The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the first S series model to support the S Pen – previously only avaliable with the company’s Note series, now rumoured to be under threat. Photo / Supplied
Samsung’s latest S series phone, unveiled at a virtual event this morning NZT, cost up to $100 less than their predecessors.
There’s more processing power, better cameras, longer-lasting batteries and other upgrades to the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra, but Samsung has also followed Apple in ditching a charger and wired headphones (although early orders will come with free wireless buds worth up to $389 if you pre-order between now and January 29).
A rep for Samsung NZ told the Herald, “Samsung have decided to follow the global suit of ditching the accessories – apart from the charger cable – to reduce their carbon footprint, as many previous users who are upgrading their devices already have chargers, and tend to purchase their own wireless earbuds. This helps to bring the cost of the device down, and chargers are available to purchase at a lower price point, meaning customers will still be saving even if they do have to purchase a new charger.”
The entry-level S21 now has 8GB of RAM only, with no 12GB option.
A number of early offshore reviews have also noted that the S21 – while still sporting an excellent display at 2400 x1080 at 421 pixels per inc – is a step-down in pixel-density from the S20 (3200 x 1440 at 563ppi), presumably in a measure to reach a more Covid slowdown-friendly price.
And while the S20 series had an all-glass design, the entry-level S21 model is polycarbonate (aka plastic). But the S21+ and S21 Ultra maintain the glass with a metal camera housing that looks quite striking.
Samsung’s push for lower pricing is understandable.
The latest New Zealand smartphone sales figures from Gartner – for the October 2020 quarter – show Samsung and Apple making big gains in market share at the expense of the sanctions-hit Huawei. But it’s a larger share of a smaller pie. Total third-quarter NZ smartphone sales were 155,000 vs the year-ago 308,000 – mirroring a worldwide trend as the pandemic saw people wary about spending, or diverting funds to tablets and laptops amid the boom in working from home.
Accessories for the new, huge-screen (6.8in) S21 Ultra include a wallet (around $139) with a built-in S-Pen, attached magnetically – the first time Samsung’s stylus has appeared outside of its Note series.
The move has renewed speculation that Samsung will ditch its Note 20 series as the pandemic pressures smartphone sales – a possibility first reported by Reuters in December. Reuters said Samsung had no plans to produce a Note 21. The company had no immediate comment.
However, it’s worth noting the S21 Ultra’s stylus is for writing and drawing only. It doesn’t support the full functionality of using the S Pen with the Note 20 – indicating there could, after all, be a Note 21.
BLUETOOTH TRACKING TAGS
The phones also come with support for Samsung’s new Smart Tags – Bluetooth tokens that can be attached to your cat or your car keys or any other item you might mislay, in the manner ubiquitous Tile. As long as you’re within around 30m of the lost thing, its Smart Tag will send an alert to your phone. As with other Bluetooth trackers, they’ll be an option to rope in other phone owners in a search, if they opt-in. The Smart Tags, which cost US$30 in the US, are expected to be released here shortly (once they gain safety certification to ensure kids can’t open them and swallow their coin-cell batteries).
Another nifty feature, which will be on all S21 models from the get-go is the new Director’s View video mode, which makes it easy to swap between lenses while filming (by selecting from three onscreen pre-views from the phone’s different cameras)
All of the new S21 models have dual SIM and 5G support. And, unusually for Samsung NZ, the S21 Ultra will be available in an option with 512GB of onboard storage and 16GB of RAM (for $2499) – though the company says this option for a brief period to satisfy early adopters, who tend to go for the highest specs.
A variation with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of online storage will cost $2199.
Power users will definitely want to consider the 512GB option, because another cost-saving measure has seen the microSD storage card slot – formerly a mainstay of the S-Series – disappear from the S21.
The top of the line Ultra model also supports 8K video, although it can only be shot at up to 25 frames per second (4K can be shot at 50fps).
The Ultra is also the only one of the new S21 series to support the latest WiFi standard, WiFi 6E.
The Ultra’s collection of cameras – a 108 megapixel wide camera with an f/1.8 that uses pixel binning (combining pixels to reduce noise) to produce 12MP stills, a 12MP ultra-wide, and two 10MP telephoto cameras, one has a 3x optical zoom range and the other has a 10x optical range – looked impressive during a quick indoor preview, and could be one of its top selling-points. The Herald will be taking a closer look over the next week.
Samsung also unveiled the new Galaxy Buds Pro ($389) this morning.
Unlike the S21 phones, the new Buds, which come with a USB-C charging case, are more expensive than their predecessors, but they also pack in more features.
And where the earlier Buds Live had a bean-like design, the Buds Pro are more compact.
Samsung has made the part that sits in your ear canal noticeably more convex with vents to reduce pressure build-up, while the cushions have been adjusted with longer, less rounded caps.
The Buds Pro have the usual calling options, and are IPX7-level water and dust-proof.
You also get active noise-cancellation – an improved version of the feature first introduced with the Buds Live that sees noise cancellation automatically increased if you move from a quiet area to a noisy one.
And if the Buds Pro detect you talking, or a car passing by, they dial-down noise cancellation and switch to an “ambient mode” that lets more external sound through.
There’s also a 360 Audio feature, which comes with Dolby Head Tracking technology to deliver a more immersive listening experience by allowing you to “stay at the center of the scene”. It’s designed to rival the spacial audio feature offered by Apple’s AirPods Pro ($449) and AirPods Pro Max ($999).