Samsung Galaxy S21 review (hands on)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is an Android phone that’s designed to give you all the features you want from a flagship for a more affordable price. At $200 less than the Galaxy S20, Samsung crams in an impressive amount of upgrades, including a dynamic 120Hz display, a boatload of camera enhancements (including a new Zoom Lock feature) and a faster Snapdragon 888 chip. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Specs

OS: Android 11 with One UI 3
Screen size: 6.2 inches (2400 x 1080)
Refresh rate: 48-120Hz
Processor: Snapdragon 888
RAM: 8GB
Storage: 128GB, 256GB
microSD: none
Rear cameras: 12MP wide (f/1.8), 12MP ultra-wide (f/2.2), 64MP telephoto (f/2.0) with 3x hybrid zoom/30x digital
Video: Up to 8K resolution at 24 fps
Front cameras: 10MP
Battery: 4,000 mAh
Charging: 25W (charger not included)
Colors: Phantom Violet, Phantom Pink, Phantom White, Phantom Gray
Size: 6 x 2.8 x 0.31 inches
Weight: 6.07 inches

Samsung has also created a sleeker design for the Galaxy S21 and a more streamlined and intuitive One UI 3.0 software. But this phone also makes some trade-offs to reach its lower price, including a lower-res display, and the lack of a microSD card slot or a charger in the box. And while it doesn’t feel that different, the back of the phone is plastic instead of glass.

We’ve only just started testing the Galaxy S21 for this hands-on review, but our early impressions are quite positive. Here’s what we like — and don’t like — about the Galaxy S21 so far. 

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is available for pre-order now, and the release date is January 29. The starting price is $799 for 128GB of storage, but you can upgrade to 256GB. 

The S21 is available through all of the major carriers, including AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, as well as US Cellular and Visible. Samsung.com will be selling the phone unlocked. 

(Image credit: Future)

I’m seriously digging the look of this phone. The Samsung Galaxy S21 comes in four colors, including Phantom Gray, Phantom Pink, Phantom White and Phantom Violet. I received the Phantom Violet version, and it looks very attractive while showing off the new contour cut camera design. 

While there’s still a camera bump, it integrates more seamlessly into the plastic back. Yes, I said plastic. The S21 trades a Gorilla Glass rear for polycarbonate, not unlike the casing on the Galaxy Note 20; I don’t think it feels cheap, but it doesn’t feel quite as premium as I’d like.

Measuring 6 x 2.8 x 0.31 inches and weighing 6.07 ounces, the Galaxy S21 is a bit heavier than the Galaxy S20 (5.9 x 3 x 0.31, 5.7 ounces), but it’s still compact enough to use with one hand.

Samsung Galaxy S21 display

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21’s 6.2-inch AMOLED display offers a 120Hz refresh rate for smoother scrolling, as well as better video playback and more responsive gameplay. The difference this time is that the refresh rate is dynamic based on the content that’s on screen. The refresh rate can scale down to 48Hz, which should help save on battery life.

Unfortunately, Samsung dropped the resolution from quad HD to full HD for the S21, so you don’t get the same sharp quad HD resolution as last year’s phone or the more premium Galaxy S21 Ultra. 

When watching Cobra Kai on Netflix, this OLED panel delivered a burst of color along with plenty of detail, and I could make out ripples of water and the grain of the wood in an overhead shot of the Miyagi-Do koi pond. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 cameras

(Image credit: Future)

The camera hardware for the Samsung Galaxy S21 is pretty much the same as before, with a main 12MP wide-angle lens, a 12MP ultra-wide lens and a 64MP telephoto lens with 3x hybrid optic zoom and 30x space zoom. But Samsung has made a lot of improvements under the hood to the software and AI in order to deliver better-looking photos.

(Image credit: Future)

For example, when you engage space Zoom now there’s a Zoom Lock feature that leverage AI to identify the subject and steady the shot. I tried to zoom in at 30x on a couple of blue lawn chairs a few houses away, and the result was fairly decent. 

In addition, the Galaxy S21 offers an improved Portrait Mode. This time the AI kicks in to better separate the subject from the background. My portrait came out clear and the bokeh effect looks convincing, but the S21 washed out my face a bit.

(Image credit: Future)

Another highlight is the new Director’s View when you’re shooting video. You can shoot using the front and rear cameras at the same time, as well as view live thumbnails from the multiple cameras. This makes it easier to switch to the best shot for your video.

Other camera upgrades include an improved Single Take feature that takes a bunch of stills and photos with a single tap. Single Take now delivers Highlight Video and Dynamic Slow-Mo clips. We’ll be conducting more tests on these cameras as well as comparisons with the iPhone 12. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 performance

(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is powered by the new Snapdragon 888 chip, which promises 20% better CPU performance, 35% more GPU speed and twice the AI performance. So far I’ve experienced smooth gameplay in titles like Fruit Ninja 2 and Dead Trigger 2, and the phone is quick to switch between apps.

The Galaxy S21 comes with 8GB of RAM, however, which is a step back from the 12GB inside the Galaxy S20. We’ll have to see whether this impacts real-world performance and benchmarks. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 battery and charging

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 features the same size 4,000 mAh battery as the Galaxy S20. But we’re hoping that this phone lasts longer on a charge. The S21 has a more efficient 5nm processor, and Samsung says that the phone is smart enough to analyze your usage patterns in order to conserve power.

The charging picture is not so bright. While the Galaxy S21 supports fast 25W charging, you’re going to have to pay extra for it. That’s because Samsung decided not to include a charger in the box in order to be more environmentally friendly. And, of course, it saves Samsung money. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 OneUI 3 and software

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 runs Samsung’s new One UI 3 software on top of Android 11. The interface is more elegant, complete with with a redesigned Quick Panel and notifications screen that feels less cluttered. I especially appreciate the redesigned Lock screen widgets as well as the ability to place widgets on the screen and adjust their transparency. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 outlook

(Image credit: Future)

Samsung is taking a bit of risk with the Galaxy S21. It’s priced just like the iPhone 12 at $799, but the company needed to make some concessions to get there. There’s no charger in the box, no microSD card slot, and you get a low-res display and less RAM.

But you also get a lot of phone for your money, including a telephoto zoom (reserved for Apple’s $999 iPhone 12 Pro), a faster Snapdragon 888 chip and a dynamic 120Hz display. Once we’re able to fully benchmark the Galaxy S21, run our battery test and compare the phone’s cameras to the competition, I’ll have a much better idea of how good this phone is. But right now it looks as though Samsung made most of the right trade-offs.

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