Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. S21 Plus vs. S21 Ultra: The key differences buyers should keep in mind

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  • No matter which new Galaxy S21 model you buy, you’ll still get the same core Galaxy S21 experience. 
  • That means 8K video recording, at least a triple-lens camera system, and the utmost in performance. 
  • But some Galaxy S21 models might suit you better than others, and you’ll want to make your decision based on what specs, features, and price appeal to you most. 
  • Galaxy S21 phones are available for preorder today and will be available to buy starting January 29 from Samsung, retailers like Best Buy, and carriers like AT&TVerizon, and T-Mobile

As Samsung likes to say, there’s a Galaxy for everyone. 

Indeed, three different Galaxy S21 models are at your disposal, should you be interested in upgrading to a new smartphone. 

The important thing to know about these three new Galaxy S21 models is that they come with the same core performance and features, but the larger and more expensive models get a few extras. Either way, you won’t be missing out on very much if you like smaller phones, or your budget doesn’t allow for the $1,200 Galaxy S21 Ultra. 

Don’t worry about missing out on performance, there’s no major difference between the 3 models

All Galaxy S21 models use the Snapdragon 888 processor, which ensures they can run any app or game you throw at them. The only major difference is the extra amount of RAM in the Galaxy S21 Ultra. RAM is the type of memory that keeps the apps you use on a regular basis open in the background, so that you can switch between them quickly and fluidly. 

You’re getting the smooth 120Hz screen on every model

All three Galaxy S21 models have screens with a 120Hz refresh rate. That’s to say, they’ll all look and feel fast and smooth while you swipe around the Android operating system and scroll down your apps. The major difference is that the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a sharper screen, but this upgrade doesn’t make much of a difference on a smartphone-sized display.

All three phones also come with Samsung’s newly added Eye Comfort Shield feature that automatically adjusts the screen’s color temperature based on the time of day. The screen will have a brighter, cooler tone that transitions to a warmer tone as the day wears on.

Don’t fret about the camera differences too much

All three models record video up to 8K resolution at 24 frames per second, or 4K resolution video at 60 frames per second. And you’re also getting a triple-camera system at the very least, too. Some of the extras you get with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, in particular, won’t make a huge difference at all unless you need them for a specific use.

Below, we’ve broken down some key criteria that may help determine which Galaxy S21 model will suit your needs the best. You don’t have to fill every criteria for each model below to make your decision. If there’s a criteria that stands out, however, you might have found your winner — just consider their price tags, too. 

***EMBARGO 1/14 10AM ET*** Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus



Samsung


You like mid-sized phones with mid-sized screens

The Galaxy S21 is the smallest and lightest of the bunch with a 6.2-inch screen and a 171g weight, and it’s the most manageable if you prefer to use your phones one-handed. 

Your budget is under $1,000

The Galaxy S21 costs $800 putting it under the dreaded $1,000 mark. 

Also note that you can often trade in your old phone to get some credit towards the Galaxy S21. How much credit you get depends on how old your current phone is and what kind of condition it’s in. 

You don’t want or need the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10x zoom lens

With the Galaxy S21, you’re still getting a triple-lens camera system that includes a standard wide lens, an ultrawide lens, and a 3x zoom lens that goes all the way to 30x digital zoom. 

You’re not interested in using your phone as a digital key for your car

The Galaxy S21 Plus and S21 Ultra have ultra-wide-band technology (UWB) that can enable the phones to act like digital keys for cars. So far, only Ford, BMW, and Audi cars will be getting support for Samsung’s UWB digital key system. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus ***EMBARGO 1/14 10AM ET***



Samsung


You like larger phone screens and you don’t mind larger phone sizes

The Galaxy S21 Plus has a 6.7-inch screen that will make it more difficult for smaller hands to reach the top of the screen one-handed. It’s heftier at 202g, making it less secure with single-handed use. 

You want great battery life

We haven’t fully tested the Galaxy S21 Plus’ battery life yet, but I can surmise from experience that its 4,800mAh battery will do a good job at keeping battery life worries at bay for at least a day’s worth of solid use. 

You have a budget of $1,000

The Galaxy S21 Plus starts at $1,000, but also keep in mind that you can often trade in your old phone to get some credit towards the Galaxy S21 Plus. How much credit you get depends on how old your current phone is and what kind of condition it’s in.

You don’t want or need the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10x zoom lens

With the Galaxy S21 Plus, you’re still getting a triple-lens camera system that includes a standard wide lens, an ultrawide lens, and a 3x zoom lens that goes all the way to 30x digital zoom. 

You’re thinking of getting a new Ford, BMW, or Audi vehicle and you want to use your phone as a digital key

Unlike the Galaxy S21, the S21 Plus comes with the UWB tech that will enable the phone to act as a digital key. It’s still unclear at this point which models from each car maker will support UWB digital keys, however. 

***EMBARGO 1/14 10AM ET*** Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra



Samsung


You want a large phone with a large screen

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 6.8-inch screen and isn’t much bigger than the Galaxy S21 Plus. It’s also the sharpest screen of the bunch at 1440p compared to the 1080p screens on the S21 and S21 Plus. 

At 229g, it’s the heaviest of the bunch, and among the heavier phones you can buy. 

You want the best possible battery life

Like the Galaxy S21 Plus, we haven’t tested the S21 Ultra’s battery life yet, but it’s typical for larger phones to have the best battery lives because they tend to have bigger batteries, even though they also have larger screens to power. 

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 5,000mAh battery with a screen that’s only 0.1-inches bigger than the Galaxy S21 Plus, which convention says should add a couple of hours to the S21 Ultra’s battery life over the S21 Plus’. That would especially be the case if you plan on keeping the S21 Ultra’s screen at the 1080p resolution rather than the sharper 1440p resolution, which uses up more power. 

You can afford $1,200 for a smartphone

Again, keep in mind that you can often trade in your old phone to get some credit towards the Galaxy S21 Ultra that brings it under the $1,000 mark. How much credit you get depends on how old your current phone is and what kind of condition it’s in.

You want the best of the best of Samsung’s camera tech

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a quad-lens camera setup with different camera hardware than the regular S21 and S21 Plus. 

The standard wide lens is 108-megapixel compared to the 12-megapixel shooter on the other two models. That huge bump in megapixels lets you take incredibly sharp photos, but will also enable better low-light photography.

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has two zoom lenses, both of which are 10-megapixels. One zoom lens has a 3x optical zoom, while the second has a 10x optical zoom, allowing you to zoom further while maintaining better clarity, sharpness, and quality. 

The ultrawide lens is the same 12-megapixel camera as the other two models. 

And finally, only the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 12-bit RAW file option in Pro mode, which should make for the best editing experience. 

You take a lot of selfies

The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 40-megapixel selfie camera compared to the 10-megapixel selfie cameras on the S21 and S21 Plus. On top of that, the S21 Ultra’s selfie camera has phase detection for better auto-focusing, resulting in faster selfie taking and and a higher likelihood that your selfies will be in focus. 

You’re specifically looking for Wi-Fi 6 support

Wi-Fi 6 support can be a nice feature to have if you also have a Wi-Fi router that supports Wi-Fi 6, but it’s by no means absolutely necessary. 

Wi-Fi 6 is a little faster, but its benefits will mostly be felt if your home has a lot of devices connected to W-iFi or if you live in a congested area, as it’ll help with interference caused by all your devices, as well as interference from neighboring Wi-Fi signals. 

You switch between a huge number of apps on a regular basis

The Galaxy S21 Ultra starts with 12GB of RAM compared to the 8GB on the other two models. That extra RAM means you’ll be able to switch between the apps you often use more quickly, as the apps won’t need to close down while you use other ones, thus eliminating the waiting time when reopening apps. For reference, 8GB of RAM in a smartphone is absolutely fine for the vast majority of people.

You’ve always like the idea of using the S Pen from the Note series, but you never wanted to get a Note

The S Pen comes to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, giving users much (but not all) of the functionality of the S Pen combined with the Galaxy Note series. That means taking notes and having finer controls on certain sensitive tasks like editing a photo or certain games. Just note that the S Pen for Galaxy S21 Ultra is optional, and you’ll probably want to buy the special case that comes with a storing sleeve. 

Samsung’s new Galaxy S21 phones are available for preorder today and will be widely available to buy starting January 29 from Samsung’s website, online retailers including Best Buy, and carriers including AT&TVerizon, and T-Mobile