Hot on the heels of CES, Samsung used its Galaxy Unpacked event to unveil its latest line of premium smartphones, the Galaxy S21 series. While thats interesting news on its own, whats particularly noteworthy about the launch is that they are the first mainstream smartphones to include a third generation 5G modema detail that has more importance than it would first appear.
But lets cover the basics first. The new Galaxy S21 line is actually noteworthy on several fronts, not the least of which is that the lower prices for the devices (the S21 starts at $799, the S21+ at $999, and the top-of-the-line S21 Ultra goes for $1,199) mark a return to the slightly more reasonable price ranges of yore. More importantly, this new line-up could also signal the end of the extremely high-priced smartphone trend weve seen across the entire phone industry over the last few years. Lets hope.
As expected, from a capability perspective, the new phones feature a number of enhancements, including improved cameras, better screens, faster processors, more connectivity options, and other advances you would expect from a next generation device. On top of that, the entire S21 line has some intriguing new photographic capabilities and software advancements to make the process of capturing compelling photos and videos faster and easier.
First, all the phones have a Vlogger mode that lets you simultaneously capture images and video clips from the front and rear cameras. In addition, the devices have enhanced Super Steady image stabilization at 60 fps (frames per second) for capturing smooth footage while moving. Combined with a new Directors View and an improved version of the AI-powered Single Take featurewhich automatically takes and pulls together images and video highlights into a professional-looking finished product via a single clickthe S21 phones are clearly up to the task of high-quality content creation.
The S21 Ultra also sports an additional 108MP rear camera and improved zooming up to 100x via a dual tele-lens system. Even more noteworthy, however, is that the S21 Ultra is the first phone in the S-line to offer pen support, a la Samsungs Galaxy Note. In the case of the S21, the pen is a $39 option with no space to hold it inside the phonemeaning, I dont think well see the Note series disappear just yetbut it does provide an interesting option for those who like to use the pen for creative or other types of applications.
From a connectivity perspective, the S21 Ultra is also the first smartphone (and the only one in the new S21 line) to feature support for the recently ratified WiFi 6E standard, which offers the ability for incredibly fast connections by using the 6 GHz frequency spectrum (See New WiFi 6E Standard Brings 5G-Related Technologies To Local Area Wireless for more.) Of course, you also have to own or be in the vicinity of a WiFi 6E-equipped hotspot to take advantage of the technology, but WiFi 6E is going to be incredibly important and support for it assures that the S21 Ultra is future-proof from a connectivity perspective for some time to come.
Speaking of future-proof connectivity, the entire S21 line is also the first set of mainstream smartphones to feature Qualcomms X60 5G modemits built into the Snapdragon 888 chip that powers all three devices. As mentioned previously, the X60 is a third generation 5G modem, a detail that may seem insignificant to some (and likely overlooked by many), but when it comes to 5G, details really matter.
Whats important about how the X60 and other critical Qualcomm RF front end chips are implemented in Samsungs S21 line is that it gives them the ability to work with and combine the bandwidth of multiple chunks of 5G signals. While most people tend to think of the connection between a smartphone and a cellular network as a singular link, in truth, it usually consists of multiple simultaneous links of various widths that each carry a portion of the data that youve requestedsuch as a web page, streamed video, etc. The full speed of your phones connection to the network comes from combining these different channels, or carriers, of information into one. So, for example, if youve done a speed test (using a utility like Speedtest.net) and discovered that you had a 100 Mbps connection, that could have come from four different carrier signals that had throughputs of 40 Mpbs, 30 Mbps, 25 Mbps and 5 Mbps respectively.
The speed of 4G networks got faster and faster over time because smartphone makers and component suppliers got better and better at combining more of these signals into a single entity. When it comes to 5G, however, many of the earliest 5G modems had either no or very limited ability to do whats called carrier aggregation (CA) of different types of 5G signals. As a result, the speed of many early 5G phones were very limited. (Of course, the wide availability of 5G signals from telco networks also has a big influence on the speed of wireless connections, but thats a separate discussion.)
The beauty of the X60 is that its one of the first 5G modems with the ability to combine not only signals of various frequencies (such as low-band and mid-band) but also different modulation types (such as FDD, or frequency-division duplexing, and TDD, or time-division duplexing). Some MediaTek 5G modems can also do this, but they dont support mmWave 5G. In other words, the X60 is the first 5G modem that can take advantage of all the different combinations of signals that we can expect to see on 5G networks. Practically speaking, this translates to the fact that as the carriers upgrade and densify their 5G networks (see How Will 5G Networks Get Faster? Densification for more), the wireless network performance on X60-based phones is going to be faster than whats possible on phones using second-generation modems like Qualcomms X55 (which is in the new iPhone 12 and most other current 5G phones).
While exact numbers are difficult to quantify because of how many different factors can go into determining a connection speedincluding number of people using a cell tower in a given location, the specific carrier, the frequencies used, the phones, etc.this could mean that on a network like T-Mobile thats starting to leverage both its low-band frequencies (600 MHz) and its mid-band frequencies (2.5 GHz), there could be speed differences of several hundred megabits per second between phones with an X60 versus those with an X55.
To be clear, there are a number of factors that have to happen for this to occur, but the potential speed improvements are very real, and best of all, they will just happen automatically over timethere isnt anything youll have to do to get them. As 5G networks evolve, phones like the S21 with these third generation 5G modem are just going to start getting faster.
Most people wont be able to experience these faster speeds immediately, but the fact that its possible is likely going to be one of the important differentiators that the S21 has over its biggest competitors. Finally, it seems, were starting to see the potential 5G speeds that we were first promised.
Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.