||Wireless charging, in-screen fingerprint sensor. IP68 water and dust resistance|
The $200 reduction in price does come with some small feature loss. In the US, Samsung Pay’s MST (Magnetic Secure Transmission) support has been removed. MST was an innovative solution that enabled tap-and-pay support on old credit card readers that didn’t have NFC. Hardware inside the phone would generate a magnetic field and beam data to the mag stripe reader inside the credit card terminal. MST was an emulated, wireless version of a magnetic stripe, allowing even the oldest, dumbest credit card readers to work with tap-and-pay.
MST was only ever a stop-gap solution, though, and with NFC having greater adoption now, Samsung has axed the feature from the US Galaxy S21 line. Samsung hasn’t removed MST from every country, but it doesn’t provide a detailed breakdown of which countries have MST and which ones don’t. MST was a solid reason to use Samsung Pay, but with its removal, there’s little reason to pick Samsung’s payment solution over Google’s.
Another removed item is the MicroSD slot. Samsung’s MicroSD support was never great, since it didn’t support Android’s Adoptable Storage feature, which let you merge SD storage with the internal storage and just not worry about it. Your only option for more storage now is to pay Samsung for a roomier phone model. The S21 Ultra starts at 128GB for $1,200, while the 256GB version is $1,250, and the 512GB version is $1,380.
Technology Samsung opts out of the charging wars
Samsung is really falling behind the competition when it comes to wired quick charging. The S21 Ultra actually charges more slowly than the S20 Ultra from last year; it has 25W charging, down from 45W on the S20 Ultra. I timed the S21 Ultra charging from zero to 100, and it did about 1 percent a minute for the first 20 minutes, hit 50 percent at 43 minutes, and charged to full in 1 hour, 35 minutes. That’s really bad.
A OnePlus 8T has a 65W charger and can power a 4500mAh battery from 0 to 100 in 39 minutes. With my non-PPS charger, the S21 Ultra only hit 46 percent in that time.
The speediest charging device on the market is the “120W” Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra (apparently, actual power to the phone is more like 80W), which will rocket a 4500mAh battery from 0 to 50 percent in seven minutes—or to full in 21 minutes. This phone is part of Qualcomm’s 100W charging scheme called “Quick Charge 5,” which should be coming to more phones soon.
In the flagship smartphone world, where not much changes each year, fast charging has been one of my favorite recent phone features. It’s becoming especially valuable as charging times get more extreme. When you can charge your phone to full in the same amount of time it takes to hit up a gas station or get ready to go out (remember going out?), it removes the anxiety about your phone’s battery life. If you’re driving somewhere, you can even get a car charger and be close to full by the time you get to your destination.
Samsung’s dramatic cuts to charging also come with the removal of the charger from the box, which mirrors what Apple did with the iPhone 12. Apple’s removal of the charger maybe makes sense for Apple, since the company has never pushed for fast charging on the level of Android. The iPhone 12 only charges at 20W, and lots of people have 20W chargers. Any good Android phone is going to continue to need a brand-new charger, every year, for the foreseeable future, if they want to charge at max speed. Instead of copying Apple, Samsung should be pushing the state of the art; completely giving up in the charging wars is not a good look for a company that is usually all about speeds and feeds.
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I know absolutely zero companies are going to listen to me, but charging is not a solved problem yet, and we still need new chargers while the technology improves. When every phone can charge from 0 to 100 percent in five minutes, then you can start removing them.
Samsung’s Android 11 skin is mostly fine. It doesn’t offer any killer features and doesn’t break too many things. But Samsung is slow at delivering updates, there are tons of packed-in apps, and Samsung packs the phone with ads in the notification panel and in some of the packed-in apps.
Samsung’s software is mostly just Android 11 with a new coat of paint. The notification panel, recent apps, and lock screen all work like normal, and everything else is an app that can be replaced if you don’t like it. Samsung’s settings screen has a nice nod toward reachability with big starting headers that push the list content down to the middle of the screen, where it can easily be reached one-handed. We’ve praised this design since it debuted on the Galaxy S10, and it’s apparently a good enough idea to make it upstream to Android 12, which adopts a similar settings design.
This year Samsung moved slightly away from Bixby by junking the Bixby home screen, instead choosing to ship the Google Discover screen (basically a personalized Google News feed) as the left-most home screen panel. Samsung and Google made a huge deal about their new partnership during the S21 unveiling, with Samsung’s president of mobile communications, T.M. Roh, calling the S21 the start of “a new and expanded partnership with Google” and Google SVP Hiroshi Lockheimer getting some time on the virtual stage. Lockheimer talked up the pre-loaded version of Google Duo; while internationally some version of the phone comes with Google Messages, that’s not the case for the US version.
Despite a new partnership with Google, the S21 still seems to specifically discriminate against the Google Assistant. The power button is so configurable now that Samsung calls it the “side button,” and by default it launches Bixby. You can’t configure it to launch the Google Assistant instead of Bixby, but you can configure it to launch an app—as long as that app is not the Google Assistant app. The “Ok Google” hotword can still be set up, though, and it works just as it does on a Pixel.
The phone comes loaded with a suite of apps from Samsung, Google, and Microsoft, so there is a lot of overlap. There are two app stores (Play Store and Galaxy Store), two browsers (Chrome and Samsung Internet), two email clients (Gmail and Outlook), two gallery apps (Google Photos and Gallery), two forms of cloud storage (Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive), two office suites (Microsoft Office and Google Docs), two social networks (Facebook and Linkedin), two music players (YouTube Music and Spotify), two voice assistants (Bixby and the Google Assistant), and two system-wide account systems (Samsung and Google).
Dealing with all the Samsung apps can be strange. By default, Samsung Pay exists on the bottom edge of the home screen, and you can swipe up from the bottom to open the app. Normally on Android (and iOS), a swipe up and hold will trigger the recent apps screen, but on the Galaxy S21 homescreen, the Samsung Pay trigger is smack in the middle of the bottom edge of the display. If you want gesture navigation to work like normal, you’ll have to turn this off in the Samsung Pay settings.
If you happen to open the pre-installed “Samsung Global Goals” app, the first thing it will do is automatically highjack your lock screen wallpaper, replacing it with full-screen ads for charitable organizations. The charities seem to support admirable causes like ending poverty and hunger, but promoting them through malware-style tactics is not appreciated.
The major non-Android feature left in Samsung’s skin is “Dex,” a desktop mode that lets you run bigger versions of your Android apps on a mouse and keyboard. It sounds like an interesting idea until you realize regularly using it would mean having a monitor, mouse, and keyboard lying around that isn’t attached to a dedicated computer, and there’s no good sales pitch for why anyone would do that. A phone is probably the most inappropriate device you could use to drive a desktop computer setup. A phone is slow, battery-powered, and passively cooled, and with the magic of data-synced cloud computing, there’s little benefit to using a phone as a desktop.
Samsung is promising three years of major updates for this phone and monthly security updates. Lately, it takes Samsung about three months to ship a major update.
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