Samsung’s latest flagships are here: the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21 Plus, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The first two — which start at $799 and $999, respectively — mark some of the least expensive flagship phones that Samsung has made in years, while the $1,199 S21 Ultra aims to be not just the top-specced phone in Samsung’s lineup, but also the best phone, period.
I was able to briefly try out all three devices last week, and they all share a new design language that throws out a lot of what I’d come to expect from a Samsung smartphone. The internal changes are more incremental from last year’s S20 lineup, though, and in some cases, they’re an intentional step back. All three phones are available to preorder and will launch on January 29th.
The new devices can effectively be divided into two categories: the S21 and S21 Plus, which are aiming to achieve a more wallet-friendly flagship experience, and the S21 Ultra, the ultimate Samsung smartphone that cuts no corners and aims to offer the most premium phone possible — with a price tag to match.
Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus
Unlike past years, the S21 and S21 Plus are almost identical devices this time around, barring the obvious differences in screen size, battery size, and one or two other minor details.
But the most important change with these two phones isn’t actually the hardware itself; it’s after years of creeping prices, Samsung has finally reversed course, with the S21 and S21 Plus actually starting at $799 and $999, respectively, this year. That’s a full $200 less than last year’s models.
In order to accomplish that, Samsung made a few compromises in order to reach those lower price points. The displays, while the same 6.2-inch (S21) and 6.7-inch (S21 Plus) sizes as last year’s models, have dropped the subtly curved edges that have been a Samsung hallmark for years. Those flat panel screens also feature a step down in resolution from the 3200 x 1440 panels on last year’s models to a more modest 2400 x 1080 resolution. Both phones still offer 120Hz refresh rates, although it’s dynamically adjusted now. Lastly, the RAM has also been dropped from 12GB to 8GB.
The smaller Galaxy S21 makes additional trade-offs: the back panel is made of polycarbonate plastic, not glass, and it lacks an ultra-wideband radio (which the S21 Plus and Ultra offer for better integration with Samsung’s new Galaxy SmartTag.)
Lastly, Samsung is following in Apple’s footsteps by no longer including a charging brick or headphones in the box, justifying it with similar environmental reasons (although Samsung will also likely save a few dollars by not bundling those parts).
The big question is: are those admittedly small changes worth the $200 price cuts? We’ll have to wait until we can put the new S21 and S21 Plus through their paces in our upcoming review.
It’s not all downgrades, however: the processor is Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 888 chipset, which promises big improvements in overall performance. There’s comprehensive 5G integration on both devices, with support for mmWave and sub-6GHz networks. The fingerprint sensor has been upgraded to Qualcomm’s new 3D Sonic Sensor Gen 2, which should be faster and easier to use. And the batteries are still big: the S21 still offers a beefy 4,000mAh battery, and the S21 Plus has been upgraded to an even larger 4,800mAh one.
But the biggest update this year is the new design, which ditches the glass-slab sandwich that Samsung’s been using for years for an updated look. And it’s easily my favorite thing about the new phones. After years of dealing with the protruding camera bumps that have been the de facto cost of offering bigger sensors and better lenses on our smartphones, the S21 and S21 Plus embrace the camera bump instead of trying to work around it.
The S21 and S21 Plus still have camera bumps, but they look good as seamless pieces of metal that flow out naturally from the matching sides of the phones, with smooth edges and spiffy two-tone designs that look really nice.
Largely unchanged from last year, though, is the camera system itself. Both the S21 and S21 Plus offer a 12-megapixel wide-angle camera, a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera, and a 64-megapixel telephoto lens, along with a 10-megapixel selfie camera. (The S21 Plus no longer has a depth sensor.) If those sound similar, it’s because the hardware is virtually identical to the cameras found on last year’s Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus phones. Samsung has made some improvements on the software side of things, including the 30x “Space Zoom” mode, a new “Director’s View” mode for video that makes it easy to swap between lenses while filming, and additions to Samsung’s “Single Take” mode.
Samsung has told us that it will no longer over-smooth faces by default, instead making it an option. It’s high time that happened.
Galaxy S21 Ultra
If the S21 and S21 Plus are more restrained steps back in smartphone design, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a phone that imagines what it would look like if you never had to make any compromises. It’s a phone that promises the very best of what Samsung’s hardware and Android can offer — if you’re willing to pay for it.
Starting at $1,199 (a price that doesn’t include any extras like an S Pen stylus or a case), the S21 Ultra is Samsung’s third superlatively named phone, the successor to last year’s S20 Ultra. And it has a lot in common with the original, including a massive screen, a 108-megapixel camera, and top-of-the-line specs.
But the S21 Ultra is a more refined version of last year’s model, one that looks to smooth out some of the sharp edges for a better experience — literally, in some cases, thanks to Samsung’s new rounded design language (which is similar to the S21 and S21 Plus).
Looking at the spec sheet, the S21 Ultra checks almost every box: a 6.8-inch 3200 x 1440 OLED display, with refresh rates up to 120Hz (a refresh rate the S21 Ultra can hit at full resolution, unlike last year). There’s 12GB of RAM, a 5,000mAh battery, up to 512GB of storage, and Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 888 processor. It’s hard to imagine Samsung cramming more in here.
Of course, just because Samsung can’t fit it into the phone doesn’t mean it’s done adding features. The S20 Ultra will be the first Galaxy S phone to support Samsung’s S Pen stylus, which does S Pen things. If you’ve used a Galaxy Note recently, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. The only quibble: the stylus isn’t included in the box with your $1,199-plus phone: it’ll cost an extra $40, or $70 in a bundle that includes a case that can store both the phone and the stylus. And those cases are pretty bulky, adding extra width to an already pretty big phone.
And then there are the cameras. The S20 Ultra’s camera tried to shoot for the moon, with its 108-megapixel sensor and 100x zoom mode that promised photography that could live up to the “ultra” moniker of the rest of the phone.
The technology was incredibly cool, but it had plenty of issues. The S21 Ultra promises to offer a more refined experience for the second time around: the camera has a new focal length for slightly wider shots, a new laser autofocus system (similar to the Note 20 Ultra) that should help with the focusing issues on last year’s model, support for 12-bit color depth, and a more refined demosaicing process. Samsung is also working to give users more control over things like its AI-based photo enhancements, allowing you to adjust the level of smoothing, for example. Whether that’s all enough to solve the issues of the original is something that will require further testing.
The S21 Ultra isn’t just about that big 108-megapixel sensor, though. It also has an additional three rear cameras. There is a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera, of course. Then there is not one but two separate 10-megapixel telephoto cameras: one with a 3X zoom and one with 10X zoom, which Samsung says is designed to give users more flexibility in how they approach shots. The downside of all those added sensors is that it expands the camera array to almost twice as wide as the regular S21 and S21 Ultra models, which spoils the look a little bit.
The Galaxy S21, S21 Plus, and S21 Ultra are a more deliberate lineup than Samsung’s past offerings. It’s a balancing act: with one hand, the devices show that Samsung has started to internalize the idea that not every phone needs every aspect of its spec sheet ramped up to the absolute max; with the other, it offers the Galaxy S21 Ultra, a phone that does just that for the power users who truly want that kind of device.
It’s a philosophy that we started to see last year with the $699 Galaxy S20 FE, an intentionally cheaper Samsung phone that aimed to offer a premium experience at a more affordable price. The $799 and $999 S21 and S21 Plus feel like extensions of that philosophy, expanded from a niche “fan edition” device to the most mainstream of Samsung’s hardware. Factor in the almost omnipresent Samsung sales, and the S21 could be the most affordable Galaxy S device in recent memory.
For years, Samsung has focused on making the best phones on paper that it could. The S21 lineup feels like an attempt to make the best phone for the different needs of different customers, rather than simply the most excessive phone it can muster. It might be the right strategy in the midst of a struggling economy, but it means that its smaller phones aren’t quite as impressive. With the S21, if you want the best thing Samsung has to offer, you are going to have to buy the biggest thing.
Correction: The Galaxy S21 Ultra starts at $1,199. This article incorrectly listed the price in one paragraph as $1,119. Additionally, the S21 Ultra and S21 Plus feature glass backs, not aluminum.
Photography by Chaim Gartenberg / The Verge