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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Camera refinements are nice, but the price drop’s the thing


The Galaxy S21 is a tank. It’s a big, heavy (8.04 ounces versus its predecessor’s 7.7), blunt instrument of a phone. It’s quintessential Samsung, really — the handset you purchase when too much isn’t quite enough. In fact, it even goes so far as adopting S-Pen functionality — perhaps the largest distinguishing factor between the company’s two flagship lines.

In many ways it — and the rest of the S21 models — are logical extensions of the product line. Samsung hasn’t broken the mold here. But the company didn’t particularly need to. The line remains one of the best Android devices you can buy. It’s a product experience the company is content to refine, while saving more fundamental changes for the decidedly more experimental Galaxy Z line.

Samsung certainly deserves credit for going all in on 5G early. The company was ahead of the curve in adopting next-gen wireless and was among the first to add it across its flagship offerings. 5G became a utilitarian feature remarkably fast — owing in no small part to Qualcomm’s major push to add the tech to its mid-tier chips. In fact, the iPhone 12 may well be the last major flagship that can get away with using the addition of the tech as a major selling point.

With that out of the way, smartphone makers are returning to familiar terrain on which to wage their wars — namely imaging. S-Pen functionality for the Ultra aside, most of the top-level upgrades of this generation come on the camera side of things. No surprise there, of course. The camera has always a focus for Samsung — though the changes largely revolved around software, which is increasingly the trend for many manufacturers.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There are, however, some hardware changes worth noting. Namely, the new S models represent one of the bigger aesthetic updates in recent memory. I’d mentioned being kind of on the fence about them in my original write up of the news, owing largely to that weird wrinkle of 2020/2021 gadget blogging: not being able to see the device in person. Now that I’ve been toting the product around the streets of New York for several days, I can say definitive that, well, I’m mostly kind of okay with them, I guess.

The big sticking point is that massive contour cut camera housing. Pretty sure I used the word “brutalist” to describe it last time. Having used the product, I’d say it’s fairly apt. There’s something…industrial about the design choice. And it’s really pronounced on the Ultra, which sports four camera holes, plus a laser autofocus sensor and flash. It’s a big, pronounced camera bump built from surprisingly thick metal. I suspect it’s owed, in part, to the “folded” telephoto lens.

Samsung sent along the Phantom Black model. The color was something the company devoted a surprising amount of stage time to during the announcement. It was the kind of attention we rarely see devoted to something as inconsequential as a color finish, outside of some Apple bits. Here’s a long video about it if you’re curious. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s nice. It’s matte black. I do dig the new metallic back; even with Corning on your side, a glass back really feels like an accident waiting to happen.