Samsung Galaxy S21 first impressions: Did we need another S Pen?

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The Samsung Galaxy S21 is here. And if you’re expecting a big update to Samsung’s iconic flagship series, let me just temper your expectations right now because this isn’t that.

You got the big update from the S10 to the S20, and with the way phones are being released each year, the S21 is the opportunity for refinement. For Samsung to fix what they messed up last year. And this new phone comes with some new upgrades, some stuff that stayed the same, and some odd choices.

This year, Samsung retains the three-model approach with the launch of the Galaxy S21, the Galaxy S21+ and the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The small one is 6.2 inches, the Plus is 6.7 inches and the Ultra is 6.8 inches. But, there is one notable difference to the three smartphones and it’s one that I am not a fan of at all. The new S21 features a polycarbonate back that’s almost identical to the one that we saw on the Galaxy Note 20.

Yes, one of these high-end Samsung flagships has a plastic back. Even after so many of us criticised the move on the Note 20. And Samsung will probably tell you, like they told me, that the S21’s plastic back feels the same as glass, but you only need to pick it up alongside an S21+ or S21 Ultra to notice the difference.

Maybe this won’t matter to you because you use your phone with a case, but just knowing that Samsung skimped on the build of their premium flagship Galaxy S smartphone leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Anyway, with this mini rant over, let me get to what’s new with the S21.

What’s new

Right off the bat, you’ll notice that these new phones have a tweaked design. Many complained about the massive camera bumps on the S20 series, so Samsung is addressing that by extending the metal frame on the side of the phone to meet the camera bump.

This is supposed to make the module feel more flush and at one with the body, which it kind of does, but I don’t know if it really addresses the sheer size of the bump. Because the camera module is still very noticeable and very massive. I will say that I liked the look of the new phone a lot more in person than I did when I first saw product images of it.

Much like the iPhone 12’s “induction cooker” design looks better in person because you can see some of the finer details in the way everything was put together, you can also appreciate the intricate industrial flourishes Samsung has made with this camera module.

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I am dismayed that there is a tiny seam where the module and frame meet, breaking that “seamless” feel, but beyond that I like the design. It’s iconic, to say the least, and that’s increasingly rare these days with everyone drawing inspiration from everyone else when it comes to design.

Build quality is still top notch here. The satin-like frosted glass back is accented by the glossy frame in a way that just feels good in the hand. The devices are well put together and designed to be comfortable in the hand, and it really shows especially when you pick up the massive S21 Ultra.

Of course, when I say the phones feel good, I’m only talking about the S21+ and S21 Ultra. The plastic S21 is just…plasticky.

Also new with the S21 series are their internals. Malaysian devices will be getting the Exynos 2100 at its core, so there’s no Snapdragon chip here for us. We also get 8GB of LDDR5 RAM on the S21 and S21+, while the S21 Ultra will see either 12GB or 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM. Storage options include 256GB for the S21 and S21+, while the S21 Ultra sees 256GB and 512GB.

I am a little concerned with the performance of the device in the long run after last year’s disappointing Exynos 990. But, the new chip does look good on paper, so I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve had the chance at a full review.

I can, however, confirm with you that the new Galaxy S21 Ultra’s screen addresses one of the bigger limitations the S20 Ultra had. Now, the 6.8” Dynamic AMOLED 2X display can do 120Hz at Quad HD so you won’t have to choose between fast refresh rate and high resolution.

The new S21 Ultra’s adaptive refresh rate also has a range of 10Hz to 120Hz so it can intelligently switch the rate to put less load on the battery. However, on the S21 and S21+, you’re now only getting a Full HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X display instead. It’ll still do 120Hz, but no matter the refresh rate, resolution is capped at Full HD+.

On the plus side, the new S21+ gets a bigger 4,800 mAh battery, which is really nice. That’s a solid 300 mAh bump over its predecessor, but the other two remain at 4,000 mAh for the S21 and 5,000 mAh for the S21 Ultra.

What’s the same

For the most part, the S21 series retains a lot of the premium features that we liked on the S20.

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It still has IP68 dust and water resistance. It still has pretty solid stereo speakers. And it comes with Samsung’s suite of ecosystem features like Knox security and Samsung Pay.
Samsung also says that they’ve increased the size of the in-display fingerprint scanner but 1.7 times, but I didn’t really notice a difference. You still have to put your finger on pretty much exactly the same spot or it won’t work.

Now, the Galaxy S line of smartphones often debut Samsung’s new camera technology, but this year the S21 series doesn’t really introduce anything radically different. In fact, it’s very similar to its predecessor and the camera system on the Note 20 Ultra.

The S21 and S21+ have 12MP wide and ultra-wide cameras. The wide cameras on both phones have Dual PIxel autofocusing as well as OIS. Both also feature 64MP telephoto cameras. Naturally, the S21 Ultra has the most capable camera system of the trio. There is a 108MP wide camera, a 12MP ultra-wide camera and two 10MP telephoto cameras: one with 3X optical zoom and one with 10X optical zoom.

Despite the new telephoto camera setup, max zoom is still 100X but Samsung has made improvements to the stability of the shot at max zoom. And I have to say, it does seem more stable. I can actually hold it still at 100X, which is very impressive. The biggest thorn in people’s sides will probably be the 108MP main camera. Many weren’t a fan of it on the S20 Ultra because focusing was slow due he lack of Dual Pixel AF. On the S21 Ultra, that remains unchanged.

But, in an attempt to help it along. Samsung has added a laser AF system similar to what we’ve seen on the Note 20 Ultra, but how effective that is remains to be seen. They have updated the software, however, so now all cameras can shoot 4K video and have access to SuperSteady at 60fps instead. Naturally, 8K video recording also makes a return.

I won’t comment on camera performance just yet because I haven’t had the chance to really use them. But I will say that I hope for Samsung’s sake that the wide camera on the S21 Ultra is better than the S20 Ultra.

Now though, it’s time for the single weirdest addition Samsung has made to the S21 series.

What’s kinda weird

For some reason, the S21 Ultra now supports…S Pen input. Yes, the S Pen, the one thing that makes Samsung’s Galaxy Note line so iconic. The thing that makes the Note so unique. That thing, is now also on the Galaxy S21 Ultra…but also it’s not really? Let me explain.

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With the S21 Ultra, Samsung is adding a new accessory they’re calling the S Pen. It comes with a case, it gives you access to some S Pen features and you can use it to write on the S21 Ultra’s display. Notice how I said some because the “S Pen” on the S21 Ultra, is radically different from what you’re probably remembering from the Note 20 Ultra.

First of all, it doesn’t go into the phone. It has its own case with a tiny slot at the side that can house the new S Pen. The case looks really ugly in my opinion, but that’s besides the point.

Next, there is no clicky top that you can use to fiddle with when you’re thinking or taking notes. But most egregious of all is that the new “S Pen” doesn’t have Bluetooth connectivity so it can’t do a lot of the new features that makes the S Pen what it is today. There are no Air Gestures. You can’t use it as a Bluetooth remote, and you can’t do stuff like control your camera or any of those cool things you could with the Note 20 Ultra.
It feels like an S Pen from several generations ago, and that to me makes it feel more like an afterthought than a well-implemented system.

They didn’t even tweak the ergonomics so that it’s more comfortable to use. It’s still a skinny stick albeit a little bit longer.

If you ask me, they shouldn’t even have called it an S Pen. It should have just been called a stylus because at the end of the day that’s what it is. It’s missing that secret sauce which makes the S Pen more than just a regular stylus.

But yeah, that’s pretty much the Galaxy S21 series. There are a couple of new things, a couple of things that stayed the same and one really perplexing inclusion. Does that make it a bad phone? No, I don’t think so. For the most part, a lot of the tweaks and fixes make sense, and it being a refinement on one of the best phones of last year is nothing to scoff at either.

But, at the same time, I don’t think it’s going to change anyone’s mind. I don’t think it’s going to be the phone that converts people to Samsung. Because if the S20 didn’t convince you, the S21 probably won’t either.

UPDATE: Malaysian prices have just been revealed:
Galaxy S21 (8GB RAM, 256GB storage) – RM3,699
Galaxy S21+ (8GB RAM, 256GB storage) – RM4,299
Galaxy S21 Ultra (12GB RAM, 256GB storage) – RM5,299
Galaxy S21 Ultra (16GB RAM, 512GB storage) – RM5,899