Samsung hints its expanded foldable phone lineup won't just be for the 1-percenters

TM Roh, the company's head of mobile, says in a blog post that Samsung will share more in January, which fits with rumors that the Galaxy S21 will arrive earlier than usual.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
6 min read

Samsung will expand its foldables lineup beyond the Z Fold 2 (pictured here) and the Z Flip. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung  has big plans in store for 2021. That includes expanding its foldable lineup and making the devices "more accessible" -- likely code for lowering prices -- as well as putting more emphasis on the camera and video capabilities in its devices. And the company will bring features from its Galaxy Note devices to other phones in its portfolio, which is likely to include S Pen support on its upcoming Galaxy S21 phones

Tae-moon Roh, Samsung president and head of mobile communications, published a blog post Tuesday with details about the company's plans for 2021. Along with talking about possible new features on Samsung's phones, he also said the company will have more to say in January -- which aligns with rumors that Samsung will introduce its Galaxy S21 in mid-January. 

"We have never believed in a one-size-fits-all mobile experience and we never will," Roh wrote. He added that Samsung is "working on revolutionary advancements in 5G," artificial intelligence and the internet of things "that will redefine the parameters of what mobile can do and give consumers the freedom to tailor their mobile experiences to fit their lives -- not the other way around."

Roh took over as head of Samsung's mobile business from Dong-jin Koh, better known as DJ, nearly a year ago. Before his promotion, Roh oversaw development of Samsung's Galaxy smartphones, and at the time of his appointment as head of mobile, he was Samsung's youngest-ever president at 51. 

The blog post comes as Samsung gears up for CES and its first Unpacked event of 2021. The company is rumored to be planning an event for Jan. 14,  an earlier-than-normal release for its Galaxy S lineup. In the past, it has typically unveiled its newest flagship phone in February, either slightly before or during the Mobile World Congress trade show and then released the device in March or even April. Instead, this year it may unveil its Galaxy S21 lineup at the end of virtual CES, which goes from Jan. 11 to 14. 

Samsung announced this year's Galaxy S20 lineup and Galaxy Z Flip foldable on Feb. 11 in what was one of the tech industry's last in-person events before the novel coronavirus pandemic forced borders to close and governments to issue stay-at-home orders. The Galaxy S20 devices, all of which came with 5G , began preorders Feb. 21 and hit stores on March 6.

The day after Unpacked, organizers canceled the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, which was slated for later in February. At the time of that decision, COVID-19 had infected more than 42,000 people and claimed more than 1,000 lives. That number has soared to over 73 million infections and about 1.6 million deaths as of Dec. 15, as the world grapples with a crippling second wave of the virus. 

Samsung, like most tech companies, has struggled to sell its pricey smartphones during the pandemic. While it was one of the first companies to release a phone with 5G, it was surpassed by Huawei at a time it normally would have gotten a boost from Galaxy S sales. The Chinese handset maker became the biggest smartphone vendor in the world in the second quarter, the first time in nine years that Samsung or Apple hadn't held that title. And analysts expect Apple to become the world's second biggest 5G phone vendor this year -- with less than three months of sales. That puts Samsung, once the leader with the new connectivity, in third place.

The fear of losing its position at the top of the smartphone market may lead Samsung to make changes, including holding Unpacked about a month earlier than normal. Samsung also has shifted its plans to deal with changing consumer preferences during the pandemic. In September, it introduced introduced the Galaxy S20 FE, a cheaper model for its flagship smartphone lineup. The phone started at $700 -- or $300 less than the regular S20 costs -- and came as the pandemic prompted demand for less expensive devices. 

Samsung overall regained ground in the third quarter to again become the top smartphone vendor as Huawei struggled to survive amid sanctions by the US. Samsung in late October reported its highest quarterly revenue ever, thanks to a "significant increase in consumer demand" for its smartphones, computers and other products. 

An earlier Unpacked?

Samsung is expected to sell its newest Galaxy S devices in January. This time around, Samsung likely will have three different models of the S21: the 6.2-inch S21, the 6.7-inch S21 Plus and the 6.8-inch S21 Ultra. The devices are expected to look largely the same but have bigger camera modules, boosting their photo and video capabilities. 

And Samsung may discontinue its Galaxy Note line this year and replace it with S Pen support on its Galaxy S21 Ultra. Early renders don't show a visible location for a stylus, which may mean it has to be housed separately from the phone when not in use. On Samsung's popular -- but niche -- Note lineup, the stylus slides into the device for storage. 

Samsung also will have a press conference at CES in January. It's expected to focus on its TV and home appliance businesses for that event, as it has done in past years. Unpacked may come the last day of CES. 

Expanded foldables lineup

One of the biggest tidbits from Roh's blog post was the plan to expand Samsung's foldables lineup. Two years after Samsung teased its first foldable phone -- which it hoped would revitalize interest in mobile devices -- foldables remain pricey and inaccessible for most. 

In 2019, the company introduced one of the world's first foldables: the $1,980 Galaxy Fold. The device folded outward from a phone into a tablet, and it wowed most people who tested early versions of the device. 

Galaxy Z Fold 2: Samsung's most luxe foldable phone yet

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The $1,980 price tag for the initial Fold seemed unapproachable for all but super tech enthusiasts. CNET's Jessica Dolcourt called it "overpriced" and "a status symbol that early adopters with plenty of cash could casually unfold to wow their peers." The main selling point of the device of the Fold was its novelty: It was the first foldable phone from a well-known electronics manufacturer. 

Samsung followed up with its Z Flip in February 2020. That device, which retailed for $1,380, was a clamshell design that folded outward, a sort of high-tech flip phone. Samsung updated it with 5G connectivity and boosted the price to $1,450 in July. 

Samsung's latest device, the Z Fold 2, fixed the original Fold's problems and packed in bigger screens and 5G connectivity. Priced at $2,000, it became the company's most expensive phone

"The Z Fold2 was praised as a smartphone that reimagines what's possible with mobile technology, and I'm excited to say, it's just a hint of what's to come as we continue to explore, evolve and expand this category-changing space," Roh wrote Tuesday. 

Other advancements

Samsung hinted that foldables aren't the only devices that will see advancements in 2021. Roh noted that the cameras in Samsung's Galaxy devices  "will be more than ready to meet the demands of the video-obsessed in 2021. When it comes to advancement in this space, it's going to be an epic new year."

And the company has "been working hard to expand highly advanced on-device AI capabilities within the Galaxy family, enabling our devices to continually learn from daily activities and routines to take better pictures and videos, maximize battery life and storage space, optimize displays and much more." 

While Samsung has excelled in areas like camera hardware, it's struggled when it comes to software. The company's Bixby virtual assistant has been surpassed in skill and usage by Amazon's Alexa, Google's Assistant and Apple's Siri. Samsung hasn't talked much about Bixby advancements in recent Unpacked events, and Roh didn't name Bixby in his blog post. 

Watch this: Galaxy Z Fold 2: The new foldable phone king

But he said Samsung is planning to expand its personalized AI capabilities "every facet of Galaxy's product portfolio to empower people to be productive and do all the things they enjoy." That may not be outwardly Bixby, though, but behind-the-scenes AI that makes devices run better. 

Along with AI, Samsung will soon "be rolling out incredible connectivity capabilities that will transform the way you open doors and enable seamlessly integrated car experiences that make personalized car connectivity a part of your digital life." 

And he said Samsung is "making it easier to quickly locate the things that matter most, from your keys to your wallet -- even your family pet." The company is expected to introduce physical Tile-style smart trackers, possibly called Galaxy Smart Tags, to help people keep track of their possessions using BlueTooth. Apple has long been rumored to be working on its own AirTags, but it hasn't yet unveiled anything in that arena. 

"We believe everyone should have access to the latest mobile technologies and a spectrum of product options that offer unfettered, personalized experiences," Roh said. "In 2021, our diverse product portfolio will deliver breakthrough capabilities that empower you and never hold you back."