January 19, 2021

Samsung Galaxy S21 series impressions: Cheaper, but are they better?

Samsung's Galaxy S21 series devices are here, but are they an upgrade over last year's S20?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EMHuhDGPjY&feature=youtu.be

Last year’s Samsung Galaxy S20 series was a bit of a shock to the system. With the smallest, cheapest Galaxy S20 starting at $999, it was clear Samsung had cemented the S series as a purely premium line. And with the introduction of the Galaxy S20 Ultra starting at $1,399, the company wasn’t backing down on its premium play. This is in contrast to Samsung’s 2019 lineup, which offered a more affordable model as an entryway into the Galaxy S series.

This year, Samsung is splitting the difference. The Samsung Galaxy S21 series is just as powerful as you’d expect, only with a handful of minor trade-offs to make the series a bit more affordable. And don’t worry: if you still want the best of the best and don’t care how much it costs, there’s still an Ultra Galaxy S phone for you.

Join us for our first impressions of the Samsung Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21 Plus, and Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Don’t miss: Samsung Galaxy S21 series buyer’s guide: Everything you need to know

Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs S21 Plus vs S21 Ultra 1 1

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is the most affordable Galaxy S21 device, but there’s a caveat. While the S21 Plus and S21 Ultra are housed in glass, the smallest S21 device is “glasstic� (plastic made to feel like glass) like the Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy S20 FE. Considering this is effectively the only change between it and the larger Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus (aside from the smaller size and battery capacity), this seems like a change many people will be fine with. Some people will actually prefer a plastic chassis, for good reason. While glass shatters fairly easily no matter what Gorilla Glass generation you’re on, a glasstic back should be much more shock resistant.

All three Galaxy S21 models have a bold design.

The design of the entire Samsung Galaxy S21 series is bold. They retain the rounded approach that the S series has always had in comparison to the sharp edges of the Samsung Galaxy Note line, but this year, Samsung has decided to make the camera bump pop.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs S21 Plus vs S21 Ultra 2 1

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

In the top back corner in the rear of the devices, you’ll find a much more intentional bump than we’ve seen in previous years. It’s likely you’ll see comparisons to DC Comics’ Cyborg. That said, I think it looks good, especially with the variety of colorways. On the Samsung Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus, there is a Phantom Violet color that has a gold accent and camera bump. It’s quite stunning.

Samsung Galaxy S21 back in hand Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus back on table macro

The camera bump found on the two devices houses three different shooters: a 12MP ultra-wide sensor, a 12MP main sensor, and a 64MP 3x hybrid telephoto sensor. The main and telephoto cameras both have optical image stabilization (OIS). Samsung has omitted that feature from the ultra-wide camera, likely because software stabilization will work just fine for this camera.

See also: The best Samsung Galaxy deals

The front camera is a 10MP shooter with Dual-Pixel Auto Focus. You might notice these cameras are quite similar to the sensors we saw on the Galaxy S20 series. Because of this, it’s evident Samsung is pushing the S21 Ultra to be the truly new device — and we’ll get to that shortly.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus display 1 Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus back on table 2

The display on the Samsung Galaxy S21 is a 6.2-inch FHD+ panel with a resolution of 2,400 x 1,080, while the Galaxy S21 Plus sports a 6.7-inch FHD+ panel with the same resolution. This is a notably lower resolution than last year’s Galaxy S20 and Galaxy S21, which each had QHD+ panels. It’s likely another space Samsung cut down on in order to lower the price of the non-Ultra variants this year. Plus, lower-res screens usually translate to better battery life. All this said, Samsung maintained the adaptive refresh rate in these devices, which can span between 48 to 120Hz.

You also may have noticed the flat display on the two smartphones. While Samsung’s flagship S series phones have had curved edges almost exclusively since the Galaxy S8, Samsung decided to roll it back and put flat panels on the S21 and S21 Plus. I personally really like flat displays. The phones still feel perfectly premium without curves on the edges. Considering the ghost-touch issue many curved displays suffered from last year, I think a flat display was a good call.

Also read: Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro are Samsung’s most durable ANC earbuds yet

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus back on table

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

While many of the features mentioned so far are notably similar to the Galaxy S20 series, it’s the inside of the phones that are doing the heavy lifting. The Samsung Galaxy S21 series will be the first smartphones in the US to launch with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 processor, though the global variant of the devices will be getting Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 chips. Check out the article linked below for more on the differences between the two chipsets and how the two could stack up based on what we know so far.  Other internal specs include 8GB of RAM and 128GB or 256GB of storage.

2021 SoC showdown: Snapdragon 888 vs Exynos 2100 vs Kirin 9000 vs Apple A14

The Samsung Galaxy S21 has a 4,000mAh cell, while the S21 Plus features a larger 4,800mAh cell. Both devices support Fast Wireless Charging 2.0 and USB PD 3.0 up to 25W. Unsurprisingly, Samsung is not including a power brick in the box. You’ll have to use an existing power brick if you have one. Otherwise, you’ll need to purchase one separately.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra wide view of back

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

While there were clearly some corners cut to make the Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus more affordable, the S21 Ultra pulls out all the stops to be the most powerful of the line.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra still has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, but it’s aided by more RAM and storage options. The baseline model comes with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, but you can also upgrade that to 256GB of storage. If you want to go all out, Samsung is also offering a Galaxy S21 Ultra with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. Unfortunately, none of the Samsung Galaxy S21 series devices offer expandable storage, but Samsung thinks the available storage options should be fine for most people.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra screen in hand 3 Samsung Galaxy S21 UItra screen in hand 1

The S21 Ultra has a large 6.8-inch curved WQHD+ display with a resolution of 3,200 x 1,440. It also supports adaptive refresh rate up to 120Hz, but the screen on the Ultra can go as low as 10Hz for maximal battery savings. And speaking of battery, the S21 Ultra is powered by a 5,000mAh cell, which is the same capacity used in last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra.

But of course, the biggest change between the S21 series and the S21 Ultra is the camera system. Last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra introduced a 108MP main sensor, a 5x optical telephoto camera, and up to 100x zoom. This year, Samsung is upping the ante.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra macro of back cameras

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

You’ll find four different cameras on the back of the S21 Ultra, alongside a laser autofocus system. There’s a 12MP wide-angle camera, a 108MP main sensor with OIS, a 10MP 3x optical telephoto sensor with OIS, and a 10MP 10x optical telephoto sensor — also sporting OIS.

Related: The best camera phones you can get

In my opinion, adding a 3x optical telephoto camera alongside a 10x optical telephoto camera was a great move. The 10x optical telephoto lens puts Samsung in line with the Huawei P40 Pro Plus, but allows for more versatility if you don’t want to zoom in quite as much.

Samsung says it substantially improved the stabilization of the telephoto cameras this year, and after testing the device, I believe it. When zoomed in up to 100x, the Galaxy S21 Ultra felt very stable and shook much less than the Galaxy S20 Ultra. This is a big improvement as 100x on last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra was barely usable due to shaking. This year, it’s both much more stable and more clear.

Samsung Galaxy S21 flip cover case with Pen out Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra putting pen in silicone case Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra using pen on display

Most surprisingly, Samsung is introducing S Pen support for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The Galaxy S21 Ultra will have two case accessories that hold the pen, which can be used to scribble notes, alongside other things. That said, the S-Pen compatible with the S21 series has less functionality than the S Pen included in the Galaxy Note 20 series, and can’t be used as a remote as it’s not Bluetooth-enabled. And no, you can’t buy an S21 Ultra S Pen for your S21 or S21 Plus; the cheaper phones don’t work with the stylus.

Whether this is an indication that Samsung is truly killing the Galaxy Note line can be debated, but giving a core Galaxy Note feature to the Galaxy S line does make it seem like Samsung is normalizing pen support as a core feature, not one unique to the Note.

Don’t think the S21 Ultra’s high price tag will automatically get you an S Pen, either. You can purchase one separately for $39.99. The silicone case with the S Pen included costs $69.99, and the official flip cover case with the S-Pen is $89.99.

New features

Samsung Galaxy S21 Directors view

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

All three new Galaxy S series devices will launch with Samsung’s One UI 3.1 based on Android 11, which is good to see considering plenty of manufacturers are still launching phones on Android 10. Samsung hasn’t detailed exactly what’s changed since One UI 3.0, but we don’t expect any major new additions. If you want an in-depth look at One UI 3.0, check out our article below.

Android 11 on Galaxy phones: Hands-on with all the new One UI 3.0 features

A big new feature Samsung is highlighting on the Galaxy S21 series devices is Director’s Mode. This feature takes advantage of the three image signal processors in the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 to show the user three different camera angles at once. The user can dynamically switch between lenses even when recording and can take stills from videos while shooting. This allows you to prepare for a lens switch by seeing what is coming into the frame. Alongside Director’s Mode also comes Single Take 2.0, which adds new features like highlight video and dynamic slo-mo.

Samsung Galaxy S21 series specs

 Samsung Galaxy S21Samsung Galaxy S21 PlusSamsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Display6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED
Flat FHD+
2,400 x 1,080 at 421ppi
Adaptive 120Hz refresh rate
HDR10+ certified
6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED
Flat FHD+
2,400 x 1,080 at 394ppi
Adaptive 120Hz refresh rate
HDR10+ certified
6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED
Curved WQHD+
3,200 x 1,440 at 515ppi
Adaptive 120Hz refresh rate
HDR10+ certified
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 888 or Samsung Exynos 2100Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 or Samsung Exynos 2100Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 or Samsung Exynos 2100
RAM8GB8GB12 or 16GB
Storage128 or 256GB128 or 256GB128, 256, or 512GB
MicroSDNoNoNo
Battery4,000mAh
Fast wired and wireless charging
Reverse wireless charging
4,800mAh
Fast wired and wireless charging
Reverse wireless charging
5,000mAh
Fast wired and wireless charging
Reverse wireless charging
CamerasRear:
- Wide-angle: 12MP, ƒ/1.8, 1.8µm with OIS and dual-pixel AF
- Telephoto: 64MP, ƒ/2.0, 0.8µm with OIS and phase-detection AF
- Ultra-wide: 12MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.4µm with 120-degree FoV

3x hybrid optical/digital zoom
30x "Space Zoom"

Front:
- 10MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.22µm, with dual-pixel AF
Rear:
- Wide-angle: 12MP, ƒ/1.8, 1.8µm with OIS and dual-pixel AF
- Telephoto: 64MP, ƒ/2.0, 0.8µm with OIS and phase-detection AF
- Ultra-wide: 12MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.4µm with 120-degree FoV

3x hybrid optical/digital zoom
30x "Space Zoom"

Front:
- 10MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.22µm, with dual-pixel AF
Rear:
- Wide-angle: 108MP, ƒ/1.8, 0.8µm with OIS and phase-detection AF
- Telephoto: 10MP, ƒ/2.4, 1.22µm with OIS, dual-pixel AF, and 3x optical zoom
- Telephoto: 10MP, ƒ/4.9, 1.22µm with OIS, dual-pixel AF, and 10x optical zoom
- Ultra-wide: 12MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.4µm with dual-pixel AF and a 120-degree FoV
- Laser AF sensor

10x optical zoom
100x "Space Zoom"

Front:
- 40MP, ƒ/2.2, 0.7µm, with phase-detection AF
Connectivity4G LTE support
5G (sub-6GHz, SA and NSA, mmWave)
Wi-Fi 6E support
4G LTE support
5G (sub-6GHz, SA and NSA, mmWave)
Wi-Fi 6E support
4G LTE support
5G (sub-6GHz, SA and NSA, mmWave)
Wi-Fi 6E support
S Pen supportNoNoYes
Operating SystemOne UI 3.1
Android 11
One UI 3.1
Android 11
One UI 3.1
Android 11
Water resistanceIP68IP68IP68
SecurityUltrasonic fingerprint sensor, face unlockUltrasonic fingerprint sensor, face unlockUltrasonic fingerprint sensor, face unlock
Color128GB in Phantom Violet, Phantom Gray, Phantom Pink, and Phantom White

256GB only in Phantom Gray

Future colors: Phantom Gold and Phantom Red
128GB in Phantom Violet, Phantom Silver, and Phantom Black

256GB only in Phantom Black

Future colors: Phantom Gold and Phantom Red
128 GB in Phantom Silver and Phantom Black

256 and 512GB in Phantom Black

Future colors: Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy, and Phantom Brown
Dimensions and weight71.2 x 151.7 x 7.9mm
171g
75.6 x 161.5 x 7.8mm
202g
75.6 x 165.1 x 8.9mm
229g

Samsung Galaxy S21 series price and availability

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra taking a photo

Credit: David Imel / Android Authority

The Samsung Galaxy S21 series will be available for pre-order starting today, January 14. The devices officially go on sale Friday, January 29. The Samsung Galaxy S21, Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus, and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra will start at $799.99, $999.99, and $1,199, respectively. In the UK and Europe, the series will retail for £769/€849, £949/€1,049, and £1,149/€1,249, respectively.

Samsung Galaxy S21
$799 .00
Buy it Now
Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus
$999 .00
Buy it Now
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
$1199 .00
Buy it Now

Those who pre-order a Galaxy S21 between January 14 and January 29 will receive $100 in Samsung store credit, with the Galaxy S21 Plus netting a $150 credit, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra netting a $200 credit. All pre-orders will also receive a free Galaxy SmartTag.

Please wait.. Loading poll

What do you think about the Samsung Galaxy S21 series? Cast your vote in the poll, and stay tuned for our full review coming soon!

NEWSLETTER | The Daily Authority

The only tech newsletter you need.

Join 150,000+ subscribers who receive a daily newsletter with the most important news.

By signing up, you agree to our Terms of Use and acknowledge the data practices in our Privacy Policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.