(Pocket-lint) - The Samsung Galaxy A devices cover a broad range, often pushing experimental new ideas at the top-end and dropping all the way down to entry-level devices - the latter being exactly where the A21S sits.
At this entry level Samsung aims to offer some of the great things the company is known for - like the comprehensive software solution in One UI - alongside plenty of camera tech.
But when it comes to Samsung phones, how low can you really go?
Design and build
- Dimensions: 163.7 x 75.3 x 8.9mm / Weight: 192g
- Plastic rear casing
- Punch-hole display
Long gone are the days when entry-level devices offered a poor build quality. The Samsung Galaxy A21S is a plastic-bodied device, but it still carries hallmarks of Samsung design, mocking the style of the camera block in the left-hand corner of the rear through to the notch-free design of the display, using a punch-hole instead.
There's some shimmer and depth to the rear of the phone, while the screen surround's bezels are kept to something of a minimum - so this a modern looking phone. It also feels solid and somewhat weighty - thanks to the substantial battery - so there's no danger of this coming across as a flimsy device.
There's a 3.5mm headphone socket, the favoured option for those holding onto existing headphones or wanting to avoid another wireless device to charge. That socket sits alongside the USB-C for charging and single speaker all on the bottom of the phone.
That loudspeaker isn't very substantial and if you care about sound then we'd recommend using headphones to get a better experience.
- Flat 6.5-inch LCD display
- 1600 x 720 pixels
- 60Hz refresh
The display on the Galaxy A21S is a good size. At 6.5-inches there's no avoiding that it's large and, as we mentioned above, using a punch-hole where the front-facing camera lives means it's free from in-your-eyeline notches, with bezels kept to a reasonable size.
But this display loses much of what Samsung is known for. It's an LCD type for starters - which isn't inherently a bad thing, but the colour tuning isn't that great, so the colours don't really pop off this display like they would from an AMOLED panel (which Samsung is renowned for).
When you look at photos taken on this phone, they're not as rich as they are in real life - something to bear in mind before you start trying to edit them to perfection. That screen also isn't hugely bright, which reinforces this problem - especially on bright days outdoors.
The display problems run a little deeper too: the resolution is fairly low for this size and we could see the striations in the graphics, so things like app icons look slightly stripy. It's not the end of the world, because this is a low-priced phone, but a smaller display or a higher resolution would give a better experience - and many rivals do just that.
A minor point is that the polarising layer on this phone runs on the landscape plane, so if you have fancy polarising sunglasses, when you rotate the phone into landscape to take a photo, for example, the display will go completely black.
So the A21S is not the strongest performer when it comes to the display.
Hardware and performance
- Exynos 850 processor, 3GB RAM
- 32GB storage + microSD card
- 5,000mAh battery
The Samsung Galaxy A21S is a budget device, sitting in an entry-level position, and that's reflected the in the Exynos 850 hardware that powers this phone, supported by 3GB of RAM.
This is mid-range hardware and it delivers mid-range performance, meaning it's far from smooth. While day-to-day things like social media and browsing are fine, there's an inescapable slowness to navigating and using the phone. You can't smoothly scroll through long social feeds because they catch and stutter because there's not a huge amount of power.
The A21S will attempt to open demanding games and give them a go, but it's not a great experience so it soon becomes frustrating. Thinking you might want to run Call of Duty Mobile? You should really look elsewhere, because you'll soon be put off.
For simple and casual games, streaming movies or music, this phone has no problems at all - and in fact, it has quite a significant advantage over some rivals.
We've always raved about phones like the Moto G8 Power, because of the huge battery life. Well Samsung is repeating that performance in the Galaxy A21A with a huge battery capacity that will last you beyond two days.
With the low power hardware and the low demands on the battery, endurance is something that this phone does well - and you don't even need to turn on any sort of power saving mode to make that happen.
- Quad camera system
- Main 48MP, f/2.0
- Ultra-wide 8MP, f/2.2
- Macro 2MP, f/2.4
- Depth sensor
The Samsung Galaxy A21S claims a quad camera system like so many phones these days. Even at the affordable end of the scale, Samsung wants to give you more cameras than you can shake a phone at - but don't shake the phone as there's no optical image stabilisation here.
The main camera is a 48-megapixel sensor, which by default shoots at 12-megapixels, using pixel combining. There's a 48MP mode if you want it, which uses full resolution for more detail. The only real advantage that offers is if you want to zoom in and crop the image for a closer view - and Samsung's software lets you do this easily enough, which is great for making wallpapers as it crops to the screen's aspect.
There is no telephoto lens in among those four, however, so there's no optical zoom option, instead you just get 8x digital zoom. You could use the full resolution shot and crop instead, but once you get into the same 8x magnification you'll find it looks worse, so that's not worth messing around with.
What really comes through here is that Samsung's camera experience from its flagship models trickles down into this level to a certain degree - as the main camera will give you good shots, even an HDR (high dynamic range - to balance shadows and highlights) system that works well.
For this little money, you get a capable main camera, but it doesn’t have the low-light skills that you'll find in more advanced phones, with indoor shots quickly losing colour balance and sharpness and getting noisy, before the crushing darkness takes over.
The ultra-wide camera gives you more composition options, but it does tend to blur around the edges, a hallmark of cheaper phones. It's fun and that's good enough at this price.
Samsung pushes its "live focus" system using the depth sensor - which is the fourth lens - and this is fine. It will provide those portrait shots - although we've always thought that the depth sensor was a bit of a fluff that you don't really need and it's just making up the numbers to get that quad system box ticked.
Finally there's a macro camera - which seems to have become en vogue in cheaper phones of late - although we're not convinced anyone really wanted a macro camera for close-up shooting. Again, there's the feeling that it's just making up the numbers here. It's also fixed focus, so getting anything sharp from it is nigh on impossible. If you really want a macro shot, you're better using the 48MP mode and cropping yourself for that extra-close detail.
There's a 13-megapixel front camera and this isn't so good. It tends to give you fairly washed out shots and certainly benefits from a little tweaking once you've taken the photo to put a little contrast and colour back.
While the main camera works well enough, there's still that inherent slowness that comes from the lack of core power and that means the camera app is slow to open and then slow to process photos and open previews - but that's partly to be expected on this level of device.
- Android 10
- Samsung One UI
The Samsung Galaxy A21S comes with the latest Google Android and Samsung software over the top of that, so you're getting similar software to flagship Galaxy S devices. That means you get a lot of options and controls in the software that have evolved through Samsung's long experience with Android smartphones. There's also a lot that's stripped out, but we can't say we missed anything.
We still rate Samsung as offering one of the best user experiences. There's some bloat, because there's some duplication or pre-loading of apps, although you can get this stuff under control. Ditching the Samsung keyboard and moving to Gboard will give a slicker experience, while we also have a preference for Google native apps rather than Samsung's own.
Of course the experience is undermined slightly by the lack of power, but it's something you will get used to. It's never going to be the fastest phone in the world and at this price you wouldn't expect it to be - but other devices such as the Redmi Note 9 feel faster around the user interface, even if that phone's user experience isn't as precise as Samsung's.
We opened with the question of just how low you can go? And we think the Samsung Galaxy A21S hits that point where you wouldn't want to go any lower.
There are clear limitations that come with affordability - the display isn't great and there's an obvious lack of power that will slow down the daily experience and limit some of what you'll do.
But that's countered by a main camera that's surprisingly good (ignore the excess lens additions) and a battery life that goes on and on and on. If you want to know that you'll still be able to message your friends at the end of the weekend without charging, this phone will do it.
So if you're desperate for the Samsung experience, then sure, you get some of that here, but with real limitations. Opt for some similarly-priced rival devices scoreand you could end up with a much better phone.
Alternatives to consider
Moto G8 Power
Clean software and a great design meet in a phone also offering exceptional battery life. The Moto G Power series started the big battery trend. It's a mite more expensive, but it's also a better overall experience.
Redmi Note 9
- The best mobile phone deals in 2021 for the Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, Google Pixel, OnePlus and more
While the Redmi Note 9 doesn't have such clean software as Samsung's devices, you get a decent display and plenty of power, so it will accomplish a little more.