In January, Samsung launched three new models in the Galaxy S series, the South Korean electronics giant’s absolute flagship series of smartphones. The three new mobiles, Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21+ and Galaxy S21 Ultra, are each direct successors to the three Galaxy S20 models from 2020, which was the first year when Samsung launched a so-called Ultra model with even wilder specifications than the other top mobiles in the series.
Until then, the top models were called Samsung Galaxy S10+ (2019), Samsung Galaxy S9+ (2018) and so on, and in fact we have to go all the way back to 2016 and Samsung Galaxy S7 to find a year where the regular S model was also the top model.
But even though the Galaxy S21 is the smallest and cheapest in this year’s S-series, it is certainly not uninteresting. In fact, on the contrary. Only a few will want to or can afford to pay the exorbitantly high price for the Galaxy S21 Ultra. And since the Galaxy S21 is identical to the Galaxy S21+, except that the screen is a bit smaller, it’s hard to curb the exaltation when the Galaxy S21 costs over £100 less than its big brother.
Design and construction
Galaxy S20 from 2020 was not at pretty sight. It looked as if Samsung had forgotten to involve the designers once the engineers had finished stuffing the new mobile with features.
But with the Galaxy S21 5G, it is a new ballgame. The design has been renewed with a camera module that is seamlessly integrated and aligns with the metal frame that surrounds the mobile body, just as the new mobile comes in new matte colors, Phantom Violet, Phantom Silver and Phantom Black, which means that the mobile does not attract greasy finger marks and has become significantly easier to hold in the hand.
The phone is practically frameless and has the front camera built-in as a punched hole in the screen. Both front and rear are Gorilla Glass Victus, while the narrow metal frame is made of hardened aluminum, which, however, looks like metallic plastic, which is actually our only point of criticism as far as the mobile’s appearance is concerned.
There is nothing to blame on the build quality. Samsung Galaxy S21 robust and solidt. The Galaxy S21 is also IP68-certified, so it is quite official that it should be able to withstand a little of everything.
Screen and sound
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G comes with a Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen with adaptive 120 Hz refresh rate, HDR10+ certification and a maximum brightness of up to 1300 nits. It is more than enough that you can easily use your mobile phone outdoors while the sun is shining from a clear sky. Something we even managed to confirm when the sun shone for a while through the February cloud cover. You obviously have to go all the way to the Sahara before it is no longer possible to see what is happening on the screen.
The refresh rate is adaptive to save on power consumption. In practice, this means that the screen frequency adjusts automatically, depending on what is happening on the screen. If you look at a photo, the frequency is lowered all the way down to 48 Hz. When watching video, the frequency increases to 60 Hz, while the maximum refresh rate of 120 Hz is active when scrolling on web pages, scrolling through menus, or playing games.
But where users of the Samsung Galaxy S20 were forced to choose between the high QHD+ resolution and the high refresh rate (which could only run in FHD resolution), the screen of the Samsung Galaxy S21 has simply been downgraded compared to last year’s model. Now the maximum resolution is just 2400 x 1080 pixels (FHD+), which is a pretty boring way to solve the dilemma. You will have to do better, Samsung!
Especially because the Galaxy S21 otherwise offers a screen that is close to being unsurpassed. The screen is razor sharp and very bright, the colors are extremely strong, and it is a real pleasure to watch high quality content (eg from Netflix) on the HDR10+ certified screen. There is great depth in the image and the contrast level is the best we have seen. And the user experience when moving around in menus, on web pages and on the home screen is extremely fluid and fast.
Also when it comes to the audio experience, the Galaxy S21 delivers. The mobile offers high-resolution sound using the built-in 32 bit DAC and supports i.a. Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus as well as of course aptX.
The sound quality when using the Galaxy S21 as a sound source for music streaming is really good and there is also a set of good stereo speakers in the mobile so that it can be used with a clear conscience to watch short videos, play games or talk hands-free without headphones.
Samsung has equipped the Galaxy S21 5G with a camera module with 12 megapixel ultra-wide angle (f/2.2), 12 megapixel ordinary wide angle (f/1.8 with optical image stabilization) and 64 megapixel telephoto. The front camera is 10 megapixels (f/2.2).
We know most of the camera features from last year’s Galaxy S20 series. Among other things. Space Zoom, which is Samsung’s name for a zoom function that combines optical and digital zoom with digital cropping of the subject in the image, so you can zoom up to 30x on any object.
In practice, this is done via the 64-megapixel telephoto lens. It actually has only 1.1x optical zoom, but combined with digital zoom, that number is increased to so-called 3x hybrid optical zoom. The rest is done by cropping the image, which can be done due to the high resolution of 64 megapixels.
However, the result is not convincing. Rather, it is – like last year – a gimmick that can not produce proper images at all.
Of real camera news, it should be mentioned that with the Galaxy S21 you can shoot video with up to 4K resolution and 60 fps with all the camera’s lenses. To get the most out of this technological advancement, Samsung has introduced a new camera feature called Director’s View, which lets the user manually switch between the camera’s different lenses when recording video.
At the same time, you can see yourself in the corner of the screen – and on the recordings – and we believe that the new feature will be loved by YouTubers and other influencers. In any case, the Director’s View is extremely easy to use in practice, and the result is a type of video we have not seen before from a mobile phone.
Pictures taken at night or in dark environments have also been improved thanks to artificial intelligence that makes the sensor faster so it lets in more light.
Performance and features
Under the hood of the Galaxy S21 we find Samsung’s brand new 5 nm 64 bit octa-core Exynos 2100 processor. In addition, the phone comes with 5G (SA, NSA and Sub-6/mmWave), Wi-Fi 6, 25 watt fast charging as well as 15 watt wireless charging and the option to charge other devices wirelessly.
Like Apple, Samsung delivers its latest mobiles in climate-friendly packaging without the included charger. If you do not have a charger in advance and have to buy it as an accessory, the total price for mobile and charger is on a par with last year’s price for the corresponding Galaxy S20 including charger.
We have run all our current benchmark tests on mobile, and not surprisingly, the Galaxy S21 is pretty much the most powerful smartphone you can buy for money at the time of writing. It’s not quite as wild as our test copy of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but that’s solely because the Galaxy S21 has to settle for 8 gigabytes of RAM versus the 16 gigabytes of RAM that sit in the Ultra model.
The closest competitor in the price range is the iPhone 12 mini, and if we compare the test results, Apple wins, as far as the Geekbench 5 is concerned, which measures the overall performance of the CPU. In contrast, Samsung’s mobile is fastest in tests that measure graphics performance – such as GFXBench and 3DMark. In everyday use, it is difficult to feel any real difference.
The fact is that the Samsung Galaxy S21 performs like a nuclear power plant. There is no hesitation, everything goes lightning fast, and especially with the high refresh rate of 120 Hz, the user interface is slick as oil, and neither the heaviest apps (games like Asphalt 9) nor hefty multitasking can make the phone break a sweat.
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G and the more than 1,000 kroner more expensive Galaxy S21+ 5G are identical except for two differences. Galaxy S21 owners must make do with a back of reinforced polycarbonate, while the Plus model has Gorilla Glass Victus both front and rear. In addition, the Galaxy S21 comes with a 6.2-inch screen, while the Galaxy S21+ has a 6.7-inch screen size. However, this is not necessarily an advantage, as both mobiles come with FHD+ resolution (2400 x 1080 pixels), which actually makes the pixel density and thus the image quality of the Galaxy S21 higher and better.
So in other words, with the Galaxy S21 you get a slightly smaller, but visually sharper better screen and otherwise exactly the same specifications as with the Galaxy S21+. But for a significantly lower price.
Seen in that light, it is not difficult to conclude that the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G is the best buy in the new Galaxy S series.