For the general public, aka not us nerds, there are only two phone launches a year that grab attention: The latest iPhone, and the latest Galaxy S. Samsung carries the torch as the Android maker for the masses, and the Galaxy S has been the standard-bearer for over a decade.
But Samsung has a problem. The Galaxy S20 didn’t sell as well as the S10 series — by some reports, sales dropped as much as 40% year-over-year. Last year’s generally weak economy was partially to blame, but there are plenty of other factors at play. The Galaxy S20 series was seriously expensive, and launched during a year when several companies (Samsung included!) made a case that you don’t have to spend beyond $600 to 800 to get a fantastic Android phone.
Samsung heard the complaints, and reversed course considerably. The, a full $200 less than its predecessor. And the savings continue up the line, with the Galaxy S21+ at $999 and Galaxy S21 Ultra at $1,199. Still expensive, yes, but much more affordable than before — all while still promising improvements and fresh innovations.
A fresh design — and one step backward
Samsung has kept its design DNA familiar in the Galaxy S line from generation to generation, and that’s been to its benefit. You can see a strong lineage from the Galaxy S8 to the Galaxy S20, with subtle changes to color, curvature, and camera placement. The result has been an iPhone-like recognition of a phone as “a Samsung,” even at a glance from a distance.
But you can’t stick with the same look forever. For 2021, Samsung has made its biggest design leap in years.
Smartphone design is dominated by two factors: How well can you meld metal with glass, and how can you dress up your crazy camera array. For the former, Samsung deployed a smooth and well-rounded metal frame. It nestles into your hand nicely, with nary a catching point. The back is also now a matte texture, which repels fingerprints, but also makes it tougher to grip — something familiar to iPhone 12 Pro owners. That’s particularly true for the S21 Ultra, which is downright massive — and at 229 grams, incredibly heavy. It’s a behemoth.
For the latter, Samsung chose to integrate the raised camera pod right into the frame, and it really works. It helps minimize how imposing the camera array is, particularly on the Ultra, and on the lower two models, it melds quite nicely into the back. I didn’t get my protractor out, but I feel like the pod doesn’t stick up as much as the one on the S20 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra.
Now, let’s get back to that “meld metal with glass” point really quick. One design element is exclusive to the smallest Galaxy S21: It has a plastic back. Just like the Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy S20 FE, Samsung’s so-called “glasstic” reinforced polycarbonate fills the space where you’ll instead find Corning Gorilla Glass Victus on the S21+ and S21 Ultra. It’s a considerable cost-cutting measure that worked well on the S20 FE, but I fear won’t be received so well on a “flagship” Galaxy S21 — even if its $800 price tag is right on the line of where it’s acceptable.
I could immediately feel the difference between the glass and plastic. And while most people will just use a case, and the plastic is much more shatter-resistant than glass, just knowing that you paid $800 for a phone and it’s made of plastic is a tough hurdle. The small S21 is otherwise identical to the S21+, so this type of shortcoming is a real bummer for people who just want a smaller phone.
There can only be one Ultra
The theme that runs through the Galaxy S21 series, aside from price cuts, is the bifurcation of the lineup. The Galaxy S21 and S21+ are very similar, and together are clearly separate from the S21 Ultra. This is a trend that started with last year’s S20 Ultra and extends to 2021. There is a thin veil of all three phones being on a shared platform, but when you see the specifics, there’s a clear delineation between the haves and have-nots.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is obviously bigger, but that’s the least of the differences. It has an entirely different screen, with a dynamic refresh rate that moves from 10Hz to 120Hz, rather than 48Hz to 120Hz, and is quoted as having a higher max brightness of a whopping 1,500 nits. That display also now supports Samsung’s S Pen stylus, previously exclusive to the Galaxy Note line, though the phone doesn’t come with an S Pen, and there’s no way to store it. The lower-two models are also capped at 1,080p resolution, while the Ultra stays up at QHD — even if you couldn’t tell the difference, it’s still a spec nerd tearjerker.
There’s a very clear delineation between the S21 Ultra and the lower models.
The Galaxy S21 and S21+ have flat displays, while the S21 Ultra still has curved sides. A flat display is less expensive to manufacture, and simplifies the frame and glass around it — Samsung did the exact same with the Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy S20 FE prior, and it makes complete sense here. A lot of fans will be happy with the move, and I had issues with accidental palm touches on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, so I can’t complain here, either.
Much of the “platform” of the phones is shared, which is always a good thing. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 runs the show, and everything else associated with that in the modem, graphics, and image processing is identical. All three come with a base of 128GB of storage, which would’ve been a mark against the phones … but as is a theme here, you can forgive it considering the pricing. I say that even considering that Samsung has dropped the SD card slot — it’s joining the headphone jack up in heaven.
The Ultra has 12GB of RAM, while the lower models stick with 8GB. I can’t imagine that putting 12GB in all of the models would’ve been that expensive, so it feels like a real cheap out to not include it., particularly if people expect to use their Galaxy S21 for three years. And again, it’ll just get the nerds worked up, but that just feels like the goal of the Galaxy S21.
Cameras: Some old, some new
It’s of little surprise to me that the S21 and S21+ haven’t made any sort of leap in camera quality. Looking at the spec sheet, it’s down-the-line identical to the S20 series: 12-megapixel main, 12MP ultrawide, 64MP “telephoto,” and 10MP upfront.
Barring considerable upgrades to processing, which Samsung claims are here and will work in conjunction with the Snapdragon 888’s new ISP, this is shaping up to be the same triple camera we’re familiar with. That isn’t a bad thing — the main camera has proven itself solid, and frankly my main complaints are with the processing. Whether Samsung has addressed the oversaturation of some HDR shots and over-smoothing of people’s faces is the big question. The secondary ultrawide and zoom cameras were never much of a sore point, although the “telephoto” zoom camera is only about a 1.1X zoom over the main camera and dooms the S21 and S21+ to poor zoom photo quality once again.
The S21 Ultra, once again, stands out here. The camera system is anchored by a 108-megapixel sensor again, but Samsung tells me it’s a new version of the sensor compared to the S20 Ultra’s — and of course Samsung’s had a year to tweak and improve its processing. The company is again leaning on zoom capabilities as a differentiator, and there are now two dedicated zoom cameras, one at a 3x optical reach and another at an impressive 10x, both with OIS.
The Galaxy S21 and S21+ cameras will be fine, but I’m excited for the S21 Ultra’s.
Samsung made big promises about zoom capabilities last year that generally fell flat, but with this hardware, I can imagine that getting good shots at 30 to 50x could be a real possibility. We saw just how big of a difference it made to get a real 5x optical zoom on the Note 20 Ultra, and now we have double the starting focal length. I can’t wait to try out the camera to see just where the switch happens between the main, 3x, and 10x lenses, as I suspect it’ll be leaning on the former two more than you’d initially think.
Samsung’s tapping the incredible power of the Snapdragon 888 to enable new camera capabilities as well. You can now get a live feed of three rear cameras, in addition to the front camera, and seamlessly switch between all four — as well as shoot with the front-facing and any of the three rear cameras at the same time. There’s a new version of Single Take that can handle even more frames and video clips simultaneously as well.
I have a good idea of what to expect when I get my hands on an S21 for an extended period, but the S21 Ultra holds a higher level of promise and expectation for me. This camera is enticing.
A lot stays the same
Samsung made interesting design changes, added camera capabilities to the S21 Ultra, and provided spec bumps across the board. But as is typically the case in a one-year jump in the Galaxy S world, much has stayed the same.
The typical “Galaxy experience” is alive and well here. You get IP68 water and dust resistance, dual speakers, every 5G band you could want or need, and the new Wi-Fi 6E standard. Samsung didn’t say a single word about the software experience, because well it’s just the same One UI 3 and Android 11 that’s already rolled out to last year’s Galaxy phones. One UI 3, in my experience on the Note 20 Ultra, is a fine software experience — it feels very … Samsung, and is incredibly fast.
These are, first and foremost, Samsung phones — you’ll never escape that feeling.
I was surprised to hear that Samsung made no improvement to charging speeds, sticking with 15W wireless and 25W wired charging on all three models — apparently its brief experiment with 45W wired charging wasn’t fruitful.
And to that point, Samsung’s making no claims on battery life. The S21 and S21 Ultra both have the same battery capacities as their predecessors, 4000mAh and 5000mAh, and only the S21+ made a jump to 4800mAh. We’ll see how that plays out in the real world; presumably, things will improve with this more efficient processor and a dynamic refresh rate display.
Is price all that matters?
If Samsung did nothing more than slightly tweak the design and drop the prices by $200, it’d probably end up OK in 2021. The price/value discussion dominated the Galaxy S20 series, and Samsung’s eliminated that pain point this year. It did so while also adding a truly fresh design, a few key improvements, and the requisite spec jumps for the new year. Is that enough to actually bump sales back to those solid Galaxy S10 levels? It’s headed in the right direction.
I’ll be bringing you extensive Galaxy S21 coverage over the coming weeks and months, starting with deep dives on individual features, then complete reviews of the different models and ongoing impressions of how the phones fit into daily life. We’re just getting started.