The Galaxy S21 lineup is here, with a $200 price cut, new design and S Pen support
The lineup starts at $800 instead of last year's $1,000. And the Ultra supports an optional $40 S Pen accessory.
Shara TibkenFormer 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."
The South Korean electronics giant on Thursday, during its first virtual Unpacked event of the year, showed off its three new
: the $800 Galaxy S21, the $1,000 Galaxy S21 Plus and the $1,200 Galaxy S21 Ultra. (In the UK, the S21 will start at £769, just £30 cheaper than the S20.) It also unveiled new $200 earbuds, called the Galaxy Buds Pro; $30 Tile-like Galaxy SmartTags that can track nonelectronic items like pets; and a $40 S Pen accessory. The event took place on the last day of this year's CES and more than a month earlier than normal.
Samsung's Galaxy S21 lineup is packed with refinements to the cameras, displays and
capabilities. The new phones feature a redesign that accentuates the camera lenses on their backs while linking them with their metal frames, something Samsung calls "Contour Cut Camera" housing. The base amount of storage for all of the S21 models is 128GB, and Samsung boosted the photo and video capabilities for vloggers and others.
Watch this: Galaxy S21 Ultra: Our first look at Samsung's new premium phone
The lower price is a nod to the realities of the world, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down many global economies and eliminating millions of jobs. Smartphones, serving as a lifeline to friends and co-workers, remain one of the few essential gadgets. This is also one of the first phones in a few years that didn't introduce a brand new technology like 5G, which often justifies a premium.
"In 2021, our top priority is to bring the benefit of technology to more people," TM Roh, the head of Samsung's mobile communication business, said in a statement, calling the Galaxy S21 series "the most powerful and versatile flagship lineup ever."
On the other end of the spectrum, the S21 Ultra is designed for people who want the "best of the best." It features a 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2x display, Samsung's best camera of the S21 lineup with four back lenses, and Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass Victus on the front and back. The S21 and S21 Plus have 6.2- and 6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2x displays, respectively, and Gorilla Glass Victus on the front. The S21 Plus also has the glass on the back, while the regular S21 features a plastic polycarbonate backing. Both have three camera lenses on the back.
This year, Samsung has brought support for its S Pen, a hallmark of the
lineup, to its Galaxy S family for the first time. Of the three new phones, only the S21 Ultra works with the S Pen, and it comes as a separate accessory that costs $40 for just the pen or $70 when bundled with a specially designed case that stores the stylus. Users can't stow the S Pen away inside the S21 Ultra like they can with Note, but they can use their old Note styluses with the S21 Ultra. The new accessory doesn't work with gestures or many of the other features found in the Note's S Pen, which likely means the Note line isn't dead quite yet.
The new phones come as Samsung faces a tougher market for 5G phones. When the Galaxy S20 lineup hit the market a year ago, there still were relatively few 5G phones available, and they weren't cheap. Now competition is fierce. Prices for 5G phones go as low as $300 in the US, and virtually all companies sell 5G models. Every phone in
lineup from late 2020 came with 5G by default, something that was expected to help the technology go mainstream. At the same time, the world continues to grapple with a pandemic that's limiting budgets for new
Samsung made the decision to drop the starting price of its new phones by $200 because of a few factors. Components like 5G processors, displays and camera modules now cost less because Samsung has such a high volume of those parts in devices across its portfolio. The company also made some minor trade-offs in its S21 and S21 Plus devices, like lowering the base level of
to 8GB from 12GB.
"For people who want the highest-end, Ultra experience, we still have that, and we're not sacrificing [the features] based on price point," Drew Blackard, Samsung Electronics America's vice president of product management, said in an interview ahead of Unpacked. "For people who want value and an amazing flagship experience at the same time, we still have a great offering for them with the S21. And then we've got something kind of in between for people who want a little bit of both."
The existence of the Ultra is a reminder that not everyone feels the impact of the pandemic equally.
"The people that are buying an S21 Ultra are not feeling the pressure of the pandemic," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. Samsung "could have decided that maybe [its] entry product was going to be cheaper but leave the two flagships more expensive. But it's not doing that."
Preorders for the phones begin Thursday at 8 a.m. PT, and the phones hit stores on Jan. 29. The Galaxy Buds Pro are available Thursday on Samsung.com and will be at other retailers on Friday. People who preorder the phones get up to $200 in Samsung credit and also get a free Galaxy SmartTag. In addition, carriers are offering promotions, like AT&T's offer for up to $800 off when trading in an eligible device and purchasing the new phone on a 30-month installment plan.
One of the biggest differentiators for the Galaxy S21 Ultra over the S21 and S21 Plus is the camera. The pricier device comes with four cameras on the back -- ultra-wide, wide and dual tele-lenses -- and an upgraded 108-megapixel sensor. That allows users to capture 12-bit HDR photos with 64 times richer color data and more than three times wider dynamic range. In other words, sharper, better photos.
"When designing the Galaxy S21, we thought about how people use their cameras today," Stephen Hawke, director of product management for Samsung Electronics America, said during a briefing with reporters ahead of Unpacked. "For instance, there are those fleeting moments when you just don't have time to think about the perfect mode or setting to capture a shot, let alone switch to recording video. We need our phones to do all this for us. With a Galaxy S21, you get photos and videos with the simplicity of point and shoot."
When it comes to video, the Ultra enables users to shoot in 4K at 60fps across all lenses, including those on the front, meaning they can shift to different perspectives with the same quality. A new feature called Director's View lets you see a scene from multiple perspectives simultaneously, while Vlogger View lets you shoot with the front and rear cameras at the same time. Pro Mode lets users capture images in a 12-bit raw file format to make it easier to edit the images later.
The S20 Ultra features 100x Space Zoom, like its predecessor, but in this year's phone is a new feature called Zoom Lock that keeps the camera focused on an object for a clearer picture. Samsung said it provides "tripod-like stability with an AI-powered stabilizer." Space Zoom on the S21 Ultra is powered by Samsung's first dual-tele-lens system, which is one optical 3X zoom for midrange and one optical 10x zoom for long-range. Both have dual pixel autofocus to capture ultra clear shots.
Low-light photography also gets a boost in the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Samsung improved its Bright Night sensor and Night Mode to reduce noise and capture challenging shots like dimly lit rooms or landscapes at night.
The Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus both have three rear cameras in ultra-wide, wide and tele-lens. They feature 30X Space Zoom with Zoom Lock, as well as Director's View and Vlogger View. Portrait Mode gets a boost from AI, which provides options for virtual studio light and effects to make the subject pop from the frame -- with both the rear cameras and the front-facing selfie lens.
Samsung has improved its 8K Snap feature to let users grab clear images from 8K video footage, and its Super Steady Video records at an "improved" 60fps. The new Galaxy S21 phones also feature Multi-Mic Recording when paired with the new Galaxy Buds Pro, letting users record with their camera mic and earbuds mic at the same time.
All phones in the Galaxy S21 lineup in the US come with Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 888 processor and integrated 5G modem. The new Snapdragon chip is more effective at connecting to all flavors of 5G, from the slower, more reliable nationwide variant offered by all the US carriers, or the speedier but more finicky millimeter wave version touted by Verizon, and boasts peak download speeds of 7.5 Gbps and upload speeds of 3Gbps.
The new processor with its integrated modem is "really important," Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell said. By being able to combine different types of 5G airwaves together, there's a "huge potential increase in performance in 5G," he said.
The Galaxy S21 Plus gets a bigger battery -- 4,800 mAh versus 4,500 in the S20 Plus -- while the S21 stays steady with 4,000 mAh and the S21 Ultra retains its 5,000 mAH battery.
Also under the hood, or rather the display, is an improved fingerprint sensor from
. The chip giant on Monday unveiled the second generation of its 3D Sonic Sensor that's 50% faster and 77% bigger than the previous generation, making it easier for people to to unlock their devices using their fingerprints. Along with making it simpler to know where to place a finger, the larger size also allows the technology to collect 1.7 times more biometric data, speeding up the unlock time.
Samsung also included ultra wideband, or UWB, technology in the Galaxy S21 Plus and S21 Ultra. The technology lets a user pinpoint the exact location of phones, key fobs and tracking tags, helping them find lost dogs or automatically unlock their car. UWB calculates precise locations by measuring how long it takes super-short radio pulses to travel between devices. (Note: It's different from the Ultra Wideband terminology Verizon uses for its mmWave 5G network.)
Samsung will eventually have UWB in its Galaxy SmartTags, but the first version available will use Bluetooth Low Energy. The company didn't yet say when the UWB version will be available or how much it will cost, but it sees big opportunities for UWB in the future, especially as it tries to control the smart home.
"We recently launched SmartThings Find to help you quickly and easily locate your Galaxy devices, even when offline," KJ Kim, chief technology officer and head of mobile R&D for Samsung, said in a statement. "We took this a step further with Galaxy S21 Plus and S21 Ultra, which use expanded UWB capabilities to utilize the AR finder so you can send virtual messages to other Galaxy users during your search."
He added that Samsung has formed partnerships with "major car companies" to provide "a next-generation car experience starting this summer."
The phones in the Galaxy S21 lineup all feature a matte finish that helps minimize fingerprints. In the US, the Galaxy S21 Ultra comes in phantom black and phantom silver, and it has four possible configurations. The silver only comes with 128GB of storage and 12GB RAM, while the black has 128GB or 256GB of storage with 12GB RAM, and a monster 512GB model with 16GB RAM.
The S21 Plus and S21 have some brighter color options, including phantom violet and phantom pink, the latter of which is only in the S21. There are two storage options for those phones, either 128GB or 256GB, both with 8GB RAM.
Samsung's Bixby voice assistant again makes an appearance in the S21 lineup, but its button can be remapped to other tasks. It's also integrated into SmartThings, Samsung's smart home control app.
The S21 Ultra has some advantages when it comes to the screen. All three use Samsung's Infinity-O Displays, are HDR10+ certified and have an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate that automatically adjusts based on what the users is doing, but the Ultra has a resolution of 3,200x1,440, while the other two are 2,400x1,080.
The Ultra also has a Quad HD+ display -- versus flat, full HD+ in the S21 and S21 Plus -- and "the best, brightest display ever," Samsung's Hawke said. He noted the picture is 25% brighter than in the S21 and S21 Plus. The Ultra also has a 50% improved contrast ratio to deliver clear, immersive images, even when outdoors, and a brighter screen
"This is going to make content really pop, especially high dynamic range content," said Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart. "People will be able to use it outdoors without [the screen] getting washed out."
For Samsung, the hope is that its lineup has something for everyone.
"When it comes to shopping for new smartphones, first and foremost, people want choice," Samsung's Blackard said. "That is both in terms of features and in terms of price points. So we're really committed to driving a range of different devices that offer what we think is that diversity of needs that's in the market today."