It’s an iterative year for Samsung’s latest flagship smartphones, where the company is simply improving on a year-old design instead of loading up the new devices with breakthrough features. But that’s not a bad thing. In fact, with the new Galaxy S21 series—which includes the Galaxy S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra—what you’re mostly getting is refined versions of last year’s models for a lower price. The small changes, not all of which are rosy, help make these Android phones some of the best money can buy.
Samsung loaned me a Galaxy S21 and a Galaxy S21 Ultra to test. The latter is the stand-out, taking a $200 price cut over its predecessor yet retaining an excellent camera system that just might be the best around at the moment. But even with that price cut, it’s still $1,200. Unless your eyes are on the top prize, the $800 S21 (which also took a $200 cut from the $1,000 S20) will satisfy your needs—though it won’t wow you.
I want to start with the only reason anyone should splurge for the S21 Ultra: The zoom camera. No, I don’t mean the fact that you can zoom in up to 100X on faraway objects; the quality at those zoom levels is poor. It’s the 10X optical zoom that really shines.
Do you need that level of zoom? No, but it doesn’t make me feel restricted by the hardware I’m using, which is something I’ve felt using phones with 2X or 3X optical zoom. Many phones don’t even have optical zoom, forcing you to digitally zoom and crop, stripping away image quality. This has been the norm for quite some time, so it’s nice to see Samsung leading the charge for something better. (In the US anyway; there are phones with similar zoom tech, but they’re not sold here.) We’ve reached a point in smartphone camera tech where the quality afforded at 10X is excellent most of the time, and it’s something I desperately want to see trickling down into more affordable handsets.
I’ve snapped crisp, up-close photos of the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building in New York City, despite standing on the other side of the Hudson River in Brooklyn. The quality does start to dip when the sun sets (due to its narrower f/4.9 aperture, the Ultra’s zoom camera can’t absorb as much light as the other cameras), but it does an admirable job when paired with Samsung’s Night mode. This mode takes several images in the span of a few seconds and uses software to merge them together for a single final image that’s bright and clear.
There’s actually another 10-megapixel telephoto camera on the S21 Ultra this year. It affords 3X optical zoom that produces great-looking shots if you don’t need the higher level of zoom. It’s nice to have two options! The remaining cameras are a 12-megapixel ultrawide that’s excellent for tight spaces or for shooting sweeping landscapes, and a 108-megapixel main sensor for everyday snaps.
I went for a bike ride around Brooklyn testing the S21 Ultra alongside the S21, last year’s S20+, iPhone 12 Pro Max, and Google’s Pixel 5. My takeaway is that most of the time, the Ultra comes out on top—even with the selfie camera! It might not be the best at handling high-contrast scenes or portraits, and colors can sometimes be off, but it often produces the sharpest images of the lot. That’s largely true when using Night mode, though the iPhone and Pixel are far more forgiving of camera shake. If you don’t hold the S21 absolutely still while shooting in the dark, you’ll probably need to retake the shot.