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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: Should you upgrade?

Samsung Galaxy S21 in-hand
Samsung Galaxy S21 in-hand (Image credit: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 Render Phantom Violet Back Official

Samsung is finally realizing that less is more, and nowhere is this lesson more apparent than a Galaxy S21 that aims for the average consumer's needs rather than playing to bleeding-edge spec hounds. There's also a nice visual update and support for standalone and mmWave 5G.

Samsung Galaxy S21

The new hotness

Snappy new processor with better 5G
The latest Samsung software
Upgraded cameras
Flat screen with 120Hz is easier to hold and use
Get it for $100 with S20 trade-in
Plastic back
Sidegrade in screen quality
No more microSD slot

Samsung Galaxy S20

Samsung Galaxy S20 Cloud Blue Cropped

The Galaxy S20 was one of the best phones of last year, so if the incredible trade-in values don't lure you in, you can stick to a phone with great performance, good cameras, and a case you already have and love.

Samsung Galaxy S20

Niche appeal

Higher resolution screen
MST support in Samsung Pay
microSD card support
Glass back
It's not being sold new anymore
Less 5G compatibility

Samsung is here with the Samsung Galaxy S21, and between a striking visual refresh and some strategic upgrades — and sidegrades — it's drawing a lot of attention. However, is it worth the hassle of trading in your year-old Galaxy S20 for the new model? The short answer: yes, so long as trade-in prices stay as high as they are.

The long answer is more complicated. The Galaxy S21 might not be a traditional upgrade, but it's certainly a practical one for all but the niche cases, which we'll outline below.

The Galaxy S21 is a sidegrade in all the right places

Pictured: Galaxy S21 (left) and Galaxy S20.

Looking at the Galaxy S21 and S20 side by side, the phones don't seem all that different, and in most ways, you'd be absolutely right. The screen size is the same, they're both the same height and thickness, and both have the same 4,000mAh battery. We get a newer processor and slightly newer cameras, and support for standalone and millimeter-wave 5G, but otherwise, the S21 is a lateral move rather than a barn-burner of an upgrade.

In fact, when you really look at the specs, Samsung even downgraded the S21 in a couple of places to keep that starting price as low as it did.

Samsung Galaxy S21Samsung Galaxy S20
Display6.2-inch 120Hz Dynamic AMOLED
2400x1080 (20:9)
HDR10+
Gorilla Glass Victus
6.2-inch 120Hz Dynamic AMOLED
3200x1440 (20:9)
563ppi
HDR10+
ProcessorSnapdragon 888Qualcomm Snapdragon 865
Memory8GB12GB
Storage128GB
256GB
128 GB
Expandable StorageUp to 1TB
Rear Camera 112MP f/1.8, OIS
8K at 30fps
4K at 60fps
12MP wide
1/1.76"
1.8um
f/1.8
Rear Camera 212MP, f/2.2
wide-angle
64MP telephoto
3x Hybrid Optic Zoom
30x Super Resolution Zoom
1/1.72"
0.8um
f/2.0
Rear Camera 364MP, f/3.0
telephoto, OIS
3x optical zoom
12MP ultra-wide
1/2.55"
1.4um
f/2.2
Front Camera10MP f/1.7
auto focus
10MP
1.22um
f/2.2
5GNon Standalone (NSA)
Standalone (SA)
Sub-6
mmWave
Non Standalone (NSA)
Sub-6
Mobile PaymentsNFCNFC
MST
Battery4000mAh4,000 mAh
Dimensions151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm151.7 x 69.1 x 7.9mm
Weight172g163g

RAM on the S21 is 8GB rather than the 12GB it was on the S20 5G — the Galaxy S20 4G sold in some international markets had 8GB, too — and while there's an option for 256GB of internal storage, there's no longer a microSD card slot. I am fine with the lack of microSD storage because it slows down the flagship experience and is prone to more problems, but some data hoarders will bemoan the inability to stick a terabyte of storage inside a 128GB phone.

Google Discover feed on the Galaxy S21

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

The other downgrade that users might notice is the screen. The S20 had a 1440p screen while the S21 "only" has 1080p, but there's a good reason for this change. The S20 supported 120Hz refresh rates only at 1080p; if you went up to 1440p, you were stuck with 60Hz. Since most people prioritized a faster refresh rate and that butter-smooth scrolling in Twitter and Instagram, 1440p was wasted on most Galaxy S20 users, and Samsung swapped down to 120Hz to save itself and consumers some money. Samsung also swapped to a flat panel, which is easier to grip and easier to buy good screen protectors for.

There's also something to be said for Samsung removing MST support for the North American models of the Galaxy S21, but like with microSD support, its death is actually a good thing unless you live somewhere with older, outdated card readers.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: Why upgrading is a no-brainer

If the Galaxy S21 isn't this massive, spec upgrade, why is upgrading such a compelling proposition this year? Samsung's trade-in deal this year is even more better than normal.

See, the Galaxy S21 starts at $800, but Samsung's running a special where they'll give you $700 of trade-in value for a Galaxy S20, S20+, or S20 Ultra. This means that S20 owners can get an S21 for just $100 plus an extra $100 of promotional credit at Samsung.com to use towards cases, chargers, or even those swanky new Galaxy Buds Pro.

So, you can get the S21 for basically free, and for the upgraded cameras, the better 5G support, and an extra year of software updates, you should absolutely take advantage.

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.