The Samsung Galaxy S21 is a midrange phone with a flagship name.
Rather than offer essentially the same top-tier phone at different sizes, Samsung has chosen to get aggressive on price this year. The Galaxy S21 starts at $799.99 for the smaller version with a 6.2-inch screen and $999.99 for the Plus version with a 6.7-inch display. Though in both cases, the smart move is to spend an extra $50 for the models with 256GB of storage.
It helps that the S21 happens to be a very good midrange phone. Nevertheless, Samsung’s choices this year mean if you want to get the very best phone Samsung has to offer right now, you have to buy the very biggest phone, the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
If the Ultra is too big or too expensive for your needs, there’s nothing wrong with the regular Galaxy S21. Samsung has managed to cut the price without major sacrifices in either the experience or the features of this phone. However, avoiding massive failure isn’t necessarily the same thing as achieving great success.
The phones that aim to give you the best of everything tend to cost more than a thousand dollars. Below that, there are more noticeable trade-offs as each phone picks its priority. For the Galaxy S21, Samsung put its big bet behind just one part: the processor, Qualcomm’s high-end Snapdragon 888.
In some markets outside the US, Samsung is using its own Exynos processor, and though I’ve heard Samsung has significantly improved it over last year’s, I haven’t been able to test it myself.
On a basic level, prioritizing the processor means the S21 is a very fast phone with decent battery life. I am able to get through a full day with moderate to heavy use on the 4,000mAh battery, though with a little effort, I can drain it down. The bigger Galaxy S21 Plus — which I haven’t tested — has a 4,800mAh battery and presumably will last even longer despite its slightly larger screen. Both share the same resolution and features otherwise.
Just as importantly, the choice to go with the newest and best Qualcomm processor means the Galaxy S21 has a better chance of lasting you three or more years before the inevitable march of Android software bogs it down or leaves it behind. I’ve asked Samsung how many years of software updates it will guarantee for S21 users and will update this review if I hear back.
The Snapdragon 888 also means these phones support both kinds of 5G in the US. In my testing in the Bay Area, I still find that 5G often isn’t notably faster than LTE, and the mmWave version of 5G is still very difficult to find.
However, I can also see some improvements over last year. My take on 5G has therefore shifted a bit. I still think that you should not upgrade your phone just to get 5G. However, if you’re due for an upgrade anyway and you have the choice of getting a 5G phone, you probably should. The networks aren’t good enough yet, but if you’re keeping your phone for a while, you may regret not having it in the years to come. (It’ll be hard to buy a phone without 5G if you’re spending over $500 this year, anyway.)
To go along with the priority you can’t see, Samsung’s other big change is the thing you can: the design. As with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the regular Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus have metal rails that flow into the camera bump on the back. It looks as good here as it does on the Ultra.
However, Samsung went a step further on the smaller S21 by swapping out the usual rear glass panel with plastic (the Plus model still uses glass). It’s not a problem for me at all — in fact, in some ways, I prefer it as it’s one less thing that is able to shatter in a fall. It’s a way to cut costs, but one that makes me wonder whether I really want glass on the back of my phone in the first place. It feels great, with a matte finish and none of the cheap or flimsy associations plastic can bring.
While we’re on the subject, here are some of the other ways Samsung has cut costs on the S21 compared to last year’s Galaxy S20. It lacks MST, Samsung’s tech for paying at credit card terminals that can’t read NFC. There is no microSD card slot for expanding the storage, which stings a bit as Samsung was a bit of a holdout in keeping the microSD card around in its flagships until recently. Samsung also saved costs by standing pat with the cameras — they’re virtually unchanged from last year. (More on the cameras below.)
The S21 also drops the screen resolution down from last year’s 1440p panel to 1080p on both the regular and Plus versions. They’re flat, too, which many people prefer to curved edges. I don’t mind curved screens so long as they fit with the ergonomics of the phone, but here, I think Samsung made the right call to go flat.
The screen has an adaptive refresh rate that can run at up to 120Hz, so scrolling and animations are very smooth. Unlike the Ultra’s more advanced screen technology, this screen’s refresh rate bottoms out at 48Hz, and it also uses more traditional OLED tech instead of the newer LTPO version in the Ultra.
To those screen spec downgrades, I say this: whatever. Samsung is consistently great at making screens, and even though the S21 doesn’t showcase the company at its best, it’s still a great display.
But more than any other upgrade or downgrade this year, the spec that had the most tangible effect on my experience with the S21 was the new fingerprint sensor under the screen. It can read from a larger area, and to me, it feels faster than last year’s sensor did. For as often as we unlock our phones, even milliseconds make a difference in how responsive the phone feels. Also: it works with masks.
The only substantive difference between the camera systems on last year’s Galaxy S20 and this year’s Galaxy S21 isn’t in the hardware, but the software. Samsung has done some work to update its processing to improve photos in certain situations. I’ve noticed a small jump in low-light quality, for example.
But outside a minor sensor swap on the ultrawide, the camera hardware is unchanged. The main sensor is 12 megapixels with OIS, the ultrawide is also 12 megapixels and has a 120-degree field of view, and the telephoto has a 3x optical zoom and does crop tricks with its 30-megapixel sensor to offer digital zoom up to 30X. The selfie camera is 10 megapixels.
In the US, I think the most direct camera competitor in this price range is probably the $699 Google Pixel 5. Much to my surprise, the consensus among reviewers at The Verge is that the Galaxy S21 takes better photos overall. I agree. The Pixel’s long-standing camera advantage has all but dissipated.
Now, I still prefer the Pixel’s aesthetics to Samsung’s. The Pixel keeps its contrast-y, bluer look compared to Samsung’s tendency to over-brighten and oversaturate everything. However, on a technical level, the Galaxy S21 just does a better job. There’s less noise in shadows and low light, more detail in decent light, and much better zoom performance.
Don’t think the regular Galaxy S21 stands up to the superior telephoto images you can get from the Ultra, which has a 10X optical lens. But at zoom levels from 3X to the Pixel’s maximum of 7X, the S21 simply does a better job than Google’s algorithms. Samsung also wins on video.
There is the usual array of new camera features, many of which I think most users can ignore. Shooting 8K video doesn’t make much sense on a camera of this caliber, but you can do it. I do appreciate Samsung’s Pro modes for both video and photos, though. In situations where you’re able to spend a little time composing your shot and adjusting the camera settings, you can get something much more interesting.
Samsung has also made it possible to turn off face smoothing completely. It makes for better images, but more importantly, it might also help make for a better self-image for some people.
As I noted in my review of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung is heading in the wrong direction with its software. It’s a shame because the fundamentals of Samsung’s version of Android, One UI, are still great. It makes Android feel a little cleaner and brighter and gives it key features to help manage gigantic screens.
But instead of building on that strength, Samsung is bogging it down. There are too many arcane settings and too many nearly meaningless icons in the quick settings panel. In the US, S21 users will have to be savvy enough to know to download and use Android Messages instead of Samsung Messages if they want unfettered, unbroken access to RCS messaging (most of the rest of the world gets Android Messages by default).
Also, Samsung’s digital assistant, Bixby, is only worth using if you’ve connected the rest of your digital life to Samsung’s ecosystem. I suspect most in the US have not, and so the whole thing just seems redundant next to Google Assistant.
Most egregiously of all, Samsung’s default apps often have ads at the top. Tapping the gigantic weather widget at the top of the default home screen reveals an ad in Samsung’s weather app. I don’t know what tiny marginal profit Samsung makes from these ads, but I don’t think the hit to its reputation is worth it.
All of these hassles with Samsung’s software can either be avoided or undone by a knowledgeable user. And in general, I think most users will find their way to that knowledge — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a hassle in the first place. I can be more productive on a well-configured Samsung phone than on virtually any other phone, but it shouldn’t require this much configuration and ad-dodging.
Add up all of the choices and components in the Galaxy S21, and you can’t avoid the conclusion that it is a rehashed Galaxy S20 with a faster processor and a nicer exterior. That’s a fairly dour way of looking at it, but it is the truth, and I don’t think it should damn the phone. Sometimes the year-over-year updates are minor.
That minor update means there’s little reason to rush out to buy the Galaxy S21. It’s a phone to get when you need to replace your old and busted phone, and if your phone is more than a couple of years old, it’ll make a huge difference. There’s another reason not to rush out to get the S21: Samsung’s phones are famous for getting deep discounts from carriers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it would be a mistake to pay full price for an S21, but I would say you should look — or even wait — for a deal if you can.
The most interesting choice Samsung made this year is instead of making a lower-cost “Fan Edition” of its flagship phone, it just made that flagship the lower-cost version. That’s a reasonable choice for Samsung to make, but it also means that you as a consumer have one less choice. Once again, if you want Samsung’s very best phone this year, you’re going to have to buy Samsung’s biggest phone — and this year, the differences are even more stark.
But if you’re not interested in the latest, greatest, and biggest, and you don’t mind the way Samsung handles Android, the Galaxy S21 is a fine choice.