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(Pocket-lint) - Samsung's new normal is the Galaxy S21. This phone sits in the most affordable position, more compact, but offering all the power of its larger siblings, the Galaxy S21+ and the S21 Ultra.

It feels like a bit of a departure from Samsung's most recent phones, drawing a clearer distinction between this, the "regular" S21, and the Ultra sitting at the top of the pile. But there are some familiar moves here. As Shirley Bassey said, it's a little bit of history repeating.

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Design

  • 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm, 172g
  • Plastic back
  • IP68 waterproofing

In previous generations, the regular Galaxy S has set the tone for the family, offering a smaller version of the phone in the plus position. That was the case all the way back to the Galaxy S8, the 2017 phone where Samsung moved curved display edges into the mainstream. Prior to that, the Samsung Galaxy S7 occupied the entry-level slot with a flat display, while the S7 Edge sat in a more premium position. What's perhaps most remarkable about the Samsung Galaxy S21, is that return to a flat display after all these years.

It was something that the Galaxy S20 FE did towards the end of 2020 and at the time it felt like Samsung was exploring a new direction for its phones - it was almost like a prototype for Samsung's phones to come; now in 2021 the flat display and the plastic back are in, drawing a more distinct line between the S21 Ultra at the top of the table and the S21 at the foot. 

But this isn't just a story about Samsung stripping away premium features. Indeed, some will see that having a flat display is inherently more usable, just as some will see that opting for a plastic back means you're less likely to smash it on day one.

What's important about the plastic back is that it doesn’t look or feel cheap. Thanks to the way the camera has been integrated on the S21, with that housing flush against the widened frame of the phone in that corner, there's a sense of purpose and style to this phone that you don't get elsewhere.

Pocket-lintSamsung Galaxy S21 review photo 13

Let's face it: as good as the Galaxy S20 FE is, it could be any phone from any number of manufacturers - but the Samsung Galaxy S21 looks unique. There's nothing else like it on the market, and whether you love it or loathe it, the exuberant camera design is part of the brand identity. It's very Samsung.

That sees a continuation of the great sound from the stereo speakers, boosted with virtualised Dolby Atmos. Samsung uses the ear speaker and a speaker on the base of the phone and generally the quality is really good, the only downside being that it's fairly easy to cover the base speaker, especially when gaming in landscape. Another minor problem is that Samsung has moved the SIM tray from the top of the phone to the bottom - and moved the microphone opening closer to the USB-C. 

While the redesign doesn't really matter, it does mean it's easier to cover the mic hole. If you're one of those people who supports the phone with a finger underneath when holding it one-handed, you'll probably cover the mic, meaning video calls or other voice interactions might not work as well. This is more of an issue on the larger S21 Ultra but it's something to watch out for here too.

Of course, Samsung holds onto the IP68 waterproofing, because this is still a premium handset, but hiding behind these fancy new looks is the problem that this phone is, essentially, a minor upgrade of the Galaxy S20 FE (albeit a smaller size), with a fairly hefty price bump. What will appeal to some is that the Galaxy S21 is still fairly compact - so you're getting flagship performance in a smaller device.

Display

  • 6.2in, 2400 x 1080 pixels, 424ppi
  • Adaptive refresh rate 48-120Hz
  • HDR10+ support

We've spoken a little about the display design above, so we're not going to repeat that here - and move right onto the next decision that might prove controversial. Samsung has cut the Galaxy S21 back to full HD. That means you have a 2400 x 1080 pixel resolution, 424ppi, whereas in previous years, Samsung has offered Quad HD+ displays.

Pocket-lintSamsung Galaxy S21 review photo 10

The reality is that Samsung has always run Full HD+ as the default resolution and many people were happy to accept that, never venturing into the higher resolution that was offered. On a phone with a 6.2-inch display it's not a huge issue, because you're talking about really fine detail, but it's true - in terms of resolution, the S21 isn't as adept as the generations of phones that came before it. It also, comparatively, now slips in below the iPhone 12 in terms of pixel density.

But the big boost that you get is adaptive refresh rate, with the Galaxy S21 able to shift to refresh rates between 48 and 120Hz to suit the content you're viewing. That will mean for a static page it will be a low refresh and for a fast moving page, it will increase. There will be less blur on scrolling and better visual performance on games, without draining the battery unnecessarily.

Among these changes, Samsung has kept the vibrant and punchy display that it's known for and that's what really comes through. While the default autobrightness is perhaps a little on the low side to really make this display sing, once you've bumped it up a little the phone learns that you like it a little brighter. We also don't really mind the loss of the curves either: with a phone this size, curves wouldn't help handholdability, but you do still have features like Edge Panels on the software side, if you want to use them.

Hardware performance and software

  • Exynos 2100 or Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, 5G
  • 8GB RAM; 128GB/256GB storage options
  • 4000mAh battery

As with previous versions of Samsung Galaxy S phones, you'll either find the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100 powering your phone. While that will likely still divide the critics, the structure of these two platforms is now a lot closer than it has been in previous years, which bodes well for Samsung. We have the Exynos version that you'll get in Europe.

Pocket-lintSamsung Galaxy S21 review photo 4

The performance of the Samsung Galaxy S21 is slick and fast - it's a little better than the S20 FE that came before it (bare in mind that our S21 is Exynos 2100 and the S20 FE is Snapdragon 865), handling anything you can throw at it and putting in a good showing on the most demanding of games, without getting hot. There are fewer options this time around, with 8GB RAM and either 128 or 256GB storage, but the big change here is the removal of the microSD card slot.

That, for many, will be the biggest downside to Samsung's repositioning of the Galaxy S. For many years, Samsung has been the brand where you could buy lower storage and boost that with the cheap memory card. However, with data costing less and streaming so prolific, it does beg the question of whether people really need to carry so much local content on their devices these days. For some, however, it might be a deal breaker.

Pocket-lintSamsung Galaxy S21 review photo 2

There's a 4000mAh battery, but no charger in the box, so you'll have to use an existing charger - although you do get a cable. The battery life is generally very good from the Galaxy S21, with Samsung seemingly overcoming the "small phone, small battery life" issues we've seen in previous years. The Galaxy S21 will get you through 2 days in light use - but when you ramp up the demands you'll find things dropping off rather more rapidly.

There's still wireless charging and Wireless Powershare, meaning you can plonk your Galaxy Buds Pro on the back to charge them. Again, there are no headphones in the box.

The Galaxy S21 lands with Samsung's One UI 3.1, sitting over the top of Android 11, so that software is bang up-to-date. It has a few additional features over and above One UI 3.0 which has rolled-out to most S20 models, but the takeaway is that it's a slick offering. While it changes pretty much everything Android lays out, there's a slow movement towards being a little more Google centric, especially with the option to have Google Discover accessible from your home screen, just like you can on the Pixel

While Samsung talked up a closer working relationship with Google at the launch of the S21 family, you'll still find a lot of duplication and app swapping. Samsung still has its own keyboard, browser, messaging and calling apps, which are worth swapping for the Google alternatives, because we think they offer a better experience. Samsung's Gallery has some useful features in it that you don't get in Google Photos, so it's worth getting to know - but besides that, there are a number of preinstalled apps that you can remove or dump in a folder never to see again. 

Samsung's software contains so many options - some are well hidden from view - so it's well worth diving into our detailed tips and tricks to help you find them. Overall, we can't complain: it has been a stable experience for us and we haven't encountered any problems from a software point of view.

Cameras

  • Triple camera system
    • Main camera: 12-megapixel, 1.8µm pixel size, f/1.8 aperture, OIS
    • Telephoto: 64MP, (3x hybrid optic / 30x digital zoom) 0.8µm, f/2.0, OIS
    • Ultra-wide: 12MP, 1.4µm, f/2.2
  • Selfie: 10MP, 1.22µm, f/2.2

As was the case with the Galaxy S20, the S21 has three cameras on the back taking a different approach to the Ultra, opting for a 12-megapixel main camera with large pixels - 1.8µm. It's a restrained approach and the same taken by the iPhone and Google Pixel, aiming to give better results because it doesn't have to use pixel binning from smaller pixels which is what happens in high resolution sensors. 

The cameras offer a good performance across different situations, giving good results both in daylight and low light, although the images that the Galaxy S21 lack the sharpness of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which is easily the better in terms of overall performance.

Although the camera make-up on the S21 is slightly different to the S20 FE, when it comes to the main camera performance and zoom performance, the results are remarkably close, both offering 30x digital zoom with similar results. 

There seems to have been a boost in low light shooting, with Samsung's scene optimiser able to offer better low light shots, but switching to Night Mode garners the best results, able to give you low light images while controlling noise. This can give usable images from very dark scenes, as well as coping with dim indoor conditions, while also able to juggle things like artificial coloured lighting with some skill. Night Mode on the front camera also means great low light selfies, boosted with a little screen illumination to help your face stand out. 

The zoom offering uses that 3x hybrid optic camera on the back, but it has limitations. While it will let you hop out to 30x zoom, the performance drops off rapidly. The difference between the 10x digital zoom and 10x optical zoom on the S21 Ultra really shows in the examples below, with the S21 Ultra able to deliver better images thanks to that optical lens.

That's because there's a minor detail here not to be missed and that's the fact that it's a 3x hybrid optic camera, not optical. That means it's not really using lens magnification, it's using sensor cropping instead. That explains the mediocre performance on telephoto, because it's mostly digital zoom. 

While Samsung isn't pushing high resolution photography on this camera, you can actually take 64-megapixel photos using the sensor in the telephoto camera. That's right - that's how you know there's no magnifcation on the lense, because when you switch to 64-megapixel mode, you get the same view that you do from the main camera. Again, that means you can capture finer detail if you want to, croping in closer to make a new image.

The front camera performs well. It's 10-megapixels and offers a better portrait mode offering, with Samsung having dropped the confusing "live focus" naming that it used previously. The portrait performance from front and back cameras is good, with edge detection generally solid, only occasionally confused when faced with a more difficult scene in front of it. Samsung has also boosted the number of backgrounds available which is a lot of fun, including some Apple-like studio lighting effects that you can apply. 

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There's also been a shake up around video, with 4K 60fps available through all the cameras, front and back. That means you can capture a lot of pretty smooth, high quality, video, with things like Director's Mode allowing you to view the live feed from all the cameras at the same time and seamlessly switch, while also recording from the front camera, popular for reaction videos.

For those who want to step up to the next-gen, there's 8K 24fps support, but only from the rear camera (again using that 64-megapixel sensor). Samsung is pushing the idea of taking 8K photos, by grabbing a still image from an 8K video, but in reality, given that the capture rate is slower than all the other video resolutions, you're more likely to get a blurred image via this method. You can, if you want, take a still from the 4K 60fps video - or just use the camera, or the Single Take mode which captures videos and stills simultaneously and then gives you a digest of images of whatever you were filming - it's great for action, like your dog going wild.

There's a lot on offer in the camera, perhaps more than anyone will seriously use, but there's no question that the Galaxy S21 Ultra is a superior performer. 

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S21 moves further from the Galaxy S21 Ultra with this latest iteration of device, drawing out more of a distinction than with the S20 models. That sees the Galaxy S21 as inferior, with only a slight reduction in price to offset against the potential subtractions from this flagship phone. 

There's a useful arrangement of cameras, a great display and a compact body offering waterproofing that packs in flagship-grade power. The Galaxy S21 is a great performer, but there are a few details that people will pick up on: the loss of the microSD, the move to a 1080p flat display and the plastic back, which brings the perception of a lesser device than the Galaxy S20 which came before it. That's not helped by the Galaxy S20 FE, which is substantially cheaper than the Galaxy S20 but only a marginal step behind in terms of what it offers. 

The result is that the Galaxy S21 - while being an attractive phone that's very capable and slick in daily use - is now clearly in a position that's lower than the S21 Ultra, which feels more enhanced in a number of ways. That might see buyers drawn to the older, cheaper, model instead.

Alternatives to consider

Sony Xperia 5 II

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The Xperia 5 II is one of the most compelling phones from Sony, offering plenty of power, a great display and good overall performance. There's a capable camera that puts in a good showing although the app is a little messy. 

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

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Samsung's S20 FE is a stealth hero, offering all the goodness of the flagship S20+, but in a package that's a lot cheaper. While this is an older device, it offers an experience that's close to the Galaxy S21 - the design isn't as exciting and it doesn't offer 8K video capture, but it's got a decent display, waterproofing and almosts as much power.

Writing by Chris Hall. Originally published on 18 January 2021.