Around a year ago, Samsung launched the Galaxy S20 series. While they proved to be great smartphones in the end, they were flawed. Samsung’s pricing was out of control, and the value for its devices just wasn’t there. Now, Samsung is correcting a lot of that with the Galaxy S21 series by making cuts to bring the price down by $200. Samsung is admitting its mistake, and it’s for the best.

Note: This review was originally published on January 22 regarding the Galaxy S21. After multiple weeks spent using the Galaxy S21+, we’ve added an addendum with details about that device.

HARDWARE |

A step backward in more ways than one

When you think of new flagship smartphones from Samsung or otherwise, you probably think of nothing but upgrades. Perhaps somewhat unfortunately, the Galaxy S21 does make a few downgrades compared to the Galaxy S20. 

For the base Galaxy S21, those cuts include removing the microSD card slot, bringing down the maximum screen resolution to just 1080p, bringing the RAM down to 8GB, and swapping the glass back to plastic instead. Many see these as bad things, but personally, I think Samsung made the right cuts here to bring the cost of this device down by $200.

Since we’re on hardware currently, let’s talk about the plastic back. Like the Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy S20 FE from last year, the Galaxy S21 has a “glasstic” back. While you can definitely tell it’s plastic, it still feels rather nice to me. The build is solid and sturdy and the matte texture does a great job of hiding fingerprints.  Plus, plastic has added benefits. It’s not going to crack despite probably being easier to scratch. It’s also lighter, leaving the Galaxy S21 feeling a bit more comfortable in the hand and forgettable in the pocket. 

The buttons along the right side are tactile and clicky while being easy to press, plus they’re well-spaced. The metal frame is glossy, which looks nice, and surprisingly, doesn’t pick up too many fingerprints. One quirk I noticed with the frame was the massive number of antenna lines, six across all four sides of the phone. That’s one more than any of Samsung’s 2020 flagships, and because of the spacing and color, they’re pretty noticeable. This surely has to do with 5G, though, and I’ll definitely take this over a random little window cut into the side of the frame.

In terms of ports, this is a pretty standard affair. There’s a USB-C port for charging, a speaker grill along the bottom that is backed up by the very slim earpiece, as well as a SIM card slot. That slot, though, doesn’t also offer room for a microSD card as mentioned. You’ll also find two microphones on the top of the S21 and one on the bottom, right on the other side of the SIM slot. 

Breathing a bit of life into stale designs

One of my biggest complaints about the Galaxy S20 series was design. The colors were pretty bland and Samsung wasn’t doing anything particularly special. Thankfully, though, the Galaxy S21 steps it up a notch. In the color department, the “Phantom” series of colors are a little more attention grabbing, especially in the “Phantom Purple” that has two colors, one for the body and another for the camera module and frame.

The camera module is perhaps one of the most unique design elements of the Galaxy S21. Instead of just being a protruding bit of glass and/or metal coming out of the back, it nearly seamlessly becomes a part of the frame. It may look like a durability concern, but in person you can see the bit of separation that protects the camera hardware in the case of a drop. It’s a really nice look that I’ve come to appreciate a lot, especially when it has this two-tone colorway. I wish Samsung had gone all in on the two colors for all variants, because it makes the gray, silver, and even pink models of the phone less interesting. 

Looking at the bigger picture, this is no revelation for smartphone design, but it’s a nice tweak that shows there are still some ideas that haven’t been fully explored yet. It’s also a look I hope to see on more Samsung devices in 2021.

DISPLAY |

Finally, the evil is gone

Last year I called the display on Galaxy S20 and S20+ “perfect,” and for the Galaxy S21, it’s pretty much the same story. While the panel itself is now just 1080p, down from 1440p, it’s still plenty sharp and offers excellent contrast and colors. The brightness is also stellar and the 120Hz refresh rate is now adaptive instead of static. That means the S21 can save a little bit of battery and just ramp up the refresh rate when you’re scrolling or playing games, and just like on Samsung’s 2020 devices, that refresh rate is truly excellent. The difference between 60Hz and 120Hz is one you’ll notice right away if this is your first device with the feature. Plus, Samsung left it on by default this year!

What else is good here? The hole-punch selfie camera is the same as last year – good place and good size. The really good story, though, is that the display has finally ditched the curve entirely. That’s right: For the first time in six years Samsung has released a flagship phone that doesn’t stupidly curve the edges of the display just for “the look.” This comes with the benefit of no additional glare on the display, better clarity along the sides, and it makes it much easier to install screen protectors, too. For real people who just want to use their phones, this is a win across the board. Curved screens were user-hostile in pretty much every way, and I’m so glad they’re finally going away.

One thing I quickly noted was that Samsung had removed the pre-installed screen protector on the Galaxy S21 series that showed up on the S10 and S20. Why? Samsung told me that it was “causing confusion” among some customers, though that doesn’t really explain why the S21 ships with it in other regions. There’s probably more to that story, but I doubt anything Samsung would explicitly confirm. In any case, I’m personally pretty sad to see the removal, as it was an easy barrier for permanent damage. Somehow, my S21 picked up a scratch in less than a day, too, just adding to that pain.

SOFTWARE & PERFORMANCE |

One UI 3 brings continued improvements, but it’s not perfect

If there’s one thing I’ll give Samsung credit for, it’s their software. Where the company was once the embarrassment of the smartphone industry, the past few years have seen Samsung improve leaps and bounds when it comes to both usability and long-term software support. With the Galaxy S21, Samsung debuts One UI 3.1, and it’s very good.

One UI 3 is the biggest evolution of Samsung’s skin since One UI debuted a couple of years ago. Based on Android 11, it revises the overall design with more transparent elements and cuts down on a bit of clutter. The choices here are safe, though some users might not appreciate them. Personally, I’m a fan of the overall look, and the added features such as Wireless DeX and more customization options are appreciated, too, especially because they don’t intrude on the core Android experience, they’re just there if you need them.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Samsung software without a few minor complaints. Bixby is still here and still mostly useless as a voice assistant, definitely not deserving of a default shortcut on the power button. I’m also not a fan of how Samsung tweaked some of its menus. The battery menu, for example, now defaults to showing basically no useful information with some taps and swipes needed to see what’s eating up battery life or how long you used your phone that day.

The good news is that this year, Samsung is moving even closer to a clean Android experience. The homescreen, for example, ditches Samsung’s slow, ad-infested, and mostly useless “Free” leftmost panel for Google Discover. You can choose between the two, but the better option is obvious, if you ask me. Google Messages with its worldwide RCS rollout and clean design is also pre-installed in some regions. These aren’t better choices just because they’re Google, they’re just better than Samsung’s offerings, and clearly, it’s easier for Samsung to just use that than it is to rebuild from scratch. Samsung is also going heavier on Android Auto support, even making a point to add its SmartThings app to the platform. 

There’s also good news on the support front. The Galaxy S21 will be Samsung’s first series of flagships to fully realize Samsung’s promise of extended software support, meaning this phone will be fully supported for at least three years. Thanks to the new Qualcomm chip under the hood and Google’s work with Qualcomm, it seems very possible that support could go even farther when all is said and done.

Performance on the Galaxy S21 is also spectacular. The Snapdragon 888 does a lot of heavy lifting and does provide a noticeable bump compared to last year, despite Samsung having gone from 12GB of RAM down to 8GB. 

On a final note, we can’t talk about Samsung’s software without talking about its worst element — ads. Samsung’s apps and built-in services on One UI push notifications and place ads throughout the UI. Samsung hasn’t toned them down and still makes it very difficult to turn them all off. It’s a shameful practice that takes a lot away from the experience here. Flagship phones shouldn’t come with ads, end of story.

BATTERY LIFE |

Even the smallest S21 is an all-day phone

Generally speaking, the smallest phone in a flagship lineup is also the one with the worst battery life. While that may end up being true of Samsung’s lineup this year, the good news is that Samsung is starting off from a great place. 

In the week or so I’ve been using the Galaxy S21 as my daily driver, the 4,000 mAh battery has easily lasted me a full day every single day. The lowest I ever managed to bring this phone down to was about 25%, but that was with nearly six hours of active screen time. The average, though, wasn’t too far behind that. 

The disclaimer there? While my battery life was very good, it was all on Wi-Fi. During my time with the Galaxy S21, I was under quarantine due to potential COVID exposure (negative, woo!), meaning I barely left the house. The only time I did was to go get my test, so I can’t really speak to how 5G, regular cellular data, or just moving between places throughout the day might affect the device. Just based on my example, though, I feel pretty confident that the Galaxy S21, even this smallest version, will be an all-day smartphone for the vast majority of people.

Of course, we do have to talk about the elephant in the room. Samsung stripped the charging brick from the Galaxy S21 box, giving users only a USB-C to USB-C cable to top up. That means you’ll have to buy a charger on your own. You can get a good, speedy 20W charger from trusted brands such as Anker or Aukey for around $15 on Amazon, or Samsung’s own 25W option for $20. I don’t think it’s a huge deal that Samsung removed the charger from the box, but I do think they could have softened the blow by simply including a coupon code in the box for a free charger for those who actually need it. Personally, I’ll still be using a wireless charger.

CAMERA |

Still not Pixel, but no disappointment either

By far my biggest problem with the Galaxy S20 series was the camera. Aside from that, the phones themselves were pretty spectacular, but there was no excuse for $1,000+ smartphones to have such poor camera quality. A year later, the story has changed quite dramatically.

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and Galaxy Z Fold 2 both took huge steps in the right direction for camera quality, and those lessons have been applied to the Galaxy S21 as well. I’ve found that shots from the trio of rear cameras — which notably are the exact same physical sensors as last year — have better overall quality thanks to software improvements. Outdoor shots are still clear and sharp while indoor shots are more consistently good. Human subjects are not bad, either, though the 10MP selfie camera is often a bit blurry-looking.

Vivid colors and oversharpening are still a key part of Samsung’s “look,” but they’ve definitely been toned down a bit this year. That’s far from a bad thing, it gives the photo more of a neutral canvas that you can edit as you see fit, or just post/share as it stands and enjoy the photo mostly as it looks to your own eyes. 

As far as extra sensors go, the ultrawide is pretty good. There’s usually a small bit of distortion along the edges, but overall quality is definitely acceptable. The “telephoto” camera is also still simply a bunch of megapixels that Samsung just crops in on. As a result, zoom is fine, but proper optical zoom would be far better in quality. But hey, it works, and this is still better than straight digital zoom on the primary camera.

If there’s one tweak I wish Samsung had made on a hardware level, it’s changing that “telephoto” camera. Using a bunch of megapixels in place of a proper telephoto lens feels like a cheat.

Generally speaking, my consensus is this. The Galaxy S21, the base model, has a very good camera, but not a very consistent camera, and therein lies the problem. While Samsung manages to take good shots a pretty fair percentage of the time, things can also fall apart unexpectedly a bit too often and easily. This is where Google’s Pixel and Apple’s iPhone stand above Samsung. Those phones can still take more consistently good shots to where you can just point and shoot and trust that the end result will be good. With Samsung, it’s still a bit of a gamble with moving subjects, but again, things are getting better

THE LITTLE THINGS |

Fingerprint sensor

I’ve never been a fan of in-display fingerprint sensors, but I’ve always felt the optical sensors found on devices from OnePlus and others have been superior to Samsung’s. They’re just as easy to fool on the security side of things, but at least with optical, things are fast and reliable. Samsung’s choices always left me with slower unlocks and more failures.

That changes this year, as the Galaxy S21’s sensor is much more reliable and way faster, too. I still don’t find quite it as good as OnePlus, but there’s not much room to complain. It works 9 times out of 10 and you can just tap the sensor to unlock your phone. Finally, Samsung phones have good fingerprint sensors.

Speakers

The war on bezels came at the expense of speakers for many brands, but Samsung has a decent setup here. I wouldn’t call it impressive by any means, but the Galaxy S21 puts out some decent audio. There’s a good amount of depth to the sound, but it’s not exactly room-filling. The earpiece puts out a surprising amount of volume, too, but I did notice while making a couple of phone calls that the physical size of that speaker was so small it was easy to cover it up. 

FINAL THOUGHTS |

The difference between the Galaxy S20 and Galaxy S21 series is clear. Samsung’s 2020 flagships did not sell well at all, and it clearly influenced where the company went this time around. The most direct response was ditching the $1,000 starting price and cutting things by $200 across the board. That was Samsung admitting it made a mistake. To get there, they made some cuts, but none of those really take away from the experience as a whole, despite possibly alienating a handful of users. Further, Samsung made improvements in the right places. The designs are more eye-catching this year and the cameras are more consistent. 

Where does the Galaxy S21 fit? Unlike the Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung’s true flagship for 2021, this base model exists as a mass-market phone. That’s where a balancing act takes priority. Samsung can’t go all out with a phone for everyone without pricing most customers out, just like what happened with last year’s Galaxy S20 lineup. The Galaxy S21 is a brilliant smartphone for its asking price and one that knows who is buying it. This isn’t a phone for the fans, the enthusiasts; it’s a phone for average people who just want a good phone. Well, mission accomplished.

Samsung Galaxy S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra go on sale on January 29 from all major US carriers — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, US Cellular — and will be sold unlocked from Samsung.com, Amazon, B&H Photo, Best Buy, and other retailers.


Update 3/6

Galaxy S21 or S21+?

After spending a couple of weeks with the Galaxy S21 in January, we were able to do the same with the Galaxy S21+ over the course of February. What’s different? Is the S21+ better? Let’s discuss.

The Galaxy S21 and S21+ are based on the same core package, meaning a Snapdragon 888 chip, 8GB of RAM, and a FHD+ 120Hz display. Performance, charging, and camera results are all basically identical on this device in my testing. The only real differences between the two include:

  • Build materials
  • Screen size
  • Battery life

Starting with the build, the S21+ swaps the plastic of the S21 for glass, and it’s very nice! My loaner device was Samsung’s “Phantom Silver” which has a well-done matte back and shiny side rails. It’s a really good look, though I still prefer the Purple of the regular S21. The difference between glass and plastic is also negligible in this case, as Samsung is just extremely good at plastic back panels. You might notice a difference in heft, but I can’t really say definitively that one is better than the other.

Screen size is probably the most meaningful change between these two phones. The Galaxy S21+ packs a 6.7-inch display, a half-inch bigger than the S21. It’s a major difference, but not necessarily the right one for all buyers. I felt the S21 size was right for me, but the S21+ only took a couple of hours to get used to. It’s a decent middle-ground between manageable smartphone sizes and the absolute behemoths available from other players in the space. If you want a big screen, you’ll be satisfied.

When blown up to this size, the FHD resolution does start to look a bit more obvious, though. That’s not to say the screen doesn’t look good — like almost every Samsung Galaxy device in recent years, it looks great — but that you might notice the lack of resolution a bit more than you would on the S21 Ultra. Most people probably won’t care, but a 1440p display would have been nice given the size at play.

I was hoping to report that battery life at least benefitted from the FHD resolution, but… it doesn’t really. In my 2+ weeks of use, battery life on the S21+ was proportionally the same as S21 Ultra and S21. I averaged around 5 hours of screen time, going to bed with 25-30% left. Now, admittedly, that’s solid endurance, but I expected a lot more from a 1080p display and a 4,800 mAh battery. For only being 200 mAh less than the S21 Ultra with its more power-hungry screen and components, it’s weird that this phone lasts only the same amount of time. Most people will be very happy with how long this phone lasts doing normal daily tasks, but I can’t help but wish for what could and should have been from this package.

Wrapping up the S21+, I think it’s roughly as good as the regular S21, but price plays a role here. The only true advantage of the S21+ over the regular S21 is the screen size, and that doesn’t feel worth nearly $200. The sweet spot for this device would have been $899 instead of $999, but hey, Samsung is constantly discounting these things. At press time, B&H Photo is selling the 256GB version of the S21+ for just $799, and that’s a steal. Other retailers are hitting that same price on the 128GB model too.

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