It’s no secret that technology keeps getting better and better. With that being said it feels like phones have already reached their peak performance and have all the features you would possibly need. Well at least that’s what I thought last year when I got Samsung's flagship, S20 Ultra. Was I wrong to assume that and will the new S21 Ultra make me regret my decision?
Let’s first cover the most obvious aesthetic change in this new generation, the camera bump and colours. When S20 Ultra launched, it came with this huge camera bump and unfortunately with only two colour options. Unlucky for me, the only one available at the time was Ugly Gray, I mean Cosmic Gray. Therefore ever since the 1st week of owning this phone it has been in a case.
While the latest phone still has a pretty pronounced camera bump, it is executed in a very creative way.
They once again offer only two colour options in all retail shops, unless you get it directly from Samsung, where you get three extra colours to choose from, along with another major difference.
Last year’s S20 Ultra has a glossy finish which is a crazy fingerprint magnet, this year they fixed the issue and now S21 Ultra has a matte finish which makes it look and feel much more premium.
The new phone is also a little bit smaller due to a smaller display, but to be honest - at this size that 0.1 inch is not noticeable, it is still a huge display. What has changed though is the way this display works. With S20 Ultra you are able to either enable Quad HD+ resolution which is limited to 60Hz or drop it down to Full HD+ and enable the smooth 120Hz goodness. With S21 Ultra we now have maximum resolution with 120Hz screen refresh rate. On top of this it supports an adaptive refresh rate between 10Hz and 120Hz. This reduces the load on the phone and also saves battery life.
The other thing that saves the battery is the new SoC. Since we are located in Asia, unfortunately we are stuck with Samsung's in-house Exynos chip, luckily it has a significant improvement over the last gen. To get some objective results, we ran the standard Geekbench 5 and found that S21 Ultra is about 20% faster at single core score and 33% faster at multi core score. That is a significant improvement in just one generation.
To double check the results, we also ran the new PC mark for Android benchmark and found that the new Exynos 2100 chip is about 14% faster than the older Exynos 990 and the main improvement is within computational performance rather than graphical.
We also used the same test to check the battery life and found S21 Ultra lasted an extra hour and 11 minutes which is approximately 13% better than S20 Ultra. Something to note - my S20 Ultra is a year old so the battery is no longer new, but even with reasonable wear - we are seeing at least 5-10% improvement.
However it is not all fine and dandy with the new version. Just like in the rest of the tech industry, you give some, you take some. With this phone you no longer receive headphones nor you get a charging brick. To top all of this off - Samsung has also removed the micro SD storage expansion forcing pro users to upgrade to a larger capacity phone or ensure to offload their data more often.
This leads us rather well to my favourite subject - the camera array. In this generation of Ultra the cameras are reworked and we get an extra one. Now we have a standard wide angle with 108 megapixels, 12 megapixel ultra wide and two 10 megapixel telephoto cameras with 3x and 10x optical zoom. It seems Samsung has opted for this resolution to allow 4k recording on all of the lenses. Now paired with a faster processor, it supports 60FPS recording across the board.
One major improvement in this generation camera is the new dual-pixel autofocus. As most of you know - S20 Ultra was plagued with a bad focusing system and while Samsung has improved it considerably over the last year through software tweaks - it is still a bit hit and miss as it is a hardware issue. With the new phone we did not experience any focus hunting, it just works.
In this camera comparison we also included content from Samsung S21 Plus. It is a tier lower but to many people it would likely be a good enough phone.
To keep things fair, we used the cameras in a point-and-shoot mode, letting the phones decide what is supposed to be the focal point.
We start with a wide angle shot from our recent bike ride along the beach. In general all three pictures are pretty good. It seems like S20 Ultra has retained more details in the sky while also dealing better with the high contrasting light. On a flip side, both of the new phones are delivering more foreground detail.
Once we swapped to the standard camera the same comments apply, with S20 Ultra lacking sharpness in the foreground and the newer generation has evened out the contrasty scene delivering pretty impressive dynamic range results.
Next we have a series of pictures testing zoom functionality. This is where the first hardware difference is very obvious. By default S20 Ultra is using a higher focal length than S21 Ultra, and straight away it seems less sharp.
When we use 10x zoom - the quality is still comparable, and now S21 Ultra is struggling a bit with colour balance, applying too much green tint across the scene.
At 30 times zoom, we can see clearly that the S20 Ultra is starting to fall apart.
And finally at 100 times zoom both phones are pretty bad.
Going to the opposite side of the spectrum - we checked out the minimum focus distance. Here the dual pixel autofocus paired with a new wide angle lens allows the S21 Ultra to get much closer to the subject while still being able to focus properly. We struggled with the other two phones and this is as close as we could get which was approximately 10 cm away.
Live Focus mode now has been renamed to Portrait mode but the effect is ultimately the same - it isolates the subject and blurs the background. Subject detection and separation across all three phones is good, even in the tricky parts around the fenestrations of the plant, and it is too close to call a clear winner.
For the frontal camera test we chose somewhat challenging lighting. I am standing in the shade while being completely backlit by the strong afternoon sun. The new phones have really pushed the shadows to get good exposure, thus making the picture a bit flat but there is still plenty of detail in the beard and hair. In this scenario - S20 Ultra made a better looking picture even though it has faults like overdoing with magenta tint.
Let’s not forget that food doesn't taste good until you snap a photo of it, it’s great to see that both of these phones do well using standard mode. If you want to spice things up - you can enable Food mode. Personally I find it a bit gimmicky and overprocessed.
Next we had to check out how these phones perform with the sun shining right into the lens, and here the new Ultra is maintaining the best contrast and colour accuracy. The other two seem to have struggled a bit with maintaining the accurate contrast levels, making the colours washed out and giving a hazy effect.
Then we let the sun go down and happily concluded that while having pretty optimal lighting conditions without any harsh light shining into the lens - the results are pretty much the equal.
With the light going further down, we tested more low to medium light scenarios with light in the frame and found that S20 Ultra has produced more lens flare, but the pictures themselves were pretty even. After switching to a zoom lens, at first glance all three pictures look the same, but once you start looking at the detail like the little bench below, it becomes apparent that it's lacking sharpness and there is a lot of noise in the shadows.
All three phones are actually pretty capable in low light situations, but sometimes you just need to get that seemingly impossible shot - that's where the Night Mode comes to play a big role in brightening everything up. This completely transforms the picture and it starts to look like dusk rather than night. I'd say the S21 Ultra is a little bit sharper across the frame but not by a lot. They all dealt with the situation pretty impressively.
Lastly let's have a look at video performance starting with stabilisation (see the video example in our YouTube review above, timestamp 7:55). Here I am strolling along while holding both phones in front of me. The S21 Ultra is doing some serious work in keeping the shot looking like I am using a gimbal, while on the S20 Ultra side it looks like one of my hands got drunk.
Low light video performance is much the same as pictures. It is sharper on the S21 Ultra and it also retains more colour. I find the S20 Ultra just looks more gray when compared to the results of the new generation.
By now we see a trend, S21 Ultra is retaining more true to life colours and is sharper regardless of situation. It comes through more on challenging scenarios, but S20 Ultra is still no slouch.
To sum things up - do I regret my S20 Ultra purchase and is S21 Ultra worth the upgrade? Yes, I’d say so. It has a much faster processor, better and smarter display and the new camera array makes it a pretty significant upgrade, and to throw some salt on the wound - Samsung released it 200 dollars cheaper than S20 Ultra. If you are on the market for a truly great phone - S21 Ultra is exactly that, providing you can afford it. Do watch out for the non expandable storage though.
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Samsung S21 Ultra - Amazon link
Samsung S21 Plus - - Amazon link