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Review: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra represents a redemption moment for the best Android phone

Review: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra represents a redemption moment for the best Android phone

Review: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra represents a redemption moment for the best Android phone
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By Sahil Gupta  Feb 2, 2021 10:27:49 AM IST (Published)

The phone comes with a massive 6.8-inch dynamic AMOLED panel which is pretty much the best mobile display on the planet.

Samsung has been taking on Apple head-on for the last decade with the Galaxy S series. Over the years, the Galaxy brand has become a powerful one which has sold more than 2 billion phones. But in recent years, Samsung has been shown up by just not only Apple but other Android brethren. The Galaxy S20 Ultra was an audacious effort to pull Samsung ahead of the pack, but it backfired. The S20 Ultra had a litany of issues -- from its disgraceful camera to overcooked processor to its hideous design. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, thankfully, redeems all these mistakes in one swift move making it the most complete Android smartphone I have tested in a year. Sure, there will be others that may one-up Samsung, but right now, it is the king of the hill. The bigger thing is that it is a phone that is likely to remain attractive no matter what gains the competition comes up with.

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The first thing one notices is the slender packaging which is now thanks to the removal of the power brick and the earphones. This was telegraphed by Apple months ago with its strategy to remove these "so-called" add-ons in the name of the environment. Samsung like a spastic kid decided to troll Apple only to do the very same thing unapologetically like a megalomaniac. I don’t like it especially because Samsung provided some lovely AKG earphones. But aside from this, you’re looking at a massive phone which Samsung has finessed almost perfectly to un-do the evils of the hideous monstrosity that the S20 Ultra was.
Dressed in a slick and stealthy phantom black and a delectable camera bump which seamlessly swoops in the frame of the phone and leaving the seemingly chiselled for posterity, the S21 Ultra is a looker. It also has this supple matte finish which reminds me of the iPhone 7 though it comes without the ills of oxidisation as there is Gorilla Glass victus on the back providing class-leading sturdiness and much-needed resistance to smudges. The sides have a polished finish typified by an aluminium frame which makes the phone pretty grippy thanks to the contrast between matte on the back and the polish on the side.
You flip the phone and there is the massive 6.8-inch dynamic AMOLED panel which is pretty much the best mobile display on the planet. It gets obnoxiously bright at 1500 nits, it has sublime colours, it supports HDR formats which make it a delight to Netflix and chill on and it has 120Hz refresh rate at a Quad HD resolution with it having the ability to dynamically ramp down. This phone is using a new kind of screen which is also 15 per cent more power efficient.
The display is not the only factor which contributes to the impressive battery life of the S21 Ultra - the efficiency of the new Exynos 2100 chip, the new software optimizations and the impressively massive size (5,000mAh) of the battery are important elements as well. Exynos redeems its reputation after the shockingly poor 990 chip in 2020. The Exynos 2100 is beastly thanks to the use of the stock ARM Cortex X1 based architecture coupled with a new 5nm process which ensures this phone isn't just as fast as Max Verstappen but also delivers consistent 2-day battery life for even when the device is used extremely.
While you don't get a charging brick, it does support decent charging speeds of 25 watts. This is admittedly not the best in class but it is at least better than the iPhone. You also get wireless charging at 15 watts and reverse wireless charging which is incredibly handy.
But for most this phone is going to be about raw power and that Exynos chip delivers in all kinds of situations be it hectic multitasking or gaming or general fluid navigation of the user interface. This time around I don't foresee a massive discrepancy in the performance of the phone when compared to phones that are powered by the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip. You also get tons of horsepower in the form of UFS 3.1 memory, 256GB of it when paired in tandem with 12GB of DDR5 RAM. This phone is pretty much the fastest Android phone I've tested and I don't see it losing that mantle overnight with some other phones coming as the processor can hold its own against the Qualcomm based competition.
The presence of an integrated 5G modem also makes it future proof if you're the type of person who uses a phone for more than 2 years. While right now there isn't a 5G network in our country, one can expect that to resolve itself in the next two years where this capability may come in handy.
But for many all of this culminates to one thing - photography. Samsung made a hue and cry about the cameras on the 20 Ultra but failed to deliver something that was flagship worthy. This time like in the design and performance department, it also manages to redeem itself in the imaging department with a truly audacious quad-camera system which is the most versatile one seen on a smartphone yet, and is easily the class of the field when one singularly looks at the Android crowd in terms of image quality. It falls behind the new iPhones in general reliability, usability and quality but makes up for the variance with the sheer audacity of its functionality and customizable nature.
Samsung uses a new generation of its 108-megapixel camera which outputs 12-megapixel photos unless explicitly asked to shoot at its native resolution using the pro-mode. The end results are impressive as it is consistently able to take rich, saturated and detailed photos that are also brightly lit up even in extreme situations. The night mode is also fabulous as it lights up even the darkest of scenes but at times it gives off an unnatural vibe. The focusing issues that plagued the S20 are gone as now there is a laser autofocus system to give it a helping hand. Versatility is its Forte as it can take gorgeous macros and lush landscape shots using the new Ultra-wide lens or can even double up as a telescope using its twin 3x and 10x optical zoomed-in cameras. These cameras enable 30x of lossless zoom which looks shockingly good. In fact, moonshots at even 100x look impressive but other than that, it's a feature that's more of a party trick than something that will be useful daily. Add on features like portrait mode also work impressively well.
A similar trend is repeated on video capture high has been a strong suit of Samsung's phones for years. This time around all four lenses on the back can output 4k video at 60 fps and generally, the quality is tremendous. That being said, it is still not the iPhone 12 level. Audio capture is similarly impressive. There is also a video booth mode which works quite well and a new birds-eye view mode dubbed directors mode helps one use these cameras more effectively. Similarly, the 40-megapixel front-facing camera now becomes the best selfie camera in the business.
Samsung has fixed everything that I hated about the Galaxy S20 Ultra and yet retained most things that I've loved about its phones for almost a decade. This includes class-leading haptics which makes this phone a delight to type on. Superb call quality and reception is a hallmark of this phone while general build quality and the quality of the audio from the stereo speakers is ridiculously good. It also now supports high-resolution audio over USB Type C and can output really great sounding music which would be the envy of audiophiles. The fingerprint scanner is also very accurate and responsive which hadn’t been the case for a couple of years, since Samsung decided to use Qualcomm’s ultrasonic scanners. This new generation of the scanner certainly hits the right notes and is bound to be secure, especially when coupled with Samsung’s Knox enterprise-grade security suite.
But all of this comes with some trade-offs. Samsung has for instance removed MST technology in Samsung Pay which makes the service almost useless in India considering the poor penetration of NFC enabled POS machines even in a city like New Delhi. There is no SD card slot so no memory expansion and even like I've mentioned before, it neither gets a robust facial recognition system nor does it have Ultra-fast charging technology.
Samsung's software -- One UI 3.0 which is based on Android 11 is good but not as good as Oxygen OS Or stock Android. It certainly isn't as elegant as iOS 14. It also comes with tons of duplicate apps and will likely not get software updates as fast as some other Android phones. But this is again something typically Samsung, as these trade-offs come with some benefits as well. Deep integration with Windows and Microsoft apps is one which will please a non-Apple user.
In a way, the S21 Ultra is the antithesis of what the iPhone 12 Pro Max has represented. It is the ying to its yang. While this phone represents oodles of dynamism and customisation, the iPhone is a more distilled product. In most cases, most people will find Apple to do better, but then again it's also significantly more expensive. Samsung is a more malleable phone as well. At the end of the day, it's the age-old choice between Android and iOS and Windows and macOS. That's the one only a user can make. The only thing I can say is that Samsung has redeemed itself and the S21 Ultra is the ultimate expression of Android and the ecosystem Google has fostered for the last decade and a half.
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