When Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20+, and Galaxy S20 Ultra last February—its first all-5G lineup—they didn’t merely follow the classic good, better, best strategy. Instead, each model went so far beyond the previous Galaxy S10 line that it felt like Samsung had decided to do high end, really high end, and incredibly high end. The catch was that the prices, which started at $1,000 for the S20 and went up to $1,399 for the S20 Ultra, were high-end, too.
Now the company is announcing the S20 line’s successors, the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21+, and Galaxy S21 Ultra. This time around, a pandemic is raging and plenty of people are spending their gadget money carefully. So it’s not a shocker that Samsung didn’t pull out all the stops yet again. The new models are reminiscent of their predecessors in many ways, but each costs $200 less than its 2020 equivalent: $800 for the 6.2-inch S21, $1,000 for the 6.7-inch S21+, and $1,200 for the 6.8-inch S21 Ultra. They go on preorder today and will be available starting on January 29.
It should be a cinch to tell an S21 model from the S20 one it’s replacing: Samsung is introducing a new industrial design built around a feature it calls Contour Cut Camera. Instead of the cameras on the back sitting in a rounded, rectangular island—as they do on the Galaxy S20 models as well as the iPhone 12–they’re part of a camera bump that runs all the way up to the left-hand side of the phone’s back and then wraps around the edge. I haven’t seen the new models in person yet. But in photos, the Contour Cut looks like a slick touch that could become a Galaxy S signature if Samsung sticks with it in future models.
The Galaxy S20 phones’ camera systems—with three cameras and 30X digital zoom on the S20 and S20+, and four cameras and 100X digital zoom on the S20 Ultra—were a big advance on earlier Samsung cameras. The company seems to have kept them largely intact in the new S21 models. But it’s introduced several camera-related software improvements. As before, the Single Take feature lets you hold down the shutter button, move the phone around, and have AI software create a few still photos and short videos for you. Now that software might add some new bits of media into the mix, such as dynamic slow-motion clips. Samsung says that a new feature called Zoom Lock keeps photos sharp even if you go all the way up to the maximum range—potentially useful given how easy it is for a shaky hand to ruin a high-zoom shot. Video fans get Director’s View (you can see and switch between all the rear cameras as you shoot) and Vlogger View (shoot with both front and rear cameras at once).
As for the new phones’ 120Hz displays, they now use adaptive refresh, a technology similar to Apple’s ProMotion that makes scrolling more fluid. Samsung’s new Eye Comfort Shield feature reduces the display’s blue light automatically as you near bedtime, a technique that’s supposed to be easier on the eyes. However, the Galaxy S21 and S21+ have lower-resolution screens than their predecessors and no longer have curved edges, possibly a bit of cost-control on Samsung’s part to help it hit their new lower prices.
The Ultra gets a pen
For years, Samsung differentiated its Galaxy Note phones from their Galaxy S stablemates by giving the Note a bigger screen, high-end features, and the S Pen stylus. Last year’s Galaxy S20 Ultra was a top-of-the-line phone that lived in the same stratosphere as a Galaxy Note—except that it didn’t support the S Pen.
Now the S20 Ultra’s successor, the S21 Ultra, does work with an S Pen. That doesn’t mean that the new Ultra has essentially become a Galaxy Note, though. For one thing, it doesn’t come with the stylus; it’s optional. There’s also no slot to stow the S Pen inside the S21 Ultra itself, though Samsung will sell cases that provide pen storage. And while the Galaxy Note20 charges a battery inside its S Pen that allows for tricks such as using the stylus as a remote control, the Galaxy S21 Ultra pen doesn’t charge and is focused on sketching and note-taking.
Last November, Joyce Lee and Heekyong Yang of Reuters reported that Samsung might be adding S Pen support to the Galaxy S21 Ultra and then discontinuing the Galaxy Note line altogether. They said such a move would reflect shrinking demand for high-end phones during the pandemic. Samsung is not commenting on the future of the Galaxy Note. But for what it’s worth, the company takes issue with the idea that the market for top-of-the-line phones has collapsed; it says that the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, released last August during the pandemic, sold well.
Whatever the fate of the Note line, the Galaxy S21 Ultra caters to a target audience that’s at least in the same affluent Zip Code. That’s not even taking into account the $1,999 folding-screen Galaxy Z Fold2, a model that even Galaxy Note diehards might reject as unaffordable.
Still, the overall story with the Galaxy S21 line—fancy features for less money—is a better fit for the times than if the new models had once again started at $1,000. When I wrote about the Galaxy S20 phones last year, I ended by declaring that “[p]hones with some of the S20 line’s spirit but more down-to-earth sticker prices would make a lot of people very happy.” From all appearances, Samsung thinks so, too.