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Sony Xperia 1 III vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: which Android phone is for you?

Sony Xperia 1 III vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
(Image credit: Sony, Samsung)

When the Sony Xperia 1 III goes for sale in early summer, its powerful chipset and gorgeous display will rival some of the best phones available. So for shoppers considering pre-ordering it, we're matching it up against the best of the best: the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Both give you tons of screen real estate powered by the same cutting-edge chipset, at a similarly massive price. Gamers who want a fast-refreshing screen, or Android power users who like to split-screen demanding apps, probably can't go wrong with either of these phones.

We can't speak specifically to how the Xperia 1 III will perform until we get our hands on a review unit. For now, we're focusing on Sony's official Xperia specs to break down how the two phones will compare.

Sony Xperia 1 III vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra price and availability

The Samsung Galaxy S21 debuted at $1,199 / £1,149 / AU$1,849. Since then, Samsung has frequently sold it at a discount; less than three months from the S21 release date, you'll already find several S21 Ultra deals for $200–$300 off.

Sony hasn't yet revealed what the Xperia 1 III will cost, but its predecessor (the Xperia 1 II) cost $1,199 / £1,099 / AU$1,840. It's a fair bet that Sony's initial price for its new flagship will stay consistent and match Samsung's initial asking price for its most powerful phone.

We also know that the Xperia 1 III will arrive in 'early summer' but don't have a hard date from Sony yet. Assuming it ships in late June or July, the Galaxy S21 Ultra will have been out for five to six months by that point. It originally shipped in late January 2021.

Sony Xperia 1 III

(Image credit: Sony)

Design

Both the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Xperia 1 III have a glass front and back surrounding an aluminum frame. Each has IP68 water/ dust resistance and Gorilla Glass Victus protection for their respective panels; on the back, the Ultra has a slight protective edge with GG Victus, while the Xperia uses GG 6.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a curved edge-to-edge display that maximizes screen real estate and hides its bezels, while the Xperia 1 III is more traditionally flat and rectangular. 

Sony's phone also has large top and bottom bezels, which house the selfie camera and stereo speakers. This makes the display unimpeded by cut-outs or notches and the front-firing sound more powerful, but also makes the phone very tall. 

Samsung, for comparison, uses a single-lens punch-hole camera and a speaker vent near the USB-C port – fairly traditional for most modern phones.

Assuming you can find them in stock, you can buy the Galaxy S21 Ultra in Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy or Phantom Brown. So far, Sony has announced two colors: Frosted Black and Frosted Purple.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

(Image credit: Aakash Jhaveri)

Display

As we already mentioned, Samsung and Sony tend to fall on opposite sides of the curved vs flat display debate. We can at least say that the Ultra was comfortable to hold and attractive to look at during our review, but the curved effect will be lessened if you buy a protective case.

The more noticeable difference between these phones is the aspect ratio: Sony's 6.5-inch OLED display has a 21:9 ratio while Samsung's 6.8-inch OLED display has a traditional 16:9 ratio.

On previous Xperia phones, some video apps like Netflix will automatically optimize their films or graphics to 21:9, while others like YouTube will mostly default to 16:9 and leave black bars around your content. If you're looking for a gaming phone, most gaming apps will happily stretch out across that extra space.

Samsung made the Galaxy S21 Ultra its only phone capable of hitting Quad HD (3200 x 1440) at 120Hz. But Sony took things a step further and gave the Xperia 1 III a 4K display (3840 x 1644) capable of hitting 120Hz. That gives the Xperia 643 pixels per inch, compared to 515ppi with the Ultra while matching its refresh rate, a significant boost in visual quality.

Sony claims the Xperia 1 III will have more accurate color reproduction than its older phones. We'll have to test that ourselves, as well as test how bright it can get compared to the Galaxy S21 Ultra's max of 1500 nits.

Samsung uses an in-screen fingerprint sensor for the S21 Ultra, while Sony has stuck with a side fingerprint sensor on the power button.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

(Image credit: Aakash Jhaveri)

Cameras

The Galaxy S21 Ultra definitively won our vote for the best camera phone. It has a 108MP f/1.8 main camera, 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide, a 10MP f/2.4 telephoto cam plus a second 10MP f/4.9 telephoto cam with 10X optical zoom, and a 40MP selfie cam.

With the main cam in ideal lighting conditions, you can take 30X or 100X zoom shots with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, making it the best option for photography outside of buying a powerful standalone camera. Overall, our reviewer was highly impressed by its shot quality and the improved autofocus from the S20 lineup.

We haven't tested the Xperia 1 III triple rear cameras yet, but we know how the raw specs will match up: it has a 12MP/ 24mm/ f/1.7 main camera, 12MP/ 16mm/ f/2.2 ultra-wide, a 3DoF sensor, and a 12MP variable telephoto camera. The latter can swap between 70mm/ f/2.3 and 105mm/ f/2.8 automatically for the best focus.

While the Galaxy S21 Ultra has the Xperia 1 III beat for pixels and zoom capacity, it does have some useful tricks for pro photographers. 

There is a dedicated, embossed photo button on the side of the phone. It has a Professional Mode for experts or a Basic Mode for newbies that let you customize or automate things based on your skill level. Plus, for people trying to take shots of fast-moving kids or pets, there's a new real-time tracking feature that keeps the focus on that person no matter where they go.

Sony Xperia 1 III

(Image credit: Sony)

Battery life

Solely based on capacity, the Galaxy S21 Ultra battery just exceeds the Xperia 1 III battery, 5,000mAh to 4,500mAh.

In our tests, the Galaxy S21 Ultra could last all day for mundane tasks but burned through its capacity much more quickly when the QHD/ 120Hz mode was active.

With a smaller battery, the same Snapdragon chipset, and a more demanding 4K display at the same refresh rate, it's very possible that the Xperia 1 III will burn through its battery even faster when using media applications on high settings.

Both phones have fast-charging tech if you're running low. The Galaxy S21 Ultra can specifically charge at 25W or wirelessly at 15W. Sony's press release says that the included Xperia 1 III charger can help it regain a 50% charge in 30 minutes, or that you can buy a separate 30W accessory for a power charge.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

(Image credit: Aakash Jhaveri)

Specs and features

Whether you choose Samsung or Sony, you'll get a phone powered by the new, uber-powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. That being said, we can't guarantee this will mean that the two phones will be equally powerful or speedy.

RAM could play a big part in benchmark discrepancies. The Galaxy S21 Ultra started at 12GB of RAM and could be upgraded to 16GB, while the Xperia 1 III is expected to have either 8GB or 12GB, putting it at a slight disadvantage unless you pay extra.

Similarly, both phones will run Android 11, but our reviewer found that Samsung's spin-off – One UI 3.0 – tended to be more efficient than stock Android.

All of this is speculative until we get our hands on the phone. What we do know is that Sony is clinging to some beloved features that Samsung has all but left behind: a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microSD card slot for expandable storage. A certain type of Android user will be thrilled by their inclusion.

Another advantage the Xperia 1 III will have over the Galaxy S21 Ultra: more powerful, front-facing stereo speakers. Sony claims these are 40 percent louder than the Xperia 1 II's speakers, which were respectable in their own right. 

For day-to-day productivity, you may want to consider the Galaxy S21 Ultra due to its S Pen support. 

Takeaway

We can give a more definitive answer to the Sony Xperia 1 III vs Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra debate once we've written up our Xperia review later this year. But until then, the Galaxy S21 Ultra still seems to be the better purchase unless you're looking for a very particular feature.

Even if the Xperia 1 III lives up to Sony's hype, it will be some time before its cost drops down to match the Galaxy S21 Ultra's discounted price. And while Sony did its darndest to improve the Xperia's battery and cameras, the Ultra still seems to be overpowered by comparison.

If you prefer widescreen watching or gaming, or if you're excited for 4K with a 120Hz refresh rate, then the Xperia 1 III may be the phone for you. When we tested the S21 Ultra, we weren't blown away by the difference between HD and QHD. We're hopeful that the 4K jump will be more impressive on the Xperia 1 III.