Samsung Galaxy S21 hands-on: A down-to-Earth upgrade with stellar new cameras

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

It's a new year, and that means a new refresh to Samsung's bread and butter, the Galaxy S series. The Galaxy S21 is finally official, as are its Plus and Ultra variants, and with them, a distinguishing new Contour Cut Camera design and a focus on lowering prices without lessening the flagship experience we've come to expect from the best Samsung phones.

Of course, with prices ranging from $799.99 for the entry-level Galaxy S21 all the way up to $1,199.99 for the S21 Ultra (and extending even further with upgraded storage), these phones still aren't cheap by any means — they certainly don't encroach on Galaxy S20 FE territory — but each model is launching at $200 less than its 2020 predecessor. That's a big deal when you consider that the S21 packs the latest Snapdragon 888 processor in the U.S., along with support for sub-6 5G across all three models, and UWB on the larger two models.

Samsung Galaxy S21 A refreshing new design

Each S21 variant is distinguished by its new camera housing, which looks roughly the same on the S21 and S21+, but extends significantly wider on the S21 Ultra to accommodate the additional sensors. It's a notable departure from the fairly pedestrian styling of the Galaxy S20 series, and will undoubtedly help these phones stand out, as will the striking new colors.

Getting more for less (with the exception of accessories).

I really dig the new signature Phantom Violet color, but the S21 and S21+ will also be available in Phantom Gray, Phantom White, and in the case of the smaller S21, Phantom Pink. Every color option comes in a matte finish this year, which I'm definitely happy to see as an avid dissenter of glossy coatings. Aside from the new color options and camera housings, though, the S21 series looks about as classic Samsung as it gets.

Samsung dropped the displays on the Galaxy S21 and S21+ down to 1080p at 120Hz after last year's S20 models were locked to just 60Hz when running in WQHD+, and after seeing such positive feedback with the S20 FE, the company has reintroduced flat displays to the core Galaxy S lineup for the first time in years, with the exception of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, whose display remains curved. The S21 Ultra is also Samsung's first phone to support both WQHD+ and 120Hz simultaneously, and can reach a peak brightness of 1500 nits.

I'm a big fan of flat displays, so this is a positive change for me, but the more divisive change will be the departure of the microSD slot — yep, even on the S21 Ultra. The internal storage tiers range from 128GB to 512GB on the top-end S21 Ultra variant, which should be plenty for the majority of users, but your mileage may vary.

Samsung will also no longer be shipping headphones or chargers in the boxes of the S21 series, figuring most customers likely already have these accessories sitting around (of course, there's also an eco-friendly angle here). This move certainly won't please everyone, but I don't think Samsung's too far off-base; particularly in the premium space where most consumers are upgrading from another high-end phone, you're bound to have a USB-C cable or three sitting around, and likely some type of Bluetooth headphones.

Samsung Galaxy S21: Under the hood improvements

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra in Phantom Black

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

All three Galaxy S21 models feature the same 5nm Snapdragon 888 chipset in the States, which Qualcomm claims should yield 25% better CPU performance and an incredible 35% uptick in GPU performance over the Snapdragon 865. Those aren't insignificant numbers by any means, and sure enough, the S21 feels blazingly fast; we'll be paying close attention to the performance during our review period.

The Snapdragon 888 also includes an integrated 5G modem, meaning all three models will at the very least support sub-6 5G connectivity. The Galaxy S21+ and S21 Ultra have UWB support as well, and Samsung is using that tech for more than just networking. The company is partnering with a number of automakers to enable users to unlock compatible cars using either UWB-equipped phone.

Underneath the display of each phone, Samsung has finally updated its ultrasonic fingerprint sensor with a 1.7X larger footprint that should yield far more accurate reads. After years of falling behind the competition in this regard, this is a very welcome change — though it's nothing compared to perhaps the biggest addition to the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra S Pen support

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra with S Pen

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

The long-whispered rumors have come true, and the S21 Ultra has an active digitizer under its display that enables the S Pen stylus that's been so endemic to the Galaxy Note line. It works with any S Pen from previous Galaxy Note and Galaxy Tab devices, though Samsung is also happy to sell you one separately if you don't have a spare lying around.

Of course, they'll also gladly sell you a case — there's no receptacle within the S21 Ultra's hardware for an S Pen, so instead Samsung designed a handful of specialized cases with a wider footprint to hold the S Pen when not in use. It's a bit clunky, and most of what we've seen so far have been the folio-style cases I've never been fond of, but it's only a matter of time before other case makers release their own options. (There are plenty of great Galaxy S21 cases, too, if you're not into Samsung's official ones.)

Because there's no supercapacitor on the S21 Ultra to charge the S Pen, you won't be able to take advantage of some of the Bluetooth-enabled features like remote shutter control and Air Actions that were first introduced with the Galaxy Note 9, but you can still write, draw, or hover the S Pen over the display to access a floating cursor. Like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, the S21 Ultra has 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity, as well.

Samsung Galaxy S21 New year, new cameras

Galaxy S21 Ultra in Phantom Black

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

The new Contour Cut Camera housing isn't just there for aesthetic purposes. The S21 series introduces new cameras across the board, with the most significant improvements coming to the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The 108MP primary sensor, now dubbed the Bright Night sensor, still utilizes 9:1 "nona-binning" to output 12MP photos, but Samsung says it drastically improved low light performance and, of course, fixed the auto-focusing problems found on last year's S20 Ultra.

The S21 Ultra is also the first Galaxy device to feature dual telephoto lenses — one 10MP f/2.4 lens with a native 3X zoom, and another 10MP f/4.9 lens at 10X. This should significantly improve telephotography, automatically switching lenses at different zoom levels and both optically stabilized to improve clarity at 100X Space Zoom.

For the first time, you can shoot 4K video at 60fps on all five lenses of the S21 Ultra, including the front-facing camera, and Samsung has introduced new shooting modes like Director's View, which gives you a live thumbnail preview of each lens simultaneously while filming, allowing you to switch perspectives on the fly.

As a videographer myself, I'm most excited for the new option to capture 12-bit RAW video in the S21 Ultra's Pro shooting mode, which directly translates to richer color information and more flexible footage for editing in post.

Samsung Galaxy S21 More to come

We'll be covering the Galaxy S21 series extensively in the coming weeks, but first impressions are, as expected, very positive. These devices will almost certainly become the de facto phones to beat within their respective price points, at least through the early months of 2021, and I'm absolutely excited to put the cameras through their paces.

All three Galaxy S21 models will be available starting January 29, with pre-orders going live today, January 14 at 11 AM EST. As always, Samsung will be offering a number of incentives for pre-orders, including up to $700 of trade-in credit, a $100-200 gift card depending on your model of choice, and a free Galaxy SmartTag.

Hayato Huseman

Hayato was a product reviewer and video editor for Android Central.