Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Excellent Display And Powerful Performance
The Samsung Galaxy S21’s design overhaul is about the only groundbreaking change introduced by this new flagship line. But that’s not a criticism. In fact, there’s barely anything about this phone that I’d actually want to be different.
The Galaxy S21 is a very, very good looking phone. The ‘contour cut camera’ really does look as elegant in real life as it does on screen, and is something that, if I wasn’t avoiding all unnecessary human contact, I’d bank on to be a conversation starter. As was the case with the S20 FE, the baseline S21 model trades out a glass rear panel in favour of a plastic ‘Deluxe Frosted Haze’ matte finish. As far as I’m concerned this is no bad thing. Sure, glass looks fancy, but the phantom violet and rose gold trim model I’ve been trying out looks just as good, and certainly seems like it will be a lot more durable.
Elsewhere, Samsung’s flat-panel AMOLED 2X display continues to push the boundaries of what you might think is possible from modern-day smartphone screens. I was blown away by the quality of this phone’s display. Straight out of the box the colours seem to almost jump off the screen, while the 120Hz adaptive refresh rate – a first for the S line – makes scrolling an almost therapeutically smooth experience.
Whether I was mindlessly flicking through Twitter or trying to reach the bottom of my YouTube recommendations, I was struck by how stark the contrast was to even the most recent flagship models. I’m thankful that my everyday phone has 120Hz too, because I’m willing to bet that once you’ve experienced a display like the one on the S21, it’s going to be hard to accept anything less.
Aside from the display and design, the bulk of the new features introduced by the S21 are in the camera. Is this a sign that Samsung has run out of ideas elsewhere? Or is it just a savvy reflection of the priorities of smartphone users? Whatever the answer, it’s clear that the S21’s camera was designed with today’s generation of content creators in mind, and the great news is, you don’t even really have to know what you’re doing to make the most of it. This phone genuinely does produce seriously impressive images without requiring you to do much more than point, shoot and let it do the work.
Single take is an especially handy feature, with the camera capturing images and videos from a series of lenses and shot-styles in one go, letting you pick the best of the bunch. Another very TikTok-friendly new trick is Director’s View, which lets users record videos on their front and rear camera simultaneously, with live thumbnails giving you the view from the three lenses at the same time.
The camera itself is a continuation of the S20’s triple-lens setup, which means you’re getting the same 12Mp Ultra Wide, 12Mp Wide-angle and 64Mp Telephoto lenses, as well as the 10Mp front punch-hole camera, with some AI-powered updates thrown in for good measure. There’s support for 8K shooting at 24fps, UHD at 60fps and FHD at a max 120fps, although you can only toggle between these options in pro-mode so you do have to know where to look.
Given all this, it won’t surprise anyone to hear that this phone’s camera does everything you could ask of it and more. The picture quality is top-notch, the colours are a vivid as ever, and the various modes and filters just seem that little bit more refined, with portrait mode in particular putting the phone’s inbuilt AI and 3D-mapping systems to good use by creating the best separation between subject and background I’ve seen so far. The Galaxy S21 also benefits from improved video stabilisation, which was noticeable not only when shooting in ‘Super Steady’ mode, but also (I’m told) on video calls. My only gripe would be the loss of quality and image stability issues you experience using space zoom, which I would hope becomes less of an issue with the S21 Ultra model.
While customers in the EU will get phones powered by Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 chips, folks across the pond the United States will see their models come fully equipped with the brand new Snapdragon 888, making Samsung one of the first to debut a phone built around Qualcomm’s new state-of-the-art processor. Interestingly, both the S21 and S21+ are only available with 8GB of RAM, as opposed to the 12GB of RAM which came as standard on the S20 and S20+. I still found that the phone handled everything I threw at it with lightning-fast speed, but anyone looking for the highest possible specs will be leaning towards the Ultra, which comes with a maximum 16GB of RAM and 564GB of storage.
A full charge with the phone plugged in typically took around 1 hour 5 minutes, with wireless charging naturally taking a bit longer. In this regard, Samsung is lagging behind some of its Android competitors, with companies like Xiaomi and Oppo now routinely offering charging speeds under 50 minutes, but all in all, I found that the 4,000mAh battery was more than capable of handling a day of working from home, which these days is about all that’s required.
The S21 runs on Android 11, and all models come 5G enabled as standard, with the company saying in a press release that they expect 2021 to provide ‘the real test of the power of 5G.’ So what’s missing? Sadly there’s also no surprise return for the headphone jack, and no heart rate sensor, both of which were ditched with the launch of the S20. I still think this is a shame, but it’s an inevitable trade-off for a company with its own audio gear and wearable products to sell.
The new line also waves goodbye to the microSD, which did feature on the S20. In the past expandable storage had been a selling point for Samsung as they tried to catch up to Apple, but in the age of streaming and ever-growing internal storage, it’s probably not something most people will miss.
Speaking of Apple, Samsung is making a habit of mocking their rival for getting rid of certain features and accessories, only to follow suit soon after. It happened with the headphone jack, and now Samsung has gone and done exactly the same thing with its packaging, which, like Apple’s, no longer includes a fast charger. That being said, all S21 and S21+ preorders will come with a free Galaxy SmartTag and a pair of Galaxy Buds Live.
Pricing for the Samsung S21 starts at £769 – a whole £140 cheaper than the S20 – which at the time of the announcement seemed like a virtual steal for a flagship model of this quality. And after a few days spent with this phone, the price only gets more impressive.
Yes, aside from the new design there are no truly radical changes here – those innovations are increasingly being saved for the company’s foldable range – and some of the more interesting new features, like the S-Pen, are limited to the Ultra. But what this model does offer is a best-in-show display, interesting new camera features and the fastest processors Samsung and Android have to offer, all housed in one of the most outlandish new smartphone designs I’ve seen in a while. For that price, what more could you ask?
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