Samsung’s new smartphones are finally official, so let’s get to know the Galaxy S21 family. The design and specs are in line with what was rumored to be, but the big news today is the price range, which is hopefully a sign that skyrocketing prices are dropping a bit in 2020.
The Galaxy S21 line sees an overall price drop of $200 compared to last year. Previously, Samsung (to be clear) charged $1,000, $1,200, and $1,400 for the S20, S20+, and S20 Ultra, respectively. This year, the S21 will cost $800, the S21+ will cost $1,000 and the Ultra will cost $1,200. See the cheaper models some visible cost savings, but I wouldn’t say it’s enough to justify a $200 drop in price – the price is actually lower. And there’s no arguing with the Ultra model, which still looks just as “Ultra” as it did last year, with a lower price.
Samsung now calls the base model S21 a “value-oriented” device and, like the Note20, changes 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 reducing fingerprints.
When it comes to specs, the Galaxy S21 and S21+ are pretty much the same phone inside. They are 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″ 120Hz (393ppi) OLED||3200×1440 6.8″ 120Hz (516ppi) OLED|
|OS||Android 11 Pie with Samsung One UI|
|Processor||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|
|NETWORKS||802.11b/g/n/ac/ax, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC||(Same) + 6GHz Wi-Fi 6E|
|5G support||sub-6GHz and mmWave||sub-6GHz and mmWave||sub-6GHz and mmWave|
|BACK CAMERA||12MP main
12MP wide angle
64 MP telephoto (1.06x optical)
12MP wide angle
64 MP telephoto (1.06x optical)
12MP wide angle
10MP 3x Optical Telephoto
10MP 10x Optical Telephoto
|BATTERY||4000mAh, 25W charging||4800mAh, 25W charging||5000mAh, 25W charging|
|OTHER BENEFITS||Wireless charging, on-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 allows the display to adjust the refresh rate based on what’s on the screen. Done right, this should give the phone silky smooth scrolling and animations when needed (and save battery when it doesn’t). Samsung doesn’t give much detail on what it works with, but ideally you’d want a refresh rate of 120Hz for scrolling and other system-generated animations, 60Hz for 60fps games, 24Hz for 24fps movies, and something like 1 Hz while reading static text.
Samsung’s first-generation implementation of this isn’t extreme: on the S20 and S20+, the screen can be adjusted from 120Hz to 48Hz. On the Ultra model, you can slow down to 10 Hz. Last year you could only lock the phone at 120Hz or 60Hz.
A sign of cost savings: The two cheaper models see a drop in resolution from 1440p to 1080p. Android phones have always had tons of pixels left over, and even the worse Plus model still clocks in at a respectable 393ppi. The two phones also get less RAM: 8GB instead of the standard 12GB from last year. The battery is the same on the S21 and S21 Ultra, but the plus model gets a bump from 4500mAh to 4800mAh.
In the United States and other select areas, all phone models are equipped with the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 SoC.
The Galaxy S21 is not the first 888 device in the world (that is the Xiaomi Mi 11), but for many areas 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 biggest differences are in the modems and GPUs, which will no doubt make the internet the subject of online benchmark battles once the phones are actually released. Compared to last year, Qualcomm promises performance improvements of 25 percent from the CPU, 35 percent from the GPU, and 35 percent from the ISP.
You can also probably submit the Snapdragon 888 under ‘reasons for a lower price’. For the past year, we’ve been hammering on the design of the Snapdragon 865, which pulled the 4G modem from the SoC and stuck it on a separate modem chip, all to also support first-generation 5G support. Companies don’t talk about parts prices, but Qualcomm chips have always had modems on board, and the extra modem chip from the 865 has most likely increased 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 the first-generation 4G phones, manufacturers compensated with bigger phones and bigger batteries, pushing the price up further. This year, the Snapdragon 888 is Qualcomm’s first flagship SoC with a 5G modem on board, and while the dimensions aren’t dropping, the prices are.
In the United States, all three models will receive mmWave compatibility this year. This is an upgrade to the base model, which only supported sub-6GHz last year. mmWave is a tough sell, as even mmWave’s biggest pusher, Verizon, only has 4 percent coverage of its network.
The fingerprint reader
Speaking of Qualcomm, the Galaxy S21 has a new ultrasonic fingerprint reader under the display that is “almost double” 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, the 3D Sonic Sensor Gen 2, which has a 77 percent larger reading area and is 50 percent faster.
Qualcomm is pretty much the only manufacturer of ultrasonic (as opposed to optical) fingerprint readers. Since Samsung used a Qualcomm sensor last year and the enhancement specs match, we’ll call it a match. Previously, Samsung supplied a super small first-generation fingerprint sensor in the S10 and S20, with an area of only 9×4 mm. Qualcomm’s new sensor is a larger 8×8mm, which should help with accuracy. But it’s still smaller than a fingertip, which is about 14×14mm.
The big design change this year is the rear camera, which is now a large block that forms part of the corner of the phone. Samsung calls it the ‘Contour Cut Camera housing’. Unlike early speculative renders, the glass does not wrap around the corner of the phone. There is still metal, so it shouldn’t be too crushing. Just like last year, we have a 12MP main camera, a 12MP wide-angle lens and a 64MP telephoto. The telephoto appears to have the same setup as last year, with a barely there 1.06x optical zoom and plenty of digital zoom from the 64MP sensor, in a package Samsung calls a “Hybrid Optic 3X” zoom.
One of the weirder features we saw in the Snapdragon 888 release was the ability to capture data from three different rear cameras simultaneously, and we wondered what phone makers would do with that. Samsung has made it a handy feature of 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, shows users how the main, wide, and telephoto lenses all shoot. Hopefully, it will invite less savvy users to try out the stack of cameras on the back of their device.