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Samsung’s new Galaxy S21 family checks off a lot of boxes. Its baseline Galaxy S21 is $200 less expensive than last year’s model, suddenly making the Galaxy S20 FE, lauded for its combination of high-end specs and affordable price tag, a little less relevant. The top-tier Galaxy S21 Ultra can now work with the S-Pen stylus, once the primary differentiator for the Galaxy Note line.
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The “S20 FE is really the core S20 model that we want to continue to drive through the balance of this year,” Drew Blackard, Samsung Electronics America’s vice president of product management, said in an interview ahead of Thursday’s Unpacked event that introduced the S21 lineup. “And and on top of that, I think you’re gonna see more FEs.”
Blackard wouldn’t say whether a new Note will launch this summer, but he emphasized that making the S Pen work with the S21 Ultra marks an expansion for the stylus. It not only works with the Note and now the S21 Ultra, but also with Samsung PCs and tablets.
Samsung has long flooded its customers with a myriad of choices — think of it as the opposite of the Steve Jobs-era Apple. But even as Apple expanded its family of products under Tim Cook, Samsung’s lineup has exploded. Samsung has products in multiple colors, storage levels, screen sizes, prices and feature sets. Instead of one phone line, Samsung has two flagship families in the US — the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note. Last year, it added the Galaxy Z foldables and inexpensive A Series phones, not to mention that cheaper FE variant of its S phones.
It’s a dizzying array of phones, but one Samsung thinks gives the company an edge.
“When it comes to shopping for new smartphones, first and foremost people want choice,” Blackard said. “That is both in terms of features and in terms of price points. So we’re really committed to driving a range of different devices that offer what we think is that diversity of needs that’s in the market today.”
That willingness to experiment meant Samsung was busy in 2020. Samsung in February introduced its flagship Galaxy S20 phones, all of which came with 5G in the US, as well as its Galaxy Z Flip foldable. In April it unveiled the less expensive A Series lineup of smartphones in the US. The Galaxy A51 5G cost as little as $500 at AT&T and T-Mobile, or half the price of the S20. They’ve proved so popular with buyers that Samsung likely will introduce new A Series devices in the US this year.
The company released the $700 Galaxy S20 FE in September specifically as a response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the price sensitivity of some consumers. That device packs some high-end features found in the rest of the S20 lineup but starts at $300 less than the S20. A mmWave Galaxy S20 FE for Verizon’s networks costs $750.
This year’s Galaxy S21 starts at $800. Now that the base model isn’t much more expensive than the FE, it would make sense for Samsung to get rid of the latter device entirely. It’s had one-off models in the past, including 2019’s $750 Galaxy S10E, the device from the past two years that most closely compares to the FE.
But that’s not Samsung’s plan, Blackard said.
He said that while he can’t “commit to any products” right now, “you’ll see more of the FE from Samsung, because it’s a brand that was really successful since the launch late last year, and we’re definitely committed to [that] through this year.”
As of now, Samsung said it’s not planning to lower the price of the Galaxy S20 FE, something that could make it harder to sell. But when it introduces new FE models, it’s possible the company will decide to have a lower starting price. As for the rest of the Galaxy S20 lineup, that’s going away when inventory is sold out.
As for the Note? This year, Samsung has brought support for its S Pen, a hallmark of the Galaxy Note lineup, to its Galaxy S family for the first time. Of the three new phones, only the S21 Ultra works with the S Pen, and it comes as a separate accessory that costs $40 for just the pen or $70 when bundled with a specially designed case that stores the stylus. Users can’t stow the S Pen away inside the S21 Ultra like they can with Notes, but they can use their old Note styluses with the S21 Ultra.
The initial new accessory doesn’t work with gestures or many of the other features found in the Note’s S Pen, which likely means the Note line isn’t dead quite yet, despite rumors that Samsung plans to get rid of the line this year.
“Having the S Pen on the Ultra makes sense,” Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. “It doesn’t really mean that the Note line goes away, but Samsung will have to clearly carve out what the Note means.”
Blackard pointed to the S-Pen’s compatibility with other Samsung products as a reason why you shouldn’t necessarily read too much into the S21 Ultra getting this feature.
“We’ve tried to kind of broaden its reach into other parts of our portfolio in a variety of different categories,” he said. He added that Samsung is “excited to “see where that goes with S series users,” but noted that the S Pen for the Note has more features not available in the standalone S21 Ultra accessory.
That’s a sentiment that TM Roh, the head of Samsung’s mobile business, echoed in a statement shared with reporters ahead of Samsung’s event.
“We’ve made the bold decision to expand the S Pen experience to Galaxy S21 Ultra and plan to expand the S Pen experience across additional device categories in the future,” he said. “We remain committed to providing the best mobile experience to our consumers and will continue to actively listen and consider consumer feedback in our product innovations.”
But later this year, Samsung will introduce a fully featured version of its stylus, called the S Pen Pro. It will have some of the Bluetooth-enabled features found in the Note’s stylus, like gestures. Samsung didn’t give a price or release date for the S Pen Pro, but once that accessory appears, it could take away the biggest feature setting the Note apart.
For now, fans of the Galaxy S20 FE and Galaxy Note lineups may be able to sleep a little better, knowing their favorite devices likely aren’t going away — at least not yet.
CNET’s Patrick Holland contributed to this report.