Samsung announced the new Galaxy S21 family yesterday. My colleague Sascha Segan has all the details, but a few things stood out to me.
First, you can’t help noticing the importance of photography and video capture. Essentially every smartphone on the market today does a fine job of web browsing, email, running information and communication apps, and of course, that old standby, making phone calls. So that leaves the premium segment to focus on applications where they can make a difference, and photos and videos top the list.
The standard S21 and S21 have three rear cameras (a 12MP wide-angle, 12MP ultra wide-angle and 64MP telephoto) plus a 10MP front selfie camera. But it’s not just the physical cameras; it’s also the image processing capabilities of the processor and crucially the software that provides for different features.
With the Galaxy S20, Samsung introduced a feature called Single Take, a mode that captures a variety of images and videos all at once. With the S21, this has been improved with new AI features to do things like add dynamic slow motion, and stitch your videos into a highlight reel with no editing required. I’m looking forward to trying this out.
It has 8K video capture, with the ability to pull 33 megapixel stills directly from the video as you view it, so that you don’t have to choose between capturing video and taking still images.
For video, it adds a Director’s View, which gives you a live thumbnail, and lets you choose which camera you are recording, so you can switch back and forth instantly; and a “vlogger view” which lets you simultaneously capture videos from the front and rear cameras.
For photography, there is an enhanced portrait mode, including improved selfies. This includes an improved auto white balance feature that should make for more natural skin colors. One good thing is that many of the new photography features will be available in Instagram and Snapchat, in addition to the standard Camera application.
Samsung’s Space Zoom feature, which adds digital zoom to the optical zoom, has supposedly been improved with image stabilization to work at up to 30X. With the previous model, I had real trouble with the quality of Space Zoom images at higher magnifications, so it will be interesting to see if this has really improved.
The high-end S21 Ultra takes this even farther with four rear-facing cameras (108MP wide-angle, 12MP ultra wide-angle and two telephoto lenses including one with a 10X optical zoom) and a 40MP selfie camera.
The 108-megapixel wide-angle camera supposedly uses a new re-mosaic technology to improve detail in bright light. Other photo features include improved low-light photography using “nona binning,” meaning that 9 pixels work as one to capture more images; this works with an enhanced night mode that captures multiple frames and then combines it into a single image. This isn’t a new idea, but it will be interesting to see if the low-light performance really does improve noticeably; this has been an area where some other phone makers—notably Google—have been ahead.
The telephoto lenses are particularly interesting. It includes one with a 3X optical zoom and another with 10x optical zoom, which is quite unusual for a smartphone. Samsung achieves this by having the light pass through two mirrors, in what it describes as a “double-folded lens.”
With this, Samsung says its Space Zoom will go to 100X, with an intelligent zoom lock to reduce shake. Again, I look forward to seeing if this really works.
For video, you can now capture 4k video at 60 frames per second from all five cameras.
All together, the Ultra probably has more camera features than any other phone I’ve heard of. Of course, we’ll have to see how well they all work, but it’s certainly impressive.
The second thing that caught my attention were the displays. The S21 is 6.2-inches, the S21 is 6.7-inches, both FHD resolutions (2,400-by-1,080) and the S21 Ultra is 6.8-inches, with a WQHD (3,200-by-1,440) resolution. The S21 Ultra is a bit smaller than the 6.9-inch S20 Ultra, but that’s probably good—there’s such a thing as too big. What stands out is the adaptive refresh rate. On the S21 the refresh rate goes from 48Hz to 120Hz, and on the S21 Ultra from 10Hz to 120Hz. This lets you have a high refresh rate when you need it, such as for playing games, and a lower one when it’s not necessary.
Samsung says the phones have improved visibility in bright outdoor light, as well as a feature to reduce blue light, something that is becoming more common and is certainly welcome.
Of course, for gaming in particular, as well as photography, a new processor helps. The series will be powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 in the US and some other markets, and Samsung’s new Exynos 2100 in other parts of the world, both of which are 5nm processors. Samsung said they offer 20 percent faster CPU performance, and 35 percent faster GPU performance, and twice the AI performance as their predecessors. I’ll be curious to know if you can tell the difference in actual use.
There are a few security enhancements as well. The on-screen fingerprint reader is said to be 1.7 times as large (and probably based on the new Qualcomm 3D Sonic Sensor), so it’s easier to hit the right spot on the screen. That would be a nice step forward. It includes a new Knox Vault with a secure processor, secure memory and software to store your phone credentials (PIN and password), biometric data and Samsung service authentication keys.
I like the ability to easily strip metadata from photos, as well as a new Private Share feature that lets you share an image or video in a private fashion, and for only a set amount of time. Many people are becoming more concerned about their privacy, and this may help.
The DeX mode, which lets the phone be used more like a desktop when hooked up to an external monitor, now includes a wireless mode, first introduced on the Galaxy note last August. This concept will get more useful as monitors and TVs that support Miracast become more prevalent.
The big thing that made Samsung’s Galaxy Note series stand out has always been its support for a stylus, and this has now been added to the S21 Ultra. Unlike the Note, the phone doesn’t have a slot for the stylus, so it can’t do things like automatically let you write on the lock screen as soon as you pull it out. But it does mean there is a stylus for those who like to use it for notetaking, annotation, drawing, etc. There is a regular S-Pen due out when the phones ship later this month; an active S-Pen which supports things like the gestures used in the Note, is due to follow.
Finally, there’s pricing. The entry-level S21 is $799, which while still a premium price is $200 less than the original entry price of the S20. In part, Samsung is getting there by not including earbuds or a charger, which the company is positioning as being “green” but really seems like a cost-savings measure. (Apple did something similar with the iPhone 12, which has the same starting price for its 6.1-inch model). The S21 starts at $999 and the S21 Ultra starts at $1199, making this the most premium of the mainstream phones on the market.