(Pocket-lint) - Samsung announced a new family of Galaxy S smartphones on 14 January, giving us a fresh new set of devices for 2021. The new flagship is the Galaxy S21 Ultra, broadly stepping in to improve on the S20 Ultra launched in 2020. 

So how does the new S21 Ultra compare to the outgoing S20 Ultra based on the specs?

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Design

  • S21 Ultra: 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm, 228g
  • S20 Ultra: 166.9 x 76 x 8.8mm, 220g

There's very little difference in size between these two phones, although the new model is a little smaller - mostly down to the smaller display. There's a big change in the camera design, however, and this is very much the signature feature of the new S21 family. The frame of the phone now extends to encapsulate the camera, so rather than being an island on the back of the phone, it's now connected. 

That serves to highlight the camera even further.

Elsewhere, the design is much the same. There are curves to the edges of the display, stereo AKG speakers and no 3.5mm headphone socket. Both phones also offer IP68 protection.

Display

  • S21 Ultra: 6.8-inch, Infinity-O, Adaptive 120Hz, S Pen support
  • S20 Ultra: 6.9-inch, Infinity-O, 120Hz

The S21 Ultra and the S20 Ultra displays are close in spec, but the new model is 6.8-inches, a little more compact - not that you'll notice.

While both offer Quad HD+ resolutions - 3200 x 1440 pixels - the big change for the S21 Ultra is be adaptive motion smoothness. This will allow the S21 Ultra to use anything from 11-120Hz, meaning it can have the idea refresh rate for a full range of content. This refresh rate is also available at all resolutions. The S20 Ultra would only allow 120Hz at Full HD+ resolution and 60Hz at Quad HD+, so there's a definite improvement.

That's going to please those who want the best of both worlds, but the big advantage of the adaptive setting is that it will adjust the refresh rate to suit the content and save you battery life in the process.

There's another trick that the S21 Ultra offers - and that's support for the S Pen thanks to the Wacom digitiser that's included. While the phone won't physically accommodate the stylus like the Note does, it will support S Pen input, making it a lot more versatile.

When it comes to the display, the S21 Ultra is just going to be better.

Hardware and specs

  • S21 Ultra: Exynos 2100 or Snapdragon 888, 12/16GB RAM, 128/256/512GB, 5000mAh
  • S20 Ultra: Exynos 990 or Snapdragon 865, 12/16GB RAM, 128/512GB storage + microSD, 5000mAh

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra will come with the latest hardware. While some will get the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 - others will get the Exynos 2100, depending on the region where you buy the phone. The Exynos 2100 on paper is a lot closer to the Snapdragon 888 than previous Exynos hardware has been. This will likely mean that the performance is more on par with Qualcomm - and Samsung is certainly talking about it as a return to form.

This hardware is a generational change from that in the S20 Ultra, which was Exynos 990 or Snapdragon 865. There's going to be performance increases and more power with greater efficiency from the new 5nm hardware.

The RAM and storage options are the same and the battery will stay at 5000mAh.

There's a minor change with connectivity, with support for Wi-Fi 6E as well as UWB - ultra wide-band - on the S21 Ultra. That will allow some options that the S20 Ultra can't offer, but these are likely to be minor. 

Essentially, the big hardware change is that core system on chip, which will make the S21 Ultra just that little bit more powerful than the older device.

Cameras

  • S21 Ultra:
    • Main: 108MP, 0.8µm, f/1.8, laser autofocus, OIS
    • Ultra-wide: 12MP, 1.4µm, f/2.2
    • Telephoto #1: 10MP, 1.22 µm, f/4.9 (10x)
    • Telephoto #2: 10MP, 1.22 µm, f/2.4 (3x)
    • Selfie: 40MP, f/2.2
  • S20 Ultra:
    • Main: 108MP, 0.8µm, f/1.8, OIS
    • Ultra-wide: 12MP, 1.4µm, f/2.2
    • Telephoto: 48MP, 0.8µm, f/3.5, OIS; 10X Hybrid Optic Zoom
    • Selfie: 40MP

The Ultra model from Samsung is all about the camera and there's huge range of spec to plow through here. So let's clear out the easy stuff - there's a single 40-megapixel front camera that's the same - and it looks like the ultra-wide is the same too, so we wouldn't expect any changes there.

There are changes to the main 108-megapixel camera, with a new generation of sensor said to bring performance improvements, like better colour and increase dynamic range. But the addition of laser autofocus - as seen in the Note 20 Ultra - aims to address the focus pain points of the S20 Ultra, so that's likely to be a better experience overall in the new phone.

There's also a shift in the arrangement of telephoto lenses, with the S21 Ultra offering two telephoto cameras rather than one on the S20 Ultra. The aim here is to improve zoom performance, with a 3x optical, and 10x optical offering. Big zoom was one of the features of the S20 Ultra and the S21 Ultra is going to up the ante for better long-range shooting, by giving dedicated lenses for mid- and long-range shooting.

Of course, some of the big improvements will come from computational photography, but from a software point of view this could be equally applied to both devices. There will be new features on the S21 Ultra like Director's View, Vlogger Mode, Single Take 2.0, but we'd expect those to be added via software on the older model in the future.

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Conclusion

A shift in design gives the S21 Ultra a refresh in a device that is much the same size and build as the previous version. There are clear improvements targeted on the camera and they're very welcome, because the S20 Ultra was just a little oversold in its capabilities. It's likely to be zoom over 10x where the biggest difference is felt.

New internals will bring a performance boost with a new generation of hardware, while the display changes will make for a more versatile device thanks to S Pen support - and please those wanting faster refresh rates.

But the experience of using these phones is likely to be similar. Yes, the new phone will be more attractive, but the biggest real change to the experience is likely to come from S Pen support.

The best part is that the S21 Ultra is launching at slightly cheaper than the older models - but with the S20 Ultra getting discounts, it could well be that bigger savings are available on the 2020 flagship.

Writing by Chris Hall.