Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Acceptable But Not Exceptional


2021 is shaping up to be a busy year for Samsung, filled with more launches than usual and the rumoured debut of all-new form-factors (in the likes of the Z Fold Scroll), not to mention a more robust line of new foldables waiting in the wings.

It’s the company’s brimming release calendar that’s thought to be one of the reasons behind this year’s Galaxy S series’ early-than-usual arrival; with the phones going on sale almost two months earlier than last year’s S20 trio did.

The Samsung Galaxy S20

The Galaxy S21 still serves as the most modest and affordable member of this year’s Galaxy S lineup, toting the most compact and lightweight design of the three phones, centred around a 6.2in display (dwarfed by the S21+ and S21 Ultra’s respective 6.7in and 6.8in footprints).

It also costs less than its 2020 equivalent, while bringing 5G and the latest 5nm SoC into the fold as standard, begging the question, “how”?

Rather than simply cutting into its profit margins, Samsung has made a number of decisions that, on the surface, mean the S21 gives the impression of ‘more for less’ but in actuality compromises in certain areas that won’t be to everyone’s tastes.

Design and build

Easily, the most obvious update to this year’s Galaxy S line is its design. While the S20 may have been pleasingly thin and well-engineered, visually it was also uneventful and lacked character. Samsung has tried to address this in a number of ways with this year’s phones; namely through a new “Contour Cut” camera arrangement and a richer selection of colourways.

The base S21 comes in four colours at launch: Phantom Grey, Phantom White, Phantom Violet and Phantom Pink. Just as Mystic Bronze was the Note 20 line’s signature colour last year, so too is Phantom Violet (as pictured) for both the S21 and S21+, this year.

In the flesh, the contrast of the phone’s pearlescent purple back and polished gold frame evokes a sense of playful contemporary luxury. If this particular finish is too garish for your liking, however, the rest of the colour options serve as more sedate alternatives that all still offer more interest and a more premium appearance compared to the S21’s 2020 predecessor.

The rear triple camera setup dominates the phone’s otherwise near-featureless flat back and implies that the sensors sat within it boast powerful optics, while rounded edges running down the back and flowing into the phone’s metal frame ensure the S21 is comfortable to hold; something its compact size also lends itself to as well.

While not immediately apparent, the “Contour Cut” camera arrangement has a seam the separates the module from the frame

Perhaps more so than aesthetics, one of the biggest departures from previous entries in the series is the move to a reinforced polycarbonate (read: plastic) back. Not since 2014’s S5 has a Galaxy S flagship sported plastic bodywork to this extent and its presence here is most obvious when handled; where it stands out in contrast to the cold touch of the metal border that surrounds it.

On the one hand, a plastic back on a flagship phone like the S21 could be seen as corner-cutting and cost-saving, to the detriment of the end-user – not to mention it’s an undeniable fingerprint magnet. On the other, it offers better impact resistance than conventional glass (for those inclined to use their phones case-free) and makes for a lighter overall design (or at least it would if the S21 weren’t fractionally taller than the S20).

The near-£1000 Galaxy Note 20 was berated for its use of a plastic back over glass last year, on the S21 – thanks in part to its reduced price tag – the presence of such material seems more readily justified, although it’ll likely fall to personal preference whether you think Samsung is valid in its decision to use plastic on a flagship at the S21’s price point.

Beyond materials, the S21’s bodywork lacks a headphone jack (nothing new), features a power key and volume rocker on its right side (the latter of which might have been placed a little too high), and retains robust IP68 dust and water resistance.

Display and audio

While the S21 is the only member of this new series of Galaxy S phones to sport a polycarbonate back, it shares in Corning’s latest and greatest (which is to say, more scratch and drop-resistant than ever) Gorilla Glass Victus on the front, protecting a 6.2in HDR10+ ‘Dynamic AMOLED 2X’ panel that boasts a higher (1300nit) peak brightness than last year’s S20, promising greater outdoor legibility as a result.

In practice, colours, contrast and clarity are characteristically top-notch, and while the return of a maximum 120Hz refresh rate is unquestionably welcome – offering up super-smooth visuals – the drop from the S20’s WQHD+ resolution to a more pedestrian extended Full HD panel is unavoidably disappointing.

Thankfully, the smaller screen size of the S21 makes the drop in resolution (roughly a 25% reduction in pixel density, compared to the S20) less noticeable than it will undoubtedly appear on the more expansive display of the S21+ (which also drops down to Full HD+), but it still weakens the Galaxy S line’s reputation as one of the most capable and reliably top-notch flagship phone families to buy into each year.

Beyond pixels, Samsung has also implemented what it describes as a new intelligent Eye Comfort Shield; an extension of most modern smartphones’ blue light filter that adjusts its intensity based on your usage patterns automatically (although, according to the phone’s own software, it simply adjusts the filter’s intensity based on the time of day).

While the S21 is easier to operate one-handed compared to its larger launch siblings by nature, the integrated one-handed mode is also still invaluable and pleasingly versatile compared to implementations from other manufacturers; supporting left and right justification, button or gesture activation and rescaling on the fly.

The S20 served as the final nail in the coffin for the humble 3.5mm headphone jack on Galaxy S devices, and although the S21 doesn’t walk that back, it improves audio in another regard: its loudspeaker setup.

The dual stereo speakers offer impressive clarity and balance (despite the asymmetrical arrangement at play), through their entire range, with visible separation, even on this, the smallest member of the S21 lineup. This phone isn’t going to fill a room or dole out earth-shattering bass, but Samsung’s done well to push out such good sound from a device as thin and compact as the S21.

Software and features

At the time of writing, the Galaxy S21 range are the only phones in Samsung’s roster boasting its latest skinned taken on Android: One UI 3.1 (running atop the latest Android 11).

Compared to One UI 2.X builds of its user experience, version 3.1 focuses on richer notifications, clearer, more defined interface elements, better continuity across Galaxy devices and adds in rich new details like animated call screens.

For those moving to an S21 from an older Galaxy smartphone, the rulebook hasn’t been rewritten here but none of the changes or additions appear to move in anything other than the right direction.

Those more au fait with stock Android will have to spend a little more time familiarising themselves with Samsung’s distinct iconography, its own Galaxy Store, which sits alongside Google’s Play Store and the various additional features that the company has used to better differentiate its user experience from a base Android one: features like Edge Screen and Game Launcher, to name but two.

While One UI is distinct, Samsung hasn’t completely thrown out underlying aspects of Android 11, with features like notifications grouped by app type and carouselled media playback controls all making an appearance amidst the S21’s user experience. You now also have the option between Samsung Free – Samsung’s own news and games feed – and Google Home, one swipe right of the main home screen.

NFC features, primarily for mobile payment support by way of Google Pay or Samsung Pay, along with Bluetooth 5.0 and WiFi 6, however, while this all carriers across from last years Galaxy S line, the base S21 does lose out on some new connectivity options found on its more powerful siblings; namely, superior WiFi 6E – as featured in the S21 Ultra – and UWB (ultrawide band) connectivity, which both other S21 models benefit from.

Performance

While design presents itself as the most obvious upgrade to the S21 over last year’s phone, it’s the new 5nm chipset at its heart that really moves things along.

Whether you’re using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 version (as found in markets like the US) or the Exynos 2100 build of the phone (which we tested), being sold in markets like Europe, you can expect superb performance.

The S21 range is the first phone series to launch outside of China to bring such 5nm silicon to users and with it, ushers in the next generation of mobile processor performance for Samsung.

In day-to-day use, the additional power of this new chip won’t manifest in any meaningful way as yet; the phone is unfalteringly responsive (exemplified by that 120Hz display) in everything from general use to demanding gaming, but just as we’ve said about the generous headroom afforded to iPhone 12 users as a result of the series’ own A14 Bionic chip, this phone’s new chip will stand S21 owners in good stead across years’ worth of use.

As far as our internal testing goes, the Exynos 2100 inside our S21 (accompanied by 8GB RAM – the only memory option available) offered up some of the best benchmarking results ever achieved by an Android phone; only really trumped by Apple’s aforementioned A14 Bionic.

The storage situation pulls the S21 in the other direction, with the option of 128GB or 256GB of internal space but, unlike previous Galaxy S entries, no room for expandable storage; even if you move all the way up to the Galaxy S21 Ultra. This likely won’t be a huge blow to most users but will undoubtedly leave a sour taste in the mouths of long-time Galaxy S owners who’ve relied on Samsung as one of the few to retain this feature within its flagship phones.

One other small performant aspect of the S21 worth mentioning is the improved ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensor, which although not game-changing, seems more reliable and responsive, compared other recent Samsung Galaxy models that rely on the same (or similar) technology.

Battery life

With the same 4000mAh capacity battery as its predecessor, there’s every chance that you’d expect similar longevity from the S21, but as a result of its lower-resolution, adaptive 48Hz to 120Hz display and the improved power efficiency of the new 5nm processor at work, this year’s Galaxy S phone handily outpaces the previous.

The combined effect of the S21’s screen and silicon makeup gives it far more competitive longevity this time around, although it still lags behind devices like the OnePlus 8T – partly because its cell is comparatively on the small side. That all said, it’s more than equipped to get the average user through a day of use without worry and we accumulated up to two days of use in testing, with between 6.5 and 7.5 hours of screen-on time per charge – all wholly respectable.

As for recharging, little has changed in the S21’s makeup in this regard; with support for up to 25W fast charging (including PD charging), 10W wireless charging and 4.5 reverse wireless charging (dubbed Wireless PowerShare) – for powering up things like smartwatches and true-wireless earbuds on-the-go. Such speeds are edging their way to more pedestrian, compared to the ever-increasing wattages spouted by rival devices from the likes of Oppo and Xiaomi, but for most, it’s likely still fast enough.

The big asterisk with the S21’s charging setup is that, like Apple’s and Xiaomi’s most recent smartphone releases, Samsung has decided to no longer ship its phones with an in-box charger (or headphones) as standard. The S21 comes accompanied by a Quick Start guide, SIM ejector tool, USB-C to USB-C data cable and that’s it. If you want Samsung’s official 25W charger, you’ll have to pay a little extra (£17 at the time of writing).

For reference, in testing both an official 25W Samsung charger which we had to hand, as well as a 27W Motorola PD charger, filled the S21’s battery to around 55% (about enough for a day’s general use) after 30 minutes charging, with a full charge taking just under an hour and 15 minutes.

Camera

While the S21 Ultra benefits from a wealth of new and improved camera hardware this year, despite their imposing Contour Cut modules, the remaining S21 models look as though they’re relying on the same underlying optics as last year’s S20 and S20+.

The S21 sports a 12Mp + 12Mp + 64Mp sensor configuration (serving up a wide, ultrawide and telephoto [sort of] perspective, in that order). All three sensors possess the same focal lengths, apertures, pixel sizes, accompaniments of OIS (optical image stabilisation) and PDAF (phase-detection autofocus) as before, and twinned with the camera highlights put forward during Samsung’s initial unveiling of the S21 series, there’s nothing to suggest these aren’t the same snappers as on last year’s phones.

As such, the improvements seem slight, primarily manifesting as software tweaks and new modes; with the ability to shoot in up to UHD resolution at 30 frames per second across all three of the phone’s rear sensors, along with genuinely useful (albeit niche) additions like Director’s View – which lets you capture from multiple sensors (i.e. front and rear) at the same time, as well as previewing all of the lenses at your disposal and switching to them as desired, on the fly.

8K recording at 24 frames per second still sounds impressive, even if it isn’t new, but with Samsung claiming only a week before the S21’s launch – at the unveiling of the Exynos 2100 – that its new flagship chip is actually capable of 8K recording at up to 60fps, it’s unclear why the S21 doesn’t capitalise on this extra headroom (although the fact that the Snapdragon 888 can only support 8K recording at up to 30fps might have something to do with it).

Image quality is characteristically great across the board, with rich colours (perhaps too rich for some) and plenty of detail in wide, macro and telephoto shots. There’s also a rock-solid consistency in the colour science at work across the phone’s sensors, so whether you’re assembling an album that makes use of all three or filming video that jumps between them within the same timeline, beyond perspective, footage should remain congruous regardless.

Low light processing seems faster this time around and retains colour and detail fairly well too, while selfies come with beauty effects enabled by default and a proclivity for warmer, darker skin tones than in actuality. The ‘selfie colour tone’ tuning is a nice tweak to brighten up scenes before capture to address this bias, but beyond initial setup, the feature is tucked away in the camera’s settings menu, making it hard to reach quickly.

Price and availability

Samsung announced the Galaxy S21 series at its first Samsung Unpacked of 2021 (which we broke down in our podcast, Fast Charge – the relevant episode of which you can watch below) on 14 January, with all three phones available to pre-order from the outset and devices then set to go on sale from 29 January.

In the UK, the Galaxy S21 can be picked up directly from Samsung.com in both its base 128GB SKU and the larger 256GB SKU (both with 8GB RAM), in all four colours mentioned earlier; starting at £769 and jumping to £819 for the higher capacity build.

Despite the phone’s official name being the ‘Samsung Galaxy S21 5G’ we’re yet to see a 4G-only version of the phone in any markets, globally. There are signs that such a device might still be on the cards and if Samsung does launch one, it’ll likely cost a fair bit less than this debut 5G iteration, but until then, £769 is as low as it goes.

It’s tricky to compare the S21’s pricing against similarly-specced Android rivals, as as of right now, there aren’t any – save for the Xiaomi Mi 11, which remains a China-exclusive for the time being.

What the S21’s pricing does suggest is that it’s meant to be seen as the ideal foil to Apple’s base iPhone 12, which starts at £799 in the UK for the 64GB SKU.

You can find additional details regarding trade-in deals and carrier pricing in our ‘Where to buy the Samsung Galaxy S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra’ feature.

Verdict

On the surface, Samsung has brought better specs – including 5G as standard and the latest Snapdragon 888/Exynos 2100 chip – to the table for less than the asking price of the 4G-only build of last year’s Galaxy S20.

In actuality, it’s prioritised those upgrades to ensure the S21 appears as relevant and current as possible, without going out of its way to really set the bar for forthcoming 2021 rivals.

This review is littered with comparisons to the S20 because they’re unavoidable. The ebb and flow of large and small updates between the Galaxy S generations remains (relatively) consistent and predictable; with this year’s S21 undoubtedly serving as a small spruce-up that users on anything newer than a Galaxy S9 shouldn’t worry about considering.

While it’s great that this year’s Galaxy S series is more affordable than the last, you can see the features Samsung shaved off to get there; with the base S21 receiving the brunt of this year’s cull.

The Galaxy S line’s unofficial position as the ‘default alternative’ to those who don’t want an iPhone isn’t likely to change with everything the Galaxy S21 has to offer, and for most users, this is still as much of a well-rounded, capable and reliable device as the S20, S10 and beyond have been.

If you’re looking for Samsung to push the flagship phone envelope, however, this Galaxy S21 isn’t the phone to do it.

Related stories for further reading
Specs
Samsung Galaxy S21: Specs

6.2in Full HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X 48Hz-120Hz display
Ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensor
Gorilla Glass Victus (front)
Reinforced polycarbonate (back)
Metal frame
5nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 888/Samsung Exynos 2100 SoC (market dependant)
8GB RAM
128GB/256GB non-expandable storage
12Mp main camera
12Mp ultrawide camera
64Mp telephoto camera
10Mp front-facing camera
Stereo speakers
Android 11 w/ One UI 3.1
Samsung DeX support
IP68 dust/water resistance
5G
WiFi 6
4000mAh battery
25W fast charging (includes PD charging support)
10W wireless charging
Reverse wireless charging
71.2mm x 151.7mm x 7.9mm
172 grams
Launch colours: Phantom Grey, Phantom White, Phantom Violet, Phantom Pink


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