Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Three Months Later: Still The Best

The moment I realized I could shoot and edit a near-professional looking video with the selfie camera—not the more advanced rear setup, but the front-facing snapper—it became clear Samsung had made something special in the Galaxy S21 Ultra. There are a few things at play here.

  The 40MP selfie camera has a live portrait mode that looks really good and the handset also supports multi-mic recording via its Galaxy Buds Pro for better audio. Combine that with some professional lighting, a tripod and the app and you have a passable setup for making good social media videos. Check out my PS5 video here that I shot and edited on the S21 Ultra.

  The big bonus here is that it takes virtually no time to shoot compared to setting up my Sony FS5 and attaching my Tascam mic. The end product obviously doesn’t compare, but I think with some more accessories—like a lens attachment, a field monitor and a mic plugin—it could get close. Very close.

  A powerhouse

  The fact that I can edit using KineMaster directly on the phone means this is a self contained shooting and editing suite. The phone’s Exynos 2100 and 12GB of RAM means I can do complex editing on the device with no performance or overheating issues, which is a huge improvement over the Exynos chip in the S20 Ultra. Creative work is as tasking for the phone as gaming, both of which I’ve done extensively over the last five months, and both of which the S21 Ultra handles well.

  Although on maximum graphical settings, I still notice some lag issues with Genshin Impact, but that appears to be a problem shared across all Android phones. Read my full gaming on the S21 Ultra story review here. I have not noticed any similar performance issues with video editing.

  Bafflingly, though, the best editing program—Adobe’s Premiere Rush—isn’t compatible with the S21 Ultra. It’s not really clear why considering this is Android’s most powerful phone. KineMaster is an excellent alternative that is in-depth enough for professionals and simple enough for amateurs, but not having access to Adobe’s flagship editing software is inexcusable.

  What isn’t lacking is battery life. It’s too early to be concerned about battery degradation, but the 5000mAh power pack remains as impressive as it was on day one. I wrote in my original review that the maximum display settings (QHD+ with a 120Hz refresh rate) drains the battery far more than the lower res, slower mode, which remains true.

  But I’ve chosen to stick with the former because it just looks incredible. The OLED panel enhances social media apps and has changed how much YouTube I watch. I feel smug having the 2160, 60fps option unlocked. The size of the display also means I can make use of Samsung’s split screen effectively, which was helped with a recent OS update that lets you save split screen groups. It all feels very versatile.

  Back to battery, I’m getting roughly six hours of screen time between charges, and over the last five months, a full charge lasts one day and seven hours on average. That’s good value considering what the battery is powering. It helps that I’ve largely been home in that time period because of Covid restrictions, rather than out and about using 5G and Google Maps, which will drain the battery faster.

  I may switch back to FHD and a 60Hz refresh rate when I’m commuting regularly again. But the two trips I’ve had to the pub since restrictions were partially lifted didn’t leave me with a dead phone by the end of the night. This included Uber trips, two hours of Spotify, ordering drinks through an app, a constant 4G/5G connection and lots of drunken photos.

  No effort photography

  Those drunken photos came out annoyingly well. The good thing about under-the-influence-images is that the photographer’s alcohol-impacted skills are so impeded, so wobbly, that the pictures hide the state you’re in. That’s less the case with the S21 Ultra, which does everything it can to correct the pictures you take. I managed to snap some group photos that are objectively good images. The subjects, however, look a bit worse for wear.

  That’s the main selling point of the Ultra’s camera tech: I unintentionally take excellent pictures. Take a look at the collage below (compression caveats aside). The HDR range in the portrait photo of my friend is outstanding, as are the colors and detail in the picture of Chinatown; particularly, the detail of the clouds in the sky which could have easily been washed out. The selfie camera image didn't come out overexposed whilst picking up a lot of detail, although there’s just a bit of facial smoothing that I don’t appreciate.

  The headline act is the S21 Ultra’s zooming abilities. The picture of the Bentley in a posh part of West London was taken some distance away using the 10x zoom. The camera captured a lot of detail in every aspect of the image (in the uncompressed version), including the smiles of the couple behind the red car, as well the brand of the bag of the woman with the coffee cup and the paper binders in one of the mid-level windows. I’m still in awe at how impressive the zoom is. Samsung is pushing the technology forward and I’m excited to see what more the Korean company can do with it.

  What I like is that all of these activities—from shooting and editing, to excessive picture taking and gaming—hasn’t put the phone under any serious stress. But there are non-performance related issues. I’ve noticed some calls can cut in and out, and the overall call quality isn’t as good as my Pixel 5. Also, when a call comes in, my phone doesn’t wake up. I have to unlock it and then swipe down from the notification bar to answer it, which delays the process and sometimes means I miss a call.

  Using the ultrasonic in-screen fingerprint reader is annoying too. I don’t always get the right placement when the screen is off and I don’t think it’s as fast as Face Unlock/Face ID on the Pixel 4 and iPhone 12 respectively, or as quick as the physical fingerprint reader on the Pixel 5, which remains the best I’ve ever used.

  You will also need a case for the S21 Ultra because the rear cameras and display are at serious risk of scratches. You’ll also want to swap out the pre-installed screen protector for something more sturdy, because I found it scratched fairly easily. Check out my list of recommendations here.

  I have very few gripes about Samsung’s latest effort. With most phones, after five months there’s usually a hair-raising issue that fills up column inches across the web. But the lack of headlines is indicative of how unproblematic the Galaxy S21 Ultra is. It just works. That’s a phrase that’s normally saved for Apple’s tech. But it looks like Samsung is taking the perfectly-executed, brilliantly unproblematic crown for this cycle.

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