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Galaxy S21: Lower prices make the choice between the S21, Plus and Ultra even harder

Samsung reshuffled the Galaxy S series to appeal to more people. But with three new phones all at lower prices, which one should you get? We're here to help.

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All three Galaxy S21 series phones got a $200 price drop that will put them within the budgets of more people.

Drew Evans/CNET
This story is part of CES, where our editors will bring you the latest news and the hottest gadgets of the entirely virtual CES 2021.

Following its 2020 recipe, albeit with a few ingredient substitutions, Samsung virtually announced the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21 Plus and Galaxy S21 Ultra at its Galaxy Unpacked event Thursday. The new S21 series brings a bunch of updates, refinements and new features, but overall it isn't a drastic change from the S20 series until you get to the price. Samsung trimmed the starting prices on all S21-series phones by $200. The Galaxy S21 starts at $800, the Galaxy S21 Plus at $1,000 and the Galaxy S21 Ultra at $1,200. 

Samsung said that it was able to lower prices partly because the components for the phones cost less. You could also argue that a portion of the $200 price difference between the S21 and S20 series comes from the S20 and S20 Plus being priced too high. This was likely a result of Samsung pushing the S20 series too far into premium territory. (The price difference is significantly less in the UK and Australia, where the S21 starts at £769 and AU$1,249, £30 and AU$100 less than the S20 did.)

For the S21 and S21 Plus, Samsung reined in features and specs and made smart trade-offs that pulled the phones off the top shelf and back down to reality. That doesn't mean every change is fair. Going from 12GB of RAM on the S20 and S20 Plus to 8GB on the S21 and S21 Plus will be a significant sting to some people. I don't think having 8GB of RAM will necessarily cause an obvious dip in performance, but it might affect how long you'd wait before wanting to replace either phone as apps will eventually get more demanding.

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Then there's the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Aside from the omission of a wall charger (none of the Galaxy S21 phones has a charger or wired headphones), it has either the same or improved specs and features over last year's S20 Ultra and still got a $200 price reduction. On paper, the S21 Ultra seems like a more refined version of the S20 Ultra. Again, perhaps this says less about the value of the S21 Ultra and more suggests that the previous model was grossly overpriced. 

However Samsung got here, these low prices reflect the reality that the world has been in a pandemic for over a year, which has caused millions of us to struggle financially. For many people, just knowing that the new S21 series is more affordable than the S20 family might be enough reason to upgrade.

A curious side effect of all of this is that the phones in the S21 series have more things to distinguish them from each other than the S20 family. And this is good for anyone who wants a range of choices and prices for their next phone. In terms of appeal and value, there's more distance between the S21 and the S21 Ultra than there was between the S20 and S20 Ultra.

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The Galaxy S21 in phantom pink.

Samsung

Should you buy the Galaxy S21?

Out of the three phones, the S21 has the biggest potential audience. If you have a tight budget, then it's probably the one for you. On paper, it's also the no-brainer "You're due for an upgrade" phone from your cellular provider. When you look at the three new phones, the S21 doesn't seem as complex or intimidating as the other two. And there are a lot of people out there who want a phone that's simple and straightforward. Looking at its specs and features, the S21 seems to be the good-value-for-the-money phone you'll keep until it's time for your next upgrade.

Should you buy the Galaxy S21 Plus?

A curious side effect of its lower price and spec changes is that the S21 Plus has a new appeal: It's not only for people who want an S21 but with a larger battery or bigger screen. It's also the "Goldilocks" phone for those who don't want a basic or entry-level device and at the same time aren't willing to consider a top-of-the-line model because the cost is too high.

The S21 Plus should also attract people who worry about dropping their phone or having it fall into the toilet. Unlike the plastic back on the S21, the Plus and Ultra have the durable and scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass Victus on the back. And while we haven't yet tested whether the S21 Plus is more durable than the S21, that could be a selling point. CNET will soon run drop and scratch tests on the new Galaxy phones. I should also note that all three phones have a dust and water resistance rating of IP68 and can survive being submerged in 1.5 meters of water for 30 minutes.

Should you buy the Galaxy S21 Ultra?

The S21 Ultra has several different types of people who will likely buy it. First are those who want the absolute best specs and features. Then, there are those who don't care as much about the features but just want it as a status symbol. Camera nerds like me will be drawn to the S21 Ultra because of the improvements and upgrades Samsung made to the camera system. And with the addition of S-Pen support (it's the first Galaxy S phone to get it) the S21 Ultra might catch the eye of Galaxy Note users looking for a different option.

What about the Galaxy S20 FE?

When I first saw the specs for the Galaxy S21, I thought, "Is this a Galaxy S21 Fan Edition?" Of course it wasn't. But because Samsung brought the S21 down in price, it's only $50-$100 more, depending on the carrier, than the Galaxy S20 FE. (The price delta is wider in the UK and Australia.) Obviously in terms of price, the S20 FE will save you more. It also comes in more color options and has a bigger battery and a microSD card slot for expandable storage that the S21 doesn't. On the other hand, the S21 has more RAM, a newer processor, slightly better specced cameras and a newer design. In a way the positives and negatives of the two cancel each other out. To break the tie, I'll remind you the S20 FE comes with a wall charger and the S21 doesn't. Both will appeal to people looking for a great value. But on paper, the S20 FE offers a bit more value for the dollar than the Galaxy S21.

On the whole, I think Samsung made a bunch of smart moves with the Galaxy S21 lineup. It gives more people more options for their next phone. But look, it's one thing to compare specs and features. I'm excited to get my hands on the phones and do a full review.

Galaxy S21 specs vs. Galaxy S21 Plus, Galaxy S21 Ultra, Galaxy S20 FE


Galaxy S21 Galaxy S21 Plus Galaxy S21 Ultra Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
Display size, resolution 6.2-inch Flat FHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2x, 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 6.5-inch super AMOLED; 2,400x1,080 pixels
Pixel density 421 ppi 394 ppi 515 ppi 405ppi
Dimensions (inches) 2.80x5.97x0.31 inches 2.97x6.35x0.3 inches 2.97x6.5x0.35 inches 6.29x2.97x0.33 inches
Dimensions (millimeters) 71.2x151.7x7.9mm 75.6x161.5x7.8mm 75.6x165.1x8.9mm 159.8x75.5x8.4mm
Weight (ounces, grams) 6.03 oz; 171g 7.12 oz; 202g 8.07 oz; 229 g 6.7 oz; 190g
Mobile software Android 11 Android 11 Android 11 Android 10
Camera 64MP (telephoto), 12MP (wide-angle), 12MP (ultrawide) 64MP (telephoto), 12MP (wide-angle), 12MP (ultrawide) 108MP (wide-angle), 12MP (ultrawide), 10MP (3x telephoto), 10MP (10x telephoto) 12MP (standard), 12MP (ultrawide), 8MP (3x telephoto)
Front-facing camera 10MP 10MP 40MP 32MP
Video capture 8K 8K 8K 4K
Processor Snapdragon 888 64-bit octa-core processor 2.8GHz (max 2.4GHz+1.8GHz) Snapdragon 888 64-bit octa-core processor 2.8GHz (max 2.4GHz+1.8GHz) Snapdragon 888 64-bit octa-core processor 2.8GHz (max 2.4GHz+1.8GHz) Snapdragon 865 (5G) Samsung Exynos 990 (4G)
Storage 128GB/256GB 128GB/256GB 128GB/256GB, 512GB 128GB
RAM 8GB 8GB 12GB, 16GB 6GB
Expandable storage None None None Up to 1TB
Battery 4,000 mAh 4,800 mAh 5,000 mAh 4,500 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screen In-screen In-screen In-screen
Headphone jack No 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 IP68 rating, 5G-enabled, 30W fast charging, 15W fast wireless charging
Price off-contract (USD) $800 (128GB) $1,000 (128GB) $1,200 (128GB) $699
Price (GBP) £769 £949 £1,329 £599 (4G) £699 (5G)
Price (AUD) AU$1,249 AU$1,549 AU$1,849 AU$999