In the world’s least surprising news today, Samsung has unveiled its latest flagship phones — the Galaxy S21 Ultra, S21+ and S21. Like last year, the Ultra model is the highest specced version and packs features like a 6.8-inch 120Hz AMOLED screen and a quad-rear camera system featuring dual telephoto lenses for 100x zoom. Because it’s the top tier model, the S21 Ultra comes with a price to match: It’ll start at $1,200 and you can pre-order it starting today.
Unlike previous flagships, the S21 Ultra’s screen can support refresh rates of 120Hz at both full HD and Quad HD resolutions. This means you won’t have to choose between smooth scrolling or sharp resolutions on the new phone. And, as has already been leaked, the new flagship will support the company’s S Pen stylus, which is a first for the S-series smartphones. This supports Wacom’s digitizer technology. Samsung is making standalone S Pens for the S21, including a Pro model that has Bluetooth support for the company’s Air Actions gestures that let you flick the stylus around to remotely control your phone.
One of the S20 Ultra’s more controversial features was Samsung’s Space Zoom feature that let you get super up close to faraway subjects. In our review, we found the tool to be problematic and flawed, mostly due to the low quality of images at beyond 10x. The company wants to fix some of that with the S21 Ultra, introducing a new dual telephoto lens system to provide “greater clarity with every shot.” One of these offers 3x optical zoom while the other goes up to 10x optical and the phone will automatically switch between them depending on the range you’re shooting at. The other two cameras on the back are the primary 108-megapixel sensor and a 12-megapixel ultra-wide setup.
Samsung also introduced a software feature called Zoom Lock to help you keep your subject in the frame even if your hands shake at high zoom level. The company also improved its Night mode and made it possible to shoot 4K video at 60 frames per second out of all the sensors, including the selfie camera upfront.
At 6.8 inches, the S21 Ultra’s screen is a tad smaller than last year’s model (6.9 inches) but you likely won’t notice the difference. What’s more eye-catching is Samsung’s new design, featuring what it calls a Contour Cut Camera housing for the four sensors on the back. Instead of a black rounded rectangle module hanging in the top left corner of the phone’s rear, the entire corner is distinct from the rest of the surface. It looks as if someone slid a protective rectangular cap onto the phone.
Unlike the smaller S21 and S21+, the Ultra is only available in Phantom Black and Phantom Silver color options, though Samsung said more colors like Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy and Phantom Brown will be “available exclusively on Samsung.com” depending on the market. The other flagships also offer additional pink and purple variants, and on them, the “contour cut” are in eye-catching blush hues. On the silver and black units, the corner sections are more subtle since they’re in matching shades with the rest of the body.
Beyond the surface, the S21 Ultra is powered by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 888 chip in the US and the Exynos 2100 in other parts of the world. Those who’ve used non-US versions of Samsung’s previous flagships have long complained about the performance delta in Exynos models and this continues to be a point of frustration for them. Fortunately, Samsung announced this week that the Exynos 2100 will be an ARM-based 5nm system-on-chip that will consume 20 percent less power than its predecessor. If those claims are true, the Exynos models of the S21 might not be as disappointing as previous models.
The S21 Ultra is also one of the first smartphones to support the new WiFi 6E standard for greater bandwidth and faster internet connections. It also has ultra-wideband capability which allows it to unlock compatible car doors or send messages to UWB-friendly phones nearby. Finally, the S21 Ultra starts out with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, and if you want more of each, you can only pick the Phantom Black model. The silver edition is stuck at that configuration, while you can go up to 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage on the black flavor.
If you pre-order the S21 Ultra by January 28th, you’ll get a free Galaxy Smart Tag and $200 Samsung credit. Otherwise, the new flagship will be available through retail and carrier channels as well as unlocked via Samsung on January 29th.
Update (at 12:35pm ET): This article previously stated, based on information provided to Engadget by Samsung, that the S21 would support S Pen but not any of the Bluetooth-based Air Actions gestures. The company later announced at its keynote that an S Pen Pro would be available that would work with those Bluetooth gestures, and this article has been edited to reflect that.