At the beginning of 2020, weeks before the first US cities went into lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Samsung showed off a batch of new phones. Pricing for the least expensive of the lot, the Galaxy S20, started at an astonishing $1,000. Almost a year later, we're still battling a fearsome spike in Covid cases, but the global health emergency hasn't stopped Samsung from barreling along with new hardware. This time, appropriately, there's less fanfare around the release.
At its second-ever virtual Galaxy Unpacked event on Thursday morning, Samsung took the wraps off of three new smartphones: the Galaxy S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra. Where predecessors debuted new technologies like 8K video recording and up to 100X zoom with the camera, Samsung's latest phones merely refine the Galaxy brand without adding much that's new. More important, these phones cost less than the ones from last year.
The S21 starts at $800, the S21+ is $1,000, and the S21 Ultra is $1,200. All three are available for preorder, and they go out into the world on Friday, January 29.
There isn't even a bedazzling foldable smartphone joining in on the fun this year. Instead, the two other announcements Samsung made Thursday are fairly utilitarian: an updated pair of wireless earbuds with noise canceling and a Tile-like location tracker to help you find your misplaced belongings.
The three main stars of the event are the phones, and they have a few things in common. They're powered by this year's top-of-the-line chip for Android phones, Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888, which the chipmaker says delivers up to 25 percent better CPU performance and a 35 percent boost in graphics rendering over the previous Snapdragon, all while sipping less power. Aiding that speedy performance is 8 gigabytes of RAM, though the Ultra model phone beefs that up to 12.
Not much has changed with the display. All three phones use Samsung's Dynamic AMOLED 2X panels, with the S21 offering the smallest screen at 6.2 inches. The S21+ soups that up to 6.7 inches, and the S21 Ultra is the behemoth of the bunch at 6.8 inches. Only the Ultra has a curved screen and an incredibly high 3,200 x 1,440 pixel resolution. For the first time, the maximum screen refresh rate of 120 Hz is available at that full resolution on the Ultra. The two cheaper models still have 120-Hz panels, but they only offer that faster refresh rate at 1080p.
That high refresh rate can now shift from 48 Hz to 120 Hz for the S21 and S21+ and from 10 Hz to 120 Hz for the Ultra, depending on the content you watch or how you interact with the screen. Idling on the home screen? There's no need for all 120 frames, so the Ultra will ratchet it down to 10 Hz or so, eliminating unnecessary drain on the battery. Speaking of batteries, the phones have battery capacities of 4,000 mAh, 4,800 mAh, and 5,000 mAh, respectively.
It's in the camera system where the three phones diverge more dramatically. If you're a shutterbug, you'll want to opt for the S21 Ultra. Its main camera has a bigger sensor than ever—it holds 108 megapixels—so you'll be able to snap brighter low-light photos. There's a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera and, uniquely, two 10-megapixel telephoto cameras. One offers 3X optical zoom, and the other does 10X optical zoom. They'll seamlessly switch as you pinch in to capture faraway objects, and it's this system that now manages Samsung's 100X Space Zoom.
Like last year's S20 Ultra, the 100X zoom feature is not going to produce images that look all that amazing. The feature is still digitally cropping the image and enhancing it, though the processing has improved this year, and a new Zoom Lock will keep distant objects locked in the frame. On the video side, you can film in 12-bit HDR (Apple's new iPhones can do 10-bit Dolby Vision video recording) with the Ultra, allowing you to get a greater range of colors and shades throughout your footage. This is available only on the main 108-megapixel sensor, but for the first time every camera on the Ultra (including the 40-megapixel selfie camera) can shoot at 4K 60 frames per second.
The S21 and S21+ share a lesser camera system, but since the cameras on both phones are exactly the same, you won't lose out on features if you prefer the smaller phone. There's a main 12-megapixel sensor, a 12-megapixel ultrawide, and a zoom camera that uses just a single 64-megapixel sensor. The latter can take you all the way up to 30X hybrid zoom.
All of Samsung's camera features have improved in some meaningful way: portrait mode now does a better job separating the subject from the background; there's a new Director's View that now lets you switch lenses mid-recording and even lets you film with the front and rear cameras simultaneously; and Super Steady mode offers improved stabilization. Of course, you can still record in 8K.
It's impossible to ignore the fresh design on the back of the phone. No longer is the camera system a separate module; it has merged with the upper-left corner of the phone's chassis and features accent colors. It's just about the only place where phone-makers can differentiate in design. (I'm also a fan of the new Phantom Violet color.) That's not all that's new—the S21 is $200 cheaper than its predecessor because it has a polycarbonate back, taking a page from last year's Galaxy S20 Fan Edition. Don't worry, its matte texture in no way feels cheap, as you might suspect. The other two phones have Corning's new Victus glass protecting the front and back.
There are some other small differences between the models. The S21 Ultra exclusively includes support for the new Wi-Fi 6E standard, and, more interestingly, you can use Samsung's S Pen stylus with the Ultra. It's the same stylus included in Samsung's popular Note phones, but it doesn't slot snugly into the phone here like it does on the Note. If you want to use the S Pen all the time, you can buy a new accessory case from Samsung that has a stylus holder. (Or just carry it in your pocket and take your chances.)
Both the Ultra and the S21+ support ultra-wideband (UWB) technology as well, which allows the phones to communicate with other UWB devices over a short range. One of the perks of this is the ability to use it with Samsung's new Galaxy SmartTag tracker (more on that below), but you'll also be able to use the phones to unlock car doors on select 2022 car models. (Apple rolled out a similar feature last year that lets you unlock a compatible car with an iPhone.)
If all this has you excited, here's the usual bad news. Last year, Samsung stripped out the headphone jack. This year, the company says goodbye to the venerable MicroSD card slot. This year's Galaxy line offers no tidy way to expand the built-in storage (which still starts at 128 gigabytes). Also, just like the latest iPhones, these Galaxy devices arrive without a charging adapter or earbuds in the box, though a charging cable is included. Like Apple, Samsung says most of its customers already have USB-C chargers and are more likely to reuse them, which helps reduce electronic waste (though this policy change likely won't make a dramatic impact).
A Tracker and New Buds
Joining the new phones is Samsung's Galaxy SmartTag, a square device you can attach to non-connected items—a backpack, a key ring, or even a pet's collar—to make them visible on the internet of things. Using the SmartThings Find app, you'll be able to locate exactly where the t is via Bluetooth. If you have the S21+ or S21 Ultra, you can utilize the ultra-wideband capability of those devices to track your wayward object with more precision. You can also make the SmartTag chirp if it's nearby. SmartTags cost $30 each. If you preorder one of the new Galaxy phones, you can get a free Galaxy SmartTag.
And finally, Samsung's newest earbuds, the Galaxy Buds Pro, are its most premium wirefree model to date. The headphones are a shot across the bow of noise-canceling models like the Apple AirPods Pro, aiming to sink Apple and claim the premium earbud crown. On paper at least, they seem poised to do it. The Galaxy Buds Pro feature a smaller, more compact design that should fit easily in most people's ears. They also come with beamforming mics that capture your voice more clearly, meaning they should be great on Zoom calls. They also have an hour more juice than the AirPods Pro, getting five hours of play time with noise-canceling switched on. A charging case (which re-ups wirelessly or with USB-C) is included.
Something that may excite audiophiles is the Buds' dual-driver design. Most earbuds feature a single driver that handles all frequencies, but these have both a woofer and tweeter (albeit tiny, and stacked) for better detail across the spectrum. They're also IPX7 water-resistant, cost $200, and are available from Samsung.com now and from other retailers this Friday. We’ve liked the past couple of Samsung’s Galaxy Buds models and expect this new version to be among the best earbuds on the market this year.