On Thursday, Samsung took the wraps off its first set of flagship phones for the new year: the Galaxy S21, S21+, and the S21 Ultra.
While the new lineup doesn’t bring with it any revolutionary features as compared to predecessors, it does come with necessary improvements, including a more durable design, upgraded camera features, and the latest Snapdragon processor.
All three Galaxy phones vary in price, depending on model and configuration, with the S21 starting at $799.99 and the S21+ at $999.99. The S21 Ultra will go on sale with a base price of $1,199.99. The entire S21 lineup is currently available for pre-order with full retail availability set for January 29.
This time, it’s all about durability
Last year’s Galaxy S20 marked the start of a completely redesigned Galaxy lineup. Samsung retired the line’s outdated look in favor of a softer, more modern aesthetic, complete with a curvier frame, prominent camera module, and shimmery colors.
Since 2020’s lineup was the first time Samsung had revamped the S-series’ design in years, I figured it was safe to assume the company would be sticking to this build for a very long time. But after seeing the S21 lineup, I was clearly wrong.
The S21 may not look all that different from the S20 — it still retains the same curvy edges, pronounced camera, and fun pastel colors (depending on the model) — but this time, there’s a clear focus on durability.
Now, rather than a glass camera module that sits on top of the device’s rear, the camera lenses are integrated into the metal frame on all three phones. That means you don’t have to worry about easily scratching those lenses when placing the phone down on a surface or accidentally cracking the module if you drop the phone. It also reduces the size of the ridiculous camera bump as seen on the S20 line.
While the entire S21 lineup features the same camera design, each model slightly varies in material. The body of the S21 is made of plastic with a metal frame, while both the S21+ and S21 Ultra have a glass sandwich design (i.e., glass on the front and back with metal on the sides). But since all three devices have a matte-finish, it’s a bit tough to tell the difference at a glance.
On the front, the S21 features a 2400 x 1080 6.2-inch display (421 ppi) whereas the S21+ has a larger 2400 x 1080 6.7-inch display (394 ppi). The S21 Ultra has the biggest display of them all, with a 6.8-inch display with 3200 x 1440 resolution (515ppi).
Each S21 variant comes equipped with Samsung’s signature Infinity-O display, which means there are minimal bezels all around, along with HDR10+ certification for increased contrast in photos and video, and a 120Hz refresh rate for faster and smoother scrolling. Both the S21 and S21+ also pack a 10-megapixel hole-punch selfie camera, while the S21 Ultra boasts a 40-megapixel front-facing sensor.
As for colors options, the S21 will be available in phantom violet, phantom white, phantom gray, and phantom pink. The S21+ will be offered in phantom violet, phantom silver, and phantom black. Lastly, the S21 Ultra will only be available in two colors: phantom black and phantom silver.
Same cameras with some necessary changes
Since Samsung went a little overboard with camera upgrades last year on the S20, it’s not shocking the company chose to implement similar sensors on the S21 lineup.
Both the S21 and S21+ have a triple-camera setup that includes a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens with f/1.8 aperture, 120-degree 12-megapixel ultra-wide lens with f/2.2 aperture, and a 64-megapixel telephoto lens with f/2.0 aperture.
The S21 Ultra has a quad-camera module, which includes a 108-megapixel wide-angle lens with f/1.8 aperture, a 120-degree 12-megapixel ultra-wide lens with f/2.2 aperture. But rather than the 48-megapixel telephoto lens featured on its predecessor, the latest Ultra model has two 10-megapixel telephoto lenses.
The only notable change to the camera module is that the company included the same laser autofocus (AF) sensor as seen on the Note 20 Ultra. This is likely in response to the S20 Ultra, which had a buggy autofocus that required an over-the-air software update to fix. But rather than reserving it for the Ultra, it’s been incorporated into all the new S21 models.
The S21 Ultra also comes with an improved Bright Night sensor that’s supposed to capture better photos in low light and reduce noise when in Night Mode. And, there’s now an option to shoot using a 12-bit RAW mode for those who want more freedom when editing photos.
The main upgrades can be found in the camera software — specifically with Space Zoom. In case you’re unfamiliar, Samsung introduced the feature last year. It combines optic zoom technology with AI-powered digital zoom.
That means you can zoom in up to 30x with the S21 and S21+, while the S21 Ultra allows you to zoom in up to 100x on a subject. To avoid the shakiness that comes with zooming in to a subject that closely, Samsung added a feature called Zoom Lock. It’s meant to ensure a clearer image by locking in the subject that close up.
Additionally, Samsung added a few updates to Portrait Mode, including an improved 3D analysis to better separate the subject from the background, along with the option to filter through different virtual studio lighting.
All three phones can film video in 8K, but the S21 Ultra can also record in 4K (at 60fps) on all lenses, including the rear and front-facing camera. There’s also a new Director’s View feature which allows you to preview and switch between each lens when capturing footage, as well as a Vlogger View where you can simultaneously shoot video using both the front and back cameras.
Under the hood
As usual, all three phones feature Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 888 processor along with support for 5G. Each one is also compatible with sub-6 5G (the slower version) and mmWave for faster speeds. But it’s certainly not a selling point for this device, especially if 5G isn’t available in your area right now.
When it comes to battery life, the only phone to receive an upgrade in size is the S21+, with a 4,800mAh battery as opposed to the 4,500mAh on the S20+. Both the S21 and S21 Ultra have the same battery as last year’s models at 4,000mAh and 5,000mAh, respectively.
Each phone also comes with different storage and memory options.
Galaxy S21 and S21+:
Galaxy S21 Ultra:
12GB of RAM / 128GB of internal storage
12GB of RAM / 256GB of internal storage
16GB of RAM / 512GB of internal storage
But this time around, Samsung has nixed the microSD card slot on all of its S21 models — unlike last year’s devices which allowed for expandable storage up to 1TB. So if you’re the type who tends to store a lot of content and apps on your phone, you might want to opt for the S21 Ultra.
A few additional accessories, too
If you’re loyal to the Galaxy S-series but have always wanted to use an S-Pen, then you’re in luck. The S21 Ultra is compatible with Samsung’s stylus for the first time ever, but it’s going to cost you an extra $39.99 in addition to the phone.
It’s also not the fancy one you’d find on the Note 20 that allows you to wave it around and trigger different actions (like capture selfies or take screenshots). You’re really only able to use it to take notes, sign documents, and edit photos. But since there’s no compartment for it on the S21 Ultra, Samsung is offering two accessories — a silicone case ($49.99) and a case with a flip cover ($69.99) — both of which come with the S-Pen and slots to store it in.
Samsung is also introducing its new Bluetooth tracker called Smart Tags, which is similar to the likes of Tile and Chiplo. It’s designed to be used with other Galaxy phones and the company’s SmartThings app. So you can attach it to your bags, keys, or other devices and pinpoint them easily. In terms of pricing, the Smart Tag will cost you $30, but Samsung will also bundle it for free if you pre-order any of the S21 models.
Okay, I’m actually excited for these
When I reviewed the Galaxy S20 and S20 Ultra last year, I gave both phones high scores because each one offered enjoyable experiences. But, as with any phone, there were some issues when it came to things like durability, design, and camera features.
I can easily say, however, that it seems like Samsung was actually listening to these criticisms. The S21 line appears to fix what was broken on last year’s models — a stronger build, less intrusive camera module, and improved Space Zoom functionality — while still retaining what worked just fine … on paper, anyway.
That said, I may change my tune once I start to test these phones out. So be sure to check back soon for my full review of both the Galaxy S21 and S21 Ultra.