Anton D. Nagy contributed to this post.
So, you navigate to the store, see the new Galaxy, and think, “yeah this is the one I really want”. But if we’re honest, last year’s phone is almost the same phone, so why pay more, right?
Well, this is one of those rare cases where it’s not that simple. Right now if you want to buy last year’s Galaxy Note20 Ultra, the price has actually *dropped* to match the new S21 Ultra. I know! It makes no common sense, but it’s been the usual trend where the Note has always been more expensive than the S because of the added features. I even read a few of your comments in my review stating that this new Ultra wasn’t a worthy upgrade when compared to last year’s Note. A statement I’ve historically agreed on for at least five years, given how much Samsung blurred the lines between both lineups.
So, instead of going back to its roots, what happens when Samsung decides to blend them even more than before, but this time, without the price gap? This is Galaxy S21 Ultra vs Galaxy Note20 Ultra.
If we’re honest, this is the first time this comparison has ever been worth considering, which is the reason I’ve never done one before. It’s always been hard to objectively compare the Note to anything because the added capabilities simply made it a better phone. It’s not until now that the Galaxy S gets a piece of that pie that this video makes sense, but let me just start by saying this might be the first comparison the Note will ever lose.
A lot of the design cues that have separated these lineups remain since the Note has always been boxier than the S, almost to mimic the feel of a notepad. It was first to adopt a matte back that the S21 now borrows, which helps both of these phones look crazy elegant in the hand. Seriously there is no way you’ll go unnoticed if you carry either. The glass is not completely free of smudges, but it does a better job than most, and each carries the same Gorilla Glass Victus protecting both panels. The footprint of each is then more of a mixed bag where the Note is 2 millimeters wider, but then the S21 is a hair taller and thicker, plus around 20 grams heavier. If I were to pick, I’d say I prefer the looks of the contour design on the S21 given how the camera hump protrudes less and is designed to blend, while on the Note it’s as if the massive stove is a necessary evil.
The main difference for the weight difference is that we have a larger battery on the S21, though you might not notice much of a difference in weight distribution. That said, the S21 has a newer processor with more modern architecture, though other essentials like RAM and the starting storage are relatively the same, but then the Note swings back with an option to expand it. They both offer the same dual flavors of 5G, though the S21 has a newer Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Standard. And then other specs like reverse wireless charging speeds and water-resistance are pretty much comparable.
Their displays are another spot where the S21 Ultra is superior. Technically they share the same Dynamic AMOLED 2X Technology at the same Quad HD+ resolution and variable refresh rate up to 120hz, but only the S21 Ultra can handle those peak speeds at maximum resolution. It also offers a slightly brighter panel that’s less curved if you look at it from the sides, but then the Note has a tiny bit smaller bezels, allowing for almost a 92% screen to body ratio vs 90%. I know, not that much of a difference, which is the same way I feel about speaker performance. If content consumption is your thing, both phones sound just as well.
This is about that moment where I tell you that the reason why the Note wins is because of the WACOM digitizer, but nope. Even here Samsung has finally helped the S21 own its Ultra title. Point is, if you’ve ever wanted a more modern Galaxy Note earlier in the year to take advantage of the latest chip, the S21 Ultra should be your phone. Just keep in mind that as opposed to the Note, the S Pen on the S21 is optional. Now, no worries, pretty much any old S Pen or some third-party accessories will work fine. My only advice is that you don’t buy Samsung’s silicone case with S Pen. It’s too expensive, the quality is just not worth the money, and this particular Pen which has a taller form factor is sold separately. Spigen’s new Liquid Air Pen Edition is a third of the cost of Samsung’s case, is made of far better materials, fits the phone better, and even if you add the cost of the S Pen, you’re still saving money.
The software is also not that much different. Unless you care about the Bluetooth Air Gestures or remote shutter from the S Pen, which I don’t. Having the S21 Ultra is exactly the same as the Note20 Ultra. Same Air Command when the phone senses proximity, same Smart Select, Screen Write and other tricks exclusive to the S Pen, same screen off memos, and my favorite reason to even care, which is the integration with the Microsoft Office Suite. To simply be able to highlight and doddle on OneNote is enough for me to use the S Pen every single day.
In everything else, the experience is nearly the same. Yes, I did see the announcement of OneUI 3.1 for last year’s phones, and I did wait a bit before doing this video, but it only helps me prove a point. Unless you pick the latest phone, waiting longer for updates is kind of normal in the Samsung world. Regardless, version 3.1 has probably been my favorite ever given its blend of Samsung and Google services. I’m seriously hoping this update on the Note also allows for the Google Feed on the left of the launcher, even if Samsung Free’s TV channels can be cool every now and then. Still, I don’t think any company does phablet software better than Samsung, with the edge menus for quick shortcuts, or app pairs for your favorite multi-tasking combos. As much as people complain about this not being stock Android, I still feel that if what you want is a Galaxy Note or the Note’s functionality, Google’s approach is not better than Samsung’s.
And guys, having both devices set to 120Hz makes the UI feel faster and more fluid, and even with heavy use on Verizon’s 5G network, I’d say you’ll end the day just fine on both, and still have battery power to spare. I can’t say the S21 Ultra has dramatically better battery life, but it does last a bit longer, and this is even with the screen set to maximum resolution and refresh rate.
So far the Galaxy S21 Ultra has won almost everything. Really the last thing left to compare is the cameras, and I’m gonna make this easy for you. Yes, the S has a newer primary sensor, a new dual ISP on the chip, a better selfie camera, and more additional cameras, which allows for a smarter dual approach to the telephoto. It definitely is the better camera phone in numbers and specs, but I think the results should do the talking.
During the day, the only difference you’ll see is that the S21 Ultra is slightly warmer, but the difference is so negligible you really have to nitpick even up to the ultra-wide. I seriously see very little difference unless you do close-ups where the crispy bokeh is shared, but then the S21 Ultra has a faster shutter for things like moving flowers. Now, switch to the Telephotos, and I’ll drift more to the S21. I find 3X optical more useful for street photography than the 5X on the Note, and I prefer the detail on the 10X optical over any sort of digital crop from the Note.
I also feel that the software and the new ISP on the chip allow for things that just obliterate the Note, like in trying to take photos of the moon. It’s clear that the S21 Ultra is not playing around for complicated scenarios, even if the 100X on it is as useless as the 50X on the Note20 Ultra.
And since we started, at night the results are nearly the same as well, though an opposite story in white balance with the S21 being cooler than the Note20, even if I wouldn’t recommend either for anything other than photos taken from the primary. There is a night mode for the rest of the sensors, but only the ultra-wide is optical, while the telephotos are all just digital crops. So yeah, not worth it.
In standard portraits, you’ll have a hard time telling either apart, but once you jump into selfies, I’ll give them to the S21. I notice far more detail in the skin tones, even if the dynamic range and separation from subjects on both are pretty awesome.
When comparing 4K videos, the results are nearly identical depending on how much of a critical eye you have. I’m the guy that will notice that there is less moiré coming out of the S21 in the tougher situations, but everything else from the stabilization to the minor grain in the shadows is the same. Switch to selfie video, and you might think the results are exactly the same as well, but I’m also the guy that notices a slightly better depth of field coming from the S21 Ultra.
Overall the pattern is evident, everything is almost the same, with the S21 Ultra being only slightly better in most things, but then the king in telephoto performance.
To conclude, I think the day has finally come. This is the first time that a Samsung Galaxy Note loses a comparison. If anyone had any doubts that Samsung is planning to either kill the Note lineup or evolve it into a different form factor, the strategy behind the S21 Ultra is proof.
I think I don’t need to even state the obvious, the S21 Ultra has a more refined design, better internals, newer software, a better camera system, and the S Pen is optional in case you don’t care about it. Once you consider the fact that they are both now priced exactly the same, but that Samsung offers better trade-in deals for the S21, and it’s as if the Note20 Ultra was shot down by its own sibling just months later.
Unless you’re nostalgic and want to grab what could probably be the last Galaxy Note, there is simply no reason to consider it over the Galaxy S21 Ultra. For the last five years, I’ve always been the guy that reviews the new S and then goes back to the Note, but in 2021, the only device that would pull me away from the S21 Ultra is a foldable Galaxy Note… Dear Samsung, it’s about time the Note returned to its vanguard status.