Highlights from S21 Launch Event - Numerous Upgrades at Lower Prices and Outlook vs. S20/S10 and iPhone 12

Published January 18, 2021

On January 14th, Samsung launched the S21 series of smartphones at its latest Samsung Unpacked event. While there were few surprises, there were a number of important developments. In this article, I will compare the S21 line-up with the S20 line-up. In addition, I will also offer some insights into the expected S21 vs. S20 and S10 volumes as well as vs. the iPhone 12 launch.

The specifications for the S20 series and S21 series are shown below which include quite a lot of detail. I will go through the highlights below:

  • Price
    • Each S21 model is priced $200 below the S20 series which sold below expectations. So, the lower price should certainly boost the outlook.
  • Display Size and Aspect Ratio
    • The S21 and S21+ are the same sizes as the S20 and S20+, but the S21 Ultra is 0.1” smaller than the S20 Ultra at 6.8” vs. 6.9”. There has been a trend toward smaller phones of late. However, given that the 6.8” panel is LTPO which costs more, and the smartphone price is $200 less, it may have been a cost saving move. The aspect ratio remained 20:9 for all models.
  • Backplane and Refresh Rate
    • While the S21 and S21+ are LTPS, the S21 Ultra is LTPO. It is the 3rd smartphone to offer LTPO following the Note 20 Ultra and Z Fold 2. It features 10-120Hz variable refresh. While the S20 and S20+ varied between 60Hz and 120Hz, the S21 and S21+ go down to 48Hz. We believe these are the first LTPS OLEDs to offer 48Hz refresh which should reduce power consumption. We are interested to see what it does to performance, but assume it is fine for static applications. We will include an article in the future about how they achieved 48Hz refresh.
  • Resolution
    • While the S20 and S20+ were at QHD+, the S21 and S21 are at FHD+. Lower resolutions have become the trend as we point out in our Quarterly Advanced Smartphone Features Report. Samsung was one of the few brands to offer QHD+ across its flagship products last year, but that has changed this year. It should be noted that while there was QHD+ across all its S20 products, at 120Hz, they were downgraded to FHD+. In the S21 Ultra, it will achieve 120Hz at QHD+.
  • Cover Glass
    • Corning is providing Gorilla Glass Victus front cover glass on the S21 series vs. Gorilla Glass 6 on the S20 series. While Gorilla Glass 6 was also on the back of all the S20 models, an unnamed Gorilla Glass product is on the back of the S21+ and S21 Ultra with a plastic substrate on the back of the S21 to save cost.
  • Peak Brightness
    • The S21 Ultra is 20% brighter than the S20 Ultra at 1500 nits. Samsung did alter the display materials for the S21 Ultra vs. the S20 Ultra, moving to its M11 material set vs. M10. The emitter host and dopant suppliers didn't change, but there were some changes in the common materials. We don't know whether the S21 and S21+ peak brightness values have changed. Given the same material set, they may not have changed.
  • Chipset and 5G
    • Both the Snapdragon 888 and Exynos 2100 offer significant improvements over previous versions in terms of speed, battery life, etc. enabled by a shrink from 7nm design rules to 5nm. Integrating the 5G modem as both models do should also lead to power savings. We go into greater detail on the Exynos 2100 improvements in another article the DSCC Weekly Review which also compares each processor to the Apple A14 Bionic. In terms of the regional allocation of S21 models by chipset, they appear to be the same as on the S20 with the US, China, Japan and Korea using the Snapdragon 888 and Europe, India and other regions receiving the Exynos 2100. The Exynos 2100 does seem much improved however so we will likely see fewer complaints from Exynos 2100 regions.
    • On the S20 Series, there were both 4G only and 5G models with the 4G only models using Exynos chipsets. On the S21, we currently see 4G Exynos models only on the S21. We are tracking 4G only, 5G sub-6 GHZ only and 5G sub-6 + mmWave shipments for Samsung by chipset which is available in our Quarterly Advanced Smartphone Features Report.
    • The mmWave models are 2g heavier than the Sub-6 GHz only models due to the additional antennas and other circuitry.

S20 vs. S21 Specifications

  • Cameras
    • The S20 series had triple/quad/quad camera configuration with ToF cameras used in the quad cameras. The S21 features triple/triple/quad configurations with no ToF cameras. The S21 and S21+ feature the same triple camera setup with the wide camera using smaller pixels and the ultra-wide camera using larger pixels than in the S20. The telephoto camera remains 64MP, same as the S20/+. In the case of the S21 Ultra, it receives an improved 108MP camera with laser AF. It features two 10MP telephoto sensors with 3X and 10X zoom respectively. Early reviews on the S21 Ultra camera setup are much better than on the S20.
    • On the S21 Ultra, the 108MP ISOCELL HM3 sensor is improved. It is 1/1.33” in size with pixels measuring 0.8µm. With the 9 in 1 nano-binning, the sensor captures 12MP images by default using 2.4µm pixels. It creates 12-bit images by combining two 10-bit images. It shoots in 12-bit raw files in pro mode with 3X more dynamic range than the S20. 12-bits is hot this year with a number of new TVs also featuring 12-bits. The S21 Ultra uses AI for an improved night mode experience, eliminating noise and blur. There is improved Space Zoom achieving 1-100X zoom with better clarity. The S21 Ultra uses 3X and 10X optical zoom cameras and there are double folds which enables larger lenses to fit into smaller spaces.
  • Appearance
    • The S21 series has a unique look with the camera shell combined with the frame of the phone. I would expect to see a number of other brands copy this idea. The phones have metal housings. There are a wide variety of Phantom colors at launch with other colors available for customization at Samsung.com which we believe will be in limited volume until April or so.
  • S-Pen
    • There is S-Pen functionality for the first time on the S Series through the adoption of a Wacom digitizer on the S21 Ultra. It is available as an option for $40 and bundled with a case that holds the S21 Ultra for $70. The S-Pen Pro which is significantly larger will be available later and includes Bluetooth control enabling it to work as a remote.
  • Fingerprint Sensor
    • As described in another article in the DSCC Weekly Review, they are using the Qualcomm 2nd gen 3D Sonic Sensor which is 77% larger and 50% faster. In their launch video, they showed people tapping the phone to unlock it rather than waiting for a scan. That would be nice.
  • Battery and Chargers
    • The battery specs are the same other than a slightly larger battery on the S21+ vs. the S20+ at 4800 mAh vs. 4500 mAh.
    • As with the iPhone 12, there is no charger included with the S21. However, they have lowered the price of their charger from $39 to $19. There is 25W fast charging across all S21 models as opposed to 45W on the S20 Ultra and 25W on the remaining S20 models.
  • Availability
    • The S21 phones are available for pre-order until January 28th with deliveries starting on January 29.

Samsung Mobile President TM Roh kicked off the event indicating that Samsung is the only game in town when it comes to innovation. We are seeing the continued evolution of smartphone technology in the S21 when comparing it with the S20 with a healthy discount as well. But, will it turn into a commercial success?

The S10 is the standard for Samsung’s flagships with 37M panels purchased in 2019. The S20 only resulted in around 19M panels as it was plagued by high prices and widespread lockdowns around the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe Samsung purchased around 6M panels in Q4’20 for the S21 and is expected to build around 12M S21 phones from December to March. If Samsung purchases 10M panels for the S21 which is reasonable, then it will be ahead of both the S20 and S10 in its first 2 quarters of production, but it did start one month earlier. Samsung is benefiting from the reduced presence of Huawei but a stronger presence from Apple and its all OLED 5G iPhone 12 launch as well as a growing number of flagships from other brands. We do expect the S21 to outperform the S10 due to its lower prices and improved economic environment for all 3 models and better performance for the S21 Ultra. We would expect it to result in at least 25M panels, up over 30% vs. S20. If it can maintain its momentum into Q2’21, then it has a real shot of approaching the S10 volumes especially if it de-emphasizes its Note models as expected with just one Note model. If that is the case, the S21 Ultra will be its main high-end flagship phone for the full year with the Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 competing with it in the 2H of the year which may not slow it down.

Samsung S10 vs. S20 vs. S21 Panel Volumes

Source: DSCC’s Quarterly Advanced Smartphone Features Report

The 12M units of production in its first 4 months is a good start, but is actually below volumes for each of the four iPhone 12 models respectively in Q4’20 in terms of panel shipments. Although I am comparing phone production with panel shipments, it does give you an idea for the scale difference between Apple and Samsung’s flagships. Apple’s iPhone 12 launch is expected to result in a massive 70M OLED panels in Q4’20 due to all 4 models being OLEDs, its first 5G phones, the lack of competition from Huawei and pent-up demand resulting from weak phone purchases in the first 3 quarters of the year. At 70M panels, Apple’s Q4 results and that of its supply chain may surprise investors to the update. We still believe Samsung will outship Apple for the year, but they require many more models at many different price points to do so.

Apple vs. Samsung Volumes

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Written by

Ross Young