What’s in the Next iPhone? Check Samsung’s New Galaxy S21
5 min read.Updated: 30 Jan 2021, 02:09 PM ISTThe Wall Street Journal
An in-screen fingerprint sensor, faster 120Hz screens and a crazy zoom camera. Samsung’s latest smartphone provides a glimpse at what the next iPhone may look like.
Three seconds. Three whole seconds of my undivided attention. That’s how long it takes me to unlock my iPhone when I’m wearing a mask. Face ID fails, and there I am, punching in a passcode like some Neanderthal.
Half a second. According to my trusty stopwatch, that’s how quickly I can unlock the new Samsung Galaxy S21, using its improved in-screen fingerprint sensor.
Do you know what I could do with all that saved time? Probably…nothing.
You would be forgiven if you completely missed Samsung’s Galaxy S21 launch a few weeks ago. There are no whiz bang features and you might have been otherwise distracted. Yet the trio of new phones—the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21 Plus and Galaxy S21 Ultra—are the best Samsung has put out in years, and the best Android phones for the money right now. The S21 starts at $799, down $200 from last year’s model.
It’s what I like to call a Samsung refinement year. (For other examples, see the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S10.) The company has polished and improved some of its best previously introduced features, including the fingerprint sensor, the rapidly refreshing 120Hz screen and the 10X zoom lens on the S21 Ultra.
By no mere coincidence, those happen to be some of the very features Apple is likely to incorporate into its next iPhones, whether they’re branded iPhone 12S, iPhone 13 or iPhone Super Max Crazy Deluxe 2021.
Apple has been working on in-screen fingerprint technology and has considered including both Touch ID and Face ID on the same device, two former Apple employees told me. While they couldn’t confirm the company’s plans, other reports, including one from Bloomberg, say Apple is testing in-screen fingerprint sensors in its next iPhone.
While there are additional industry reports pointing to Apple adopting improved, faster OLED screens and an additional telephoto camera, I can also point to a little something called…history. As you’ll see in the video above, I charted the last five years or so in Apple following Samsung on hardware features—and Samsung following Apple.
There’s a clear pattern: Samsung puts out the cutting edge feature (e.g., water resistance, wireless charging, 5G connectivity) as soon as it can—by my estimates two to three years ahead of Apple. Apple follows when it deems the technology ready for the masses. When Apple beats Samsung to the market, it tends to be with proprietary technology, such as AirPods or Face ID—or by removing features, such as the headphone jack.
“For people who love Samsung, there is no such thing as too early," said Drew Blackard, vice president of product management at Samsung Electronics America. He stresses the value the company gets from the early-adopter feedback. They “help us refine what becomes the product two years later."
And so it syncs up: Right around the time Samsung is refining its earlier features—as it did with the Galaxy S21—you can trust that Apple usually isn’t far behind with its own variations.
In-Screen Fingerprint Sensor
The Galaxy S21’s fingerprint sensor lives beneath the bottom half of the screen. A fingerprint icon appears when needed, to show you where to press. It’s speedy and reliable, recognizing the sides of my fingers and even just the lightest touch. It wasn’t always this way.
With the Galaxy S10 and S20, the technology was slower, frequently returned error messages and failed with wet fingers. The improvements are a result of Qualcomm’s second-generation ultrasonic fingerprint sensor. The sensor now covers a bigger surface area, functions 50% faster, and captures more fingerprint data in its scans, making it more accurate.
Qualcomm declined to say if Apple was another customer of its ultrasonic technology.
A former Apple employee, who worked on Apple’s Touch ID, said the company had been working with optical sensors for in-screen fingerprint reading. The person said optical sensing can be more reliable than ultrasonic. Apple has filed various related patents as early as 2014. A recent patent shows a fingerprint recognized when placed anywhere on the screen. Apple declined to comment on its patents.
The former employees stressed that whatever solution Apple went with, it would have to meet the security standards of its current Touch ID, which is still used on the iPhone SE, the iPad and MacBooks.
120Hz OLED Displays
Please take your seats for Rudimentary Refresh Rate class. To convey motion, all displays refresh a certain number of times per second—often 60. It’s measured in hertz, so “60Hz." Since video is generally 60 frames per second or less, this works for the most part. But doubling the refresh rate to 120Hz can make some animations appear even smoother, particularly scrolling and transitions between menus. It can also reduce the latency when writing with a stylus and improve some videogames, which can run faster than 60 frames per second.
Can you really tell the difference unless you’re comparing the two side by side? Nope, but it’s a nice-to-have. The biggest holdup on the technology has been battery. Last year’s Galaxy S20 had the 120Hz option but it was off by default because of battery drain. With the Galaxy S21, it’s on by default, with improved screen power efficiency and new adaptive frame rates that adjust to what’s on the screen. On the Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung is using a new lower-power 6.8-inch OLED screen that reduces power consumption by 16%, yet still has a crazy-high resolution.
There have been reports that Samsung, which regularly makes iPhone components, will provide this type of display for the next iPhones. Plus, Apple has already got the marketing lingo for it. The iPad Pro’s LCD screens have 120Hz refresh rates—which it calls “ProMotion."
The 2021 iPhone Pro models will have 120Hz displays, according to Ming-Chi Kou, a TF International Securities analyst with a long track record of accurately predicting future iPhone features. Apple tested it in the iPhone 12, he says, but pulled it because of battery and performance issues.
An Ultra Zoom Camera
Last year, I called the Galaxy S20 Ultra’s “Space Zoom"—which could magnify photos digitally up to 100X—a creep cam. This year, the optical capability is even better. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has four rear cameras, including one telephoto with 3X optical zoom and another with 10X optical zoom.
Translation: Crazy-clear photos when you’re standing crazy-far away.
Is it still creepy? Sure is, but is it also useful when you’re trying to snap a photo of a deer off in the distance or your child in the middle of the soccer field? Sure is.
Apple has been exploring greater telephoto magnification, according to Mr. Kou, although he isn’t sure of the timing. Apple also has filed patents related to this, including one just this week, which references a camera including “two light-folding elements."
Zoom out and the picture is clear: Whether Apple is buying into Samsung’s technology or inventing its own, it’s working to give iPhones many of the features that Galaxy owners already have under their thumb.