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- Samsung’s Galaxy S21 comes with an improved design, a faster processor, and most importantly a lower price compared to last year’s Galaxy S20.
- There’s nothing about the Galaxy S21 that makes it feel like a huge leap, but that doesn’t really matter given it’s more reasonable price.
- For $800, the Galaxy S21 offers long battery life, an attractive screen, and a triple-lens camera — a feature that the iPhone 12 lacks despite its similar price.
- But the Galaxy S21 isn’t perfect. It’s not quite as fast as the iPhone and doesn’t take photos that are as clear as the iPhone’s in low-light scenarios.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past several years, it’s that people love cheap phones with large screens.
Samsung is finally embracing this trend in its most well-known smartphone line with the Galaxy S21. Samsung’s latest major smartphone is launching at a price that’s $200 less expensive than last year’s Galaxy S20, an unusual move for the tech giant.
The $800 Galaxy S21 runs on a faster processor, has a new look, and maintains a triple-lens camera with wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto lenses — much like the Galaxy S20. Its camera software has also gotten a few upgrades that bring additional shooting modes and other nice perks. But, there’s nothing that really pushes the smartphone experience forward.
And, that’s a good thing. We’re past the point where each annual smartphone launch is going to introduce radical upgrades that meaningfully change how we use our phones. This year, Samsung focused on making an attractive, well-built phone that addresses my biggest complaint about the Galaxy S20: that it was too expensive.
The phone comes in three variants: the standard $800 Galaxy S21, which I’ve been using for this review, the $1,000 Galaxy S21 Plus, and the top-of-the-line $1,200 Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Here’s a closer look at the Samsung Galaxy S21, which went on sale on January 29.
The biggest and most noticeable change coming to the Galaxy S21 may be the way it looks and feels. The back of the device now has a matte finish that arguably makes it easier to grip and more difficult to smudge, which definitely feels like an improvement. The edges are also flat instead of curved like those of Samsung’s previous Galaxy S smartphones, another update that makes the Galaxy S21 more comfortable to hold.
The camera module is much more pronounced on the S21, and whether that’s an improvement depends on your taste. The module itself is matte just like the rest of the rear panel, and instead of trying to make the lenses blend in Samsung made them even more noticeable. I personally think it’s an upgrade, but it’s definitely a distinguished look that may not fit everyone’s tastes.
Like Samsung’s previous smartphones, the Galaxy S21 has a tiny cutout that looks like a hole punch for the front-facing camera. This gives the phone a sleek look that makes it feel more like a uniform slab of glass compared to the iPhone 12, which has a larger notch at the top of the screen for the selfie camera and Face ID sensors.
The Galaxy S21’s thinner bezel and virtually invisible “notch” for the front camera also mean Samsung was able to cram a slightly larger display into a phone that’s just about as compact as the iPhone 12. The Galaxy S21 has a 6.2-inch screen compared to the iPhone 12’s 6.1-inch display, making Samsung’s device slightly taller than Apple’s, and also slightly thicker and heavier. Samsung’s phone is 7.9 millimeters thin and weighs 169 grams, while the iPhone 12 is 7.4 mm and weighs 135 grams.
Samsung, and many other Android phone makers, also offer a benefit that iPhone owners are missing out on: an in-display fingerprint sensor for unlocking your device in addition to facial recognition. That’s a nice perk to have at a time like this when many of us have been wearing protective face masks, which make it difficult or impossible to use facial recognition.
Samsung is known for the colorful AMOLED screens it packs into its phones, and that’s no different with the Galaxy S21. Although it’s technically a downgrade from the Galaxy S20 in terms of resolution, it’s still sharp and vibrant enough for enjoyable viewing. Whether I’m reading news articles or watching YouTube videos, the Galaxy S21’s 2,400 x 1,080 resolution screen is bright and crisp.
The iPhone 12 has a slightly sharper screen with a 2,532 x 1,170 resolution that crams 460 pixels per inch (ppi) compared to the Galaxy S21’s 421 ppi screen. But, on a screen of this size, the discrepancy isn’t very noticeable, if at all. The biggest difference in display quality between Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12 is in the way Samsung’s phone displays colors. When watching a 4K drone video of various landscapes on YouTube, colors on the Galaxy S21 looks a bit punchier and more vivid compared to the iPhone.
Whether Samsung’s display is superior will largely depend on your preference. Some may enjoy the Galaxy S21’s bolder colors, while others may find the iPhone’s imagery to be more natural-looking.
If you’re buying a phone from Samsung, Apple, or Google in 2021, you’re guaranteed to have a high-quality camera. Smartphones have made impressive gains in the photography department over the past several years, thanks to advancements in processing technology as well as the addition of extra lenses.
So, the question isn’t whether the Galaxy S21 has a great camera, because the answer is yes. Instead, the more important question is where does the Galaxy S21 succeed and fall behind compared to its competitors. Most major smartphones have excellent cameras, but some perform better than others in certain shooting modes.
One of the Galaxy S21’s advantages, for example, is that it comes with three lenses: a 12-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens with a 120-degree field-of-view, a 12-megapixel wide-angle camera, and 64-megapixel telephoto camera. Apple and Google lack that telephoto camera and instead only include wide and ultra-wide cameras on their smartphones, which means Samsung offers a superior zoom.
Check out the difference below. The Galaxy S21’s camera isn’t even zoomed in all the way and it’s still a lot closer than the photos taken with the iPhone 12 and Google Pixel 5. Those two phones are both zoomed in as far as possible.
Samsung Galaxy S21
Apple iPhone 12
Google Pixel 5
But, the iPhone is superior when it comes to taking photos in the dark, as you can see in the images below. While all of the photos are clear and decently lit, the iPhone’s has the most detail.
Samsung Galaxy S21
Apple iPhone 12
Google Pixel 5
When it comes to general picture quality, Samsung sometimes excels over its rivals in some ways while coming up short in others. In one photo of snow-covered shrubs, for example, Samsung’s photo looks a little too blown-out while the shade of green in photos taken on Apple’s and Google’s smartphones looks more realistic. But, in photos taken of a snowman, Samsung’s photo shows much more detail and is also brighter than the iPhone’s.
Samsung Galaxy S21
Apple iPhone 12
Google Pixel 5
Overall, Samsung’s camera stands out for its clearer zoom, sharp detail, and wide variety of shooting modes. One of the few features differentiating the Galaxy S21 from its predecessor, for instance, is a new Director Mode that lets you shoot from all three camera lenses and the front-facing camera at once.
Samsung’s Galaxy S21 also comes with a shooting mode called Single Take, which was available on the S20 but now comes with improved effects compared to its predecessor. This mode captures several different types of photos and videos with a single press of the shutter button, which resulted in plenty of adorable cat photos over the past several days.
Performance and battery life
Samsung’s Galaxy S21 is the company’s first phone powered by a processor that was made using 5-nanometer (nm) process technology, replacing the 7nm processor in last year’s Galaxy S20 lineup. Depending on the region, that’s either Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 processor or Samsung’s Exynos 2100 chip (the United States version uses Qualcomm’s chips).
What that processing jargon really means is more powerful performance and better efficiency, since Samsung and Qualcomm were able to cram even more transistors (5nm versus 7nm) into their chips that are even better at power management. Apple’s latest iPhones also run on a 5nm processor.
The Galaxy S21’s performance feels smooth and snappy in everyday tasks, whether I’m playing games, launching apps, or snapping photos. That’s not too surprising considering most smartphones, regardless of the price, are designed to handle basic actions like this with ease.
The Galaxy S21 can also hold its own when it comes to more demanding work like exporting 4K videos, although it isn’t quite as fast as the iPhone 12. Samsung’s smartphone took a little under 30 seconds to export a 25-second 4K video to 1080p in Adobe Rush, while the iPhone was able to do so 10-12 seconds.
Benchmark tests tell a similar story. The iPhone 12 outperformed the Samsung Galaxy S21 in a series of benchmarks designed to simulate real-world app usage and graphics performance. On Geekbench 5’s CPU (central processing unit) benchmark, the test meant to measure everyday performance, the Galaxy S21 scored an average of 1,098 on the single-core test and 3,259 on the multicore test. The iPhone 12, by comparison, scored an average of 1,591 on the single core test and 3,952 on the multicore version.
The case is similar when running Geekbench 5’s compute test, which assesses graphics performance. The Galaxy S21 scored 4,622, while the iPhone 12 hit 9,018 on average.
In another graphics benchmark, 3DMark’s Wild Life test, which is designed to evaluate how devices perform in games that are based on short bursts of high activity, the Galaxy S21 scored 4,848 and hit 29 frames per second (fps) on average. The iPhone 12, however, had an average score of 8,324 and an average frame rate of 49 frames per second.
But, Samsung’s smartphone comes out on top in terms of battery life. The Galaxy S21 lasted for nearly 13 hours — 12 hours and 46 minutes to be exact — while the iPhone died after 11 hours and 54 minutes. To test the battery life of these smartphones, I continuously streamed a 10-hour YouTube video on repeat at 1080p resolution with the screen brightness set to the highest level for both phones. Considering most people don’t continuously stream video for hours at a time at full brightness, you can probably expect longer battery life in real-world usage.
Yes, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 is an excellent choice for Android fans that want a decent-sized screen in a compact size, long battery life, and a solid camera. It’s not much of a step up from other recent models, so I wouldn’t suggest upgrading unless you have a Galaxy S9 or older.
Google’s $500 Pixel 4a 5G is also a great choice for Android fans that want a similar experience at a more affordable price. It has a 6.2-inch screen like the Galaxy S21 and dual-lens camera, but it lacks more premium features found on pricier phones like Samsung’s such as facial recognition and a third camera lens.
Samsung also sells two other versions of the Galaxy S21 if you don’t mind spending a bit more. If you’re looking for a larger smartphone, the $999.99, 6.7-inch Galaxy S21 Plus might be a better option. The screen size is the biggest difference between the S21 and S21 Plus, but the S21 Plus also has the ability to function as a digital car key since it has ultra wideband technology in it.
If you’re not partial to Android, the iPhone 12 is your best bet. It’s similarly priced starting at $800 and comes with a 6.1-inch display that’s almost the same size as the Galaxy S21’s. The iPhone 12 also offers fast performance and excellent camera quality, despite the fact that it only has two lenses instead of three like the Galaxy S21.
With the $800 Galaxy S21, Samsung is bringing its flagship smartphone back under the $1,000 price point, which is a welcome change that feels right for a new smartphone in 2021. There’s nothing about it that makes it feel like a major step forward from the Galaxy S20, but that’s not a bad thing.
The Galaxy S21 isn’t perfect — the iPhone 12 performs faster and has a better low-light camera — but the Galaxy S21 feels like it has the right balance of features, design quality, and performance at the right price.
Pros: Attractive new design that’s easier to hold, great camera, long battery life
Cons: Low-light photos could be better