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Galaxy S21 promises more for less, but expensive Ultra is true upgrade

Galaxy S21 promises more for less, but expensive Ultra is true upgrade

We’ve barely started 2021, but already Samsung has unveiled its first phones of the year in the S21, S21 and S21 Ultra. And although the series isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, there are enough improvements and new features to entice owners of older devices to upgrade.

This year’s phones are a little more affordable than last year’s, with Samsung appearing to deliberately coax those who have been out of contract for a while to finally bite the bullet. In 2020 the 5G base model started at $1499, while this year the base S21 starts at $1249, and there’s 5G across the entire range.

Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra has a massive main camera, two zoom lenses (one at 3x, one at 10x), an ultrawide shooter and works with the S Pen stylus.

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra has a massive main camera, two zoom lenses (one at 3x, one at 10x), an ultrawide shooter and works with the S Pen stylus.Credit:

The larger S21 starts at $1549, adding a bit more screen and a glass back rather than the S21’s plastic. But compared to last year’s phones, the only real improvements for the standard and plus models are in the cameras.

Things get more exciting with the high-end S21 Ultra, which adds S Pen support to the Galaxy S range after years of it being exclusive to the Note phones. Though, unlike the Note, the S21 Ultra doesn’t have a spot to store the pen within the body of the phone; users will need a special case with such a spot to avoid losing the $59 pen, which is sold separately.

Having spent some time with the S21 Ultra (albeit sans pen), the most immediately impressive thing was the design: the camera bump is more elegant and owning its space more. The matte black finish isn’t as much of a fingerprint magnet as the previous shiny models, and just looks classier. It looks like the kind of phone James Bond would use.

Playing a 4K video with Dolby Atmos looked and sounded spectacular, exactly as you would expect on a $1849 phone, but the camera improvements were even more impressive. In the past the 100x zoom was useless without a tripod, but thanks to new stabilisation features I could see the fuzzy details of a white van on a bridge two kilometres away while holding the thing in my hands.

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The new Director’s View — which allows people to switch seamlessly between cameras while recording video or even capture from front and back simultaneously — could be huge for reaction videos, Tik Tokers, and people who always end up behind the camera and never in front of it.

All up, the S21 may end up being a fairly underwhelming release for anyone who’s experienced the S20, but those with older phones are in for a reliable treat. The phones are due to arrive in stores on January 29.

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