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Andrew Hayward / Lifewire
Gorgeous 120Hz screen
Plenty of power
Downgrades from S20
Battery life just OK
No microSD slot
Plastic backing on $800 phone
Samsung has delivered another great phone with the Galaxy S21, but compared to the S20, it feels like an underwhelming upgrade.
We purchased the Samsung Galaxy S21 so our reviewer could put it to the test. Keep reading for our full product review.
Samsung’s flagship phones have led the way on top-end Android design and features, and it culminated in the 2020’s with the very nice—but expensive—$1,000 Galaxy 20 5G base model. Whether it’s a course correction on Samsung’s own part or a response to sales of that sleek smartphone, the new Galaxy S21 comes in at just $800. However, it has lost a few things in the process.
The core Galaxy S21 is a fine phone packed with flagship power and finesse, but no longer feels like an Android superphone in the way that past models did. It’s hardly average, and the price point may open it up to more buyers than its predecessor, but the Galaxy S line’s reputation as the best of the best is no longer intact with the base Galaxy S21, particularly with the Galaxy S21+ and Galaxy S21 Ultra potentially enticing buyers to spend extra.
Samsung found an elegant solution for differentiating the Galaxy S21 not only from the S20, but also its robust lineup of other Android phones. While the front looks nearly the same as before, albeit now with a fully flat screen instead of slight curviness, the back of the phone is marked by the distinctive new camera module. Instead of a common pill-like module, it’s now connected to the frame as an eye-catching flourish, presenting the symmetrical vertical stack of cameras as a standout design element rather than purely a functional component.
That’s an upgrade. What is a downgrade, however, is the switch to plastic backing on the base Galaxy S21 model. While the larger and more expensive Galaxy S21+ and Galaxy S21 Ultra keep the glass backing that the line has used for years, the core model gets plastic. I have no problem with plastic backing as a cost-saving element on cheaper phones, but it’s trickier to justify on a phone that still costs $800. And while the plastic backing on some phones (like the Galaxy A71 5G) can have an almost glass-like allure, the matte backing on this Phantom Violet model makes no illusions: it feels like plastic. That’s underwhelming.
Plastic backing aside, the Galaxy S21 still looks very premium in style and feels solidly durable, plus it has an IP68 rating for water and dust resistance and is certified to survive in up to 1.5m of fresh water for up to 30 minutes. The base Galaxy S21 model comes with a solid 128GB of internal storage, and the upgrade to 256GB is very reasonable at just $50. But for the first time in several years, Samsung has removed the microSD slot for expandable storage, taking away the ability to expand and customize your storage tally after purchase. That’s another downgrade.
Here’s one more: the Galaxy S21 is the first core Galaxy S model in years to not have a super high-resolution QHD+ screen. This 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen tops out at FHD+ (2400x1080), but at this size panel, it’s still a very crisp 421 pixels per inch (ppi). It’s a step down on paper, but the difference in clarity is barely noticeable to the naked eye, so it’s hard to get too worked up about it.
Truth be told, the screen still looks utterly gorgeous. It’s very bright, incredibly vibrant, and benefits from an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate, which speeds up how often the screen refreshes for smoother animations and transitions—but only when you need it. Otherwise, it keeps the rate lower to conserve battery life. As before, Samsung has packed in the fingerprint sensor within the screen, but it’s larger and more responsive this time around. I didn’t have any issues with it.
Setting up the Galaxy S21 is a breeze. It’s especially easy if you’re coming from another Samsung phone, as settings, apps, and accounts transfer with little hassle, although you can also bring stuff over from other Android phones or an iPhone. Just follow the on-screen prompts after holding in the power button for a couple seconds to start the device. It’s a brief process that includes signing into a Google account, accepting the terms and conditions, and deciding on a few settings options.
“Samsung has made another sharp and highly capable flagship with the Galaxy S21, but in the process of scaling back on the premium allure of its base model, the tech giant has fumbled perceptions here.
The Galaxy S21 is the first phone to roll out with the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, which is the fastest available for Android phones. Samsung has cut down on the amount of RAM alongside this year’s chip, from 12GB in the S20 to 8GB now, but there’s no indication that the Galaxy S21 was hobbled in any way in terms of performance. It’s a speedy handset that feels super responsive with all demands, from apps and games to media and multitasking, and the smooth 120Hz display only aids in that swift sensation.
Benchmark testing suggests a small power increase over Samsung’s 2020 flagships, which used the previous-gen Snapdragon 865 chip. In PCMark’s Work 2.0 test, the Galaxy S21 scored 13,002 compared to 12,176 on the Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G. Meanwhile, on Geekbench 5, the Galaxy S21’s 1,091 single-core score and 3,315 multi-core score are just a little bit ahead of the Note20 Ultra’s 975/3,186.
That currently puts the Galaxy S21 and its siblings at the top of the pack—a benefit of being the first major phone release of 2021. However, it won’t be long before we see more Snapdragon 888-powered phones on the market. In any case, it’s worth noting that even the most powerful Android phone can’t match the iPhone 12 in terms of benchmark testing. In Geekbench 5, Apple’s A14 Bionic-powered phone scored a huge 1,589 in single-core performance and 3,955 in multi-core. Both phones feel super speedy in everyday use, but Apple’s advantage in benchmark testing hasn’t been diminished by much with the latest Android chips.
Games look great on the Galaxy S21, by the way—Fortnite ran pretty smoothly, as did Asphalt 9: Legends. It also put up excellent benchmark numbers, with 60 frames per second on GFXBench’s Car Chase demo, beating the iPhone 12 by a few frames, and 119fps on the T-Rex demo. The latter is nearly identical to what I’ve seen on other recent flagship phones with 120Hz screens.
“It’s a speedy handset that feels super responsive with all demands, from apps and games to media and multitasking, and the smooth 120Hz display only aids in that swift sensation.
The unlocked Galaxy S21 supports the full spectrum of 5G connectivity currently available in the United States, including sub-6GHz and mmWave 5G. I tested the phone on Verizon’s network in and around Chicago and picked up fast speeds on both.
On Verizon’s 5G Nationwide (sub-6GHz) network, which is broadly spread across the U.S. now, I saw a top download speed of 144Mbps, which is on the higher end of the testing I’ve done with 5G phones in this area to date. Most of the time, speeds fell into the 50-90Mbps range, which is a solid improvement on Verizon’s 4G LTE coverage in the area.
Meanwhile, I pulled a top speed of 1.727Gbps on Verizon’s 5G Ultra-Wideband (mmWave) network, which is mostly concentrated in small clusters in areas with high foot traffic. I’ve seen higher speeds with other 5G devices on the network, including nearly 3.3Gbps with the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max, but it was a different city and area than the one I tested the Galaxy S21 in. It should be just as capable as pulling down top speeds in areas where they’re available.
The Galaxy S21 has a great pair of speakers on it between the bottom-firing speaker and the slim earpiece, located right above the screen. It’s great for playing a little bit of music for yourself on the spot or for watching movies, coming through loud and clear for just about any need. Likewise, calls sounded pristine via the earpiece and speakerphone worked well.
The module design might have changed from the S20, but the actual camera setup is identical on the spec sheet. On the back, you’ll find a 12-megapixel main wide-angle sensor, a 12-megapixel ultra-wide sensor, and a 64-megapixel telephoto zoom lens. As before, this is a very versatile and useful setup that provides three focal points at the ready, including the zoomed-out ultra-wide camera for landscapes and a 3x zoom camera for close-ups.
All three of the cameras pump out sharp, stellar shots. They are very adept at capturing excellent detail in ample lighting, but still capable of producing very good low-light results in most scenarios. Samsung has a tendency to punch up its photos, and that’s definitely true here: the vibrant results sometimes make photos look more appealing, but can occasionally look a bit unnatural or over-brightened.
Still, in side-by-side shooting with the standard iPhone 12, there were slight advantages in both directions. The Galaxy S21 routinely produced the better shots taken in night mode, however, better illuminating scenes in subtle ways while delivering solid dynamic range. And the S21 has a telephoto camera, which the base iPhone 12 model lacks. Samsung gets the nod on this front.
“While the front looks nearly the same as before, the back of the phone is marked by the distinctive new camera module.
The 4,000mAh battery pack in the Galaxy S21 is a solidly sizable cell and on par with the S20, and while it’ll get you through a solid day’s usage, it doesn’t leave a lot of buffer. I typically ended a day with about 15-25 percent left in the tank, and that’s on days in which I didn’t push the phone especially hard. Heavier-use days with lots of GPS usage, playing 3D games, or streaming large amounts of video could have you reaching for a charger by late afternoon. It’s a bit disappointing, especially when the Galaxy S20 FE 5G shipped with a larger, longer-lasting battery just a few months back.
And while you may remember Samsung mocking Apple’s decision to remove the wall charger from the iPhone 12, believe it or not, Samsung has done the same thing with the Galaxy S21. You may well have a USB-C wall brick around, but does it support the 25W max fast-charging speed that the S21 can handle? If not, you’ll need to buy a new charger to hit that peak. The S21 can also wirelessly charge at up to 15W, depending on charger, as well as share power with other wirelessly-chargeable phones and accessories on the back of the phone.
The Galaxy S21 ships with Android 11, and Samsung’s skinned rendition isn’t a big departure from past versions. It runs very smoothly here with attractive flourishes. Google’s own Pixel take on Android 11 is more minimal in design, but Samsung’s version is stylish and responsive, and looks great on this 120Hz display. Samsung has promised to provide three years of updates to its phones, which means you should be supported up through Android 14.
“For the first time in several years, Samsung has removed the microSD slot for expandable storage, taking away the ability to expand and customize your storage tally after purchase.
Samsung made a number of feature trims in order to hit a $800 price point for the Galaxy S21, which is sensible enough—especially given the state of the world right now. Even with some omissions, the Galaxy S21 is a great phone, and the $800 price is largely reasonable considering the competition: it is mostly comparable to the iPhone 12, after all, which sells for the same price. That said, plastic backing seems out of place on an $800 phone, and Samsung has created some expectations that it can’t meet by calling this the Galaxy S21 instead of designating it as a budget-friendlier “FE” or “Lite” model.
The Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12 are the smartphone world’s heavyweights: both flagship phones are $800 each for the base model, and both are mostly comparable in terms of features and capabilities. Both are super-responsive phones with great screens just larger than 6 inches each, plus stellar cameras, and both also offer 5G support.
The iPhone 12 has the more eye-catching and premium design of the two and more raw power according to benchmark tests, plus its battery is more resilient. Meanwhile, the Galaxy S21 benefits from its telephoto zoom camera, plus its 120Hz screen refresh rate. Ultimately, the iPhone 12 feels like you’re getting more bang for your buck and benefits from feeling like a significant upgrade over the iPhone 11, while the Galaxy S21 has a couple of weak spots and comes across a bit less exciting than we’re used to from Samsung’s annual upgrade.
This great phone yields mixed reactions.
Samsung has made another sharp and highly capable flagship with the Galaxy S21, but in the process of scaling back on the premium allure of its base model, the tech giant has fumbled perceptions here. There’s a lot to like here, but last fall’s Galaxy S20 FE 5G feels like a similar phone at $100 less, yet it offers better battery life and a microSD slot. The annual Galaxy S has always been a can’t-miss phone, but in Samsung’s currently wide lineup, the overhauled Galaxy S21 doesn’t have quite the same impact.
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