2020 was the year Samsung was forced to rethink its smartphone strategy. A pandemic-fueled global decline in sales and a frosty reception to its S20 lineup and the Galaxy Note 20, left Samsung looking up to another company for the first time in years. However, out of that moment came its most practical phone in recent memory, the Galaxy S20 Fan Edition. Where devices like the S20 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra showed Samsung at its most indulgent, the S20 FE proved the South Korean firm could still make a phone for the rest of us. And it's that phone that Samsung's new 2021 flagships, the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+, announced today at the company's first Unpacked event of 2021, have the most in common.
Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21+ first look | 19 Photos
Gallery: Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21+ first look | 19 Photos
The price might be the most compelling part of these two devices. When they go on sale on January 29th, the S21 and S21+ will start at $800 and $1,000. In other words, they'll both cost $200 less at launch than the Galaxy S20 and S20+ did when they come out partway through last year.
That says a lot about what you need to know about the S21 and S21+. If you were expecting a flashy and expensive update to last year's models, that's not what these new phones are about. Instead, they make smart tradeoffs to make Samsung's flagship experience more attainable than at any point in the last couple of years.
Let’s start with the upgrades. In the US, both phones come with the Snapdragon 888 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage to start. Not only can you expect Qualcomm's first 5nm chip to make the S21 and S21+ faster than Samsung's 2020 flagships, but it also comes with other improvements. One of the big ones is that the Snapdragon 888 includes an integrated 5G modem. That's a design feature that almost always leads to battery life improvements. It also won't hurt that the S21+ has a slightly higher-capacity 4,800mAh battery than its 2020 counterpart. From a connectivity standpoint, the new processor also has support for WiFi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2. And speaking of Bluetooth, both phones work with the new Galaxy SmartTag Samsung announced today.
So what are those compromises? The one current S20 and S20+ owners are most likely to notice is the screen on each phone. While both the S21 and S21+ feature the same size displays as their predecessors (6.2-inch on the S21 and 6.7-inch on the S21+), Samsung has gone with less pixel-dense Full HD+ panels. Both screens still support a variable refresh rate up to 120Hz to smooth out animations and make the interface feel more responsive. What’s more, they come with a new Eye Comfort feature that will adjust the amount of blue light they output depending on the time of day and the type of content in front of you.
From there, there's the design that riled some Samsung fans when photos of the S21 lineup first started making their way online. The camera bump that's been so divisive has a name: it’s the "Contour Cut Camera housing." Say what you will about the design, the S21 still has a plastic back, while the S21+ has one made of Gorilla Glass Victus. Samsung will sell the S21 in four colorways: Phantom Violet, Phantom Gray, Phantom Pink and Phantom White. Meanwhile, the S21+ will come in three colors: Phantom Violet, Phantom Silver and Phantom Black. If you buy either phone directly through the company's website, you'll have access to additional colors, including Phantom Gold and Phantom Red.
Fancy new housing aside, the S21 and S21+ feature the same camera components as last year's models. You have a primary 12-megapixel camera with a standard f/1.8 aperture wide-angle lens, dual-pixel autofocus and optical image stabilization (OIS). Complimenting the primary sensor are a 12-megapixel, f/2.2 ultra-wide camera and a 64-megapixel telephoto camera with OIS and 3x hybrid zoom and 30x Space Zoom. For selfies, you'll find a 10-megapixel camera with dual-pixel autofocus with an f/2.2 aperture lens housed inside a display cutout at the top of the screen.
That's not to say Samsung installed the same cameras from last year and called it a day. There are enhancements to the photo and video experience, but they're mostly coming in the form of new software features and a more capable image signal processor courtesy of the S21's and S21+'s Snapdragon 888 chip.
One of those new features, Director's View, lets you see a live thumbnail preview from all three of the S21's and S21+'s primary cameras when you're composing a shot. Another one called Vlogger View allows you to simultaneously record footage with the front and rear cameras — no need to fiddle with them. Old standbys like portrait mode and Space Zoom have gotten attention from Samsung as well. With the latter, Samsung is using AI to minimize the effect your shaky hands have on telephoto shots. And while it won't affect the look of your photos and videos, a new Private Share feature will help you control who gets to see them; you'll have the option to add an expiry date to the content you share. Samsung says the S21 and S21+ will also give you the chance to scrub your photos of any location metadata.
Judged against last year's models and what we've usually come to expect from Samsung's annual releases, the S21 and S21+ may come as a disappointment. But here's the thing: The point of entry for an Android flagship can't be $1,000 when an $800 iPhone exists.
While they might not push the envelope for what an Android flagship can be (save that for the Galaxy S21 Ultra), they make up for it in the one metric that will matter to the average consumer buying a high-end phone in 2021. At $800 and $1,000, the S21 and S21+ start at the same price as the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro. And in many ways, they compare favorably to Apple's latest phones. With the S21, you get more storage than on the iPhone 12, and both devices come with 120Hz displays, a feature Apple has yet to add to its phones. With both models due to arrive before the end of the month, it won’t be long before we see whether Samsung has done enough to turn back its 2020 losses.