ICYMI: We test out the latest Samsung Galaxy smartphones

by Jeremy


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Now that CES is over, we can really get the new year underway. Here at Engadget, that means reviewing all of the latest tech as it becomes available, from smartphones to smart scales. At last week’s Unpacked event, Samsung announced two smartphones, the Galaxy S21 and S21 Ultra, and a new set of earbuds, the Galaxy Buds Pro. We spent the past week putting them all through their paces, and for the most part, we’ve been impressed. We also tested and reviewed some more niche products: the Hatch Grow smart scale for infants, a moddable arcade stick from 8BitDo and a tracker from Polyend. 

Samsung Galaxy S21

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

According to Cherlynn Low, the smallest — and cheapest — of Samsung’s latest flagships, the Galaxy S21, offers a compelling set of features for its reasonable $800 price. With a hand-friendly, appealing design, a 6.2-inch screen and high-end specs, the S21 ditches the superfluous stuff while retaining what users want most. Cherlynn was pleased to see that the phone still has a high-end Snapdragon 888 processor, a 120Hz screen, a long-lasting battery life, useful software and versatile cameras. 

Missing from the S21’s features are a high-res screen (its 2,400 x 1,800 resolution is lower than that of the more expensive S21 Ultra), S Pen support and the “Space Zoom” found on the S21 Ultra. However, Cherlynn didn’t miss those features in light of everything else the S21 had going for it: a sturdy, premium feel and a slew of camera and software additions like the Qualcomm 3D sonic sensor, which recognizes two fingers at once on the display. Photos and videos looked vibrant, and she enjoyed the abilities of the triple camera set up during testing. In Cherlynn’s opinion, the speedy processor and advanced photo features help the S21 to edge out the Pixel 5 when it comes to Android handsets that offer the best bang for your buck. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The Galaxy S21 Ultra offers excellent performance, valuable software and polished cameras — all things we would expect from a premium Samsung smartphone. But none of these features make it a particularly dramatic departure from its predecessor, the S20 Ultra. The large 6.8-inch size, and the accompanying $1,200 starting price, will keep some from choosing this phone, but Chris Velazco still felt that the S21 Ultra was a polished powerhouse of a smartphone that showed competence in multiple areas. 

The handset’s display is a big selling point. Chris said the S21 Ultra has one of the best-looking screens he’s ever seen on a smartphone, and that the performance didn’t lag a bit thanks to the Snapdragon 888 chipset. Combine that with a solid battery life and 5G support, and you have a highly capable smartphone that’s worth recommending.

But even when you’re shelling out $1,200 for a phone, there are some downsides you’ll have to live with: The S21 Ultra doesn’t have any expandable storage, something that might be a deal-breaker for power users. Also, the S Pen experience isn’t quite as good as that of the Note series: there’s a slight bit of latency when using the stylus on the S21 Ultra. And Chris found some of the camera features to be a bit flaky, though he still enjoyed shooting with the five-camera array more than he expected to. 

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro

Billy Steele/Engadget

Billy Steele has reviewed a lot of headphones and earbuds, so when he claims that the new Galaxy Buds Pro are Samsung’s best earbuds yet, that’s saying a lot. The Galaxy Buds Pro have a unique design that allows them to sit securely in the curves of your ear while not actually going into the ear canal itself, which Billy found quite comfortable. They also offer plenty of features including active noise cancellation (ANC) and 360 Audio which uses Dolby Head Tracking technology to create more immersive sound. 

However, that 360 Audio feature wasn’t ready for Billy to test yet so he couldn’t comment on how well it worked. He was able to test out the battery life, which matched Samsung’s estimate of five hours with ANC turned on. He was impressed with the companion app, touch gestures and ANC capability. When it came to sound quality, he found it crisp and punchy thanks to the 11mm woofer and 6.5mm tweeter. In this case, you get what you pay for — the premium Galaxy Buds Pro come at a premium $200 price.

Hatch Grow

Hatch

Hatch has made a name for itself by producing minimal, cleanly designed sound machines and nightlights for babies and adults alike. They’re even popular with some of the parents on Engadget’s staff. But the Grow smart scale is a departure from the company’s usual lineup, and unfortunately we found it difficult to recommend.

The Grow scale has a lot of potential — it’s simple and straightforward to operate, easy to clean and has a companion app that tracks many of your baby’s daily details. However, the scale won’t work without the app and the app won’t import data from any other tracking programs you may be using. While we found the scale to be mostly accurate in measuring a child’s weight, you may get inconsistent readings if the positioning is even a little bit off. And the “record a feed” feature, which would make the Grow particularly helpful for breastfeeding parents, never provided accurate results. At $149, it’s also much more expensive than a standard scale. 

8BitDo Arcade Stick

Engadget

Nick Summers has a special place in his heart for retro-style gaming devices, which is why he was the perfect person to test out 8BitDo’s new Arcade Stick. The peripheral clearly resembles the original Nintendo controller: boxy and grey with a black panel and red circular buttons. The Arcade Stick is designed to work with PC, Nintendo Switch or Raspberry Pi and can be modded by changing out buttons or the joystick (though Nick found that last one to be a bit trickier). Using the 8BitDo Ultimate Software, he could also remap any of the 10 circular buttons as well. 

8BitDo already has a solid reputation for making nostalgia-inspired accessories and it’s easy to see why. Nick said the peripheral feels durable, the joystick was large enough to hold in different grip styles and the buttons were enormously fun to smash. Another bonus: the Arcade Stick supports Bluetooth and a 2.4G wireless receiver so it can be used without the included cable. Though there are pricer competitors, Nick felt the Arcade Stick was a good option for most people, especially those who appreciate the retro design. 

Polyend Tracker

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

When Terrence O’Brien first sat down to experiment with the Polyend Tracker he found himself somewhat lost. He wasn’t sure what to make of the groovebox, despite its impressive array of features. The Tracker is capable of sampling, slicing, sequencing and synthesizing a track from start to finish, and the interface and shortcuts were thoughtfully laid out. Terrence also had no complaints about the build quality, saying the click wheel was satisfying and the mechanical keys won him over quickly. On top of that, he also thought the $599 price point made the Tracker an incredible value. 

But it was the workflow that stumped him while using the machine. It felt archaic and that’s a common complaint of trackers as they can make users feel like they’re producing music in a spreadsheet. Notes, instruments, effects and more are all represented by a number and/or letter combination in a cell, which took Terrence some time to adjust to. While he acknowledges that the workflow might not be for everyone, he still felt that the price, the power, and the ample capabilities of the Tracker make it a fascinating and impressive instrument.



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