Review: Samsung's Galaxy S21 is the no-brainer upgrade phone
Samsung's made some wise choices to get the price down on the Galaxy S21. Here's what we think of the new 5G phone.
Updated Feb. 4, 2021 8:13 a.m. PT
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Patrick HollandManaging Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
Even with those sacrifices, the Galaxy S21 and its starting price of $800 (£769, AU$1,249) is more appealing than the S20. In fact, each phone in the S21 lineup has more to distinguish it from one another than the S20 series did. Out of the trio, the S21 is the no-brainer "you're due for an upgrade" phone that you're likely to get from a carrier. And a lot of people are going to get this phone.
The S21 is a significant rethink by Samsung, which may have tried to push the S20 to be too premium. But the company found a good balance in terms of price, features and design for the S21.
The Galaxy S21 gets a striking new look
Without a doubt the first thing I notice about the S21 is its design. This two-tone approach gives the phone an art-deco sensibility. Well, kind of. Samsung made the camera bump bigger and more industrial-looking. I can almost envision someone at Samsung searching for the perfect drill press to make the camera cutouts just the right size.
The bump seemingly melts into the sides. The purple and gold S21 I reviewed (the color's called phantom violet) gives off some major Mardi Gras vibes. The S21 also comes in other "phantom" colors, including gray, pink and white. On Samsung's website, there are limited-edition phantom colors in gold and red.
Watch this: Review: The Galaxy S21 5G surprised us with its changes
The plastic back has a matte finish and feels great. I know people have strong feelings about plastic on
. But this isn't the hollow-feeling plastic you found on phones five or six years ago. The S21 feels well-made. (Although the results of our Galaxy S21 drop test may suggest otherwise.) Around the front is Corning's Gorilla Glass Victus, which we first saw on the
Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
. As a complete package, the S21 has a striking design.
Samsung's Galaxy S21 is sleek with a new wraparound metal design
The hole-punch screen, which Samsung calls the Infinity-O display, is my current favorite workaround for avoiding a notch or big bezels. The S21's flat display with its petite black bezel looks really contemporary.
It has Full HD resolution, which is a step down from the Quad HD resolution on the S20. But in everyday use, that's not as dramatic a change as it sounds. A lot of it comes from the adaptive screen refresh rate that fluctuates between 48 and 120Hz depending on what's being displayed. So if you're playing a game like Alto's Odyssey, Call of Duty or Forza Street you can see them in all their crisp graphical beauty. And when you aren't, the display has a lower refresh rate in order to save on battery life.
Same S20 camera hardware, but with improvements
The camera hardware on the S21 is exactly the same found on the S20 and that's not a bad thing. On the back are three cameras: a wide, ultrawide and telephoto. I rather like the ultrawide on the S21, it might be my favorite ultrawide camera on an Android phone.
Photos look great. Autofocus is fast and can switch between foreground and background quickly. In video, autofocus switching isn't as fast, but when it grabs focus it seems to hold on to it. I also like in video mode having an onscreen button at the top to toggle between different resolutions and frames per second.
Take a look at several photos I shot with the Galaxy S21 below.
For selfies you now have an option for Bright or Natural. Which is excellent. Skin tones in selfie photos look good, especially with all of the "face" effects turned off. But I should note, there are people who like to have the option. So, there's that.
Samsung added a fun new video feature called Director's View. While you record, there are thumbnail previews of live feeds coming from all the other cameras. There is a side-by-side format for vlogging or a stacked format if you're shooting vertically. This lets you record yourself with the selfie camera and show what you're seeing or reacting to using any of the rear cameras you choose.
I thought Director's View would be more like a gimmick, but I can see people wanting to experiment with it. The only downside is that it outputs an HD video. But it's the thumbnail preview that sells me on it. I'd love to see this thumbnail preview interface when I'm recording a 4K video or as a Pro Video mode add-on.
The S21 has the Snapdragon 888 chip
Powering the S21 is the new
Snapdragon 888 chip along with 8GB of RAM. In our benchmark tests, the S21 scored better than last year's S20. In use, it handled everything from photo edits to gameplay (at 120Hz) just fine. The 888 chip also allows for some new features like Director's View.
The only tell that the S21 was working hard was that the back got warm downloading large files like games and videos, or when I played a game for longer than 20 minutes. One time while running the benchmark test 3D Mark the phone heated up. In the battery settings, I had Enhanced Performance turned on, which targets all apps that aren't games. 3D Mark is a benchmark app for gaming. I turned Enhanced Performance off and ran 3D Mark again and the phone didn't get hot. Weird, right?
Check out our benchmark scores below.
When it comes to battery life, this is a one-day phone. It's on par with last year's S20, which had the same sized battery. I still have several more battery tests to run and will add the results to this review soon.
The Galaxy S21 has Android 11 and OneUI 3.1
The S21 comes with Android 11 topped with Samsung's OneUI 3.1 interface. I love it. There are more ways to default to
services, such as using Google Pay instead of Samsung Pay, or adding the Google Discover News feed to the home screen instead of the Samsung version. There are also small touches like pop-up windows for adjusting audio levels that look clean and modern. There are also new widgets that you can add to your lock screen. I'm a big fan of how much the software is weighted toward the bottom of the display, which makes one-handed navigation easy.
The Galaxy S21 supports 5G
And last, the Galaxy S21 is a 5G phone. It supports both sub-6 and mmWave versions of 5G, meaning in the US you'll have your choice of the three major carriers. 5G shouldn't be the sole reason to get this phone. But the S21 will be many people's first 5G phone and its speeds and connection should improve as carriers keep improving their 5G networks.