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Samsung Galaxy S21 review

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is one of the best value smartphones available for purchase today but may not be the upgrade some were hoping for.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review
(Image: © Samsung)

Our Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is a great phone for most people, offering flagship performance and essential features at a more affordable price, but will leave enthusiasts wanting.

For

  • Vibrant 120Hz AMOLED display
  • Refined and versatile cameras
  • Great hardware and software performance
  • Far more affordable

Against

  • Little reason to upgrade over the Samsung Galaxy S20
  • No microSD card support
  • No supplied plug charger

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is the base model in the latest refresh of Samsung’s Galaxy S smartphones, with the Samsung Galaxy S21+ and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra rounding out the higher end of the 2021 Galaxy S lineup. You would be forgiven for thinking that the Samsung Galaxy S21 offers a similar level of increased performance and new features as the Samsung Galaxy S20 did in comparison to the Samsung Galaxy S10 but this is not entirely the case.

Instead, the Samsung Galaxy S21 has all the features that most consumers will want from the best smartphones, paired with flagship level performance, which is incredible value at $799. More niche and high-end features have been relegated to the more expensive models in the lineup like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. This makes the Samsung Galaxy S21 a great purchase for most consumers, especially given its more affordable starting price, but will leave those looking for a bleeding edge experience wanting.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Design

  • Available in Phantom Grey, Phantom Pink, Phantom Violet, and Phantom White.

Let’s address the most potentially divisive element of the Samsung Galaxy S21’s design, first and foremost: its back is made of plastic. However, this isn’t the same cheap plastic you’ll find on many budget Android devices and instead feels decidedly more premium. It’s not quite on the level of any glass back, like the one on the Samsung Galaxy S20, but it comes close enough and in no way lessens the feeling of holding the Samsung Galaxy S21 in your hands. As added bonuses, this makes the Samsung Galaxy S21 more durable and it retains support for Qi wireless charging.

The Samsung Galaxy S21’s aluminum frame partially extends to the rear of the device and forms a contoured camera cutout. Having the material of the camera cutout blend seamlessly with the frame of the device is extremely pleasing to the eye and is especially eye-catching on the Phantom Violet version of the device, with the matte violet plastic back and shiny rose gold aluminum frame creating a cool contrasting effect.

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

Then there’s the front of the Samsung Galaxy S21 which, despite appearing very similar to the Samsung Galaxy S20, has one notable difference. The screen is still 6.2 inches in size and has kept the camera cutout in the same place as last year’s device but has done away with its curved edges. This results in a small decline in its screen-to-body ratio, compared to the Samsung Galaxy S20, but many, like myself, will be happy to be rid of screen distortion effects caused by curved edge displays and instead revel feeling more secure in holding my device now that it’s not as slippery.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Performance

  • Snapdragon 888 chip
  • 8GB RAM and 128/256GB storage
  • No microSD card support

In terms of performance, the Snapdragon 888 chipset that comes in the Samsung Galaxy S21 boasts improvements to both CPU and GPU performance. Games such as Call of Duty: Mobile and PUBG MOBILE run flawlessly, despite the Samsung Galaxy S21 only sporting 8GB of RAM, and make great use of the 120Hz display.

It is important to note that Samsung have dropped support for microSD cards and MST (Magnetic Secure Transmission) with all the phones in the Samsung Galaxy S21 lineup. Thankfully, for those that will lament the lack of expandable storage, the phones are available in 128GB and 256GB versions. However, there is no silver lining for those that relied on MST to make contactless payments on terminals that did not support NFC and it’s a real shame that Samsung has decided to cut it.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Display

  • 6.2-inch FHD+ AMOLED display
  • 120Hz adaptive refresh rate

There’s no denying that the Samsung Galaxy S21 is a joy to use, whether you’re streaming content or watching your own home videos. This should come as no surprise given that the display is mostly the same one found on the Samsung Galaxy S20.

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 sports a 6.2-inch AMOLED display which not only produces vibrant accurate colors but also supports HDR10+. HDR10+ allows for greater levels of contrast that really makes HDR content found on services like Netflix and Disney Plus pop all the more. However, the resolution of this display tops out at FHD+ rather than QHD+ offered on the Samsung Galaxy S20.

While enthusiasts will bemoan this downgrade in resolution, FHD+ still offers a sharp enough image suitable for most users. This change also means that users don’t have to faff about toggling between 60Hz and 120Hz. The locked FHD+ resolution means that the display will always output 120Hz where possible, for a silky smooth experience when gaming or general usage. Even so, those who already own Samsung Galaxy S20 devices will want to consider the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra if they require QHD+ resolution.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Cameras

  • Same camera lenses from Samsung Galaxy S20
  • Improvements in camera software

In terms of hardware, the Samsung Galaxy S21 has the exact same camera setup as the Samsung Galaxy S20. The three rear cameras, a 12MP wide angle lens, 12MP ultrawide angle lens, and 64MP 3x telephoto lens, and the 10MP selfie camera, all boast the same solid resolution, focal length, and aperture specifications as they did in 2020. Instead of upgrading the camera hardware, Samsung has instead made improvements to both image processing, due in part to the new Snapdragon 888 chipset found in the Samsung Galaxy S21, and overall software experience.

As can be expected from Samsung Galaxy S devices, both photos and videos captured on the Samsung Galaxy S21 are of a high quality and boast impressive dynamic range. However, the signature saturated look that Samsung’s cameras produce, when using the ‘Auto’ mode, will remain a point of contention on the Samsung Galaxy S21, as well as their overly brightened look that can border on overexposed. However, for most people, the Samsung Galaxy S21 is a great choice for a smartphone shooter but those looking for more true to life colors in their photos and videos may wish to consider the Google Pixel 5 or Google Pixel 4a 5G.

With that said, where Google once led the smartphone industry with its seemingly unbeatable Night Sight feature on Pixel devices, the Samsung Galaxy S21 handily trades blows with the latest Google Pixel devices with its own Night Mode. Pictures captured in low light conditions on the Samsung Galaxy S21 still bear that signature saturated look but offer greater fine detail than photos captured on its Google Pixel competition.

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

In terms of improvements to image processing and camera software, Single Take now allows for more types of simultaneous capture to make sure you get the best pictures of your hyperactive pets and unpredictable children. However, the most noticeable improvement over the Samsung Galaxy S20 is the updated Space Zoom. On the Samsung Galaxy S21, Space Zoom now allows you to lock focus to a subject when zoomed up to 30x which makes for much clearer and stable photographs even at such a high zoom level.

As on the Samsung Galaxy S20, the Samsung Galaxy S21 can shoot 8K video limited to 24hz or 4K 30/60Hz. It also supports FHD video capture at up 240Hz and even HD video at a whopping 960Hz. Samsung’s Super Steady Mode with optical image stabilization really helps in keeping video capture smooth even if you have particularly shaky hands. One of the new features found on the Samsung Galaxy S21 is ‘Director’s View Mode’ which allows for simultaneous video capture from both the front and rear cameras. The degree to which this will be useful, even for the vlogger market this is clearly aimed at, is debatable but it is nonetheless a new and interesting feature.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Battery

  • 5G and 120Hz significantly impact battery life
  • No supplied charger

The Samsung Galaxy S21’s has the same 4,000 mAh battery found in last year’s model. It feels like a missed opportunity to have not included a bigger battery but the new Snapdragon 888 chipset helps in improving the power consumption efficiency which benchmarks suggest beat both the iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S20. However, the Google Pixel 5 boasts significantly superior battery life due in part to its less powerful hardware and slightly larger 4,080 mAh battery.

While the Samsung Galaxy S21 should provide more than enough juice to get through a full day of use, users should be aware that features such as the high refresh rate display and 5G have noticeable impact on battery life. However, the Samsung Galaxy S21’s defaults to ‘adaptive mode’ in managing the display’s refresh rate, toggling between 48-120Hz dynamically. Unless you’re feeling particularly anxious about battery life, I would not recommend forcing the phone into 60Hz.

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

Fast charging at 25W and Qi wireless charging are both supported on the Samsung Galaxy S21, as well as Wireless Powershare. The battery can be charged to 55% in 30 minutes when connected to a 25W adapter but Samsung has decided not to supply one with the phone. The company claims this is a move to cut down on e-waste but this feels more like a cost saving move after Apple also decided not to supply a charger with its iPhone 12 models. There’s also no support for Samsung’s 45W chargers which were previously supported by the Samsung Galaxy S20.

Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S21? 

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is a great phone that offers incredible value at its $799 price point. It has a great camera and the internal hardware is powerful enough to handle mobile games, watching videos, and browsing the web with no issues. It also looks great and still feels like a premium device despite the plastic shell.

With that said, Samsung Galaxy S20 owners may wish to consider higher end models, such as the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, instead.