Samsung Galaxy S21: Your complete buyer's guide to the new S21 series

Samsung Galaxy S21 Series
Samsung Galaxy S21 Series (Image credit: Android Central)

There are some things in the mobile tech space that are constant every single year, one of which is that we get a new Samsung Galaxy S release pretty early on. That was no different for 2021, but Samsung gave us the Samsung Galaxy S21 in January rather than making us wait until March or April. Compared to last year's S20 family, it brought major spec upgrades, a refreshed design, and all-new camera tech.

Seven months from release, the S21 and S21 Ultra still top our list of the best Android phones available today — and cost $200 less than they did at launch. Until the S22 lineup arrives in early 2022, we doubt any phones will topple the S21 series from its throne. Though we are excited to learn how the rumored Galaxy S21 FE will compare on its predecessors.

Whether you're in the market for a price-conscious flagship or something that goes all-out, the S21 series has something for you, and we're here to help you find out everything you need to know before you buy one for yourself — or buy them for the whole family. Including whether or not you should hold out for the upcoming Fan Edition.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Price

Galaxy S21 Ultra Review

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

Samsung cut prices across the board this year with the Galaxy S21 series, meaning that you'll get more bang for your buck while still getting a completely premium experience. All three models start with 128GB of storage, but you can pay an extra $150 to double your storage to 256GB, or quadruple the Ultra's storage to 512GB. That option is extra important given the S21 doesn't have a microSD slot to add on storage later.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Phone128GB Storage256GB Storage512GB Storage
Samsung Galaxy S21$800$850Row 0 - Cell 3
Samsung Galaxy S21+$1000$1050Row 1 - Cell 3
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra$1200$1250$1380

A starting price of $800 for a Samsung flagship is something we haven't seen in a couple of years, and the amount of power and performance you get for that price is quite impressive. This move would be praised any year, but it's especially welcome after 2020's economic instabilities and people still dealing with tighter budgets than normal.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Availability and deals

Samsung Galaxy S21 in Phantom Violet

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

If you're ready to buy a Galaxy S21 for yourself, the good news is that you can go out and buy all three models worldwide right now! Furthermore, you owe it to yourself to check out some of the best Galaxy S21 deals.

If you buy directly from Samsung's website, trading in an eligible phone will get you up to $700 for an instant discount on your purchase. You can also get up to $100 in instant credits for another Samsung purchase, along with four free months of YouTube Premium and 6 free months of SiriusXM Streaming.

T-Mobile has one of the most appealing carrier deals, offering up to $800 in credits when trading in an eligible phone — effectively making the regular S21 free. What makes this a standout offer is that older and cheaper phones like the Galaxy S9 and Pixel 4a will still get you that $800 credit.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Which should you buy?

We've already mentioned that there are three distinct versions of the Galaxy S21 to choose from, but looking at the big picture for these phones, how do they compare to one another? Let's break that all down real quick.

The regular Galaxy S21 is the phone to buy if you want the core S21 experience while spending as little as possible. It has the same Snapdragon 888 processor found in the other two models, there's an AMOLED display with a 120Hz refresh rate, and the updated camera setup ensures you can capture whatever life throws your way. There is a plastic design compared to the glass build of the S21+ and S21 Ultra, however, and you won't get any UWB connectivity that's found in those more expensive handsets. If none of that bothers you, the S21 is a seriously great deal at just $800. If you want a closer look at everything it has to offer, be sure to check out our Galaxy S21 review.

Then we have the middle child, the Galaxy S21+. It has a larger display and a bigger battery than the baseline S21, which are two notable perks if you plan on watching a lot of movies or playing a lot of games. The design is also a bit nicer thanks to the glass back, and if you care at all about UWB, that is present here. The camera system and processor are identical, though, so unless you need the larger display and battery, you could just buy the S21 for a nearly identical experience and save some serious cash.

And, of course, there's the Galaxy S21 Ultra. This is the phone you buy if you want the very best that Samsung has to offer in 2021, and in doing so, you're treated to one heck of a phone.

The heart of the S21 Ultra is the same Snapdragon 888 chipset, but in almost every other regard, it brings meaningful upgrades to the table. For starters, the display resolution is upped from Full HD+ to Quad HD+ and adds greater variability to the refresh rate (allowing it to scale from just 11Hz to 120Hz). The cameras are also completely different — the primary camera is a 108MP sensor and you get two telephoto ones for incredible zoom shots. Smaller changes include more RAM, Wi-Fi 6E instead of Wi-Fi 6, and a truly massive 5,000 mAh battery. Oh, and it's compatible with the S Pen!

Given all of the upgrades the S21 Ultra brings to the table, you might be wondering what the point of the Galaxy S21+ is. In our Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. Galaxy S21+ comparison, it becomes pretty clear which phone comes out on top. Between the higher-resolution display, vastly improved cameras, and S Pen support, the Ultra does a lot to justify its $200 premium over the S21+.

It's not a perfect phone, but if you read through our full Galaxy S21 Ultra review, it becomes easy to see why it stands out as one of the best of the year so far.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Specs

Samsung Galaxy S21 in-hand

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

Speaking of Galaxy S21 specs, here's a full rundown of everything under the hood of all three S21 models. From the processor, display, cameras, and more, here's what makes these phones tick.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
CategoryGalaxy S21Galaxy S21+Galaxy S21 Ultra
Operating SystemAndroid 11 / One UI 3.1Android 11 / One UI 3.1Android 11 / One UI 3.1
Display6.2-inch Full HD+
Dynamic AMOLED
120Hz refresh rate
6.7-inch Full HD+
Dynamic AMOLED
120Hz refresh rate
6.8-inch Quad HD+
Dynamic AMOLED
120Hz refresh rate
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 888Qualcomm Snapdragon 888Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
Memory8GB RAM8GB RAM12 or 16GB RAM
Storage128 or 256GB128 or 256GB128, 256, or 512GB
Expandable Storage
Rear Camera 112MP primary12MP primary108MP primary
Rear Camera 212MP ultra-wide12MP ultra-wide12MP ultra-wide
Rear Camera 364MP telephoto64MP telephoto10MP telephoto (3x)
Rear Camera 410MP telephoto (10x)
Front Camera10MP10MP40MP
SecurityUltrasonic in-screen fingerprint sensorUltrasonic in-screen fingerprint sensorUltrasonic in-screen fingerprint sensor
ConnectivityWi-Fi 6
5G (sub-6 and mmWave)
Wi-Fi 6
5G (sub-6 and mmWave)
Wi-Fi 6E
5G (sub-6 and mmWave)
Battery4,000 mAh4,800 mAh5,000 mAh
Water ResistanceIP68IP68IP68
Dimensions151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm161.5 x 75.6 x 7.8mm165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm

Again, the lack of expandable storage on the Galaxy S21 series is seen as a bummer to many, but honestly? MicroSD cards were slower than internal storage and I don't begrudge Samsung for eliminating a subpar experience. Not to mention for most folks, 128GB will be just fine, but if you need help deciding on a storage option, we can help you figure out which Galaxy S21 storage size to buy.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Design

Samsung Galaxy S21 All Colors

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

As you've probably noticed by now, the Galaxy S21 looks quite a bit different from previous Galaxy releases. We still have large, bezel-less displays with a centered hole-punch cutout, but looking at the back, we're treated to a brand new design we haven't seen before.

The camera housing is now integrated with the frame of the phone, seamlessly flowing into it. It's a pretty drastic change that you'll either love or hate, and if you ask Samsung, it's "the biggest step forward in design for the Galaxy S series ever."

It doesn't make much of an impact in day-to-day use, but this does allow for some pretty unique color combinations — specifically, giving the camera housing a different accent color compared to the rest of the phone.

Samsung has always had fun with its color choices, and for the Galaxy S21 series, that looks to be the case more than ever. If you find yourself unsure of what color Galaxy S21 you should buy, I'd personally recommend going with Phantom Violet (it looks so freaking good!).

Samsung Galaxy S21 S Pen

S Pen on the Galaxy S21 Ultra

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

The first Galaxy Note was an important device for a couple of reasons. Not only did it usher in a new era of large smartphones for the entire industry, but it also introduced us to the S Pen. The S Pen has been a staple of every Galaxy Note since then, and up until now, it's been a feature kept exclusive to the Note series.

Samsung's shaking things up with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, allowing the phone to work with past S Pens and selling a new one alongside it as a $40 accessory. You can use it to draw, take notes, annotate documents, and anything else you'd typically use the S Pen for.

It's a big move for Samsung to allow S Pen support on a Galaxy S device, and paired with rumors that the Galaxy Note family could be done for this year, it's likely just the beginning of even more devices working with the S Pen later in 2021 and beyond.

Spigen Liquid Air P Galaxy S21 Hero

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

The Galaxy S21 Ultra doesn't have a dedicated slot for the S Pen, so if you're going to use one full-time with your ultra, we have some S Pen tips and tricks you'll want to read up on, especially that first tip about ditching the Samsung S Pen cases and getting the Spigen Liquid Air P (Pen Edition) instead. It's less bulky, won't show every spec of grease, grime, and lint in your pocket, and it's also much more affordable.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Galaxy S21 FE rumors and specs

Samsung Galaxy S21 Fe Instagram Official Leak

Source: Samsung on Instagram (Image credit: Source: Samsung on Instagram)

According to leaks, Samsung originally intended to announce the Galaxy S21 FE at its Unpacked 2021 event in August, alongside its new foldables and smartwatch; however, Samsung reportedly delayed the launch due to production shortages, then decided to limit its sales to just the US and Europe — and only sell it in limited quantities.

In other words, getting your hands on an S21 FE could be difficult depending on where you live and how fast you pre-order it. But is the phone worth hunting for like an elusive PS5, or is it nothing special compared to other S21s?

Samsung officially "leaked" a purple S21 FE in early August on its Instagram page. Unlike the S21 and S21+, its camera housing matches the purple back, giving it a uniform look; but it otherwise doesn't look too different from its siblings. Multiple other leaks have also suggested it will have a 6.4-inch FHD+ display with 120Hz refresh rate, slotting it between the 6.2-inch S21 and 6.7-inch S21+.

A recent S21 FE leak suggested it will have a Snapdragon 888 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, 4,500mAh battery, and a triple-camera array with 32MP main sensor, 12MP ultra-wide sensor, and 8MP telephoto lens, plus a 12MP selfie camera. It will ship with Android 11 out of the box, though we can hope it'll quickly get an Android 12 update. Finally, it could charge faster than the S21 Ultra, upgrading from 25W to 45W fast charging.

In summary, the S21 FE display and battery life fall in-between the S21 and S21+, while the CPU, RAM, and storage match both. The main camera and selfie cams could upgrade on the S21(+) but won't come close to the Ultra. Aside from faster charging, we haven't seen any leaks for a "bombshell" S21 FE feature.

However, a leaked S21 FE price is KRW 700,000 (about $630), which would make the phone extremely affordable for the specs it offers. That alone could make the FE worth waiting for; it's currently rumored to have an October release date, so you won't have to wait long.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Comparisons

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Iphone 12 Pro Max

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

The Galaxy S21 lineup is damn impressive in a bubble, but as you start stacking them up side-by-side, how do they hold up? Here's what we've learned from our comparisons so far.

In the case of the Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. Galaxy S20 Ultra, the winner is clear as day. Last year's S20 Ultra still has a lot to offer here in 2021, but between the improved cameras, more powerful display, and much nicer design, the S21 Ultra is the better overall smartphone. Not to mention, the S20 Ultra is more expensive than the S21 Ultra despite being a year older. If you're debating upgrading from a Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20, it's almost a no-brainer as long as Samsung's trade-in incentives continue: I traded in my own S20 to get a S21 for $200, and I have no regrets three months later. However, the Galaxy S21+ vs. Galaxy S20 Plus doesn't come off as rosy for the S21+; if you have last year's model, you can be content sticking it out another year and seeing what the S22 has in store.

While Samsung's camera prowess is clear, there is one phone series that still beats it when you compare the Galaxy S21 vs. Google Pixel 5. That prowess enough isn't enough to justify the weaker processor and screen at almost the same price, but if camera is your most important feature, it's worth keeping in mind. If the feature you're most smitten with is S Pen Support, the Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. Galaxy Note 20 Ultra asks which you prioritize more: the S21 Ultra's quad-came setup and latest software or a dedicated silo for the S Pen. The Galaxy S21 vs. Samsung Galaxy S20 FE also pits value flagships against each other, but the S21 takes the edge with newer processors and much more generous trade-in deals.

Another fun pairing comes with the Galaxy S21 Ultra vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max. These are the two best phones offered by Samsung and Apple, respectively, and that means you can't go wrong no matter which one you purchase. The S21 Ultra is a phenomenal choice for folks that prefer Android, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is the best phone to buy if you'd rather use iOS, and that's basically what the comparison boils down to. Similarly, the Galaxy S21+ vs. iPhone 12 Pro mostly boils down to which OS you prefer, but the S21+ gets the edge for feeling better in the hand and having a 120Hz screen as opposed to the 12 Pro's 60Hz, and this goes double when pitting the Galaxy S21 vs. iPhone 12.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Accessories

Caseology Nano Pop and OtterBox Symmetry Galaxy S21 Cases

Source: Ara Wagoner (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner)

We've said it a few times before and we'll say it again: a good phone isn't complete without the proper accessories. Especially in the case of the Galaxy S21 lineup where you're making a hefty investment in your new phone, it's in your best interest to keep it protected as best as you can.

The regular S21's backplate may be made out of well-finished and durable plastic, but that's not an excuse to ignore the best Galaxy S21 cases. From adding more grip to giving the phone a bit of style, it's an essential accessory you simply can't ignore. Thanks to the glass backs of the other two models, shopping for the best Galaxy S21+ cases and best Galaxy S21 Ultra cases shouldn't be something we have to tell you to do twice.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Spen Case

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Of course, nothing will transform your new phone into a paperweight faster than a shattered screen, so check out the best Galaxy S21 screen protectors to ensure that lovely 120Hz screen stays intact. The Best Galaxy S21+ screen protectors will likewise keep that 6.7-inch screen safe and intact while still letting you use the in-screen fingerprint sensor, and the Best Galaxy S21 Ultra screen protectors will protect your curved screen while not interfering with your S Pen.

No matter which variant of the S21 you get, it's also worth taking a dive into the best Galaxy S21 accessories overall. From portable battery packs, car mounts, smartwatches, USB-C audio adapters and more, there's a lot out there to further elevate your experience with Samsung's latest and greatest.

Galaxy S21 Accessories Earbuds Cases Chargers Cables

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

And, since the Galaxy S21 doesn't come with a charger in the box, you'll want to check out the best Galaxy S21 chargers as well. There are plenty of options to choose from, all of which deliver the maximum 25W charge speeds the S21 is capable of. There's also a variety of best wireless chargers to let you top off without having to plug in every single time!

If you're still missing your microSD card slot on the S21, we've rounded up the best microSD Alternatives between wireless storage, USB-C thumb drives, and good old fashioned SSDs to help ensure your storage needs are met.

Joe Maring

Joe Maring was a Senior Editor for Android Central between 2017 and 2021. You can reach him on Twitter at @JoeMaring1.

  • 1440P to 1080P even on Plus
    RAM downgraded
    Wireless charging Wattage downgraded
    Plastic back ? WTF
    No SD slot
    No 3.5mm jack
    No charger in the box
    No earphones in the box
    Sounds like a winning recipe!
  • The main reason I always stuck with samsung was the expandable memory. The fact that they took this out hurts. I always run out of onboard memory. I guess i better start looking at other brands for my new phone.
  • 1440p is overkill, the only excuse for it was VR which turned out to be a flop.
    12GB ram is also excessive. Christ, I had 8GB on my computer until last year.
    I can't find the specs on the wireless charging to confirm.
    If you have a glass back you are gonna put a case on it anyway. Maybe with plastic you won't need to.
    Personal preference, if you can't make due with 256GB, get a different phone
    No 3.5mm jack. But some bluetooth headphones, you'll love them
    No charger. I have like a dozen chargers, plus I'll probably use wireless anyway.
    I Never use the included headphones.
    $200 less does sound like a winning recipe.
  • Thank you for taking the words out of my mouth and kudos to Samsung for finally having the balls and brains to start putting plastic backs on some of their high-end phones. It's more durable, less weight and cheaper than the other two options plus it looks great on my Note 20 and speaking of my N20 the 1080 screen looks as good if not better than the two Ultras I played with.
  • Agreed, plastic back is the best on any phone. I never understand the argument about fragile glass being better and premium.
  • I agree with some of what you say and not with some of it...screen resolution is overkill, my current laptop "only" has 8 GB ram...don't care about wireless charging...I think most people will use a case no matter the material used for the back...for me 128 GB storage is more than enough but I do agree that there should be the option for expandable storage.
    3.5 headphone jack should be a MUST! I hate sticking anything in my ears...I DO NOT want to have to charge seriously overpriced earbuds that will die a painful death when their batteries die!
    I do NOT have dozens of chargers lying around. When I purchase a new phone I sell my old one and everything that came with it including the charger! There should always be the best charger available for each phone in the box. Especially when paying $$$$ for these phones. I can live without included headphones because I would rather have on ear headphones. Again, this is all personal preference.
  • $200 less for people who don't need this stuff sounds like a win to me.
  • Also no optical zoom in their S21 and S21+ No way i'll pay what they are asking. These phones are a downgrades ones and i want the SD slot, optical zoom and a fastest charger. Also the jack why not. If this is the way of future Samsung flagships go, then no more Samsung phones for me.
  • The big deal for me is that this phone doesn’t support Dual SIM. I was hoping to make the jump from iPhone, but I had no idea that there are no Dual SIM Android phones available in the U.S. Unfortunately that means I’m stuck to iPhone forever.
  • Depending on what your needs are, Sony sells dual sim devices.
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  • It's the great saving guide for me :) as a owner of a Note 20 Ultra, Tab S7 Plus and Active Watch 2. I won't be spending anything else on Samsung products this will do me for at least 3 years and I will start looking elsewhere. The expandable storage was the last straw, they keep removing features and extras and copying Apple etc I just don't like the direction Samsung are going so time to look elsewhere.
  • No sd on the Ultra is the deal-breaker. Too bad. Looks great otherwise.
  • The Ultra is a great phone
  • Was hoping it would be better. The price is far to high for what's offered.. hopefully the OnePlus 9 is better.. I'd hold out with my 6T but no more updates..
  • Micro not important to me. Already have a 25watt charger. All premium flagships should use polycarbonate backed phones for durability? Besides with Verizon trade in deal I got the S21+ for 384.00 buck-a-roos & 16.00 a month. Now, this deal I can live with, not too shabby, yikes! Arrives today?
  • My 1080p display is very welcomed. Why, 🔋power? After a week of heavy use I'm getting 8hrs SOT? Very acceptable.My naked eyeball can't tell the difference between 1080p or 1440p? Plus My S21+ performs like a champ. That triple8 with the 120hz is excellent. Plus these trade-in deals are really great!
  • Samsung did great in innovation and upgrading but it's still big question for me to jump to new version of their phone.
  • a great phone ever i have, thanks.
  • Really love Samsung Galaxy S21 and want to have one in next month.
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  • The S21 series is extremely overrated, the "regular" S21 and S21+ are especially overrated with them being throttled out of the box and all 3 S21 devices run hot whether you're using the Exynos 2100 or Snapdragon 888 versions due to Samsung's poor thermals. Then there's One UI while nowhere near as bad as it once was, it's still bloated with duplicate apps which do the same things as Google's only most of them are inferior to Google's apps except for Samsung Internet which is better than Chrome in being less resources hungry but the poor scaling of text let's it down where it headers get cropped out and text will merge into an unreadable mess which is something that Chrome does not suffer from, also Chrome has better syncing than Samsung Internet as well as being cross platform.
  • Sounds like a 450.00 dollar phone with a high price tag.
  • That's exactly my thoughts, take away the Samsung branding and the phone would be £450.
  • What you failed to notice is that we don't buy the S21 because we are poor, budget-oriented or whatever that involves cost. S21's real power is its size, it's one of the smallest flagships available.
    Please do not neglect the fact that there are many buyers that do not want/need the huge devices that is the norm these days. Please do not advertise the S21 just as a cheap alternative, its size is more important.
  • The S21 isn't a flagship, that would be the S21 Ultra, not with the display at 1080p and only 8GB RAM.
  • There's way better out there for a lot less money. You just need to take a look beyond the horizon of main stream brands.
  • Yeah like the Pixel for instance, yes the Pixel hardware isn't the best, but the software more than makes up for it and Pixel is the only phone outside of Samsung to get updates quickly and in term of Android platform updates, the Pixel is the first to get them as the hardware and software are produced by Google and only those who hate Google and the Pixel will sneer at these phones. I've tried a few of the mainstream brands like Samsung which is the phone I currently but I keep coming back to a Pixel because I love the Pixel software and UI and the day 1 updates for the latest security patches and especially Android platform updates that are guaranteed 3 years as well as security patches being monthly even in it's 3rd and final year unlike Samsung who just drops to quarterly updates after the 3rd year which is what people on here conveniently leave out.
  • AC is always saying competition is good. If so, why are the majority of your promotional articles about Samsung devices, especially ones that are already almost 6 months old? Why not promote other brands like Sony or TCL or Motorola?
  • Agree! The only reason they have regurgitated this article is because Samsmug didn't just shoot themselves in the foot with the S21 they blew off their whole right leg! No doubt AC is getting paid for this lost cause shill of an article. The jig is up, the people have spoken, the S21's sales are in the tank and the only thing Samsmug has now is grossly overpriced foldable JUNK to try and lure people to buy their crap. So pathetic.