Teardown: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphone
Image credit: Samsung
Refinement at the top of the range.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra smartphone will cost you between £1,149 and £1,329 to buy outright, depending on what you choose among storage/RAM options from 128GB/12GB to 512GB/16GB. On contract, the monthly cost is between £60 and £80 over two years assuming unlimited data. It helps if you have something to trade in (worth up to £450).
Notwithstanding a 5G premium, what you get for this kind of outlay is perhaps not as great a leap forward for handsets as has been seen before. Those are increasingly rare – though new AI-driven features and durable flexible displays are on the way. Instead, the S21 Ultra underlines the growing importance of refining designs from generation to generation.
It is still a powerful and richly featured phone.
The iFixit teardown used an Ultra equipped with the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 platform. However, in the UK model the engine room is Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 platform, running the Korean company’s Kryo configurations of the eight ARM cores with Mali GPUs. The important point is that independent benchmarks have rated the two as virtually identical in performance, with each outperforming the other in certain tests.
The larger size of the Ultra models makes for one of the best displays on the market, with a 6.8in diagonal housing a 3200x1440 AMOLED screen at 515ppi and refresh rates up to 120Hz. There are then five cameras, led by Samsung joining the trend towards a lead mega-megapixel unit (108MP), and featuring a periscope telephoto unit for extreme close-up photography.
Camera resolution aside, the real meat is in the tweaks. For many of its teardowns, iFixit works with X-ray specialists at Creative Electron. CE took a look inside the new handset before it was prised apart. From the beginning, iFixit was thus able to notice three significant layout changes from the preceding Galaxy generation.
“The vibration motor and the SIM card tray have traded places at either end of the phone. This seemingly makes room for a slightly larger earpiece speaker,” its team reports.
“The periscope telephoto camera is also noticeably larger, likely for extra optical zoom levels.
“Lastly, the wireless charging coils got a minor makeover. The outer charging coils are thinner, elongated, and got a few extra windings. This may help with better efficiency over a bigger charging area. The inner coils now have a two-gauge set-up – the fine gauge windings might help charge smaller items (like Galaxy Buds) more efficiently.”
Going inside the S21 Ultra, there have been, as the X-ray noted, some major rethinks to the camera, including a redesign of the periscope unit.
“The resolution [has] dropped from 48MP to 10MP; focal length increased from 103 to 240mm (going from 4x to 10x optical zoom); the sensor area shrunk (1/2.0in to 1/3.24in) but the pixels got larger (0.8 to 1.22μm); finally (drumroll please), a slower aperture, from ƒ/3.5 to ƒ/4.9,” notes iFixit.
Staying with the camera, Samsung also appears to have dropped the DepthVision technology used in the S20 family. This used the speed of light to measure distance, counting the amount of time it takes for a reflected beam of light to return to the camera sensor. While it claimed to improve both video and still photography, giving users more creative options for, as an example, backgrounding and foregrounding, not all critics were convinced. For the S21, the company has switched to a laser auto-focus module.
Along with moves such as a 77 per cent increase in the size of the in-screen fingerprint sensor (making it easier to position your finger while still taking more information) and a lift in battery capacity to 19.40Wh from 17.46Wh on the S20 edition, the S21 Ultra’s story is one of refinement over revolution.
What unfortunately has not changed very much is the repairability of the device. The display and battery are glued in place and thus hard to replace. Modular cables have been replaced with proprietary ones. Even initial access via the rear panel is challenging. The iFixit score is just 3 out of 10.
Having started with some numbers, here is another that may be useful: Samsung Care is £7.49 a month for up to two years, or £159 as an upfront payment. It is good that Samsung does not provide a charger with the phone. That helps to cut down on e-waste. But you cannot help but note – as this column often has before – that making consumer products easier to fix would also be a big help.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: key components
2. Periscope camera
3. Standard camera
4. Main assembly
5. Laser auto-focus
8. SIM tray/USB port
9. Rear camera frame
10. Rear panel
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