Galaxy S21 Ultra review: The iPhone 12 Pro Max gets put to shame

Samsung's new flagship Android phone is packing so much heat, the iPhone 12 Pro Max gets burned to a crisp.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review
Raymond Wong / Input

The Galaxy S21 phones don’t come out for another week and everyone’s already mad at Samsung. The microSD slot is gone! There’s no power adapter included in the box anymore! The regular S21 is made out of plastic!

Relax keyboard warrior, these things are all true. But also true: you will live just like you do without a headphone jack. It’s not the end of the world. Frankly, I’m more surprised Samsung kept the memory card around as long as it did. Apple, Google, OnePlus — almost everyone pumping out premium phones doesn’t have it.

The death of the bundled power adapter is unfortunate (or fortunate if being pro-Earth is your POV). However, the good news is the S21 and S21 Ultra (Samsung didn’t send me an S21+ to review) are both staggeringly great. Samsung’s refreshed the design with a bold, striking “contour cut camera,” more powerful performance, longer battery life, and — in the specific case of the S21 Ultra — big camera upgrades and S Pen support.

I spent the last week using both new Android phones. This review is going to focus on the S21 Ultra, mainly because there’s more new stuff to talk about. (It’s got two telephoto cameras.) Not since the Galaxy Note 7 (a terrific phone that was by doomed by its flawed battery design) has any non-folding Samsung phone swept me off my feet the way the S21 Ultra has. It’s the best gargantuan phone you can buy. Even better than its archenemy, the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

New jacket

The Galaxy S21 and the Galaxy S21 Ultra. A happy family.Raymond Wong / Input

From the moment the leaks hit the internet, I was already on board with the S21 Ultra’s design. The S21 Ultra is a massive phone with a 6.8-inch display, but Samsung’s embraced the girth with evocative shapes that scream bold and powerful. In matte Phantom Black, the S21 Ultra is a stealth bomber; the S20 Ultra is a school bus in comparison. Indeed, the matte black backside is sleek and easily my favorite black on any phone ever. It’s not fingerprint-repellent, but the greasy prints rub right off which is better than the oiled-up mess of the glossy S20 Ultra. Gloss glass phones need to die. They’re just yucky at this point.

Curves, in the right places, help make a huge phone actually usable with one hand.Raymond Wong / Input

Some people dislike the “contour cut camera” design. I find it the most visually distinct camera bump other than the iPhone 11/12 Pro's. Just like the Note 20 Ultra, the three main cameras are covered with three pronounced, but symmetrically pleasing rings; additional cutouts for the secondary telephoto camera, laser autofocus sensor, and LED flash align parallel. There’s no tacky “Space Zoom 100X” branding on the bump either. Nor is there the IMEI or “Manufactured in Korea” stamped below the Samsung logo. I want to think that my criticism of these in both of my reviews informed Samsung’s designers.

The iPhone 12 Pro Max's width makes it feel more brick-like than the Galaxy S21 Ultra.Raymond Wong / Input

All of this is secondary to how the S21 Ultra feels in the hand. This is going to sound really weird because it doesn’t seem possible, but despite being thicker (8.9mm vs. 7.4mm) and taller (165.1 mm vs. 160.8mm), the S21 Ultra feels better in the hand because it’s narrower (75.6mm vs. 78.1mm). The 2.5mm difference may not seem like much, but I can feel it. The iPhone 12 Pro Max feels like a brick because of its sharp straight edges. I chuckle whenever I pull it out because it really does feel like something big and durable enough to smack someone around with. The S21 Ultra’s gently curved display edges (with thinner bezels) and rounded metal frame make it less wieldy. I don’t have huge hands and I can comfortably use it with one hand; a Game Boy-style grip with two hands is a must with the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Pure power

The 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED display on the S21 Ultra is an absolute showstopper. Big, high-res (3,200 x 1,440), and absurdly bright (peak 1,500 nits). I don’t need DisplayMate to declare it the best screen on any smartphone. My late-night doom scrolling and Netflix binging is proof enough. The Eye Comfort Shield technology that filters more blue light must be doing something if I can’t look away from the screen.

The 6.8-inch display on the S21 Ultra is *chef's kiss*. Battery life is terrific.Raymond Wong / Input

Last year, Samsung introduced 120Hz refresh rate on the S20 series to combat phones from the likes of OnePlus who’ve been doing high refresh rate displays for years. The caveat was that 120Hz didn’t work at full 1,440p resolution, only 1080p. It does on the S21 Ultra. The screen now ramps from 10Hz to 120Hz depending on the activity. It’s some real magic at work; you get maximum fluidity when you need it without taking a big hit to battery life. Speaking of which, battery life is bonkers. The 5,000 mAh battery lasts and lasts. I’ve only needed to charge it up every day-and-a-half to two days. I have not felt any urge to drop the refresh rate down to 60Hz to extend battery life; I can only imagine the even longer battery life you will get with more modest screen time.

But what about the excised microSD card slot and removal of the power adapter? I’m not happy that Samsung’s dropping features that differentiated its phones from iPhones or OnePluses, but I’m not upset enough to care. My favorite Android phone of 2020 was the OnePlus 8 Pro and it didn’t have a memory card slot. I’ve used iPhones for over a decade and the lack of microSD never stopped me from buying them.

I’m not happy that Samsung’s dropping features, but I’m not upset enough to care.
Oh hey, that's us on Google Discover. Just swipe to the left of your main home screen.Raymond Wong / Input

The S21 Ultra comes with 128GB of storage. There’s also a 256GB model. Both come with 12GB of RAM. Freaks like me don’t bat an eye at the 512GB version (with 16GB of RAM) because we’re sickos who actually fill up all that storage. But the vast majority of people buying phones probably don’t care about the microSD card slot or managing storage locations. When my dad was on Android, I got a microSD card to expand his phone’s paltry storage and he couldn’t figure out where his saved stuff was on because it was on the memory card. Unified storage is just easier for most people.

And the power adapter is not a big deal for me. I’ve got a million and don’t need it. I could see how it feels like Samsung and Apple are nickel-and-diming people for something that used to come free. I sympathize, especially if you’re new to fast charging and only have a bunch of slow chargers from your old device(s). But Anker makes a really great one that's only $17 compared to the pricier official Samsung charger.

One UI 3.1 is tried and true. Fast and responsive.Raymond Wong / Input

As for performance. I didn’t bother with Geekbench scores because the real noticeable performance upgrades are the ones that aren’t immediately visible or even appreciable today. The Snapdragon 888 chip enables faster 5G, faster AI processing, more bandwidth for multi-camera capture. One UI 3.1 is not a fundamental departure from past versions of Samsung’s skinned Android. It’s familiar, it’s responsive, and it’s stable. I’ll spare you everyone’s preference for stock Android. If you want it, there are tons of launchers and skins that can help you get the look and feel. Samsung’s not changing its software and I no longer care that it doesn’t; One UI 3.1 is as fine of a version of Android 11 as any mobile OS that’s been evolving for over a decade.

Crazy zoom

The zoom on the Galaxy S21 Ultra's zoom wallops the zoom on iPhone 12 Pro Max.Raymond Wong / Input

I thought Samsung was going to tone the S21 Ultra’s camera down. Bring the S20 Ultra’s totally unnecessary 100x “space zoom” back down to reality like it did with the Note 20 Ultra’s 30x space zoom. Samsung didn’t do that. In fact, it’s doubling down on the zoom feature with a second telephoto lens and software stabilization to make shooting at 100x zoom less shaky.

To Samsung’s credit, 100x zoom is more usable with the “zoom lock” feature where you tap to lock focus at the longest focal length. The only thing is: It’s still not stable enough to the point where you can nail a 100x zoom shot without fighting against the stabilization or cold weather. 100x space zoom is still both unreal (when you can capture something decent) and unnecessarily overkill. Samsung could have halved the S21 Ultra’s maximum zoom to 50x, focused on stabilization and image quality, and still would have KO’d the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s paltry 2.5x optical zoom and embarrassing 12x digital zoom.

Me trying my best (and still struggling) to keep the S21 Ultra steady at 100x zoom and capture the moon, while enabling Zoom Lock for extra stabilization assistance, and combatting the freezing cold.Raymond Wong / Input

The other cameras in the S21 Ultra are just as much overkill, but they are tuned for better image quality this time around. The primary wide camera’s 108-megapixel sensor is all new and takes better photos in low-light conditions and produces less squiggly looking photos at full resolution.

Also not an issue: autofocus. After we broke the news on the S20 Ultra’s slow and inferior autofocus, Samsung made sure the Note 20 Ultra didn’t suffer the same problem by adding a laser autofocus sensor to help with AF. That fixed the problem. The S21 Ultra also has a laser autofocus sensor to assist with AF. Cover up the sensor with a piece of tape or your finger and you can see AF from the 108-megapixel sensor takes a tick longer to refocus. Hallelujah!

So you know what you’re getting, here are the specs for the S21 Ultra’s quad-camera system and the selfie camera:

Wide: 108-megapixel f/1.8 with PDAF (phase-detection autofocus) + OIS

  • 12-bit RAW in pro-mode
  • Laser Autofocus

Ultra-wide: 12-megapixel f/2.2 (120-degree FOV) with DPAF (dual-pixel autofocus)

Telephoto 1: 10-megapixel f/2.4 with 3x optical zoom and DPAF + OIS

Telephoto 2: 10-megapixel f/4.9 with 10x optical zoom and DPAF + OIS

  • 100x Space Zoom

Selfie: 40-megapixel f/2.2

I made a meme on the day of the announcement that went viral. I think the reason the Drake meme resonated with so many people is because most people don’t care about their smartphone camera’s specs. 108-megapixel, 100x zoom, laser autofocus, 40-megapixel selfies — these are all great to boast on a spec sheet, but the reason Apple keeps getting away with 12-megapixel cameras for the umpteenth time is because the cameras are consistent for both photos and video. iPhone camera features also aren’t confusingly buried in pro modes or require manual switching to go between regular “nona-binned” images and full image sensor resolution pictures.

Don’t get me wrong: the S21 Ultra’s multiple cameras couldn’t be more versatile. We’re talking about replacing a whole bag of lenses with a multi-lens camera system in a thin glass slab. How do you look at innovation like that and not be wowed? But I think it’s time Samsung looked into simplifying the camera experience on its Galaxy phones. If 108-megapixels is the North Star, then make it default and make sure there’s enough storage to save tons of double-digit megabyte files. If 8K video is as groundbreakingly important as Samsung claims it is, then make it the standard out of the box. I mean, I had to chuckle when I saw Samsung finally gave up on calling portrait mode “Live Focus” mode. Everyone calls it portrait mode and now Samsung does too. See? It was unnecessarily confusing for no reason. I’d love to see Samsung rethink the camera and UI from the ground up. Enough with the half-in half-out approach; commit to new next-gen features or wait until they’re ready for prime time.

Now that I’m done with my spiel, let’s just look at some photo comparisons since that’s what you’re here for.

Let's start with close-ups. Both look shots look good. The Galaxy S21 Ultra punches up the colors. This is fine if you don't want to do much editing but guys like me prefer less saturation so there's more flexibility in post. The iPhone 12 Pro Max has a shallower depth of field since its main camera has an f/1.6 aperture versus f/1.8 on the S21 Ultra. But zoom in 100 percent and you can see the text is sharper and there's less image noise.

Galaxy S21 UltraRaymond Wong / Input
iPhone 12 Pro Max
100 percent crop Galaxy S21 Ultra
100 percent crop iPhone 12 Pro Max100% crop Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max camera: close-up test review

The Galaxy S21 Ultra's dynamic range is also much better than on past Samsung phones. Click on the below photos to enlarge them and just look at how much more dynamic range there is in the pink sunset on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple's image signal processing is just consistent year-after-year and it's very hard to beat. The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes dangerously close, though.

Galaxy S21 Ultra (12 megapixels)Raymond Wong / Input
Galaxy S21 Ultra (108 megapixels)
iPhone 12 Pro Max (12 megapixels)

For low-light photography, Samsung's stepped its game up quite a bit. It's hard not to look at the S21 Ultra shot and not approve of it. There's good dynamic range and good contrast to preserve the darkness. Mind you, these are low-light shots taken with the default auto mode, not with the Night mode. I let the camera decide the exposure and I think the S21 Ultra produces an excellent image. It's not too bright like *cough* Pixel 5's Night Sight *cough*.

Galaxy S21 Ultra (12 megapixels)Raymond Wong / Input
Galaxy S21 Ultra (108 megapixels)
iPhone 12 Pro Max (12 megapixels)

Read more: Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max: Which takes better night photos?

Where the Galaxy S21 Ultra completely destroys the iPhone 12 Pro Max is zoom. Any and all zoom ranges. Doesn't matter if it's optical zoom or digital zoom — the iPhone 12 Pro Max eats dust. Look at the below comparisons. Even though I think 100x zoom is still gimmicky, you can see the craters on the moon. What'd the iPhone 12 Pro Max take at its highest 12x digital zoom? Could be a potato. Could be a piece of garlic. Could be anything!

100x Space Zoom with Galaxy S21 UltraRaymond Wong / Input
12x potato zoom with iPhone 12 Pro Max
10x optical zoom with Galaxy S21 Ultra
10x digital zoom with iPhone 12 Pro Max
10x optical zoom with Galaxy S21 Ultra
12x digital zoom with iPhone 12 Pro Max

Even at night, the S21 Ultra's zoom beats the iPhone 12 Pro Max's zoom. Details are sharp and crisp and HDR exposure is spot on. There are very few overexposed lights in the above shot of the Christmas tree.

As for selfies — they're fine. I don't take many selfies these days because I always have a mask on outside. Just like the S20 Ultra, you can take 40-megapixel mug shots. Should you, though? Maybe not. The default 10-megapixel selfies are more than sufficient. It terrifies me we can take selfies with this much detail of my unruly facial hair. And for what it's worth: the iPhone 12 Pro Max takes better portrait selfies. I'm annoyed the S21 Ultra erased my pom pom.

Galaxy S21 UltraRaymond Wong / Input
iPhone 12 Pro Max
100 percent crop Galaxy S21 Ultra
100 percent crop iPhone 12 Pro Max100% crop Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max portrait selfie

By and large, the S21 Ultra’s cameras perform exactly as I expected. There’s a certain look to photos on Samsung phones and the S21 Ultra doesn’t veer too far from it. Samsung images tend to dial up the saturation to make colors pop. Blue skies are exaggerated and dull grass in the dead of winter is greener than in person. The silver lining is that Samsung dialed things down just a bit. I'm into it — every phone camera has its own look as does every brand of DSLR and mirrorless — but I’m still not going to stop asking Samsung to tweak the color science so that it's more true to life. At this point, I think everyone’s good with editing their own photos for added drama or vibrancy.

There are a bunch of features I didn't get into. New video modes like Vlogger View and Director's View and such litter the camera app and even a macro mode on the ultra-wide camera. I tried these video modes once and never used them again. This happens a lot when it comes to Samsung phones. There are just too many modes and features that have a specific use case. They can be handy if you create video content with your phone, but if you don't it's just kinda crap you don't want to see. The macro mode was equally confusing; there's no visual indicator (or button to activate) to let you know when it's kicked in or not.

Ultra great

When you call your Android phone “Ultra” you open yourself up to intense scrutiny. Ultra implies it’s the best. What does that mean in a phone in 2021? The best screen? The best battery life? The best camera system? The best software? The best performance? The best features? The best value? I am no fan of the “Ultra 5G” naming strategy, but Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is worthy of the name.

Every feature feels like it’s been turned up to ultra.

Many phones come close, but no phone is perfect. Some will lament what’s missing in the S21 Ultra and riot about them. I’m not one of them. Ninety-five percent of everything the S21 Ultra has is more than enough and reliable enough for a phone that starts at $1,200. The remaining 5 percent — things like the 100x zoom and S Pen support and mmWave 5G — are icing on the cake.

The S20 Ultra fell short of high expectations. This year there’s honestly nothing controversial about the S21 Ultra. No fundamental flaws. Whereas the iPhone 12 Pro Max doesn’t do anything extraordinary with its larger dimensions, the S21 Ultra does. Every millimeter feels like it’s been maximized. Every feature feels like it’s been turned up to ultra. Bravo Samsung. Bravo!