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Samsung Galaxy S21: 7 biggest upgrades to expect

Samsung Galaxy S21 no headphone jack
(Image credit: Evan Blass (Modified))

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is just a few days away from its January 14 reveal, but a host of rumors have already revealed the most important changes between it and the previous Galaxy S20 series. 

A new powerful and more efficient Snapdragon 888 chip combined with lower display resolutions and new LTPO display technology should make for much longer-lasting phones, while the addition of dual telephoto cameras, laser autofocus and S Pen support should make the Galaxy S21 Ultra a killer rival to the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Add to that a handsome new design and potentially a lower price than last year, and Samsung could have a big success on its hands once the phones are officially launched. Here are the 7 biggest upgrades to expect from the Samsung Galaxy S21 series. 

Galaxy S21 design: Flatter and sleeker

samsung galaxy s21

(Image credit: Pigtou/xleaks7)

If you can't stand curved displays on your smartphones, then you'll be glad to hear that the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus are both rumored to use flat display panels. The S21 Ultra is still curved on the right and left edges, but that may be necessary for ergonomic reasons, since it uses a larger display than the other two versions.

Aside from this, the official-looking renders of the phone show Samsung's given the phone a handsome new design, with the rear camera bump curving over the edge of the phone to merge with the side rail. As for colors, there are a range of lighter pastel colors to choose from as well as classics like black, white and silver, based on what's been leaked.

Dual telephoto cameras and laser autofocus

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra cameras

(Image credit: WinFuture)

The new headline camera feature for the Galaxy S21 is the pair of telephoto sensors rumored to be on the back of the S21 Ultra. Both are 10MP in resolution, but one offers 3x zoom while the other is capable of 10x zoom. Covering two different magnifications means less reliance on digital zoom, and combined with the S21 Ultra's other new feature, a laser autofocus sensor, it could also mean portrait mode and other effects will be more reliable.

Most of the S21 and S21 Plus' cameras look to be the same as the ones on the S20 series. However, Samsung has promised "super-intelligent, pro-grade camera and video capabilities in 2021." So we expect improved computational photography and post-processing performance on the Galaxy S21 series as well as improved video recording. A spec leak points to 8K/30p video recording (up from 8K/24p) on the S20. 

S Pen support on Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra with S Pen

(Image credit: LetsGoDigital/Giuseppe Spinelli)

Samsung's Galaxy Note 20 and other phones in the series have been the only ones to feature the S Pen. But that may no longer be such a unique feature come the launch of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which is rumored to be the first Galaxy S phone capable of working with an S Pen.

With a rumored display size of 6.8 inches, the S21 Ultra's display sounds ideal for use with a stylus. However, unlike a Galaxy Note phone, the S Pen won't come as standard and won't have a convenient storage slot. Instead, you'll likely have to spring for a case that has a slot for the S Pen. 

Galaxy S21 performance: Faster Snapdragon 888

Snapdragon 888

(Image credit: Qualcomm)

Samsung isn't messing around with the silicon in the Galaxy S21, arming it with the newest Snapdragon 888 chipset from Qualcomm. This chip will add a lot of computing power to the S21 based on recent pre-release benchmarks, as well as new optimizations for gaming and photography, plus greater power efficiency thanks to its 5nm process and integrated 5G modem.

That only applies to U.S. Galaxy S21 handsets, however. The S21s that will go on sale in the U.K. will most likely use an Exynos 2100 chip instead. We know less about this chip than we do about the new Snapdragon, but it's expected to offer similar performance and features.

Lower Galaxy S21 prices

Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Evan Blass/Voice)

This isn't an upgrade per se, but it does mean you're getting more phone for your money. The Galaxy S20 started at $999 when it launched last year, but according to one rumor, we could see at least a $50 price drop for the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus. The Galaxy S21 Ultra could be priced the same at $1,399 or even go higher.

In the context of rival devices like the iPhone 12 or the OnePlus 8T, Samsung is still charging a premium even when accounting for hardware differences. Nonetheless, a price drop is still welcome, and could increase when accounting for the deals that wireless carriers will inevitably offer.

Longer Galaxy S21 battery life

Samsung Galaxy S21 no charger

(Image credit: LetsGoDigital)

One of the worst parts of the Galaxy S20 was how short the phones' batteries lasted, particularly when set to their highest refresh rates. The S21 Plus is the only model that is rumored to be getting a larger battery, moving from 4,500 mAh to 4,800 mAh. However, we're expecting longer battery life for both the S21 and S21 Plus, though it will come at a cost.

While all S21 models will still be capable of a 120Hz refresh rate, the S21 and S21 Plus are said to be using FHD resolution displays instead of QHD like the S20 and S20 Plus did. While it means a little less detail in the images they produce, that should mean a smaller drain on the battery, up to 24% based on one batch of tests by Android Authority. Combine that with the more power-efficient 5nm Snapdragon 888 chipset, and this should mean you won't have to be so concerned about your phone dying on you at the end of a long day.

LTPO display tech on S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

(Image credit: LetsGoDigital)

The S21 Ultra's QHD panel will gain a new trick over its successor by using the same LTPO display technology found on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. This lets the phone adjust its refresh rate on the fly from between 1Hz and 120Hz; other phones typically give you two or three preset refresh rates to choose from in the settings menu.

The result is high refresh rates only when you need them, which in turn reduces the strain on the battery and lets the phone last longer on a single charge. For example, playing games would make the S21 Ultra use its full 120Hz potential, but letting the phone rest on the home screen would cause the refresh rate to drop to its lowest to conserve power until you do something else.

Richard Priday

Richard is a Tom's Guide staff writer based in London, covering news, reviews and how-tos for phones, gaming, audio and whatever else people need advice on. He's also written for WIRED U.K., The Register and Creative Bloq. When not at work, he's likely thinking about how to brew the perfect cup of specialty coffee.