Samsung’s 2021 lineup for the S-series is a rather polarizing one, with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra housing the very best features, and the S21 being a very close cousin. The Samsung Galaxy S21 might feel like it’s a flagship that cut corners and in some ways, it does, but there is a lot more nuance to the situation than meets the eye, so lets dive right in and see if this phone is worth your money.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Build and Design
The Samsung Galaxy S21 is a smartphone that’s hard to miss. For one, the Phantom Violet colour we received is definitely a unique shade and the golden camera module gives it a nice touch. Perhaps the one thing that might turn most users away is the use of polycarbonate for the back, essentially a form of plastic. However, once you hold this phone in one hand and hold the S21 Ultra in another, the two feel almost the same to the touch. The only difference is that the S21 is definitely much smaller and lighter. Despite the use of “glasstic,” the S21 carries an IP68 rating and definitely looks very premium. You still get the Gorilla Glass Victus on the front and an aluminium frame, just like on the far more expensive S21 UItra.
The advantage of a smaller form factor is that this makes the Samsung Galaxy S21 much easier to use with a single hand. This is largely due to the fact that the phone weighs less, and the camera module doesn’t make it top-heavy like the S21. The right of the frame houses the power and volume buttons while the SIM tray and the speaker can be found on the bottom. Perhaps the most striking feature of the S21 continues to be its camera bump, which is definitely a “love it or hate it” kind of thing.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Display
Samsung may have reduced the resolution to FHD+ for the Galaxy S21, but that doesn’t take away from just how amazing it is. You get the 120Hz refresh rate and also HDR10+ certification. Samsung says the disp[lay can get as bright as 1300nits, which is quite incredible. This only happens when you’re watching HDR video though, and in day to day use, you can expect around 600-750 nits of brightness from this display. Using the Samsung Galaxy S21 as my daily driver has been very enjoyable. The display is crisp and very legible irrespective of the brightness levels outdoors. There’s very little problem of reflections and if you choose to watch movies on this thing while outside, you won’t regret it.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Performance
The Samsung Galaxy S21 is powered by the Company’s own Exynos 2100 SoC based on the 5nm manufacturing process. There’s also 8GB of LPDDR5 RAM and 256GB of ultra fast UFS3.1 storage on board. Unfortunately, there’s no microSD card slot around this time which is a bummer, but for most people, 256GB should be sufficient space. For everyone else, there’s always cloud backups for your photos and videos.
When it comes to normal tasks like handling your business over email, browsing the web and listening to music, the S21 feels like a complete champ of a smartphone. There is no lag, no stutter and no crashes, thanks to the synergy between the hardware and Samsung’s OneUI 3.1. If you’re looking at gaming, once again, you can expect a butter smooth gaming experience, but you will definitely notice the phone getting warm over extended usage. I played CoD Mobile for almost 30 minutes and found the phone to get notably warm, although it wasn’t uncomfortable to hold. There was no over heating warning either, which is a good sign. It is pretty amazing how far smartphone chipsets have come, offering all this power, but we are yet to see apps that can fully take advantage of this hardware. For example, while high refresh rate displays have become very common, we still don’t have support for higher than 60fps on most games for most devices. Photo and video editing on this smartphone is a breeze, irrespective of whether its an 8K video you’re editing (that you just shot) or a RAW file being edited in Snapseed.
While it can be argued that a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 powered S21 would have been better, the truth is, there aren’t a lot of apps out there besides benchmarking apps that can make use of the hardware. Additionally, the Exynos 2100 is delivering very impressive day-to-day performance and leaves no reason to complain by itself.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Camera
The Samsung Galaxy S21 is packing a very tried and tested camera setup; a 12MP primary camera, a 64P telephoto camera and a 12MP ultra-wide camera. Let’s start with the primary camera first, since we feel that you’re going to be using that the most.
Right off the bat, one thing that’s totally clear is that the primary camera on the Samsung Galaxy S21 is a star shooter. Samsung uses a large format sensor which results in some of the nicest images that come from a smartphone. Don’t worry about the resolution, its plenty for your social media following. The images are sharp, the colours vibrant and impressive dynamic range. While the photos themselves are good, there’s also autofocus, which is the reason why you’ll actually get those decisive shots. Samsung has one of the best AF systems, thanks to using dual-pixel AF on their primary sensors. This is one of those cameras where you can literally point at your subject, click and get an Instagram-worthy image. You may need to occasionally tap on the screen to select the subject depending on your frame, but for the most part, its very reliable. Once it gets dark, the low light mode on this primary camera can take care of things with utter ease.
The ultra-wide lens on the Samsung Galaxy S21 is also a rather impressive shooter. Samsung has built-in a distortion correction algorithm into this camera, making the photos look even nicer. While the images are not as sharp or feature the rich dynamic range, the fact that it comes with auto focus is a very big deal, since most smartphones don’t offer that. Having autofocus means you will have the freedom to frame your photos however you choose. The great thing is that you get night mode on the ultra wide camera as well, although the results are not as impressive as the one from the primary camera.
Last but not the least, we’ve got the 64MP telephoto camera, offering you 3x hybrid zoom. Now Samsung has achieved the telephoto result by using a large pixel sensor, and using digital zoom combined with a 1.1x lens to deliver the results. The lens does shoot really impressive and detail rich images when used outdoors, in good light. However, when you’re indoors or shooting in low light, the results are less than stellar due to the camera switching over to the wide-angle camera and combining that with the data from the telephoto lens. Essentially, there is lesser detail retention than the day time shots, although, the autofocus works just as reliably well.
Overall, the Samsung Galaxy S21 does make a great argument for being a great daily driver of a camera phone. The images are solid from all three cameras and they all work reliably well in good light and low light, whether it’s the autofocus or the image quality. Samsung also throws in 8K video for those of you who are obsessed with higher resolutions, and the h265 encoding ensures you’re not eating into your 256GB of space too quickly.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Battery Life
The Samsung Galaxy S21 packs a 4000mAh into a body that weighs just 171 grams. There was a time when 4000mAh batteries were a huge deal, but as smartphones have come to pack more and more features, its not sufficient. With the Samsung Galaxy S21, the battery life sways between “just barely enough” to “short.” This is because if you find yourself occasionally playing some games and watching YouTube videos through the day while also conducting work, the battery will drain out quickly, especially if you have the display set to 120Hz. If you’re someone who likes watching his or her Netflix in HDR, then the battery will drain even faster. If your uses are more reasonable, going between just social media, web browsers, email and some music playback, then you can expect just about a day’s worth of juice out of this phone. For charging, the phone support 25W fast charging and while you do get a cable in the box, there is no charger. In order to get the 25W fast charging, you will actually have to buy a USB-PD charger that supports that speed, since plugging the phone into the computer would charge it at a painfully slow speed.
Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S21?
There is a lot of talk about the Samsung Galaxy S21 being a smartphone that cuts too many corners. The truth is, it cuts just the right ones. By going glasstic, Samsung has given users a more durable back. Sure the cameras may not have a 108MP sensor, but when was the last time you met a person who was shooting 108MP photos on a regular basis? The megapixel count doesn’t matter as long as the pixel size on the sensor is large, and that’s what Samsung delivers here. The telephoto camera may be a scaled down version, but 3x zoom is still sufficient for most use cases. For anyone who needs a small form-factor daily driver with a premium experience, then the Samsung Galaxy S21 might be worth a look. The added advantage of Samsung Pay, Knox, Secure Folder and other such exclusive features make the phone a unique, and a much higher value proposition than just the standard hardware features.
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