The Galaxy S21 Series Report Card: What wins, what doesn't, and what's still weird
Well, that was a nice bust week. CES 2021 came along with some new TVs and tablets and Chromebooks — but next week is the main event for Chromebooks, so stay tuned! — but this week's big news was the whirlwind Thursday that was the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S21. The latest Samsung flagship sports a sexy new look, bigger, better cameras, the next generation of Samsung's One UI software, and of course, who could forget the S-Pen support for the S21 Ultra?
There's been a lot to unpack over the last few days, but so if you haven't had time to quite see it all, here's our report card for the phone to beat in in 2021. There's a lot to like here, and as we said in our S21 hands-on, we'll be getting more in-depth in the coming weeks, but the first impressions are very, very good. Well, they're very, very good except for a few little details.
Overall Hardware: A-
Ever since I first saw that new camera module design months ago in the first leaks, I have not been a fan. However, I'll be the first to admit the finished, in-person phone looks gorgeous, even if that new design makes life harder for casemakers (and case-lovers like me). The curves are beautiful, the profile is wonderfully slim, and it feels solid in the hand without feeling too light or too heavy. The Galaxy S21 is a major design upgrade, even if they had to scale back a few things to meet the new lower prices.
You may notice I'm not grading the processor: we need more time with the Snapdragon 888 before we give it a proper grade, but so far, so good.
The S21 Ultra still has a curved screen, but the S21's flat front screen is actually refreshing, even if some think the downgrade from 1440p to 1080p is too much to bear. The screen still looks great, and if you want 1440p, you can still get it on the S21 Ultra. The S21 Ultra also has an adaptive framerate that should allow the supersized model to sip battery even with that big screen so long as you're not doing anything super-intensive like gaming or filming.
Samsung is known for its camera prowess and that streak is continuing with the S21 and especially the Galaxy S21 Ultra with that fourth rear camera and a 40MP front-facing camera. I'd love to get into all the exact camera nerdiness myself, but this report card is going to be long enough and Hayato covered cameras in his hands-on and in the video above.
Yes, there's no microSD support on the Galaxy S21 series, and again, I'm personally fine with this even though power uses might not be a fan. Look, microSD storage was always slower than internal storage and is prone to errors and getting corrupted when something goes wrong. Samsung is eliminating microSD so that it won't slow down its flagship, it doesn't have to take up space, and so that you'll be more inclined to pay for the 256GB version over the baseline 128GB of storage.
Between photo backups through a number of services including Google Photos and the fact that the S21 starts with 128GB of storage, most folks will probably never even miss expandable storage. If you're one of the few that liked it, try the Galaxy S20 FE instead.
5G Support: A+
While 5G coverage is still ridiculously limited and in most cases, speeds aren't any higher than LTE, if you're buying the S21, you're likely holding onto it for the next 2-4 years, and by then 5G will actually be widely useable. The other 5G improvement this year: you don't have to supersize to get full 5G support. The regular Galaxy S20 only supported Sub-6, but the regular S21 supports both Sub-6 and mmWave.
The S21+ and S21 Ultra also have Ultra Wide Band support this year, which is being used for Galaxy SmartTags and integrations with carmakers just as much (if not more) than it is for 5G networking.
Like last year's S20, the Galaxy S21's color selection varies by size: you get four color options for the smallest S21, three colors for the S21+, and just two monochromatic hues for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. In fact, the only difference for the S21 and S21+ is that they swapped blue for purple and added a pearly white.
Samsung complicated things this year by adding in the option of so-called "custom colors", which add up to five weeks to your phone's delivery date and are exclusive to Samsung.com and exclusive to certain markets. The S21+ gets the better end of the bargain with a bright Phantom Red and a creamy Phantom Gold, while the S21 Ultra's custom colors are all super-dark and paired with Carbon Fiber-covered camera modules, which just look weird.
In-box accessories: C
The Galaxy S21 comes with a USB-C to USB-C cable in the box and a SIM removal tool. If you're dropping $800+ on a phone, chances are you either already had a phone that used USB-C or you're overdue to buy a USB-C charger anyway. And let's not forget, some of the fastest USB-C Chargers are $10-$15! And Samsung is dropping its 25W charger to $25 now that it's not included in the box.
The in-box headphones are the bigger loss, especially since this phone has no 3.5mm audio jack. Then again, listening to wired headphones can wear out your USB-C port when the connector shifts when you're sitting down or pulling your phone out of your pocket. Let's also remember that wearing wired headphones means that you can snag the wire and then drop the phone. So please, grab yourself a pair of cheap earbuds that will last you years and let you listen from across the room.
Overall Software: B
Every version of One UI takes us further from TouchWiz and one step closer to a perfect Android experience, and between the continual improvements of One UI 3.1, the S-Pen integration on the S21 Ultra, and the increasing co-operation with Google, Software is better than ever on the S21.
But it could be so much better if Samsung chose to cut its losses in a few areas.
Google partnership: B+
We're pleased a punch to see Samsung and Google finally playing nice after years of Samsung practically pushing Google away and putting forth its own slightly inferior version of just about every major system service and utility app. Samsung is actually putting Google Messages on its phones — but it's still going to push Samsung Messages as the default depending on the market and it's going to keep complicating the RCS situation.
But hey, it's progress and I'm choosing to be hopeful that this is the new start of a beautiful friendship.
This is a small feature but it enrages me and many of my fellow tech writers that the default keyboard is Samsung's god-awful Samsung keyboard. If you're going to highlight Google apps, why the hell would you not highlight the best keyboard on Android (and iOS)? Yes, you can go add Gboard or SwiftKey — yes, I still SwiftKey because I'm a sucker for that swipe punctuation — after you get through the initial setup, but again, not everyone will know to do that.
If we're going to whine about not including a decent charger in the box, you bet your Gorilla Glass I'm going to whine about not including a decent keyboard in the box.
App Duplications: C
Again, if you're going to work with Google and start pushing some Google apps, why do you need two apps for Messages? Why do you need two apps for Calendar?! The only reason to use the Samsung version instead of the Google version is if you're using a Samsung Theme, and dear god, do Samsung Themes need either a major overhaul or a swift death because they don't work with night mode and they are a usability nightmare.
S-Pen support: A
It's no shock that Samsung makes the S-Pen experience on the Ultra almost exactly as good as the Note 20 immediately out of the gate. After all, Samsung has been absolutely owning the stylus experience for years. We're going to have to wait for the S-Pen+ and the more advanced third-party styluses from Uni and WACOM.
Tap to pay support: A-
Okay, this might actually be more of a hardware ding, but Samsung took away magnetic stripe support from the S21 series in the U.S., which means that Samsung Pay has no benefit over Google Pay on the Galaxy S21. Given the swap to chip-and-pin and NFC payments in the United States over the last three years, it's not surprising to see them drop it — the chip is a security requirement that Samsung Pay cannot replicate using MST.
I'm just happy that I know that I am 100% not missing out on anything by using Google Pay instead of Samsung Pay. Also, Samsung should've gone from its more invasive quick-access gestures for quick access to the power-button menu quick access that Google added in Android 11.
Carrier support: A
Sorry, this is a small thing but will matter to AT&T customers like me: finally you can use Wi-Fi calling on AT&T with an unlocked S21. Screw AT&T for taking this long, but that right there will be worth the upgrade for unlocked S10 and S20 owners.
Overall Pricing: A
The price has been a huge selling point for the S21 series — each model starts $200 cheaper than last year, but the base price is only the beginning of the ridiculous value surrounding this launch and pre-order period of ultra-competitive Galaxy S21 deals.
Pricing for storage/color upgrades: A-
Custom colors are usually something you have to shell out extra money for, or you have to wait months for them to appear after the device launch. For the custom colors, Samsung doesn't make you pay extra money, instead you wait a couple of weeks. I'm sure some would gladly pay extra to cut down that delivery time, but Samsung is determined to not end up with a ton of any custom color at the end of the year and I can respect that.
Considering the lack of microSD card slot, you might be more inclined to pay for 256GB of internal storage, or even 512GB on the S21 Ultra. Well, 256GB is $150 more than 128GB, and 512GB is $280 more than 128GB, so you're gonna have to really want it, and while I love having a well-stocked array of offline content, I'll be making do with 128GB, thank you very much.
Trade-in pricing: A++
If you have a Galaxy S20 right now, you can get the S21 for $100, plus a $200 Samsung.com credit and a free Samsung Galaxy SmartTag. That's absolutely ridiculous and unless you really love your microSD slot, Cloud Blue color, or your S20's look, there's no reason not to take advantage.
This goes double for S10 owners, who can get a $550 trade-in for a two-year-old phone and get a new, 5G phone with significantly upgraded cameras and three full years of updates. Oh, and $200 credit to use on Galaxy Buds Pro or some sweet new wireless chargers.
Even the carriers are getting in on the action with T-Mobile's insane upgrade deal that will let you trade in a $350 Pixel 4a and get $800 towards a Galaxy S21 — so basically free. You have to stick around two years to actually get that full $800 value since it's factored into the "total offer amount", but you still get the $200 Samsung.com credit and free Galaxy SmartTag.
Are you picking up one?
The Galaxy S21 is a very tantalizing phone, and I've been having to resist the urge to trade my beloved blue S21 in for the new hotness, but have you given in already? Are you waiting for full reviews and whatever flaws we might unearth before you order one? Tell us in the comments, and also remember folks: this week is going to be another long one, so rest up today, stock up on snacks, and remember to love one another.
The phone to beat in 2021
More phone, less money
The Galaxy S21 series has arrived, and the regular, $800 Galaxy S21 will be the winner for most shoppers. It has a compact and user-friendly size, incredible performance with the Snapdragon 888, capable cameras, and a striking new design.
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Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.