Samsung Galaxy Unpacked: Samsung Galaxy S21, S21 Plus, and S21 Ultra are here

Samsung Galaxy S21
(Image credit: Samsung)

Samsung cares not for your CES 2021 it seems, as the smartphone manufacturer decided to have its own reveal event today where it dropped some bombshells with the announcement of the new flagship line of smartphones - the Samsung Galaxy S21 range

Samsung has been sitting comfortably at the top of our best smartphones rankings all year with its superb Samsung Galaxy S20, so we were supremely excited to see what it had to offer this time around. But did Samsung deliver? Yes and no. Let’s have a look at the specs of these new smartphones and then we’ll explain what we mean. 

Samsung Galaxy S21: Release Date and Price 

There are three new phones to talk about in this reveal: the Samsung Galaxy S21, Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus, and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. So, what’s new this time around? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Before we go into the specs, we better tell you the price and release date (we know what you’re here for). The Samsung Galaxy S21 starts at $799, while the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus costs $999.99 for the base model. As for the big kahuna, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra starts at $1199.99.

All three of these handsets can come in 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB storage options, and you’ll pay more for the higher tiers there too. The Samsung Galaxy S21, S21 Plus, and S21 Ultra launch on January 15.

Samsung Galaxy S21/S21 Plus: The lowdown 

We’re rolling these two together, as there isn’t a huge difference in specs and features between them, beyond the size of the screen. On that front, the base Samsung Galaxy S21 comes with a 6.2” AMOLED screen, while the S21 Plus has a larger 6.7” display. Both screens have a 2400 x 1080 resolution, which isn’t quite as high as the 3200 x 1440 displays in the S20 range. Both devices have a refresh rate of 120 Hz.

The S21 and S21 Plus (and indeed the Ultra) are all powered by the most advanced chip in a Samsung to date, the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. This is an Octa-core 2.84GHz CPU, which should offer some major performance upgrades over the older S20 range. There is a slight downgrade in the RAM compliment, with models starting with 8GB compared to the 12Gb that came as standard with the S20.

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

The camera array is largely unchanged from last year’s S20 lineup, which might come as a surprise given the megapixel arms race that smartphone manufacturers have been in for the last few years. You get a 12 megapixel wide AF lens (f/1.8), a 12 megapixel ultrawide lens (f/2.2), and a 64 megapixel telephoto lens (f/2.0) in the rear camera, along with a 10 megapixel AF selfie camera on the front. The rear camera has up to 30x zoom with 3x hybrid optical zoom.

Instead of focusing on upgrading the camera hardware again, the S21 series focuses on bolstering the software side of photography. There are a load of new and upgraded features including the 30x Space Zoom, Zoom Lock, along with the new Director’s View mode for budding filmmakers out there.

Outside the headline features, there have been some other changes. The fingerprint sensor has been upgraded, and battery (S21: 4,000mAh, S21 Plus: 4,000mAh) usage is improved thanks to intelligent monitoring of power consumption needs. 

Visually, there have been a few changes to the S21 that might turn some heads. The camera bulge extends to the edge of the phone and can be picked out with a metallic accent color. Beyond that it’s the usual metal back covered with a glass backing, except in the case of the basic S21 where it’s a plastic coating - likely part of the cost saving exercise to drag that price point down.

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

There are a variety of color options, though some are limited to specific models. The S21 comes in Violet, Gray, White, and Pink while the S21 Plus has Violet, Black, Silver, Gold, and Red options. All of these color names have the word Phantom in front of them, so we can only assume they’re haunted colors.

On that front, Samsung is extremely proud of it’s new black color. Seriously, they have a presentation all about how they made the best black ever. Ask them about it, they’re dying to tell someone about it.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: The Big Kahuna 

The pride and joy of the Samsung fleet, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the top end model in the S21 range and it boasts quite a few significant upgrades over its two smaller siblings, even if it shares most of its hardware. You get a slightly larger screen at 6.8-inches, though the resolution and specs remain the same. It’s running the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chipset, comes with 12GB/16GB of RAM and comes in 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB storage options.

The biggest differences come in the camera array. Here you get a 12 megapixel ultrawide lens (f/2.2), two 10 megapixel telephoto lenses (f/2.4 and f/4.9), and that eye-watering 108 megapixel wide angle laser AF lens (f/1.8) that we saw in the S20. The dual telephoto lenses are designed to give users more options, with one offering 3x zoom and the other 10x zoom. The selfie camera also gets a significant bump up, with a 40 megapixel lens.

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

Beyond that, it’s largely the same as the other models in the range. You get a slightly chunkier 5,000mAh battery and support for the S-pen, but that’s about it.

One of the biggest disappointments here is the color lineup, which has to be the dullest selection we’ve ever seen. Alongside the super black that took a team of scientists years to develop, you also get silver, titanium, navy, and brown. Brown? Who wants a brown phone?

Initial Impressions of the Samsung Galaxy S21 range? 

On the surface of things, this was quite a tame reveal from Samsung. The Samsung Galaxy S21 can easily be looked at as quite a small step forwards for Samsung smartphones, especially when compared to the jump between the S10 and S20 models. There is no swanky new hardware to speak off beyond the upgraded chipset, and there aren’t any headline features that blow us away either.

But there is one detail that we think is very much worth considering, and that’s the price. The base Samsung Galaxy S21 costs just $799 - that’s $200 cheaper than the cheapest S20 model.

Instead of focusing on making the absolute best possible phone that it could, and damn the expense, Samsung seems to have taken a more measured approach to the S21 lineup, looking at what customers need, and what they can afford. 2020 wasn’t exactly the best of years, and with the current global and economic situation being as they are, a blingy new smartphone with a starting cost north of $1000 would have been a little tone deaf at best, and a flop at worst.

We love the reserved but sleek design of the S21, and it still has a camera lens array that would make the Hubble Space telescope jealous. It’s also packing plenty of grunt under the hood and the renewed focus on software and user experience will likely have a much more positive impact on everyday users than a few extra GB of RAM ever would have.

We’re excited to get our hands on the Samsung Galaxy S21 (especially that Ultra model) and we’ll have an in-depth review coming up for you in the near future.

Ian Stokes

Ian Stokes is the Tech Editor here at Top Ten Reviews. He has extensive experience in tech and games journalism, with work published on IGN, Kotaku UK, Waypoint, GamesRadar, Trusted Reviews, and many more. You'll find him covering everything from smartphones and home computers to 3D printers and headphones. He's also our resident cocktail expert.