Bottom line: The Galaxy S21 delivers the flagship Samsung experience in a phone that's much more pocketable (and affordable) than the top-end S21 Ultra. You'll lose out on the Ultra's major camera improvements, as well its S Pen support, but this is still a great phone at the right price.
- Smaller, more comfortable size compared to the S21 Ultra
- Powerful Snapdragon 888 chipset with 5G support
- More affordable than last year's counterpart
- Flat 120Hz display looks great
- Android 12 with One UI 4 is almost here
- Cameras largely unchanged from last year
- Not everyone will love the plastic back
- Middling battery life
- No microSD or MST support
It's easy to get drawn in by the allure of über-premium devices like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but if there's anything Samsung learned from last fall's shockingly performant Galaxy S20 FE, it's that for many users, the best Android phone isn't necessarily the one with the highest price tag. That's especially true now, as thousands across the U.S. are struggling to make ends meet. Dropping four figures on a phone is hardly a top priority.
The Galaxy S21 felt like the right phone arriving at the right time. It launched $200 cheaper than last year's S20, and with aggressive trade-in offers, it could (and still can) be had for much less. While it makes a few concessions in order to reach that lower price, the S21 still offers a fully-fledged flagship experience that I think most people will be perfectly happy with — but make no mistake, this isn't just a smaller S21 Ultra by any means. And that's okay.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Price and availability
The Galaxy S21 launched on January 29, 2021, serving as the baseline model alongside the pricier S21+ and S21 Ultra. It's priced $200 cheaper than its predecessor, the Galaxy S20, at $799.99, and features the latest Snapdragon 888 chipset along with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. Without the option for microSD expandability, buyers with more demanding storage needs may want to consider upgrading to the 256GB variant for an additional $50.
While we saw some deep discounts earlier in the year, the global shipping and component shortage has made the S21 a little harder to find and thus recent discounts have been fewer and farther between. Samsung is still offering $100 off alongside up to $550 trade-in values for your old phone, bringing the price down to $150 at the lowest. There's also the revolving door of carrier deals and the upcoming holiday sales, where the latest Galaxy S phone usually gets a buy-one-get-one deal around Black Friday or Cyber Monday.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Hardware and design
Coming fresh off the heels of the Galaxy S21 Ultra review, the S21 is enormously relieving to use — mostly because it isn't enormous. Thanks to tight bezels and a smaller (though still relatively large) 6.2-inch display, the S21 is considerably smaller than its Ultra counterpart in every dimension, and thanks to its plastic body, it's nearly 60 grams lighter.
Before you get too scared off by the mention of plastic, the Galaxy S21 uses the same polycarbonate backing we saw on last year's S20 FE and Galaxy Note 20. It's a sturdy plastic that doesn't creak or give in when you apply pressure; while you certainly won't mistake it for glass, it doesn't feel cheap by any means and comes with the bonus advantage of being more durable in the event of a drop. I still love the feeling of glass in my hand, but it's hard to argue that Samsung would've been better off setting a higher price to swap the materials.
|Operating System||Android 11 + One UI 3.1|
|Display||6.2 inches, 2400x1080 (421 ppi) resolution, Dynamic AMOLED 2X|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 888|
|Memory||128/256GB, 8GB RAM|
|Rear Camera||12MP, ƒ/1.8, 1.8μm (wide)|
12MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.22μm (ultra-wide)
64MP, ƒ/2.0, 0.8μm (3x telephoto)
|Front Camera||10MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.22μm|
|Battery||4000mAh, 25W USB PD 3.0 (PPS), 15W Fast Wireless Charging 2.0|
|Dimensions||151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm, 171g|
|Colors||Phantom Gray, Phantom White, Phantom Violet, Phantom Pink|
Moreover, the metal rails lining the sides of the phone help maintain that "premium" feeling without the need for glass, and they transition seamlessly into the new Contour Cut Camera housing in the upper-left corner of the phone. Just as with the S21 Ultra, this new design gives the S21 a refreshingly distinctive new look, and I love the blush gold accent it adds to my Phantom Violet review unit.
Around the front of the phone, another major change you'll notice over last year's S20 is the S21's newly flattened display. Samsung treaded the waters of reintroducing flat displays to the Galaxy S series with the S20 FE last fall, and I'm glad this design decision made its way to the S21. Curved displays aren't just more expensive to produce; they're more fragile, and they introduce the possibility of accidental touches on the display — something I encountered frustratingly often on the Note 20 Ultra.
The Galaxy S21 also bears a lower resolution compared to the S20, measuring in at 1080p versus 1440, respectively. Running the S20 at its maximum 120Hz refresh rate forced the display down to 1080p; however, so many users upgrading from last year's model may not even notice the difference, but 60Hz users will see slightly reduced sharpness.
Still, the S20's display looks fantastic, with HDR10 support and enough brightness to be easily viewable outdoors (though it doesn't quite match the S21 Ultra's 1500 nits of peak brightness). 120Hz looks as smooth as ever, and the flat edges negate the image and color distortion that was present on the S20's curved glass.
Like with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung did away with microSD expandability on the S21, as well as MST support, which previously enabled mobile payments through Samsung Pay, even on older terminals that don't yet support NFC. These changes aren't particularly surprising, but they'll frustrate users who have seen these legacy features as advantages of the Samsung ecosystem up until now.
Of course, it's also worth mentioning that Samsung is no longer including a charging brick or wired headphones in the box with the S21 series. Save for the included USB C-to-C charging cable, you'll need to provide your own accessories for the Galaxy S21. If you don't already have the necessary peripherals, I'd recommend setting aside the $50 credit Samsung is offering towards a charger or even the Galaxy Buds Pro.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Software and performance
Samsung has been quietly refining its custom One UI experience over the last year, introducing One UI 3.0 as part of its Android 11 update rollout to existing devices through the fall and winter. With the Galaxy S21 series, the company edged ever so slightly forward to One UI 3.1, featuring plenty of gaussian blur, expanded volume controls, and categorized notifications.
Aside from the visual changes, you might not even notice a lot of what's new here, especially if you're coming from another recent Galaxy device. That actually speaks to how good of a job Samsung has done at keeping its phone up to date as of late; Android 11 has rolled out to every Galaxy S, Note, and Z variant released in the last year — and the beta for Android 12 is underway now for a stable release towards the end of 2022
One of the more welcome changes is the ability to finally change your news feed on the left of the home screen from Samsung Daily (now Samsung Free) to the Google Discover feed. It's a welcomed change, but while I appreciate Google Discover already knowing what kind of content I want to see, you should give Samsung Free a shot before dismissing it entirely. It isn't just a news feed; you can play instant games or even stream select TV channels for free.
Samsung mentioned during a check-in call that it sent reviewers both the baseline S21 and the top-end S21 Ultra so that we could see just how similar the everyday experience is between the two. They're both powered by the same Snapdragon 888 chipset, after all, and sure enough, I've found that performance has been similarly great on the S21, despite shipping with half the RAM of my upgraded S21 Ultra at just 8GB.
With that being said, it's worth mentioning that while I took the S21 out to grab photo samples, I ran into a brief period after launching the camera in which performance took an absolute nosedive. In the default auto shooting mode, the camera was lagging with every refresh, and even after exiting the camera software, the phone was slow and unresponsive until I rebooted.
This could have been an odd one-time fluke; I haven't been able to replicate the issue in the several months since, and the S21 has otherwise run flawlessly, but it's worth mentioning either way. Elsewhere, I haven't run into a situation where the 8GB of RAM have felt insufficient.
Battery life, on the other hand, has felt a bit lacking. After managing great battery life from even the Pixel 5, whose predecessors had notoriously terrible longevity, I thought it was safe to assume that battery anxiety was finally a thing of the past, but after spending the last week with the Galaxy S21, I'm not so sure anymore.
That's not to say its battery life is terrible, or even bad, but with my relatively typical use browsing emails and social media, taking photos, streaming music over Bluetooth, and reporting to work on Slack, it's the first phone in a long while that I've been able to drive into power-saving mode by 9 PM. That's after roughly 6 hours of screen-on time at 120Hz, and still well within what I would consider acceptable in 2021, but this certainly wouldn't be my first choice for a long day taking photos without a charger nearby.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Cameras
That's also partially because the cameras aren't a particularly large step up from last year's S20. In fact, on paper, they're identical, matching in every aspect from resolution to aperture, focal length, and individual pixel size. That's not such a bad thing since the Galaxy S20 already took great photos, but it isn't the sort of year-over-year improvement we saw with the S21 Ultra.
Still, the Snapdragon 888 chipset introduces a Triple ISP that allows for more advanced image processing and that allowed Samsung to focus on improving the shooting experience more so than the photos themselves. The Galaxy S21 features less aggressive face smoothing compared to older Samsung devices, and the Single Take shooting mode has been improved to feature more types of capture at once.
As with the S20, photos taken on the S21 are generally great, with impressive dynamic range and vivid (if not overly so) colors, though in typical Samsung fashion, shots are often brightened to the point of overexposing in auto mode. I've been happy with a lot of the photos I've taken on the S21, though, and I especially enjoy the improvements to Space Zoom on the 3x telephoto lens.
With the S21, Samsung has made Space Zoom a bit easier to work with by allowing you to lock focus onto a particular subject when zoomed at up to 30x, using OIS to counteract any unavoidable shakiness and making it easier to take clear, clean shots at high zoom levels, even when shooting handheld. The feature isn't immediately obvious; you need to tap on the wide-angle preview to activate Zoom Lock, but it's enormously helpful and something I wish Samsung would've shipped with last year's models.
On the video side, you can capture all the way up to 8K video at 24 frames per second with the main sensor, though all other cameras are limited to 4K60, with the exception of the telephoto lens, which can "only" shoot at 4K30. Stabilization is impressive on each camera, thanks to Samsung's Super Steady mode, which now supports 60fps video, though I'd love the option to tone down the aggressive sharpening that happens at 4K.
As always, Samsung offers a myriad of handy manual controls for both photo and video capture in each format's Pro shooting mode, including adjustable shutter speed, exposure compensation, white balance, ISO, and manual focus.
Samsung Galaxy S21 The competition
If it weren't for the close proximity in release cycles, the Galaxy S21 almost feels like a direct sequel to the S20 FE, the latter of which kicked off Samsung's return to flat displays, plastic backings, and lower costs. The S20 FE is getting even harder to find than the S21, and at $600 these days, you're most likely better off sticking with the S21, especially since it doesn't appear we're getting an S21 FE. If you still want to use a microSD card, the FE has one, and a slightly bigger screen, but the S21's deals on Samsung's website and at carriers make it a better value now.
The "affordable flagship" space has become increasingly competitive over the last year, though, and Samsung is far from the only player. The OnePlus 9 is another option worth considering, particularly if you prefer a more traditional Android software experience over that of Samsung's One UI interface. For less money, you'll get double the storage at 256GB, more RAM at 12GB, and comparable quad cameras — not to mention a 65W charger that comes in the box.
While Google may not have the same huge lead in imaging that it used to take for granted, the Google Pixel 6 is being announced on October 19, and will hopefully be available for purchase by the time you're reading this updated review. The Pixel 6 features a drastically new design compared to Pixels past, and it'll be the first to feature Google's new Tensor chipset. Most importantly, the Pixel 6 will feature the first major camera update in years, which paired with Google's computational photography could make the Pixel 6 the best camera experience on the market by a fair margin.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Should you buy it?
You should buy this if ...
You can take advantage of Samsung's trade-in offers.
The Galaxy S21 is already $200 more affordable than its predecessor, but that $800 price can drop down to as low as $150 if you turn in your current device in good condition. At that point, it becomes easy to justify, even if you're coming from last year's S20.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is too big or too expensive for you.
Customers looking for the ultimate experience Samsung can offer should still opt for the Galaxy S21 Ultra over the baseline model, but that phone's size and weight can be a lot to handle. The S21 condenses the same overall experience down to a much more compact form factor.
You should not buy this if ...
You want the best cameras available.
While the Galaxy S21's Snapdragon 888 chipset improves image processing, the sensors themselves are identical to those found on the Galaxy S20. If you want to see truly massive improvements to your phone's optics, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is still the way to go.
4 out of 5
The Galaxy S21 makes all the right compromises to reach a lower price point without impeding too much on the core flagship experience — but even the right compromises are still just that; compromises. The S21 is a great everyday phone for casual users who want a smooth Android experience with reasonably powerful cameras, but if you want to carry the absolute best of the best, you'll want to look elsewhere.
The polycarbonate body helps lower the price without making the phone feel cheap. The flat display does the same thing. The reduced RAM has little impact on overall performance, especially when paired with the Snapdragon 888. This is still, by all means, a premium phone, only without the premium price tag to match.
Review Changelog, October 2021
This article was originally published in January 2021. It was updated in October 2021 with the following changes.
- Updated prince and availability to reflect product shortages and current deals.
- Updated competition to include the imminent Pixel 6.
- Added references to Android 12 and the One UI 4 Beta.
- Updated pricing and links to reflect current prices and availability.
It was updated in June 2021 with the following changes.
- Added the changelog.
- Updated pricing and availability to reflect current deals and trade-in offers.
- Updated competition section to include the OnePlus 9.
Samsung Galaxy S21, 1 month later review
It's already been a full month since the Galaxy S21 hit the scene, and while it's still a relatively new entry in the Android space, it's been enough time for the honeymoon phase to end and for any possible cracks to rear their head. Thankfully, the Galaxy S21 is every bit as compelling of a device as it was back in January — if not more so.
One month in, everything we originally liked about the S21 has held up admirably. The 120Hz display still looks stunning in day-to-day use, and while there was some outcry about the 1080p Full HD resolution, I've yet to find myself in a situation where I was wishing for more pixels. The flat design of the screen has also been nothing but pure bliss. It may not be as visually striking as Samsung's curved displays, but in daily use, it's so much more comfortable.
Speaking of comfort, I've found myself really liking Samsung's use of plastic on the S21. Sure it's not as premium as glass, but it allows the phone to be shockingly lightweight. When you combine that with the flat display and small(ish) 6.2-inch screen size, the S21 is one of the more user-friendly smartphones I've used in some time.
Taking a look inside the Galaxy S21, the Snapdragon 888 remains a performance beast. That's far from a surprise considering the flagship nature of the chipset, but it is reassuring that the S21 feels every bit as fast and snappy as it did on day one. Battery life also remains unchanged, though that's not quite as strong of a compliment. I've never had an issue making it through a full day of use, but that's with a lifestyle of only leaving the house to get groceries. When we get back to a point where we can go out safely to restaurants, bars, etc., you'll probably want to throw the S21 on the charger before you head out.
Outside of that middling battery life, the only other complaint I have is with Samsung's bombardment of advertisements. From in-app ads to push notifications, the S21 is constantly trying to get you to buy something — whether it be another Samsung product or a subscription to Fishing TV. It is possible to turn off some of these, but not completely. I really hope Samsung takes the criticism to heart and reworks its ad policy for future releases because it's been one of the biggest annoyances of using the S21 day-to-day.
Those complaints aside, everything else about the S21 experience has been great. The triple-camera system is incredibly capable (if not all that different compared to the S20), Samsung's One UI 3.1 software is chock-full of features and settings to mess with, and I've not once missed having MST or expandable storage.
Since the S21's launch, Samsung's done a couple of things to make the phone an even more interesting purchase. The company recently announced that it's committing to four years of security updates for all of its recent Galaxy devices, and in addition to that, recent sales have brought the S21 down to as low as $650. If you've been thinking about picking up the Galaxy S21 but have held off so far, now's the time to act. It's cheaper than ever, will be updated longer than we originally expected, and holds strong as a fantastic Android phone in almost every regard. So far so good, Samsung.