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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: A capable but costly flagship

Space Zoom feels much more functional, more consistent than it did last year, especially at super-long range. One could even argue the relative merits of shooting at 30x zoom — it brings you dramatically closer to your subjects, and the results are still clear enough to be worth sharing. But shooting at 100x still feels like a meaningless flex on Samsung’s part. It’s proof of what the company can do, but I get the impression Samsung never stopped to think about whether should.

There’s still more in Samsung’s bag of camera tricks, though. SingleTake, a feature designed to collect a flurry of stylized photos and clips from a single seconds-long recording produces a slightly wider variety of results, but you probably won’t find more than two or three that are actually worth hanging onto. And beyond that, a new (and pretty well-hidden) content eraser tool lets you selectively remove objects from your photos, sort of like Photoshop’s content-aware fill feature. It’s very much a work in progress, though, so you’ll probably wind up with at least a few failed or awkward attempts for every successful, clean excision it makes.  

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The Ultra is also very capable at video, if that’s more your speed. Samsung added a bevy of new features to spice up your footage (and I’ll get to those), but there’s one big upgrade to note right off the bat. For the first time, you can shoot 4K60 video using any of the Ultra’s cameras — even the one pointed straight at your face all the time. If that somehow wasn’t enough, you can also switch to full-blown 8K video recording, even though I can just about guarantee you don’t have a display that can properly do it justice yet. Hell, even some desktop PCs will struggle to play back that footage.

That’s where Samsung’s new features start coming into play. If you’re going to record in 8K anyway, have fun, and know you can tap a button to pull some pretty decent stills from the video stream. Meanwhile, Director’s View is a legitimate treat — rather than blindly switching between cameras and hoping for the best, you can now see video streams from each of them so you know exactly what you’re committing to. And just like last year, Samsung’s Super Steady video mode returns — with support for 60fps recording, no less — to make sure you run-and-gun footage doesn’t turn out a shaky mess.

No matter what weirdo tool you’re using to help you shoot, your footage will mostly turn out great. Emphasis on “mostly”. There are some exceptions though — at least a few of my clips with very detailed scenes look grainy and overprocessed when looking on a proper monitor, but those were thankfully in the minority. Even so, overall video quality is one area where the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max easily have the Ultra beat.

All told, I was — and still am — shocked at how much I enjoyed the S21’s cameras. Those relatively minor video issues aside, the flexibility, range and overall competence on display here has me wondering if I should trade my personal phone in for an upgrade. They say the best camera is the one you have with you, and if you’re carrying one of these around, you’ve got a great tool for just about any occasion.


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