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Samsung launches Galaxy S21 phones with lower prices

[SEOUL] Samsung Electronics on Thursday debuted three Galaxy S21 smartphones, upgraded earbuds and a gadget to track physical items, setting out its stall to compete with Apple's existing and future device range.

The South Korean company's new flagship handsets are US$200 cheaper than last year's lineup across the board: the Galaxy S21 starts at US$799.99, matching the iPhone 12, while the larger S21+ is US$999.99 and the upgraded S21 Ultra costs US$1,199.99.

The price drops are an acknowledgement of the current pandemic-riddled economy where consumers are holding off on non-essential purchases as well as a move to ward off rising competition from the likes of Xiaomi Corp.

Samsung said it sees a "bifurcation" in the smartphone market, between consumers wanting the very latest tech and more cost-sensitive shoppers, which has motivated its new strategy. It's a similar approach to Apple's split of the iPhone line into standard, Pro and Pro Max models that differ in cost, materials, size and camera specs.

The Galaxy S21 series come in roughly the same dimensions as last year - going from the 6.2-inch S21 to the 6.8-inch Ultra - though Samsung has reduced the resolution and memory of the two smaller phones, moves likely made to accommodate the lower prices.

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In the US, Samsung will be relying on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 processor while other markets will get its latest in-house Exynos 2100 system-on-chip.

Both mark a move to more advanced 5nm manufacturing, catching up with the silicon already inside Apple and Huawei Technologies' latest devices.

This year, Samsung is emphasising its cameras both in the design and function of its new devices. The rear camera module dominates one corner of each handset and adds enhancements like steadier video recording, better depth measurement for portrait shots and a smattering of artificial intelligence enhancements to make functions like digital zoom more effective.

Google's Android 11 serves as the default operating system and Samsung offers 5G wireless connectivity and IP68 water resistance across its trio of new devices.

The pricier S21 Ultra adds support for Samsung's S Pen digital stylus, the first time Samsung is offering that compatibility for its non-Note phones. The model also differentiates itself with more of everything: it has the biggest screen and battery, highest-resolution display and cameras and more memory and storage options.

"We expect the shipment of S21 series will be around 28 million units by the end of this year," surpassing the incumbent S20 series' performance, said Counterpoint Research analyst Sujeong Lim ahead of the announcement. "The biggest factor to impact the shipment will be pricing."

Agreeing that price will play a pivotal role, IDC analyst Bryan Ma said "Samsung faces pressure from Chinese players like Xiaomi in particular, which has also been picking up share from Huawei and is a rapidly rising threat to Samsung in regions like Western Europe."

The new US$199.99 Galaxy Buds Pro expand Samsung's lineup of true wireless earbuds, marking an upgrade from the Galaxy Buds of 2019 and Buds+ from last year. The new earphones are more discreet, add improved water resistance and step up the audio quality, according to Samsung.

The company also said the Buds Pro can automatically switch between noise-cancelling mode and letting exterior sound in based on whether their user is speaking.

Though the AirPods are the best known example of this category, it has been growing faster - largely on the strength of smaller Chinese upstarts - than even Apple's successful lineup. The Cupertino, California-based company is planning to release updates to both its AirPods and AirPods Pro variants, Bloomberg News has reported.

Samsung's US$29.99 Galaxy SmartTag Bluetooth dongle attaches to valuables such as keys, bags or pet collars and makes those items trackable via a mobile app. This device anticipates Apple's long-in-the-works AirTags accessory, which is expected to add similar locator functionality for iPhone users.

The new phones go on sale Jan 29 and US pre-orders will be incentivised with free SmartTags and up to US$200 of Samsung Credit to spend on extra gear and accessories. The Galaxy Buds Pro will be available from Jan 15.

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