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Samsung Galaxy S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra hands-on: a stunner in the flesh

By Liu Hongzuo - 16 Jan 2021

Samsung Galaxy S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra hands-on: a stunner in the flesh

Note: This feature was first published on 14 Jan 2021.

Samsung Galaxy S21 (top right and bottom right), Galaxy S21+ (middle), Galaxy S21 Ultra (top left).

Samsung gave the Galaxy S21 series an early head-start, launching a good month or two ahead of its usual timeframe. Make no mistake, however, since the new H1 2021 flagship handsets have plenty to offer despite being a little earlier to the Android flagship game.

Still, there are only so many details you can sponge up before needing a few minutes with the phone. In our hands-on, we quickly went through all three phones to understand how it's going to improve upon the already-gorgeous Galaxy S20 series beyond having new parts.


Is Contour Cut Design for you?

Galaxy S21+.

Let's start with the design. We felt that the leaks, rendered images, and all the other pre-launch details didn't quite do justice to Samsung's Contour Cut Design on the new Galaxy S phones. In a way, the Contour Cut Design looks refreshing with a gleaming rear camera housing juxtaposed against a matte Haze finish with deep pastel colours. Samsung wasn't kidding when they said it would be obvious to anyone if you held a Galaxy S21 in your hands. The blingtastic camera housing blends into the metal sides that frame the phone, and we felt that this detail is what gave the striking-yet-elegant Galaxy S21 series its character.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Samsung didn't quite bring the same design language across all three handsets. If you want the kitschy, youthful combo, you'd have to look towards the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ - both of these phones have the Phantom Violet variation, while the Galaxy S21 has Phantom Pink.

Galaxy S21 Ultra in Phantom Black.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra goes off in the opposite end with its serious, no-nonsense demeanour. Yes, Contour Cut Design is also on the premium flagship model, but the rear camera housing took on a lower polish level than its peers. The same half-matte feel extends to the rest of the Galaxy S21 Ultra (save for the polished chamfered edges sitting between camera housing and rear). Samsung said that the demographic that picks up their Ultra models aren't the same as those who'd pick the regular or plus versions of its flagship phones, hence the differentiation in design language despite literally using the same design across all handsets.

Regular Galaxy S21 feels petite in hand, but that's great for folks who want smaller phones.

Of the three phones' handling, the Galaxy S21 Ultra felt the most at-home in our palm, but your mileage may vary. The new One UI 3 interface (cloaking its Android 11 operating system) also feels less clunky and more user-friendly than One UI 2 (that populated Samsung's 2020 phones), so its a familiar design without being too overbearing on the user's attention to detail.

"Infinity-O display" refers to the circular, punch-hole cut-out that denotes the front camera.

We asked Samsung about the lowered maximum resolution on the Galaxy S21 and S21+, and Samsung said that the decision to move to 1080p stemmed from observing user behaviour on those devices. Not many users switched to 1440p in the Display settings, so the phone no longer comes with the 1440p resolution. If 1440p is a priority, that instead resides on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.


S Pen support without S Pen provided?

Of note is the S Pen support on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Thanks to Samsung's partnership with Wacom, the new Galaxy S21 S Pen and older S Pens works on the Galaxy S21 Ultra's interface - it can annotate, swipe, and scribe just like the Galaxy Note series phones. What's missing are the Air Gestures, since the S Pen support doesn't rely on Bluetooth. Instead, you'll have to look towards the Galaxy S21's S Pen Pro, an accessory that Samsung didn't say if it's coming to the Singapore market.

Despite having S Pen support, the Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn't come with a built-in S Pen slot nor does the phone come with an S Pen out of the box. Instead, Samsung offers phone covers with S Pen as separately sold accessories, along with an option to buy a standalone Galaxy S21 S Pen (S$58) if you have a preferred third-party casing.

Since it was a hands-on before the official launch, we had limited time and space to explore the Galaxy S21 series with. We used the time to better understand Director's View, a new feature joining Samsung's already pro-grade series of cameras and camera functionalities. In a nutshell, Director's View is a unique live-editing feature for video recording. It has three main components. There's a key video feed that takes up most of the recording and a picture-in-picture feed of the opposing, user-facing camera. Three other video feeds on the right allow the user to preview the look and feel coming from Samsung's other rear lenses running in real-time (called Live Thumbnail). Tapping on any of the three feeds would swap the main feed out for the other. In a completed recording, you actually do not see any of previews from other lenses - only the picture-in-picture feed and the main, world-facing footage remains.

Of course, there's a lot more to the Samsung Galaxy S21 series, so don't forget to see what the phone offers in our keynote launch coverage here while we wait for a review unit. Come 29 January 2021, the Galaxy S21 series will be available in Singapore at the following prices, configurations, and colours:

  • Galaxy S21 - S$1,248 (8GB RAM, 256GB storage) | Phantom Pink, Phantom Violet, Phantom Grey, Phantom White
  • Galaxy S21+ - S$1,498 (8GB RAM, 256GB storage) | Phantom Violet, Phantom Black, Phantom Silver
  • Galaxy S21 Ultra - S$1,798 (12GB RAM, 256GB storage) or S$1,998 (16GB RAM, 512GB storage) | Phantom Black, Phantom Silver

Pre-order begins on 14 January 2021 (right after the livestream), with more purchasing details available here.

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