Big is beautiful, especially when it comes to Samsung’s late-model smartphones. Take, for example, the company’s new Galaxy S21 Ultra. It improves on its predecessor in several major areas, including a refreshed design, 5G as the standard, and the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor. According to our reviewer, Andy Boxall, “to get that true S Series experience, you have to buy the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which goes all-out on power, screen, camera, and battery tech to satisfy hardcore fans.”
Even so, it’s not without competition. Consider last year’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, whose message is similar — go big or go home. Both Galaxy phones have more power, more features, and more advanced tech than their predecessors — all aimed at improving productivity and boosting media capabilities. So how does last year’s top Note compare with today’s flagship S21?
|Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra||Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra|
|Size||165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9 mm (6.5 x 2.98 x 0.35 inches)||164.8 x 77.2 x 8.1 mm (6.49 x 3.04 x 0.32 inches)|
|Weight||229 grams ( 8.04 ounces)||208 grams (7.33 ounces)|
|Screen size||6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X||6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X|
|Screen resolution||3200 x 1440 pixels (515 pixels per inch)||3088 x 1440 pixels, (496 pixels per inch)|
|Operating system||Android 11, One UI 3.1||Android 11, One UI 3.1|
|Storage||128GB, 256GB, 512GB||256GB, 512GB|
|MicroSD card slot||No||Yes|
|Tap-to-pay services||Google Pay, Samsung Pay||Google Pay, Samsung Pay|
|Processor||Exynos 2100 (global) Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 (USA)||Exynos 990 (global), Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus (USA)|
|Camera||Quad lens 108-megapixel, 10MP telephoto, 10 MP telephoto, 12MP ultrawide rear
|Triple lens 108-megapixel, 12MP telephoto, 12MP ultrawide rear
|Video||8K at 30 fps, 4K at 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps, 720p at 960 fps, HDR10+||8K at 24 fps, 4K at 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps, 720p at 960 fps, HDR10+|
|Fingerprint sensor||Yes, in-display (ultrasonic)||Yes, in-display (ultrasonic)|
Fast charging (25W charger sold separately)
Qi wireless charging
Fast charging (25W included)
Qi wireless charging (15W)
|App marketplace||Google Play Store||Google Play Store|
|Network support||All major carriers||All major carriers|
|Colors||Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Brown, Phantom Navy, Phantom Titanium||Mystic Bronze, Mystic Black, Mystic White|
|Review score||4.5 out of 5 stars||4 out of 5 stars|
Design, display, and durability
The main difference between the new Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is the identifiable design. The Note 20 sports a rectangular shape with sharp corners, and it runs wider than the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which looks a bit more chunky but has a narrower form factor and rounded corners. The S21 Ultra has an inherent advantage as the newer unit, with the highest brightness up to 1,500 nits for optimal viewing and better color rendering in direct sunlight.
Both devices support QHD resolution for sharp detail, but the Note cannot use the 120Hz Dynamic fast refresh rate at the maximum resolution, while the S21 Ultra can. That said, the 120Hz refresh rate is dynamic on both models, so it only appears if needed, while the rest of the time the phones run at a lower refresh rate to conserve battery life. The S21 Ultra’s updated camera styling is sophisticated and elegant as Samsung’s new design now integrates the camera pod right into the frame for a more natural look — a double-edged sword, as Boxall points out, because the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra does not wear its heft as well as the Note 20 Ultra or much of the competition. The issue stems from the S21 Ultra’s standout feature — the camera module.
While the Note’s camera module is huge and protruding despite its elegant design, the integrated design of the S21 Ultra throws the device off balance. While competition is steep, and so much depends on your taste, the Galaxy S21 Ultra still edges out the Note 20 Ultra by a thin hair.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Performance, battery life, and charging
Newer phones nearly always take the performance advantage, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which ships with the new Snapdragon 888, promises to deliver superior performance compared to the older Snapdragon 865+ on the Note 20 Ultra. Another advantage is the newer 5nm manufacturing process used to build the newer phone facilitates more transistors and better performance without power consumption taking a commensurate hit.
While both phones have a base storage of 128GB, only the Note 20 Ultra has a MicroSD card slot, something that the S21 Ultra surprisingly does not. To compensate, the S21 Ultra offers models with 256GB or 512GB of native storage. Both phones support all current 5G bands including mmWave or UWB on Verizon, but the S21 Ultra has a 5G modem built into the chip, which also conserves power and boosts data speed.
The S21 Ultra also comes with a larger 5,000mAh battery, compared to a 4,500mAh battery on the Note 20 Ultra, a considerable upgrade that makes a big difference in everyday use, though the Galaxy S21 Ultra supports 25W charging speeds, the same as the Note 20 Ultra. But on the plus side for the Note 20 Ultra, it still ships with a charger in the box. Both phones support wireless charging at speeds of up to 15 watts, and both support reverse wireless charging to act as a power bank for a smartwatch or earbuds.
Because the superior chipset delivers better performance, and almost everything else is comparable except for the MicroSD card slot, and despite the charger as an add-on expense for some, we give the nod to the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung did a lot of work on the S21 Ultra’s camera. For starters, the S21 Ultra revisits the 100x zoom, which it had previously reduced to 50x for the Note 20. It debuted a new 10x zoom native periscope lens, the longest zoom ever for a Galaxy phone, and it uses this camera combined with an intelligent digital zoom to reach 100x. Samsung also includes a 3x zoom telephoto lens with both telephoto cameras offering critical optical image stabilization. These features make the S21 Ultra a superior zoom camera. The result, says Boxall, is superlative. He describes massive detail in the photos, which look crisp, sharp, colorful, and well-balanced.
There are also improvements to video recording. It now supports a laser auto-focusing system to improve focus. It enables 8K video recording at 30 fps, and can capture high-quality screen grabs from that footage. While not discounting the quality and styling of the Note 20 Ultra camera, at the end of the day, it is less flexible and powerful than the newer phone.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Software and updates
Both the Galaxy S21 and the Galaxy Note 20 now run One UI 3.0, Samsung’s skin for Android 11, so they have nearly identical software and features. They’re also likely to get updates at roughly the same rate, and while the S21 Ultra will probably get one more version of Android, that’s a while away.
Here’s a new one: For the first time, an S series phone supports the S Pen, though not as naturally as on the Note 20 Ultra, which not only ships with the pen but has its own slot for the pen. While the pen is kind of a novelty for the S21 Ultra, it’s an add-on that requires a separate purchase and a special case. It’s unclear what the demand is for the pen for this model, but it’s nice to have the option — though if you do want one, you’ll have to shell out even more money.
But even if you do, Boxall points out that the phone does not support the Bluetooth function of the Note 20 Ultra’s S Pen and there are no features, like the remote shutter release. There’s also nowhere to stow the S Pen when it’s not in use, except to separately purchase an ugly case for the S21 Ultra to hold the S Pen.
Conversely, the best part about the Note 20 Ultra line is that every phone comes with the same stylus, so it’s easier to find a way to integrate it into everyday use. However, there are other things the S21 Ultra does not ship with, such as a MicroSD card slot and the charger — both of which the Note 20 Ultra does have.
Both the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Note 20 Ultra support both main 5G bands in almost all the territories where they are sold.
The S21 adds a couple of smaller new items like the camera’s Vlogger View, which allows you to capture video with both front and rear cameras simultaneously, and the Director View, offering thumbnails of the feed from the S21’s different camera lens.
With a free, built-in S Pen, in-box charger, and MicroSD card slot, the Note 20 Ultra comes with pretty much everything the Galaxy S21 Ultra does and a little extra. It’s the winner here.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Price and availability
The world has emerged from one sad, unstable year and entered into another, so price variations matter. For 2021, Samsung dropped its flagship phone price by $200 — though again, it did remove the charger from the box. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G rings in at $1,200 for 128GB model, $1,250 for 256GB, and $1,380 for 512GB, and available now. The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Because prices are roughly comparable, while at the same time the S21 Ultra starts at a lower price and offers several options based on your storage needs, but forces optional purchases, we call a tie.
Overall winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
It’s still early days for the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, but our reviewer has some encouraging words, judging it to be the most advanced Android smartphone available and makes excellent use of its high-level tech.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra have many features and capabilities in common, and given that you may be able to obtain the more expensive model at roughly the same price as the new one, which is better is a matter of personal preference. Boxall acknowledges the similarities and relative advantages of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra — that despite its slightly older processor and somewhat less capable camera, it’s slimmer and better balanced, plus it comes with the S Pen stylus with somewhere to keep it. Plus, it’s quite a bit cheaper than the S21 Ultra.
In choosing the Galaxy S21 Ultra as the better phone, we base the decision on the updated processor, brighter display, superior camera power and design, and more powerful battery, so if it’s the best overall phone you want, then choose the new S21 Ultra.
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