Samsung's new Galaxy S21 lineup chooses refinement over reinvention

Slightly improved but a lot cheaper.

Credit: Samsung

Last year’s Galaxy S20 lineup was such a massive change that Samsung introduced a new naming scheme to hammer home how consequential the upgrade was. This year, the Galaxy S21 series refines that vision at much lower prices.

Samsung has launched three Galaxy S21 models in very similar sizes. The S21 and S21+ have 6.2-inch and 6.7-inch screens like their S20 predecessors, while the S21 Ultra is slightly smaller, 6.8 inches versus the S20 Ultra’s 6.9-inch screen. The top and bottom bezels are a bit slimmer as well to create a near-all-screen look, but all three models are essentially the same size as last year's:

Galaxy S21

S21: 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm

S21+: 161.5 x 75.6 x 7.8mm

S21 Ultra: 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm

Galaxy S20

S20: 151.7 x 69.1 x 7.9mm

S20+: 161.9 x 73.7 x 7.8mm

S20 Ultra: 166.9 x 76.0 x 8.8mm

They also weigh quite a bit more than last year’s models, even the S21, which is made of a “specially reinforced polycarbonate material” (plastic) versus the Gorilla Glass Victus glass covering the S21+ and S21 Ultra:

Galaxy S21

S21: 171 grams

S21+: 202 grams

S21 Ultra: 229 grams

Galaxy S20

S20: 163 grams

S20+: 186 grams

S20 Ultra: 222 grams

The extra weight is likely due to the camera module, which is unlike anything you’ve seen on a smartphone. Rather than a floating rectangular or square array in the top left corner, like the iPhone or previous Galaxy phones, the camera module on the S21 is less of a bump and more of a bulge, seamlessly extending from the metal side frame. It even has a name: Contour Cut Camera housing.

Inside the array, you’ll find the biggest upgrade for the S21. While you’ll still find a triple-camera in the S21 and S21+ and a quad-camera in the S21 Ultra, the whole system has gotten an upgrade:

Galaxy S21/Galaxy S21+

Camera 1: Ultra Wide (120-deg) 12MP, f/2.2

Camera 2: Wide 12MP, F/1.8, OIS

Camera 3: Telephoto (Hybrid Optic 3X) 64MP, f/2.0 OIS, 30X Space Zoom

S21 Ultra

Camera 1: Ultra Wide (120-deg) 12MP, f/2.Camera 2:

Camera 2: Wide 108MP, F/1.8, OIS

Camera 3: Telephoto (Optical 3X) 10MP, f/2.4, OIS

Camera 4:  Telephoto (Optical 10X) 10MP, f/4.9, 100X Space Zoom

That’s not a misprint. The S21 Ultra is Samsung’s first dual-telephoto lens, which should provide a massive boost over the S20 Ultra’s somewhat janky zoom capabilities. Like its predecessor, the S21 Ultra can zoom up to 100X thanks to Samsung’s Space Zoom tech, but the addition of a 10X optical zoom lens should make a huge difference.

galaxy s21 colors Samsung

The S21's color palette is somewhat muted this year.

Night shots should also see a significant boost. While all three phones have “enhanced processing” when shooting in low light, the S21 Ultra also brings improved noise reduction and 12MP nona-binning technology to deliver what Samsung says is its “biggest leap yet in low-light photography.”

A slew of other enhancements cut across all of the S21 models: 8K Snap, which lets you pull out still images from your 8K videos; Director’s View, which allows you to see and switch among each of the cameras while shooting video; 60 fps Super Steady, multi-mic recording, enhanced portrait mode; and more Single Take options, including slow-motion vids.

The usual upgrades

The S21 lineup will be using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, debunking speculation that Samsung would be using its new Exynos 2100 chip instead. It should be plenty fast, but Samsung's vague description defined it as “the latest and most advanced smartphone chipset yet in a Galaxy for greater speed, energy efficiency, and advanced computing capabilities to support 5G connectivity and on-device AI.”

galaxy s21 back Samsung

The Galaxy S21 has a plastic back but still looks very luxurious.

While the three screen sizes on the S21 are largely the same as those on the S20, Samsung has tweaked things a bit. Most notably, S21 and S21+ have “flat” Full HD+ (1080p) displays, leaving the S21 Ultra as the sole model with a curved “Edge” screen with QuadHD+ (1440p) resolution. The S21 Ultra also offers a higher max brightness (1,500 nits) than the S20, along with a 50-percent improved contrast ratio and a new Eye Comfort Shield feature that “automatically adjusts the blue light based on the time of day, content you’re viewing, and your bedtime.”

As has been rumored, Samsung is bringing the S Pen to the Galaxy S line for the first time. It’s not quite the Note experience, though: Only the S21 Ultra supports the stylus, and you’ll need to bring your own because Samsung isn’t including one in the box (though it will offer several cases that include S Pen slots, and you can already hear the third-party case makers scrambling to make more). It also doesn’t support any of the Bluetooth-enabled “Air” gestures on the Note 20—the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s S Pen is strictly for taking notes.

galaxy s21 ultra s pen Samsung

You can finally use an S Pen on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Like last year, all models have 120Hz displays, but this year they have adaptive refresh rates so the impact on battery life should be diminished. On the S21 Ultra, you’ll be able to use the 120Hz display with Quad HD+ resolution along with a wider 10Hz to 120Hz adaptive refresh range than the S21 and S21+ (48Hz to 120Hz) to eke out a little extra juice from the battery.

Speaking of the battery, the S21 and S21 Ultra have the same capacities as their S20 counterparts—4,000mAh and 5,000mAh, respectively—while the S21+ gets a boost to 4,800mAh from the S20’s 4,500mAh battery. You’re also getting less RAM (8GB vs 12GB) with the S21 and S21+ versus the S20, while the S21 Ultra still starts at 12GB of RAM with a max of 16GB on the 512GB model. Sadly, however, Samsung has dumped the expandable memory slot, so what you get inside your phone is it.

You get Wi-Fi 6E with the S21 Ultra (and regular Wi-Fi 6 on the S21 and S21+) and Ultra Wide Band support with the S21+ and S21 Ultra for pinpoint location tracking that augment the new $30 SmartTags Bluetooth trackers. All three models get the full complement of 5G, along with Android 11 in the form of One UI 3.

Inside the box, you’ll find the phone and a cable, and that’s it. Following Apple’s somewhat controversial move to dump the charger with the iPhone 12, Samsung is following suit, removing both the earbuds and the charger from the S21’s box.

But the S21 line is a bit cheaper than the S20. Samsung has shaved off $200 from both the S21 and S21+, bringing them down to $800 and $1,000, respectively, and $100 off the Ultra for a starting price of $1,300. The Galaxy S21 is available for preorder today in violet, pink, gray, and black, the S21+ in violet, silver, and black, and the S21 Ultra in black and silver. All preorders through will get a free SmartTag and up to $200 in Samsung credit.

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Michael Simon

Michael Simon

PC World (US online)
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