This year, power users are no doubt super excited about the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. It has all the specs, all the cameras, and all the juice you need to power through a day (or two) of heavy smartphone use. While that’s great for the enthusiast crowd, they represent but a tiny fraction of the overall smartphone-buying population. Most people don’t need all those bleeding-edge specs and features (or all that money drained from their bank accounts).
Enter the Samsung Galaxy S21. This phone isn’t for power users. In fact, if you’re a power user, I can guarantee that the Galaxy S21 is not the phone for you.
This might be a surprising development for some because the Galaxy S line has a deep history rooted in being the “best of the best.” This year, though, Samsung has tossed that out the window and tried to establish the vanilla Galaxy S21 as something else: the best device you can get at a price most flagship phone buyers can afford. But did it succeed?
This is Android Authority’s Samsung Galaxy S21 review.
Design and display: Value trumps specs
- 71.2 x 151.7 x 7.9mm
- In-display ultrasonic fingerprint sensor
- Gorilla Glass Victus
- IP68 water and dust resistance
- 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED (2,400 x 1,080)
- Flat display
- Infinity-O selfie cutout
- 120Hz adaptive refresh rate
The front of the Galaxy S21 remains mostly unchanged from last year with an almost bezel-free display and a selfie camera cutout at the top center. However, the curved glass is gone. Instead, we have flat sides all around with gently rounded corners.
See also: The best Samsung phones
How you feel about curved glass will be very subjective. From a utilitarian standpoint, flat displays make Android’s gesture navigation system much easier to perform. Swiping up or from the sides of a flat display feels more natural than running your finger up a bump. On the flip side, curved displays offer more immersion since videos and other media seem to roll off into infinity. It’s a trade-off either way.
But let’s be real: the main reason Samsung opted for a flat display this year is to bring costs down. This is something I’ll be saying a lot in this Samsung Galaxy S21 review. That’s also the reason the Galaxy S21 has a lower resolution display than any mainline S21 phone since the Galaxy S5. Dropping a 1440p display in favor of a 1080p display, though, wasn’t a big deal to me. The display is still bright and beautiful, and its 6.2-inch form factor achieves a respectable 421ppi density.
The display also has a 120Hz adaptive refresh rate. The keyword there is “adaptive,” which means that you won’t see 120Hz all the time. Instead, the phone’s software will determine what refresh rate is best for the situation you are in. For example, if the app you’re using has a 60Hz refresh rate limit, then there’s no reason for the battery-draining 120Hz rate to be active. Likewise, if the app would benefit from a 120Hz refresh rate, then the software will react accordingly.
The Galaxy S21 has a 120Hz refresh rate, but you won’t see it all the time and you can’t control it.
This might be disappointing for folks who just want to force 120Hz all the time. There is no way to achieve this out-of-the-box with the Galaxy S21. However, this adaptive system strikes the right middle ground between performance and power drain.
Now let’s talk about the back of the phone. With the Samsung Galaxy S20 series, Samsung went with an almost brutalist design aesthetic. The phones were like gray slabs of steel with zero nuance. Some might argue that this doesn’t matter because it has no effect on how the phone functions. They might use the old, “You’re just going to put it in a case anyway” excuse.
However, I would argue that the design of a phone is a big deal. How the phone looks and feels in your hand can either make you attach to it personally — or not attach to it at all. This year, the Samsung Galaxy S21 actually has some design flair to it that might help people who care about that kind of thing fall in love with their smartphone again.
The rear camera module is probably the biggest design statement of the device. The aluminum casing blends in naturally with the aluminum rails surrounding the phone. With the module built into the side of the device, it allows for a uniform look — as well as a much less obtrusive camera bump. While the module still protrudes from the back of the device a bit, it’s quite subdued. This is a welcome change.
Another big change is the introduction of “Glasstic” on the back of the Galaxy S21. The other two phones in the Galaxy S21 family — the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Ultra — have traditional glass backs, but not here. This may disappoint a lot of people, but I’m actually a big fan for two main reasons. The first is that I don’t need to worry as much about dropping the phone. The Gorilla Glass Victus front is incredibly tough and the plastic back certainly won’t shatter if it slips from my hand.
The second reason I’m a fan of the plastic back is how it makes the phone so much lighter. At 171g, this phone is roughly 15% lighter than the Galaxy S21 Plus and roughly 25% lighter than the Galaxy S21 Ultra. After using the Galaxy S21 for a few days, I find myself lamenting at how heavy all my 200g+ phones feel in comparison.
You might be wondering if the plastic feels cheap. In my opinion, it doesn’t — the soft-touch material combined with the aluminum accents feels pretty premium to me. However, it doesn’t feel like glass, which is why the “Glasstic” moniker is just nonsense. If you go in expecting it to feel like glass, you’re going to be disappointed. If you go in expecting a really high-quality plastic, you’ll be pleased.
Regardless of your feelings on plastic vs. glass, the awesome colorways on offer with this phone are a real standout. The Phantom Violet model Samsung sent us is just gorgeous. There are also a bunch of other colors you can get, including Phantom White (white back with silver rails), Phantom Pink (pink back with gold rails), and Phantom Gray (gray back with gray rails). Keep in mind, though, that the 256GB model of the phone is only available in Phantom Gray.
The biggest design criticism I have, though, is an unexpected one. At the bottom of the phone, you’ll find the USB-C port, a speaker grille, a microphone hole, and the SIM card slot. For whatever reason, Samsung opted to put the microphone hole right next to the SIM card tray. This makes it likely that users will accidentally stick a SIM tool into the microphone hole. I’m not sure why Samsung didn’t instead opt to put the mic hole on the other side of the USB-C port. Regardless, please be careful when ejecting your SIM card tray as poking the microphone hole would not be a good idea.
That speaker grille produces some OK sound. It gets plenty loud, which is appreciated, but bass is pretty much non-existent. This is just how speakers this small will generally sound, though. Also, do note that the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus both have Bluetooth 5.0 support while the S21 Ultra has Bluetooth 5.2. This will be important info for people with specific accessory needs such as hearing aids.
Performance and battery: Something’s missing here
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
- X60 integrated 5G mobile platform
- 8GB of RAM
- 128 or 256GB of storage
- No microSD card expansion
- 4,000mAh battery
- 25W wired charging
- 15W wireless and 4.5W reverse wireless charging
When it comes to processing power in a smartphone, you want as much as you can get. While that might seem sound advice, the Samsung Galaxy S21 might have found the upper limit. The brand new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor in this phone might be overkill for a phone that’s geared towards the general consumer
Snapdragon SoC guide: All of Qualcomm’s smartphone processors explained
As one would expect, everything you do on this phone is fast and smooth. Opening apps, swiping through screens, and even quickly plowing through the endless scroll of a social network feed goes without a hiccup. To test the upper limits of this phone, you would need to intentionally push it. There won’t be many real-world situations in which you’d find this phone lacking power.
Check out some benchmark scores below to see how it fares from an objective point of view:
Looking at these totals compared to the Galaxy S20 from last year, we’re seeing about a 15% jump. Considering how fast 2020’s flagship Snapdragon 865 chipset already was, a double-digit move forward is nothing to sneer at. Simply put, this phone will cut through your daily smartphone processing needs like a hot knife through butter.
Granted, you are losing out on additional RAM options this year when compared to the devices of last year’s lineup. This really shouldn’t make too much of a difference for most people, though, as 8GB is plenty for a smartphone. Chances are good that if you really need more RAM, you shouldn’t be buying this phone anyway — that’s what the S21 Ultra is for.
The Galaxy S21 offers unrivaled bang for your buck for sheer power.
As far as network data goes, the Snapdragon 888 features a fully integrated 5G modem. This is a first for a flagship Snapdragon SoC. The integrated modem ensures that all Snapdragon phones in the Galaxy S21 lineup can access all manners of 5G connections, including Sub6 and mmWave. While using the phone, I saw the 5G symbol in the status bar quite often. Granted, it’s still incredibly difficult to find mmWave access unless you go looking for it, but at least Sub6 is prevalent enough to move us away from LTE. Even if the speeds on Sub6 are pretty comparable to the 4G speeds of LTE, it does relieve LTE network congestion, which is good for everyone.
Unfortunately, if you were planning on using those 5G speeds to download gigabytes of content to your phone, you’re going to be in a tough spot with the Galaxy S21. The entry-tier model comes with 128GB of internal storage, which is a decent amount but will likely fill up quickly. If you want the 256GB model, it will cost you an extra $50. That’s the upper limit for the vanilla model. Additionally, none of the Galaxy S phones this year feature expandable storage. That means 256GB is as much as you can get, which is pretty limiting.
Once again, though, this limitation likely has much to do with keeping the cost of the phone down. It might be less forgivable to not have a microSD card in the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but with the Galaxy S21, the limitation is a little more understandable. Disappointing, but understandable.
In another cost-saving move, the Galaxy S21 features the same 4,000mAh battery capacity we saw in the Galaxy S20. While that’s not small by any stretch of the imagination, it’s not what we expect from most flagship Android phones nowadays. When you have even some mid-rangers with 5,000mAh cells, it seems a bit dodgy to have a flagship with a battery that’s 20% smaller.
Regardless, I saw perfectly adequate battery life during my Samsung Galaxy S21 review testing. On my heaviest day of usage, I saw 8.2 hours of screen-on-time. That was with a day of nearly five hours of driving navigation and around six hours of music streaming. On lighter days, I went to bed with about 40% battery left over. This got me through most of the second day before I needed to charge up. I’m sure if I was exclusively at home on Wi-Fi and only used the phone in moderation, I could get two full days out of the Galaxy S21.
Of course, charging the phone isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. The phone’s maximum charging speed is 25W, which is the same as last year’s model. This is a huge drawback when you have phones like the OnePlus 8T delivering 65W. It’s even more upsetting when you realize that there’s no charging brick in the box with the Galaxy S21. That means to even get the 25W maximum speed it offers, you’ll need to buy an appropriate charger. Samsung will happily sell you one for $20.
I could easily get two full days out of the Galaxy S21.
Thankfully, Samsung kept wireless charging and reverse wireless charging for the Galaxy S21. However, they are also locked to last year’s metrics at 15W and 4.5W, respectively. These numbers aren’t bad, but Samsung is falling way behind the curve in this realm in which other OEMs are offering 30W wireless speeds.
Your needs might differ, but the slow charging speeds and lack of an in-box charger are probably the biggest drawbacks to this phone.
Finally, we need to address the elephant in the room that is the Exynos 2100. Here in the US, we will have the Snapdragon 888 version of the Galaxy S21. Other parts of the world will have the Exynos 2100. I don’t have that version so I am unable to test it, but most of what I said above should still apply. The Exynos version should still be plenty fast and will offer 5G support. The RAM count will stay the same and so will the battery capacity. We’ll have more testing of Exynos variants of the Galaxy S21 lineup coming soon, which will hopefully give some clarity on just how different performance will be.
Camera: Good last year, good this year
- Main: 12MP, ƒ/1.8, 1.8µm with OIS and dual-pixel AF
- Telephoto: 64MP, ƒ/2.0, 0.8µm with OIS and phase-detection AF
- Ultra-wide: 12MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.4µm with 120-degree FoV
- 3x hybrid optical/digital zoom
- 30x digital “Space Zoom”
- Selfie: 10MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.22µm, with dual-pixel AF
In an interesting move, Samsung put the exact same camera module in the Galaxy S21 as it did in the Galaxy S20. The Galaxy S21 Plus and Galaxy S21 Ultra saw some changes, but the Galaxy S21 remains the same. As such, pretty much everything we said about the Galaxy S20 camera last year will apply once again this year.
Before we get into the various modes, though, there are two things we should mention about the camera app itself. The first is that when you first start snapping pics, the app will tell you that you should turn on the 64MP mode. This pixel bins the image down to 12MP and allows for sharper details. However, to do so it locks you to the telephoto lens, which is set at 1.1x (3x hybrid zoom). This makes focus very unstable and, ironically, washes out the pics. Check out two example shots below to see what we mean.
We recommend avoiding the 64MP mode entirely as a result, as most people would likely rather have in-focus images with better details than the other way around.
Photography terms explained: ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and more
The second thing that the camera app will ask you about is which selfie mode you prefer. The two choices are “Natural” and “Bright.” Your choice here will come down to your own personal preference, but the natural setting is likely to give you more accurate selfies.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the various modes. The images you see below have all been compressed for faster site loading. To see the uncompressed, unedited versions, check out this Google Drive folder.
As with last year, daylight photos are almost always good. Samsung has clearly made some algorithmic changes because colors seem to be more accurate and realistic. There were a few times where the auto HDR took things a bit too far and overexposed an image. Overall, though, nearly every outdoor sunlight photo you take with the Galaxy S21 is going to come out great.
Telephoto / Ultra-wide
When using the camera app in its normal mode (i.e. not the 64MP mode), you have three buttons in the viewfinder. The two-tree icon uses the main camera to capture your 1x, “basic” images. The single tree icon swaps to the telephoto lens and defaults at 3x zoom. This is a hybrid of optical and digital zoom, not pure optical like we see on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Finally, the icon with three trees swaps to the ultra-wide lens at 0.5x.
You can see an example of each lens below and how they perform with an indoor sunlit scenario. Overall, the results are fantastic with accurate colors, plenty of detail, and a good level of exposure. Also, note the consistency of color across each lens.
We’ll be right up front here: Samsung really needs to abandon its ridiculous “Space Zoom” branding. In the case of the Galaxy S21. not only does it make no sense but its results are downright terrible once you pass a certain threshold.
Below, you can see four images that show what I mean. In order, you have 1x, 3x, 10x, and 30x shots. Keep in mind that the 3x zoom is hybrid — everything else is digital. The results speak for themselves.
The bottom line here is that you should keep your zoom shots under 10x. Anything into the “Space Zoom” territory is going to be unusable on the Galaxy S21.
Overall, Samsung’s artificial bokeh effect is as strong as ever. It still struggles in the spots where almost all smartphone cameras struggle: hair and background colors that blend with foreground colors.
Related: What is bokeh photography?
In the two shots below, you can spot the camera struggling with my girlfriend’s hair and the fuzzy trim of my jacket. Her hair blends a bit with the blue sky, and my jacket trim blends with the treeline behind me. Both situations would be tough for any smartphone. It’s just too bad that Samsung hasn’t made much advancement here as compared to last year’s flagships.
Below, you’ll find two tests of low light photos with the Galaxy S21. The first is in my bedroom which was almost totally dark. You can see that Samsung’s Night Mode did what it could with very little to work with, but the image looks very red and inaccurate.
Next, we have a city scene outside at night. The image was already lit by streetlights and such, but Night Mode made it seem a bit brighter. It looks fine, but the camera obviously had to do far less work here than it did in the first test:
It’s not too surprising to see that Samsung’s Night Mode is pretty much the same as it was last year. It has a long way to go before it can catch up to Google’s Night Sight.
As mentioned earlier, Samsung now asks you right up front if you want Natural selfies or Bright selfies. I’ve always found the Bright setting to wash out my face and make me look like I’m wearing makeup concealer or something, so having the Natural setting is great.
In addition to that setting, you can also create an artificial wide-angle lens for selfies with the touch of a button. You can see the difference between the normal and wide-angle settings in the examples below.
The Galaxy S21 can shoot in 8K at 24fps. It also can shoot at 4K in either 60 or 30fps.
Obviously, 8K shooting is going to be overkill for most people at the moment considering few folks out there have anything that can adequately show 8K footage. As such, we assume 4K will be where most people default when shooting video.
Overall, video looks crisp and smooth on the Galaxy S21. The optical image stabilization (OIS) working in tandem with software creates some smooth shots, even under tough circumstances. Below you’ll see a video of us sledding. The camera gets shaky, yes, but this is the most extreme of circumstances. If it can do this while sledding, it can handle you walking or even running on flat terrain with ease.
As far as selfie videos go, they also look great. You can’t shoot in 8K with the selfie camera but you can jump to 4K at 60fps if you want. Check out another sledding video to see how that looks:
New for the Galaxy S21 series is a feature called Director’s View. This allows you to quickly swap between the three lenses on your phone in the middle of filming. This could allow you to, for example, use the telephoto lens to get a closeup and then, with the hit of a button, get a wide shot with the ultra-wide lens instantly. This is a fun feature and will be useful for people who film their daily lives.
Single Take 2.0
Last year, Samsung introduced Single Take. This feature allows you to capture different images and videos in multiple formats with only one hit of the shutter button. With the Galaxy S21 series, Samsung is launching Single Take 2.0. This is perfect for people who post a lot to social media, as they can capture one moment and then select from a whole bunch of different formats to share that moment.
Below, you’ll see a short video clip my girlfriend captured with Single Take. The editing and music were all finished in-app, so all she would need to have done was hit Share on this and it would be ready for Instagram.
Overall, the cameras on the Galaxy S21 are good. You’re not going to find the versatility we saw on the Galaxy S21 Ultra considering its additional lenses and laser autofocus. However, Samsung’s image processing is nearly caught up with what we see on phones like the Pixel 5. What you get here is a more-than-adequate combo of good hardware and good software that will produce good images and videos.
See also: The best Android camera phones
The real benefit of Samsung cameras is all the features within the camera app that makes shooting different types of footage easy. We mentioned Single Take 2.0 and Director’s View here, but don’t forget that Panorama, Food, Super Slow-Mo, and more features are all here as well. The average person should find a lot to love with the Galaxy S21 camera experience.
Software: One UI 3.1
- Android 11
- One UI 3.1
One UI 3.1 is an iterative upgrade over the 3.0 version that launched in late 2020. With One UI 3.0, we saw Android 11 debut on a Samsung phone. Along with the usual Android 11 features, Samsung also introduced a few new tricks and design tweaks of its own.
You can see all the One UI 3.0 features in our roundup here and all the Android 11 features here. With One UI 3.1, not much has changed. The most notable change is the addition of Google Discover as an option for the left-most home screen panel. With that, you can choose between Discover or Samsung Free for your news aggregation app. You can also disable the feature altogether.
Outside of this new feature, there’s not too much difference between 3.0 and 3.1. Overall, this latest version of Samsung’s Android skin is its best yet. Animations are smooth, features are plentiful, and the company is making great strides in making the software less bloated.
The key term there though is “less bloated.” As a whole, One UI is still bloated with additional apps, features most people won’t use, and a revamped Settings panel that makes things tricky to find. Samsung is making great progress but there’s still plenty of work to be done.
I also saw on Twitter that a lot of early testers are seeing ads in One UI. The ads appeared in the notification shade and usually revolved around pre-ordering a Galaxy S21 (which is certainly ironic). However, I didn’t see any ads during my run with this phone. I did get lots of notifications related to trying apps and features pre-installed on the phone, but no ads. My colleague David Imel was less lucky with the Galaxy S21 Ultra. We’ll update this review if things change.
One thing that Samsung is doing exceptionally well with at the moment is software updates. It used to be that if you want fast and reliable updates, you would need to get a Pixel. Recently, Samsung has become just as reliable as Google when it comes to monthly security patches. Sure, it didn’t have Android 11 out on day one, but it had the update out for most of its flagships by the end of 2020. That’s a pretty big deal and shows that Samsung’s devotion to software is strengthening.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Specs
|Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra|
|Display||6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED
2,400 x 1,080 at 421ppi
Adaptive 120Hz refresh rate
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 or Samsung Exynos 2100|
|Storage||128 or 256GB|
25W wired charging
15W wireless charging
4.5W reversal wireless charging
No charger in box
– Wide-angle: 12MP, ƒ/1.8, 1.8µm with OIS and dual-pixel AF
– Telephoto: 64MP, ƒ/2.0, 0.8µm with OIS and phase-detection AF
– Ultra-wide: 12MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.4µm with 120-degree FoV
3x hybrid optical/digital zoom
|Connectivity||4G LTE support
5G (sub-6GHz, SA and NSA, mmWave)
Wi-Fi 6E support
|S Pen support||No|
|Operating System||One UI 3.1
|Security||Ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, face unlock|
|Color||128GB in Phantom Violet, Phantom Gray, Phantom Pink, and Phantom White
256GB only in Phantom Gray
Samsung.com color: Phantom Gold and Phantom Red
|Dimensions and weight||71.2 x 151.7 x 7.9mm
Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Value and competition
- Samsung Galaxy S21 (8GB/128GB) — $799.99
- Samsung Galaxy S21 (8GB/256GB) — $849.99
You can ding the Galaxy S21 for a lot of reasons, but one great thing few can argue with is its price. At $800, the Galaxy S21 is $200 less than the starting price of last year’s Galaxy S20 and only $100 more than the Galaxy S20 FE. It hits that sweet spot: right between affordable flagship and fully premium territory.
Of course, Samsung needed to cut out a lot of the phone’s features to slash $200 from the consumer price. That includes a carbon copy of last year’s camera, a plastic back, a lower display resolution, and the removal of the microSD card slot. For some Samsung fans, these sacrifices might be too much.
However, for many smartphone buyers, those features might not mean a lot. Die-hard Android fans might think expandable storage is a make-or-break feature, but the typical smartphone user probably doesn’t use it. Look at iPhone users: they’ve never had the option for expandable storage, and yet they keep buying iPhones.
The average smartphone buyer will love this phone to the same degree that power users will dislike it.
The bottom line here is that during these troubled times, a flagship with all the important bits — camera, processor, usability, reliable updates, etc. — is far more important than a super-expensive phone with all the bells and whistles. The Galaxy S21 delivers that with a lot of value at a good price.
To clarify this, look at the iPhone 12 lineup. It might be tempting to look at the Galaxy S21 as being analogous to the iPhone 12. If you look at the specs, though, you can see that it’s much more analogous to the iPhone 12 Pro. That Pro-level iPhone costs $200 more than a Galaxy S21, which gives you an idea of how much value this phone brings to the table.
If the sacrifices are too much for you, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a solid buy. You’ll get the option for more internal storage, a better camera system, a bigger display with a higher resolution, and more. Of course, you’ll pay $1,199 for that phone at the minimum.
If you want a terrific camera and less software bloat, the Google Pixel 5 is a good option. It even starts at a lower $699 price and can easily be found for even less than that nowadays. Unfortunately, going that route will force you to abandon the Snapdragon 888 chipset.
Dollar-for-dollar, the Samsung Galaxy S21 will be difficult to beat when it comes to what you get for how much you spend.
Samsung Galaxy S21 review: The verdict
There are likely a lot of very disappointed Samsung fans this year. They were probably hoping for a phone designed just for them with every conceivable spec and feature. The Galaxy S21 is definitively not that.
While that is unfortunate, it doesn’t seem like Samsung is too worried about those buyers. With the Galaxy S21, it’s clear that Samsung is OK with alienating its die-hard fans in the hopes that it will entice more mainstream users. The price, features, and design of the Galaxy S21 all scream “Honda” rather than “Mercedes.” That might be a tough pill to swallow for Galaxy S lovers, but it’s the right move to make during a global pandemic.
Ultimately, that’s the choice you have with this phone and the Galaxy S21 family in general. Do you want stylish, fast, and economical, or do you want powerful, luxurious, and expensive? This phone fits very firmly in the first category.
In the end, the Galaxy S21 is great at being what it is. There are some notable flaws but the price more than makes up for them. This will be a terrific phone for people who can afford a flagship but don’t see the need to spend $1,000+ for features they’ll never use. It’s not going to win any innovation awards, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a solid phone that won’t give you sticker shock, and that’s a fine thing to be.
That’s it for our Samsung Galaxy S21 review. What do you think of the cheapest member of the S21 family? Let us know in the comments and subscribe below for all the latest Android Authority reviews direct into your mailbox.