With the Galaxy S21, Samsung is releasing its cheapest full-fledged Android flagship in years. And despite some high-level operational (re)thinking that’s going on at the moment in Seoul, Samsung verifiably doesn’t want to be in the business of making less money than it previously did. Another certainty is that the global smartphone market is extremely saturated, and its premium segment doubly so. Meaning that for this device to be as affordable as it is, some compromises had to have been made.
So, how much does this relatively cheap price of the Galaxy S21 actually cost us? Assuming it’s even us, the consumers, who are the ones shouldering the difference indirectly? That’s what aim to find out, and we’ll also be taking a closer look at the Galaxy S21+ and Galaxy S21 Ultra. Because the other two-thirds of the high-end mobile range is getting the same generational discount as the entry-level model.
Is a $200 price cut really that big of a deal?
But first, our reference point: the Galaxy S20 series released globally in early 2020 with an introductory price of $999. Not even ten months later, the Galaxy S21 line is scheduled to hit digital and physical store shelves with a 20% lower starting point – $799.
Given Samsung’s track record, a $200 price cut right off the bat is a pretty big anomaly. Not that such a move wasn’t overdue. After all, we have just witnessed the end of a prolonged flagship price creep period spanning multiple years. And yet this much more affordable entry point might not be coming out of Samsung’s profit margins.
Over the past decade, the company typically introduced a new Galaxy S generation along with a price hike. The price remained unchanged compared to the previous year only twice, which was the case with the Galaxy S5 and Galaxy S6. And prior to this year’s 20% cut, Samsung slashed the lineup’s entry price just once, as the Galaxy S9 range debuted in 2018 at $719, a whole 4% ($30) cheaper than the Galaxy S8 family.
To answer the above: yes, a $200 price decrease within less than a year is a pretty big deal for Samsung’s staple smartphone series.
Can one charger and a pair of headphones account for a $200-shaped hole?
Of course, this is the first Galaxy S generation that will be sold without a complimentary pair of headphones or a charging adapter. The official story is that Samsung is becoming a more environmentally friendly business. Unofficially, it’s getting rid of both accessories simply because Apple already demonstrated it can get away with such a move. That turn of events might be unfortunate from a consumer perspective, but it’s nowhere near enough to account for $200 worth of difference.
Mind you, Samsung isn’t claiming otherwise, as evidenced by the fact you can already buy an official Galaxy S21 charger for just $20. It’s hence safe to say manufacturing this accessory costs Samsung (way) less than $20. Ditto for the omitted pair of USB-C headphones from AKG; you can still buy a replacement pair of earbuds bundled along with the Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy S20 at an identical price point.
Are there significant hardware differences (or even downgrades) across the last two Galaxy S generations?
Much like last year’s line, the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21+, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra all use the same system-on-chip. Well, the same two, depending on the market, between the Exynos 2100 and Snapdragon 888. Beyond that is where we start seeing significant differences – if not outright downgrades – across the two product generations.
E.g., only the flagship model will offer a hardware upgrade in the camera department, whereas the other two will be identical to their predecessors, photography-wise. And only the Galaxy S21 Ultra will feature a WQHD+ (1,440 x 3,200) display, whereas the 6.2-inch Galaxy S20 and 6.7-inch Galaxy S20+ will both peak at an FHD+ resolution of 1,080 by 2,400 pixels. Given how mobile VR failed to take off, this fidelity downgrade might not seem significant in 2021, and yet it arguably lowers Samsung’s production costs by around $30 per unit, based on past bill of materials estimates.
The good news is that the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ at least offer an adaptive refresh rate amounting to 48-120Hz. And given how last year’s devices weren’t able to push past 60Hz at resolutions above FHD+, this difference shouldn’t be that obvious if you’re upgrading from something like the Galaxy S20+. But the Galaxy S21 Ultra is still superior in this regard, seeing how its higher-resolution display covers an even wider adaptive range – from 10Hz to 120Hz.
Speaking of display features that probably won’t be missed but help explain the massive price decrease across the last two Galaxy S generations, the two more affordable members of the new family both feature completely flat screens. This leaves the Galaxy S21 Ultra as the sole remaining champion of Samsung’s curved display technology.
A potentially more controversial difference hides behind the entry-level Galaxy S21. Namely, this particular smartphone features a plastic back, unlike its two peers (and dozens of direct predecessors) which utilize a glass rear panel. Not that high-quality plastic doesn’t offer some advantages over glass, but it’s certainly cheaper to manufacture, and the general consensus is that it doesn’t feel as premium in hand.
Then there’s the fact that the entire Galaxy S21 range will be missing out on MST tech in certain countries. And the shorter end of this stick doesn’t just include the largest, most valuable smartphone market on the planet (the U.S.), but also the fastest-growing one (India). Up until today, the Magnetic Secure Transmission standard was arguably the main thing shielding Samsung Pay users from a horribly disjointed and inconsistent contactless payment experience (so, Apple Pay, basically). Only time will tell whether it’s too early for Samsung to be ditching this stop-gap solution that worked with any old Point-of-Sale terminal equipped with a magnetic strip, unlike NFC. Whatever the case might be, UWB tech could feasibly replace both just a few years down the line.
Last but not least, the Galaxy S21 series also lacks a microSD card slot across the board. This isn’t the first time Samsung cut expandable storage from its premium flagship range, so fingers crossed we get it back eventually – or immediately, like the last time this happened.
So, there you have it: Between last year’s cameras, a lower-resolution display lacking in curvature, no MST support in major markets, no expandable storage at all, no headphones, no charger, and no plastic back, the entry-level Galaxy S21 isn’t so much of a discounted follow-up but a sidegrade to the Galaxy S20. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, on the other hand…