Samsung's smallest Galaxy S21 model is likely going to be the most popular. Largely because of the price, and the size. It's not a "small" phone, still larger than the Pixel 5, but it is small enough for most people.
Not to mention it is also $400 less than the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Which is a whole lot of smartphone. That's more for the phone nerds out there, while the Galaxy S21 is the model for everyone else.
It sports a lot of the same features, though it does have a few corners cut in some areas. So let's talk about that. This is the Galaxy S21 review after all. If you're interested in the Galaxy S21 Ultra review, you can read that here.
Small but mighty
I'm a big fan of smaller phones. Not because I don't like having a large screen for YouTube and watching videos, but because it fits in my pocket better. It is also better for one-handed use. And that alone is why I absolutely love the regular Galaxy S21. I really enjoyed working on this review for the Galaxy S21. Sure the Galaxy S21 Ultra is nice, but a lot of the extra features it provides, are not an absolute necessity for me.
Additionally, the Galaxy S21 just feels better in the hand. It feels less likely to slip out of my hands and possibly onto the snow-covered concrete as I'm walking the dog.
Yeah, the back is plastic. And yeah, some people are going to complain that a $799 phone should not have any plastic parts. But those people aren't looking to buy the Galaxy S21. Samsung made the S21 Ultra for them. The market that is going to buy the Galaxy S21, is going to slap a case on it. And for that fact, the plastic-back is perfectly fine on the Galaxy S21.
Not to mention the fact that the plastic back makes the phone lighter, which is also important. The Galaxy S21 is lightweight and easy to use one-handed. Oh and that Phantom Violet color is incredible.
The refined design is stunning
Samsung did not do an all-out redesign of the Galaxy S21 this year, that is likely coming next year or the year after. Companies don't typically do a full redesign every year. But there were some changes to the design here. Primarily on the camera module.
It calls this a contour-cut camera design. Which makes the camera bump melt into the frame. It looks stunning. It also means that the phone is less likely to rock on the table when you're typing on it. Which is another important aspect.
Samsung also, surprisingly, did away with the curved display on the Galaxy S21. And for the majority of people, that's a good thing. Sure the curved display looks amazing for watching content. But it is a real annoyance when trying to use your phone. As accidental touches are a real issue. So I'm glad to see Samsung moving back (slowly) to flat displays.
The Snapdragon 888 is impressive
This, along with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, is our first time seeing what the Snapdragon 888 can do. And wow. It is fast, and cool. The only time the Galaxy S21 started to heat up, was after watching YouTube for over an hour straight, or while gaming for almost the same amount of time. Which is to be expected. But even then it wasn't too hot that you couldn't touch the phone. That is impressive.
We aren't going to get into benchmarks here, but the Snapdragon 888 5G and the combination of 8GB of RAM is making the Galaxy S21 a really incredible device. The performance is top-notch.
Let's talk about MST and Samsung Pay
One change with the Galaxy S21 that has a lot of people upset this year, is the lack of MST for Samsung Pay.
For those unaware, MST is Magnetic Secure Transmission. It's what allows you to swipe your card at Chipotle. And it worked with Samsung Pay. Which made Samsung Pay compatible with just about every retailer and restaurant out there.
However, on the Galaxy S21, it has dropped MST support. This is something we should have seen coming. It was being dropped from other devices that supported Samsung Pay.
This means that you can only use Samsung Pay at retailers that have NFC terminals, which is quite a few, but not 100%. It does suck that Samsung dropped MST from the Galaxy S21, but it shouldn't be a dealbreaker. Since no other smartphone maker has MST. Samsung got MST by buying LoopPay back in 2015.
It sucks, but it is what it is. Basically.
It's okay that the Galaxy S21 doesn't have a QHD+ display
Some people – mainly tech geeks – are complaining that Samsung dropped the QHD+ display for a FHD+ one on the Galaxy S21. Saying it's downgrade. Well, technically, yeah it is. But let's not forget, Samsung has always shipped its QHD+ phones at FHD+ resolution out of the box. And most people do not change that setting. Let's also not forget that this FHD+ panel is still impressive. And it's also $200 cheaper than the Galaxy S20 was.
The colors on this Dynamic AMOLED panel are incredible. Every year, Samsung somehow is able to make the display panel look better than the previous year. And at this point, it's really just showing off.
Even with a FHD+ panel, the Galaxy S21 does still do 120Hz refresh rate. Though it is via Adaptive Refresh. Which will fluctuate from 48Hz to 120Hz, depending on what you are doing on the screen.
Brightness is also really good here. It gets plenty bright outside, though I couldn't test it under direct sunlight since its Winter. But given how bright it is, there shouldn't be any problems with direct sunlight here.
One UI continues to improve
It wasn't that long ago that us reviewers would slam Samsung every year, because its software was so terrible. Even when OneUI came out a few years ago, it was rather rough. Still slow and bloated like TouchWiz before it.
Now we're on One UI 3.1, and it is one of my favorite skins on Android. I'd still prefer stock Android if possible, but One UI has come a long way. I'd even say it's better then OxygenOS – which is another crowd-favorite.
Samsung has made quite a few subtle changes to the software on the Galaxy S21, that makes One UI an absolute joy to use. The notification shade is now translucent. The device care menu in the settings is easier to use.
Of course, we can't forget the changes that Samsung made due to its increasing partnership with Google. Say goodbye to Bixby Home, as Google Discover has replaced it, by default. If you do like Bixby Home (which was renamed Samsung Home last year), you can choose that though. But now we have the option to use Google Discover, without installing a third-party launcher like Nova Launcher.
The Settings in general are easier to navigate now, as Samsung has listed some of the sub-menu settings below the headers in the settings app. So you can easily find the setting you are looking for. Of course, search is still available. Since there are so many settings available on smartphones these days.
One UI runs really smooth on the Snapdragon 888, even with just 8GB of RAM on-board. We did not run into any issues with it freezing or slowing down. And it also appears that Samsung has stopped the aggressive RAM management tactics of past years. Apps stayed in the memory for days, without needing to reload.
Big changes to Night Mode
The camera system got major upgrades across the Galaxy S21 line, and in our review of the S21 Ultra, you can really see the biggest changes. Particularly because it has laser autofocus, while the Galaxy S21 does not. But still, while working on this review of the Galaxy S21, we were able to get some incredible shots out of this camera.
But first, let's talk about the cameras. It's essentially the same setup as last year. Two 12-megapixel sensors for ultra-wide and wide. With a 64-megapixel sensor for zooming capabilities – of which it does 3x zoom optically, and up to 30x digitally.
Samsung did make some big changes to night mode with the Galaxy S21. Though it's not quite as good as on the S21 Ultra. It is still quite impressive. Night Mode, no matter the phone, still seems like a bit of black magic. As it can see things that even the human eye can't see.
That's not all that's new in the camera this year though. Samsung also debuted a new feature called Director's View. Which is really handy. It allows you to record with all of the cameras at once. The ultra-wide, wide, telephoto and the front-facing camera. So you can get every angle you could possibly need. This is a really great feature for creators.
AI is also infused in the Galaxy S21. With Single Take and the Selfie Camera. With Single Take, you are getting more frames analyzed when shooting in that mode. Which is going to give you more pictures and video of that moment. Meanwhile, with the selfie camera, you can try different modes in the portrait mode to change up the lighting and such.
The camera experience on the Galaxy S21 is really great. But it is a major step down from the Galaxy S21 Ultra, unfortunately. As the Ultra adds in some AI focusing, a macro mode, and a faster shutter speeds. The Galaxy S21 still has the same problem that every phone has, and that's not being able to take a photo of a moving pet or kid, without it being blurry. The Galaxy S21 Ultra can finally do it (Pixel has always been able to).
So if you are looking to get a phone that can take photos of your pets and/or your kids, then the Galaxy S21 might not be it. You may want to look at the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Battery life is good, but less impressive than the Ultra
After the Galaxy S20 and Note 20 smartphones released last year, I had very low expectations for the Galaxy S21 series. When it came to battery life. But the Galaxy S21 Ultra blew me away. Giving me even better screen on time than the Pixel 5. And that was at QHD+ 120Hz.
The Galaxy S21 is also pretty good, but it's a tad below the Galaxy S21 Ultra. I was able to get six hours of screen on time here, pretty easily. However, the Ultra was able to get over 7.5 hours. So yeah, it's good, but not quite on the level of the Galaxy S21 Ultra. That is kind of expected though. As the Ultra does have a massively larger battery – 5000mAh versus 4000mAh capacity.
Much like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the Galaxy S21 does charge at 25W. However, you do need to make sure that "Fast Charging" is enabled in the settings, otherwise it'll charge slower. This is unchecked in the settings for some reason, one that I'm not really sure about. One could argue that it is because of safety, but Super Fast Charging and Fast wireless charging are both on out of the box. So it's a bit strange.
Unless you have Samsung's fast charger, the super fast charging setting won't really work for you. You'll need the fast charging setting on.
Speaking of "fast" charging. Many are upset that Samsung actually downgraded its charging speeds this year. As the Galaxy S20 and Note 20 series supported up to 45W charging. However, in testing, many found that it was only a few minutes faster than 25W charging. 45W gets to 80% faster but 25W has a sustained faster charge. So Samsung decided to stick with 25W this year. Even with companies like Xiaomi and OPPO going over 100W. Samsung is taking the safe route.
This is a good thing, as fast charging your phone at those kinds of speeds can kill your battery a lot faster. And force you to have to pay to replace your phone sooner or replace the battery sooner. That's also why there is a setting to turn off fast charging on the Galaxy S21.
Should I Buy the Galaxy S21?
If you want a flagship smartphone, yes, buy the Galaxy S21. It is a flagship smartphone at a decent price. Though, we do expect to see many other companies drop from the $999 price tags we saw last year. Since there is now a global recession.
But with all of the other changes that Samsung made on the Galaxy S21 this year, this is definitely a really good phone to pick up.
Galaxy S21 Competition
There's plenty of competition for the Galaxy S21, starting with the Galaxy S20 FE. It has much the same specs, besides the processor. Where it has a Snapdragon 865, compared to the Galaxy S21 and its Snapdragon 888. But most of the other specs are the same, and you can grab one for almost half the price of the Galaxy S21.
Not to mention the OnePlus 8T. Which, like the Galaxy S20 FE, also has a lot of the same specs, aside from processor. And it is also much cheaper now.
There are many others too, you can check out our best smartphones list here to see what else is around.
The Galaxy S21 is going to be a tough sell for Samsung, even at $799. There's just so many great smartphones between $600 and $800 right now.