Samsung Galaxy S21 Updates the S20 With Few Big Changes

The Samsung Galaxy S21 series promises to make the “everyday epic.” But Samsung’s three new phones—the $799 S21, the $999 S21 , and the $1,199 S21 Ultra—are more everyday than epic, primarily fixing and refining the S20 line’s concepts rather than doing anything radical.

The three new phones are $200 to $400 cheaper than last year’s flagships, reflecting pandemic-straitened budgets. They double down on last year’s promise of 100x zoom, but insist that this year they’re getting it right. They bring the S Pen to Samsung’s non-Note phones. And they are the first Samsung phones certified for the upcoming C-band 5G networks, which future-proof them for the next few years.

Samsung’s S20 line, which came to market just as the pandemic hit, sold fewer units than the S10 around launch time, according to research firm M Science. The S20’s high prices turned off folks getting laid off en masse, expensive millimeter-wave 5G didn’t turn out to be a selling point beyond Verizon, and the S21 Ultra’s 100x, 108MP camera suffered from serious focus-lock problems. The company managed to redeem itself later in the year with the excellent Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and affordable Galaxy S20 FE.

The pandemic didn’t get us off our phones, Samsung’s Drew Blackard said. It didn’t even get us off our 4G networks, as folks stuck at home used every screen and parallel connection they could to maximize bandwidth. I’ve seen this at my house, where my daughter uses her laptop for school, her tablet for drawing, and her phone for TikTok and social media.

“We’re exploring new ways to stay close with the people and things that matter the most, and our smartphones are the best devices to help us stay connected,” Blackard said. “Short-form video shot straight from smartphones is taking off as a new expressive medium. We’re all relying on our devices more than ever.”

The pandemic year also saw a “bifurcation” in the smartphone market, Blackard said. “On one hand, we see some customers increasingly prioritizing value…[but] on the flip side [are people who] want an ultra-premium,” he said.

“From the ultimate experience of super-intelligent, industry-leading pro-grade camera and video capabilities for S21 Ultra, to a core flagship experience available across S21 series, we look forward to offering amazing experiences at a greater value to our consumers,” Samsung Electronics President TM Roh said in a statement.

S21  Screenour comparison of the iPhone 12 series vs. the S21 series. In brief, they have 6.2-inch, 6.7-inch, and 6.8-inch screens, all 120Hz. The Ultra’s screen is brighter than last year’s screens at 1,500 nits to last year’s 1,200, Samsung said. The S21 and S21 have very similar specs overall; the S21 Ultra amps everything up with a higher-res screen, more cameras, better zoom, a bigger battery, and more storage.

A table comparing the specs of the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy S21 UltraQualcomm announced this week. Samsung said the new sensor is “1.7x larger,” which jibes with Qualcomm’s description.

In the US, all three phones will use Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 888 chipset. Outside the US, it’ll vary; some models will use a Samsung Exynos processor. Expect there to be four or five different global models with different processors, numbers of SIM slots, and available 5G bands. As always, you should buy the unit designed for your country.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra comes in black and silver, plus titanium, navy, and brown in some countries. The S21 comes in violet, silver, and black. The S21 comes in violet, gray, pink, and white. Samsung is also promising gold and red versions of the smaller phones, but not in every country, and it isn’t clear if they’ll be in the US.

There’s no charger or headphones in the Galaxy S21 boxes. That’s a step back for Samsung, which tries to paint this as a “sustainability” issue.

“We discovered that more and more Galaxy users are reusing accessories they already have and making sustainable choices in their daily lives to promote better recycling habits. To support our Galaxy community in this journey, we are transitioning to removal of the charger plug and earphones in our latest line of Galaxy smartphones,” Samsung EVP Patrick Chomet said in a statement.

The phones charge at up to 25 watts wired and 15 watts wireless.

Galaxy S21 phones in all colorsAI.

Galaxy S21 Ultra backC-band, the new 5G frequencies carriers are currently in the process of paying about $80 billion to acquire. C-band networks, probably largely from Verizon and AT&T, will begin to launch late this year or early 2022, and they’ll likely offer four or five times the speed of 4G or “nationwide” 5G.

Samsung tells me all three phones will support 5G bands 2/5/12/25/30/41/48/66/71/77/78 and millimeter-wave. That includes everything the US and Canadian carriers are currently using or plan to use over the next few years. Other than these phones, only the iPhone 12 series have currently been FCC-certified for C-band.

The phones’ X60 modem promises other network enhancements, but we’ll have to test them to find out more. Most notably, the X60 lets carriers combine their 5G spectrum in more ways, which could help both AT&T and Verizon’s “nationwide” 5G networks.

The S21 and S21 Ultra both have the confusingly named UWB, which is a totally different technology than Verizon’s heavily advertised “UWB 5G.” This UWB is a near-field positioning technology that tells you where devices are in relation to each other.

Smart Tagfew routers do—but it’s going to spread in 2021.

Preorders of the new phones begin on Jan. 14 at 11 a.m. The phones hit shelves on Jan. 28. If you preorder, you’ll get accessory credit on Samsung.com—$100 for an S21, $150 for an S21 , and $200 for an S21 Ultra—along with a free Smart Tag, a Tile-like locator device. We will have a review closer to the launch date.


How Will It Compete?

Galaxy S21 phones go up against Samsung’s own remaining S20 and Note 20 phones, especially the popular S20 FE, and Apple’s iPhone 12 series, as well as flagships such as OnePlus phones and the LG Wing. The Galaxy S20 FE is only $600 at Best Buy right now without trade-in or activation, and it gets cheaper with either of those options.

Plenty of people, I’m sure, will buy the S21 series by default. They need a new phone, and Samsung is reliable, so they’ll get the latest Samsung. The big question is whether anything about the S21 will actively push upgrades. Will it be a new, working super-zoom? Will it be much better night photography? My experience with the Galaxy S20 Ultra shows that I’m going to have to get the phone into my hands to be able to tell.

About Sascha Segan

January 14, 2021
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