Worked out the bugs: impressions of the new Samsung S21 Ultra

What Samsung had to do this year: read the feedback on the S20 Ultra, review the camera performance and release a fixed version.

New design

Every year, Samsung’s designers try to come up with something new for the smartphone. And we’re not talking about changes only noticeable to those who have followed the Galaxy brand for years, but a rather drastic change in the look of the device.

With the front edge almost entirely taken up by the screen – except for a thin strip of plastic on the bottom and a hole for the front camera on top – there’s not much you can think of. On the front, the S21 Ultra is identical to the S20 Ultra.

All the creativity of Samsung’s design department is evident on the back of the smartphone. The large camera unit protruding from the body on the left side flows seamlessly into the side edge of the phone. The company calls the solution the “new standard” for the mobile industry (knowing Samsung’s mobile history, it’s likely to last one year).

Subjectively, I liked the S20’s understated design with its rectangular camera cutout better. Even despite the misplaced “SPACE ZOOM 100X” inscription, the smartphone still looks relevant today. And with the S21, one can’t help but get the feeling that in six months to a year, the solution with the flowing cutout into the case will get boring. And the overflow is really just a glued-on overlay on the case, not a single case solution.

The smartphone’s back cover is minimalist and neat – just the company logo and a few technical inscriptions. And it copes well with touch marks – they are not as noticeable on the matte glass as in last year’s model.

The usual Galaxy-esque rounding at the back cover is stronger than that of the screen. All the buttons – volume and lock – are located on the right edge. And, thankfully, the separate button for Bixby has not returned.

The fingerprint sensor, which is especially relevant now that the mask has become a mandatory accessory for anyone living in any city, has almost doubled in size. It’s now easier to “find” with your finger – even without looking at the interface prompt, you can quickly tap the screen somewhere in the middle at the bottom of the screen and the smartphone unlocks. Samsung claims that along with the increase in sensor size its speed has also increased, but in everyday use I didn’t notice any difference.


The biggest and most expensive smartphone in Samsung’s new range has also got the most impressive screen. The Ultra has an OLED display with a dynamic refresh rate of up to 120Hz at maximum resolution.

In practice, this means smooth and pleasing to the eye scrolling through content, and in theory, it also saves battery life by reducing the refresh rate at times when the display is static.

Now for the bad news. Samsung claims on its website that the display is protected by the toughest Gorilla Glass 7 screen, which is “designed to scratch less and protect the smartphone from the front and back”. But the very next day of the test, I noticed scuffs on the top of it – and that’s even though I hadn’t yet had time to take the smartphone outside, put it in my pocket or subject it to other “dangerous” situations.


Last year, Samsung “sold” megapixels as the main feature of its cameras. The S20 Ultra overtook just about every competitor in this regard: 108 MP on the main camera, 48 MP on the telephoto, 40 MP on the selfies and a “modest” 12 MP on the ultra wide-angle.

But chasing numbers doesn’t result in good pictures. Many reviewers complained about the S20’s imbalance – autofocus behaved erratically, background blur was sloppy, the auto switch to wide-angle was unpredictable.

With the S21 Ultra, engineers have changed strategy, stopping the race for pixels, returning to familiar sensors and focusing on lenses, sensor performance and processing algorithms. And that’s a good thing, because the company seems to have listened to feedback from S20 Ultra users.

Only the selfie and main camera specs haven’t changed – still the same 108 MP and F1.8 aperture, but now, if Samsung engineers are to be believed, it’s controlled by updated algorithms and works in conjunction with a powerful processor.

As with the S20, the 108 MP sensor by default combines data from 9 neighbouring pixels to capture more light, so instead of 108 MP shots, the camera produces 12 MP photos (this can be changed in the settings, but it’s best not to). But focusing is now instantaneous, with no loss of focus from the slightest camera movement.

In response to complaints that certain smartphone algorithms change the pictures too much, Samsung has added more shooting control options. In the main camera interface, for example, you can quickly change the strength of facial skin smoothing (or the straightening of the second chin and cheeks). As with the S20, disabling all effects helps you take more natural-looking, high-quality photos.

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