Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra first look: Big has never looked so beautiful

Two Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphones

The first major smartphone launch of the year has arrived, and it comes in the form of the Samsung Galaxy S21 range. The South Korean giant is following a phenomenal year for phone sales, and the S21 promises to be another slam dunk. The company also unveiled its new Exynos 2100 chipset which has been developed with a 5nm process, similar to what was used to develop the chips for both the iPhone 12 and the Huawei Mate 40.

For the second year in a row, Samsung's Galaxy S range comes with a monstrous 'Ultra' model. The S21 Ultra is the largest of the new devices and true to its name, it really is Ultra; each element is ridiculously big, stupendously powerful and slightly daunting. It's the smartphone equivalent of a monster truck, aimed at those who truly believe bigger is better.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra first look: Design

We're not exaggerating, either - trouser pockets, beware. The S21 Ultra is a whopping 75.6mm wide and 165.1 mm tall. For context, the biggest iPhone, the 12 Pro Max, is noticeably shorter at 160.8mm, and the Ultra also weighs 228g which will almost be a mini workout for the hand. But you don't buy the S21 Ultra and complain that it's too big; that's the whole point. And in actual fact, it's slightly smaller than last year's S20 Ultra.

The biggest change to the design is the camera module, which now wraps around the top corner of the device and blends into the aluminium chassis. Beyond that, there haven't been many alterations to the design or the layout of the display. Somehow, though, that seems enough to differentiate the S21 Ultra from the S20 Ultra. It's this subtlety of design that Samsung has mastered; it only comes in green and black. There is a 'Phantom Violet' option for the S21, but the Ultra doesn't need it when it reflects light in such a pleasing way. It's fair to say that very few manufacturers can consistently produce designs as eye-catching as Samsung.

Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra first look: Display

One of the most eye-catching elements is the screen, and the S21 Ultra has a big 6.8in WQHD+ AMOLED display. The 'W' part stands for wide and you can expect a 2,960 x 1,440 resolution here. This may be too large for some to operate with one hand (although there will be a 'single-handed' mode for ease of use) but it is brilliant for streaming.

As with other recent Galaxy devices, the big draw will once again be the 120Hz refresh rate. On the S20 Ultra, this was smoother than a butter sculpture of Barry White. There is reasonable concern that this could drain battery life much faster than with a lower refresh rate, as it did on the S20 Ultra, but the hope this year is that improved battery optimisation will help.

In terms of quality, the display on last year's Note 20 Ultra fell a little short of Samsung's high standards. The company usually delivers high-quality screens with vivid colours and good brightness levels though, so a decent score on the S21 Ultra shouldn't be unexpected.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra first look: Specs and features

The S21 ultra is powered by Samsung's newly-unveiled Exynos 2100 chipset. Like Huawei's Kirin 9000 and Apple's A14 Bionic, the Exynos 2100 has been developed with a 5nm process, which would now appear to be the standard of the market. It will be interesting to see how other manufacturers such as OnePlus and Sony compete here. It's worth noting, however, that Google opted for Qualcomm's mid-range Snapdragon 765G processor in its Pixel 5, partly because smartphones don't necessarily need the level of performance that more expensive cutting-edge chips can deliver.

Another new area of the Galaxy S range is S Pen compatibility. It makes total sense considering the size of the device, though sadly it doesn't look like there's a slot to actually house the stylus as seen on Note devices. There will be a specially designed case that has a port for the stylus, but both will be sold separately. Perhaps more worrying, however, are the recent reports that the Note range is to be scrapped. While the S21 Ultra is a great phablet, the Note was also quite brilliant - and many people (ourselves included) will be sad to see it go.

The S Pen and Case for the new Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra first look: Battery

The S21 Ultra will have the same 5,000mAh battery as found in the S20 Ultra. This isn't too concerning; the S20 Ultra lasted 22hrs and 12min in our looped video tests and the only device to top that can claim to have topped that is Samsung's own M31. The budget handset lasted over 30hrs in the same tests, so while we're not expecting to see that kind of battery life, the S21 Ultra should hit 20 hours with ease.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra first look: Camera(s)

The S21 Ultra is gloriously excessive, fully earning its name in the camera department alone. Unlike the triple camera array on the S21 and the S21+, the Ultra comes with four main lenses; a 12MP ultra-wide camera, a 108MP wide snapper and two 10MP telephoto lenses. There's also a beefed-up 40MP selfie cam on the front.

Cameras are a good indicator of how much smartphones have developed - particularly over the last four years, where major flagships have swiftly gone from one to five cameras per device. However, manufacturers like Samsung, Huawei, and even Sony have been pushing the boundaries of what smartphone cameras can offer, be it super zooms or video editing software.

For the Ultra the new processor is said to come with greater power to tweak and edit photos and also a superpowered stabilisation mode called 'Zoom Lock'. So in theory, when you use the telephoto capabilities, you can prevent those fuzzy finishes for cleaner shots of something miles away.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra first look: Early verdict

Not everyone is keen on huge smartphones. The industry took an unexpected turn last year with the Pixel 5 regeared for the middle of the market and there are plenty of reasons to go small. The S21 Ultra is heavy, cumbersome and a big strain on pockets - and thanks to its £1,149 price tag, we mean that both literally and financially.

However, if you have a predilection for larger phones, then this is your ideal device. No one can seem to match Samsung for the big one; Apple's iPhone 12 Pro Max only has a 6.7in display, Huawei's Mate 40 Pro doesn't have Google services and no other manufacturer dares to make anything as gargantuan as the S21 Ultra. The question is, can its appeal match its large size?

Bobby Hellard

Bobby Hellard is ITPro's Reviews Editor and has worked on CloudPro and ChannelPro since 2018. In his time at ITPro, Bobby has covered stories for all the major technology companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, and regularly attends industry-leading events such as AWS Re:Invent and Google Cloud Next.

Bobby mainly covers hardware reviews, but you will also recognize him as the face of many of our video reviews of laptops and smartphones.