Samsung's new phones won't convert any iPhone fans, but the high-end version is gorgeous

Key Points
  • Samsung dropped the price of its Galaxy S21 $200 from last year to $799.99, but it's a pretty boring phone and in some ways feels like a downgrade from last year.
  • The high-end Galaxy S21 Ultra is the real flagship Samsung phone, with the best screen I've ever seen on a phone — at a starting price of $1,199.99.
  • Neither phone will convert any iPhone users, but if you're a Samsung fan and can afford it, go for the Ultra.

In this article

Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Samsung's new Galaxy S21 phones launch on Jan. 29. I've been using two of the three new models, the entry-level Galaxy S21 and high-end Galaxy S21 Ultra for the past week or so.

Samsung has the largest share of the smartphone market around the world, largely thanks to its low-cost phones. But these phones aren't cheap. The Galaxy S21 series is supposed to be Samsung's answer to Apple's iPhone 12 lineup.

How do they stack up? Well, this year's Galaxy S21 is $200 cheaper than last year's model. It starts at $799.99, but you get what you pay for. The insides are similar to last year's S20, but it no longer has upgradable storage, and it sports a cheap-feeling faux-metal plastic back versus last year's glass. Samsung said it purposely cut back on materials so it could lower the price during the pandemic, giving people a way to buy a good smartphone without spending four figures.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the real flagship this time. If you have $1,200 to spend and don't want an iPhone, it's a fine choice.

Galaxy S21: Cheaper and not as good as last year's

Samsung Galaxy S21
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I've been really torn on what to think about the Galaxy S21. On one hand, it's boring and awfully similar to last year's Galaxy S20, but with cheaper materials on the outside and balanced by an upgraded processor that helps with some new camera tricks.

Samsung said it kept the costs down on the Galaxy S21 on purpose to help it appeal to a broader audience, considering the economic uncertainty many people are facing during the pandemic. Then again, if people are really unsure about their prospects, would they really be buying a new phone?

It also happens that $799 is the starting price of Apple's baseline iPhone 12, and it seems that Samsung worried it would lose customers if it couldn't match Apple's price.

To save on costs, Samsung cut the removable storage from the Galaxy S21, noting that most people have moved to storing their stuff in the cloud instead of on their phones. That really bums me out, since Samsung had been one of the last industry holdouts to let you add your own storage to a phone, with plenty of space to store as many movies and TV shows as you want.

It also has a new back material that looks like metal but is actually made of plastic. Most people put their phone in a case anyway, so it's probably not that noticeable, but it does feel cheaper. (Apple still uses all metal and glass on the $799 iPhone 12.)

Galaxy S21+

It's not all bad, though. The cameras, while recycled from last year, are still really good, and there's a new feature that lets you record video from the front and back lenses at the same time. It's also better at capturing smiles using an option from earlier phones called "Single Take." It takes a bunch of pictures and videos automatically and then the camera software shows you the best results.

Galaxy S21
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Despite the lower cost, the Galaxy S21 still has a really nice screen that offers a smoother visual experience than the iPhone 12. That's thanks to a high refresh rate that lets the screen to reload more frequently when you're doing things like scrolling. The result is everything feels really fluid and fast. It's hard to explain without seeing it, but it's especially noticeable moving around apps or websites and can help make games that support these screens look and play better.

Like past models, the Galaxy S21 ships with a fingerprint reader embedded in the screen, which makes it easier to unlock the phone or pay for stuff when you have a mask on. The new fingerprint reader is larger than on earlier models and is supposed to pick up fingerprints better if you've had trouble in the past. (I couldn't test that since I've never had problems. It has always worked fine for me.) There's also facial recognition that's quick, but not as secure as Face ID on an iPhone.

Samsung's latest software is a lot cleaner and more useful than earlier iterations. There are still a lot of customization options, but you can now swipe over to the left of the home screen to see a Google feed of news, weather, sports scores and more. It's better than the cluttered and spammy-feeling "Samsung Free" page in previous models.

Google Feed
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The battery lasted a full day as advertised, but as usual, that varies drastically depending on what you're doing.

Galaxy S21 Ultra: Best screen I've ever used

Galaxy S21 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Galaxy S21 Ultra is Samsung's real flagship, and it offers all of the new features that it's bringing to the table this year. If you love Samsung's big screen phones, this is a good upgrade.

It has the best display I've ever used on a phone. Like the S21, it has a high refresh rate that's really smooth. It also gets super bright, which helps with movies and TV shows and viewing outside. And, unlike last year's model, you can now use the screen at its sharpest setting with the high refresh rate on.

Galaxy S21 Ultra cameras
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Samsung's crazy 100x Space Zoom on the camera was sort of a bust when it was introduced last year. Sure, you could zoom in really far, but then your shots were really blurry. It's noticeably better this year. Your pictures will still be pretty blurry zoomed fully in, but you can actually grab some neat pictures. I took a shot of the moon from my deck the other night using a tripod and was really impressed that this came from a phone:

Using 100x zoom on the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The zoom is even more useful at around 30x and below. The image is much sharper.

Speaking of the cameras, Samsung fixed the auto-focus problem that plagued last year's Galaxy S20 Ultra. It now doesn't hunt to focus every time you're trying to take a picture, thanks to the added laser autofocus. So, in some ways, the Galaxy S21 Ultra fixes a lot of the complaints people had with last year's phone.

Galaxy S21 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Ultra is also the first Galaxy S-series phone to support Samsung's S Pen stylus, but the concept seems half-baked. First of all, the stylus doesn't ship with the phone. Moreover, it doesn't stick to the side as it does with the Galaxy Note, so you pretty much have to buy the S Pen with case for $69.99, instead of just the pen alone, which costs $39.99. And the phone doesn't even support all of the S Pen's functionality, like tapping a button to skip songs or play music. (For that, you'll need to buy a newer version of the S Pen coming later this year.)

For now, if you really want a Samsung phone with a stylus, just buy the latest Galaxy Note instead.

Not going to convert any iPhone users

Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21 Ultra
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Most people resolved the "Samsung versus Apple" debate for themselves a long time ago, and there's nothing in either of these phones that will convert iPhone users. All of the phones in Apple's iPhone 12 lineup are worthy upgrades, and there's no reason here to abandon ship for Samsung.

But if you're a Samsung or Android fan and ready for a new phone, consider spending the extra $400 for the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which is way more exciting than the regular Galaxy S21.

The Galaxy S21 is also fine for the price. It's just not as impressive as in past years, and it's not worth switching from the Galaxy S20.

Samsung releases Galaxy S21 line, Galaxy Buds Pro earbuds and more on its last day of CES 2021
Samsung releases Galaxy S21 line, Galaxy Buds Pro earbuds and more on its last day of CES 2021