Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S series has never invaded the Galaxy Note territory like it has this year, all thanks to the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Unlike all previous years, the new flagship is equipped with a display digitizer that can recognize S Pen input, and Samsung sells optional S Pen accessories separately. But is the Galaxy S21 Ultra a real replacement for the Galaxy Note? Not really, though it might be a valid choice for Galaxy Note 9 owners who might be looking for an upgrade. Let’s find out.
Reasons to upgrade from Galaxy Note 9 to Galaxy S21 Ultra
Better internal hardware
It is normal for a two-and-a-half-year-old flagship to be surpassed by newer solutions, and this is undeniably the case for the Galaxy Note 9 and Galaxy S21 Ultra. The Exynos 2100 and Snapdragon 888 chipsets are clearly superior to the Exynos 9810 / Snapdragon 845 SoCs, and the newer flagship has twice as much RAM as standard (12 GB).
Newer firmware with better support
The Galaxy Note 9 was released with Android 8.1 and although it was later updated to Android 10 and One UI 2.5, it will no longer receive major operating system updates, although it will continue to receive security updates for a while.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra, on the other hand, not only comes with Android 11 and One UI 3.1 but also offers three major updates to the Android operating system over its lifetime instead of just two. If you’re looking for a more complete software experience, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the only way to go.
Better, faster rendering and Gorilla Glass protection
The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a new Dynamic AMOLED 2X display with a diagonal of 6.8 inches instead of 6.4 inches. More importantly, the panel is HDR10+ compliant, has a higher 20:9 aspect ratio, and supports a 120Hz refresh rate.
In addition, the Galaxy S21 Ultra uses the newer Gorilla Glass Victus for the display and back, while the Galaxy Note 9 and its Gorilla Glass 5 protection are less resilient.
Better (and more) cameras
While the Galaxy Note 9 had a very competent camera system when it launched, the times weren’t too good for the device and the dual 12MP main sensors just can’t compete with the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s quad-camera combo.
All four sensors have autofocus and the setup can reach a 10x optical zoom. In the meantime, the Galaxy Note 9’s 8-megapixel selfie sensor can’t handle the S21 Ultra’s 40-megapixel shooter.
Bigger battery with faster charging
Samsung’s new Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 1,000 mAh larger battery than that of the Galaxy Note 9. It has a clock speed of 5,000 mAh and supports 25 W fast charging (up to 15 W).
In addition, wireless charging is faster at 15W and the Galaxy Note 21 Ultra has the added benefit of reverse wireless charging, while the Galaxy Note 9 lacks this functionality completely.
More modern connectivity features
The 5G era is upon us and the Galaxy Note 9 just can’t keep up. It is and remains limited to LTE connectivity, while the Galaxy S21 Ultra offers both 5G and Wi-Fi 6E and UWB. The latter is used for features like Find My Mobile and will be used by the Galaxy SmartTag Pro and possibly other future accessories. In other words, the Galaxy S21 Ultra technically offers better compatibility with the Samsung ecosystem.
New design with fingerprint sensor in the display
There are probably not too many people who prefer the design of the Galaxy Note 9 over the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which is completely understandable. The latter device enlivens Samsung’s design formula with a signature camera bump, and the Galaxy Note 9’s camera setup looks puny by comparison.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a modern frameless Infinity-O display, while the top bezel of the Galaxy Note 9 is thick enough to house the speaker and any sensors. In addition, the new model has a fingerprint sensor in the display, while the sensor on the back of the Galaxy Note 9 is not so conveniently placed.
You don’t have to do without the S Pen completely
Loyal Galaxy Note customers who may have been tempted to move to the Galaxy S series but haven’t because of the S Pen may have plenty of reasons to reconsider. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the only device in the series to offer S Pen compatibility and will even work with existing Galaxy Note S pens.
The implementation isn’t ideal – which may be one reason why you might want to skip the Galaxy S21 Ultra, as we’ll explain below – but in certain situations, a little is better than nothing, and the Ultra’s S Pen still offers a near-complete experience with access to the S Pen suite of productivity apps. Not to mention that the 120Hz screen makes writing and scribbling noticeably smoother.
Reasons to keep the Galaxy Note 9 and skip the Galaxy S21 Ultra
You would think that a 2.5-year-old flagship can offer no advantages over a brand new premium solution, but that is not the reality we live in. In reality, while the Galaxy S21 Ultra represents a clear upgrade over the Galaxy Note 9, the latter device still has some unique features in most areas that may be enough to convince existing owners to skip the new flagship.
The Galaxy Note 9 was Samsung’s last smartphone with an iris scanner, so upgrading to the Galaxy S21 Ultra would no longer mean this technology. Ironically, in the post-pandemic world, the iris scanner is actually more useful than ever, because facial recognition doesn’t work as well with face masks.
Heart Rate and SpO2 Sensors
It’s been a few years since Samsung started removing the heart rate monitor and SpO2 sensor from its flagship phones. These technologies can still be found on Galaxy smartwatches, but no longer on Samsung phones unless you own an older model like the Galaxy Note 9.
This means that buyers of the Galaxy S21 Ultra who don’t want to miss out on these health-related features will have to pay extra for a Galaxy wearable.
No 3.5mm headphone jack and expandable memory
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Samsung’s latest flagship phones don’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack, but what might come as a surprise to Galaxy Note 9 owners who might be looking for an upgrade is that the Galaxy S21 Ultra is also missing.
The new flagship will be offered with 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB of onboard storage, which should be enough for many users, but there are many reasons why expandable storage is a great option, especially for a productivity-oriented device that comes with an S.-Pen.
Samsung is ending MST support for the Galaxy S21 series
Samsung Pay users who rely on MST for mobile transfers won’t find a good ally in the Galaxy S21 Ultra as the new flagship has ditched MST support entirely in favor of NFC.
However, this is a change that will affect not only the Galaxy S21 series but all Samsung flagships. Whether you’re ditching the Galaxy Note 9 this year or next, you’re going to have to ditch MST at some point. But as it stands, the Galaxy Note 9 retains MST compatibility, while the Galaxy S21 Ultra lacks that area.
The S Pen implementation is not ideal
And while the addition of an S Pen to the Galaxy S21 Ultra is refreshing and positive, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Simply put, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has an S Pen-compatible digitizer and comes with Samsung’s suite of productivity apps, but it’s not specifically designed for the job.
For this reason, the Galaxy S21 Ultra does not have a dedicated S Pen holster and Samsung sells the S Pen as an optional accessory. In addition, while the functionality of the S Pen is supported by the 120 Hz display, the phone is not compatible with Bluetooth-related S Pen features such as Air Actions.
Galaxy Note 9 or Galaxy S21 Ultra: conclusion
If you feel like you’ve had enough of the Galaxy Note series but don’t want to do without the S Pen completely, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best alternative for an upgrade. Just be ready to ditch some features that will eventually disappear forever – like the iris scanner, 3.5mm headphone jack, and potentially expandable storage – and you’ll enjoy the Galaxy S21 Ultra a lot more.
Forgoing the Galaxy Note 9 in favor of the Galaxy S21 Ultra offers access to a newer firmware, better hardware, a vastly improved camera system with optical zoom, 5G and other connectivity features, and a modernized design, just to name a few.
Still, those extras may not be enough for avid Galaxy Note users who bought this series specifically for the S Pen, although we suspect those customers wouldn’t consider buying the Galaxy S series anyway.
If the other hardware improvements aren’t so important, the final decision ultimately depends on what customers like most about the S Pen. Are aerial actions more important than the smooth, lag-free experience with 120 Hz displays? Is a protective case with an S Pen holster sufficient or should the S Pen always remain in the phone without the need for additional accessories?
We believe the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a better, more future-proof phone and a smarter purchase in 2021, but we understand why some Galaxy Note 9 owners are reluctant to switch sides. If you’re worried about buyer’s remorse, it might be better not to buy the new flagship until we find out what fate awaits the entire Galaxy Note series later this year.