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Ultra vs Ultra, the very obvious working title on this one was. The Galaxy S21 Ultra marks the third iteration in Samsung’s pursuit of the ultimate camera phone, so we figured a comparison was okay.
We limited it to only two providers – the new model against the Galaxy Note20 Ultra from about 6 months ago. A three-way with the S20 Ultra crossed our minds, but maintaining our sanity triumphed over curiosity. As the number of samples in this simpler head-to-head grew exponentially (due to the large number of cameras, changing weather, switching due to software updates), we appreciated our conservative choice of participants.
Since the Note20 Ultra was in many ways an improvement over the S20 Ultra, and the now one-year-old last-generation S-Series is less of an enticing purchase option, we believe our choices have merit beyond our own convenience. Plus, with the S21 Ultra’s S Pen support, isn’t that really a new note in disguise?
Okay, with our choices already rationalized, let’s go over what’s inside these phones.
The latest Ultra comes with a whole lot of new hardware, including the same at first glance main camera. In fact, the whole camera setup is unseen before.
The primary device now uses a second generation Nonacell 108MP sensor, the Isocell HM3 (the smaller pitch of 0.7 µm HM2 does not count in our book). Its main improvement over the HM1 is the Smart-ISO Pro, which utilizes the dual original ISO capability of imaging by using both levels of enhancement within the same shot – Samsung explains it clearly in a video.
However, it is not only the sensor that has been replaced – the lens is now wider with a 24 mm equivalent (26 mm compared to previous ultrasound). Its aperture remains at f / 1.8, and it is still fixed – we miss the dual aperture of older galaxies. Of course, optical stabilization is still present.
Another new addition to the Ultra v.3 is autofocus on the ultra-wide-angle camera we’ve been traveling around for at least a couple of generations of galaxies. It uses a 12MP 1 / 2.55 “sensor with 1.4 pixelsm pixels, the same as on the note. Only these new pixels now have dual pixel AF capability. Samsung quotes a 120 degree field of view on both lenses while the aperture is f / 2.2.
Which brings us to phones. The S21 Ultra has two of them, each equipped with a 10MP 1 / 3.24 “sensor with 1.22 pixelsm pixels. One is an intermediate 3x telephoto (approx. 70 mm focal length equivalent, f / 2.4 aperture ), the other uses a double-fold periscope lens design to achieve 10x zoom (240mm, f / 4.9) .Both lenses are stabilized.
Note20 Ultra, on the other hand, has a single telephoto camera at an intermediate 5x zoom level – equivalent to approx. 120 mm. The 12MP 1 / 3.4 “sensor it uses has 1.0 pixelsm pixels, while the lens, stabilized, has an f / 3.0 aperture.
This discrepancy in the offered native zoom levels created a really nice and simple comparison. Does not. The camera app did not help in this regard either. How?
UI for camera app
The camera app does not have a preset button for 3x zoom on the note, nor is there a 5x shortcut on the S21 Ultra. Still, both have a 4x button for some unknown reason – which we did not use because it is not on any of the phone’s list of built-in zoom magnifications.
Realistically, but outside of comparative review, the lack of a certain preset zoom level should not be held against Samsung’s otherwise best camera app. However, the fact that the buttons at the secondary zoom level get in the way of switching modes has been an annoyance in common use, so there it is.
Basics, however, will be familiar – to push left and right toggles between available modes, and there is the option to rearrange, add, or remove some of the modes from the viewfinder. Many of the modes you want in there are not present on the S21 Ultra out of the box (like night and portrait mode), but let’s say it’s Samsung’s way to encourage you to set up the camera app on your own taste. Speaking of which, it’s actually ‘Portrait’ mode that starts with the S21 generation – formerly Samsung’s faux bokeh mode called ‘Live Focus’.
Vertical swipes in both directions switch between front and rear cameras. Strangely, not all phones out there support this simple gesture – galaxies do.
The well-known tree designation for zoom control is also here – on the note, which means three trees for ultra-wide, two trees for main camera (moderately wide) and single wood for tele. The S21 Ultra adds another single tree (but a more detailed one) to its 10x tele.
As before, once you hit the tree switch, an additional set of buttons will appear with additional preset zoom levels. These include ultra-widths (0.5x on the note, 0.6x on the S, because ‘x’ means slightly different things on the two) and 4x, we mentioned, and go to the extremes (up to 50x on the note, 100x on the S) . Pinch zoom, of course, works, too.
The viewfinder has the usual set of icons with the setting wheel in the upper left corner of the screen. The Galaxy S21s get the video resolution moved to the viewfinder, on the note you have to go into settings to change it. Minor tweaks to the new phone include additional Single Take mode settings, bokeh effects for Portrait mode and a Director’s view mode for video, where you get to see what all the cameras are recording at the same time.
Pro mode is where you can select ISO and shutter speed, focus manually (with peak load) and select white balance as well as select metering mode and AF range. An important development on the S21 Ultra is that you can now access the ultra-wide camera in Pro mode, and the note can not. Then again, none of them can use tele (r) in Pro mode.
Maybe that makes it a preamble – we can now move on to looking at some examples of images.