Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S21 Plus vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra: Is bigger better?

It’s not really the start of the year for tech-heads until Samsung reveals its new range of phones. The new year came early in 2021, with Samsung revealing the new Galaxy S21 range a few weeks earlier than usual. Like last year, we’re getting three models in the S21 range — the Galaxy S21, the Galaxy S21 Plus, and the super-sized, super-powerful Galaxy S21 Ultra. But unlike last year, there’s more than just the asking price and size that separates the three models.

Each of the S21 variants has more than slight differences that will probably make them someone’s favorite, and that means it’s no longer a case of asking, “Which size do I want?” Thankfully, we’ve checked the details so you don’t have to and wrote this guide comparing all three models. Here’s the lowdown on whether you should buy the Galaxy S21, S21 Plus, or S21 Ultra.

Specs

Samsung Galaxy S21
Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Size 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm (5.97 x 2.80 x 0.31 inches) 75.6 x 161.5 x 7.8mm (3 x 6.4 x 0.31 inches) 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm (6.5 x 2.98 x 0.35 inches)
Weight 171 grams (6.03 ounces) 202 grams (7.2 ounces) 229 grams ( 8.04 ounces)
Screen size 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X 6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X
Screen resolution 2400 x 1080 pixels (421 pixels per inch) 2400 x 1080 pixels (394 ppi) 3,200 x 1,440 pixels (515 ppi)
Operating system Android 11 (OneUI 3.1) Android 11 (OneUI 3.1) Android 11 (OneUI 3.1)
Storage space 128GB, 256GB 128GB, 256GB 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
MicroSD card slot No No No
Tap-to-pay services Samsung Pay, Google Pay Samsung Pay, Google Pay Samsung Pay, Google Pay
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
RAM 8GB 8GB 12GB, 16GB
Camera Triple lens 12-megapixel wide, 12MP ultrawide, and 64MP telephoto rear

10MP front

Triple lens 12MP wide, 12MP ultrawide, and 64MP telephoto rear

10MP front

Quad lens 108MP, 10MP telephoto, 10 MP telephoto, 12MP ultrawide rear

40MP front

Video 8K at up to 30 frames per second, 4K at up to 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps 8K at up to 30 fps, 4K at up to 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps 8K at up to 30 fps, 4K at up to 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps
Bluetooth version Bluetooth 5.0 Bluetooth 5.0 Bluetooth 5.0
Ports USB-C USB-C USB-C
Fingerprint sensor Yes, in-display ultrasonic Yes, in-display ultrasonic Yes, in-display ultrasonic
Water resistance IP68 IP68 IP68
Battery 4,000mAh

25W fast charging (No charger included in the box)

15W wireless charging

4,800mAh

25W fast charging (No charger included in the box)

15W wireless charging

5,000mAh

25W fast charging (No charger included in the box)

15W wireless charging

App marketplace Google Play Store Google Play Store Google Play Store
Network support All major carriers All major carriers All major carriers
Colors Phantom Gray, Phantom White, Phantom Violet, Phantom Pink Phantom Silver, Phantom Black, Phantom Violet Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Brown, Phantom Navy, Phantom Titanium
Price $800 $1,000 $1,200
Review score 3.5 out of 5 stars 3.5 out of 5 stars 4.5 out of 5 stars

Design, display, and durability

There are significant differences between the three models in the S21 range. The S21 Ultra is the largest of the models and is arguably the most “premium.” It has a metal and glass body and is the only model to have a curved display. That display is a 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X monster with a punch-hole for the selfie camera and has a dynamic refresh rate that intelligently moves between 10Hz to 120Hz as required. This helps to keep your experience smooth when needed but keeps battery use down when it’s not. The biggest changes are found around the back, though, and the camera module has seen a major refresh. The camera module is now integrated into the metal frame, and it’s a striking look, plus it helps reduce the impact of the camera bump. When it’s flush with the casing, it doesn’t feel as major a bump as in the Galaxy S20 Ultra. However, the huge camera pod on the S21 Ultra does mean the balance is significantly off, which is an issue if you’re trying to use it one-handed.

The other two models are broadly similar in design, except for their smaller, flat displays. The flat displays will appeal to anyone who didn’t like curved screens, and thanks to having the same camera module redesign and hole-punch displays, they don’t feel like a huge downgrade from the Ultra, even though they’re restricted to a lower screen resolution. The Galaxy S21 comes with Samsung’s glass-like plastic material on the back instead of glass, and it stings a little that a premium phone doesn’t use premium materials, even if it is more durable as a result. Both also have dynamically shifting refresh rates, but only from 48Hz to 120Hz.

Aside from those differences, all three models have an IP68 rating for water resistance and will probably have similar durability — except for the plastic. Really, the plastic back is the only difference between these models that’s a true negative, and we’re not too worried about the lower resolution (and refresh rate) on the S21 Plus. As such, we’ve awarded the win to the S21 Ultra and the S21 Plus. It depends entirely on whether you prefer a flat or a curved display.

Winners: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and S21 Plus

Performance, battery life, and charging

As much as Samsung changed the designs between models, the internal specs are pretty much exactly the same. All three S21 models use the new Snapdragon 888 processor (or the Exynos 2100 in certain territories), and as such, performance is likely to be much the same. The S21 Ultra comes with 12GB or 16GB of RAM compared to the 8GB on the smaller two models, but you’re unlikely to tell the difference in normal use. You get the option between 128GB and 256GB of storage on the S21 and S21 Plus, and the S21 Ultra goes one better with a 512GB option, but unless you’re a real data hog, you’re unlikely to use that much storage. There’s also no MicroSD card slot in any of these, but we’re not too upset about that.

As you’d expect, there are differences in battery size between all three. The S21 Ultra’s 5,000mAh battery is currently looking like the winner, which should surprise no-one. So far, our review period has seen it easily last a day on normal use, with two days possible on light use. The S21’s 4,000mAh battery is the loser here, but it still scores an average battery life. The S21 Plus is something of an unknown quantity at this stage, with our hands-on time being a little limited — but expect the 4,800mAh battery to do well.

All three phones have 25W fast charging — but no charger in the box — and 15W fast wireless charging, too. With a big, monstrous battery, we’re giving this to the S21 Ultra.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Cameras

Samsung Galaxy S21+
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

There are a lot of familiar elements in the S21 range’s cameras. The S21 and S21 Plus sport a triple-lens system comprised of a 12MP wide lens, 12MP ultrawide lens, a 64MP telephoto lens, and a 10MP selfie camera around the front. It’s basically the same setup that we saw on the Galaxy S20, barring a few software tweaks, and it means this year’s phone takes the same pictures as last year’s phone, which is a disappointment. They are generally impressive, but the low-light quality is poor, and the selfie camera is really not great. While it’s still a passable shooter, the cameras on the two smaller devices are disappointing for flagship 2021 phones.

As usual, it’s the S21 Ultra that’s been given all the bells and whistles. It sports a quad-lens setup with a 108MP main lens, two 10MP telephoto lenses, a 12MP ultrawide lens, and a 40MP selfie lens around the front. The two telephoto lenses are worth highlighting, as one has a 3x zoom, while the other sports an impressive 10x zoom through a periscope setup. The zoom function is actually impressive this time around, and you’ll be able to take shareably good photos of wildlife at 30x zoom. That’s an impressive feat. Even outside the zoom lens, it’s an impressive camera, and you’ll consistently take photos that look great in any light.

All three get the same software tweaks and additions, including an upgraded Single Take 2.0 and a mode that displays a live feed from multiple cameras. But even with that, it’s clear that the S21 Ultra’s camera is the one to get excited about.

Winners: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Software and updates

From one category with lots of differences to one where there are none. The Galaxy S21 range phones are all running Android 11 under Samsung’s OneUI 3.1 skin, and while this isn’t our favorite Android skin by any means, it’s a lot better than it used to be. You’re going to be looking at two years of major Android updates and three years of security updates as standard, and each of them is likely to get those updates at roughly the same time. This is a tie.

Winner: Tie

Special features

Being entries in the same range, it makes sense that these three phones sport similar special features. All three have 5G, come with Samsung’s DeX mode that you can use by plugging into an HDMI cable, and have access to Wireless PowerShare, so you can wirelessly top up a friend’s phone or your earbuds. But, once again, the S21 Ultra pulls ahead. It’s the first Galaxy S phone to come with support for the S Pen. While it doesn’t come with Samsung’s stylus, you can choose to buy a case with a compartment just for Samsung’s stylus.

While people who’ll want to use their S21 Ultra with the S Pen are probably thin on the ground, it does give the larger S21 an advantage over its siblings, making it the winner here.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Price and availability

All three phones are now available, but none of the three come cheap. The Galaxy S21 is the cheapest, with prices starting from $800. The S21 Plus starts from $1,000, while the super-sized S21 Ultra has a super-sized price of $1,200. However, no matter which you’re buying, heavily consider paying $50 extra to double your storage to 256GB. It’s definitely worth the upgrade.

Overall winner: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

The winner here is clearly the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. With a gorgeous new redesign, premium materials and hardware, and an impressive new camera, it’s the strongest of the trio. If money is no object or you just want the best, the Ultra is the one to buy.

But if that’s not the case, well, save yourself $200 on the Galaxy S21 Plus. All you’re missing out on is the curved display (which may not be a personal downside) and the upgraded camera module. It’s still an exceptionally strong phone with a lot to offer. The standard Galaxy S21 is the hardest to recommend with a plastic back and lack of real upgrades, and at $800, you may be better off buying the Galaxy S20 FE instead.

But if you can afford it, the S21 Ultra is our winner for sure.

Editors' Recommendations