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Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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The Galaxy S series has been a do-everything, can-do-anything flagship phone for years. Samsung has taken away nearly as much as it’s updated with the Galaxy S21. This could have been a recipe for disaster, but it has produced an excellent Android smartphone that is $200 cheaper than the Galaxy S20.

The Galaxy S21’s 6.2-inch screen, three rear cameras and the same 4,000 mAh battery aren’t much different from its predecessor. It does include a new camera module, colour schemes, and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 808. The Galaxy S21 is a very iterative upgrade. The big changes are in the Samsung Galaxy S21 UHT1_.

The Galaxy S22 has arrived, and it improves upon the Galaxy S21 in practically every way — not forgetting the Galaxy S22 Plus or Galaxy S22 UHT2_. But there is more to this story. Continue reading the Samsung Galaxy S21 review for more information about how removing clutter has worked out quite well for Samsung’s flagship phone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Release Date and Price

The Samsung Galaxy S21 can be purchased now by either an individual or through a contract with a carrier.

The Galaxy S21 with 128GB storage is available for $799 in the U.S. However, you can also get the 256GB model for $849 for an additional $50. This is $200 less than what the Galaxy S20 cost one year ago.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 in the U.K. starts at PS769 for a 128GB model. With double the storage, it will cost you PS819. The 5G Galaxy S20 was priced at PS899, making the S21 a PS130 less.

Keep in mind that the S21 comes with only a USB cable, so you will need to purchase a USB-C charger. The S21 comes with only 8GB RAM. You won’t be able to upgrade to the Galaxy S20 Ultra with 12GB.

Keep in mind that the Samsung Galaxy S22 will be revealed next February. If you don’t want to rush, the Galaxy S22 may be worth it. We have high hopes for its upgrades.

You can also shop around for the Samsung Galaxy S21 at a lower price if you want it right away. In fact, it might be cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy S21FE.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Design

The Galaxy S21’s front looks very similar to the Galaxy S20. It has a 6.2-inch screen and a punch-hole selfie cam in the middle. The S21’s predecessor had a curved display. Instead, it has flat edges.

Although it might seem like a downgrade considering the phone’s new design, I am fine with it. Curved screens on Android phones under 6.5 inches are a little slippery, especially since you can only use them one handed. Large handsets feel more comfortable with curved edges if you perform finger gymnastics to reach apps on their far side.

The Samsung Galaxy S21’s flat edges lead to the metal edges flowing towards the “Contour cut” camera design. Here, the rear camera module blends into the left-hand edge of the S21 as well as the back.

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The metal gives way to the biggest change in the Samsung Galaxy S21: a plastic back. It’s called polycarbonate by Samsung, but it’s really fancy plastic. The S20 uses glass.

The biggest reason Samsung is able to offer the Galaxy S21 at a lower price is because it has a plastic back. Although it might seem strange for a flagship phone to not have a glass back, it felt very good. It feels a lot more luxurious than the S20 FE’s polycarbonate rear. It also feels a lot more tactile than the glass-backed Galaxy S Series, which makes it less likely to slip out of your hand or soak up fingerprints. If it helps to keep costs down, I’m happy with the savings.

The Phantom Violet S21 that I was sent to review is fantastic, even though the name may sound a bit silly. The violet panel is a pleasant shade, and the edges and camera bump are a faint coppery color that gives the S21 an almost retro sci-fi appearance.

There are three other colors available: Phantom Gray, Phantom Pink and Phantom White. However, I have yet to see them in metal or plastic.

The Galaxy S21 measures 6×2.8×0.31 inches and weighs 6.07 ounces. It is slightly smaller than the Galaxy S20 (5.9x3x0.11, 5.7 ounces). It is small enough that my thumb can reach the top of the display but big enough to be able to sit down and view hours of video.

The Galaxy S21’s indisplay ultrasonic fingerprint scanner is now more responsive than ever thanks to Qualcomm’s new scanner. It is 1.7x bigger and 50% faster that the previous generation. The S21 was responsive and quick to respond to my thumb taps, which is a great thing for my fast-temper.

The Galaxy S21 has lost the microSD card slot that its predecessors had for a while. This is not ideal. Samsung made this change, but I don’t know why. There are no obvious limits to the Galaxy S21’s storage, and I wouldn’t expect it to increase manufacturing costs. It may be a way for Samsung to get people to buy the 265GB model. However, with so many cloud storage options, I don’t mind the lack of expandable storage.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Display

Samsung has upgraded and downgraded the Galaxy S21’s AMOLED display to 6.2 inches, which is the same size as the S20. The Galaxy S21’s 6.2-inch AMOLED display is now capable of running full HD+ at 120Hz and QHD at 60Hz. This is unlike the Galaxy S20 which had to be chosen between 120Hz and 60Hz.

Although it is more restrictive, I think it eliminates the complexity. If you’re looking to maximize battery life or just enjoy a little judder while scrolling through websites, you can set the display to 60Hz. However, you would lose a dynamic refresh rate which allows the S21’s refresh rate to be adjusted according to the task. Although it isn’t an upgrade that you will notice if you aren’t scrolling, it makes the S21 easier to use.

The Galaxy S21 screen delivers a 109.2% sRGB color gamut coverage and 77.4% DCI-P3 colour gamut coverage. It also has a Delta-E value of 0.29. These are excellent scores, but the iPhone 12 and the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra scored better in terms of color accuracy and coverage.

The Galaxy S21’s display is excellent in practice. You can use the “Vivid mode” to see a lot of color and contrast, even though the former tends towards oversaturation. It’s great for watching movies and videos, looking at Instagram photos, and playing video games. Samsung’s Galaxy S phones have had great displays for years, and the S21 is no different.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Cameras

The Galaxy S21’s cameras are identical to the Galaxy S20 in hardware. The triple camera array includes a main 12MP wide angle lens, a 12MP ultrawide lens, and a 64MP Telephoto lens with 3x hybrid zoom and 30x zoom.

Samsung is following the lead of Google and investing heavily in software and computational photography to improve its trio of rear cameras. The Galaxy S21 does this for most of the time.

Let’s begin with the basic photo mode. The photo below shows the standard photo mode. It has multiple colors and shades, as well as the light coming from the left. This makes it a challenging exercise for your smartphone camera.

The Galaxy S21’s photo has great color and detail. However, unlike other Galaxy phones, the colors of this phone are a bit more saturated than the Google Pixel 5 I used as a comparison. The Pixel 5 has a warmer tone, more true-to life colors, and better dynamic range.

Zooming in however, the S21 captures finer details. This is likely because of its telephoto camera. The grille on the Aston Martin DB5 model and the Vox numbers are clearer than the Pixel 5’s image.

I forgot to turn off Scene Optimizer, which uses AI for identifying what’s in frame and adjusts the camera accordingly to get the best shot. This can lead to over-processing in practice.

The main camera of the Galaxy S21 does an excellent job outdoors in natural light. Although it wasn’t the best photography environment, the Galaxy S21 captures more detail than the Pixel 5 in this shot. The Galaxy S21 can be seen in the image below. It picks up details in London’s Canary Wharf and the tower buildings to the right. The Pixel 5 has a wider dynamic range and more true-to-life colors, however.

Things can get more complicated in low-light environments or areas that are lit by artificial lighting. The Pixel 5 performed better in detecting edges and resolving details in low-light areas than the S21, which sometimes produces smudged or over-smoothed results.

This is something you really need to look for. I believe the Galaxy S21 has increased the ISO and introduced more noise to darker areas of the shot as a result. This could be a problem with the AI processing applied to low-light areas. Samsung could fix this issue with a software upgrade.

Portrait mode is not helped by poor lighting. Social distancing rules in Britain make it possible. Claire was my friend and I needed to take a photo of her as the sun set. This meant that we had to deal with low light and a porch light.

The Pixel 5 does a great job, with more natural skin tones and more details in the shadows and highlights. S21 is a little less successful, over-smoothing Claire and washing her skin out. It fails to see much detail, especially on her left-hand side.

The results are better for non-portrait S21 photos. I think the algorithm of portrait mode is having trouble picking out what should be blurred out and what should remain in the background. This is something that the Pixel 5 excels at.

Portrait mode works better in brighter conditions. Take a look below at Mark Spoonauer, Tom’s Guide’s photographer.

The Galaxy S21 can also be used to take portrait photos of objects, rather than people.

Samsung uses a gradual blur effect to create a portrait mode that isn’t as sharp as the Pixel 5. While I prefer the simplicity of Google’s phone, the S21 still delivers some great results.

The S21 night mode will eliminate all low-light issues. The S21 produces a brighter image than the Pixel 5, which is evident in the below shot. The S21 has more cameras available to capture light and detail than the Pixel 5’s two rear cameras.

The colors offered by the Pixel 5 are my preference. The S21 appears to do a lot of sharpening on its night shots. All three Galaxy S21 cameras can be used in night mode.

The Galaxy S21 is expensive for ultra-wide angle shots, but you can zoom in to get the best results. It captures a wider angle than the Pixel 5 but it leaves out a lot of details. Google’s phone has clearer images. It’s up to you to decide if a less detailed photo is worth the extra cost.

The real camera upgrades for the S21 are found in the Telephoto Camera’s 20x/30x “Space Zoom”. Zoom Lock, which uses AI to detect the subject and stabilize the shot, is a notable feature.

This is a great way to get sharp shots, even with shaky hands. After processing, the image is cleaned up and the zoomed photo is not blurred.

Space Zoom allowed me to take a clear picture of the small mint tin I had on my window. This was taken from the opposite side of the room. It’s not practical for everyday smartphone photography but it’s a great showcase for AI tech.

The Galaxy S21 has a lot to offer in the video department. It offers 8K capture at 24 frames per second, which is a bit too much for most people, but it allows you to take high-quality photos and record high-resolution videos. The 1080p video recording at 120 frames per second is another high-end feature. The Super Steady mode uses AI to correct for shaky recordings and will work on 1080p 60fps video capture.

The Director’s view is another highlight when shooting video. You can simultaneously use the rear and front cameras, as well live thumbnails from multiple cameras. It is easier to choose the best shot for your video. It works well and is not a gimmick as I initially thought.

Portrait video is essentially a renaming live focus video. It delivers footage where subjects are in focus and the background blurred. The S21’s algorithms can be seen moving around, which sometimes results in smoothing of details on faces.

The Single Take upgrade to the camera allows you to take a lot of photos and stills with just one tap. Single Take now offers Dynamic Slow-Mo and Highlight Video clips.

The Galaxy S21 is a significant upgrade to the Galaxy S20. It doesn’t have the potential to beat the iPhone 12Pro Max on our top phone cameras list. The iPhone 12 may still be the best, but the S21 is a close competitor to the Pixel 5 and outperforms it in many areas. There is still plenty of room for Samsung to improve the AI and computational photography aspects of the S21’s camera.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Performance

The latest Snapdragon 888 chip is available in the U.S. on the Galaxy S21. It promises 20% faster CPU performance, 35% higher GPU speed, and boosted AI performance. The 8GB RAM of the S21 is sufficient to do a lot, and I experienced no slowdown during my testing.

The Snapdragon 888-equipped S21 was put through a series benchmarks and the chip scored a multicore score of 3.302 in Geekbench 5. This is slower than the iPhone 12 which scored a score 3859. The S21 is faster than many other Android phones that use the older Snapdragon 865.

The S21 was able to display 33 frames per second using 3DMark Wild Life graphics benchmark. Although it is slower than the iPhone 12, which has 39 frames per second, the S21 beats other flagship Android phones. The S21 is a great phone for playing games.

Call of Duty: Mobile as well as Asphalt 9 Legends were smooth at maximum settings. The 120Hz refresh rate added to the smoothness. It is worth noting that I was testing the Snapdragon 888 Galaxy S21 with an Exynos 2100 handset.

The Exynos 2100 was built on a 5-nanometre process Node, similar to the Snapdragon 888. It is expected to provide 20% energy efficiency improvements and 10% performance improvement over the 7nm Exynos 9990. The Exynos 2100 was tested at Geekbench 5 and scored a score 3391. This is very impressive considering that Exynos chips are often behind.

While I had those apps open, and several other apps running simultaneously, I didn’t notice any slowdowns or lack of responsiveness on the S21. However, its back did get a little warmer.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Battery life and charging

The Galaxy S21 has a 4,000-mAh battery, just like its predecessor. This is a good size for a phone this small, but it’s disappointing that Samsung has not increased the capacity. Nevertheless, the improved chip efficiency and adaptive refresh rate should provide longer battery life.

The Galaxy S21 was set at 60hz refresh rate and managed 9 hours 53 minutes in Tom’s Guide Battery Test, which includes continuous web surfing at 150nits screen brightness over 5G.

Although it’s not enough time to make our Best Phone Battery Life List, it beats the 8 hours 25 minutes of the iPhone 12, which took 8 hours and 25 mins. It just barely outlasts the Galaxy S20’s 9 hours and 31 minute battery life. So the new silicon appears to be doing its part.

The Galaxy S21 lasted for 6 hours and 31 mins when left in the default “Adaptive” mode. This dynamically adjusts display’s refresh rate. It’s not great, but it’s still impressive when you consider that the Galaxy S21 has a bright display with a 120Hz refresh speed.

The S21’s AI smarts will also learn my phone usage over time to optimize battery consumption. However, this is not something that can be done overnight.

The tricky part about charging is the charging. The USB-C PD standard offers fast charging, which can juice up your battery to 55% in just 30 minutes. You need to ensure you have a charger brick on hand. Samsung does not include the USB-C cable. Samsung will sell you a 25W charger if you don’t own a charger.

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Samsung did a lot of singing and dancing about the decision to be environmentally friendly. It also saves Samsung money. Whatever the motivation, this decision is ultimately the right one. It’s worth the inconvenience and extra cost for some S21 customers who don’t have access to phone chargers.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: One UI, one software

Although I have used Samsung phones for many years, I don’t like the Android user interface. With the 2018 introduction of One UI, I have been slowly embracing the Galaxy series’ take on Google’s mobile OS system. This goodwill was the foundation for One UI 3, which debuted with the Galaxy S21.

The interface feels more refined, with a redesigned Quick Panel as well as a notification screen that is less cluttered. I particularly like the new lock screen widgets. You can also place widgets on your screen and change their transparency.

One UI is a great way to customize your Galaxy experience. However, it can be overwhelming when you only need one setting. The One UI’s main apps drawer is a real pain. The third iteration of the One UI’s app drawer is a mess. It seems that the apps are arranged in a random way, which can make it difficult to find the apps you need to set up your homescreen. Samsung’s app drawer is far less elegant than the stock Android one.

Samsung wants me to use their services. However, so many Android phones default to Google features like auto-filling passwords. One UI 3 tries force me to use Samsung Pass, my Samsung account, and I forget the password for it. Although it’s easy to set up, it can be difficult to get used to. Samsung has a lot of room to improve.

One UI 4.1, which is currently being rolled out to the Galaxy S21 and other phones, will be a great help. It’s , which brings many of the software features from the Galaxy S22 — your Galaxy S21 now has One UI 4.1 and supports a variety of camera capabilities, including Night portrait, pet recognition, telephoto view, and more.

Samsung’s flagships support Samsung DeX. You can use this feature to take your Galaxy S21 and connect to an external monitor to make it a Chrome OS experience.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Android 12 update

In mid-November 2021, Samsung released UI 4 for the Galaxy S21. This update includes Android 12, which brings several important improvements to the UI, and privacy elements. The Color Palette allows you to choose the accent color for your system. You can also access the privacy dashboard, which shows you which apps are using your location, mic, and camera.

Samsung has made some changes to the Pixel phone’s content, but you can still read our Android 12 review for more information about what you can expect from the update.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Verdict

Samsung was removing as many features from the Galaxy S21 as it adds. I was ready to be disappointed by this phone. But I didn’t need to be worried.

Although a plastic back might not be ideal for a flagship phone, I quickly got used to it and the Galaxy S21’s overall design is beautiful. It is also more practical than the S20. Although the camera’s hardware was not upgraded, they still produced flagship-grade results with a lot of tools and features to explore.

Samsung could have pushed the Galaxy S21’s hardware boundaries, but that’s for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The Galaxy S21 is still equipped with the most recent flagship chips and a stunning display. It also has powerful cameras, an excellent price, and a premium smartphone. This should concern the iPhone 12.

The Galaxy S20 is the only flaw in this package. An upgrade is not recommended for those who already own the S20. Samsung is aware of this and the S21 is better for older Galaxy phones or those who are looking to upgrade to a new phone. The Galaxy S21 is a great choice if you are in this situation.

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