Samsung Galaxy S21 Series – Preview Downgrades, but cheaper

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You read that right, the Galaxy S21 series has already been announced. If you’ve been following the rumours, it’s no surprise to you, but it sure is different. For years, Samsung has only released the S series around March, but this year it is on January 29. It’s anyone’s guess as to why, but rumor has it that the desire to outrun Huawei is part of the reason. Huawei’s P-series will be released around the same time as the Galaxy S-series. The release date would also be closer to Apple’s, so consumers are less tempted to get an iPhone while waiting for a new S device. In addition, Samsung would be quick this year with making the socs, both its own Exynos 2100 and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, both of which are made on Samsung’s 5nm process. Anyway,

Camera Peninsula

The first thing you notice is of course the new design. With the iPhone 11, Apple has already presented its own striking camera island and Samsung is in a way taking it a step further. We can say that the camera island is no longer tucked in a corner inconspicuously as we sometimes saw, but that this part of the phone is now used to stand out. It makes sense to also highlight what the technological focus is on in the design.

Samsung’s camera island is therefore very striking. The metal edge of the devices runs inwards and connects to the glass that rests on the cameras. For example, the camera island is actually a peninsula and from a design point of view it merges more with the rest of the device. Like it or not, it’s a design language with balls and we can appreciate that.

With the release of the Galaxy S20 FE, Samsung very cleverly let us get used to two ‘downgrades’: a lower 1080p resolution and a polycarbonate back. Both the S21 and the S21+ have that resolution, more about that later, and the S21 now also has a plastic back. These are clear choices by Samsung that have resulted in prices being somewhat lower this year. Whether that’s nice or not is personal. In any case, it makes the S21 a lot lighter and you notice that quite a bit when you hold it next to an S21+. The weight is 169 grams against 200 grams.

Device Galaxy S21 5G Galaxy S21+ 5G Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G
Dimensions 71.2×151.7×7.9mm 75.6×161.5×7.8 75.6×165.1×8.9mm
Weight 169 grams 200 grams 227 grams

The back of all three devices is matte, unlike the S20 series, which is nice, because you don’t see any fingerprints on it. Samsung also distinguishes itself from many other manufacturers with devices that have a glossy back. The disadvantage of polycarbonate is that it is less sturdy than the Gorilla Glass 7, or Victus, on the other two devices. Incidentally, there is Gorilla Glass 7 on all screens. We could not resist during the preview session to see how flexible the S21 is. That was a little disappointing to us, because there is certainly some flex in it. We don’t think it’ll just snap in two if you put it in your back pocket and sit on something hard, for example, but we wouldn’t be confident doing that either.

Adaptive screen

The screen of all three devices now has an adaptive refresh rate, just like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. The S21 and S21+ now have an adaptive refresh rate of 48 to 120Hz, depending on the content on screen, and the S21 Ultra from 10 to 120Hz. In theory, the S21 Ultra can save a little more energy, just like the Note 20 Ultra already did. We did not notice this difference and especially the switching between the frequencies on the hands-on, as it should be. In testing with the S20 series, battery life was found to be significantly shorter with the 120Hz mode on, so the variable refresh rate is very welcome. The Android navigation was very smooth on all devices, so the software optimization and the soc apparently can handle the 120 frames per second well.

Eye Comfort Shield, which filters the blue light if desired, is also now adaptive. This setting determines how much blue light is filtered based on the time of day, content viewed, and when you go to sleep and wake up. Many phones allow you to set sunset and sunrise or a time when the screen changes at once. In this case, this is done gradually and that is a useful addition.

The screens have remained the same size, except that of the S21 Ultra, whose diagonal has lost 0.1 inches. However, as mentioned, the resolution of the S21 and S21+ has gone down. We don’t mind that much with the S21, because the pixel density still comes out at around 421ppi. With the S21+ that is around 394ppi and that is on the borderline of what some may find disturbing, depending on the type of pixels. We ourselves did not realize that the S21+ has a lower resolution, but we would like to experience this a little better when we have the device in our hands for a longer period of time. Then we can also look at it with various types of content and make a better judgment about it.

Under the screen is a new fingerprint scanner. This is again ultrasonic instead of optical. As a result, no bright light is needed to scan your finger, which is nice in the dark. Samsung is therefore continuing on the same path, but this time it is the second generation of the 3D Sonic Sensor in all these devices, which Qualcomm has only just announced . We have already been able to test it quite a few times and it is very nice that the surface of the scanner is now 1.7 times as large, because that way you are simply less wrong. Unlocking felt fast, but whether it has actually become faster, we still find it difficult to say. It probably makes a difference, but we still have to compare it with those of other devices and predecessors.

The screen of the S21 Ultra is the only one that is still very subtly curved on the sides. The screens of the S21 and S21+ are flat. Perhaps this is also something that saves costs in the production process and thus reduces the selling price. The S21 Ultra also has an extra layer in the screen, which the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra also has, so that you can write on the screen with a stylus. It is available separately, including a cover, for the tidy sum of 40 euros. These two points in turn provide extra distinction with the Ultra copy and that is something that was a bit lacking last year, except for the camera.

Especially Ultra upgrades

The cameras on the S21 and S21+ are almost unchanged from last year. The ultra-wide-angle camera even shoots with a less wide angle of view of 120 degrees, compared to 123 degrees with the S20(+). This will undoubtedly have a greater light output as a goal. Also, none of the three devices have a time-of-flight sensor built in. Last year, the S20 + and Ultra still had that. We’ve rarely seen differences with and without the use of such a sensor in portrait photos, so perhaps that is a great cost saving.

The S21 Ultra has received nice camera upgrades. First of all, the laser autofocus is important, because in the dark it sometimes went wrong with focusing with the S20 Ultra. The primary sensor seems to have stayed the same based on the specs, but it would do something different to allow for better night photography. According to Samsung, it is a Bright Night Sensor. This means that it can make one pixel from nine pixels to capture more light per pixel. The pixel size goes from 0.8 to 2.4 microns, which is considerable. Of the 108 megapixels, 12 remain for a photo. Unfortunately, we have of course not been able to test this yet, but we will do so soon.

Another important difference is the presence of two telephoto cameras instead of one. This is a step towards Huawei’s philosophy. We already saw it with the P40 Pro + and it turned that device into a very good zoom phone . There is a camera with 3x magnification and a camera that brings everything 10x closer. That should make zooming in far sharper and that was also our experience during the hands-on when we took a photo with 10x zoom with the S20 Ultra and S21 Ultra, and held them side by side. We also took the same shot with the S21 and S20 and noticed that there was less noise without sacrificing detail. However, we still need to test in many more different situations before we can really say something about it.

Device S20 Ultra S21 Ultra
Tele camera 1 48Mp, PDAF, 3x optical zoom, OIS, f/3.5, 0.8µm 10Mp, Dual Pixel PDAF, 3x optical zoom, OIS, f/2.4, 1.22µm
Tele camera 2 10Mp, Dual Pixel, Optical 10x, OIS f/4.9, 1.22µm

On the zoom front, a handy feature called Zoom Lock has also been introduced. If you zoom in more than 20x, the image freezes after a second and a half, making it easier to take a stable photo. We still have to test this further, but the idea is good and it also worked well during the hands-on.

There is also a lot of news in the video field. The S21 Ultra can film 4k@60fps with all four cameras. Samsung is somewhat behind the iPhones, which can do this from the iPhone 11 series, but it is of course still very welcome. Fortunately, there are also things that iPhones don’t have, such as Cinematic 8K-Snap. If you record an 8k video, you can watch it afterwards and select a snapshot from it. A photo of no less than 33 megapixels is then taken. There is also the Director’s View. You will then see live thumbnails that display images from all cameras. You can then choose live what to record. With Vlogger View you can record image from the front camera at the same time as that from the rear camera. This worked smoothly during the hands-on, although we think it’s a feature that not everyone will use.

Exynos in Europe

The Galaxy S21 devices in Europe all have a 5nm Samsung Exynos 2100 soc. Reportedly, performance against the Snapdragon 888 isn’t that different from last year’s Samsung and Qualcomm socs, with the Exynos underperforming. At first glance, the operation of these devices is very smooth, which you can also see in the video preview. Switching between apps was also very smooth and we did not see any frame drops.

The storage memory is more important than usual this year, because adding a microSD card is no longer possible with the S21 series. That’s a shame, because it makes you more flexible anyway. The memory options are as follows:

Device S21 S21+ S21 Ultra
Option 1 128GB storage, 8GB RAM, 849 euros 128GB storage, 8GB RAM, 1049 euros 128GB storage, 12GB RAM, 1249 euros
Option 2 256GB storage, 8GB RAM, 899 euros 256GB storage, 8GB RAM, 1099 256GB storage, 12GB RAM, 1299 euros
Option 3 512GB storage, 16GB RAM, 1429 euros
Colors Purple, pink, gray, white Purple, pink, gray, white Silver and black


Perhaps due to the shorter development time due to the earlier release than usual, less has changed than in other years. This is especially true for the S21 and S21+. We can appreciate the new design and the adaptive screen refresh is of course welcome. We also hope that the cameras, despite a lack of major hardware changes, are still a step forward. The upgrades are otherwise quite incremental.

The S21 Ultra distinguishes itself more from the other devices than the S20 last year. The other S21 devices have partly received a downgrade, such as the 1080p screen, but the Ultra has largely received upgrades. It is the only S21 device with a 1440p screen, two telephoto cameras, a better primary camera with special night mode, curved screen edges and support for a stylus. The device also has more working memory.

It is probably a smart move by Samsung, because buyers who want a little more and also have more to spend are now more likely to opt for the Ultra. Consumers who have less to spend can also buy a device for less money this year that ticks less, but still ticks many high-end boxes. However, those who have an S20 device do not need to consider an S21 in our opinion.

We would have been more critical if prices had stayed the same or even increased. Fortunately that is not the case. The S21 entry-level model with 5G costs 150 euros less, the S21+ 50 euros less and the S21 Ultra costs 100 euros less than last year’s Ultra entry-level model. It is still a lot of money, of course, but the prices will certainly not continue to rise. You do now make concessions, where we do not think the 1080p screens are the end of the world, but the plastic back will probably be a breaking point for many. We hope to receive the S21 series soon for an extensive review, so that we can tell you more about the daily practice with these new Samsung smartphones.

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