with CLIPREVIEWED learn the articleSamsung Galaxy S21 Updates the S20 With Few Big Changes
The Samsung Galaxy S21 series promises to make the “everyday epic.” But Samsung’s three new phones—the $799 S21, the $999 S21+, and the $1,199 S21 Ultra—are more everyday than epic, primarily fixing and refining the S20 line’s concepts rather than doing anything radical.
The three new phones are $200 to $400 cheaper than last year’s flagships, reflecting pandemic-straitened budgets. They double down on last year’s promise of 100x zoom, but insist that this year they’re getting it right. They bring the S Pen to Samsung’s non-Note phones. And they are the first Samsung phones certified for the upcoming C-band 5G networks, which future-proof them for the next few years.
Samsung’s S20 line, which came to market just as the pandemic hit, sold fewer units than the S10 around launch time, according to research firm M Science. The S20’s high prices turned off folks getting laid off en masse, expensive millimeter-wave 5G didn’t turn out to be a selling point beyond Verizon, and the S21 Ultra’s 100x, 108MP camera suffered from serious focus-lock problems. The company managed to redeem itself later in the year with the excellent Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and affordable Galaxy S20 FE.
The pandemic didn’t get us off our phones, Samsung’s Drew Blackard said. It didn’t even get us off our 4G networks, as folks stuck at home used every screen and parallel connection they could to maximize bandwidth. I’ve seen this at my house, where my daughter uses her laptop for school, her tablet for drawing, and her phone for TikTok and social media.
“We’re exploring new ways to stay close with the people and things that matter the most, and our smartphones are the best devices to help us stay connected,” Blackard said. “Short-form video shot straight from smartphones is taking off as a new expressive medium. We’re all relying on our devices more than ever.”
The pandemic year also saw a “bifurcation” in the smartphone market, Blackard said. “On one hand, we see some customers increasingly prioritizing value…[but] on the flip side [are people who] want an ultra-premium,” he said.
“From the ultimate experience of super-intelligent, industry-leading pro-grade camera and video capabilities for S21 Ultra, to a core flagship experience available across S21 series, we look forward to offering amazing experiences at a greater value to our consumers,” Samsung Electronics President TM Roh said in a statement.
As with last year’s lineup, there are three sizes of S21. You can see more details on our comparison of the iPhone 12 series vs. the S21 series. In brief, they have 6.2-inch, 6.7-inch, and 6.8-inch screens, all 120Hz. The Ultra’s screen is brighter than last year’s screens at 1,500 nits to last year’s 1,200, Samsung said. The S21 and S21+ have very similar specs overall; the S21 Ultra amps everything up with a higher-res screen, more cameras, better zoom, a bigger battery, and more storage.
All three phones have an ultrasonic fingerprint sensor that Samsung didn’t detail, but we think it’s the larger, faster second-generation sensor Qualcomm announced this week. Samsung said the new sensor is “1.7x larger,” which jibes with Qualcomm’s description.
In the US, all three phones will use Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 888 chipset. Outside the US, it’ll vary; some models will use a Samsung Exynos processor. Expect there to be four or five different global models with different processors, numbers of SIM slots, and available 5G bands. As always, you should buy the unit designed for your country.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes in black and silver, plus titanium, navy, and brown in some countries. The S21+ comes in violet, silver, and black. The S21 comes in violet, gray, pink, and white. Samsung is also promising gold and red versions of the smaller phones, but not in every country, and it isn’t clear if they’ll be in the US.
There’s no charger or headphones in the Galaxy S21 boxes. That’s a step back for Samsung, which tries to paint this as a “sustainability” issue.
“We discovered that more and more Galaxy users are reusing accessories they already have and making sustainable choices in their daily lives to promote better recycling habits. To support our Galaxy community in this journey, we are transitioning to removal of the charger plug and earphones in our latest line of Galaxy smartphones,” Samsung EVP Patrick Chomet said in a statement.
The phones charge at up to 25 watts wired and 15 watts wireless.
Shoot Your Shot
Samsung’s back on its 108MP business, with a twist. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a new main 108MP sensor that’s now paired with laser autofocus, so the phase detection on the sensor doesn’t slow you down the way it did with the S20 Ultra. Its 100x zoom uses two other lenses: a 10-megapixel 3x optical at f/2.4 and a new, 10-megapixel 10x optical at f/4.9, both with faster dual-pixel autofocus. Last year’s Galaxy phones excelled at 5-10x zoom; these two lenses, working together, promise quality zoom at 30x or higher.
That’s been paired with some new software to improve both zoom shots and night mode. At very high zoom levels, it’s hard to hold the phone still; you can now lock your image digitally before you hit the shutter button. Night mode has also been improved through better AI.
The S21 Ultra has two other cameras as well: a 12MP 120-degree ultra-wide camera, which is now fairly standard, and a 40MP front-facer with phase-detection autofocus.
The lower-spec Galaxy S21 and S21+ have camera setups much closer to the previous S20+. On the front is a 10MP camera, and on the back are a 12MP ultrawide, a 12MP main, and a 64MP “hybrid optic” 3x telephoto. I’m a little concerned about the use of “hybrid optic” here, which implies that it may not actually be an optical zoom camera but just a 64MP sensor doing a 3x crop for a zoom effect.
All the lenses have stabilized video recording at 60fps, as well as 4K video recording. All three phones have “director’s view,” which uses the Snapdragon 888’s triple image-signal processor to capture views from three rear cameras at the same time and let you select among or integrate them. You can shoot with the front and rear cameras at the same time, too. (Samsung phones used to have that feature, but it was discontinued for a time.)
There’s also an improvement to Samsung’s single-take mode, which captures 10 seconds of video and chops it up into stills and short videos.
Write This Down
The S21 Ultra is the first S-series phone to support Samsung’s S Pen, the active Wacom stylus that has previously been an exclusive feature on the Note series. (For what it’s worth, Samsung says it’ll continue to produce Note phones—at least for now.) The phone doesn’t come with an S Pen; you’ll have to buy it separately, along with a case that accommodates it.
For now, Samsung says, the S21 Ultra will only have the most basic S Pen features of writing and drawing. In recent years, the company has played around quite a lot with new S Pen features, such as activating commands by drawing symbols in the air; the S21 won’t support those gestures. It will work with existing S Pens from existing Note phones, though, so if you have an old Note, you can use the S Pen here. I also suspect it will work with any Wacom-compatible stylus and look forward to testing that.
Oh Say Can You C-Band
One big step forward is that the Galaxy S21 series are the first Samsung phones to support C-band, the new 5G frequencies carriers are currently in the process of paying about $80 billion to acquire. C-band networks, probably largely from Verizon and AT&T, will begin to launch late this year or early 2022, and they’ll likely offer four or five times the speed of 4G or “nationwide” 5G.
Samsung tells me all three phones will support 5G bands 2/5/12/25/30/41/48/66/71/77/78 and millimeter-wave. That includes everything the US and Canadian carriers are currently using or plan to use over the next few years. Other than these phones, only the iPhone 12 series have currently been FCC-certified for C-band.
The phones’ X60 modem promises other network enhancements, but we’ll have to test them to find out more. Most notably, the X60 lets carriers combine their 5G spectrum in more ways, which could help both AT&T and Verizon’s “nationwide” 5G networks.
The S21+ and S21 Ultra both have the confusingly named UWB, which is a totally different technology than Verizon’s heavily advertised “UWB 5G.” This UWB is a near-field positioning technology that tells you where devices are in relation to each other.
“We recently launched SmartThings Find to help you quickly and easily locate your Galaxy devices, even when offline. We took this a step further with Galaxy S21+ and S21 Ultra, which uses expanded UWB capabilities to utilize the AR finder so you can send virtual messages to other Galaxy users during your search,” Samsung mobile CTO KJ Kim said in a statement.
Of the three S21 phones, only the Ultra has Wi-Fi 6E, the new Wi-Fi standard that uses a higher frequency to offer much faster Wi-Fi speeds. There are relatively few Wi-Fi 6E devices around right now—iPhones don’t have it, and few routers do—but it’s going to spread in 2021.
Preorders of the new phones begin on Jan. 14 at 11 a.m. The phones hit shelves on Jan. 28. If you preorder, you’ll get accessory credit on Samsung.com—$100 for an S21, $150 for an S21+, and $200 for an S21 Ultra—along with a free Smart Tag, a Tile-like locator device. We will have a review closer to the launch date.
How Will It Compete?
Galaxy S21 phones go up against Samsung’s own remaining S20 and Note 20 phones, especially the popular S20 FE, and Apple’s iPhone 12 series, as well as flagships such as OnePlus phones and the LG Wing. The Galaxy S20 FE is only $600 at Best Buy right now without trade-in or activation, and it gets cheaper with either of those options.
Plenty of people, I’m sure, will buy the S21 series by default. They need a new phone, and Samsung is reliable, so they’ll get the latest Samsung. The big question is whether anything about the S21 will actively push upgrades. Will it be a new, working super-zoom? Will it be much better night photography? My experience with the Galaxy S20 Ultra shows that I’m going to have to get the phone into my hands to be able to tell.
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