I got to review a few Samsung phones throughout 2020, and it has definitely taken some time for the company's hardware to really resonate with me. I was very underwhelmed by the Galaxy A51 mid-ranger about a year ago, and when I finally got to review a flagship - the Galaxy Note20 Ultra - the issues it presented were far too significant for it to be worth its massive asking price.

But then came the Galaxy S20 FE, a much cheaper phone that kept the essentials of a 2020 flagship while cutting corners in a few small ways to attain its price point. For what it set out to do, the S20 FE was a fantastic device, and it left me hoping that Samsung would take away some lessons from it and make future Galaxy S phones more appealing.

Samsung announced the Galaxy S21 lineup last month with a significant reduction to its starting price - now just $799, instead of the S20's $999 - as well as some of the sacrifices we saw on the Galaxy S20 FE. After a couple of weeks with the S21, I think it's safe to say that Samsung learned the lessons I was hoping it would and created a fantastic baseline for its flagships in 2021.

Specs

CPU Exynos 2100 (Octa-core) - one Cortex-X1 at 2.9GHz, three Cortex-A78 at 2.8GHz, four Cortex-A55 at 2.2GHz
GPU Mali-G78 MP14
Display 6.2 inches, 1080x2400, 421ppi, 120Hz, Dynamic AMOLED 2X
Body 151.7x71.2x7.9mm (5.97x2.80x0.31in), 169g (5.96oz)
Camera 12MP main + 12MP ultra-wide + 64MP telephoto, Front - 10MP
Video 8K - 24fps or 4K - 60fps, HDR10+, Front - 4K - 60fps
Aperture f/1.8 + f/2.2 + f/2.0, Front - F/2.2
Storage 128GB UFS 3.1; non-expandable
RAM 8GB
Battery 4,000mAh
Color

Phantom White (as reviewed), Phantom Gray, Phantom Pink, Phantom Violet

OS Android 11 with OneUI 3.1
Price €849-€879/$799

Of course, this is the European variant of the Galaxy S21, which means it comes with an Exynos processor, but you'll be getting a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 if you buy this phone in the U.S. I can't personally compare the two variants directly, but I will say that I don't think having an Exynos model is as much of a problem this year as it was last year. I'll get into that more later on.

Day one

Design

When you look at it broadly, the Galaxy S21 is a fairly generic smartphone slab. It has a plastic back, one of the compromises it borrows from the Galaxy S20 FE, but it keeps the metal frame and overall feels more solidly built than that phone. It's also a very compact phone by today's standards, thanks to its relatively small 6.2-inch display and the minimal bezels all around. It's actually refreshing to have a phone that's this easy to handle nowadays.

Rear view of the Samsung Galaxy S21

The thing that really makes me swoon over this phone's design is the camera module. I realize that's probably a weird thing to say, but the way it's made of metal and melts into the frame of the phone is just so nice and gives it such a distinct look that I can't help but love it. If you look closely, there is a bit of a ridge between the actual frame and the camera module, but it's barely noticeable and doesn't ruin the look at all. Samsung sent me the Phantom White model, and while I wish I had the Phantom Purple with its golden accents, this look really grew on me. It's classy without being too boring, and I'll definitely say I'm glad I didn't get the gray model.

The camera module in the Galaxy S21

Moving on from the back and going around the phone, it's all pretty standard. The left side of the frame has no buttons, but there are some antenna bands.

The camera module in the Galaxy S21

Over on the right side, there's the power/Bixby button along with the volume rocker, with all of the buttons feeling having a nice clicky feel to them.

Side view of the Galaxy S21 showing the volume rocker and power button

The top edge is also fairly empty, featuring two microphones very close to each other, only separated by an antenna band.

Top edge of the frame of the Galaxy S21

Finally, the bottom edge has everything else you'd expect to find - a USB Type-C port for charging, a SIM card slot, and the bottom-firing speaker grill. There's one more microphone next to the SIM card slot, and if it's not obvious, you want to push the SIM ejection tool into the hole inside the SIM card tray cutout. You could damage the microphone by poking it with the tool.

Bottom edge of the frame of the Galaxy S21

Display and sound

Over on the front, of course, is the display. It's a 6.2-inch panel with Full HD+ resolution and a 120Hz refresh rate - another smart move by Samsung to cut costs, which we saw on the Galaxy S20 FE. Samsung phones have had Quad HD+ displays for a while, but I think it's the most obvious way companies can save money without hurting the user experience nearly as much. With the Galaxy S20, you'd have to choose between Quad HD+ resolution or the 120Hz refresh rate, and I would always have recommended the latter either way, so I endorse this change.

Pokémon GO running on the Galaxy S21

The panel is also using Samsung's Dynamic AMOLED 2X technology and it continues to be oh-so-great. Samsung's displays have long been known for looking great, and suffice it to say, that hasn't changed. The colors look absolutely fantastic, the color temperature is great, and of course, because it's AMOLED, blacks are truly black since pixels can be turned off on demand.

The display is only interrupted by a small punch-hole cutout in the middle of the top edge of the display, which houses the selfie camera. Bezels are getting smaller all the time, and they're very minimal here, even smaller than those of the Galaxy S20 FE. Samsung also seems to keep shrinking the grill for the earpiece more and more, to the point where I initially thought there was some kind of under-display sound system here.

The selfie camera and earpiece of the Galaxy S21

But there isn't, and the sound from this phone is actually great. The stereo setup enabled by the bottom-firing speaker and amplified earpiece sounds crisp and clear, and it can get pretty loud without any significant distortion. The Galaxy S21 is truly a great phone if you want a good media experience.

Camera

The camera setup on the Galaxy S21 is one of the things that's changed the least from last year. There's still a 12MP main camera, another 12MP ultra-wide lens, and a 64MP telephoto camera with 3x optical zoom, with support for up to 30x zoom. It's not just the resolution either - the pixel size and aperture are all the same as last year's cameras, too.

The video features are also pretty similar here, with support for up to 8K video recording at 24 frames per second or 4K at 60 frames per second. You can record HDR10+ video as an experimental feature, but only at 4K 30fps or lower.

As for the actual results when using the camera, it really depends on the situation. In daylight, all of the cameras do pretty well in my opinion. Shots are bright and vivid, there's good contrast, and they're generally very clear, each object in the frame pops and looks great. There is a bit of oversaturation, per Samsung's tradition, but in general, I didn't mind it.

Things start to fall apart a bit when it comes to nighttime. Night mode kicks in automatically when it's deemed appropriate, but it's not that great, and the ultra-wide camera especially is evidently not as good as the others. Sometimes night mode doesn't activate for the ultra-wide camera automatically, so you can see major differences in the final shot, though you can always manually use night mode. Pictures, in general, degrade quite a bit in less than optimal lighting conditions, and that's even more true for videos, and while that can be said for all cameras, it seems especially not great here.

I do like the ability to switch between different zoom levels, though, and while the maximum 30x zoom Samsung advertises is pretty bad, 3x zoom is actually really nice, though not comparable to the 10X you can get with a periscope lens.

The phone also comes with the most recent version of Samsung's One UI, so there are some new features in the Camera and Gallery apps that I do find cool. The Camera app has a couple of new video features including multi-mic recording, which lets you record video with audio simultaneously coming from the phone's microphones and a Bluetooth microphone or earbuds. Of course, the quality of the audio will depend on the microphone you're using, but testing with LG's Tone Free HBS-FN6 earbuds, I did find it picked up my voice better while walking down the street compared to just using the microphone on the phone itself. There's also a Director's View mode, which lets you see video feeds from all four cameras on the phone at once and switch between the three rear cameras at will.

Directors View on the Samsung Galaxy S21

The Gallery app, for its part, has an interesting feature for photos called Object Eraser, which does exactly what you think. It does require a consistent background to look convincing, but if you had the perfect shot that got ruined by someone in the background, this can definitely help.

A video game box next to a Wii Remote

A video game box with the Wii Remote next to it removed using Object Eraser

On a final note, while I rarely take selfies on any phone, I did give it a shot here and the front-facing camera is actually among the sharpest I've tried. Overall, the camera experience has some highs and some lows, but you probably already know what you're getting into if you've had a Samsung phone before.

Performance, battery life, and software

Battery life was one of my biggest complaints with the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, and that was almost certainly due to the poor efficiency of the Exynos 990 chipset. That phone struggled to last me through the day with a 4,5000mAh battery, but I'm happy to report that Samsung made great progress with Exynos this year. The Galaxy S21 has the new Exynos 2100 and even with a smaller 4,000mAh battery, it holds up much better. It's not fantastic, and when I push it with longer YouTube sessions or playing games, it doesn't quite last me until bedtime, but for my general use, it's been much more reliable. I have yet to review any phone with the new Snapdragon 888, but general impressions from other reviewers indicate that Qualcomm is still ahead here. Still, if you're in an Exynos market, this is a huge improvement.

I should note that, following in Apple's footsteps, Samsung did remove the charging brick from the box, and you only get a cable now. The idea companies are taking with this is that it's "environmentally friendly", and while I think that's true, it's no secret that companies are always trying to squeeze more money out of their consumers. I do think most users will already have a charger they can use at home, but this step highlights a major need for standardization in USB power delivery. The Galaxy S21 supports fast charging up to 25W, but my 65W charger from OPPO can't activate fast charging for it. Companies would usually ship the most adequate charger for their own phones, and we're going to be losing that. The Galaxy S21 also supports fast wireless charging at 15W and reverse wireless charging.

Moving on to benchmarks, the Exynos 2100 in the Galaxy S21 is overall a pretty solid upgrade over Exynos 990-powered phones. Let's start with AnTuTu, which is a general-purpose benchmark covering CPU, GPU, memory/storage, and overall user experience.

AnTuTu benchmark results with a 609,292 score for the Galaxy S21

The Galaxy S21's score of 609,292 is a pretty big jump from the Note20 Ultra's 548,110, with improvements across the board. The biggest leap here is in the GPU tests, and to be fair, the Galaxy S21 ran games like Asphalt 9 beautifully. Compared to the Galaxy S20 FE 5G, which had a Snapdragon 865, the difference is less noticeable, but it's still an improvement on almost every front.

Moving on to GeekBench 5, which tests the CPU. The Galaxy S21 manages a 1,079 score for the single-core performance and 3,370 for multi-core.

Geekbench 5 benchmark results for the Galaxy S21

As expected, the Galaxy S21 has a decent lead on both the Exynos 990 and the Snapdragon 865, especially in multi-core performance.

Finally, there's GFXBench, a series of tests focused on the GPU.

GFXBench benchmark results for the Galaxy S21

Results here are a bit mixed, with the Galaxy S21 pulling some punches on the Note20 Ultra, but also falling behind in some of the tests.

Overall, though, the performance on this phone is great and there's really not much to complain about. The phone does have a tendency to get warm more easily than others, but it's not a huge deal.

Not a whole lot has changed on the software side with OneUI 3.1, but there are some tweaks with the experience. You can now control smart home devices using the Devices button in the notification shade, assuming you have a smart home app like Google Home installed. Stock Android 11 brought smart home controls to the power menu, but Samsung didn't do that, which is a bummer to me. Some UI tweaks have also been made to the volume flyout and the long-press UI in the One UI launcher.

Volume flyout, long-press menus, and smart home controls in OneUI 3.1

I will point out that I've been trying to use Dex more in my Samsung reviews, and it's a really cool feature to have. Like I've said before, it's pointless if you have a PC on you, but if you don't, it can turn your phone into a PC easily, though you won't be doing certain things like advanced photo or video editing on it. You need to relearn some shortcuts if you're used to Windows, but it's otherwise an effective productivity tool - I even used it to write a good chunk of this review. Also, if you're wondering, you can't use the Windows 10 Your Phone app (or the Link to Windows feature) while running in DeX, though I don't see why you would want to.

Conclusion

I have to conclude this review in the same way that I started it - by saying that Samsung has learned the right lessons with its phones this year. What stands out the most to me is the inspiration Samsung drew from the Galaxy S20 FE to make its flagship phone way easier to justify. Removing the Quad HD display and swapping the glass plate for plastic are the perfect sacrifices to make, and the $200 you save compared to last year's Galaxy S20 make this so much easier to recommend.

Galaxy S21 displaying the One UI Launcher

I also love the design, specifically thanks to the meta camera bump Samsung has used, and also because it's one of the most compact phones I've had the chance to try out. And for users outside of North America, the Exynos 2100 is a huge improvement in both battery life and performance. You're truly getting a lot more phone for your money this year.

Of course, there are downsides, battery life still isn't as great as it could potentially be, and the camera experience isn't consistently amazing, especially in situations with less than optimal lighting. And the lack of a charger, while not a huge deal to me personally, might be a problem for some people.

Camera module on the Galaxy S21

Still, those are relatively small blemishes on a phone that otherwise improved so much on its predecessor. If you haven't upgraded in a while, or if you're simply looking to upgrade and you're already familiar with Samsung, the Galaxy S21 is definitely worth a look. You can buy the Snapdragon variant in the U.S. on Amazon, where it's currently discounted to $699.99, making it an even better deal. In the UK, the Exynos variant (the one we tested), is available starting at £735.80 depending on your color of choice.

 

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