Every few years, Samsung’s premium Galaxy phones get a major redesign as they enter a new phase of development. The new Galaxy S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra continue that tradition—this year, it feels like Samsung’s flagship phone line just got its biggest overhaul since the Galaxy S8.
When it comes to design, it’ll be pretty hard to confuse the Galaxy S21 with any other handset on the market. Right now, I still haven’t decided whether I like the S21's new look, with its Contour Cut Camera, or how I feel about Samsung’s new range of colors, which include black, white, silver, purple, and pink depending on model. I think the more subdued black, silver, and white variants may be more appealing than than purple or pink.
In front, Samsung is also keeping the center-mounted hole-punch selfie cam (10-MP on the S21 and S21+, 40-MP on the S21 Ultra), but in another departure from previous Samsung phones, both the S21 and S21+’s displays are flat, with only the S21 Ultra getting a more curvy “Edge” display. And for 2021, all three S21 models are getting support for 120Hz screens with variable refresh rates, which is a feature we saw first on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and allows the phones to dynamically adjust the refresh rate to suit the content you’re viewing. When you’re looking at still photos, the S21's display can lower its refresh rate to help conserve battery life, while boosting refresh rates when playing games for increased quality.
But perhaps the biggest change for the new Galaxy line comes on the inside, and it marks the end of an era: none of the new S21's have microSD card slots. Granted, Samsung kept the dream alive longer than Google, but after years of supporting expandable storage on phones, Samsung says it had been evaluating eliminating microSD for a while, and that now felt like the right time to move on.
There’s no doubt this will cause some strife for longtime Galaxy fans, possibly causing some to switch allegiances to the few remaining smartphone makers that still offer microSD expandability on their devices, which include LG and Motorola. But either way, the S21 won’t have expandable storage, and it’s hard to imagine that unless Galaxy fans mount a full-on riot that Samsung will bring the feature back next year.
Not only that, but following Apple’s removal of the power adapter from the iPhone 12's box last year, Samsung is now following suit which means that with every Galaxy S21, you’ll get a USB-C cable for charging but no power brick. While the move is a bit understandable since the number of gadgets powered by USB-C has exploded over the last few years, it may still feel like a raw move following Samsung ads it posted and later deleted that made fun of Apple for doing the very same thing.
As for new hardware, despite Samsung making a lot of noise about the launch of its new Exynos 2100 chip, at least in the U.S., all three S21 models will be powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 processor and feature full 5G connectivity. And to make it faster and easier to unlock the phone, Samsung says all the S21 models feature new in-screen fingerprint sensors that are 1.7x larger than before, in addition to now standard features like fast wired and wireless charging, and Samsung’s Power Share reverse wireless charging.
Aside from differences in size, the $800 S21 and $1,000 S21+ have nearly identical specs, including 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage as standard, and triple-lens rear cams comprised of 12-MP main cam, a 12-MP ultra-wide cam, and a 64-MP telephoto cam with the 3x optical zoom. The main differences are that the smaller S21 will get a 6.2-inch OLED touchscreen and a 4,000 mAh battery, while the larger S21+ features a 6.7-inch OLED display and a 4,800 mAh battery, and support for UWB (or ultra wideband) connectivity, which Samsung says it wasn’t able to add to the smaller S21 due to price.
One interesting thing to note about the S21 and S21+’s displays is that while they do have support for variable 120Hz refresh rates, their overall resolution has actually decreased from the 3200 x 1440 we saw on last year’s S20 and S20+ to 2400 x 1080 on the S21 and S21+. Essentially, the phones are going from QHD+ to full HD+.
Meanwhile, the $1,200 S21 Ultra sits atop the new Galaxy line with even more beastly specs, including 12GB of RAM with 128GB or 256GB of storage (or a pricier version with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage), a 6.8-inch QHD OLED panel, and four rear cams instead of three: a 108-MP main cam, a 12-MP ultra-wide cam, a 10-MP telephoto cam with a 3x optical zoom, and a second 10-MP telephoto cam with an even longer 10x optical zoom. There’s even a bonus laser autofocus sensor to help S21 Ultra owners make sure their photos look super sharp.
And again, while the S21 Ultra also has support for a 120HZ VRR display, Samsung has tweaked the Ultra’s screen so that it has a wider range for its refresh rates than its less expensive siblings. On the Ultra, its screen can adjust on the fly between 10 and 120Hz, while on the S21 and S21+, their refresh rates are slightly more limited to between 48 and 120Hz. It’s a pretty small change, and because I haven’t had a chance to see the phones in action yet, it’s unclear how profound the differences will appear in person.
But wait, there’s more: As the rumors had suggested, the S21 Ultra also comes with stylus support, allowing you to use many of the S-Pen features people have come to love from the Galaxy Note series on the Galaxy S line for the first time. The downside is that you’ll need to buy the stylus and its matching cases that feature built-in storage separately. The S-Pen goes for $40, and a bundle with a silicone case plus S-Pen is $50. A fancy flip cover plus S-Pen is $70.
Finally, like always, Samsung has added a bunch of new features and software to its newest Galaxy phones. In the camera app. Samsung added a new Director’s View, which features a new interface designed to help users switch between various cameras on the fly, while Samsung’s Single Take mode can now shoot dynamic slow-mo vids in addition to snapping regular pics and clips. Even old standby camera modes like Portrait Mode have gotten small tweaks, and to make sure you’re getting the full value out of the S21's zoom cams, Samsung also added a new Zoom Lock function that uses AI to help keep your subject in frame.
Alternatively for video, there’s a new vlogger mode to help you capture footage from both front and rear cameras simultaneously, along with support for 8K video recording with high-res stills. And if that’s not enough, Samsung has also added support for multi-mic recording.
Whew, that’s a lot. With Samsung pushing the launch of its latest Galaxy S phones earlier than ever, it seems like the Korean tech giant is trying to really set the tone for the rest of 2021. And when you consider the big change to the Galaxy S21 design, new support for 120Hz VRR screens, the axing of microSD storage, and more, it really feels like the S21 is bringing us into a new phase for Samsung’s Galaxy line. The standard S21 starts at just $800, the same is Apple’s base-model iPhone 12, so Samsung is clearly trying to knock Apple down a peg or two.
The Galaxy S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra will be available for preorder starting today at $800, $1,000, and $1,200 respectively, with official sales set to begin on Jan. 29. Customers who preorder on Samsung.com will be eligible for $100 to $200 of in-store credit (depending on which model they buy).
And as one more bonus for customers who pre-order an S21, Samsung will also toss in a new Samsung SmartTag for free ($30 regular, which is Samsung’s new tracking dongle. Similar to a Tile tracker, Samsung’s SmartTag is a small Bluetooth-based device that can be attached to things like your keys or a backpack to help you find them more easily. Using Samsung’s expanded SmartThings Find app, users will be able to pair each SmartTag with their phone to get a view of all their SmartTags and where they might be.