For nearly a decade now, Samsung has sold two premium flagship smartphone lineups.
There are the Galaxy Notes class of Samsung handsets dating back to 2011 which are credited with pioneering the large-screen “phablet” devices and that feature the fancy S Pen stylus.
And there’s Samsung’s Galaxy S-series portfolio devices, which lacked the stylus but through the years also boasted plenty of power and screen real estate.
On Thursday during the digital-only CES (and, for that matter, digital-only Samsung Unpacked press event), Samsung unveiled three new S-series flagships, each compatible with 5G networks. The trio—the S21 (starting at $799.99), S21+ ($999.99), and especially the top-flight S21 Ultra ($1199.99)—appear to unify, or maybe blur is a better word, the company’s flagship segments even more.
Preorders start today with the phones initially available on January 29. Folks who preorder prior to that date get up to $200 in Samsung credit (depending on the model), plus a new Galaxy SmartTag Bluetooth locator for helping you find missing keys, or even pets.
Samsung collectively dropped prices on the S21 line by $200, compared to last year's S20 handsets.
The S21 Ultra is the first among the S series to be compatible with the S Pen. You’ll have to purchase it separately for $39.99 or $69.99 as part of a Galaxy S21 Ultra case, and it does not have Bluetooth low energy. But as with other S Pens, you can use it to take notes, sign documents, edit images and so on. And if you do have an S Pen lying around from an older Note phone, you can use that too.
Expanding the Note experience across categories raises questions about the future of the Note. Samsung is by no means saying there won’t be new Notes, the last of which were the Galaxy Note 20s that came out last August. And after all this time I’m not sure Samsung will want to give up a line of devices that has engendered great loyalty among its customers, many of whom stuck with Samsung long past the Galaxy Note 7 debacle of 2016-17, when some of the devices caught fire. But Samsung's future plans here are worth watching.
In the meantime, here’s what we know about the new S21 phones, which due to COVID I haven’t had a chance to check out in person.
Design: Samsung is bragging about a variety of new or supposedly improved pro-grade camera features, and this time around about a new contour cut design in which the cameras are lined up vertically on the upper left rear of the metal frame. There will be a variety of color options with names marketers have drummed up: “phantom” violet with a gold color frame, along with phantom pink, gray, white, black and silver. (You can see some in the images included here from Samsung.)
*Display. The S21, S21+ and S21 sport 6.2-inch, 6.7-inch and 6.8-inch displays, respectively. The Ultra features Quad HD+ display; its lower priced siblings Full HD screens. All have dynamic refresh rates up to 120Hz and an “eye comfort shield” to automatically adjust blue light levels to reduce eye fatigue.
*Camera features. The S21 and S21+ have AI-powered triple camera systems with a 12MP dual pixel ultrawide lens, 12MP wide lens, and 64MP tele lens. Each has a 10MP front camera.
The S21 Ultra has a quad camera system, adding an improved 108MP wide lens that lets you capture 12bit HDR photos. There’s also a dual-tele lens feature with a single optical 3x zoom and an optical 10x zoom. The device can automatically switch between the two depending upon the scene and you can zoom up to 100x. The Ultra also has a 40MP front camera. \
On the rear there’s also a laser autofocus sensor, same as was introduced on the Note 20 Ultra. The Ultra lets shoot 4K 60 fps videos on any of the lenses on the phone, including the front camera.
On all its cameras, Samsung says it has enhanced the previously introduced “single take” feature that lets you capture a variety of still and video shots with a single tap. For example, you can now add a dynamic slow-motion video or stitch together a variety of different shots and formats into a highlight reel.
Meanwhile, an 8K Snap feature that lets you grab a high-resolution still from any 8K video footage has also been improved, Samsung says. A new Director’s View lets you examine a scene from multiple perspectives at the same time, giving you the option to switch to another perspective mid-recording. A potentially useful Vlogger mode lets you record the front and rear camera simultaneously.
Samsung has also added a Zoom Lock feature that is supposed to help you reduce the shakes when shooting with a 30X zoom on the S21 or S21+. Zoom Lock should help even more with the 100X zoom on the Ultra.
I look forward to trying out all these camera features.
*Battery. Samsung says the new phones will last all day and beyond, though obviously my ability to test the claim out in real life usage comes later. The S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra have 4,000mAH, 4800mAH, and 5,000mAH batteries, respectively. The phone leverages AI, Samsung says, to optimize power usage. Each model promises fast charging, fast wireless charging, and wireless PowerShare for powering other compatible devices.
*Privacy and security. As with other Samsung devices, the new phones leverage the company’s proprietary Knox security platform. And a new Privacy Share function lets you control who gets the content you send across Android devices, and how long that content will be available. You can also remove meta data inside photos with your location and recall content after you send it. They can all be unlocked with a fingerprint.
*Worth noting: The S21 are all water resistant (meeting the IP69 spec). The S21 and S21+ start with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage; the Ultra starts at 12GB of RAM with internal storage options of 128GB, 256GB or 512GB. The phones are powered by Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 888 processors.