Samsung’s latest flagship line of smartphones are here with the Galaxy S21 Ultra leading the charge. By comparison, the Galaxy S21 may seem a tad basic, and in some ways it’s not even an upgrade over its predecessor, the Galaxy S20. But, with a starting price of $799 for a 128GB model or $849 for a 256GB model, the Galaxy S21 is offering a more affordable entryway into the high-end of the market than its predecessor the Samsung Galaxy S20. Let’s look at what you get from the baseline flagship this year.
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Samsung Galaxy S21 – Design and Features
I can’t help but say that the Galaxy S21 is gorgeous, even in the face of one major design downgrade. Samsung has ditched the curvy glass that had adorned the face of the Galaxy S series dating as far back as the Galaxy S6 Edge – and remains a feature of the S21 Ultra. But, for whatever minor aesthetic improvement a curved display edge may have offered, it never served a compelling function. The curve was one feature tossed out when Samsung introduced the Galaxy S20 FE, and it appears the omission here once again serves as a welcome cost-saving measure.
The metal frame of the Galaxy S21 gets to flaunt much more in this new design as it’s thicker around the sides, lending the S21 a more robust hand feel than the S20, and it blends up into the camera housing as well. In the case of the Phantom Violet model I reviewed, it’s a showy brass color that makes a strong impression, though Samsung also offers tamer white and gray options. The back of the phone is matted, deadening reflections and giving off a velvety look and feel. Samsung again cuts cost here by going with a plastic back instead of the traditional glass, but it doesn’t leave the phone feeling noticeably cheaper.
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Beyond the changes mentioned above, there’s not a lot different in form from the Galaxy S20 to this phone. It still features a pair of stereo speakers that pump out some decent sound levels for listening to a podcast in the shower or watching Netflix while cooking. The rear camera sensors are still arranged in a vertical stack (though more on this later). Samsung’s still offering an IP68 rating, in line with what we should expect from flagship phones. And there’s still a dual-SIM card tray. However, Samsung has eliminated the option to use one side of the SIM card tray to hold a microSD card, which is a sad omission for those who like affordable storage for their media. But, Samsung partially makes up for this with a low price for upgrading storage at the time of purchase.
Samsung hasn’t ditched all of the fancy features of the previous generation though. It still offers wireless charging and reverse wireless charging, which may be a bit gimmicky but can come in handy. And there’s still an under-display fingerprint sensor, which actually registers quite quickly.
The display is an area Samsung made some interesting tweaks. The Galaxy S21 has the same size screen as the S20. The bezels and camera cutout are roughly the same size as well. The resolution has dropped from the S20’s 1,440 x 3,200 to just 1,080 x 2,400, but Samsung has turned on a variable refresh rate of 48-120Hz by default. It’s a sensible tradeoff, as the screen remains incredibly sharp and now the smooth visuals won’t be buried in settings menus.
Like most flagship smartphones coming out right now, the Galaxy S21 provides access to 5G networks, including Sub-6 and mmWave. However, models sold directly by mobile carriers may have antennas and bands disabled, and actual 5G performance still varies widely from city to city and network to network.
Unfortunately, like many flagships right now, Samsung also dumped the charging brick in the box. For some, this will be a pain, as they’ll have to factor in that extra expense when purchasing. However, for many that already have phone chargers, they should work just fine. I’ll give Samsung a little less flack for this than I gave the iPhone 12, since at least Samsung is including a charging cable that’ll work with its previous phones’ charging bricks, whereas Apple offered a Lightning-to-USB-C cable that couldn’t plug into the old USB-A charging bricks, like the one that came with the iPhone 11 only one year prior.
Samsung Galaxy S21 – Software
The Samsung Galaxy S21 runs Samsung’s One UI 3.1 interface over top of Android 11. It’s a highly customizable interface that I find generally lets me customize things exactly to my liking. It may come with a few too many UI elements hiding around every corner (like Samsung Pay hiding at the bottom), but at least they can be deactivated. It’s not the same bloatware-laden operating system that Samsung was getting a bad rap for a few years ago. I still don’t like Samsung’s default keyboard though, as it prominently suggests the wrong word any time I correctly type something.
Samsung Galaxy S21 – Gaming and Performance
One area Samsung didn’t implement cost-savings measures for the Galaxy S20 is in performance. This phone comes with the same Snapdragon 888 chipset that’s powering the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and it’s plenty fast. Samsung did drop down to 8GB of memory where the Galaxy S20 previously offered 12GB, but in regular use I haven’t noticed any memory shortages coming into play. For those who rely heavily on multitasking workloads in Samsung’s desktop-like DeX mode, memory could become an issue, but that’s a fringe case.
In day to day use, the Samsung Galaxy S21 is perfectly snappy. I haven’t run into a hitch in almost two weeks of use as my main phone. Apps launch quickly and resume just as fast. From the lock screen, the camera opens in just under a second, which I’d still love to see be faster but generally is quick enough to get the shot.
As a gaming phone, it continues to show its chops. Once again, I busted out Thatgamecompany’s Sky to see what was what. The Snapdragon handled the beautiful scenery with aplomb. The game’s performance mode is incredibly fluid on the Galaxy S21, though doesn’t look noticeably improved from what was already available on the S20 through its Snapdragon 865 chipset. During this play, the phone did seem to get a good deal warmer than the Galaxy S20. While the S20 got slightly warm, the S21 was notably hotter and almost uncomfortable (not intolerable) in one corner of the screen close to the chipset. The plastic back may be serving to insulate more than dissipate.
The phone does all this cruising on a 4,000mAh battery that easily sees it through an entire day. And, with my lighter daily use, I often see it to the end of two full days before I start worrying about when I’m going to plug it back in. Of course, this was also true of the Galaxy S20.
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Samsung Galaxy S21 – Camera
Getting to the cameras, it starts to become all the more apparent that the Galaxy S21 is little more than a relaunch of the Galaxy S20 with some updated hardware.
The Galaxy S21 features the following cameras:
- 12MP Ultrawide at f/2.2
- 12MP Wide at f/1.8 with OIS
- 64MP 3x Telephoto at f/2.0 with OIS
- 10MP Front-facing at f/2.2
If those specs look at all familiar, it’s because they’re all the same as what you’d find on last year’s Galaxy S20.
And, sure enough, my shooting experience with the S21 is remarkably similar to what I’ve had on the S20 for most of the past year. Side by side, the wide and ultra-wide cameras take nearly identical shots. That’s not a bad thing, as the wide angle manages great detail, realistic colors, a wide dynamic range, and holds up decently in the dark. It still isn’t shooting as quickly as the iPhone 12 lineup though.
The ultra-wide was never amazing, but it’s still shooting clear pictures that get a bunch of extra scenery into the shot, and it maintains the colors of the wide-angle sensor for consistency. Compared to the ultra-wide sensors that show up on some budget phones, the S21’s images are a far higher quality
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There is an upgrade in the zoom department, but it’s not one the specs would make apparent. The Galaxy S21 telephoto takes slightly better shots with slightly punched up contrast while the S20 can look a touch washed out by comparison. Snapping the same 10x shot on both phones, the S21 produced somewhat legible text while the S20’s image appeared more smeared. The S20 isn’t helped out by the design of its lens cover, which is one large piece of glass that seems to suffer a bit more with light coming in from the sides and washing out images.
Selfies continue to come out clean with plenty of detail. Samsung may do some softening, but I don’t notice any egregious airbrushing effects applied by default.
The Galaxy S21 is also the S20’s equal when it comes to video. It offers the same 8K/24, 4K/60 and HDR10+ recording capabilities as its predecessor and has all the same annoying limitations in regard to which features can be used with which settings. Super Steady recording is still limited to Full HD resolutions, and HDR10+ recording isn’t supported beyond 4K/30 video. This leaves the Galaxy S21 lagging behind the iPhone 12 family, which offers 4K/60 video with Dolby Vision encoding.
All in all, the camera setup on this phone is perfectly respectable and gets the job done in most scenarios. But it does feel a bit hohum next to the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which not only shoots impressively at 3x and 10x, but even musters useful images beyond that. Though the S20 and S21 boast of 30x space zoom, anything much beyond 10x starts feeling like a Monet in a bad way.
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