May 7, 2021

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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra: which should you buy?

The Samsung Galaxy S21 family spans a number of budgets. It starts at £769 for the 128GB Galaxy S21, ends at £1329 for the top Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Samsung’s Galaxy S21, S21 Plus and S21 Ultra are not a set of identical triplets by any means.

The Galaxy S21 is the only obvious choice for someone who wants to spend less or prefers a smaller phone. A jump up to the Galaxy S21 Plus earns you the Samsung build quality we’re used to. It has a proper glass back, as well as a much larger screen.

Only the Galaxy S21 Ultra has Samsung’s latest and greatest tech, though. This includes an incredible zoom camera, much higher screen resolution and a beautiful curved front that minimises the amount of visible screen border.

You probably don’t need the upgrades of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but you may well want them.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra: key differences at a glance

  • Design – The Galaxy S21 is a much smaller phone than the Plus or Ultra and is really the only one to buy for those who dislike XL-size phones.
  • Glass vs plastic – Only the Galaxy S21 Plus and Ultra have glass back panels. The base-level S21 uses plastic dressed up as glass, which doesn’t feel as expensive.
  • Camera tech – All three of these phones have excellent cameras, but only the Ultra gets dual 3x and 10x zooms and an ultra-high-res 40MP selfie camera.
  • Display size – The Galaxy S21 has a petite 6.2-inch screen, the essential part of its pocketable design. The Plus has a much larger 6.7-inch screen, and the Ultra’s is larger still at 6.8 inches.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra in detail

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra: specs and features

The top-spec Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra may cost almost twice as much as the entry-level Galaxy S21, but all three phones have the same processor. It’s the Samsung Exynos 2100.

This is Samsung’s top CPU, for the first half of 2021 at least. It means raw performance isn’t even a factor here.

All three can play the latest games perfectly. Android feels great on all three phones.

There are some other changes inside, though. The Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus have 8GB RAM, while the Ultra has at least 12GB RAM. More RAM lets more apps stay parked in the background, although we don’t find the difference all that obvious day-to-day.

The trio is available with either 128GB or 256GB of storage. But only the Galaxy S21 Ultra comes as a 512GB option, with a borderline ridiculous 16GB of RAM.

All three, in all variants, have 5G. It is standard in the Samsung Galaxy S21 range.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra: price

There are seven prices for these three phones. Let’s break it down to core models to keep things simple.

  • The Samsung Galaxy S21 starts at £769 with 128GB storage and 8GB RAM. You’ll pay £819, an extra £50, for the jump to 256GB storage.
  • Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Plus starts at £949 for 128GB storage and 8GB RAM. The 256GB storage upgrade is £50 again, taking you to £999.
  • Big spender? The Galaxy S21 Ultra starts at £1,149, with 12GB RAM and 128GB storage. A 256GB upgrade is, once more, £50. And the top Galaxy S21 Ultra has 16GB RAM and 512GB storage and costs £1329.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra: battery life

Battery capacity and real-world battery life do not always go hand-in-hand, but they largely do in this comparison.

The Galaxy S21 has the smallest battery, 4000mAh, and tends to last the shortest amount of time between charges. That’s usually a full day, but heavy users should probably consider the step up to the Galaxy S21 Plus.

It has a 4800mAh battery and handles heavy use a little better. In our experience, its stamina is very similar to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which has a 5000mAh battery. That little bump in battery size likely only offsets the Ultra’s higher screen resolution.

None of these three phones sets the standard for stamina. You’ll likely have to charge all three every day. But the Ultra and Plus offer a bit more of a battery buffer, which is one of the most important things to look for if you use your phone a lot.

All three support 25W fast charging, which is actually quite slow compared to the speed of OnePlus, Oppo and Xiaomi phones. And none include a charge adapter. You get a cable but no brick.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra: camera

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera

Here’s where things get interesting, but we need to lay out some facts first. The Galaxy S21, S21 Plus and S21 Ultra all have great cameras.

They use high-quality sensors throughout. Their wide-angle cameras are unusually good, Samsung’s dynamic range processing is excellent. And while colours can appear a little keen on saturation, photos almost always pop off the display.

All three get some form of zoom too.

However, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has far, far better zoom, not just than the other two but virtually every other phone you might buy. There are 3x and 10x zoom lenses. These provide incredible flexibility in terms of what you can shoot from any position, making the Ultra one of the best phones for travel photography ever.

There’s also a slight bump in general image quality with other kinds of pictures in the S21 Ultra, but not the leap you might imagine from the specs. The Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus have 12-megapixel main cameras, the Ultra a 108-megapixel one.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra: display

All three Galaxy S21 phones have OLED screens with a maximum refresh rate of 120Hz. This guarantees you amazing contrast and the smoothest scrolling you can get on an Android phone. In any phone, actually.

Size is the most impactful difference between the two. The Galaxy S21 has a smaller 6.2-inch screen. At 6.7 inches and 6.8 inches, the Galaxy S21+ and S21 Ultra are better for watching video. Sometimes size matters most.

Other differences are nice-to-have but aren’t quite as noticeable. For example, the S21 and S21 Plus have Full HD-grade screens. The Ultra is of a much higher resolution, which you can notice if you look close. Text looks slightly more pristine, as there are more pixels to smooth out the curves and diagonals.

The Ultra’s screen also has higher peak brightness, 1500 nits to the other phones’ 1300 nits. However, you’ll only ever see that sort of power when using the phones outdoors on a bright day, and they all excel in such conditions.

The Ultra also has a slightly smarter screen refresh, which can slow down the display to use less battery when showing static images. But as already noted, the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Plus have similar real-world battery life, so it’s not a feature you’ll actively notice.

This one mostly boils down to a case of deciding how much you care about screen size. All three have great displays.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra: 5G capability and connectivity

All the UK versions of the Galaxy S21 phones have 5G. This was the year Samsung switched to offering 5G as standard with its top-end phones, which makes sense.

Their other connectivity features are largely the same across the board. They won’t take a memory card. You can’t plug in cabled headphones. But they all have NFC, Bluetooth 5.0 and Wi-Fi 6. They are prepped for the future, even if they are not quite so friendly to some accessories you already own.

There’s one additional benefit to buying a Galaxy S21 Ultra. It supports Samsung’s S-Pen styluses, which are pressure-sensing digital doodling and handwriting tools. You don’t get one in the box, but you can find them online for under £25. That is much less than you’d pay for an Apple Pencil.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra: design

Some parts of the Galaxy S21 family are consistent throughout the range. But design changes quite a bit between models, even if they all share the same striking and stylish two-tone look.

The Galaxy S21 sits at the bottom of the pile but is arguably the best-looking of the lot. It has a certain cuteness the others lack, as larger phones, that works with the almost jewellery-like aesthetic Samsung chose.

However, the Galaxy S21 has a plastic back, which may disappoint some long-term Galaxy fans. The sides are aluminium.

Step up to the Galaxy S21 Plus, and you are upgraded to a glass back and aluminium sides, the classic combination for a modern ‘expensive’ Android phone.

The Galaxy S21 has a flat front, unlike 2020’s S20 Plus, which makes its small screen borders more apparent. Some people prefer flat screens, as curved ones pool reflections in a way that can be distracting when, for example, you watch a movie.

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra has the most luxurious build of the three, with curved glass on both sides and a strip of aluminium connecting the two. Still, you could argue that the family’s style is diluted by the sheer number of cameras on the back and the amount the camera housing juts out from the rear. Samsung had to do this because the 10x periscope zoom uses folded optics, which demand more space.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Plus vs Ultra: which should you buy?

Want a small phone? Pick the Galaxy S21. It still has great cameras, looks fantastic and has just as much power as the more expensive Plus and Ultra phones.

A jump to the Galaxy S21 Plus is worthwhile if you’ll appreciate a larger screen. It’s also a better choice if you’re worried about your next phone making it through a full day’s use.

Zoom photography is the best reason to go all-out and buy a Galaxy S21 Ultra. Its two zoom lenses make the phone ridiculously flexible and bags of fun to use as your everyday camera. It supports a stylus and has a slightly fancier design and screen, but these just don’t seem as important as the phone’s fab zooms.

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G – from £769 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus – from £949 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – from £1,149

Looking for more comparisons before you decide? Read our iPhone 12 vs Samsung Galaxy S21 and OnePlus 9 vs Samsung Galaxy S21 guides.