Over the past week, Samsung virtually announced the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21 Plus, and Galaxy S21 Ultra at their Galaxy Unpacked event last Thursday, which I attended, along with Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag, where Samsung released its new line of phones. You can find my coverage of the Unpacked 2021 event, Galaxy S21 Series and Buds Pro here. Last year at the Samsung Galaxy Unpacked event, Samsung brought a lot to the table with its lineup of Galaxy devices like the Note 20, Galaxy Fold2, and Galaxy Tab S7. You can see my full coverage of 2020’s Samsung Galaxy Unpacked event here.
The new S21 Series brought new features like the Android 11 and other refinements that are always exciting for Samsung fans and industry analysts like myself. The Galaxy S21 is the lesser of the three in the series but still a powerful and feature-filled model of the S21 lineup, and I wanted to give my 5-day review of the device. My review unit is an unlocked S21 5G in Phantom Violet matte, complemented by a fashionable gold frame, with 8 GB of memory and 128 GB of storage. I’m using it on T-Mobile’s sub-6GHz 5G Network in Austin. Ultimately, I believe the S-series eclipses every other phone in nearly every enthusiast’s use case in this price class. If you are a power user and want to spend less on a new phone, then now is the time to consider switching from a high-end Apple iPhone. I got some help on this review from Moor Insights & Strategy games reviewer Zane Pickett. Let’s dive in.
A classy Galaxy S design
Last year, the S20 lineup was the first generation of Galaxy phones to have Samsung’s curved edge technology, but this year, Samsung has dialed back the curved edge for only the S21 Ultra model. After using many Samsung curved displays, I think the S21 Ultra curved capability will be excellent for some users as a perk, but after some research, I feel it doesn’t do much justice when using it. It will just come down to personal preference since I didn’t seem to mind the flat surface on the S21.
The back has a hybrid of glass and plastic, as Samsung puts it, “Glastic” with a finish matte that morphs from a blue to a purple when shined upon when moving it around in your hand looks fantastic and allows more resistance to fingerprints, which I also liked. The phone is an appropriate weight for the phone’s size, not too light but not too heavy but feels more lightweight compared to carrying around my iPhone all day. I would recommend a case because of its sleek feel since it can be slippery to hold.
In general, the most noticeable physical change from the S20 series is how the camera bump works. While it still protrudes, especially on the S21, it’s less bothersome because it’s now integrated into the phone corner. I personally think it adds some unique style to the phone, too. The integration of the camera module, unlike last year’s device, Samsung was able to blend the module into the frame, which is a more elegant approach since everyone wants to the top-performing camera, but maybe we want something that appears slenderer from the side and Samsung was able to do that with the complete camera setup. Additionally, the new camera module doesn’t cause the phone to wobble when placed on a surface. On the right, you will see the power button and above that the volume rocker, and on the left no Bixby button. On the bottom, you’ll find your SIM slot, speaker port, USB-C charging and data port without a headphone jack and noise cancellation microphones on the top. The device has the ability for shared wireless charging, so you can set your new Samsung Buds on top of it if you choose to. The unboxing was very simple, take out the phone and USB-C connector cord, and you are finished.
Sadly though, there is no new fancy or super-powered charger to show off. Other than the phone itself, I did receive a USB-C connector cord in the box, but that was it. No new headphones or charging brick. This does raise some questions for me, though, if, on the one hand removing these items, are Samsung and even Apple putting a dent in the environmental waste? If so, then that is great, but at the same time, if we as the consumers are losing out on new faster-charging technologies, then should we, the consumer, be footing the bill or losing out by having these things taken away to help the environmental impact since I feel there could be another way both companies could help other than getting rid of the headphones and chargers. If anything, Zane thought it would have been interesting for Samsung to try out with a method that Xiaomi did, which is allow you to have a charger if you wished or not have a charger if you preferred not to have one, then not charge you extra for it.
Display and camera
The Galaxy S21 didn’t disappoint with its 6.2″ FHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X Adaptive refresh rate 120hz along with the Eye Comfort Shield. As Samsung put it, “The brightest display in the galaxy,” and it’s true. The display is Full HD Plus instead of the OLED resolution; honestly, I cannot notice the differences all that much. This is still the best display I have seen compared to last year’s S20 in every smartphone category. On the bright side, one of the advantages of having a Full HD + resolution instead of OLED is that you no longer must decide if you want quality resolution, or do I want 120Hz refresh, which you do have supported on the S21. I’ve come to expect this from Samsung as it is the leader in smartphone displays for the entire industry, which means continuously viewing HDR photos from the cameras natively from the HDR10+ certified screen. I think the 120Hz. Capability is a real experiential game changer. I notice it and I think you will, too.
The S21 and the two other S-series models are the only devices that I can think of that use 1080p class displays on the 6.2-inch dynamic and running on 120 hertz, which you feel and see that smoothness and fluidity when going about the phone. The near bezel-less display maxes out at 1300 nits of brightness, which means this phone will probably be the best HDR content consumption display with Gorilla Glass Victus. You may need to change the video settings to make the SDR content look good, such as switching from vivid settings to natural, but the HDR content seemed to be fair since HDR content includes metadata to display how to behave. This may change based on your personal preferences, though, when it comes to SDR.
All S21 devices have small bezels with an Infinity-O front-facing camera that is symmetrical to the center of the device with a 10mp, and the triple rear camera has an ultra-wide and wide 12mp and 64 telephoto mp. From messing with the camera, I found it remarkable that when you zoom in 10x or even 30x, the stabilization was outstanding, and saturation didn’t come into play to make a photo come off to look good. It kept its natural colors.
Unfortunately, users are not getting the 100 x zoom, and I am sure we all remember last year on the S20 when Samsung was hyping up the 100 x Zoom; the quality was not the best, but they have done some things here to the S21 Ultra to improve that using AI and new stabilization. Users will still receive the new AI and new stabilization with the 30 x zoom. When you punch into 30 times and beyond, you’ll see a viewfinder pop up to help give you an idea of where you are looking, and one of the new features is if you keep reasonably still for a second or two, the viewfinder will turn yellow automatically, and that is what Samsung is calling ‘Zoom Lock.’ It’s an excellent idea because usually zooming in far can be a shaky mess.
Another near feature is the new Directors Mode and Vlogger View option that gives you a live feed of all three lenses that allows you to pick your shot as you are recording and can film on the front and back camera at the same time. I cannot see myself using this that much, but I know my kids and their friends would, especially all the social media influencers out there these days. If anything, I would most likely use it during my travels. I could only imagine how cool this would be for concerts if they ever happen again. Another neat feature called ‘Single Take’ uses all cameras to take a single photo piece for you. I feel the most significant upgrade with the camera is that Samsung slightly changed the camera app, so now you can switch between all the resolutions and framerates from this button in the viewfinder rather than dive into the camera settings. Apple could take a page out of Samsung’s book here.
Switching over to video, I will have to say I was a little bit disappointed that Samsung didn’t bump up the 8k resolution up to 30fps or a 4k 120fps option because the Snapdragon chips do technically support it, but sadly, it is not yet a feature on the phone. However, I was impressed with just how more accurate the white balance was from the green and blue from my PC RGB lighting, the blue hue from my monitor, and crucially, it keeps the walls white and not a light yellow from poor saturation fixings. Recording in 4K 30-60 fps is still fantastic and in 8K 24fps. Unfortunately, the S21 Ultra is the focus enhancer option, which is on by default, seamlessly switches to the ultrawide lens, and allows you to take macro-level shots. Additionally, a neat perk that Samsung has included is ‘Multi Mic Recording’ that allows the Galaxy S21 to work with Galaxy Buds Pro to capture both ambient sounds and your voice at the same time to use both devices’ multiple microphones.
Overall, Samsung did a fantastic job upgrading these needed changes while keeping some of the old designs, which I was worried that they would consider placing the front camera to the right side and no longer the symmetrical front-facing camera and not on the right side of the display like some of the Note10’s. There is a lot to play with on the camera, but these are my intentional first impressions. But with great power comes great responsibility, so with that, just like I mentioned last year, this phone begs for a case.
Net-net Samsung nailed the camera on the S21 and I cannot wait to see other folks reviews on it.
The battery in the S21 base model is the same size as last year’s S20 base model. The S21 Ultra has a 5000 mAh battery, the S21 + has a 4800 mAh battery, and the S21 has a 4000 mAh battery. I did expect to have somewhat a larger battery given the newest technology, but I suppose I will let it slide since Samsung is trying to be cost-savvy in a premium chassis. I am curious about what kind of impact has both quality HD, and 120 hertz have on the battery. Due to the more efficient processors, adaptive refresh, and the big 4000mAh battery, so far, it is looking good. After a day of testing out the game playing various games on the phone from 9 am, I still have less than half of the battery (41%) by 10 pm. Also, do keep in mind that battery life can noticeably improve over time as the phone optimizes the battery based on how and when you use it. So, Samsung is claiming that we should enjoy having an all-day battery life with the Galaxy S21’s, and so far, the claim seems to be true.
Let’s talk charging. The S21 has a 4000 mAh battery that maxes out charging with a wire at 25 watts, wirelessly at 15 watts, and reverse charging, like charging the Galaxy Buds, at only 4 ½ watts. Compared to some international phones out there, these are maybe half of what is available on the open market from lesser brands. While Zane found it a little annoying that he did not quite get his “bang for the buck”, he appreciates Samsung’s approach here. As someone who cares about my device’s longevity, this will help in the long run by charging at lower rates even if your phone does support higher watts
The S21 has the most advanced 5nm processing technology with what Samsung says is a 20% faster CPU, 35% faster GPU, and over two times faster AI Processor to ensure after runs faster than ever and with an IP68 rating along with Android 11 and Samsung’s new 3.1 UI. LPDDR4x memory, which is amazingly fast but only eight gigs of memory and only up to 256 gigs of storage, and on top of that, Samsung got rid of the MicroSD slot. I see why Samsung has done this, given the differences in speeds based on the UFS 3.1 storage and some of the fastest microSD cards. Like I mentioned last year, Samsung is putting laptop-level specs into a “tiny” device. I could only imagine the average user won’t ever use all 8GB or even the 16GB in the from the Ultra. For some, I am sure enterprise-level users and DeX enthusiasts, the 16GB of memory can take the user to the next step of replacing their laptop with a smartphone.
One area Samsung didn’t cost down at all is in the SoC, so all S-series phones feature the Snapdragon 888s in the North America region. Both are built using Samsung’s new five-nanometer process, and both are using the latest ARM X1 cores. So, just like we saw in previous generation Snapdragon or Exynos SoC, you’ve got four low power cores for high efficiency and four high power cores for higher performance, but here, instead of four lower-power cores and four of the same high-power cores, we’ve got three cortex A78s which are high performance but built using ARM’s traditional balance of power consumption and performance. We’ve also got a single X1 core. So, this is ARM’s attempt to kind of steal some of Apple’s thunder when it comes to single-threaded performance. Now, as for whether it gets there, maybe not yet. But none the less, it’s a step in the right direction. I would be very excited to see not just the generational improvements that we see in CPU, GPU, and AI performance like we are now but a game-changer GPU performance generational leap.
Additionally, the Samsung game launcher has been updated for the S21, and you can turn on ‘Priority Mode’ to not be interrupted when playing a game. I played ‘Call of Duty,’ and the performance was magnificent. No issues during gameplay, the back of the phone did get a little warm, but it wasn’t anything to worry about.
One major issue I feel some consumers may miss is that Samsung has decided to remove MicroSD card support for the entire S21 range. Beforehand you could just go with the cheapest, say, 128GB model and pop in a 512 or 1T MicroSD. Now you are limited to the internal storage. It looks like Apple and Samsung are going down the same street. So, options are either used to use the internal storage or pay more for a higher S21 model for 256 or 512gbs or just buy a different phone. BUT when Samsung closes and door, they also open a window. For the first time on the S-series, we now get S-pen support. The phone doesn’t house the pen itself, so you will need to carry it with you or a compatible case to store it. Considering the S-Pen is an optional extra that you must pay for, it makes it more of a niche feature on the S21, but at the same time, we are getting the big note series now on the S21.
The fingerprint scanner was improved, but I really cannot tell as the first gen worked fine for me with few rescans. The new upgraded fingerprint reader, the Qualcomm 3D sonic sensor Gen 2, has a 77% larger fingerprinted reader area, 1.7x more biometric data captured, and 50% faster to read. On top of this, the phone is secured by Samsung Knox Vault in the SoC by adding tamper-resistant secure memory to enable an extra layer of protection, removing metadata, and giving users the option to private share before sharing photos and videos. Think of it like Snapchat; you can share photos and videos but for a short duration until it disappears from the other user’s device.
One other small issue but not a dealbreaker is that the S21 has 5G connectivity that’s included with the Snapdragon 888 only has the regular Wi-Fi 6 compared to the S21 Ultra that has the Wi-Fi 6E, which could mean a handful of things, but I am assuming at this time it will relate more to congestion and not having to fight for Wi-Fi and getting better Wi-Fi speeds on your mobile device. One small change that it’s not even mentioned in the spec sheet, but you can remove Samsung free, and you can now replace it with the Google news feed. You can now swipe right and cancel the news screen entirely or switch to Google Discover.
One of the most significant updates that Samsung brought into the Samsung S21 launch was its ‘SmartThings’ application, which now has some extra functionality to help you find Samsung related products that you may have lost. Just log in to your Samsung account and see its last known location, and this will work with the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro and the new Samsung Smart tag. For those wondering if you can turn your S21 into your digital car key, the answer is no. Only the S21 + and Ultra can do that, but at least you get the improved Android Auto for a smoother and faster car experience.
When it comes to cost-saving, I worried that the speaker would be downgraded. It was still stereo, loud, and sounded great. It wasn’t super crisp, but I expect this to sound better on the S21 + and Ultra. Unfortunately, the S-Pen is only supported in the S21 Ultra and not the regular S21 and S21+, but it is still nice to see Samsung put the effort in.
Samsung’s Galaxy S21 has outdone its predecessor and remains one beast of a phone. The raw specs have outperformed and set the standard for a flagship device for power users. Without a doubt, it has the best camera system in any smartphone, with features that border professional photography combined with the 120Hz refresh rate display that is just simply incredible. It has the leading-class in 5G and laptop-level components with a durable and long-lasting battery to add to it, especially with the S21 Ultra.
Like I mentioned last year, if you were ever considering switching from a high-end Apple iPhone like the Apple 12, now’s the time as the S21 eclipses every other phone in every use case.
My daily driver is the iPhone mini as my family is addicted to iMessage and Find Friends, but I spend most of my time on the Galaxy Fold Z. If it wasn’t the right time for those enthusiasts who didn’t see the experiential value in the Fold value proposition, you need to consider the Galaxy S21, S21+, or the S21 Ultra with its incredible camera (100X, 8K, 108MP), 5G wireless (sub6, mmWave, SA, NSA), display (6.2″, 120Hz), great battery (4,000 mAH), and 8GB memory with 128/256 storage.
The Galaxy S21 is available for pre-order and goes on sale for $799.99 this Friday. Those who pre-order an S21 device from Samsung.com can get between $550 – $700 Samsung credit with a trade-in from your old Android or iPhone. The S21 5G comes in a whopping five colors. Phantom Violet, Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Rose Gold. The S21 Ultra has everything a consumer could want in a smartphone to make it an impressive enterprise-level smartphone, especially for smartphone enthusiasts. I will continue to test out the S21 and see if any other much-needed findings became available to share.
NOTE: Moor Insights & Strategy game reviewer Zane Pickett contributed significantly to this review.