We’ve fully reviewed the Samsung Galaxy S21 ad S21 Ultra, so it’s time to compare the two and answer the burning question: Which is the best phone of 2021 so far?
This year Samsung once again chose not to release a single flagship phone. Instead, we got three phones, the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21 Plus and Galaxy S21 Ultra, each with unique additions, sacrifices and prices.
While Samsung’s range isn’t quite as varied as the massive iPhone 12 line, but each is still different enough to make knowing which is right for your needs and budget a little tricky.
Here to help we’ve created this guide detailing everything you need to know about the top and bottom entry into Samsung’s 2021 flagship line, including our real world findings testing the S21 and S21 Ultra.
- Much more affordable at launch than S20
- Still a great screen (and it’s flat)
- Snappy performance
- Lack of microSD and WQHD+ resolution make it feel like an S20 downgrade
- Doesn’t feel as good as previous S series phones
- Minimal camera upgrades
- Great screen thanks to WQHD+ and 120Hz
- Much-improved design with an attractive finish
- Far more versatile camera than the iPhone 12 Pro Max
- Expensive, with many cheaper phones offering the same features
- Big and heavy
- No charger included
Pricing and availability
Let’s start with pricing. All models of the S21 are cheaper than the outgoing S20 models.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 starts at £769 €849/$799. This is a big reduction over the outgoing Galaxy S20. By launching at £799, Samsung undercuts the price of Apple’s iPhone 12 in some regions.
The Samsung S21 Plus will cost from £949/€1049/$999. Again, this price is slightly lower than that of the S20 Plus, which retailed for £999/€1099 at launch.
All three models are available to pre-order now and will ship on January 29. This is the earliest Samsung has ever released a flagship S series phone and it’s one of the first big phone announcements of 2021.
Screen and design
- The Galaxy S21 has a plastic black rather than glass
- All have an IP68 rating, USB-C and lack expandable storage
- S21 Ultra is far bigger and heavier
Both the S21 and Ultra have the same overall look. This means that on both phones Samsung has successfully built the camera module into the design, making it stand out more and cling to the top corner. The only big difference is that the S21 and S21 Plus have a smaller camera panel as they have fewer sensors, with the Ultra needing more space for its impressive lens setup.
All three phones have IP68 water and dust resistance rating, a USB-C port on the bottom for charging, stereo speakers and a small cut-out on the display for the front camera. They also all boast a new, much larger optical fingerprint scanner that is built into the screen. We can’t state how much better this optical sensor is than the one of the S20. During testing we found it offers far better accuracy and speed.
There are a few big differences, though. Size and weight are one of them, with the Ultra tipping the scales at a whopping 228g. For comparison, the Galaxy S21 weighs 172g. Check the table below for full dimensions.
One reason for the much lighter Galaxy S21 is that it ditches the glass on the back for plastic, Both other models have glass rears.
You do feel this change when you pick up the Galaxy S21. While the plastic is nice enough, it lacks that high-end finish you get with metal or glass. Considering this is Samsung’s main phone line, the change is a bit of a shame.
Dimensions and weight
The S21 Ultra is the largest phone and as such has the biggest display. Here you’ve got a 6.8-inch curved panel, whereas the S21 Plus has a flat 6.7-inch screen and the smallest S21 packs a flat 6.2-inch version.
There’s more to differentiate the displays than just size. The S21 Ultra has a max brightness of 1500 nits, packs a WQHD+ resolution and an adaptive refresh rate that cycles from 10Hz-120Hz depending on what you’re doing. Unlike the S20, these two options can be utilised at the same time.
If you’re watching a YouTube video, for example, it’ll refresh less than if you’re playing Fortnite. This helps save battery as it ensures you’re not wasting energy when you don’t need to.
There are no two ways around it: this is the best screen on any phone we’ve ever used. It’s ridiculously sharp, pleasingly colourful and an absolute star if you’re streaming HDR video through YouTube or Netflix.
The S21 and S21 Plus also have adaptive 120Hz displays, however they can only drop to 48Hz. They both also have slightly lower FHD+ resolutions – quite an odd move for a series that usually sticks to the best possible screen. The screen here is still good, just not in the same league as the Ultra or even the iPhone 12 series, when we used them.
Specs and camera
- S21 has 8GB RAM and 128GB/256GB storage; Ultra models up that to 12/16GB and up to 512GB storage
- Want the best camera? Go for the Ultra
- S21 has cameras similar to the S20
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra lives up to its branding (and price) by packing in a wealth of top end hardware. Choose this model if you want the most RAM and the biggest storage sizes.
For instance, RAM on the Ultra model is either 12 or 16GB, with storage options coming in at 128GB, 256GB and 512GB. It’s also the only model to support the S Pen stylus traditionally seen on Samsung’s Note line of phones.By comparison, both the S21 and S21 Plus have 8GB RAM and either 128 or 256GB storage.
You’ll find the same chipset inside all phones, so even if you plump for the cheapest version it’ll still be seriously fast. In the US the chipset of choice is the Snapdragon 888, while us in the UK and certain other markets will have Samsung’s own Exynos 2100.
All versions of the S21 we have tested are quick, and we didn’t notice any issues with the smaller amount of RAM on the cheaper model. However, the lack of expandable storage and no 512GB option mean that if you’re shooting lots of 8K video you will see that storage deplete very quickly. We’d recommend going to the 256GB model, just to be safe, as a result.
In terms of benchmarking scores, both the S21 and S21 Ultra are on par. You won’t get better gaming performance on the S21 Ultra, aside from the extra freedom afforded by the bigger, far better display.
Where the Ultra mode does come out firmly on top is with its camera and this is firmly the best camera phone you can buy right now. The Galaxy S21 Ultra has a wildly different camera array to the S21 and S21 Plus, with an extra zoom lens along with more pixel-packed sensors. Here’s a quick overview of the Ultra camera specs:
That duo of tele lenses enables up to 100x Space Zoom and while we wouldn’t recommend going that far, you’ll get great results at 3x and 10x, plus passable results at 30x. This is up there with the Huawei P40 Pro as the best zooming experience you can get on a phone.
The main 108MP also beats the S21 in just about every scenario. It’s more capable in lower-light surroundings, can create a lovely depth of field when you’re taking portraits and it doesn’t suffer from the same focussing issues as the Galaxy S20 Ultra.
Moving over to the S21 and S21 Plus, these have more modest specs and we found the S21 camera took virtually the same kinds of pictures as the outgoing S20 model. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the S20 had one of the best cameras around when it was released – but a year later and the S21 can’t compete with the iPhone 12.
- The bigger battery on the S21 Ultra gives it more stamina
- All S21 phones ditch the charger
- Wired charging peaks at 25w
Inside the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, you’ll find a 5000mAh cell, 4800mAh for the S21 Plus and 4000mAh for the S21. All three phones can be charged at 25w wired and 15w wirelessly. They also all pack Reverse Powershare for charging up accessories.
None of the phones comes with a charger in the box though, just a USB–C cable, so you’ll need to use an older USB-C charger or to buy one separately. If you’re upgrading from something like the Galaxy S10 or Galaxy S9 then that plug is not capable of providing full charge speeds to these phones.
We’ve only tested the regular S21 and the Ultra model so far and as you can probably expect there’s a notable gulf in endurance between the two.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra offers superior battery life, offering up to eight hours of screen-on time in our tests. Switch the resolution down to FHD+ (which is actually the default) and you can get about an extra hour, give or take.
The Galaxy S21, on the other hand, matches what we’d expect from a smaller phone. You’ll get five to six hours of screen time per charge, which should get most people through the day.
Charging time from our tests
They are linked by name, but the S21 and S21 Ultra are very different phones. Overall, they have very little in common beside general design and if we’re talking about which phone is ‘better’ then there’s only one winner: the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The S21 Ultra is the true flagship of the bunch. It has a new camera, a best-in-class display, better battery life and support for higher storage capacities, RAM and the S Pen stylus. This is the phone where Samsung has gone all out and it really shows as it is one of the best Android phones around.
The Galaxy S21, on the other hand, is more modest and not much of an upgrade over the outgoing S20. In fact, you could say it is a downgrade thanks to the less premium materials used, lower resolution display and use of the same camera array. But, it’s important to see the S21 as more of a device for those who have much older phones and aren’t interested in blowing over a grand on a new phone. For this market, the Galaxy S21 is an ideal phone at a great price.