Samsung just announced its Galaxy S21 flagship smartphones slightly early this year, with a new design, the inclusion of the S-Pen, and a unique market positioning that should help Samsung make even more market gains.
The Galaxy S21 line features critical components such as the recently announced Snapdragon 888 platform, it still is a reference handset for absolute performance & features with the Galaxy S21 Ultra and for terms of feature/price are their respective segments.
Commonality across the Galaxy S21, S21 Plus, and S21 Ultra
The most obvious common point is the core technologies such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor and the X60 modem, at least in the USA market. Keep in mind that Samsung typically releases some phone variants with a Samsung Exynos processor platform and possibly a different modem. Check what applies to your country.
We have gone over the Snapdragon 888 technical review and benchmark numbers, and we know that this core technology makes the S21 series phones very potent. This is the best performance you can expect on an Android phone today, short of having exceptional cooling like in Gaming phones.
An excellent hardware platform enables new camera functions such as recording with all cameras at once, which is great for vlogging, capturing all views of the scenes, and letting Samsung’s cool AI-driven photo assistant work with ever more data to deliver superior results.
These phones all have Samsung OLED displays that support a 120Hz variable refresh rate and HDR10+, which is increasingly important as adoption widens for content streaming and photography. Resolutions will vary, but we will get to that shortly.
There’s an in-screen ultrasonic fingerprint reader under the display that matches the specs of the Qualcomm 3D Sonic Sensor Gen2. You can expect the phone to unlock 50% faster than the previous generation, with higher accuracy (less false-negative)."THE NEW GALAXY S21 DESIGN IS BEAUTIFUL AND INNOVATIVE"
The new Galaxy S21 design is beautiful and innovative, and we love how Samsung has embraced the oversized camera modules that are brilliantly integrated. The S20 Ultra camera module looked better than the Note 20 Ultra, but the S21 series takes the whole thing to another dimension.
Of course, all three phones are waterproof (IP68), and their batteries support relatively fast-charging and reverse-charging, although not at industry-leading speeds according to the technical specifications.
Android 11 is the core operating system on top of which the Samsung One UI 3.1 is adding a ton of significant visual improvements and functionality. I know that there are different tribes when it comes to the phone user interface (UI), but I think that Samsung did a fantastic job with their UI even though one can objectively complain about the high number of pre-installed software.
All three phones ship without a charger in the box, a move that Samsung says is for sustainability, which is true. Still, it also has the side-effect of helping reduce the cost by a small amount, positively impacting the product’s price. That said, if you’re upgrading from an older phone, your current charger might not charge at the maximum speed supported by the S21 series.
Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus aim for affordability
Beyond the common traits listed above, the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus are in a different class than the S21 Ultra, because they are designed to be (relatively) affordable premium phones. We’ve seen Samsung pushing the quality/price ratio very high in all price segments, and the Galaxy S20 FE (fan edition) was the poster child of that success recently.
The Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus are substantially more affordable than their S20 and S20 Plus counterparts at this time last year, by about $200.
As a result, the S21 and S21 Plus have 2400×1080 displays instead of 3200×1440. I do not find this objectionable because it has been a while since Samsung ships 3200×1440 displays that are in fact, set to 2400×1080 rendering in the settings. Most people do not even realize that is the case. Moving to 1080 was an invisible way to reduce the bill-of-material (BoM).
But Samsung keeps display performance where it matters the most, with a 120Hz maximum refresh rate and a 1300 NIT peak brightness. That’s up to 2X higher brightness than many competitors."DISPLAY PERFORMANCE WHERE IT MATTERS"
The screen’s glass seems flatter, which looks less luxurious but could simplify the phone’s manufacturing and assembly. Again, that reduces the final expenses and enables higher production volume. Also, the Galaxy S21 back panel is made of plastic instead of glass.
Despite these changes, users get an overall net-positive from this year’s models because of the overall industrial design improvements. The phones do look better, in my opinion, even though the materials and techniques used may be simpler.
Buyers who are specs-focused might notice that the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus have 8GB of RAM instead of 12GB in the S20/S20 Plus. That is a significant change on paper, and it could affect you if you have tons of apps installed. However, I do not expect the average user to notice.
The S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus camera system look a lot like last year’s models, and we’ll take a closer look a bit later. From the technical data, we expect the outcome to be very similar for photography, and Samsung has improved the software when it comes to video or zoom performance. The “beautify” feature will also be OFF by default (thank you).
Galaxy S21 Ultra: max everything up
As usual, the Galaxy S21 Ultra targets users who want it all: large screen, large battery, large memory, top cameras, and best connectivity.
For instance, you get a 3200×1440 6.8-inch display that can achieve 120Hz at full resolution. If you use your phone in a bright environment, the display can peak at an insane 1500 NITs brightness, which I think is the brightest screen we’ve heard of on a smartphone."THE GALAXY S21 ULTRA TARGETS USERS WHO WANT IT ALL"
The S21 Ultra ships with at least 12GB of RAM and up to 512GB of storage, but we’ve spotted a 16GB RAM model as well. You should have no storage and memory issues for all the apps you download over the WiFi 6E network, which only the S21 Ultra support, out of the three phones. 6E represents a new class of frequency that was just introduced to WiFi 6.
The S21 Ultra has support for a stand-alone S-Pen and can basically do everything the Note 20 pen can, except that the pen itself is not integrated into the chassis and has to be purchased separately with the optional case, or not. The rumors of the Galaxy Note’s demise where greatly exagerated.
All eyes on the Galaxy S21 Ultra world-class camera system
In the rear, you have got a new 108 Megapixel sensor with dual-pixel phase detection, paired with two optical zoom cameras (3X and 10X) for a greater average zoom quality across focal lengths. Finally, there is a good Ultrawide angle camera with a new 120-degree lens.
There’s good potential for image quality improvements. We will publish a camera hardware analysis based on our HW Camera ranking, followed by an IQ Camera image analysis. There is a 40MP selfie camera in the front, which seems very similar to the S20 Ultra’s.
Our data shows that Samsung cameras dominated nearly every price points at T-Mobile USA.
Overall, this camera system looks performant and well-balanced. Samsung has worked hard to improve the auto-focus speed by integrating a laser and dual-pixel AF technology, possibly erasing complaints about the original S20 Ultra AF criticism.
Finally, it is worth noting that the Galaxy S21 Ultra feels a bit more premium because the back cover is made of glass and has all the possible industrial design subtle touches you can expect from the priciest member of the family.
The Galaxy S21 series looks extraordinarily strong, and it is not just because it is feature-packed. It is because Samsung has made the S21 and S21 Plus drastically more affordable than their S20-counterparts (by $200+), and we expect our value metrics to objectively prove it.
The Galaxy S21 at $799 is particularly attractive and should be an excellent contender against the iPhone 12, for example."THE GALAXY S21 SERIES LOOKS EXTRAORDINARILY STRONG"
From a pricing perspective, I think that anyone who can afford an extra $200 should get the Galaxy S21 Ultra ($1199) instead of the Galaxy S21 Plus ($999). In my opinion, the superior camera strength is worth that much alone (to me!), but you also get more RAM, display, etc. Just do it and thank me later.
It is worth pointing out that Samsung has good bundles and discounts if you pre-order directly from their website (not an affiliate link). It’s worth checking out if you have already made up your mind. So far, we’ve heard from Verizon and T-Mobile about the Galaxy S21 availability on their networks, but eventually, you’ll find them everywhere, as usual.