from left to right, the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the S21+, and the S21.
The front of the S21+. The front of all three phones looks pretty much identical.
The many colors of the base model S20. These models are plastic.
The S21+ backs.
Samsung really likes this “Phantom Violet” color.
Samsung’s new smartphones are finally official, so let’s meet the Galaxy S21 family. The design and specs line up with what was rumored, but the big news today is the price range, which is hopefully a sign that the sky-high prices in 2020 are coming down a bit.
The Galaxy S21 line is seeing an across-the-board $200 price cut compared to last year. Previously, (adding a penny for clarity’s sake) Samsung was charging $1,000, $1,200, and $1,400 for the S20, S20+, and S20 Ultra, respectively. This year, the S21 is $800, the S21+ is $1,000, and the Ultra is $1,200. The cheaper models are seeing some visible cost-cutting, but I wouldn’t say it’s enough to justify a $200 price drop—the price is genuinely lower. And there’s no arguing this for the Ultra model, which still seems every bit as “Ultra” as last year, with a lower price.
Samsung is now calling the base model S21 a “value-oriented” device and, like the Note20, is changing the S21 to a plastic back for a lower bill of materials. The other two phones are glass, and everything supposedly has a “matte finish,” which sounds great for fingerprint reduction.
When it comes to specs, the Galaxy S21 and S21+ are pretty much the same phone on the inside. They’re usually mentioned as a pair in Samsung’s press releases, while the Ultra has exclusive specs and features.
Galaxy S21 Ultra
2400×1080 6.2-inch 120Hz (424ppi) OLED
2400×1080 6.7-inch 120Hz (393ppi) OLED
3200×1440 6.8-inch 120Hz (516ppi) OLED
Android 11 Pie with Samsung One UI
Eight-core, 2.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, 5nm
12GB or 16GB
128GB or 256GB
128GB or 256GB
128GB, 256GB, or 512GB
802.11b/g/n/ac/ax, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC
(Same) + 6GHz Wi-Fi 6E
sub-6 GHz and mmWave
sub-6 GHz and mmWave
sub-6 GHz and mmWave
12MP Wide Angle
64MP Telephoto (1.06x optical)
12MP Wide Angle
64MP Telephoto (1.06x optical)
12MP Wide Angle
10MP 3x Optical Telephoto
10MP 10x Optical Telephoto
4000mAh, 25W charging
4800mAh, 25W charging
5000mAh, 25W charging
Wireless charging, in-screen fingerprint sensor. IP68 water and dust resistance
The base model and the S21+
All three phones have a 120Hz display, and new this year is a dynamic refresh rate, which lets the display adjust its refresh rate based on what is on the screen. If done well, this would give the phone silky-smooth scrolling and animations when it needs them (and save battery when it doesn’t). Samsung doesn’t give a ton of details about what it works with, but ideally, you’d want a 120Hz refresh rate for scrolling and other system-generated animations, 60Hz for 60fps games, 24Hz for 24fps movies, and something like 1Hz while reading static text.
Samsung’s first-gen implementation of this isn’t extreme: on S20 and S20+, the display can adjust from 120Hz down to 48Hz. On the Ultra model, you can slow all the way to 10Hz. Last year, you could only lock the phone to 120Hz or 60Hz.
One sign of cost-cutting: the two cheaper models are seeing a resolution drop from 1440p to 1080p. Android phones have always had tons of pixels to spare, and even the worse-off Plus model is still clocking in at a respectable 393ppi. The two phones are also getting less RAM: 8GB instead of the standard 12GB of last year. The battery is the same on the S21 and S21 Ultra, but the plus model is getting a bump from 4500mAh to 4800mAh.
In the United States and other select territories, all models of the phone feature the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 SoC.
The Galaxy S21 isn’t the first 888 device in the world (that’s the Xiaomi Mi 11), but for many territories, it will be the first commercial device. Elsewhere in the world, most likely in Europe, the phones use Samsung’s new Exynos 2100 SoC. Both are 5nm SoCs with Arm’s new X1 core, three A78 cores, and four A55 cores. The major differences will be in the modems and GPUs, which the Internet will undoubtedly make the subject of online benchmark battles once the phones actually release. Compared to last year, Qualcomm is promising performance improvements of 25 percent from the CPU, 35 percent from the GPU, and 35 percent from the ISP.
You can probably also file the Snapdragon 888 under “reasons for a lower price.” All last year, we were harping on the Snapdragon 865’s design, which pulled the 4G modem off of the SoC and stuck it on a separate modem chip, all for the sake of also bolting on first-gen 5G support. Companies don’t talk about parts prices, but Qualcomm chips have had onboard modems forever, and the 865’s extra modem chip most likely raised the cost of Qualcomm’s chip package. The 5G hardware took up extra space and more power, and probably to avoid the problems that plagued first-gen 4G phones, manufacturers compensated with larger phones and bigger batteries, further raising the price. This year, the Snapdragon 888 is Qualcomm’s first flagship SoC with an onboard 5G modem, and while the sizes aren’t going down, the prices are.
In the United States this year, all three models are getting mmWave compatibility. This is an upgrade for the base model, which last year only supported sub-6GHz. mmWave is a tough sell since even the biggest pusher of mmWave, Verizon, only has coverage in 4 percent of its network.
The fingerprint reader
While we’re on the subject of Qualcomm, the Galaxy S21 has a new under-display ultrasonic fingerprint reader that is “nearly double in size” compared to the previous version, and it can scan your fingerprint faster. Samsung would not confirm the model or manufacturer of the fingerprint reader when asked. Qualcomm just announced its next-generation ultrasonic fingerprint reader, though: the 3D Sonic Sensor Gen 2, which features a 77 percent larger reader area and is 50 percent faster.
Qualcomm is just about the only manufacturer of ultrasonic (as opposed to optical) fingerprint readers. Since Samsung used a Qualcomm sensor last year and the improvement specs match, we’re calling it a match. Previously, Samsung shipped a super-tiny first-generation fingerprint sensor in the S10 and S20, with an area of only 9×4mm. Qualcomm’s new sensor is a bigger 8×8mm, which should help with accuracy. But it’s still smaller than a fingertip, which is around 14×14mm.
Enlarge / A closeup of the new camera block.
The big design change this year is the rear camera, which is now a big block that is part of the corner of the phone. Samsung calls it the “Contour Cut Camera housing.” Unlike the early speculative renders, the glass doesn’t wrap around the corner of the phone. There’s still metal there, so it shouldn’t be too smashable. Like last year, we’ve got a 12MP main camera, a 12MP wide-angle, and a 64MP Telephoto. The telephoto seems to be the same setup as last year, with a barely-there 1.06x optical zoom and lots of digital zoom from the 64MP sensor, in a package Samsung is calling a “Hybrid Optic 3X” zoom.
One of the stranger features we spotted in the Snapdragon 888 release was the ability to simultaneously capture data from three different rear cameras, and we wondered what phone manufacturers would do with that. Samsung has turned it into a handy feature in the S20 camera: live previews of each camera lens in the camera app. The feature—called “Live Thumbnails” in photo mode and “Director’s View” in video mode—will let users see how the main, wide-angle, and telephoto lens would all frame a shot. Hopefully, it will invite less-savvy users to try out the pile of cameras on the back of their device.
Enlarge / Behold the full power of Samsung’s camera app. On the right side there are three live previews of the three rear lenses, and on the left is the front camera.
Where’s the brick?
Another cost-cutting measure: the charging brick. There isn’t one. After Apple removed the charger from the iPhone 12 box, you pretty much could have written what the Android OEM response would be. First, competitors made fun of Apple for not including a charger, then they followed Apple’s lead as soon as they possibly could. Samsung’s social media team even took the extra step of deleting the old posts touting the included charger! Like Apple, Samsung is now pitching the charger removal as good for the environment, saying, “We believe that the gradual removal of charger plugs and earphones from our in-box device packaging can help address sustainable consumption issues and remove any pressure that consumers may feel towards continually receiving unnecessary charger accessories with new phones.”
Like with Apple’s headphone-jack-to-AirPods transition that also killed Android headphone jacks in the crossfire, what’s good for Apple is not necessarily good for Android phones. Apple had never been a trailblazer when it came to charging speeds, so often the old charging bricks were the same as the new charging bricks. On Android, charging speeds have seen constant improvement year over year. The best charging solution widely available on the market is OnePlus, which, on the 8T, has a 65W charging solution that can power up a phone from zero to full in 40 minutes. Qualcomm’s upcoming Quick Charge 5 will come with a 100W charging brick, which claims to rocket your battery from 0 to 50 percent in five minutes. This kind of rapid charging really changes how you use a phone. With the OnePlus phones, it has been a while since I’ve felt the need to charge my phone overnight, since, if I’m doing something today, I can charge it to nearly full during breakfast.
Samsung’s removal of the charging brick means it’s not participating in the quick-charge revolution that has quietly been happening across the Android landscape. In fact, the company is going backward with the Ultra model, which last year did 45W charging and this year, along with all the other models, is doing only 25W. You can justify the cuts to pixels and RAM as unnecessary spec-sheet wankery, but when it comes to charging, Samsung’s flagships are falling behind the competition.
Another thing that might fall under cost-cutting, maybe, is the apparent removal of Samsung’s “Magnetic Secure Transmission” technology, or MST, which powers Samsung Pay for non-NFC credit card terminals. The old-school way of reading credit card data was to swipe a magnetic strip on the back of a card across a reader, and MST technology is (was?) a relatively innovative wireless emulation of this magnetic data transfer. Samsung’s phone and watch MST devices could generate a magnetic field, which would beam the card data directly into the magnetic strip reader on a credit card terminal, offering tap-and-pay-style data transfers on old card readers that didn’t yet have NFC. Samsung picked up the technology by buying its inventor, a company called LoopPay, which, circa 2015 when NFC adoption wasn’t very high, was touting 90 percent terminal compatibility.
Samsung’s spec sheet lists “Payment: NFC” with no mention of MST at all, where last year the Galaxy S21 has MST listed here. We’ve asked Samsung for some clarification on this, but the company has yet to get back to us. Removing MST from the S21 wouldn’t be a huge surprise: Samsung’s smartwatches lost MST in 2018 with the launch of the Galaxy Watch. Back in 2015, MST was a nice feature due to low NFC adoption, but maybe in 2021, Samsung feels NFC adoption is at a point where MST isn’t worth it anymore.
The Ultra extras
The Galaxy S21 Ultra, now with pen support.
The back of the phone, with extra camera gear.
The S Pen doesn’t fit inside the phone like the Galaxy Note. Instead, you have to have a case like this.
Another look at the S-Pen case. It’s oddly lopsided to hold the pen.
Besides being the most interesting model, Samsung says the Ultra model represented the highest portion of Galaxy S20 sales last year. The headline Ultra feature is probably compatible with Samsung’s Wacom technology-based S-Pens. Samsung says existing pens from a Galaxy Note or Galaxy Tab will work. The photos all seem to use the Tab S7 Pen, which is sold separately for $59.99. Unlike a Galaxy Note, there is nowhere on the phone to store the stylus, so Samsung is also selling an S-Pen case, which features a slot for the Tab S7 Pen on the left side. It makes the case look a bit odd, but at least there is somewhere to put the Pen. Does bringing the Galaxy Note’s only unique feature to the Galaxy S line mean the note is doomed? Some reports have said “yes,” but we’re not totally sure yet.
The Ultra display keeps the 1440p resolution from last year, and this year it’ll be able to do 120Hz and 1440p resolution at the same time. Last year, you had to pick one or the other. Samsung says the Ultra is its brightest display ever, clocking in at 1500nits. Like we mentioned earlier, this has a higher dynamic refresh rate, ranging from 120Hz to 10Hz, which will hopefully enable battery-saving lower refresh rates when 120Hz isn’t needed, hopefully without the user noticing.
The Ultra gets a more complicated camera block than the other models, with what Samsung is calling an “upgraded” 108MP main camera, laser autofocus, and two telephoto cameras. The zoom layout now is one 3x optical camera and one 10x optical camera, and it sounds like the camera will switch between the two as you’re zooming. Samsung is still pushing the idea of a “100x Space Zoom” through the use of AI and cropping shenanigans. A 100x zoom rating sounds impressive, but on the S20 Ultra, the photo quality was atrocious, and the AI-powered 100x zoom-and-enhance was only possible thanks to a complete disregard for the final image quality. The S21 has a totally different 100x space zoom compared to the S20, though. The S20 has a 3x telephoto and a 48MP sensor, while this is a 10MP sensor and a 10x periscope telephoto. Hopefully, the image quality is better.
The S21 Ultra is also one of the first devices to support Wi-Fi 6E, which is seeing the beginnings of access-point support at this year’s CES. Wi-Fi 6E brings Wi-Fi to the 6GHz spectrum, adding a sizable chunk of airwaves next to the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. If you live in a crowded area with several competing Wi-Fi systems, early adoption of Wi-Fi 6E will get you into clearer spectrum with better performance, but you’ll need new clients and new access points. Seeing some access points actually hit the market would be great.
The phones all ship with Android 11, and Samsung has promised three years of major Android updates and three years of security updates, the same timeframe that Pixels get. Samsung’s delivery of these updates is still very slow, but at least they’ll be coming for three years.
All three Galaxy S21 models will hit stores on January 29, and they will probably be picked up by every carrier on Earth. Preorders start today.