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What to expect in mobile at CES 2021: Galaxy S21, foldables, wearables, and 5G

CES 2021 is rapidly approaching, and while things will certainly be different from the massive in-person event of 2020, there’s still plenty to anticipate and get excited about with the latest iteration of the show.

Even in a normal year, many of the biggest headlines and attention-grabbing announcements come around the show, rather than directly at the show. That’s likely to be the case even more so at CES 2021, since the entire show is virtual. Companies are likely to see less appeal to being a part of the official CES virtual platform compared to the usual in-person convention center booth space, so we’re likely to see a lot of announcements come at the same time as CES even if it’s not part of CES. Here’s what we expect to see at CES 2021 for mobile.

Samsung Galaxy S21 series

Of all the “not really at CES” announcements, Samsung may be providing the biggest. The company confirmed it will hold a virtual “Unpacked” event on January 14, which is the final day of CES. Samsung only does an Unpacked event for the big stuff — in this case, it’ll be the Galaxy S21 series.

This is an interesting switch for Samsung, which has joined other companies in steadily moving away from showing mobile products at CES. Like other massive companies, it’s focused on its home entertainment and broader company ecosystem products at the show instead, leaving the flagship Galaxy phones to dedicated events.

The Galaxy S21 series is obviously a big deal in the mobile world, as it generally holds the title of the Android phone that can actually go head-to-head with the iPhone in terms of capturing public mindshare. The S21 series is going to consist of three models — the S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra — with bigger and better displays, a new camera arrangement, and of course complete spec upgrades.

With a Galaxy S21 series launch at CES, it comes much earlier in the year than past models. While the timeline has shortened in the last few generations, Samsung has regularly picked early February for its Galaxy S launch. It seems as though with the reality of just having a virtual event no matter when in the year it happens, it makes sense to just launch some of the best phones when the tech world is all looking in one direction at CES.

A new round of foldables

CES 2020 was a real coming-out party for the best foldable phones, from reasonable designs in consumer-ready form factors to crazy concepts with huge screens. Now at CES 2021, we’re expecting to see many of these foldables turn into actual products. Up to this point, only Samsung and Motorola (and Huawei … kind of) have launched foldables you can actually just go and buy, and that’s going to change this year.

Galaxy Z Fold 2
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Foldable OLED screen technology has come a long way in the last year, and it’s finally reasonable for companies to make the move from prototypes to real products. Samsung, LG, and TCL are all making the screens for these applications, and we can expect to see them shown off in other brands’ devices, as well as their own.

And of course, we’ll likely still see plenty of over-the-top and crazy foldable prototypes that will never make it to market. It is still CES, after all.

The latest wearables

New wearable technology is usually more plentiful than new smartphones at CES, but with the switch to a virtual event this year, it’s unclear whether any of the (sometimes smaller) smartwatch brands will announce new products at the show. Fossil has been a big player at CES for several years, introducing everything from the Kate Spade Scallop 2 to the Diesel On Fadelite X Mad Dog Jones special edition smartwatch in Las Vegas.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Fossil isn’t on the official CES 2021 list of attendees, so despite rumors of an LTE-equipped smartwatch from the brand, it may not have much to show us. Amazfit is registered though, and last year revealed plenty, including the T-Rex tough smartwatch. It has recently launched the GTR 2 and GTS 2, so it may be too soon for major announcements though. Garmin is also attending the show and may have new sports-focused wearables to launch.

Withings, which showed the ScanWatch at CES 2020, isn’t registered as an attendee, and neither is Fitbit or Mobvoi. It doesn’t mean these companies won’t have any new products to reveal in the near future, but it does indicate they may wait until after CES 2021 to show them off. Outside of the big players, CES is often the place to discover niche but exciting wearables, like the eSight Smart Glasses, but due to the scaled-down event, these devices may be even more of a rarity.

5G, of course

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a corner of CES that doesn’t mention 5G in some capacity, but that discussion is obviously focused in the mobile space. Every phone retailing over $200 in 2021 is going to have the next-gen connectivity, and at this point having 5G in a phone is hardly worth mentioning. But we’re continuing to hear more about 5G’s rollout from the infrastructure and carrier side, as well as its implications in other parts of the industry beyond phones.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Carriers in the U.S. and around the world have solid 5G coverage thanks to Sub-6 spectrum availability, but we’re still far from ubiquitous coverage — this is where the biggest 5G announcements at CES will be focused. Carriers, and their partners in both infrastructure and device components, are working together to get 5G deployed and working in a ubiquitous way.

That means continued rollouts of new technology on the network side with dynamic spectrum sharing, new tower components, and milestones in cell site deployments. Growth in 5G also comes from having more devices with the latest versions of 5G radios, which are getting even more efficient, cross-network compatible, and available at lower prices. These are all coming at CES in the form of small announcements from every piece of the puzzle, but they add up to making 5G more compelling in 2021.

It seems dry from a consumer perspective, but it’s incredibly important for the future of actually using 5G to its full potential — because right now, we aren’t. And of course that means we still aren’t past the stage of hearing lots of over-the-top theoretical benefits of 5G — skip past those, and you will still see plenty of real improvements in the technology announced at the show.

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Andrew Martonik
Andrew Martonik is the Editor in Chief at Digital Trends, leading a diverse team of authoritative tech journalists.
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