Samsung’s Galaxy S21 series went official this morning as the company’s 2021 flagship series. There are certainly pros and cons to these devices on the spec sheet, but what really tells the story is trying them in person. Here are our very first impressions of the Galaxy S21 and S21 Ultra, as well as a quick unboxing.

One of the biggest bits of controversy around the Galaxy S21 series is what’s in the box or, rather, what’s not in it. Following in Apple’s footsteps, Samsung removed both the charger and headphones from the S21’s packaging, leaving only a USB-C cable and some paperwork.

Opening up the box, that’s exactly what you’ll find. The new packaging is roughly half the thickness of past Samsung devices and has a lot less waste in general. As my unit is an early review unit, this might not be the final packaging, but there were very few bits of plastic throughout; just a sticker on the back of the phone. The cable was wrapped in cardboard. As someone who tries to cut their footprint, I liked all of these changes. Of course, though, the lack of an included charger will sting for some users, especially since Samsung isn’t offering one for free to those who actually need it. A coupon for a free brick would have been a nice way to soften the blow.

The box out of the way, let’s talk about the phones themselves.

Galaxy S21: The right downgrades

We always expect flagship phones to upgrade everything year to year, but the S21 series does the opposite. The Galaxy S21 and S21+ are both pretty big downgrades on paper, but if you ask me, they’re all the right downgrades.

The display on Galaxy S21 is 1080p instead of 1440p. Frankly, I can’t tell a difference. The panel is still super sharp and of great quality. Samsung always defaulted to 1080p rendering anyway. Also, Samsung finally ditched the dumb curves and went for a flat display, and it legitimately looks better in person.

On a hardware front, I think Samsung’s decision to go plastic on its base model works too. Don’t get me wrong, glass has its perks in terms of the feel, but Samsung’s “glasstic” material does a good job of replicating it from the moment you finish unboxing your Galaxy S21. On this phone, that material feels even better than it did on the S20 FE, too. The matte texture feels way better than the S20’s glossy finish, and I absolutely love this “Phantom Purple” colorway. This is perhaps my favorite smartphone color of the past several months.

Galaxy S21 Ultra: Better across the board

Looking back to 2020’s S20 Ultra, it was a phone that I disliked in quite a few ways. It was monstrously big and had too many camera flaws for its $1,400 price. The S21 Ultra addresses basically all of my complaints. It’s way too early to talk about the camera, but the additional autofocus hardware and a new primary sensor look very promising, and I’m confident after Samsung nailed the formula in its Note 20 Ultra.

In terms of the hardware, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is much slimmer in all ways. It feels more compact in the hand and weighs much less. It still feels like a super-premium smartphone, but one that I can actually manage holding. The camera bump on the back is also a massive improvement. It’s not flush with the body, but it’s not longer a monstrosity. Plus, the new melt-into-the-frame look is really neat!

Since Samsung took 5 whole minutes to talk about it at Unpacked, let’s also touch on the color. The “Phantom Black” color is, well, it’s black. There’s nothing super special here to my eyes, but it’s a slick look, and I love that it’s matte instead of glossy. Fingerprints collect, but they’re not super obvious. The glass back also makes itself obvious compared to the S21’s plastic, too, and the metal frame feels nice.

We’ll have a lot more to say about both of these phones once we’ve had more time to use them. Expect full reviews of the Galaxy S21 Ultra and Galaxy S21 ahead of the full launch of these phones on January 29, and hopefully the Galaxy S21+ shortly after that.

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Ben Schoon

Ben is a writer and video producer for 9to5Google.

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