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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: The biggest changes

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Galaxy S20
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

This Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 face-off looks at the similarities and differences between the two generations. Although the Samsung Galaxy S21 didn't get a radical redesign, it would be wrong to think of the Galaxy S21 as a "more of the same"-style update.

While many of the improvements are what you might expect — a faster processor, updated UI and better battery efficiency — you might be surprised that one of the new models has S Pen support and dual telephoto lenses. Did we mention all the new phones cost $200 less than last year's comparable Samsung Galaxy S20 models?

We'll need to conduct a full review of the Galaxy S21 to gauge its performance against the S20 — you can read our hands-on review with the Galaxy S21, as well as the Galaxy S21 Ultra hands-on while our testing continues. Still, we know enough to compare the 2021 flagships with the current handsets Samsung offers. Here's how the Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 showdown is shaping up so far.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: Specs

Galaxy S21Galaxy S21 PlusGalaxy S20Galaxy S20 Plus
Screen size6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED (2400 x 1080; 48Hz - 120Hz)6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED (2400 x 1080; 48Hz-120Hz)6.2-inch QHD+ AMOLED, 120HZ6.7-inch QHD+ AMOLED, 120HZ
CPUSnapdragon 888Snapdragon 888Snapdragon 865Snapdragon 865
Storage128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB128GB128GB, 512GB
Rear camerasUltra wide: 12MP; Main: 12MP; Telephoto: 64MPUltra wide: 12MP; Main: 12MP; Telephoto: 64MPUltra wide: 12MP; Main: 12MP; Telephoto: 64MPUltra wide: 12MP; Main: 12MP; Telephoto: 64MP; VGA time-of-flight sensor
Battery size4,000 mAh4,800 mAh4,000 mAh4,500 mAh
ColorsPhantom Violet, Phantom Gray, Phantom Pink, Phantom WhitePhantom Violet, Phantom Silver, Phantom BlackCosmic Gray, Cloud Blue, Cloud PinkCosmic Gray, Cosmic Black, Cloud Blue

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: Price and availability

Samsung gave a price cut to its S series this year. The Samsung Galaxy S21 will start at $799, while the Galaxy S21 Plus will start $999 and the top-shelf Galaxy S21 Ultra will start at $1,199. Each of these starting prices apply to 128GB storage versions of Samsung's new smartphones. You can upgrade to 256GB by adding another $50 to the cost.

These new prices are $200 less than what Samsung charged for the comparable Galaxy S20 models. You might recall the $999 starting price for the Galaxy S20, followed by the $1,119 Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus and $1,399 Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra.

In terms of availability, the Galaxy S21 has arrived earlier than the S20 debuted. Samsung held its S20 event in February 2020, with the phones arriving a few weeks later. The S21 was announced on January 14, with orders shipping on January 29.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: Design and models

The Galaxy S20 family debuted with three models in three different sizes (at least until the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE came along), and Samsung has continued with the big/bigger/biggest approach for the S21 lineup. 

Galaxy S21

Galaxy S21 render (Image credit: Samsung)

Samsung's new phones look a lot like the old ones with a full-screen display interrupted only by a punch-hole cutout in the center of the screen. The S21 and S21 Plus feature straighter edges, while the S21 Ultra's display has more of a curve to it.

The biggest visual difference between the S20 and S21 phones in the camera array. This year, it's designed to blend into the metal frame around the phone. Samsung calls this the Contour Cut camera housing, and we think it looks pretty sharp.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20

Samsung Galaxy S20 family (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: Display

The marquee feature introduced with the Galaxy S20 lineup — a display that refreshes at a faster rate for smoother scrolling and more immersive viewing — gets a major improvement with the Galaxy S21.

Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra released at the end of summer also featured a 120Hz refresh rate, but added the ability to dynamically adjust that rate based on your on-screen activity. That means when you're doing things like looking at static images, the display can adjust to a slower refresh rate, saving on battery. The Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus follow that trend with variable refresh rates that adjust from 120Hz down to 48Hz. (The S21 Ultra has an even wider range, scaling down to 10Hz.)

You no longer have the option to choose between a QHD resolution at 60hz or Full HD+ at 120Hz with the S21 and S21 Plus. Both are fixed at Full HD+ and use the dynamic 120Hz refresh rate, though you can opt to drop down to 60Hz. The S21 Ultra does offer the full  QHD experience with a dynamic refresh rate. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: Cameras

Other than fast-refreshing displays, no Galaxy S20 feature commanded as much attention as the cameras on those older phones — particularly the high-end array Samsung introduced with the Galaxy S20 Ultra. That particular model featured a 108MP main camera along with a zoom lens capable of delivering a 100x "Space Zoom" for greater details on shots. Unfortunately, the S20 Ultra camera also ran into some autofocus features triggered in some part by those demanding specs.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Galaxy S20

Galaxy S20 Plus (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Samsung learned its lessons, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra reflects that. The 108MP main sensor returns in the new version of the phone, as well the telephoto lens and its 100x zooming ability. For optical zooming, the S21 Ultra features two telephoto lenses — one with a 3x zoom and the other capable of 10x optical zoom. 

Galaxy S21 Plus

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

This time, though, Samsung has included laser autofocus to address any focusing issues; the feature certainly helped the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra produce great zoom shots.

In addition to those cameras and sensors, the Galaxy S21 Ultra rounds out the camera array with an ultra-wide-angle lens. This gives Samsung's most expensive S21 model a four-camera array on the back. Meanwhile, the S21 and S21 Plus feature a more common three-camera setup — a 12MP main lens, 12MP ultra-wide shooter and a 64MP telephoto lens. Like the S21 Ultra, these two phones add a Zoom Lock feature that keeps zoomed shots in better focus — an improvement over the Galaxy S20 lineup.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: Performance

The Galaxy S20 family featured the Snapdragon 865 system-on-chip, at least for phones released in the U.S. (In other parts of the world, Samsung used its own Exynos 990 processor.) The Galaxy S21 continues Samsung's tradition of grabbing Qualcomm's best mobile processor available for its Galaxy S series, by introducing the Snapdragon 888 in its new flagship phones.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Galaxy S20

(Image credit: Qualcomm)

The Snapdragon 888 promises a number of enhancements for mobile gaming, photography and artificial intelligence. For performance, Qualcomm says the new chipset's Kryo 680 CPU will deliver up to a 25% boost in overall performance compared to the Snapdragon 865. The Adreno 660 GPU should render graphics 35% faster than the previous generation.

Our expectation is that a Galaxy S21 powered by the Snapdragon 888 (or the Exynos 2100 for models outside the U.S.) will outperform the Galaxy S20 rather handily and perhaps even narrow the performance gap with the A14 Bionic-powered iPhone 12. But we'd expect Apple's A14 chip to still beat out the Galaxy S21 when it comes to benchmarking numbers.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: Battery life and charging

On the surface, there's not much difference between the battery sizes in the Galaxy S21 models and last year's S20 lineup. The Galaxy S21 will have a 4,000 mAh battery while the S21 Ultra will rely on a 5,000 mAh power pack. These are the same battery capacities found in the comparable S20 models. Only the Galaxy S21 Plus received a bigger battery — a 4,800 mAh pack replaces the 4,500 mAh module found in the S20 Plus.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20

Galaxy S20 (Image credit: Future)

Ultimately, though, the lack of any change to battery size may not matter when it comes to battery life, as least for the Galaxy S21. With that model set to feature a less demanding resolution, power consumption is likely to fall off for the Galaxy S21 — with that phone potentially lasting two hours longer than the Galaxy S20, according to some calculations

Throw in a more efficient chipset — the Snapdragon 888 is expected to feature better power efficiency than the Snapdragon 865 — and the S21 models should last longer on a charge than the last round of Galaxy flagships.

Samsung did not include a charger in the box with its new flagships, mirroring a move Apple made with the iPhone 12. You may recall Samsung put out an ad mocking Apple's decision, so it may be worth asking who's laughing now.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: Software and S Pen

The Galaxy S21 phones will arrive with Android 11 pre-installed — not really a big edge over the Galaxy S20, since Samsung is in the process of updating its current phones with the latest version of Android. That means a new skin on top of Android, with the new One UI 3 interface introducing tweaks like the ability to hold an app icon to quickly access widgets, a revamped volume slider and wireless DeX support, among other highlights.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20

Galaxy S21 Ultra render (Image credit: LetsGoDigital/Giuseppe Spinelli)

The biggest edge the Galaxy S21 Ultra holds over the S20 series is support for Samsung's S Pen, the stylus previously limited to Galaxy Note devices. It's the first non-Galaxy Note phone to offer S Pen support, though you'll have to purchase the stylus separately. You'll also want a case for storing the S Pen.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

(Image credit: Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Samsung Galaxy S20: What about the Galaxy S21 FE?

We strongly believe that we're on the cusp of the Galaxy S21 FE's release, which stands to offer what the Galaxy S21 does, but for less. If true, it would shift this face-off more in the S21 family's favor. Not only are the specs newer, but the S21 FE could cost boatload less than the Galaxy S20 does.

We won't know for sure until Samsung officially announces the Galaxy S21 FE, but rest assured that it could further be a better device than the S20.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Samsung Galaxy S20: Outlook

Without testing the performance ourselves, we can only break down the Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20 differences on paper. When the new phones start shipping, however, we believe S Pen support for the Ultra and adaptive refresh rates across all three S21 models could be a significant step forward — especially when factored with lower entry prices.

The Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus sound like more modest upgrades over their predecessors, with welcome changes but ones you'd expect from one year to the next. Still, if Samsung can find a way to keep performance strong despite bringing costs down, that could be the most noteworthy change of all introduced by the Galaxy S21.

Philip Michaels
Philip Michaels is a senior editor at Tom's Guide. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics and old movies. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.