Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
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Samsung has officially unveiled the Galaxy S21 Ultra and for the first time on the Galaxy S series, it supports the S Pen, even if the S Pen itself won't be included inside the phone like it is on the Note series.
Does this mean that you should now buy the Galaxy S21 Ultra instead of the Note 20 Ultra if you are looking for the very best of Samsung? And what other differences are there between the S21 Ultra and the Note 20 Ultra?
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So... let's dive deeper and explore the advantages the Galaxy S21 Ultra offers over the Note 20 Ultra!
Display, Design and S Pen support
The S21 Ultra is a narrower, but thicker phone, while the Note has that signature sharp rectangle look
Both being big phones, the main difference between the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Note 20 Ultra is the design. The Note comes in this easily recognizable rectangular shape with sharp corners that is unlike any other phone, and it's a bit wider than a typical phone too, while the Galaxy S21 Ultra features a slightly narrower shape with more traditional, rounded corners. On the other hand, the S21 Ultra has that new camera styling that kind of blends with the metal sides of the phone and looks very stylish. The S21 Ultra is also a bit thicker: not much, but enough for one to notice, and that thickness becomes even more noticeable if you use the phone with a case.
And of course, since for the first time an S series phone will support S Pen, creative people will now have one more reason to consider the S21 Ultra. The S Pen, however, will not reside inside the phone as on the Note, but it will be offered either separately or will insert into certain cases.
Neither phone has a headphone jack, as you would expect, and the S21 Ultra takes things further by NOT including a microSD card slot, a feature that Samsung was well known to include in the past.
The Note 20 Ultra also features a slightly larger screen size. On paper, the difference is just 0.1 inches, but the Note being wider, it actually has a noticeably bigger screen area. Here are the full display specs:
Still, the S21 Ultra is the newer phone and that means it benefits from a few technological breakthroughs: it comes with the highest peak brightness of any smartphone (it can go up to 1,500 nits when needed), so you can comfortably use it even under direct sunlight and its color output is expected to be a bit better as well.
Both phones support a QHD resolution for extra sharp detail, but interestingly, the Note cannot use the 120Hz Dynamic fast refresh rate at the maximum resolution, while the S21 Ultra offers that option. The 120Hz refresh rate adjustment is dynamic on both phones, meaning that it only kicks in when needed, while the rest of the time the phones run at a lower refresh rate to save battery.
Besides the new more frugal LTPO display technology and the way more granular dynamic refresh rate, the Galaxy S21 Ultra screen is superior to the one on the Note 20 Ultra in most every other panel quality metric imaginable. As you can see from our display quality test results of the two phones above, the S21 Ultra has a panel that is way brighter.
Not only is it reaching 1500 nits in isolated scenarios, but it also can muster much higher peak brightness in everyday usage, which is an especially good advantage to have when outdoors, compared to the Note 20 Ultra. Last but not least, the S21 Ultra has the more color-correct panel, as you can see from the Delta E score difference above.
When it comes to display features' comparison, it does offer a digitizer for S Pen stylus support, and just like the Note 20 Ultra, but sports an under-display finger scanner with a much larger area than the Note's, beating it in speed and responsiveness of the biometrical unlock. All in all, in the all-important display quality metric, the Galaxy S21 Ultra got the Note 20 Ultra beat, but it's not personal, it does beat any other popular phone at the moment.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra ships with the latest and most powerful chip by Qualcomm, the new Snapdragon 888, compared to an older generation Snapdragon 865+ used on the Note 20 Ultra.
The newer Snapdragon 888 chip takes a leap in performance thanks to the newer 5nm manufacturing process used that allows for more transistors and higher performance without much of an effect on power consumption. It's not like the Note 20 Ultra is slow, it definitely isn't, but if you want the most cutting-edge technology that is future proof, the S21 Ultra is the way to go.
We have the Exynos models of both phones for this test, and you can see that Samsung has really done a great job working on that new Exynos 2100 processor in the S21 Ultra (US models will have the Snapdragon 888 with similar performance).
Both phones will also start at a base storage of 128GB in the US, a reasonable amount, but only the Note will support a microSD card slot. The S21 Ultra is the first Samsung flagship we can think of that does NOT have a microSD card slot. To offset the lack of a microSD card slot on the S21 Ultra, Samsung will offer versions with 256GB and even 512GB of native storage, a strategy similar to what Apple does with its iPhones.
In terms of 5G connectivity, both support all of the 5G bands that are currently in use (including mmWave or UWB on Verizon), but here, the S21 Ultra has the advantage of a 5G modem built in the chip, which allows it to be more frugal in terms of power consumption.
Two telephoto zoom cameras on the S21 Ultra might make it the most versatile zoom camera
The Note 20 Ultra impressed everyone with the beautiful styling of the camera with those metal rings around each lens, a stylish look. But when it comes to actual cameras, it's the S21 Ultra that is pushing the boundaries. Last year, Samsung introduced 100X Space Zoom on the S20 Ultra, but many users complained that photos with 50X and further zoom are barely usable. Samsung took this into consideration and cut back on the zooming ability of the Note 20 Ultra which supports "only" up to 50X zoom.
Well, with the S21 Ultra, 100X zoom is making a come-back, but this time with better quality.
The S21 Ultra is able to bring this back thanks to a new, 10X zoom native periscope lens, the longest range zoom ever used on a Galaxy phone, and it uses this camera combined with intelligent digital zoom to go all the way up to 100X zoom. A 10X zoom lens, however, would mean a big gap in the zoom range from 1X to 10X, and that's why Samsung is also including a secondary, 3X zoom telephoto lens. Both telephoto cameras come with optical image stabilization, which is crucial to getting clear images at those longer zoom ranges. All of this together easily makes the S21 Ultra truly the ultimate zoom camera phone, bar none.
Another interesting change is in the main camera which is much wider on the S21 Ultra: it shoots at 24mm rather than the standard across most phones 26mm length, and while this might seem like a small difference, it will make for a noticeably different perspective on photos captured with the main camera.
< S21 Ultra Note 20 Ultra >
The big news on the S21 Ultra is, of course, the zoom, and that 10X periscope camera, so let's test it out against the Note:
< S21 Ultra 10X zoom Note 20 Ultra 10X zoom >
In this case, the difference is not huge, but it is noticeable to the eagle-eyed viewers.
We are quite happy with the improvements in low-light photos. For the images below, we have used the Scene Optimizer, which is basically Samsung's "auto mode" for the camera, and it was much smarter on the S21 Ultra than on the Note. It would use longer exposure when needed more often and it produces night photos that no longer have that orange tint and appear far cleaner in detail.
The S21 Ultra also brings some improvements to video recording: first, it will support a laser auto-focusing system to help relieve the focusing issues that the S20 Ultra used to have. And secondly, it enables 8K video recording at 24fps, with the ability to capture high quality screen grabs from that footage, so you don't have to wonder whether to film or snap a photo. Of course, the big focus here is the amazing zoom, take a look at this super crisp 10X video we shot on the S21 Ultra:
Battery Life and Charging speeds
- 5,000mAh (Galaxy S21 Ultra) vs 4,500mAh (Note 20 Ultra)
- 25W fast charging on both
Finally, the newer S21 Ultra also comes with a larger battery. It's projected to come with a 5,000mAh battery cell, compared to a 4,500mAh battery on the Note, more than 10% bigger in size. That is a considerable upgrade, and in our testing, the Note 20 Ultra had just average battery life, not quite as impressive as you would expect out of a phone of its size and stature.
Web Browsing Test (Wi-Fi, 200 nits brightness)
On our lightest test, web browsing, the S21 Ultra aced it with the highest score of any flagship we have ever tested: an impressive 14 hours and 43 minutes in 120Hz Adaptive mode, and over 16 hours in 60 Hertz mode. By the way, we have also run the same test at 120Hz in the higher WQHD resolution, and the results showed absolutely no difference, so if you have decided to use the smoother 120Hz refresh rate, go ahead and treat yourself to the highest WQHD resolution, it's on the house.
Our second test is streaming YouTube videos from the same playlist at the same, 1080p quality, and lo and behold, the S21 Ultra once again scores significantly higher than the Note 20 Ultra. Its 8 hour and 52 minute score is not the very highest of all time, but it is in the top ranks!
3D Gaming Test
Last but not least, we have our gaming test, and if you play games like Call of Duty and Minecraft, this one test is what you probably care about the most. While the other two tests put the load on the CPU, this one loads up the GPU and shows how effective it is.
The first results at 60Hz are truly great on both phones, but the S21 Ultra is again ahead. Games like Call of Duty Mobile don't support 120Hz refresh rates yet, but others like Minecraft do. Interestingly, you will notice how 120Hz really decreases your battery life in gaming. If you are after ultimate performance, sure, go ahead and game with 120Hz enabled, but if you want a balance between performance and battery life, it really makes sense to game at 60Hz.
As for charging, the Galaxy S21 Ultra supports 25W charging speeds, the same as the Note 20 Ultra. Interestingly, it is also said to be the first Samsung phone to ship without a charger in the box. There will be a standard USB-C cable included, but you would need to separately purchase the power adapter, just like you do on the most recent iPhone 12 series. We can't say we are excited about that, and the Note 20 Ultra still ships with at least a charger in the box.
Interestingly, the S21 Ultra charges slower than the Note, it takes nearly an hour and a half while the Note would top up in a little over an hour.
Also, both phones support wireless charging at speeds of up to 15 watts with a compatible charger that you have to purchase separately. Both also have reverse wireless charging support, so you can place your headphones or smartwatch on the back of your Galaxy, which can act as a wireless power bank of sorts.
Last but not least, let's talk pricing. Market conditions have forced Samsung to lower its flagship phone prices in 2021. And while last year, Samsung launched its flagship S20 Ultra at an exorbitant $1,400, this year's Galaxy S21 Ultra prices start at a much more reasonable $1,200.
By removing the charger from the box, Samsung might anger many customers, but if this allows it to cut the price of the phone, it might be worth it.
As for the Note 20 Ultra, its starting price was $1,300 dollars, but a few months after the launch you can now find it for a much more reasonable $1,000 dollars at many retailers, so it definitely has the edge in terms of price.
- Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G — $1,200 for 128GB model, $1,250 for 256GB, $1,380 for 512GB
- Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G — $1,300 for 128GB (but current instant discounts of as much as $300)
The Galaxy S21 Ultra release date is set for January 29th.