Amid a virtual CES trade show, I had the opportunity to speak with Samsung about its new phones, but unfortunately — due to pandemic accommodations — couldn’t actually get my hands on the devices. (I hope these online-only product launches, also used by Apple, don’t last beyond covid-19. Journalists play an important role in vetting product claims.)
The S21 features a new wraparound metal design on the back left corner. And, on the Ultra model, Samsung has added a fourth back camera to help it zoom ahead of what rival iPhones can do. More on that in a moment.
What most struck me about the S21 are the steps Samsung has taken to make it just work better — particularly some of the more dubious features it has added to previous generations. For example:
- The fingerprint reader, conveniently located behind the screen, uses a new technology that offers 1.7-times more space for you to smash your finger in the right spot.
- The screen, which looks hyper-smooth with a 120Hz refresh rate, can now automatically slow down when not needed, to save battery life.
- The S21 Ultra model works with Samsung’s S Pen, which has a loyal following. (The stylus is still sold separately, and doesn’t have a spot to be stored inside the phone like on Samsung’s Note phone line.)
- The Ultra model supports a new kind of WiFi called 6E, which promises to significantly combat home-network congestion.
Following Apple, Samsung won’t include a power brick or wired headphones with the S21. Both companies say the moves are good for the environment — and, of course, they would much rather sell you new accessories separately. Samsung is also introducing a new, water-resistant, noise-cancelling version of its totally wireless headphones called Galaxy Buds Pro, which cost $200.
Samsung’s S21 price chop is a course correction on a decision Samsung made last year — before the worldwide pandemic — to raise the prices of its high-end phones to as much as $1,400. Shortly after it announced the S20 at the end of February, much of the United States went into lockdown. Then Apple came out with a budget $400 iPhone called the SE, and in the fall, Google cut the price (and a few features like the zoom lens) on its Pixel 5 model from $800 to $700.
The S21 still isn’t cheap. But at least the leading Android phone is back into alignment with the iPhone 12, which starts at $800 for the model with a 6.1-inch screen and 64 GB of storage. The S21 with a 6.2-inch screen and 128 GB of storage is also $800.
For many shoppers, what matters most about a new phone is the quality of its camera. The most-expensive S21 Ultra pushes into new territory including that fourth back lens and laser-assisted focusing. There are enough lenses on the back of this phone to give anyone a case of trypophobia, an aversion to holes.
I haven’t had a chance to see the S21 Ultra camera system in action, and Samsung wouldn’t share samples comparing it to the S20. But at least in theory, the new cameras should offer some noticeable improvements.
Get ready for your close-up: The front-facing S21 Ultra camera now captures 40 megapixel shots for much, much more high-resolution selfies. There’s also a “Vlogger View” mode that lets you use both the front and back cameras at the same time to make your own instant-reaction video.
With all those rear cameras, things get more a little more confusing. You’ve got dedicated lenses that can take 0.6x, 1x, 3x and 10x optically zoomed shots. And the main 1x wide lens has a nutty 108-megapixel sensor, first introduced on the S20. (IPhone cameras, for comparison, max out at 12-megapixels and 2.5x optical zoom.)
The idea is the S21 is now powerful enough to use several lenses and sensors at the same time, blending together their shots for a better-looking final image, particularly in the ranges in-between and beyond what one can do alone. For example, if you zoom to 8x, the phone will merge final shots from both of its 10-megapixel telephoto lenses.
Samsung also promises some improvements on a dubious camera feature it first introduced in the S20: 100x zoom, which it calls “space zoom.” While, yes, the phone could in theory double as a spy camera, the normal human hand is normally too shaky to actually take great photos. This year, Samsung says the camera can now detect what you’re trying to shoot and lock in on it — even if your hand is moving.
The S21 line is available for preorder on Jan. 14 and arrives in stores on Jan. 29.
Read more tech reviews and advice from Geoffrey A. Fowler: