Despite trying times, Samsung never let up with its high-profile smartphone launches last year -- we got the Galaxy S20 series early on, followed by the Note 20 series over the summer, and then the fast-tracked S20 Fan Edition just after that. The market started to change rapidly around the company, but to its credit, Samsung managed to stay in high gear all the same.
And now? Well, it's starting to look like Samsung never eased up on the gas. After months of leaks and innuendo, Samsung's new, flagship Galaxy S21 phones are here -- and a few months earlier than usual, at that. So, what's it like to actually use them?
This story was updated on January 14th at 11:02AM.
Meet the Galaxy S21
Let's start with the foundation for all of these new devices: the Galaxy S21. It's obviously the smallest of the three, but it's also the most affordable -- far cheaper than last year's model, as a matter of fact. While the Galaxy S20 sold for $1,000 at launch, the S21 will cost $800 when it goes on sale at the end of the month. That’ll still a considerable chunk of change, but this feels like a really important price correction, especially considering how much more conscious people are of their spending right now.
Selling a high-end smartphone (especially one with the brand new Snapdragon 888 chipset) for less than $1,000 means Samsung had to make some compromises here and there. For one, this flat 6.2-inch screen only has a maximum resolution of 2400x1080, which means it's quite a bit less pixel-dense than last year's. To make up for it, the screen has an adaptive refresh rate that ranges from 120Hz down to 48Hz -- that’s not quite as impressive or as flexible as what the S21 Ultra’s screen offers, but this display is a looker all the same.
That said, I know not everyone will agree with Samsung's decision here -- after all, the Galaxy S line was always synonymous with the best mobile displays. Personally, I think it was the right way to go. When I was holding the phone a normal distance from my face, I couldn't notice the dip in resolution, and the general butteriness I saw when scrolling through webpages and cycling through apps more than made up for the (imperceptible) change. And beyond that, the overall quality of the screen -- its brightness, colors, and clarity -- left me with little to complain about. In other words: don’t sweat it too much.
There's another change we should talk about: the S21's design. I'm a big fan of the new look -- the contoured camera hump now sort of melts into the metal frame around the phone, which makes the whole thing look and feel a little more cohesive than the S20. Instead of using glass for the backplate here like it did with the S21 Plus and Ultra though, Samsung went with a sort of hazy plastic back. Again, I know some people aren't fans of that, and that's completely fair. Just know that I really don't think most people are going to notice -- I certainly didn't at first. Even though we’re looking at a trio of devices at markedly different price points, the consistency and uniformity of their build quality is pretty remarkable.
The S21 also feels like an incredibly fast little machine, with its Snapdragon 888 and 8GB of RAM, though I obviously couldn't run benchmarks or anything -- we'll have to dig into that more later. And its trio of rear cameras -- a 12MP standard wide camera with an f/1.8 aperture, a 12MP ultra-wide with a 120-degree field of view and a 64MP telephoto -- all seemed to take great photos, but again, we'll need some time to see how they stack up to the competition.
All told, the S21 is a slick little package, and one that doesn’t feel overly compromised by Samsung’s cost-cutting measures. I’ll need to spend more time with this thing before rendering any verdicts, but one thing already seems pretty clear: this is a competent phone, sure, but not exactly a thrilling one.
The middle child
When launching a new product, it's impossible not to have expectations. In the case of last year's Galaxy S20 series, Samsung expected the middle child of the line-up to be its most popular, but that was ultimately proven wrong. I suspect that might change this year. To me at least, that has less to do with the phone's technical merits than it does with Samsung's new price structure. Don't get me wrong: $1,000 for a Galaxy S21 Plus is still a lot, but it's much better than the $1200 the S20 Plus cost last year.
As for the phone itself, well -- I'll be candid. Going into this, I thought the S21 Plus would be the least interesting of the three because it is literally just a bigger S21. The only difference of note, apart from obvious changes like the screen size and battery, is that the Plus also has an Ultra-Wideband radio so you can more easily locate things you've attached one of Samsung's new SmartThings trackers to. (You'll also be able to use that UW radio to unlock your car this year, according to the company.)
To my surprise, I liked the S21 Plus a lot more than I thought I would. For one, I appreciate having this perfectly flat glass over the Plus's 6.7-inch screen. If you’ve read any of my past reviews, this will probably sound familiar, but I've really come to loathe screens with curved edges because the sides of palms always press up against them. I haven’t spent as much time with the S21 Plus as I would’ve liked, but believe me when I tell you this is the first big phone I've used in a long time where I didn't have to worry about tapping things I didn’t mean to. That might not sound like a huge deal, but it’s the little, day to day frustrations that tend to wear people down the most over time, and I appreciate the fix.
By now, it should be clear that the S21 and S21+ are full of obvious, iterative changes, and that their adjusted prices are among their most important features. With that in mind, if I had to buy one of these phones based on what I’ve experienced so far, the S21+ is probably where I’d land.
The Ultra experience
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is, as usual, the biggest, best, and most bombastic of what Samsung has to offer. The broad strokes feel very familiar: It still has a huge curved display, a 5,000mAh battery, and an enormous array of cameras around back, but this new design Samsung cooked up really does shine on bigger phones. The S21 Ultra is technically a little heavier than the S20 Ultra, but it feels a little easier to manage and more polished.
And the screen, well: there's a pretty good chance it'll be one of the best-looking displays in your home. Samsung went with a 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X display running at 3200 x 1400, and -- look, it's Samsung -- screens are their thing. Even better, it shares the same Adaptive Refresh rate as the Note 20 Ultra, which means you still get super-smooth 120Hz when things are in motion, but it dials things down to as low as 10Hz when you're just looking at photos.
That said, there's at least one change here I'm really not a fan of: Samsung ditched support for microSD cards here. I’ll grant you that probably won’t be a dealbreaker for most people, though. After all, the S21 Ultra comes in two variants: One with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage and another with 16GB of RAM and half a terabyte of storage. Samsung dropped the Ultra’s price down to $1,200 -- that’s $200 less than the base Ultra cost last year -- but isn’t this supposed to be the company’s best of the best, no-holds-barred phone?
Anyway, one of the Ultra's biggest selling points is its camera system: around back there's a 108MP wide camera with an f/1.8 that uses pixel binning to produce 12MP stills, a 12MP ultra-wide, and two 10MP telephoto cameras -- one has a 3x optical zoom range and the other has a 10x optical range. I only got to try the cameras indoors, which was less than ideal, but I'm cautiously optimistic about what they're capable of.
At the very least, the awful focusing problems we saw early on with last year's S20 Ultra are gone, thanks to the new laser autofocus; it had no trouble locking onto my subjects, even when I wandered over to darker corners of the testing room. If you really want to, you can still push in for those 100x Space Zoom shots and just like last time, they don't look particularly good. (At least, they didn’t in the closed space I could shoot some test photos.) That said, they're a little easier to shoot this time -- you can tap the screen to lock focus, but I'm not sold yet. The natural motion of your hands is dramatically reduced, yes, but it still takes a lot of effort to snap just the right photo, and the results haven’t impressed me much so far.
And of course, there's the new S Pen, which for the first time works on a non-Note smartphone. Now, you can use existing S Pens with the S21 Ultra, but it can't do any of the cool gesture controls or camera remote stuff because those S Pens can't connect to the Ultra over Bluetooth. (For that, you’ll have to wait until Samsung releases an improved, standalone S Pen Pro later this year.) With that said, you still get the big parts of the Note experience here: the S Pen’s latency, or the delay between putting pen to screen and seeing your stroke, seems roughly on par with the Note 20. And more importantly, the S21 Ultra’s Wacom digitizer still recognizes when you press the S Pen’s barrel-mounted button, so you can access your app and note-taking shortcuts just as fast as you could on a Galaxy Note.
If you really want to write on the S21, you should probably splurge on Samsung’s $40 standalone S Pen. Sure, you could use a spare S Pen from an old Galaxy Note with no trouble, but the benefit of having an S Pen that doesn't go inside the phone is that the S Pen can be a lot bigger. The one I tried feels a lot like a slightly shortened pencil, and writing with it feels so much better than using the little stick that comes with a Galaxy Note. If you don’t want to worry about losing that big stylus, Samsung’s $70 case/S Pen combo is probably the way to go -- just know that the case makes the S21 Ultra feel absolutely enormous.
While Samsung went with slightly different approaches for each S21 model, the experiences built into all of them are largely the same. Whichever version strikes your fancy, you'll be able to use new camera features like the ability to pull stills from an 8K video recording — something I’ve definitely come to appreciate now that I sometimes cover events alone. Director’s View is helpful too, in that it lets you see through each of the cameras while you're shooting video and switch between them as needed. After playing with it for a while, I wouldn’t exactly call it a game-changer, but it’s certainly nice to be able to know exactly what kind of shot you’ll get before toggling cameras.
Also new to the mix this year: Google's Discovery feed, which lives to the left of your home screen where all of Bixby's junk used to be. I've always preferred Google's customized news picks and reminders over, well, anything companies try to replace it with, so it's nice to be able to access it without having to switch to a third-party launcher. But like so many other choices Samsung made this year, this one raises some weighty questions. Samsung once insisted Bixby could "fundamentally change" how people use their technology — are those days over?
Unfortunately, my limited time with the S21s meant I couldn’t test out every feature I’ve been looking forward to. Since I don’t have a car to try unlocking with the S21+ and S21 Ultra’s ultra-wideband sorcery, the top of my “things to try” list is Samsung’s new PrivateShare tool. Think of it as a sort of Snapchat for file sharing: not only can you make sure your documents or images are seen by the right people, you can rescind access to sensitive info, control how long it’s accessible, and even strip metadata. If the litany of security breaches over the last few years isn’t enough to make you at least a little paranoid, well — enjoy, I guess?
Barring some early issues, Samsung's Galaxy S20 series were great smartphones. After testing their successors, it finally makes sense why Samsung didn't give these things more dramatic names like Galaxy S30-whatever. As I said, we're mostly looking at iterative changes, albeit pretty pleasant ones.
The sole exception here is perhaps the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which isn't just cheaper than its predecessor -- it's more polished and feature-packed, too. But should you actually buy this thing? Or any of the other S21 models? Well, you’ll have to stay tuned for our full review to find out.