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Unpacking 2021 with a bang, we have the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G for you today. Samsung has rearranged its yearly release schedule to pull its high-end S-series reveal for January, and could there be a better way to kick off the year?
We did say ‘bang’, but it’s hardly the most thunderous of those – out of the trio of Galaxy S21 5G phones announced, we’ll now be presenting you the smallest, vanilla one. We also have the Ultra at the office, but you’ll need to wait a bit more for that – no event starts off with the headliner anyway.
For the second year in a row, Samsung unveils three phones as part of the spring flagship roster (even though it’s very much winter this time around, at least where we are). And, much like last time, there’s a very clear divide between the ultimate uncompromising Ultra and the two more restrained and down-to-earth ‘regular’ S phones. If anything, the gap has even widened.
The examples are plenty, some of them more significant than others. Take the displays for example. Unlike last year when all three phones had 1440p resolution panels, now only the Ultra gets the higher resolution, the ‘mainstream’ S21s stand at 1080p. All three screens were curved in 2020, now it’s just the Ultra. All three S20s had the same high-refresh rate implementation, now the Ultra gets a more advanced Adaptive mode than the other two.
How about the cameras? The S20 Ultra had a vastly superior setup than the other two, regardless of issues it might have had with realizing the full potential of all of its impressive hardware. Well, the S21 Ultra builds on top of that and comes with further improved internals in the imaging department. The S21 and S21 Plus, meanwhile, reuse last year’s bits. Hmm.
But there’s more. In the case of the small Galaxy S21 we have here, a final blow hurts the most – it’s got a plastic back. It’s hardly the end of the world, and we’ll go on to rationalize how that’s actually a good thing on the next page. But it goes to emphasize the further differentiation between the one true flagship and the others that stand below it. And then further down below it.
Some genes are shared among all in the family, after all. The chipset is the same on all three (still different from region to region, but that’s a whole other topic), all have the second-gen ultrasonic fingerprint reader from Qualcomm, as well as stereo speakers and IP68 rating for dust and water resistance. And no, none of them has a microSD slot, that one was most surprising.
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G specs at a glance:
- Body: 151.7×71.2×7.9mm, 169g; Glass front (Gorilla Glass Victus), plastic back, aluminum frame; IP68 dust/water resistant (up to 1.5m for 30 mins).
- Display: 6.20″ Dynamic AMOLED 2X, 120Hz, HDR10+, 1300 nits (peak), 1080x2400px resolution, 20:9 aspect ratio, 421ppi; Always-on display.
- Chipset: International – Exynos 2100 (5 nm): Octa-core CPU (1×2.9 GHz Cortex-X1 & 3×2.80 GHz Cortex-A78 & 4×2.2 GHz Cortex-A55), Mali-G78 MP14 GPU. USA/China – Qualcomm SM8350 Snapdragon 888 (5 nm): Octa-core (1×2.84 GHz Kryo 680 & 3×2.42 GHz Kryo 680 & 4×1.80 GHz Kryo 680; Adreno 660 GPU.
- Memory: 128GB 8GB RAM, 256GB 8GB RAM; UFS 3.1.
- OS/Software: Android 11, One UI 3.1.
- Rear camera: Wide (main): 12 MP, f/1.8, 26mm, 1/1.76″, 1.8µm, Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS; Ultra wide angle: 12 MP, f/2.2, 13mm, 120˚, 1/2.55″ 1.4µm, Super Steady video; Telephoto: 64 MP, f/2.0, 29mm, 1/1.72″, 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS, 1.1x optical zoom, 3x hybrid zoom.
- Front camera: 10 MP, f/2.2, 26mm, 1/3.24″, 1.22µm, Dual Pixel PDAF.
- Video capture: Rear camera: 8K@24fps, 4K@30/60fps, 1080p@30/60/240fps, 720p@960fps, HDR10+, stereo sound rec., gyro-EIS; Front camera: 4K@30/60fps, 1080p@30fps.
- Battery: 4000mAh; Fast charging 25W, USB Power Delivery 3.0, Fast Qi/PMA wireless charging 15W, Reverse wireless charging 4.5W.
- Misc: Fingerprint reader (under display, ultrasonic); NFC; FM radio (Snapdragon model only; market/operator dependent); Samsung DeX, Samsung Wireless DeX (desktop experience support), Samsung Pay (Visa, MasterCard certified), ANT+, Bixby natural language commands and dictation.
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G unboxing
Here it is, the high-end Galaxies’ new and improved (read ‘smaller’) retail box. Following in the footsteps of Apple, Samsung has chosen to remove the charger and headphones from the retail bundle, resulting in a more compact box.
Yes, yes, you’re supposed to already have chargers at home, so not including one with every phone should help reduce waste, plus the decreased shipping volume will lower the carbon footprint along the logistics chain. It’s a noble concept though somehow saving the environment still doesn’t feel like the key driving factor.
Having said that, at the S21 keynote, Samsung mentioned that adapters will now be sold at a reduced price, and this seems like a step in the right direction.
Anyway, what you are getting in the box is the phone itself and a USB-C-to-C cable. That sort of means you need to have a moderately contemporary USB PowerDelivery charger lying around, or a USB-A-to-C cable if you intend to use an adapter that doesn’t have a Type C out.
As it came to light around the iPhone 12 launch days, local regulations in France specifically mandate that all phones sold in the country come with a headset. So S21s in France will indeed ship with the usual set of AKG-branded earbuds we’ve gotten used to from Galaxies in recent years. Still no charger, though.
Galaxies like to compete with iPhones but with the ever-growing Apple lineup, which is the correct counterpart? Let’s say you like the smallest S21 5G for its size in particular – then perhaps the iPhone 12 mini could be even better being a full 2cm shorter and 30+ grams lighter, not to mention actually cheaper (by $70/€50/£70 for base storage).
Too diminutive? Then the iPhone 12 proper, at virtually the same size and weight as the S21, is a bit more expensive (€50/£30, actually the same price in the US). Now, at these prices, the iPhones will come with half the storage and one rear camera short but with a more powerful chipset. For most other things, it’ll be a toss-up.
Which is where the 12 Pro comes in, adding a zoom camera and matching the Galaxy for base storage. There’s but a nominal price premium to be paid over the Galaxy, to the tune of $200/€300/£230 – nah, we didn’t think so either.
Galaxy S21 5G money can buy you a OnePlus 8 Pro, and that’s looking like a solid deal if you can live with the added bulk – the OP is a full-size offering. Going that way, you’ll obviously get a bigger display, but also a superior ultra-wide camera and blazing fast charging (with adapter in the box too) and you really won’t be sacrificing anything.
Normally, around this time of the year, we’d be advising that you wait for whatever P-series handset Huawei might have in store, but at the present time, it’s telephona-non-grata in the Western world, so that’s a no-go. Google practically exited the smartphone master race with the Pixel 5, which is pretty much LG’s standing too.
That’s not really the end of the list, though. We’d argue that at this point, a Galaxy S20, not S21, is the one to get. A year older chipset is still easily powerful enough, the cameras are virtually the same, and its display is, in a way, better. The S20 got the latest Android/OneUI combo too, so it’s not trailing in this respect. It’s better in other ways, too – it’s got a microSD slot and a non-plastic back. Perhaps in day-to-day use, the S21 could return marginally better battery life, but the S20 comes with a charger, doesn’t it? Ah, it also comes with a 15-20% lower price tag, maybe even cheaper depending on where you are and how lucky you get.
S21 5G proper, the S-series Galaxy for compact phone lovers is predictably a very nice package. It’s got a display that’s hard not to love, battery life that won’t keep you tied to an outlet, and cameras that capture great images, all of it packaged in what’s Samsung‘s most daring design lately. Seemingly, however, that’s no longer enough.
It’s not that we don’t like the Galaxy S21 5G. On the contrary, we’re quite fond of its looks, and there’s proven substance beneath them. But maybe that’s the issue – it’s a little too proven. Last year’s S20 is in many ways superior, and even though the S21 launches at a lower MSRP, the year-old S20 can still be found for less while arguably offering more.
- Nice color options, standout design, IP68 rating.
- A fairly compact high-end device, not too many of those out there.
- Bright AMOLED display with adaptive refresh rate handling.
- Very good battery life.
- Versatile triple camera setup (though essentially the same as last year’s).
- Improved selfie camera performance.
- Scant retail package – no charger or headphones.
- Plastic back is at odds with the upmarket position.
- Flat screen and thicker bezels lack a premium vibe, though some of you may find ergonomic benefits in them.
- Benchmark numbers from the new chipset leave us wondering, we’ll need a 2021 Snapdragon for context.
- No generational advancements in the camera department – lack of AF on the ultra wide stands out in particular, since the S21 Ultra has that.