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Genshin Impact looks incredible on the S21 Ultra’s display.
Samsung’s hulking, muscle-bound S21 Ultra is so overpowered that doing day-to-day tasks on it feels like asking prime 80’s Schwarzenegger to open a tight jar lid. I almost feel bad using it for my very boring daily procrastination tasks like hating every second of scrolling through Twitter. Even with gaming, the handset is a glowing green, liquid-cooled, $5,000 gaming rig running a Super Nintendo emulator.
This is part of the issue with gaming on Android. Even the most budget of phones, like the $139 Teracube 2e, run almost any game available in the Google Play Store. For a long time, I’ve wanted more games to push top-spec phones (the S21 Ultra houses a QHD+ display, an octa-core 5nm chip and up to 16GB of RAM) to see what’s possible technically and recognize the gulf in ability between different products.
The excellent Genshin Impact may well be that benchmark game to measure the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s gaming capabilities. It’s a massive, open-world, Zelda-style RPG on mobile, which is something Android has been lacking. It’s an impressive technical feat considering the size and scope of the game.
Visually speaking, it’s stunning on the S21 Ultra, with the vivid colors of the game boosted by the punch of Samsung’s OLED tech even at medium graphics settings. On maximum settings, it’s hard to believe this is a game running on a mobile phone. The environment and character detail—like the grass, shadows and how clothes blow in the wind—is seriously impressive. The 120Hz refresh rate means movement and responsiveness is smooth.
It runs mostly well, but I have noticed some stuttering and frame rate issues on medium and high graphical settings. I also noticed the phone heating up to a moderate level on maximum graphics, although the game did warn me that the “performance load” is too high.
This is one of the most powerful phones on the market, so I don’t know if it’s a hardware issue or something to do with the game itself. Samsung’s Game Launcher helps here. Turning on “priority mode” (which knocks out background activity for a performance boost) improves things, but the odd stutter still occurred.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Game Launcher app helps performance.
The Game Launcher app is a really smart piece of complimentary software. It’s an overlay that is accessible during a game, which lets you toggle the aforementioned priority mode, take screenshots, see your remaining battery power estimate, screen record, monitor memory and monitor temperature. It’s smart and gives the phone the aura of a proper gaming rig.
For games less ambitious than Genshin, temperature isn’t an issue. The phone did warm up when running Call of Duty Mobile and downloading a large Genshin Impact update, but after the download and installation was complete the phone stayed reasonably cool during a two hour COD session.
This is doubly good news because my S21 Ultra unit has the dreaded Exynos chip. Long time Samsung observers will know that Exynos has a sketchy history when it comes to overheating and battery efficiency, but Samsung appears to have solved past foibles. On battery power usage, my last Genshin session drained 15% of battery after 40 minutes of playing—that amounts to roughly four hours of solid play, which is about what I’d expect for a game of this size and scope.
Call of Duty Mobile (COD for short) also ran perfectly and the big 6.8-inch display really helps with managing on-screen controls. Smaller displays lose out when 30% of the screen is obscured by your thumbs, but the S21 Ultra solves that by just being massive. I’m quite good at COD and I’m not sure if Samsung’s high refresh rate display is giving me an advantage over players with less capable phones, but I’ll take whatever advantage I can get.
What is missing, though, is controller support for a lot of games. I get why it’s easier to focus on touchscreen controls since that’s how most people will play mobile games—and titles like COD Mobile have a really smart input system that makes complex controls easy without losing too much interactivity—but a controller option would be very welcome.
The Razer Kishi (left) and the Moga Xp5x.
Some games do have that option, like Dead Cells, but the game crashes whenever I flick the right joystick on my Razer Kishi. The buttons work fine, but the game abruptly stops when I twiddle left or right on the joystick or use the d-pad, which ultimately renders the controller useless.
Similarly, I struggled with mapping controls on Dead Trigger 2. The game often didn’t recognize my inputs despite being mapped correctly. I don’t know if either of these issues are related to the S21 Ultra, the controller or the games themselves.
The controllers I currently own—the Razer Kishi and the Moga XP5-X—do come in handy for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. I’m a big fan of the streaming service because it gives me access to titles I wouldn’t typically play or games I’m not sure about buying whilst adding the mobility of the smartphone gaming experience. It’s clever.
But I initially had issues with Game Pass on the S21 Ultra. As you can see from the image below, the games were not sizing properly and I was losing roughly 10% of the right and bottom part of the playable area. It looks badly zoomed-in.
It was unplayable like this. I discovered a temporary fix of reducing the display resolution to 1080p (down from QHD+). I contacted Samsung about it and a few days later a proper fix was available. Game Pass resized the view to fit properly on the screen when QHD was enabled, although there’s still a large black space on the right of the display and therefore it isn’t symmetrical.
Outside of resolution issues, Game Pass is excellent. Games are responsive with manageable latency (nothing more than you’d expect from a streamed service) and they look good on the high-spec screen. My only other gripe is that chunks of display are sacrificed on either side of the game to make it work, so you don’t get to experience the full effect of the elongated screen.
The third party controllers I own are a delight to use. I prefer the Moga XP5-X because of its familiar Xbox controller shape. The Razer Kishi clips to the back of the phone and places controls on either end of the handset, which feels slightly unnatural because you can’t be too animated with your hands.
I still game like a 10-year-old, so my hands and arms start flailing if something dramatic happens on screen. That’s fine when your display is stationary and you’re holding a detached controller; less so when the controller and display are one. The Moga XP5-X doesn’t need to be physically connected to your phone to work, therefore freeing up your hands for aggressive jerky movements.
The Moga Xp5x controller is my favourite to use.
The S21 Ultra feels ready for the next generation of Android gaming. It handles almost everything with aplomb apart from some small performance issues with Genshin and the Game Pass resolution problem, both of which are fixable.
I’d like to see more developers push the hardware and make specific games for phones that are ridiculously overpowered, just to see what’s possible. But, for now, Android gamers are getting the best display experience possible on Samsung’s most expensive phone.
I’m a London-based freelance journalist who specializes in all aspects of technology including reviews, investigations, comment and news. I’m a recovering founder of the