Samsung Galaxy S21 5G Review: Packed With Features And Value

Galaxy S21 5G: Samsung's Affordable Snapdragon 888 Flagship

samsung galaxy s21 in hand back
When Samsung first introduced its new Galaxy S21 5G line-up, the company took a similar good, better, best approach to its previous generation launch. Like the Galaxy S20, the new Galaxy S21 lineup consists of a base device, a mid-tier device and a top-end model, though all of them can be considered "flagship" phones among Samsung's large and varied handset product offerings. However, for the Galaxy S21 launch, it was clear that Samsung was more focused on value at all tiers this time around, with pricing starting at $799 and topping out $1199 for the Galaxy S21 Ultra, representing a $200 price cut across the board versus its previous generation Galaxy S20 family. What's even more exciting perhaps, for some of you, is that all three devices are on sale with solid discounts at Amazon currently, bringing the Galaxy S21 5G that we're evaluating here today, down to an even crisper $699 price point for the base 128GB storage model we tested.

Which brings us to the new Samsung Galaxy S21 5G -- the standard, non-plus, non-ultra model. As the lowest cost option of Samsung's new flagship trio, the Galaxy S21 5G has a few of its features scaled back, like its smaller 6.2-inch display and less capacious 4000 mAh battery. That said, Samsung still packs in a wealth of leading-edge technologies, like wireless charging and full support for both Sub-6 and mmWave 5G connectivity. In fact, there's a solid case to be made here for the features and functionality offered by the Galaxy S21, which you might not find in phones that drop into this same price band (currently just $699 on sale). So, let's explore those features, performance and more on the pages ahead...

samsung galaxy s21 in hand front

Samsung Galaxy S21
Specifications & Features
Processing And 5G Platform Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, Integrated Snapdragon X60 5G Modem
Display 6.2" FHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X, 2400x1080 res, 48 ~120Hz Adaptive Refresh, Eye Comfort Shield
Storage / RAM 128 - 256GB / 8GB RAM, No External Storage Expansion
Rear-Facing Cameras 12MP f/1.8 Dual Pixel, OIS Main - 12MP FF f/2.2 120º Ultra-Wide - 64MP f/2.0, OIS, Tele
Front-Facing Cameras 10MP Dual Pixel f/2.2
Video Recording Up to 8K/24 fps 4K/60 fps, 1080p @ 60fps, 1080p Super Slow-Mo
Battery 4000 mAh
OS Android 11
Dimensions 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9 mm (5.97 x 2.80 x 0.31 in)
Weight 171 grams
Connectivity 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0+LE, NFC, FM radio, USB-C, LTE, 5G Sub-6 And mmWave
Colors Phantom Gray, Phantom White, Phantom Violet, Phantom Pink
Pricing Find the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G @ Amazon, Currently starting at $699

The first thing to consider is that Samsung's entire Galaxy S21 line-up is powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 5G Mobile Platform with its integrated Snapdragon X60 5G modem. QCOM's Snapdragon 888 is supposed to deliver a 25% uplift in CPU performance, coupled with a 35% lift in GPU performance for graphics and gaming. Backing that up is a healthy 8GB of RAM and 128GB or 256GB internal storage, though no microSD card storage expansion is available in any of Samsung's Galaxy S21 series devices.

Beyond these platform engines, the Galaxy S21 5G model we're testing has a punchy but compact 6.2" 120Hz capable AMOLED display, a 4000 mAh battery and all the cuttting-edge connectivity options offered by the Qualcomm platform, including both Sub-6 and mmWave 5G connectivity, as well as WiFi-6 and Bluetooth 5.0. What's not available in the standard Galaxy S21 is UWB (Ultra-Wide Band) support, though mainstream users shopping in this price range probably won't miss it, unless you feel compelled by Samsung's Galaxy SmartTag tracker technology that is poised to challenge Tile and Apple AirTags. In terms of its camera subsystem, we have a very similar setup to the previous-gen Samsung Galaxy S20, which we'll get to shortly.

However, perhaps the most standout features, for a phone in this price range, are the Galaxy S21's mmWave 5G connectivity and wireless charging. The former is in-part enabled by Qualcomm's integration of its Snapdragon X60 modem on board the Snapdragon 888 SoC, though Samsung did have to equip the device with the antenna and RF front-end technology to take advantage of it. Both of these features add significant cost, though the Galaxy S21 remains competitively priced. 

Galaxy S21 Design And Dynamic AMOLED Display - Best In The Business

The physical, industrial design of the Galaxy S21 is, like its higher-end brethren, sleek and refined. The camera bump on the back is less bulky with a chamfered edge that looks nice and cuts a much cleaner aesthetic on the backside of the device. The volume rocker and power/screen lock buttons again reside on the right edge of the device, with its SIM tray on the bottom, along with its USB-C port and a single down-firing speaker that accompanies the top earpiece speaker for stereo sound. The Galaxy S21's sound output can get surprisingly loud and full, actually, though it lacks some low-end as you might expect for a smartphone. Regardless, we were pleasantly surprised with this phone's acoustic performance.

As you can see in the top hero shot on this page, the rear of this Galaxy S21 has a nice matte black finish that resists fingerprints almost completely. And though the Galaxy 21 5G (standard) has a plastic composite backing, it still feels premium in the hand with its soft touch finish and polished metal side edging that mates with perfect tight tolerances to its now completely flat display, sans waterfall.  
samsung galaxy s21 display front right
Galaxy S21 5G With On-Board Qualcomm 3D Sonic Sensor Gen 2

Speaking of which, the other sometimes overlooked key differentiator of the new Galaxy S21 series is Samsung's excellent Dynamic AMOLED display technology, which now scales up to 120Hz on demand, with a 48 to 120Hz adaptive refresh rate. The result is silky smooth transitions and scene rendering, to go with the inky, deep saturation and the crisp contrast we've come to expect and love with Samsung mobile displays. The Galaxy S21's 6.2-inch, 2400X1800 resolution display simply impresses and delivers equally well in outdoor daylight settings as well.

There's also Qualcomm's second generation 3D Sonic fingerprint sensor under the Galaxy S21's glass, which is claimed to be 77% larger and 50% faster for quicker, easier access to the device. In practice, it felt about the same in terms of speed, though perhaps a bit more forgiving on finger placement. 
samsung galaxy s21 dsiplaying movie

Cinematically, the Galaxy S21's display delivers the same great pop and fast pixel response times, rendering HDR, high resolution video content beautifully. Samsung also equipped the display with what it calls Eye Comfort Shield, which auto adjusts blue light emissions to reduce eye fatigue based on your usage patterns. The Adaptive mode of this feature will filter less blue light during the day and roll off more of it during evening hours, to respect your circadian rhythm. In practice, this feature works well enough and we imagine users will get used to the slightly warmer hue at times. However, we think pixel purists like us will tend to disable it all together during the day to maintain truer white balance, or set the usual custom time schedule to enable low blue light viewing only late at night. 

Galaxy S21 Camera Setup And Sample Results

samsung galaxy s21 camera

As we noted earlier, the camera setup of the Galaxy S21 is similar to the previous generation Galaxy S20 series, but with some enhanced computational photography processing techniques that have improved capture and render a bit, as well as bring a few innovative new features. Regardless, Samsung's primary rear 12MP f1.8 shooter with Dual Pixel autofocus and OIS can deliver some impressive results. 

galaxy s21 fidelity shot one plus 8 pro fidelity shot
Galaxy S21 5G (Left) - OnePlus 8 Pro (Right)
galaxy s21 detail shot one plus 8 pro details shot
Galaxy S21 5G (Left) - OnePlus 8 Pro (Right)

Here we're comparing the Galaxy S21 to the OnePlus 8 Pro, which has a really solid camera configuration itself and typically captures crisp shots with reasonably good color balance. However, in these two detailed shot scenarios, one with a tricky mixed lighting scene (Michael the Archangel next to the clock by the window) and one with intricate fur detail, texture and pattern detail (Yogi on the stair case).

Looking closely above, it's obvious there is less noise in the mixed lighting shot of the figurine on the Galaxy S21, as well as better detail in Yogi's fur texture and other areas of the shot. As is typical with Samsung phones, however, the Galaxy S21 does amp colors up a bit, and depending on your taste this may or may not be a welcomed trait. Personally, we think it looks great, even if slightly unnatural versus real world lighting and color. And also, at a base level, you have better pixel detail and data captured with the Galaxy S21, and therefore some additional flexibility if you do pull images off the phone for post-processing. 

wide angle shot galaxy s21
Galaxy S21 5G Super Wide Angle White-Out
portrait mode shot galaxy s21
Galaxy S21 5G Portrait Mode Lickin' Goodness
galaxy s21 5g night mode shot
Night Mode - Only Adjacent Room Ambient And Fire Light

Galaxy S21 5G 4K60 And Super-Steady Video Samples

Then there's Wide-Angle, Portrait and Night mode shooting on the Galaxy S21, and frankly Samsung absolutely crushes all three of these. Samsung's 120-degree wide angle shooter does a really nice job of capturing detail, color and light variation in the "White-Out" shot and also incorporates excellent lens correction for the wide angle capture such that there is minimal warping. Portrait mode shooting has Yogi looking swank with DSLR-like background bokeh blur that Samsung notes is even more realistic now, thanks to AI processing algorithms that it runs on the Snapdragon 888. We would concur; it's a great looking shot even with the challenging light rays shooting in from the doorway nearby. The Galaxy S21 5G's Night mode delivers something special as well. This was a very low light condition with the exception of the fire and an adjacent room. Regardless, the Galaxy S21 captured this with excellent clarity, color balance and minimal noise.

Finally, video capture, as you can see above, is crispy as well, with glassy 4K60 capture (max 8K24p) and smooth 1080p60 Super-Steady recording, along with excellent audio capture. All told, we're impressed with the Galaxy S21's camera chops, especially for a currently $699 (unlocked) device, but apparently it still has another trick or two up its sleeve.   

Galaxy S21 Director Mode - Picture-In-Picture Brings Valuable Use Cases

Director's View is an innovative and thoughtful new feature that Samsung developed in what seems like a timely response to new collaborative use cases we've all been exploring since the advent of the pandemic. Director's View video recording offers an interesting picture-in-picture mode that utilizes any one of the three rear cameras in concert with the front-facing 10MP, dual pixel AF selfie camera.

galaxy s21 directors view
Galaxy S21 Director's View Camera Mode

In a nutshell, imagine the ability to narrate a scene you're looking at, whether you're a real estate agent previewing a house or perhaps a field service rep or reporter that needs to document a scene with their own commentary and reactions to what's being captured on the rear camera. As you can imagine, Director's View could be a valuable tool for many industries and businesses that can benefit from field reporting while keeping their company representatives front and center, as well as many other interesting mainstream consumer use cases, like taking your friends on a stroll (or run) in the park with you.

Also returning is Enhanced Single Take that let's you shoot photos and video of a scene simultaneously to ensure you capture a fleeting moment in the best way possible. Enhanced Single Take now reportedly has 5X the AI processing power at its disposal for Dynamic Slow-Mo and Highlight Video capture, all at the push of a single on-screen button. Honestly, we could spend an entire article's worth of coverage on Samsung's Galaxy S21 camera features alone. Shutterbugs looking for a highly capable setup with tons of features in a smartphone camera will be well-served by Samsung's new Galaxy S21 line-up 

Samsung Galaxy S21 Software And DeX - Powerful Tools For Business And Home Users

On the software and user experience front, Samsung has been refining its One UI experience, which is now at version 3.1. With the Galaxy S21, One UI offers a clean, well appointed skin that incorporates the appropriate hooks and enhancements for the Galaxy S21's unique features. Especially when it comes to camera features and performance, and image optimization in Samsung's Gallery app, if you're inclined to use it over Google Photos, One UI delivers.

Also, the Google Discover search bar is now present on the home screen, which is a welcomed addition. On the downside, we're not sure why Samsung insists on mapping its power and screen lock button to Bixby, requiring users to pull down from the top Android settings menu in order to power off or reset the phone. Quite simply, it breaks convention and can be an annoyance as, in order to power up the phone, you have to long-press this same button that is otherwise locked down to Bixby. We get Samsung's drive for Bixby adoption, and you can remap the button to power cycle if you like, but out of the box, this will leave new users confused. 

Samsung DeX Over Bluetooth To PC

Another welcomed return, however is Samsung DeX, which has gotten even more refined now with the ability to wirelessly connect to Windows PCs over Bluetooth in concert with Wi-Fi, as long as both devices reside on the same network. Beyond traditional DeX uses cases for using your the phone to drive business productivity tasks like presentations, turning the phone essentially into a PC, this new functionality helps dramatically improve access to and integration of the Galaxy S21 for Windows PC users. 
samsung dex over bluetooth to pc
samsung dex one drive sync
Samsung DeX With Microsoft Office And OneDrive Integration

Wireless Samsung DeX PC integration allows you to drive the phone with your keyboard and mouse, in a window on your desktop with simple Chrome-like interface that supports drag and drop of files and more. You can also drive apps on the Galaxy S21 from your Windows desktop, including the phone dialer, though you'll have to pick up the handset or hit speaker since it will be the device hosting the call. Also, in addition to Microsoft OneDrive integration for automatic cloud backup and sync, Samsung brings its usual tight coupling to Microsoft Office suite apps for what is likely one of the best-equipped Android phone solutions for enterprise customers. We have to hand it to Samsung here -- DeX, OneDrive and Microsoft's Office pre-installed with tightly coupled functionality, are great tools for business users. 

Alrighty then, there was obviously a lot of ground to cover feature-wise. Let's look at system performance, next... 

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