Samsung's Galaxy S21 will debut at Jan. 14 Unpacked event

Samsung chose to launch the phone at the tail end of next week's CES conference.

Samsung will host its first Unpacked event of 2021 on Jan. 14. 

The new year will bring some earlier-than-normal goodies from Samsung. The South Korean electronics giant has sent out invites for its first Unpacked of 2021, which will take place at 7 a.m. PT on Jan. 14 -- about a month earlier than last year and on the final day of CES. It touted "Welcome to the Everyday Epic" as the theme for the event, where the latest version of its Galaxy S smartphone is expected to make its debut. 

"Over the past year, mobile technology has taken center stage in everyday life as people are working remotely and spending more time at home," Samsung said. "The accelerated transition to a mobile-first world brings with it the need for devices that can transform everyday life into an extraordinary experience."

Samsung likely will have three different models of the flagship phone: 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.

The company may also 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 will also have a press conference at CES on Jan. 11. On that event, it's expected to focus on its TV and home appliance businesses, as it's done in past years. Unpacked will be the last day of CES. 

A Jan. 14 date for Unpacked comes earlier than normal for Samsung. In the past, the company 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. 

Regaining ground

Samsung announced last 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 that time, COVID-19 had infected more than 42,000 people and claimed more than 1,000 lives. That number has soared to about 85 million infections and about 1.8 million deaths, as the world grapples with a crippling new 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 5Git was surpassed by Huawei as the world's biggest phone maker 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. Analysts expected Apple to become the world's second-biggest 5G phone vendor in 2020 -- with less than three months of sales. That put Samsung, once the leader with the new connectivity, in third place.

Losing its position at the top of the smartphone market has caused 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. 

Focus for 2021

Tae-moon Roh, Samsung's president and head of mobile communications, published a blog post in mid-December with details about the company's plans for 2021. Along with saying the company would share more in January, Roh said Samsung in 2021 would expand its foldable lineup and make the devices "more accessible" -- likely code for lowering prices -- as well as put more emphasis on the camera and video capabilities in its devices. The company will also 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.

"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."

Along with new connectivity capabilities and AI features, Samsung in 2021 plans to make 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. 

Tune back to CNET for full coverage of Samsung's event on Jan. 14.