Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. Galaxy S20 Ultra: Should you upgrade?

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra in Phantom Black
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra in Phantom Black (Image credit: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Render Phantom Silver Back Official

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a distinguished new design, improved cameras, and a stunning 120Hz display. It's a considerable upgrade over the S20 Ultra, but the lack of microSD support and in-box accessories will put off some potential buyers.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Best overall

Improved autofocus with main camera
Dual telephoto cameras for improved clarity and stability
First Galaxy S device with S Pen support
Newer Snapdragon 888 processor
Larger, more reliable fingerprint sensor
No microSD expandability
No headphones or charger included

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is still a fantastic device a year later, with one of the best displays on the market along with powerful cameras that can reach up to 100x zoom. Thanks to a recent update to Android 11, it's more modern than ever before.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Still a great buy

Easy to find on sale
Supports expandable storage
Still extremely powerful with Snapdragon 865
Space Zoom cameras still hold up well
Supports up to 45W charging
Poor autofocus on the main camera
Less reliable optical fingerprint sensor
Can't support 120Hz and 1440p simultaneously

The successor to one of last year's best Samsung phones is finally here. After a number of focusing issues plagued the S20 Ultra's 108MP camera, the Galaxy S21 Ultra comes equipped with a new quad camera system that adds a laser autofocus sensor to improve performance. Of course, it also features a new design and the latest Snapdragon 888 processor — so is it worth upgrading if you already have last year's top-of-the-line flagship?

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. Galaxy S20 Ultra: Minor improvements across the board

The Galaxy S21 Ultra and S20 Ultra are similar in design, though a few differences are immediately noticeable. The S21 Ultra swaps last year's glossy backing for a new matte frosted glass, which does a much better job at concealing fingerprints and comes in two striking color options, Phantom Black and Phantom Silver. It features an all-new camera housing that Samsung is calling the Contour Cut Camera system, which blends into the metal frame for a clean, seamless design that's far more refined than that of the S20 Ultra.

The S21 Ultra looks much more refined, but it's missing some key hardware features.

There are a few trade-offs with the newer model, however. The S21 Ultra no longer supports microSD expandability, meaning you're stuck with the storage configuration you choose at the time of purchase. Samsung has also done away with the wired headphones and charging brick that used to be included in the box — if you want these accessories bundled in with your device, the S20 Ultra is still a more compelling option.

Still, those missing accessories are offset by a $200 price reduction with the S21 Ultra. Of course, the Galaxy S20 Ultra can be found at lower prices now that it's nearly a year old, but it's a step in the right direction to see Samsung lower its prices without impacting build quality or specs.

Both phones also feature incredible curved displays, backed by Samsung's Dynamic AMOLED 2X technology. Each features a 120Hz variable refresh rate, along with a 1440p resolution, but only the S21 Ultra can take advantage of both settings simultaneously — with the S20 Ultra, you'll need to drop down to 60Hz to enjoy the display at the highest resolution available.

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CategoryGalaxy S21 UltraGalaxy S20 Ultra
Operating SystemAndroid 11Android 11
Display6.8 inches, 3200x1440 (515 ppi) resolution, Dynamic AMOLED 2X6.9 inches, 3200x1440 (511 ppi) resolution, Dynamic AMOLED 2X
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 888Qualcomm Snapdragon 865
Storage128/256/512GB12/16GB RAM128/256/512GB12/16GB RAM
Expandable StorageNoYes
Rear Camera108MP, ƒ/1.8, 0.8μm (wide)12MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.4μm (ultra-wide)10MP, ƒ/2.4, 1.22μm (3x telephoto)10MP, ƒ/4.9, 1.22μm (10x telephoto)108MP, ƒ/1.8, 0.8μm (wide)12MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.4μm (ultra-wide)48MP, ƒ3.5, 0.8μm (10x telephoto)
Front Camera40MP, ƒ/2.2, 0.7μm40MP, ƒ/2.2, 0.7μm
Dimensions165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm, 229g166.9 x 76.0 x 8.8mm, 220g

Another improvement made to the S21 Ultra rests under the display. Samsung has finally updated the optical fingerprint sensor for the first time since its introduction with the Galaxy S10, now 1.77x larger than before. As a result, it's much quicker and more accurate than on the S20 Ultra, making it easier to get into your phone without a second thought.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Of course, the biggest improvements come with the cameras. The Galaxy S20 Ultra bet big on its camera system, boasting up to 100x zoom through a combination of optical and digital zooming, but fell a bit short due to autofocusing problems with the main 108MP sensor. The S21 Ultra borrows from the Note 20 Ultra that launched last fall, adding a laser autofocusing system that drastically improves performance.

Excellent camera performance is a clear focus of the Ultra line.

In addition, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung's first device with dual telephoto cameras, one at a native 3x and the other at a native 10x, They improve both short- and long-range zoom photos, and offer better stability at 30x and better overall clarity. Samsung has also packed a number of new shooting modes for both photo and video, along with the ability to shoot 8K video in 12-bit RAW for dramatically better color data.

One major advantage of the S21 Ultra is its support for the S Pen, which has traditionally remained exclusive to the Galaxy Note and Galaxy Tab series. The Galaxy S20 Ultra has no such support, making it the clear victor for anyone curious to try pressure-sensitive writing and drawing. Still, many of the S21 Ultra's other benefits are minor at best.

Overall, if you already own an S20 Ultra, there's no need to upgrade just yet. But if you don't have either phone yet, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is well worth considering.

Hayato Huseman

Hayato was a product reviewer and video editor for Android Central.