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Galaxy S21 vs. Pixel 5: Which Android phone should you buy?

Samsung and Google have each dropped prices of their latest flagships, but which is right for you? Here's how the Pixel 5 and S21 stack up.

Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung's Galaxy S21 is here, and it's a solid all-round Android device. But the S21 is isn't the only phone around with excellent cameras, a crisp display and dependable batteries. The S21 has joined the likes of the iPhone 12, Mi 11, and the Pixel 5 in an increasingly crowded playing field. 

For the purposes of this article, I'll pit the S21 against the Pixel, but you can read CNET's comparisons between the S21 and iPhone 12 and our coverage of Xiaomi's Mi 11, if you're interested. Here are the key differences to factor into your buying decision if you've been eyeing the Pixel 5 and the S21.

Samsung and Google dropped prices of their phones

Samsung and Google have both figured out that selling $1,000 phones is more challenging in this pandemic-ravaged global economy. And both companies have rightly slashed prices. 

The Galaxy S21 starts at $800 (£769, about AU$1,030), allowing you to buy into the popular Galaxy S line at $300 less than last year's S20 line. Google, for its part, dropped the Pixel 5's price by $100 to $699 (£599, AU$999). It also scaled back on some features, marking a departure from the pricier Pixel phones of years past.

Does the S21 have a better camera than the Pixel 5? 

I can't make an outright call on which device has the better camera since CNET hasn't done a shootout comparing the two. What I can say is that you'll get a more versatile range of shots with the S21. That's because the S21 has three lenses: a telephoto lens for zooming in to faraway subjects, an ultrawide lens for capturing sweeping landscapes and a third standard lens for pretty much everything else. 

Google got rid of the telephoto lens that we saw on the Pixel 4, replacing it with an ultrawide camera on the Pixel 5, which is accompanied by a standard lens. Because of that, the 21 lacks optical zoom, and instead depends on digital zoom that maxes out at 7x. For specific numbers on the camera, scroll down to the specs chart. 

Does the S21 have a faster processor than the Pixel 5?

Yes. The S21 runs on Qualcomm's newest and fastest Snapdragon 888, which features a 5G modem on the same chip as the brains along with blazing-fast performance. As mentioned earlier, Google took a midrange approach to 2020's Pixel 5, and one way it did that was via the chipset. The Pixel 5 runs on a midrange chipset known as the Snapdragon 765G (the G stands for gaming). Last year's fastest Qualcomm processor is the Snapdragon 865. Although you might notice a difference in performance between the two processors, the Snapdragon 765G is still powerful enough that'll you'll sail through everyday tasks without a hitch.

Any other differences I should know?

The Pixel 5 is a lighter phone and it has a USB-C connector, a feature that's absent on the S21. The S21 no longer has a charging brick either, as Samsung urges its customers to reuse older accessories in the name of the environment. For the rest of the specs, take a look at the chart below.

Google's Pixel 5 vs. Samsung's Galaxy S21

Pixel 5 Galaxy S21
Display size, resolution 6-inch FHD Plus OLED (2,340x1,080 pixels) 6.2-inch FHD Plus AMOLED  (2,400x1,080 pixels)
Pixel density 432ppi 421ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.7x2.8x0.3 in 2.80x5.97x0.31 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 144.7x70.4x8.0 mm 71.2x151.7x7.9 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.33 oz; 151g 6.03 oz; 171g
Mobile software Android 11 Android 11
Camera 12.2-megapixel (standard), 16-megapixel (ultra-wide) 64-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (standard), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide)
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel 10-megapixel
Video capture 4K 8K
Processor Snapdragon 765G Snapdragon 888 or 64-bit Octa-Core Processor 2.8GHz (Max 2.4GHz and 1.8GHz)
Storage 128GB 128GB/256GB
Expandable storage None None
Battery 4,000 mAh 4,000 mAh
Fingerprint sensor Rear In-screen
Headphone jack USB-C No
Special features 5G enabled; water resistant (IP68); 90Hz refresh rate display; dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); reverse wireless charging; fast charging IP68 rating, 5G-enabled, 30X Space Zoom, 10W wireless charging
Price off-contract (USD) $699 $800 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £599 £769
Price (AUD) AU$999 Converts to ~AU$1,030 from USD