This story was originally published and last updated .
This year’s Galaxy S21 phones aren’t the sort of big overhaul that the S20 line was, but they still bring some pretty noteworthy upgrades to the table. Samsung appears more open to experimenting with features this time around, and even carries forward some lessons it learned from the Note20 series. In ways like this, the Galaxy S21 is very much the sort of strong, iterative upgrade we had hoped for, as should become abundantly clear as we look at some of its stand-out features.
The Galaxy S20 Ultra was an attempt for Samsung to show off its camera might, but those plans fell flat as that chunky setup didn’t live up to our expectations. Besides sprucing up the camera layout this year, Samsung has also reshuffled the arrangement on the S21 Ultra to include a pair of 10MP telephoto cams. This setup gives users a proper 10x optical zoom, though the rather gimmicky software-enhanced 100x zoom is still present.
Borrowing its laser autofocus system from the Note20 Ultra, the S21 Ultra should be able to avoid any focus-hunting issues that marred its predecessor. While the main camera continues to offer a monstrous 108MP resolution, the sensor at the heart of all this is an all-new ISOCELL HM3, which promises improvements to color and dynamic range. There are a bunch more camera-focused refinements for the S21 Ultra that we checked out (and quite liked) in our detailed review.
As for the Galaxy S21 and the S21+, not much seems to have changed hardware-wise since the last year. Any slight enhancement in image quality result either from Samsung tinkering with the software or the new processors.
The S Pen has long been the Galaxy Note line’s defining feature, but this year, Samsung is deviating from that course by making it compatible with the S21 Ultra, as well. The stylus being an optional add-on means no one is forcing it on you, and it’s up to you to get one only if you need it. What’s even better is that the S21 Ultra works with a variety of third-party pens, so if you have one lying around, you probably won't need to shell out anything extra.
While that's all well and good, the issue of S Pen storage is a real pain since you always need to keep a special case on, which also makes the already massive S21 Ultra even unwieldier.
Display (sort of)
Even though Samsung introduced a 120Hz refresh rate with last year’s S20, you could only get that kind of performance when running at 1080p resolution — it was a real bummer. That restriction goes away this time as you can enable Adaptive Motion smoothness even when the display resolution is cranked up to its full 1440p. Alas, that only applies to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, as its two cheaper siblings have traded their 2K panels for FHD+ ones.
What the S21 and 21+ do gain is a flat display while still retaining their exceptionally thin surrounding bezels. The S21 Ultra, on the other hand, has a slight curve to its top glass, though the panel itself underneath is flat.
The battery capacity of the S21 Ultra hasn’t changed since last year, but Samsung's still working to squeeze a little more life out of it. That could be made possible using adaptive refresh rates that can drastically scale back the display to 10Hz, depending on what you’re doing on the phone. Chances are you may not even notice when it comes into play and rapidly moves between 10 and 120Hz. The resulting improvement in battery life certainly isn't night and day, but it's nevertheless noticeable.
The Galaxy S21 and the S21+ can also do this trick, though their screens can only dial down to 48Hz. Of course, they still benefit from efficiency gains due to newer processors, and the fact that the S21+ gets a bigger 4800mAh cell should also help.
The ultrasonic fingerprint reader on the Galaxy S20 was so unreliable that it could sometimes even get on your nerves. For the S21 line, Samsung is still sticking to Qualcomm's solution but has upgraded to its second-gen 3D Sonic Sensor, which is 77% larger, to help reduce bad scans. The new sensor is also supposed to be 50% faster in general usage. Our review of the Galaxy S21 Ultra does substantiate the idea of improvements, though maybe not to that degree — the new scanner almost never misses a read, but it still doesn't get full marks in the speed department.
It’s frankly great to see that Samsung could build upon the already excellent Galaxy S20 line and even make the design more pleasing. The cherry on the cake is that you get all this with a full $200 slash to sticker prices across the lineup.
All that said, one can’t look away from the fact that these upgrades are largely confined to the Ultra, with the standard and plus models mostly left by the wayside. And that's not even to mention all the nonsensical downgrades Samsung has made to these phones to bring prices lower.