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Samsung Galaxy S21 release date, price, specs, cameras and more

Samsung Galaxy S21 Galaxy S21 Plus Galaxy S21 Ultra
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

After months of speculation and rumors — many of them accurate — Samsung has taken the wraps off its Galaxy S21 lineup. And it's pretty clear who the star of the show is.

While the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus both receive their share of improvements, as you'll see in our Galaxy S21 hands-on review including lower prices compared to last year's models, it's the Galaxy S21 Ultra that gets the biggest enhancements. From S Pen support to dual telephoto lenses, the Galaxy S21 Ultra packs in a number of features to stake its claim as Samsung's premier flagship. And it does this while costing $200 less than last year's Galaxy S20 Ultra.

The marquee features for the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus may not be as flashy, but they still might tempt shoppers looking for a new flagship device, especially since Samsung has cut prices. These two phones have dynamic displays of their own and several camera upgrades, and like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, they're powered by Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 888 chip.

All told, Samsung's latest phones offer an impressive amount of new features and enhancements. Here's what you need to know about the Galaxy S21 lineup. (For our first impressions of the entry-level Galaxy S21, read our Galaxy S21 hands-on.)

Samsung Galaxy S21 release date 

Pre-orders for every Galaxy S21 model get underway at 11 a.m. ET/8 a.m. PT on Thursday, Jan. 14, and if you pre-order at Samsung, you can get a credit depending on which phone you order — $100 for the S21, $150 for the S21 Plus and $200 for the S21 Ultra — that can be put to use in Samsung's online store. You'll also get a Samsung SmartTag,. the company's new tracking device,. to go with your pre-ordered phone.

The different Galaxy S21 models hit stores on Jan. 29. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are all offering the phone, and both US Cellular and Visible are among the carriers that plan to sell Samsung's new phones as well.

Samsung Galaxy S21 price

Galaxy S21 Plus

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Good news. You'll pay less for the Galaxy S21 than you would have for the Galaxy S20 last year. Samsung has cut $200 off last year's introductory prices, making these flagships the least expensive the company has offered since $,1000 phones became  thing.

Specifically, the main Galaxy S21 starts at $799, while the Galaxy S21 Plus costs $999. Both of those prices get you a 128GB model, but you can pay $50 extra for 256GB of storage if you prefer.

Meanwhile, the Galaxy S21 Ultra starts at $1,199 for a 128GB model with 12GB of RAM. That's also $200 off the Galaxy S21 Ultra's starting price. In addition to the base model, Samsung is offering an S21 Ultra with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage as well as a maxed-out 512GB model that comes with 16GB of memory. The 256GB model costs $1,249 while the 512GB version costs $1,379. That's still less than what the Galaxy S20 Ultra cost when it debuted last year.

Samsung Galaxy S21 specs

A quick check of the specs chart for the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus reveals that those two models have plenty in common. Apart from the size of the screen and battery — both are bigger with the S21 Plus — those two phones share a lot of the same specs. You do get more color options with the Galaxy S21 than with Samsung's other models, though. (While the S21 Ultra is primarily available in either Phantom Silver or Phantom Black, customers who buy directly from Samsung will have additional choices including Phantom Titanium, Phantom Navy and Phantom Brown.)

In contrast, the Galaxy S21 Ultra stands alone with the biggest screen (6.8 inches) and battery size (5,000 mAh) of any S21 model. There are also differences with the display's refresh rate and cameras, as we'll learn below.

Galaxy S21Galaxy S21 PlusGalaxy S21 Ultra
Starting price$799$999$1,199
Screen size6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED (2400 x 1080; 48Hz - 120Hz)6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED (2400 x 1080; 48Hz-120Hz)6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED (3200 x 1440; adaptive 10Hz - 120Hz)
CPUSnapdragon 888Snapdragon 888Snapdragon 888
Storage128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Rear cameras12MP (f/1.8) wide; 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide; 64MP (f/2.0) telephoto with 3x optical zoom12MP (f/1.8) wide; 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide; 64MP (f/2.0) telephoto with 3x optical zoom108MP (f/1.8) wide; 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide; 10MP (f/2.4) telephoto with 3x zoom; 10MP (f/4.9) telephoto with 10x zoom
Front cameras10MP (f/2.2)10MP (f/2.2)40MP (f/2.2)
Battery size4,000 mAh4,800 mAh5,000 mAh
Size6 x 2.8 x 0.31 inches6.4 x 3 x 0.31 inches6.5 x 3 x 0.35 inches
Weight6.07 ounces7.13 ounces8.04 ounces
ColorsPhantom Violet, Phantom Gray, Phantom Pink, Phantom White Phantom Violet, Phantom Silver, Phantom BlackPhantom Silver, Phantom Black, Phantom Navy (Samsung only), Phantom Titanium (Samsung only), Phantom Brown (Samsung only)

Samsung Galaxy S21 design 

Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

There's one other difference of note between the Samsung Galaxy S21 and the Galaxy S21 Plus. The former of those two models features what Samsung describes as a specially reinforced polycarbonate material on its back — that's the "glasstic" materials Samsung has used in phones like last year's Galaxy S20 FE to produce lower-cost flagships. It helps explain why you can pick up a Galaxy S21 for $200 less than any other model in this lineup.

Otherwise, the S21 and S21 Plus share an identical look with flat edges and a camera array that's designed to blend into the metal frame around the phone. Samsung calls this the Contour Cut camera housing, and it really sets the camera array apart, particularly on the Phantom Violet models where the array is a different color from the rest of the phone.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra feature the Contour Cut camera housing, too, but its front display has more of a curve to it. It also stands apart from the other phones in the S21 lineup with a matte finish meant to give the Ultra a more polished look (and also cut down on those fingerprints that can amass on the back of a phone).

Samsung Galaxy S21 display

Galaxy S21 Plus

(Image credit: Samsung)

The real story with all three Galaxy S21 models is the display, and we're not just talking about the different sizes — 6.2 inches for the S21, 6.7 inches for the S21 Plus and 6.8 inch screen on the S21 Ultra. All of those displays retain the fast 120Hz refresh rate introduced with last year's Galaxy S20 models, but this time around, the refresh rate is dynamic, meaning it adjusts based on what activity you're engaged in. 

Scrolling the web will default to a faster refresh rate for a smoother experience, while static activities like looking at still photos will slow things down to conserve battery life.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 120Hz display

(Image credit: Future)

Galaxy S21 rumors suggested only the Ultra model would get this feature, but the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus offer it too. However, those two phones have a smaller dynamic range than the Ultra — the S21 and S21 Plus can adjust the screen's refresh rate between 48Hz all the way up to 120Hz. The S21 Ultra can slow things down even further, dropping to 10Hz.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra's display is brighter, too, at a peak 1,500 nits, compared to 1,200 nits for the S21 and S21 Plus. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 cameras

Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

When it comes to cameras, the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus share a lot in common with last fall's Galaxy Note 20. A dual-pixel 12MP wide angle lens is the main camera, supported by a 12MP ultrawide shooter and 64MP telephoto lens capable of a 3x optical zoom.

For zooming beyond that, turn to the Space Zoom feature, which brings a digitally enhanced 30x zoom for more details. And a Zoom Lock feature should keep those shots in focus by tapping AI to keep the focal point of the shot in the center of the frame.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera close-up

(Image credit: Future)

If you like zooming in, though, you're going to want to turn to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which offers a pair of zoom lenses — one capable of a 10x optical zoom and the other delivering a 3x optical zoom. Zoom Lock's available here, too, and it will really come in handy with the Space Zoom feature which leverages those two telephoto lenses for a 100x zoom.

In addition to the pair of telephoto lenses, the Galaxy S21 Ultra sports a 108MP main camera along with a 12MP ultrawide shooter. A laser autofocus sensor helps keep photos looking sharp.

Up front, the Galaxy S21 Ultra boasts a 40MP camera with phase auto-detection. That compares to the 10MP dual-pixel selfie cam on the S21 and S21 Plus.

Galaxy S21 Plus

(Image credit: Samsung)

There's more to the story here than just camera optics, as Samsung has introduced a number of photography features across the Galaxy S21 line. Single Take, a feature introduced last year that captured different still images and videos from the Galaxy's cameras with one tap, has been updated so that it will now create slow-motion videos and highlight reels.

A new Director's View feature lets you switch between multiple cameras when shooting video for the best view and can even record from the front and rear cameras simultaneously. Samsung is also banking that an improved Bright Night sensor and 12MP Nona-binning technology on the S21 Ultra will improve that phone's ability to take shots in low light.

Samsung Galaxy S21 processor

Galaxy S21 Plus

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Despite the differences in display refresh speeds and cameras, all three Galaxy S21 models have one thing in common — the versions available in the U.S. are powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 system-on-chip. This is the first 5-nanometer chip built by Qualcomm, matching Apple's A14 Bionic which debuted last fall in the iPhone 12 series and currently sets the pace for mobile performance.

The Snapdragon 888 figures to close that gap, at least based on Snapdragon 888 benchmarks Qualcomm has released. We'll have to test the Galaxy S21 models to see how Samsung optimized the silicon, but Qualcomm is promising a 25% boost in CPU performance and power efficiency over The Snapdragon 865 found in last year's Galaxy flagships. The GPU on the new chipset should speed up graphics rendering by 35% while improving graphics power efficiency by 20%.

Samsung packs plenty of RAM into its phones, with the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus featuring 8GB of memory. That jumps to 12GB on the base model of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, where you have the option of paying up for 16GB of memory if you want.

You better like the storage options on the Galaxy S21 models, where base storage starts at 128GB. None of this year's S21 models comes with a microSD slot for adding on capacity.

Samsung Galaxy S21 battery and charging

The bigger the Galaxy S21 model you buy, the bigger the battery you'll get. The Galaxy S21 features a 4,000 mAh power pack, and that scales up to 4,800 mAh for the S21 Plus and 5,000 for the S21 Ultra. The batteries on the three phones use artificial intelligence to analyze your usage patterns for more efficient power consumption.

The new Galaxy phones can support 25W charging, with the S21 Ultra in particular able to get up to a 50% charge after half-an-hour, according to Samsung.

Samsung Galaxy S21: no charger in box

If you want that fast charging, though, you're going to have to supply your own charger, as none of the Galaxy S21 models will ship with a charger in the box. That follows a similar move by Apple with its iPhone 12 rollout last fall — a move Samsung mocked, by the way.

Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

The argument for not including a charger is that it reduces the amount of packaging for a new phone while also not adding to environmental waste, since a lot of us already have phone chargers lying around. For those who don't, though, picking up an extra charger is an added expense for buying phones that — even with Samsung's lower prices — still cost a lot.

Samsung Galaxy S21: 5G, Wi-Fi 6E and UWB

As with last year's Galaxy S20 models, the new Galaxy S21 phones support 5G connectivity. That includes mmWave-based 5G, so no matter which S21 model you get, it should be capable of delivering fast speeds — assuming you're somewhere where fast 5G connectivity is available.

Both the Galaxy S21 Plus and S21 Ultra support ultra wideband, so you'll be able to do things like easily pass files between other ultra wideband-equipped phones. The S21 Plus and S21 Ultra will also be able to unlock car doors automatically on select automobiles. Samsung says it's working with Audi, BMW, Ford and Genesis to standardize UWB and digital keys with upcoming cars.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is unique among the new Galaxy models with its support of Wi-Fi 6E, which delivers faster speeds and better bandwidth — at least if you're using a Wi-Fi 6E-compatible router.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra S pen support

There's something else the Galaxy S21 Ultra can do that the other new models can't. It's the first non-Galaxy Note phone to add S Pen support, though you'll have to buy the stylus separately. You'll also need a case for storing the S Pen, as there's no slot for it on the S21 Ultra like there is on the latest Galaxy Note models.

The S Pen costs $40, and there are currently two cases that can store the stylus; they're available for $69.99 each.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra S Pen

(Image credit: Future)

Otherwise, the S Pen should work the same with the Galaxy S21 Ultra as it does with a Note handset. You can use the pen to jot down notes, sketch things out, markup documents and more. The addition of S Pen support makes the Galaxy S21 Ultra more of a productivity tool and raises some doubt about whether the Galaxy Note has much of a future going forward, especially with Samsung's interest in foldable phones with larger screens.

In addition to the S Pen (which is actually a larger version of the current S Pen to make it easier to grip), Samsung says it will release an S Pen Pro later this year. That version will have Bluetooth functionality for using your S Pen as a remote control to snap photos and perform Air Actions. No price has been set yet for the S Pen Pro.

Samsung Galaxy S21 and Galaxy SmartTags

The fact that Samsung is bundling SmartTag key finders with Galaxy S21 pre-orders should tip you off that there's a tie-in between the phones and these new Bluetooth-based gadgets. You attach the SmartTag to whatever you want to keep track of, whether it's keys, a pet collar, a backpack or what have you, and you can fire up the SmartThings Find app on your phone to get a bead on its location.

samsung smartthings tracker

(Image credit: Samsung)

SmartTags figure to compete with the best key finders like the Tile Pro and the Chipolo One. But with Apple reportedly developing AirTags of its own that work with Ultra Wideband, this is an area that figures to get quite competitive in 2021.

Samsung Galaxy S21 outlook

While at first glance, the Galaxy S21 lineup feels a lot like the Galaxy S20 phones that came before it, there are a lot of changes to digest here — particularly with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. That said, even the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus introduce a lot of new enhancements — a dynamically refreshing display and improved processor, plus plenty of new photo features — that we're looking forward to testing.

We'll post our impressions of all the new Galaxy S21 models once we get our hands on Samsung's new phones.