Review: Samsung’s Galaxy S21 is the no-brainer upgrade phone – CNET

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The Galaxy S21 strikes a good balance of features and price which should make it appealing to a lot of people.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The Galaxy S21 lineup is now available. Before you buy one, the biggest takeaway you need to know about the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G, along with the Galaxy S21 Plus 5G and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G, is that Samsung cut the US price of each by $200 (the savings are less in other countries). Clearly this wasn’t done out of generosity and Samsung’s made trade-offs to hit that lower price on the Galaxy S21: The wall charger and headphones don’t come in the box, the phone doesn’t have a microSD card slot for expanded storage and it has 4GB of RAM less than the S20. Samsung also removed half of the pixels from the screen and replaced the Gorilla Glass from the back with polycarbonate, which is a nice way of saying plastic.

Even with those sacrifices, the Galaxy S21 and its starting price of $800 (£769, AU$1,249) is more appealing than the S20. In fact, each phone in the S21 lineup has more to distinguish it from one another than the S20 series did. Out of the trio, the S21 is the no-brainer “you’re due for an upgrade” phone that you’re likely to get from a carrier. And a lot of people are going to get this phone.

Read more: Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. S21 Plus vs. S21 Ultra: Specs comparison chart

Like

  • Lower price
  • Design
  • Android 11/OneUI 3.1
  • High refresh rate screen

Don’t Like

  • Less RAM
  • Display is only HD
  • Gets warm when using it
  • Lacks a microSD slot

The S21 is a significant rethink by Samsung, which may have tried to push the S20 to be too premium. But the company found a good balance in terms of price, features and design for the S21.

The Galaxy S21 gets a striking new look

Without a doubt the first thing I notice about the S21 is its design. This two-tone approach gives the phone an art-deco sensibility. Well, kind of. Samsung made the camera bump bigger and more industrial-looking. I can almost envision someone at Samsung searching for the perfect drill press to make the camera cutouts just the right size.

The bump seemingly melts into the sides. The purple and gold S21 I reviewed (the color’s called phantom violet) gives off some major Mardi Gras vibes. The S21 also comes in other “phantom” colors, including gray, pink and white. On Samsung’s website, there are limited-edition phantom colors in gold and red.


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The plastic back has a matte finish and feels great. I know people have strong feelings about plastic on phones. But this isn’t the hollow-feeling plastic you found on phones five or six years ago. The S21 feels well-made.

Around the front is Corning’s Gorilla Glass Victus, which we first saw on the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. As a complete package ,the S21 has a striking design.

Lower resolution screen with a high refresh rate

The hole-punch screen, which Samsung calls the Infinity-O display, is my current favorite workaround for avoiding a notch or big bezels. The S21’s flat display with its petite black bezel looks really contemporary.

It has Full HD resolution, which is a step down from the Quad HD resolution on the S20. But in everyday use, that’s not as dramatic a change as it sounds. A lot of it comes from the adaptive screen refresh rate that fluctuates between 48 and 120Hz depending on what’s being displayed. So if you’re playing a game like Alto’s Odyssey, Call of Duty or Forza Street you can see them in all their crisp graphical beauty. And when you aren’t, the display has a lower refresh rate in order to save on battery life.

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The S21 brings a new feature to its cameras called Director’s View.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Same S20 camera hardware, but with improvements

The camera hardware on the S21 is exactly the same found on the S20 and that’s not a bad thing. On the back are three cameras: a wide, ultrawide and telephoto. I rather like the ultrawide on the S21, it might be my favorite ultrawide camera on an Android phone.

Photos look great. Autofocus is fast and can switch between foreground and background quickly. In video, autofocus switching isn’t as fast, but when it grabs focus it seems to hold on to it. I also like in video mode having an onscreen button at the top to toggle between different resolutions and frames per second.

Take a look at several photos I shot with the Galaxy S21 below.

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This was taken with night mode on the Galaxy S21.


Patrick Holland/CNET

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The building in this photo was about two blocks away. I took the photo at 10x magnification.


Patrick Holland/CNET

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I tried Single Shot mode on this adorable dog. The phone selected this image and even added a filter to it.


Patrick Holland/CNET

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The ultrawide camera on the Galaxy S21 series is my favorite on any Android phone.


Patrick Holland/CNET

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Here’s another night mode photo. I am surprised at how well balanced the S21 rendered the scene.


Patrick Holland/CNET

For selfies you now have an option for Bright or Natural. Which is excellent. Skin tones in selfie photos look good, especially with all of the “face” effects turned off. But I should note, there are people who like to have the option. So, there’s that.

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This selfie was taken with skin smoothing turned off.


Patrick Holland/CNET

Samsung added a fun new video feature called Director’s View. While you record, there are thumbnail previews of live feeds coming from all the other cameras. There is a side-by-side format for vlogging or a stacked format if you’re shooting vertically. This lets you record yourself with the selfie camera and show what you’re seeing or reacting to using any of the rear cameras you choose.

I thought Director’s View would be more like a gimmick, but I can see people wanting to experiment with it. The only downside is that it outputs an HD video. But it’s the thumbnail preview that sells me on it. I’d love to see this thumbnail preview interface when I’m recording a 4K video or as a Pro Video mode add-on.

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In Director’s View, I can set the screen up to have my selfie video feed on the left and one of the three rear cameras on the right. You can switch between the rear cameras at any time.


Sarah Tew/CNET

The S21 has the Snapdragon 888 chip

Powering the S21 is the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip along with 8GB of RAM. In our benchmark tests, the S21 scored better than last year’s S20. In use, it handled everything from photo edits to gameplay (at 120Hz) just fine. The 888 chip also allows for some new features like Director’s View.

The only tell that the S21 was working hard was that the back got warm downloading large files like games and videos, or when I played a game for longer than 20 minutes. One time while running the benchmark test 3D Mark the phone heated up. In the battery settings, I had Enhanced Performance turned on, which targets all apps that aren’t games. 3D Mark is a benchmark app for gaming. I turned Enhanced Performance off and ran 3D Mark again and the phone didn’t get hot. Weird, right?

Check out our benchmark scores below.

3DMark Slingshot Unlimited

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 single-core

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.5.0 multicore

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

When it comes to battery life, this is a one-day phone. It’s on par with last year’s S20, which had the same sized battery. I still have several more battery tests to run and will add the results to this review soon.

The Galaxy S21 has Android 11 and OneUI 3.1

The S21 comes with Android 11 topped with Samsung’s OneUI 3.1 interface. I love it. There are more ways to default to Google services, such as using Google Pay instead of Samsung Pay, or adding the Google Discover News feed to the home screen instead of the Samsung version. There are also small touches like pop-up windows for adjusting audio levels that look clean and modern. There are also new widgets that you can add to your lock screen. I’m a big fan of how much the software is weighted toward the bottom of the display, which makes one-handed navigation easy. 

The Galaxy S21 supports 5G

And last, the Galaxy S21 is a 5G phone. It supports both sub-6 and mmWave versions of 5G, meaning in the US you’ll have your choice of the three major carriers. 5G shouldn’t be the sole reason to get this phone. But the S21 will be many people’s first 5G phone and its speeds and connection should improve as carriers keep improving their 5G networks.

Samsung Galaxy S21 specs vs. Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20 FE, OnePlus 8T

Samsung Galaxy S21 Samsung Galaxy S20 Samsung Galaxy S20 FE OnePlus 8T
Display size, resolution 6.2-inch Flat FHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2x, 2,400×1,080 pixels 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED; 3,200×1,440 pixels 6.5-inch super AMOLED; 2,400×1,080 pixels 6.55-inch AMOLED; 2,400×1,080 pixels
Pixel density 421ppi 563ppi 405ppi 402ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 2.80×5.97×0.31 in 2.72×5.97×0.311 in 6.29×2.97×0.33 in 6.33×2.92×0.33 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 71.2×151.7×7.9mm 69.1×151.7×7.9 mm 159.8×75.5×8.4 mm 160.7×74.1×8.4 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.03 oz; 171g 5.75 oz; 163g 6.7 oz; 190g 6.63 oz; 188g
Mobile software Android 11 Android 10 Android 10 Android 11
Camera 64MP (telephoto), 12MP (wide-angle), 12MP (ultrawide) 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (ultrawide) 12-megapixel (standard), 12-megapixel (ultrawide), 8-megapixel (3x telephoto) 48-megapixel (standard), 16-megapixel (ultrawide), 5-megapixel (macro), 2-megapixel (monochrome)
Front-facing camera 10MP 10-megapixel 32-megapixel 16-megapixel
Video capture 8K 8K 4K 4K
Processor Snapdragon 888 Snapdragon 865 (5G) Snapdragon 865 (5G) Samsung Exynos 990 (4G) Snapdragon 865
Storage 128GB/256GB 128GB 128GB 128GB, 256GB
RAM 8GB 12GB 6GB 8GB
Expandable storage No Up to 1TB 1TB No
Battery 4,000 mAh 4,000 mAh 4,500 mAh 4,500 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screen In-screen In-screen In-screen
Headphone jack No No No No
Special features IP68 rating, 5G-enabled, 30x Space Zoom, 10W wireless charging 5G enabled; 120Hz refresh rate; water-resistant (IP68) 120Hz screen refresh rate, support for 30W fast charging and 15W fast wireless charging 5G enabled; 120Hz refresh rate; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM)
Price off-contract at launch (USD) $800 (128GB), $850 (256GB) $999 $699 $749
Price (GBP) £769 (128GB), £819 (256GB) £799 (4G), £899 (5G) £599 (4G), £699 (5G) £549
Price (AUD) $1,249 (128GB), $1,349 (256GB) AU$1349 (4G), AU$1,499 (5G) AU$999 (4G), AU$1,149 (5G) AU$1,149

First published Jan. 21.