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Samsung Galaxy S21 5G buying guide: Everything you need to know

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is Samsung’s top-end phone for 2021, at least so far. With a clean design, camera upgrades, a new processor, and more, the devices in the Galaxy S21 series are so far some of the best phones of the year. They’ve proven themselves against the competition before, and they certainly could again.

As you would expect from a phone launch these days, there’s more than just one Galaxy S21 model — there are three Galaxy S21 devices in total. With the standard Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21+, and Galaxy S21 Ultra, there should be something in the lineup for a wide variety of buyers, especially considering the fact that they start at $800 and will be getting discounts every now and then. Here’s everything you need to know about the new Samsung Galaxy S21 series before you buy.

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G, S21+ 5G, and S21 Ultra 5G: What’s the Difference?

As mentioned, there are three Galaxy S21 models on offer, and there are some key differences and some key similarities between them. They all, for starters, offer the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor in the U.S., or the Exynos 2100 in international models. They also ship with Android 11, and the overall software experience will be identical. And all three devices support 25W wired charging, 15W wireless charging, and Samsung’s Wireless PowerShare feature that allows you to charge your Galaxy Watch or Buds (or other Qi devices). Rumors indicate that another model, the Galaxy S21 FE, may be released eventually, but it likely won’t be until later in the year.

We’ll dive into the differences in specs between the Galaxy S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra in the sections below, but the main reasons you should buy one over the others are display size and, perhaps, camera specs. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, as you would expect, has the largest display (6.8 inches) and largest battery (5,000mAh), but that display also has a wider range of refresh rates (10 to 120Hz), a higher max brightness, and striking curved edges. It also has the best camera thanks in part to the two telephoto lenses, which offer 3x and 10x optical zoom — the S21 and S21+ are stuck with minimal optical zoom and lean on digital zooming.

The other major difference is the fact that the Galaxy S21 Ultra supports Samsung’s S Pen. While there’s no space in the phone itself to store that S Pen, and you’ll have to buy it separately, this may appeal to some power users who didn’t already jump onto a Galaxy Note.

Read on for a more detailed explanation of specs and the differences between the models.

Galaxy S21 5G price

The entire Samsung Galaxy S21 series was unveiled on January 14. All three devices have gotten routine discounts since their unveiling, and the latest is that they’re available starting at only $550 from Best Buy, if you’re willing to sign up for a new Verizon plan. Expect other deals to pop up regularly, and frankly, you probably shouldn’t pay full price for any of the Galaxy S21 devices.

The Samsung Galaxy S20 FE was a hit for the company, and it looks like Samsung is taking that to heart: The price of entry for the Galaxy S21 is much lower than the $1,000-plus Galaxy S20, with the Galaxy S21 starting at $800. That will help it to compete with the $700 iPhone 12 Mini, but whatever the reason for the reduced prices, it’s nice to see companies taking flagship-quality phones that don’t cost $1,000 seriously. Here’s a rundown of the entire Galaxy S21 lineup’s pricing.
  • Samsung Galaxy S21$800 for the 128GB model, $850 for the 256GB model
  • Samsung Galaxy S21+$1,000 for the 128GB model, $1,050 for the 256GB model
  • Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra$1,200 for the 128GB model, $1,250 for the 256GB model, $1,380 for the 512GB model

You can order the Galaxy S21 right from the Samsung website.

Galaxy S21 5G design and display

An image of the Samsung Galaxy S21 being held in a hand

Turns out, all the leaks were correct. The Samsung Galaxy S21 series offers a revamped design compared to the S20 from last year, and it looks pretty good.

All three models offer a large camera bump that immediately draws attention to itself when you see it on the back of the phone. The way that it’s built, the camera bump is actually connected to the frame of the phone, around the edge — which is a nice touch. The camera bump on the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the largest, to accommodate for the quad camera on the device, versus the triple camera on the Galaxy S21 or Galaxy S21+.

There is a wide range of new colors, but it’s all a bit confusing. The Galaxy S21 has four color options (white, pink, grey, violet), the S21+ has three (silver, violet, black), and the S21 Ultra has two (silver, black). It’s important to note that not all colors are available on all models, but there is a solid selection of colors no matter which model you go for.

On the front, Samsung has slimmed down the bezels a little, but the overall look of an edge-to-edge display with a hole-punch cutout for the front-facing camera remains. The S21 and S21+ have a flat display, while the S21 Ultra has curved edges like prior Galaxy S models.

Speaking of the display, it’s a doozy. On the Galaxy S21, there’s a 6.2-inch display, while the Galaxy S21+ sports a 6.7-inch display. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has the largest, coming in at 6.8 inches, and it’s actually an all-new kind of OLED display that’s more power-efficient than previous displays. All three devices support HDR10+. The Galaxy S21+ and the Galaxy S21 Ultra both offer glass backs, but the standard Galaxy S21 has the same plastic back as the Galaxy S20 FE. Of course, for those who slap a case onto their phone, that won’t really matter. For those who don’t though, be careful — we have firsthand experience dropping a glass Galaxy S21 Ultra, and it didn’t go great. Jerry Rig Everything also recently put the Galaxy S21 Ultra to the durability test.

Perhaps controversially, the Galaxy S21 and S21+ offer a 1,080p resolution, which is a step down from the standard S20 that had a 1,440p resolution — though, on the S20, you had to drop to a 60Hz refresh rate to get it. The Galaxy S21 and S21+ have an adaptive refresh rate, which can move between 48Hz and 120Hz — which is an improvement overall. We tend to feel that a high refresh rate is more impactful than a high resolution, but at least some fans haven’t appreciated the switch.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra offers the best of both worlds. It has a 1440p resolution, and an adaptive refresh rate — and one that is stepped up to a range of 10Hz to 120Hz, which looks even better and saves on power usage. As soon as you see it, it’s clear the Galaxy S21 Ultra has among the best displays on a smartphone.

Under that display, finally, there’s an upgrade: Samsung has a new, larger fingerprint sensor. The Qualcomm-provided ultrasonic fingerprint sensor that was fine in the Galaxy S10 was way behind the times for the S20 and has finally been replaced for the S21. Qualcomm’s second-generation ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is larger and claims to be over 50% faster — we sure hope that’s true.

Galaxy S21 5G battery and specs

As mentioned, all three Galaxy S21 devices offer a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 in North America, and either the Snapdragon or Exynos 2100 in various international markets. But coupled with that processor, specs vary a little. Here’s a quick rundown of RAM and storage in the different models.

  • Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21+: 8GB of RAM and 128GB or 256GB of storage
  • Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: 12GB or 16GB of RAM and 128G, 256GB, or 512GB of storage

Any of the models listed above should be more than powerful enough to handle everything you can throw at it in 2021, including mobile gaming, heavy multitasking, and more. It’s important to note that none of the Galaxy S21 phones have a MicroSD card slot.

As you would expect, the bigger the phone, the bigger the battery. The standard Galaxy S21 has an already relatively large 4,000mAh battery, with the S21+ stepping things up to 4,800mAh, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra boasting a 5,000mAh battery. We’ll have to wait and see just how long these batteries last, especially given the 120Hz refresh rate — though the fact that it’s a variable refresh rate should help.

Galaxy S21 Galaxy S21+ Galaxy S21 Ultra
Display 6.2-inch FHD+, 120Hz 6.7-inch FHD+, 120Hz 6.8-inch QHD+, 120Hz

S Pen support

Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
Memory 8GB 8GB 12GB or 16GB
Storage 128GB or 256GB 128GB or 256GB 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB
Camera 1 (main)

12MP, 1.8μm, f/1.8, Dual Pixel AF

12MP, 1.8μm, f/1.8, Dual Pixel AF 108MP, 0.8μm, f/1.8, Phase Detect AF, OIS
Camera 2 (ultrawide)

12MP, 1.4μm, f/2.2, 120° FoV

12MP, 1.4μm, f/2.2, 120° FoV 12MP, 1.4μm, f/2.2, Dual Pixel AF, 120° FoV
Camera 3 (telephoto)

64MP, 0.8μm, f/2.0, Phase Detect AF, OIS

64MP, 0.8μm, f/2.0, Phase Detect AF, OIS 10MP, 1.22μm, f/2.4, Dual Pixel AF, Optical 3x zoom, OIS
Camera 4 (telephoto) n/a n/a 10MP, 1.22μm, f/4.0, Dual Pixel AF, Optical 10x zoom, OIS
Front camera 10MP, 1.22μm, f/2.2, Dual Pixel AF, 80° FoV 10MP, 1.22μm, f/2.2, Dual Pixel AF, 80° FoV

40MP, 0.7 μm, f/2.2, Phase Detect AF, 80° FoV

Water resistance IP68 IP68 IP68
Battery 4000mAh 4800mAh 5000mAh
Charging 25W wired, 15W wireless

Wireless PowerShare

25W wired, 15W wireless

Wireless PowerShare

25W wired, 15W wireless

Wireless PowerShare

Dimensions

71.2 x 151.7 x 7.9mm

171g

75.6 x 161.5 x 7.8mm

202g

75.6 x 165.1 x 8.9mm

229g

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G cameras

The Galaxy S21 series cameras being shown off

The camera is perhaps the biggest difference between the three Galaxy S21 models. That’s a trend across the smartphone industry — the priciest iPhone 12 Pro Max has the best camera of the iPhone 12 series.

The standard Galaxy S21 and S21+ offer the same camera systems. For starters, there’s a triple-lens camera with one 12-megapixel wide-angle camera featuring dual pixel autofocus and an f/1.8 aperture. Next up is a 12MP ultrawide camera with a 120-degree field-of-view and an f/2.2 aperture. And, last but not least, is a 64MP “telephoto” camera, which is barely an optical zoom over the main camera but can provide a digital zoom up to 30s. Keen observers will notice that this isn’t a change from the Galaxy S20 series — Samsung’s expecting to find improvements thanks to new processing and the Snapdragon 888’s ISP (image signal processor).

The Galaxy S21 Ultra steps things up. The ultrawide camera on the device is the same, but that’s where the similarities end. The main sensor sits at 108MP, with an effective output of 12MP. And, there are two telephoto lenses: One 10MP with 3x optical zoom and an aperture of f/2.4, and one 10MP with 10x optical zoom and an f/4.9 aperture. Both have optical image stabilization to stabilize those long zoom shots. Altogether, the Galaxy S21 Ultra steps “Space Zoom” to a hefty 100x zoom.

The cameras support a range of new features. Notably, there’s an improved 8K Snap feature, which lets you take a photo while recording an 8K video. And there’s the new Director’s View video-capture mode, which allows users to see and switch between cameras while recording video, and Vlogger Mode, which captures the rear camera and the front camera at the same time.

The Galaxy S21 doesn’t come with a wall charger

Samsung was quick to mock Apple after the company ditched the power adapter for the iPhone 12 series, but the company is now changing its attitude and getting rid of the accessory for the Galaxy S21. Samsung has confirmed that the Galaxy S21 series will not come with a wall charger.

It’s not necessarily a surprising development, and this isn’t the first time that Samsung has shot itself in the foot by mocking Apple. Notably, the company was quick to criticize Apple for getting rid of the headphone jack, but it also no longer includes a headphone jack on many of its flagship phones.

It will last a very long time

If you’re buying one of these, you don’t need to worry about whether it will get updates for the next couple of years. Samsung has promised software updates for three years, which means you can expect Android 12, 13, and 14 on this. The company will also deliver four years of security updates and keep the phone supported all the way to 2025. You no longer need to buy an iPhone to get a smartphone that’s good for both your wallet and the environment and can feel confident buying it even a year or two into its lifecycle.

Samsung Galaxy SmartTags and Galaxy Buds Pro

Apple AirTags were rumored for months before finally releasing at the end of April, but Samsung beat Apple to the punch with its own take on the idea. Samsung SmartTags are small, low-power trackers you can attach to anything — think keys, backpacks, kids, or pets — that allow you to locate whatever they’re stuck to through Bluetooth.

The Galaxy Buds Pro true-wireless earbuds are definitely not free — they’re $200, and now sit at the top of Samsung’s range of earbuds. We’ve had a chance to put them to the test, and found that they’re actually really quite nice. While they’re not perfect, considering the finicky touch controls and slightly subpar call quality, they sound great, offer some awesome smart features, and more. Check out our full review here.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (Fan Edition)

Much like with the Galaxy S20 and Galaxy Tab S7, Samsung was expected to launch a Fan Edition, or FE, model of this phone. This would be a cheaper model of the S21 that keeps all of the basics intact while cutting down some of the more premium spec choices to hit the lower price point.

Samsung was said to be targeting a post-Unpacked 2021 launch for this device, so it was expected to come between October and December. However, a new report in September claims that Samsung canceled an October launch for the device and was reevaluating its viability entirely as a result of the chip shortage and the success of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3 series of smartphones. Samsung has not confirmed or denied plans to launch or not launch an S21 FE.

If the device does still exist, we have a good idea of the specs from a TENAA certification (the Chinese equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission) spotted by a third party. It is said to come with a 6.41-inch full HD AMOLED display with a 120Hz refresh rate, likely with a hole-punch display. Camera-wise, the certification reveals a 32-megapixel camera in the front and a triple-camera layout on the rear.

Recent renders shared by the prolific leaker Evan Blass show a selection of colors including black, white, purple, and green. It’s a lot like what Samsung offers for the regular Galaxy S21, but with the inclusion of the new green color.

All of this is expected to be powered by either a Snapdragon 888 or an Exynos processor. Samsung is said to be weighing options between the two as a result of the ongoing chip shortage. Referring back to the certification, we can also expect this to be paired with 6-8GB of RAM, and a 4,370mAh battery with 25W fast charging.

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