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Samsung Galaxy S21 Review

The Samsung Galaxy S21 isn't what you expect

Verdict

There are sacrifices yes, but this is still a great phone for a more enticing price. It has a lovely screen, a reliable camera and a slick new design that feels a little bit futuristic. The basics are here and they're all done excellently.

Pros

  • Much more affordable
  • Still a great screen (and it's flat)
  • Snappy performance

Cons

  • 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

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £769
  • 6.2-inch FHD+ OLED display
  • Snapdragon 888/Exynos 2100
  • 4000mAh battery
  • 12 + 12 + 64MP cameras (rear)
  • 10MP camera (front)
  • Android 11
  • 120Hz adaptive refresh rate

The Samsung Galaxy S21 isn’t the highest tier phone in Samsung’s current line-up, if you want that then check out the Galaxy S21 Ultra. But having thoroughly used the pared-down device, I can confirm that it ticks all the important boxes for most people. This plus its more wallet friendly price make it an excellent smartphone.

The S21 is the lowest entry point to Samsung’s flagship phone line and it comes with a few key changes to last year’s Galaxy S20. Expandable storage is gone, you’ll have to make do with a plastic rear and the screen’s resolution tops out at just FHD+. On top of that, you’ll have to spend extra for your own charger and headphones – cheers for setting this precedent last year with the iPhone 12, Apple.

Still, there’s plenty to appreciate and the Galaxy S21 is sure to be one of the best Android phones of the year, with highlights including several camera additions and a strong focus on offering buyers a unique new design and a lower than expected price tag.

We’ve got a full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review with a full in-depth look at the spec-beast in Samsung’s range.

Samsung Galaxy S21 – Price, release date

You can pre-order every version of the Samsung Galaxy S21 right now, with the handsets hitting shelves on January 29. Prices for the Samsung Galaxy S21 start at £769 €849/$799. This is a slight reduction over the outgoing Galaxy S20 which started at £899 for the 5G model. The Samsung S21 Plus will cost from £949/€1049/$999.

Both the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus will be widely available through UK and US network vendors and across big sites such as Amazon. Of course, with all non-essential shops currently closed in the UK, you’ll only be able to get these phones online for now.

This is the earliest we’ve seen Samsung unveil its flagship smartphone in quite some time, with a typical release happening in March. But, with the pandemic continuing to have an impact across the globe, it looks like this year might be quite different in general.

Design and Screen – The Samsung Galaxy S21 makes sacrifices to keep the price down

  • There have been some sacrifice here, including a switch to a plastic back and a drop in screen resolution

  • The new rear camera module is very distinctive

  • The phone’s light and easy to hold

Samsung’s made a few cuts to the Galaxy S21 that make it feel less “flagship” than past Samsung hero phones. Whether this is a blessing or a curse will depend on your personal expectations, but in general I think the move is the right one as it has let Samsung reduce the phone’s RRP.

There have been two notable cuts, along with a couple of other smaller bits that have been left out. The biggest, especially for those who still want this to be a high-end flagship phone, is the drop in maximum screen resolution. Specifically, Samsung’s dropped it from WQHD+ to FHD+, basically 1440p down to 1080p. While yes, you can – if you really look for it – see a difference, on a 6.2-inch panel this isn’t much of an issue for me.

Samsung Galaxy S21

That’s mostly because the rest of the display is great. It’s OLED, supremely bright, still very sharp and has an adaptive refresh rate that can drop to 48Hz and rise to 120Hz. This is a big improvement over the 120Hz panel in the S20 as it’s not wasting energy when you won’t benefit from the faster, smoother speeds.

Describing the benefit of 120Hz displays is hard as it’s something that needs to be seen to be appreciated. But realistically you’ll notice it everywhere when in use, from scrolling Twitter to playing a round of PUBG mobile. Coming to the S21 from an iPhone 12, I dislike it even more that Apple decided against implementing this tech into its latest phone, as with everyday use the S21 feels much smoother and responsive.

For the first time in ages for a mainline S series phone, the screen here is completely flat. Finally! I love a flat screen and it’s one of the reasons I am drawn to the iPhone 12. It means the S21 is so much easier to hold and generally feels a whole lot less delicate. Of all the features lost for the S21, the lack of a curved screen is more of a pro than a con for me.

The other big difference between the S21 and the outgoing Galaxy S20 is a switch to a plastic back, rather than a glass one. I was initially torn on this as I’ve always felt that glass gives off a much more high-end feel than plastic but after using the Galaxy S21 for a week, I think the shift is fine and most people likely won’t be bothered by the material change. The plastic is suitably sturdy, offering no flex.

Model Dimensions Weight
Samsung Galaxy S21 71.2 x 151.7 x 7.9 (mm) 172g
Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus 75.6 x 161.5 x 7.8 (mm) 202g

The only drawback is that the phone does not feel quite as expensive as previous headline S series phones. Its finish is more akin to the Galaxy S20 FE rather than the main S20. It’s light, but lacks that satisfyingly weighty finish you get with glass. The back also still picks up greasy smudges even with the matte finish, which is an annoyance for neat freaks such as myself.

Samsung Galaxy S21

Yes, the back is plastic… but it looks great in Phantom Violet

While the back is plastic, the S21 still has a Gorilla Glass Victus screen and metal rails. The S21 Plus opts for an all-glass design, so that’s the one to go for if you prefer a more high-end finish.

The camera module is now very much part of the design. It sits towards the top-left of the phone, blending into the handset’s edge. I wasn’t sure about the change at first, but I quickly grew to really like the design. Too many phones just stick a large camera module on the back and design around it, whereas this feels like a cohesive unit.

Samsung also goes slightly off-book with its two-tone colour choices. The headline-grabbing “Phantom Violet” model combines a light purple colour with pinky-gold accents, which works well. There’s a gold option too, along with more modest white and black choices. If you plump for the Plus, silver will also be an option.

Another loss is microSD card expandability. This did happen once before in the S series and was quickly brought back the following year so it does seem another odd move, especially when the max 256GB storage option fills up very quickly when you’re shooting 8K video. At least we’ve still got an IP68 rating for some minor water-resistance, and a stereo speaker. 

Performance – Can the Exynos 2100 match up with the Qualcomm competition?

  • The UK and other European versions run the Exynos 2100, while the US version packs the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888

  • It has powerful stereo speakers and offers excellent call quality

  • It’s seriously powerful and great for gaming

Samsung hasn’t hamstrung the Galaxy S21 with its chipset this year, but you’ll still be getting either the top-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 (US) or the Exynos 2100 (UK and other European territories). 

You’ve also got the same larger and far more reliable in-display fingerprint sensor as the S21 Ultra. This might seem a small detail, but with mask-wearing now being so common I find phones that focus on facial unlocking (basically the iPhone 12) feel out of touch and a pain to use outside at the moment.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is a fast phone. I’ve been using the Exynos 2100 version, which is a major step-up on the previous Exynos chipsets – at least after a week of testing. The new chip shares a similar Samsung design to the older model used in the S20. This time however it has a newer GPU, with the Exynos utilising a Mali G78 and the Snapdragon 888 using the Adreno 660. We’ll have to get hold of a Snapdragon version to compare performance in this regard, but I haven’t had any issues whatsoever with the gaming performance here.

Samsung Galaxy S21

You’ll rarely encounter any lag

This is the current high-end chipset from both companies and the Galaxy S21 is one of the first phones to use them. Like Apple’s A14, they’re both built on a highly efficient 5nm process which to non-techies is a key reason why it offers improved battery life compared to the S20.

Aside from some minor bugs inside Samsung’s OneUI software, the Galaxy S21 is very fast. You won’t notice it on the daily if you’re coming from a phone from 2020 or 2019, however if you’re upgrading from an S8 or S9 then prepare to be impressed.

That’s not to say the advancement of tech under-the-hood is a waste of time. Many of the benefits of these new chips are in areas like AI, giving you faster photo enhancements for instance. 

It also powers clever camera tricks, like being able to view live video from all the cameras at once and recording 4K60 footage from different sensors simultaneously.

Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung has stuck to 8GB RAM and either 128GB or 256GB of storage which cannot be expanded. 8GB RAM is fine for me and I haven’t suffered any multitasking issues, however with 8K video taking up around 1GB per 120 seconds and game sizes rising all the time, you’re probably best off paying a little more upfront and getting the higher storage option.

Another benefit these chips have over their predecessors is that the 5G modem is built-in, rather than sitting separately. All Galaxy S21 models have support for at least sub-6Ghz 5G (that’s the only one available in the UK so don’t worry about mmWave support) and you don’t need to pay extra for the 5G version as you did last year.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Camera – Not much of an upgrade over the S20, but still capable

  • The main camera combines 12MP wide, 12MP ultra wide and 64MP tele lenses

  • Video tops out at 8K, though 4K options are more reliable

  • It comes with lots of new camera modes, including the ability to shoot from multiple sensors at once

If you want the best Samsung camera phone possible, then you’ll need to invest in the significantly more expensive Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. The cheaper S21 has a set-up that’s very similar to the outgoing Galaxy S20, albeit with some tweaks to the software.

As a result, if you’ve used the older phone then you won’t notice a drastic improvement in photo quality but that’s no bad thing. This is a reliable camera that performs well in a variety of environments. Highlights include good low-light performance and a very good ultra wide option. For a look at the specs, see the table below:

Model Rear (wide) Rear (ultra wide) Rear (tele) Front Video
Samsung Galaxy S21 12MP f/1.8 12MP f/2.0 64MP f/2.0 10MP f/2.2 8K, Single Take 2.0, Directors View
Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus 12MP f/1.8 12MP f/2.0 64MP f/2.2 10MP f/2.2 8K, Single Take 2.0, Directors View

When you’re shooting with that main 12MP sensor with its f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilisation (OIS), the pictures are generally very pleasing. 

Testing the camera I found colours – especially reds and greens – are punchy and vivid and they look great on the S21’s OLED screen. Samsung has consistently gone for a saturated look that shines on apps like Instagram and there’s no doubting the brand knows its audience well.

You get lots of detail

While I haven’t been able to visit many (or any) bars recently, I have tried to recreate that distorted light look and the S21 deals with the tougher situations admirably. Enable the dedicated Night Mode and pictures have even more brightness, though with a little too much-added sharpness for my taste. Oddly, the night mode doesn’t seem to launch automatically as it does on most modern phones – you need to scroll over and turn it on manually – which is a faff. All too often I’d forget to turn it on when shooting in low light as a result.

Even if the lighting isn’t great. you’ll still get a crisp shot

The camera’s zoom skills are taken care of by a 64MP sensor. This means it just digitally crops and blows up photos to zoom in, rather than truly zooming. However, the zoom sensor’s narrow f/2.2 aperture means you’ll want to avoid using it solo in low light. 

Here, the main 12MP ultra wide is a much better option. It’s one of the best ultra-wide setups I have reviewed and is capable of capturing photos with large amounts of detail, with very little blurring at the edges and nice colours. See the images below for some examples.

The ultra-wide is great

There’s a good 10MP selfie camera that produces far more realistic and natural images than previous Samsung attempts.

You can shoot video at 8K 24fps if you want to show off the power of the internals, or you can drop down to 4K60/30 for something a bit more manageable. I’d stick with the latter, as I find the stabilisation rather poor when shooting in 8K. 

Director’s View is a new software tweak for the camera. This allows you to shoot from multiple cameras at once, seeing a live preview for each one in real-time. It’s a very neat gimmick, and one I have used on several occasions already. 

Overall, the camera system might not make it the best camera phone around. But, it’s capable and reliable, with that trademark pop of colour you’d expect from a Samsung flagship.

Battery life – the Galaxy S21 stretches out to last the day

  • Expect to get around five to six hours of screen-on time

  • There is no charger in the box

  • Charging tops out at 25w, making it slower than its high-end competitors

With its 4000mAh battery, the Samsung Galaxy S21 isn’t a multi-day device and you shouldn’t expect the same mammoth endurance offered by the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. But with real world use I never struggled to make it through the day on a single charge.

Streaming an episode of Netflix over Wi-Fi in HDR with brightness set to 50% ate through 8% of its charge, while an hour of Spotify streaming with the display off took off another 3%. Over the five days I’ve been using the phone I have been averaging 5-6 hours of screen-on time, which also included leaving the phone unplugged overnight.

Samsung Galaxy S21

Super Fast charging (S21 pictured)

When it comes to charging, you’ll need to source your own plug. Yep, just like Apple, Samsung has slimmed the box right down and ditched all accessories aside from a USB-C cable and a SIM ejection tool.

I’m all for the environmental benefits of this move, but it would be nice if Samsung had offered a free charger to anyone who genuinely did need it. Thankfully, the S21 uses the now common USB-C port so chances are you’ve got a suitable replacement lying around from a phone, laptop, Nintendo Switch or iPad Air.

Samsung Galaxy S21 box

Don’t expect a charger in the box

The only slightly tricky part is that you’ll get varying speeds depending on what kind of plug you use. For instance, using the included power supply from an M1 MacBook Air, the phone took 94 minutes to go from 0-100%. When I switched to Samsung’s plug – a 25w unit from the Note 20 Ultra – it went from 0-100% in 70 minutes. It’s not a huge difference if you’re charging overnight, but it’s still worth noting if you want the fastest speeds possible. There’s 15w wireless charging too if you have a compatible Qi plug and far slower reverse charging for juicing up a smartwatch or earbuds.

You should buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 if

1. You want a slim, light and pocketable device that doesn’t skimp on performance

While it’s not as technically advanced as previous S series phones, the S21 feels like a solid device that’ll suit most people’s needs. It’s slim, ever so light and importantly, doesn’t skimp on performance. The design is also just downright fun and the colour options are nicely varied and interesting.

2. You want a reliable and versatile camera

They might not be huge jumps forward from the S20, but I have to say that I do like the pictures from the S21 and they’re especially great for social media sharing as they have a real colour punch. The ultra-wide is great and the new Director’s Views is a useful way to record video from multiple cameras at once.

3. You don’t want to spend nearly a grand

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is far more affordable than the S20 and while sacrifices have been made, it’s not a worse phone as a result. Plus, if you do want all those bells-and-whistles, there’s the Ultra model to jump at.

You should not buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 if

1. You want a phone with a big screen

Even though the panel is of a high quality, 6.2-inches is a little small if you want a phone for lots of gaming and media binges. Thankfully there’s the 6.7-inch Plus model which has a far roomier display.

2. You want a camera with an amazing zoom

If you’re after a camera that can get really close to a subject without sacrificing detail, you might be better off with the S21 Ultra as that has a duo of dedicated zoom lenses.

3. You want a phone that’ll last multiple days

If you want a phone that’ll last two days between charges then you’re not going to get it here. The limit with the S21 is very much a day, unless you’re tending to the battery by using battery saver models and disabling features like the 120Hz refresh rate.

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