Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra leads the 5G pack with S-Pen and 108MP quad camera

Samsung Galaxy S21
(Image credit: Samsung)

Samsung's Galaxy S21 phones are official. The firm took the wraps off its Galaxy S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra during its Galaxy Unpacked event, where it also unveiled the Galaxy Buds Pro true wireless earbuds.

The event, which took place a month earlier than usual, was of course virtual, but that didn't stop Samsung from giving chapter and verse on its new Galaxy S Series. 

The headline news: the flagship S21 Ultra sports the S-Pen that was until now exclusive to the company's big-screen Note phones, such as the Note 20 Ultra, and features an even more highly-specified 108MP quad camera. The Galaxy S21 range features cameras capable of shooting 8K video at 24fps, and a new camera bump design for a refreshed aesthetic.

Could the Galaxy S21 not only prove the company's best yet but also rise above the latest flagship Sony Xperia 1 II to claim the best phone plaudits? We certainly wouldn't bet against it.

Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Samsung)

Galaxy S21 price and release date

The Galaxy S21 5G will be available in Phantom Violet, Phantom Grey, Phantom Pink and Phantom White finishes, available with 8GM RAM in 128GB (£769, $799, AU$1249) and 256GB (£819, AU$1349) storage options. 

The Galaxy S21+ 5G comes in Phantom Violet, Phantom Silver and Phantom Black options with 8GB RAM and 128GB (£949, $999, AU$1549) or 256GB (£999, AU$1649) storage sizes.

And lastly, the Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G is available in Phantom Black and Phantom Silver, coated in a 'frosted haze' matte finish. Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy and Phantom Brown are additional finishes available exclusively on RAM and storage pairings are as follows: 12GB RAM with 128GB (£1149, $1199, AU$1849), 16GB with 256GB (£1199, AU$1949), and 16GB with 512GB (£1329, AU$2149).

Galaxy S21 pre-orders are open immediately for all three phones, with shipping beginning on 29th January.

Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Samsung)

Galaxy S21 series: camera

We found the camera on last year's Galaxy S20 to be a real highlight, so the fact that Samsung has improved its excellent software for the S21 series is promising. Single Take, which creates a portfolio of all the best moments you capture in one shot (useful when scrolling through options to upload to Instagram), enters a 2.0 version, now using five times more AI processing for the promise of even better results. There's Dynamic Slo-Mo, as well as a Highlights Reel, the idea being that you don't need to edit shots yourself.

Portrait Mode has been improved (you can now alter the lighting or your backdrop), as has Space Zoom, which now has a lock to neutralise shaky hands at 30x zoom. The new Director’s View mode lets you simultaneously view both the front and rear cameras in your viewfinder, with all of the lenses available to easily switch between. Vlogger view, meanwhile, lets you simultaneously capture from both the front and back lenses, so you can shoot something while, say, documenting your own reaction.

8K at 24fps video recording is onboard, with 8K Video Snap allowing you to capture high-res photos when playing your videos back. And this is the first time 4K filming at 60fps is achievable through all lenses.

While the Galaxy S21 and S21+ have triple-lens snappers (a 12MP ultra-wide, 12MP wide and 64MP telephoto) and a 10MP front shooter, the Ultra takes things further once again. We're looking at Samsung's "most advance Pro-grade cameras yet" here. There's still a quad rear configuration here, but the main 108MP wide lens is new and promises 64x richer colours and three times wider dynamic range. That's complemented by 12MP ultra-wide and two 10MP telephotos. 

That dual-telephoto system (one 3x optical, one 10x optical) powers the Ultra's 100x Space Zoom, with the lenses automatically switching according to the distance from your subject. And with a new Bright Night sensor, improved Night Mode, noise reduction and 12MP Nona-binning technology, Samsung is promising its "biggest leap yet in low-light photography". We look forward to trying all that out for ourselves.

Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra (Image credit: Samsung)

Galaxy S21 series: screen

The camera lens bump marks the biggest design tweak for the S21 family, with the contoured cut-out blending into the device’s metal frame on the top left corner. It certainly gives the body's rear a sleeker, more streamlined look.

The front of the phone shouldn't let the side down either, their 'Dynamic AMOLED 2x' screens supporting 120Hz in 6.2in FHD+ (S21), 6.7in FHD+ (S21+) and 6.8in WQHD+ (S21 Ultra) sizes, and featuring a new Eye Comfort Shield that automatically adjusts blue levels.

The Ultra boasts the "best display Samsung has ever created", offering that maximum refresh rate even in maximum resolution quality. Samsung is promising 25 per cent more brightness (the peak is an eye-dazzling 1500 nits) and double the contrast of the S20 Ultra's screen. Bold.

Of course, that display is at the mercy of your fingertips – or the S-Pen, as it hits the S Series for the first time. When asked where this leaves the Note line, TM Roh, Samsung's president and head of mobile communications business, said: “We’ve made the bold decision to expand the S Pen experience to Galaxy S21 Ultra, and plan to expand the S Pen experience across additional device categories in the future.”

Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 (Image credit: Samsung)

Galaxy S21 series: the rest

While Samsung has predominantly moved the S21 family on in camera and screen technology, more modest improvements have been made under the hood, too. Ready for a numbers breakdown? Here it goes.

Samsung is promising 20 per cent faster CPU, 35 per cent faster GPU, and double-the-speed AI processors over the S20 handsets, making the S21 its fastest phones to date. The 'Ultrasonic' in-screen fingerprint scanner is now 1.7x larger for improved accuracy, too.

Battery-wise, the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra sport 4000mAh, 4800mAh and 5000mAh juice packs respectively – the only change over the S20 series being the middle device gaining an extra 300mAh.

There's 8GB RAM, plus either 128GB or 256GB storage options for the S21 and S21+, while the S21 Ultra gets either 8GB or 16GB RAM, with either 128GB, 256GB or 512GB storage options.

All three support Samsung's Smart Things Find (which helps you locate Galaxy devices using Bluetooth LE – even when they’re offline) and £29/$30 Galaxy Smart Tag (which helps you locate non-connected devices or belongings that are tagged – pets, keys etc).

5G is, as expected, on the menu across the line-up, while Ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless communication technology support in the S21+ and S21 Ultra means we could see those premium devices able to, say, unlock a car (i.e. replace a car key fob) in the near-future, too.

So there you have it: three 5G Galaxy S21 phones for 2021, with improved cameras and screens, sleek (and tweaked) designs, and an expanded feature set for the Ultra handset. We, for one, cannot wait to get our hands on them very shortly. Watch this space, Android fans.


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Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10 years in the hi-fi industry, she has been fortunate enough to travel the world to report on the biggest and most exciting brands in hi-fi and consumer tech (and has had the jetlag and hangovers to remember them by). In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.