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The Galaxy S21 Ultra is still a must-buy, if you can find it

Have you seen the new Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra? Looks good, doesn’t it? I can safely say it feels pretty good as well, having spent a short time with the phone already. However, while it’s tempting to grab the latest and greatest phone, in this case, you really shouldn’t pass its predecessor by immediately.

I’ve used the Galaxy S21 Ultra repeatedly over the past year and actually had it as my main daily Android phone for the weeks leading up to the S22’s big launch, and I am confident enough to say that if you can find one, it’s still one of the very best smartphones you can buy.

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What’s good about the S21 Ultra?

It’s technically not the newest Galaxy S Series phone you can buy anymore, but even despite this and the fact it’s a year old, the S21 Ultra is immensely powerful, and using it every day in early 2022 feels absolutely no different from how it did in January 2021. I’m using the international version with the Samsung Exynos 2100 processor and 12GB RAM, plus it has the latest Samsung’s OneUI 4.0 over Android 12 software installed.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra from the back, held in a hand.
Galaxy S21 Ultra Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

My everyday activities are fairly basic. It gets used for messaging and calls, social networking, emails and work chats, web browsing and online shopping, plus some light gaming every now and then. The battery lasts two full days if I turn it off overnight, and there’s never any question about whether it has enough power to do what I ask. The 6.8-inch, 120Hz AMOLED screen is glorious, and video looks fantastic.

Negatives? I’m used to the size and weight of the phone by now, but it really is a monster at first, and although I have not used it every day for the last 12 months, the back and the screen have picked up light scratches simply from being put in pockets or bags, so I do question the durability a little. I certainly don’t treat my phones badly but I don’t put them in a case, as I’d rather test how tough they are. The fingerprint sensor can sometimes take two or three tries before it unlocks the phone.

Going back to what’s good, the standout feature for me is the camera. It’s stellar, and the 10x optical zoom is unbeaten even a year after it debuted. Whatever the situation or environment, I know the S21 Ultra will take a fantastic photo, and the editing suite is powerful enough that I can tweak it if it’s not quite right for me. What strikes me about all this is if I wrote it about a brand new phone released today, I’d be giving it a very high review score. But I’m writing it about a phone that’s a year old and has just been replaced in the range. That’s how strong the Galaxy S21 Ultra remains.

Not the Galaxy S22 Ultra?

Am I saying not to buy the Galaxy S22 Ultra? No, of course not, but I am going to recommend you really look at what’s important in your new phone, and that if you do find an S21 Ultra for a good price, don’t be put off because it’s “old.” The S22 Ultra’s big new feature is the built-in S Pen stylus, and it’s this you should ask yourself if you’ll ever use.

Galaxy S22 Ultra in burgandy.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

I never really used the S Pen before the Galaxy Note 10 Plus, but since Samsung added Bluetooth to the S Pen it has increased its usefulness dramatically. There are features that aren’t only applicable to artists and note-takers, such as for gaming, translation, and as a remote shutter for the camera, and I’ve found myself taking advantage of its talents more.

However, if you have never considered buying a Galaxy Note phone before, never draw anything, and only ever take voice notes if at all, then the S Pen may end up permanently hidden inside the S22 Ultra. It’s a bit of a waste. Samsung has detailed how the camera has improved on the S22 Ultra over the S21 Ultra, but it’s unlikely to be lightyears ahead. On the power and performance side, the S21 Ultra keeps up with the Pixel 6 Pro and the iPhone 13 Pro, plus it easily beats the many mid-range phones released after it too. Yes, the S22 Ultra has the latest Qualcomm or Exynos processor inside, but don’t think the S21 Ultra is a slouch.

When the S21 series launched Samsung committed to three Android version updates, but now Samsung has extended its recent pledge of four generations of Android upgrades to cover the S21 series, so you’re not losing a year of software update support by buying last year’s flagship phone either. It’s a hugely compelling package when looked at as a whole.

Finding one will be the hard part

Ready to rush out and buy? Not so fast, it’s finding one that’s going to be the hard part. Visit Samsung’s online store today and the S21 Ultra is entirely absent from the list. You can buy the Galaxy S20 Ultra (but don’t do that), the Galaxy S21, and the Galaxy S21 Plus, but the Galaxy S22 Ultra has taken the top spot for the S Series line-up. In the U.K. the Samsung store does have the S21 Ultra for sale, but it’s only the 128GB version, it’s only in Phantom Black, and it’s at the full 1,149 British pound price.

Galaxy S22 Ultra and S21 Ultra camera modules.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Look elsewhere and Best Buy has the 128GB Galaxy S21 Ultra in Phantom Black for $1,200, and there are a few available on Amazon too, some at a lower price if you don’t mind purchasing a refurbished model. Here’s the big caveat to all this: Paying full price for the S21 Ultra probably isn’t wise, as Samsung regularly discounted the phone throughout its life, so don’t pay more for it now than you would have done last year.

However, you may be able to squeeze a better deal on an S21 Ultra with a carrier, should they have any left, you are happy to commit to a two-year contract, and aren’t swayed by the salesperson’s efforts to push the S22 Ultra. Provided you’ve done your research, understand what you’re missing out on by not getting the S22 Ultra, and do manage to sway a good deal on one, the Galaxy S21 Ultra could be the shrewdest smartphone purchase you’ll ever make.

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