Samsung's busy 2021 starts with CES and Galaxy S21 launch

The Korean giant adjusted to the new reality of 2020. This year, it needs to be bolder and it all starts this week.

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
8 min read

Samsung may get rid of its Note lineup as it expands its foldables in 2021. 

Angela Lang/CNET

An expanded foldables lineup. More 5G phones . Smarter gadgets . Computers, TVs , home appliances and a host of other devices. Maybe even lower prices. After a crazy 2020, this new year could be one of Samsung's busiest yet. 

To take advantage of the opportunity 2021 brings, the South Korean company needs to be bolder to regain its status as an innovation powerhouse, while also delivering on its promises to make consumers' lives easier. That will start with Samsung's Unpacked event at 7 a.m. PT on Thursday, where it will show off its new Galaxy S2 lineup.

Already, the company's head of mobile has given a glimpse of what Samsung has in store. Tae-moon Roh, Samsung president and head of mobile communications, said in a mid-December blog post that his company will expand its foldables lineup and make the devices more "accessible," likely a polite way to say cheaper. It also will put more emphasis on camera and video capabilities and bring features from its Galaxy Note devices, like S Pen support, to its upcoming Galaxy S21. 

Watch this: Galaxy Note 20 vs. Ultra: Which should you buy?

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

If those topics sound familiar,  it's because Samsung largely targeted the same areas in 2020. Samsung was one of the first companies to dive into 5G and foldables, though those bets haven't yet paid off. There aren't enough compelling reasons for consumers to need one of the 20 5G phones Samsung has introduced, and its foldables are too expensive to sell in high numbers. Despite the millions Samsung's sunk into AI, its devices aren't much better at talking to each other or interacting with their owners. And though the coronavirus pandemic created the opportunity to put the smart home at the center of everyone's life, Samsung has been slower than Google and Amazon to make the internet of things a reality. Even with four Unpacked mobile events -- Samsung's flashy product showcases -- the company wasn't top of mind for most consumers in 2020. 

"Samsung was just forgotten for a lot of the time," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "It lost a little bit of that cool factor it used to have." 

In some ways, not being top of mind was good. Samsung didn't have the problems of Huawei, which faces US sanctions and may soon run out of components for its phones, or the struggles of competing Chinese vendors dealing with the US trade war. Samsung was never called to testify before the US Congress, no phones exploded, it wasn't the victim of a major hack, and it wasn't criticized for failing to contain the spread of misinformation.

Still, Samsung's lineup hasn't created the buzz that tech products like Apple's new 5G-enabled iPhone 12 devices have managed to generate. On Jan. 7, the company said its fourth-quarter results aren't as strong as some Wall Street analysts expected. It earlier had warned that the fourth quarter would be weaker than the third as server customers bought fewer memory chips and as said tougher smartphone competition would hurt its results.

In 2021, Samsung will have to find a way to capture attention in a world that won't look like the one when 2020 began. Samsung will get its first chance with an earlier-than-normal Unpacked event. 

A whole new world

Like its competition, Samsung is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and the impact that's having on consumers. When COVID-19 first started spreading, worries about the illness caused a dramatic slowdown in phone purchases as people around the globe decided the device they had was good enough. Demand eventually recovered as new 5G phones began to hit the market, but not soon enough to boost Samsung's Galaxy S20 sales. Computers and TVs have been hot items with people stuck at home, and appliances are purchases consumers can put off only so long. Samsung has benefited from surging demand for all of those products.

Samsung has shifted strategy in response to what's happening. It sped up the development and release of its Galaxy S20 FE, which, at $700, is a cheaper addition to its flagship phone lineup. It also tweaked the sales strategy for devices like the Galaxy Note 20. And it's benefited from its less expensive Galaxy A Series, which it's likely to expand this year.

In 2021, Samsung plans to expand the lineup of devices crucial to its future, specifically foldables. It will possibly kill off those that don't fit with its vision, like the Note family. The first glimpses of Samsung's plans for mobile in 2021 will come at Unpacked.

Samsung is expected to launch three new Galaxy S devices at Thursday's event. The new S21 models will likely be 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. Overall, those devices aren't expected to be major overhauls from their predecessors.

Unpacked could also mark Samsung's expansion into new areas, including Tile-like smart trackers. 

Samsung likely won't shake up pricing for the Galaxy S lineup. But it could make bigger changes with its other devices, including its foldables. 

Hello foldables, goodbye Note?

Like most tech companies, Samsung has struggled to sell its pricey smartphones during the pandemic. While Samsung was one of the first companies to release a phone with 5G, Huawei quickly surpassed it in shipments. 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 the title. 

Samsung will try to claw back ground, and US sanctions against Huawei will help it do so. Samsung overall regained ground in the third quarter to again become the top smartphone vendor as Huawei struggled to survive.

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

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The Korean company's 2021 phone lineup may offer more price points, including more affordable foldables. Roh said the company is "expanding [its] portfolio of foldables, so this groundbreaking category is more accessible to everyone." That's almost assuredly code for lower prices, which could help lure consumers to what are currently budget-busting devices. The Galaxy Z Fold 2 retails for $2,000, while the Galaxy Z Flip with 5G costs $1,450. 

Samsung could keep the older generations of its foldables around at lower prices, as well as introduce new and cheaper designs as it tries to help the devices break out of their tiny niche. Still, its rivals, like LG , will move beyond just foldable displays in 2021. LG is expected to show off a phone with a rollable display, similar to its rollable TVs

Samsung will have to make sure it doesn't overwhelm buyers with too many choices. One way it can do that is by trimming its phone lineup. As it expands foldable options, Samsung could also kill off the Galaxy Note. 

"It's hard for Samsung to justify the Galaxy S21 and a Note 21 when they outwardly look very similar," Strategy Analytics analyst Ken Hyers said. "If the market for ulta-premium [phones] is limited and you don't want to crowd it with too many of these products, the Note series seems to be the one that made the most sense to cut."

Samsung's Note has struggled to stand out for the past several years. When the big-screen devices debuted in 2011, they created a new category of devices that straddled the line between tablets and smartphones. So-called phablets were first mocked, then copied. Now the phablet category no longer exists, and it's nearly impossible to buy a phone that comes with a small screen. Apple's iPhone SE is one notable exception. 

Along with packing in the biggest display possible, Samsung's Note had two other selling points: it came with an S Pen stylus and featured the highest-end specs possible. When Samsung's first foldable, the Galaxy Fold, debuted in 2019, the Note lineup no longer had the flashiest components or biggest screen. The Note's main differentiator from Samsung's flagship Galaxy S lineup and its Galaxy Z foldables became the stylus. 

In his blog post, Roh noted that Samsung is "excited to add some of [the Note's] most well-loved features to other devices in our lineup." That could be a hint the stylus is coming to the Galaxy S21, removing the last differentiator for the Note. But Samsung also continuously stresses its efforts to give customers plenty of choices, something that could work in the Note's favor.

Smarter gadgets?

In previous years, Samsung has had one of the biggest booths -- and flashiest press conferences -- at CES . In 2020, the buzziest news of the show was a secretive artificial intelligence company created by a Samsung executive, and its Neon "artificial humans" emerged from Samsung Technology and Advanced Research Labs (STAR Labs) before Neon became its own company. Though the technology wasn't included in any Samsung products, Neon made a splash. 

Samsung also had a cute robot, called Ballie, at the show. The idea was for the robot, which looks like a big tennis ball, to serve as a companion that follows its owner around and responds to commands. At CES 2019, Samsung showed off four different types of robots for consumers.


HS Kim, the head of Samsung's electronics business, shows off the Ballie robot at CES 2020. 

James Martin/CNET

Like nearly all major technology companies, Samsung is making a big push in artificial intelligence. The technology, which gives devices some ability to act on their own, is seen as the next big wave of computing -- the way we'll interact with our gadgets in the future. Instead of swiping on our phone screens, we'll talk to our devices or to ever-listening microphones around our homes and offices. The ultimate promise for the AI is to predict what you want before you ask.

Samsung's major push with AI in its devices has revolved around its Bixby voice assistant, which first arrived in 2017's Galaxy S8. The digital assistant has since made its way to smart TVs, refrigerators , washers, air conditioners, speakers and more. Samsung previously aimed to put Bixby voice controls into every device it sells by 2020. But the company hasn't talked much about Bixby over the past year, and the tech is viewed as lagging behind Amazon's Alexa, Google's Assistant and Apple's Siri. The Galaxy Home smart speaker Samsung started talking about three years ago hasn't materialized as an actual product

Instead, Samsung appears to have put its AI efforts into features that work behind the scenes, like improved camera technology, or into robots that wow audiences but little else. Ballie was possibly the cutest example of Samsung's AI push, but the company hasn't said anything more about the robot. (Similarly, Neon could have proved popular as people stayed at home during the pandemic but it isn't available for consumers.) Samsung could use its CES 2021 press conference to show off more robots even though it would be better served focusing on how its devices work well together. 

Roh, in his mid-December blog post, said Samsung will have more ahead in AI for mobile in 2021. 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," Roh wrote. "We're planning to expand these personalized capabilities to every facet of Galaxy's product portfolio to empower people to be productive and do all the things they enjoy."

Now Samsung has to make its new offering live up to that promise.