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Forget the Galaxy S22 and get an S21: Main differences between S21, Plus and Ultra

Samsung may have a new flagship lineup coming in a few months, but right now's a good time to buy from the Galaxy S21 line.

Samsung's current flagship lineup, the Galaxy S21, has been out for more than six months now. Since the unveiling of the Galaxy S21, S21 Plus and S21 Ultra, Samsung has also released two new foldable devices, the Galaxy Z Flip 3 and Z Fold 3, and rumor has it the phone giant is also gearing up for the Galaxy S22 and the Galaxy S21 FE, a sequel to last year's popular lower-priced handset, the Galaxy S20 FE. Phew. With all these buzzy new phones being released, your best bet might actually be to buy one of Samsung's older models, especially if there are deals to be had. (The Galaxy S20 is also still worthy of consideration.) And if you're interested in the Galaxy S21, chances are you're very confused about the main differences between the three versions.

Read more: Galaxy S22 vs. Galaxy S21, based on rumors

As the names suggest, each model in the Galaxy S21 lineup is slightly upgraded (and slightly pricier) than the one before it, resulting in a spectrum of specs to meet just about any Android user's needs. But how do you decide whether you're a baseline kind of person or if you should go directly to the top of the line? Sure, your budget can make the decision for you, but price doesn't tell the whole story and, depending on your needs, a higher-priced phone might also be the best value.


Samsung announced the Galaxy S21, S21 Plus and S21 Ultra in January.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The most obvious differences among Samsung's Galaxy S21 line, besides the price, are screen size, battery capacity and camera capabilities. Going up the line, each phone increases in size. If you're small-handed, you might hate the heft of the Ultra. But if you're going to be watching a lot of videos, bigger is probably better. 

  • Galaxy S21: 6.2 inches
  • Galaxy S21 Plus: 6.7 inches 
  • Galaxy S21 Ultra: 6.8 inches 

Battery capacity also increases as you move up the line, though we don't think you'll have any trouble getting through the day on a charge even with the baseline S21 phone. 

  • Galaxy S21: 4,000 mAh
  • Galaxy S21 Plus: 4,800 mAh
  • Galaxy S21 Ultra: 5,000 mAh

Read more: How the new Galaxy A series compares to Samsung's other phones: S21 and S20 FE

Camera geeks are probably going to want to upgrade to the S21 Ultra. You can tell just by looking at the three phones that the S21 Ultra has some extra camera tricks up its sleeve, evidenced by its extra-large quadruple camera module, which also houses its flash. The S21 Ultra gets Space Zoom, an extra telephoto camera and a 108-megapixel wide-angle lens -- we're particularly impressed with S21 Ultra's zoom.

A few other things to consider: You want a pretty pink phone? Then you'll have to get the S21. Want S Pen support? Only the S21 Ultra has that (and the new Galaxy Z Fold 3). Ditto for storage greater than 256GB: Only the Ultra goes up to 512GB (that model gives you more RAM too), and none of the Galaxy S21 phones accommodates expandable storage. The S21 Plus and Ultra both feature a Gorilla Glass Victus backing, which lends durability that the plastic-backed S21 won't have.

Check out the chart below for all of the Galaxy S21 specs compared, and read our comparison of the Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 vs. S20 vs. S20 FE vs. Note 20

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. S21 Plus vs. S21 Ultra

Galaxy S21 Galaxy S21 Plus Galaxy S21 Ultra
Display size, resolution 6.2-inch Flat FHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X Infinity-O Display (2,400x1,080 pixels), 6.7-inch Flat FHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X (2,400x1,080 pixels) 6.8-inch Edge WQHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X (3,200x1,440 pixels)
Pixel density 421 ppi 394 ppi 515 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 2.80x5.97x0.31 in 2.97x6.35x0.30 in 2.97x6.50x0.35 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 71.2x151.7x7.9 mm 75.6x161.5x7.8 mm 75.6x165.1x8.9 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.03 oz; 171g 7.12 oz; 202g 8.07 oz; 229g
Mobile software Android 11 Android 11 Android 11
Camera 64-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (ultrawide) 64-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (ultrawide) 108-megapixel (wide-angle), 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 10-megapixel (telephoto), 10-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera 10-megapixel 10-megapixel 40-megapixel
Video capture 8K 8K 8K
Processor Snapdragon 888 or 64-bit octa-core processor 2.8GHz (max 2.4GHz+1.8GHz) Snapdragon 888 or 64-bit octa-core processor 2.8GHz (max 2.4GHz+1.8GHz) Snapdragon 888 or 64-bit octa-core processor (max 2.4GHz+1.8GHz)
Storage 128GB/256GB 128GB/256GB 128GB/256GB, 512GB
RAM 8GB 8GB 12GB, 16GB
Expandable storage No No No
Battery 4,000 mAh 4,800 mAh 5,000 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screen In-screen In-screen
Headphone jack No No No
Special features IP68 rating, 5G-enabled, 30x Space Zoom, 10W wireless charging, IP68 rating, 5G-enabled, 30x Space Zoom, 10W wireless charging, IP68 rating, 5G-enabled, 100x Space Zoom, 10W wireless charging, 10x optical zoom; S Pen support
Price off-contract (USD) $800 (128GB) $1,000 (128 GB) $1,200 (128 GB)
Price (GBP) £769 £949 £1,149
Price (AUD) AU$1,249 AU$1,549 AU$1,849
Now playing: Watch this: Review: The Galaxy S21 5G surprised us with its changes
Drew Evans/CNET

The phone has a clean look thanks to the two-tone approach, and it has Full HD resolution, which CNET's Patrick Holland describes as "a step down from the Quad HD quality on the S20" in his review. The adjustable screen refresh rate, which is good for games and good for your battery life when it's not in use, is also a plus.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The S21 Ultra is a significant hardware and software upgrade over the S20 Ultra. That's why the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra received the Editors' Choice Award from CNET. The addition of S-Pen support (it's the first Galaxy S phone to do so) will also get be of some use for Galaxy Note owners searching for a new phone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Galaxy S21 strikes a good balance of features and price which should make it appealing to a lot of people. See our Samsung Galaxy S21 review.

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