And of course, there’s the new S Pen, which for the first time works on a non-Note smartphone. Now, you can use existing S Pens with the S21 Ultra, but it can’t do any of the cool gesture controls or camera remote stuff because those S Pens can’t connect to the Ultra over Bluetooth. (For that, you’ll have to wait until Samsung releases an improved, standalone S Pen Pro later this year.) With that said, you still get the big parts of the Note experience here: the S Pen’s latency, or the delay between putting pen to screen and seeing your stroke, seems roughly on par with the Note 20. And more importantly, the S21 Ultra’s Wacom digitizer still recognizes when you press the S Pen’s barrel-mounted button, so you can access your app and note-taking shortcuts just as fast as you could on a Galaxy Note.
If you really want to write on the S21, you should probably splurge on Samsung’s $40 standalone S Pen. Sure, you could use a spare S Pen from an old Galaxy Note with no trouble, but the benefit of having an S Pen that doesn’t go inside the phone is that the S Pen can be a lot bigger. The one I tried feels a lot like a slightly shortened pencil, and writing with it feels so much better than using the little stick that comes with a Galaxy Note. If you don’t want to worry about losing that big stylus, Samsung’s $70 case/S Pen combo is probably the way to go — just know that the case makes the S21 Ultra feel absolutely enormous.
While Samsung went with slightly different approaches for each S21 model, the experiences built into all of them are largely the same. Whichever version strikes your fancy, you’ll be able to use new camera features like the ability to pull stills from an 8K video recording — something I’ve definitely come to appreciate now that I sometimes cover events alone. Director’s View is helpful too, in that it lets you see through each of the cameras while you’re shooting video and switch between them as needed. After playing with it for a while, I wouldn’t exactly call it a game-changer, but it’s certainly nice to be able to know exactly what kind of shot you’ll get before toggling cameras.
Also new to the mix this year: Google’s Discovery feed, which lives to the left of your home screen where all of Bixby’s junk used to be. I’ve always preferred Google’s customized news picks and reminders over, well, anything companies try to replace it with, so it’s nice to be able to access it without having to switch to a third-party launcher. But like so many other choices Samsung made this year, this one raises some weighty questions. Samsung once insisted Bixby could “fundamentally change” how people use their technology — are those days over?
Unfortunately, my limited time with the S21s meant I couldn’t test out every feature I’ve been looking forward to. Since I don’t have a car to try unlocking with the S21+ and S21 Ultra’s ultra-wideband sorcery, the top of my “things to try” list is Samsung’s new PrivateShare tool. Think of it as a sort of Snapchat for file sharing: not only can you make sure your documents or images are seen by the right people, you can rescind access to sensitive info, control how long it’s accessible, and even strip metadata. If the litany of security breaches over the last few years isn’t enough to make you at least a little paranoid, well — enjoy, I guess?
Barring some early issues, Samsung’s Galaxy S20 series were great smartphones. After testing their successors, it finally makes sense why Samsung didn’t give these things more dramatic names like Galaxy S30-whatever. As I said, we’re mostly looking at iterative changes, albeit pretty pleasant ones.
The sole exception here is perhaps the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which isn’t just cheaper than its predecessor — it’s more polished and feature-packed, too. But should you actually buy this thing? Or any of the other S21 models? Well, you’ll have to stay tuned for our full review to find out.