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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: Reclaiming the top spot

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Samsung and Apple have spent the last decade fighting for the top spot in the smartphone race. Despite the closed ecosystem, Apple has thrived and continues to ship units like french fries at a McDonald’s. But Samsung has reigned over the Android ecosystem, selling more than two billion Galaxy-branded phones.

Last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra was an ambitious attempt to race ahead in the Android league and create a new ultra-premium niche for itself. Unfortunately, the phone received a lot of criticism for its shameful camera, inefficient processor, and repulsive design.

The new Galaxy S21 Ultra is different, and that’s in a good way. It fills all the shortcomings of its predecessor and adds a touch of finesse that we expect from a flagship. There’s no doubt that other phone makers will catch-up soon enough, but what makes the Galaxy S21 special is its long-term promise. The phone rules the market right now and will continue to be a worthy proposition due to its massive technological edge.

What’s warped

  • The delectable camera bump seamlessly slides in the phone’s frame on the design front, making it a visual delight. The back has a matte finish that looks eerily similar to the iPhone 7’s, but instead of metal, it’s made of Gorilla Glass Victus. The new glass is much stronger and can resist drops from two metres, along with better scratch resistance. The sides consist of a polished aluminium frame that provides a lot of grip.
  • On the front is a 6.8-inch AMOLED panel which is unquestionably the best mobile screen on the planet right now. With a maximum brightness of 1500 nits, the colour reproduction is sublime, and it refreshes at 120Hz. The new display is said to be up to 15% more efficient, and with Quad HD resolution, the phone is smart enough to adjust it in favour of maximum battery life dynamically.
  • While the display is quite power efficient, the phone’s primary juice saver is the processor. Powered by the Exynos 2100 chip, the phone touts far superior battery performance thanks to the new software optimizations. The Galaxy S21 can easily deliver two days of battery life. The phone may not use power generously, but it also doesn’t affect the performance. Stock ARM Cortex X1 based architecture coupled with a new 5nm process makes for a phone that’s as fast as Max Verstappen, minus the frequent tyre changes.
  • The Exynos chipset can perform without a hiccup in any situation, be it hectic multitasking or gaming or general app navigation. The difference in performance between the Exynos chip and Snapdragon silicon isn’t much this time, and the phone can handle anything you throw at it. This is the fastest Android phone we’ve reviewed so far, with 12GB DDR5 RAM and 256GB UFS 3.1 storage.
  • 5G is the next frontier for wireless communication, and the phone supports most commercially deployed bands globally. India is yet to taste 5G, and a gradual roll-out is expected from 2022. So if you’re going to use the phone for two years, you’re pretty much future-proof.
  • The 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. Samsung uses the latest 108-megapixel sensor, which produces 12-megapixel images unless explicitly asked to shoot at its native resolution via the Pro mode. The results are remarkable as it consistently takes sharp, saturated and detailed photos that are also vividly lit up even in extreme situations. The night mode gets the job done flawlessly, though it may end up looking slightly unnatural in absolutely dark environments. Long gone is the tormented focusing system, replaced by a laser autofocus system. Versatility is at the core of this setup, as you can click a splendid landscape, insane macros, and group photos without cropping someone out. Lastly, it’s also a telescope in your pocket thanks to the twin 3x and 10x optically zoomed cameras. These sensors enable 30x lossless zoom that looks shockingly good. In fact, moonshots at even 100x look impressive, but this is more of a marketing gimmick. How many times are you going to click the moon?
  • Samsung’s video quality has always been superior, compliments of advanced optical image stabilization. All four lenses on the back can output 4k video at 60 fps, and generally, the quality is great. Audio capture is also impressive, but the iPhone wins here any time of the day. 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. Finally, the 40-megapixel front camera is the best you can get.
  • It’s safe to say Samsung has removed everything that we hated from Galaxy S20 Ultra. But it has managed to retain many things that we’ve come to love from Galaxy-branded phones over the decade. The first thing is the phone’s natural yet satisfying haptic feedback. You’ll fall in love with typing. Call quality is best-in-class, and the stereo speakers are outstanding. For audiophiles, there’s now support for high-resolution audio through USB-C. Samsung uses Qualcomm’s ultrasonic fingerprint scanners, and authentication is as fast as a bullet train

What’s Not

  • The first thing you’ll notice is that the phone’s retail box is more petite because the charging brick and earphones are not included along with the phone. Apple kickstarted this trend, and Samsung even trolled them last year for removing the essentials. The companies claim the move could help save the environment, and while the claim remains disputed, it’s indeed bothersome. It’s a pity because Samsung used to provide superior AKG earphones earlier.
  • Samsung hasn’t included a charging brick, but the phone can support up to 25W fast charging. It may not be as good as OnePlus or OPPO’s offering, but it does beat Apple’s iPhone, which comes in at 15W. There’s also support for wireless charging at 15W as well as reverse charging for all your smaller accessories.
  • Samsung has removed a few features that we’ve always loved. Like the MST coil in Samsung Pay, which makes pretty much any PoS (point of sales) machine compatible with the service. Now you’ll be able to use the service only with an NFC-enabled PoS. There’s no microSD card expansion option, facial recognition is still primitive, and the fast charging isn’t as fast as it should be.
  • Samsung’s software — One UI 3.0 based on Android 11, is pretty good. But it isn’t as good as OnePlus’ OxygenOS or stock Android. And it’s far from being as elegant as iOS 14. There are a tonne of duplicate Samsung apps that try to become forceful alternatives of Google apps, and the phone isn’t likely to get quick OTA updates. Though, you’ll feel right at home if you’re deep into the Microsoft ecosystem. Due to a direct partnership with Microsoft, Office apps are ready for you whenever you need them.

Should You Buy It?

In a nutshell, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a complete antithesis of what the iPhone 12 Pro Max stands for. While the phone reeks of customizations, future technology, and uniqueness, it’s not as refined as an Apple product. While many may still be lured towards the iPhone, the cost difference between them is also significant. Samsung is a more flexible phone that’s open to everyone and anyone. You’ll never be locked into a particular ecosystem, and the features are genuinely tempting. While the iPhone struggles to take a 10x picture, Samsung can go x30 without any efforts. In the end, Samsung has created a product that commands respect and continues the Galaxy lineage, making it the ultimate expression of Android and the ecosystem Google has fostered.

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