Samsung Galaxy S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra Preview

Bree Fowler

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Samsung’s newest flagship phones come with a handful of new features that may help them outperform last year's highly rated models, at least marginally. But what could make the new phones stand out are their prices.

The Galaxy S21 5G, S21+ 5G, and S21 Ultra 5G, rolled out during an online event today, all retail for $100 to $200 less than their predecessors. These new phones share an updated look, with smooth, shiny edges contrasted by a matte finish on their backside that I couldn't manage to smudge as I used samples borrowed from Samsung before the launch. (As always, CR will be buying the phones at retail for our lab testing.)

There’s also a stylish new “Phantom Violet” color for the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+, to match one of the options for the new Galaxy Buds Pro that the company also announced today.

The maxed-out specs on the new phones include a new processor that's purported to be faster than the one used in the Galaxy S20 phones, along with a bunch of new camera tricks and improvements. And, while the S21+ is the only version to boast a slightly larger battery this time around, Samsung says all three of the new phones have “smarter” batteries that better use their juice to make your phone last longer.

The supersized and superpremium S21 Ultra packs in a bit more pizzazz, including an extra zoom camera along with S Pen compatibility.

The most impressive specs could be the price tags. The base model S21 will cost you $800, down $200 from the launch price of last year’s S20. Meanwhile, at $1,000, the S21+ is $200 cheaper than last year’s S20+, and the S21 Ultra costs $1,300, a drop of $100 from last year's Ultra.

Are these still really expensive phones? Sure, just not compared to the S20 models, or to other high-end phones, for that matter.

On paper, at least, the Galaxy S21 rivals the similarly sized, but more expensive, Apple iPhone 12 Pro. Both phones come standard with a triple-rear-camera setup and 128 gigabytes of storage. In comparison, the iPhone 12, which like the S21 sells for $800, features just two rear cameras—there’s no camera with a telephoto lens—and 64GB of storage.

All three of the Samsung's newest offerings are available for preorder now and should reach stores on Jan. 29.

We won’t know how exactly how the phones stack up against the competition until we can get retail versions into our labs. But here are my first impressions, based on the press samples I borrowed.

New Features and Hardware

The new Galaxy phones include the usual premium features that you'd expect from a flagship phone in 2021, like supersharp OLED displays, a nearly-not-there bezel that maximizes the screen real estate, and, of course, 5G connectivity. But there's new tech here, too.

All of the new tricks covered in this section apply to all three phones, unless otherwise noted. The top-end Galaxy S21 Ultra includes its own set of new toys.

New camera tricks: Both the S21 and S21+ include three rear cameras with wide, ultra-wide, and 3x telephoto lenses. That’s the same as last year’s models, but the cameras do a little bit more now.

For example, Director’s View lets you see what your video shot would look like with all three of those cameras, shown in separate picture-in-picture viewfinders while you're shooting. Tapping on each viewfinder will let you switch seamlessly among the three cameras midshot.

Samsung says it’s also improved its portrait mode, better separating your subject from the blurred background, while also adding new background effects. According to Samsung, the 3x zoom camera is now better at offsetting the effects of shaky hands, to help you capture less blurry photos.

Our imaging experts will be taking a close look at the new versions of portrait mode and the zoom camera when they test the phones later this month.

Faster chip: In a break from past years, Samsung hasn't specified exactly which processor these phones contain, or what company makes it.

But Samsung claims it's the fastest processor the company has ever used in a phone, posting performance increases of 20 percent in its central processing unit and 35 percent in its graphics processing unit. It's far from clear whether the typical phone user will ever perceive those differences, however.

“Smarter” battery: The batteries in the S21 and S21 Ultra aren't any bigger than the S20 versions, but according to Samsung the S21+ battery has grown by 300 milliamp-hours to 4,800 mAh. Samsung says that better power management will help the batteries in all three of the phones last longer. We'll see about that once we buy our test samples and run them through the lab.

Extras Included in the S21 Ultra

With a starting price of $1,300, the S21 Ultra is pretty pricey, even if it is less expensive than last year's top model. In addition to the bigger display and battery that you'd expect with a phone this size, Samsung also saved some cool new features for this model.

But, just a heads up, this is a wrist snapper of a phone. While it weighs just 8 grams more than last year’s version and its 6.8-inch display makes it technically a tiny bit smaller, the phone's new camera hardware makes it feel very top heavy.

I found it uncomfortable to hold the S20 Ultra with one hand for a long period of time—it actually strained my wrist.

But if you have bigger, stronger hands than I do, the weight might not be a problem. And the extra features Samsung includes in this version might be enough to entice some people anyway.

Extra telephoto camera: Samsung packs in not just the 10x camera included on last year’s S20 Ultra and Note20 Ultra but also the 3x camera you’ll find on the S21 and S21+.

In addition to giving you another option for close-up photos, Samsung says the two lenses can work together for those really long-distance shots to give you a better, less fuzzy, result. Previous versions of Samsung’s 10x camera relied purely on software to get you closer to the action once you passed the optical zoom maximum of 10x. And, when you're talking about smartphones in general, those types of “zooms” often result in out-of-focus images.

S Pen compatibility: I had a lot of fun with this feature. If you happen to have an old S Pen laying around, you can use it with S21 Ultra. They're also sold separately for about $50.

A heads-up that this feature is mainly designed for the S Pens used with Samsung's tablets, which include their own charger. All I had on hand was the S Pen that went with my Galaxy Note20 Ultra. While some of the S Pen's features, like gestures, didn't work on the S21 Ultra, I still found it handy. I was able to use it to do many of the same things I do with my Note20 Ultra phone, like tap on icons, create notes, doodle on my lock screen, and scroll through emails.

The downside? Unlike with the Note20 Ultra, which lets you slide the pen inside to charge and store it, there’s no place in the S21 Ultra to put an S Pen. So, if you’re going to use this feature, you’ll probably want to buy a phone case that includes a spot for stowing it.

Brighter screen: Smartphone screens can be tough to view in bright-light situations, so the companies that make them keep boosting their brightness. In this case, Samsung says it's raised the S21 Ultra’s maximum brightness to 1,500 nits, up from 1,200 nits in last year's version. (To be clear, both those numbers are super-high.)

Are the S21 Smartphones Worth Buying?

There isn’t really anything groundbreaking about this year’s crop of Samsung Galaxy S21 smartphones, which might make you wonder if you'd be better off just buying one of last year's models and saving a few bucks.

Especially when you’re looking at the S21 and S21+, they’re about the same size, with largely the same high-end cameras, big battery, 5G connectivity, and OLED displays as the S20 models.

But, you know what? When you factor in the $200 price cuts, I’m okay with that. While I'm guessing Samsung will drop the price of the now year-old S20 models, for the money I still think the new S21 phones represent a good deal.

And when you compare them with the competition, mainly the iPhone 12 models, you really can see that Samsung packs a lot in for the money.

Of course, if you’re like most people and practically married to either the Android or Apple operating systems, that’s a moot point. The addition of a telephoto camera and more storage probably won’t get most Apple fans to forsake their iPhones. They’ll just make due, or pay another $200 to move up to an iPhone 12 Pro.

But if you’re an Android user looking for a flagship phone at a not-so-premium price, the S21 might fit the bill. There’s a lot under the hood for the money, especially when you compare it to other lower-priced Samsung options like the Galaxy A71 5G and Galaxy S20 FE 5G.

Meanwhile, if you’re willing to spend more and want a super-sized device with a bigger screen and battery, the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which throws in an extra camera and S Pen compatibility, might be what you’re looking for.

Either way, you’re going to pay less than would have last year. And these days, that feels like as much of an innovation as anything else.