Samsung launched the Galaxy S21 series on January 14, 2021. That’s a much earlier date than usual for a Galaxy S launch. This is perhaps partially due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Pre-orders for the three phones in the series opened on January 14 as well, with the devices hitting store shelves on Friday, January 29, 2021, in the US and across Europe.
The South Korean electronics giant on Thursday, during its first virtual Unpacked event of the year, showed off its three new phones: the $800 Galaxy S21, the $1,000 Galaxy S21 Plus and the $1,200 Galaxy S21 Ultra. (In the UK, the S21 will start at £769, just £30 cheaper than the S20.) It also unveiled new $200 earbuds, called the Galaxy Buds Pro; $30 Tile-like Galaxy SmartTags that can track nonelectronic items like pets; and a $40 S Pen accessory. The event took place on the last day of this year's CES and more than a month earlier than normal.
Samsung's Galaxy S21 lineup is packed with refinements to the cameras, displays and 5G capabilities. The new phones feature a redesign that accentuates the camera lenses on their backs while linking them with their metal frames, something Samsung calls "Contour Cut Camera" housing. The base amount of storage for all of the S21 models is 128GB, and Samsung boosted the photo and video capabilities for vloggers and others.
The lower price is a nod to the realities of the world, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down many global economies and eliminating millions of jobs. Smartphones, serving as a lifeline to friends and co-workers, remain one of the few essential gadgets. This is also one of the first phones in a few years that didn't introduce a brand new technology like 5G, which often justifies a premium.
"In 2021, our top priority is to bring the benefit of technology to more people," TM Roh, the head of Samsung's mobile communication business, said in a statement, calling the Galaxy S21 series "the most powerful and versatile flagship lineup ever."
On the other end of the spectrum, the S21 Ultra is designed for people who want the "best of the best." It features a 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2x display, Samsung's best camera of the S21 lineup with four back lenses, and Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass Victus on the front and back. The S21 and S21 Plus have 6.2- and 6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2x displays, respectively, and Gorilla Glass Victus on the front. The S21 Plus also has the glass on the back, while the regular S21 features a plastic polycarbonate backing. Both have three camera lenses on the back.
This year, Samsung has brought support for its S Pen, a hallmark of the Galaxy Note lineup, to its Galaxy S family for the first time. Of the three new phones, only the S21 Ultra works with the S Pen, and it comes as a separate accessory that costs $40 for just the pen or $70 when bundled with a specially designed case that stores the stylus. Users can't stow the S Pen away inside the S21 Ultra like they can with Note, but they can use their old Note styluses with the S21 Ultra. The new accessory doesn't work with gestures or many of the other features found in the Note's S Pen, which likely means the Note line isn't dead quite yet.
Samsung will introduce an S Pen Pro later this year, though, that has some of the Bluetooth-enabled features found in the Note's stylus, like gestures. Samsung didn't give a price or release date for the S Pen Pro.
The new phones come as Samsung faces a tougher market for 5G phones. When the Galaxy S20 lineup hit the market a year ago, there still were relatively few 5G phones available, and they weren't cheap. Now competition is fierce. Prices for 5G phones go as low as $300 in the US, and virtually all companies sell 5G models. Every phone in Apple's iPhone 12 lineup from late 2020 came with 5G by default, something that was expected to help the technology go mainstream. At the same time, the world continues to grapple with a pandemic that's limiting budgets for new gadgets.