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Better cameras but a weaker engine – so just what makes this new S21 ‘Ultra’?

First look: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. Price: from €1,299


New release: The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. Photo: Adrian Weckler

New release: The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. Photo: Adrian Weckler

New release: The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G. Photo: Adrian Weckler

This is a first impressions piece — I’ll have a full review next week.

There is one general question that anyone might ask: what is it about this phone that makes it Samsung’s ‘Ultra’ S21? I mean, aren’t the other S21 models supposed to be ‘flagship’ models?

Increasingly not. Samsung now has a few different tiers to its ‘premium’ models and I’d say that the regular S21s are now on the third rung, behind both the Ultras and the ‘Fold’ models.

The S21 Ultra is mainly different to the cheaper S21 models in four main ways. First it’s physically bigger. Its display is 6.8-inches in diameter, which edges out the 6.7-inch S21+ and is considerably bigger than the 6.2-inch S21.

Second is the quality of that display. As well as being 25pc brighter (up to 1,500 nits), this year’s ‘Ultra’ is the only one that gives you the opportunity of having the ultra-high screen resolution at the full 120hz refresh rate. Samsung normally doesn’t allow this as it leads to a faster drain on battery life. But they’ve shoved a giant 5,000mAh battery in there to help remediate against this.

The third element that separates this Ultra model from the other is the camera setup. You can see this when unboxing it. The Ultra has five camera holes on the back, compared to the three on the other two models. One of those, a second optical zoom, added to satiate Samsung’s lust in becoming the top zoom cameraphone in the world.

It’s also damage-limitation of a sort; its 100x ‘space zoom’ lens, first introduced on top models last year, couldn’t deliver clear shots. The addition of a 10x optical lens to a 3x optical lens is supposed to help its zoom get further in a steadier, clearer fashion. I’ll have a fuller rundown on this next week, but my early impression of it is that it’s still an ambitious ask.

Where it does seem to work well is up to 30x or 40x, which is creditably clear, even in moderate lighting. And the addition of a laser to help focusing, which is something similar to what the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s Lidar does, is also there to steady the ship. These improvements alone may be enough of a reason for some people to go for this model over the S21 or S21+.

(For anyone who thinks they need it, the selfie camera is now a whopping 40 megapixels and supports slightly ultra-wide shots.)

Lastly, there’s the engine. Samsung has saved its strongest muscle for its top model. You can choose between three variants — 128GB with 12GB of Ram, 256GB with 12GB of Ram or 512GB with 16GB of Ram. (As most reading this will know, 16GB is usually what you get in a high-end work laptop.)

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As with last year, Samsung is putting its own Exynos 2100 processor in the S21 Ultra models we get in Ireland and Britain, compared to the Snapdragon 888 in the US variants. Last year showed that the Exynos models were significantly weaker than the Snapdragons. I’ll have more on how this model compares in my full review next week.

Other features worth noting in this overview include reverse wireless charging and an under-screen fingerprint button, which I’ll rate in my full review.

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