Samsung’s new smartphones are finally official, so let’s meet the Galaxy S21 family. The design and specs line up with what was rumored, but the big news today is the price range, which is hopefully a sign that the sky-high prices in 2020 are coming down a bit.
The Galaxy S21 line is seeing an across-the-board $200 price cut compared to last year. Previously, (adding a penny for clarity’s sake) Samsung was charging $1,000, $1,200, and $1,400 for the S20, S20+, and S20 Ultra, respectively. This year, the S21 is $800, the S21+ is $1,000, and the Ultra is $1,200. The cheaper models are seeing some visible cost-cutting, but I wouldn’t say it’s enough to justify a $200 price drop—the price is genuinely lower. And there’s no arguing this for the Ultra model, which still seems every bit as “Ultra” as last year, with a lower price.
Samsung is now calling the base model S21 a “value-oriented” device and, like the Note20, is changing the S21 to a plastic back for a lower bill of materials. The other two phones are glass, and everything supposedly has a “matte finish,” which sounds great for fingerprint reduction.
When it comes to specs, the Galaxy S21 and S21+ are pretty much the same phone on the inside. They’re usually mentioned as a pair in Samsung’s press releases, while the Ultra has exclusive specs and features.
|Galaxy S21||Galaxy S21+||Galaxy S21 Ultra|
|SCREEN||2400×1080 6.2-inch 120Hz (424ppi) OLED||2400×1080 6.7-inch 120Hz (393ppi) OLED||3200×1440 6.8-inch 120Hz (516ppi) OLED|
|OS||Android 11 Pie with Samsung One UI|
|CPU||Eight-core, 2.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, 5nm|
|RAM||8GB||8GB||12GB or 16GB|
|STORAGE||128GB or 256GB||128GB or 256GB||128GB, 256GB, or 512GB|
|NETWORKING||802.11b/g/n/ac/ax, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC||(Same) + 6GHz Wi-Fi 6E|
|5G support||sub-6 GHz and mmWave||sub-6 GHz and mmWave||sub-6 GHz and mmWave|
|REAR CAMERA||12MP Main
12MP Wide Angle
64MP Telephoto (1.06x optical)
12MP Wide Angle
64MP Telephoto (1.06x optical)
12MP Wide Angle
10MP 3x Optical Telephoto
10MP 10x Optical Telephoto
|SIZE||151.7×71.2×7.9 mm||161.5×75.6×7.8 mm||165.1×75.6×8.9 mm|
|BATTERY||4000mAh, 25W charging||4800mAh, 25W charging||5000mAh, 25W charging|
|OTHER PERKS||Wireless charging, in-screen fingerprint sensor. IP68 water and dust resistance|
The base model and the S21+
All three phones have a 120Hz display, and new this year is a dynamic refresh rate, which lets the display adjust its refresh rate based on what is on the screen. If done well, this would give the phone silky-smooth scrolling and animations when it needs them (and save battery when it doesn’t). Samsung doesn’t give a ton of details about what it works with, but ideally, you’d want a 120Hz refresh rate for scrolling and other system-generated animations, 60Hz for 60fps games, 24Hz for 24fps movies, and something like 1Hz while reading static text.
Samsung’s first-gen implementation of this isn’t extreme: on S20 and S20+, the display can adjust from 120Hz down to 48Hz. On the Ultra model, you can slow all the way to 10Hz. Last year, you could only lock the phone to 120Hz or 60Hz.
One sign of cost-cutting: the two cheaper models are seeing a resolution drop from 1440p to 1080p. Android phones have always had tons of pixels to spare, and even the worse-off Plus model is still clocking in at a respectable 393ppi. The two phones are also getting less RAM: 8GB instead of the standard 12GB of last year. The battery is the same on the S21 and S21 Ultra, but the plus model is getting a bump from 4500mAh to 4800mAh.
In the United States and other select territories, all models of the phone feature the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 SoC.
The Galaxy S21 isn’t the first 888 device in the world (that’s the Xiaomi Mi 11), but for many territories, it will be the first commercial device. Elsewhere in the world, most likely in Europe, the phones use Samsung’s new Exynos 2100 SoC. Both are 5nm SoCs with Arm’s new X1 core, three A78 cores, and four A55 cores. The major differences will be in the modems and GPUs, which the Internet will undoubtedly make the subject of online benchmark battles once the phones actually release. Compared to last year, Qualcomm is promising performance improvements of 25 percent from the CPU, 35 percent from the GPU, and 35 percent from the ISP.
You can probably also file the Snapdragon 888 under “reasons for a lower price.” All last year, we were harping on the Snapdragon 865’s design, which pulled the 4G modem off of the SoC and stuck it on a separate modem chip, all for the sake of also bolting on first-gen 5G support. Companies don’t talk about parts prices, but Qualcomm chips have had onboard modems forever, and the 865’s extra modem chip most likely raised the cost of Qualcomm’s chip package. The 5G hardware took up extra space and more power, and probably to avoid the problems that plagued first-gen 4G phones, manufacturers compensated with larger phones and bigger batteries, further raising the price. This year, the Snapdragon 888 is Qualcomm’s first flagship SoC with an onboard 5G modem, and while the sizes aren’t going down, the prices are.
In the United States this year, all three models are getting mmWave compatibility. This is an upgrade for the base model, which last year only supported sub-6GHz. mmWave is a tough sell since even the biggest pusher of mmWave, Verizon, only has coverage in 4 percent of its network.
The fingerprint reader
While we’re on the subject of Qualcomm, the Galaxy S21 has a new under-display ultrasonic fingerprint reader that is “nearly double in size” compared to the previous version, and it can scan your fingerprint faster. Samsung would not confirm the model or manufacturer of the fingerprint reader when asked. Qualcomm just announced its next-generation ultrasonic fingerprint reader, though: the 3D Sonic Sensor Gen 2, which features a 77 percent larger reader area and is 50 percent faster.
Qualcomm is just about the only manufacturer of ultrasonic (as opposed to optical) fingerprint readers. Since Samsung used a Qualcomm sensor last year and the improvement specs match, we’re calling it a match. Previously, Samsung shipped a super-tiny first-generation fingerprint sensor in the S10 and S20, with an area of only 9×4mm. Qualcomm’s new sensor is a bigger 8×8mm, which should help with accuracy. But it’s still smaller than a fingertip, which is around 14×14mm.
The big design change this year is the rear camera, which is now a big block that is part of the corner of the phone. Samsung calls it the “Contour Cut Camera housing.” Unlike the early speculative renders, the glass doesn’t wrap around the corner of the phone. There’s still metal there, so it shouldn’t be too smashable. Like last year, we’ve got a 12MP main camera, a 12MP wide-angle, and a 64MP Telephoto. The telephoto seems to be the same setup as last year, with a barely-there 1.06x optical zoom and lots of digital zoom from the 64MP sensor, in a package Samsung is calling a “Hybrid Optic 3X” zoom.
One of the stranger features we spotted in the Snapdragon 888 release was the ability to simultaneously capture data from three different rear cameras, and we wondered what phone manufacturers would do with that. Samsung has turned it into a handy feature in the S20 camera: live previews of each camera lens in the camera app. The feature—called “Live Thumbnails” in photo mode and “Director’s View” in video mode—will let users see how the main, wide-angle, and telephoto lens would all frame a shot. Hopefully, it will invite less-savvy users to try out the pile of cameras on the back of their device.