“Good” and “bad” smartphones can have qualifiers — as in, “good but too expensive” or “bad but so cheap it doesn’t really matter.” After all, everything is worth something to someone. But Samsung’s recent Galaxy S21 isn’t just a good phone, now that we’re starting to see the rest of what 2021 has to offer, it comes in at a good price, too. In fact, the more I use it, the more I like it. So, we’re taking the rare step of giving the Galaxy S21 our Most Wanted award.
We reviewed the Galaxy S21 5G as sold by T-Mobile, but it should be generally identical to the unlocked experience.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
Samsung’s latest smartphone lineup all share similar stylings, highlighted by the now immediately recognizable camera bump that flows smoothly into the corner and polished metal frame. It’s an attractive look, and the sort of physical branding Samsung should probably capitalize on. In a couple generations, it could be as recognizable as the iPhone’s characteristic camera bump if the company doesn’t just throw it all away with the next model.
The model we played with is a more boring gray (and much less black than the S21 Ultra’s hyped Phantom Black), but the Thanos purple-and-copperish “Phantom Violet” is probably the color to get.
I think the phone is a good shape. It fits in hand easily, and it is comfortably small compared to most Android flagships — though, not objectively a “small” phone like the Pixel 4a or Pixel 5. If you know you like larger phones, though, the S21 could be a bit too small.
Most folks are already aware, but the S21 skips out on the glass back that both the bigger Galaxy S21+ and S21 Ultra have, and which most other smartphones at this price point get. Before you give in to the knee-jerk reaction of cheapness, I have to say that I really enjoy Samsung’s plastic. This isn’t the sometimes glossy, sometimes faux leather garbage from the Galaxy S2-S5 era, creaky and gross to such a degree that it almost single-handedly gave Android its long-standing reputation for cheapness. This stuff is nice. In fact, if it weren’t for the weight and warmth, you might confuse it for glass at first touch.
It’s matte — and I don’t mean just non-glossy, but gritty like etched glass. It’s also pretty durable, and while I doubt it will compare to Gorilla Glass when it comes to scratches, it has survived caseless (with a few mild tumbles) over the last week without accruing a single mark. My only criticisms are that it does make the phone feel just a bit too light, which is a sensation that can make the phone “feel” a little cheap by itself, and it picks up oils a little bit more aggressively than matte glass. But this will very likely be the nicest plastic you’ve ever handled, and I don’t consider the switch from glass a strike against the phone at all.
There are some upgrades, though. The Galaxy S21 has an even flatter display than last year’s S20, which is a thing some folks (not me) appreciate. It’s also way more uniform for me in low light with things like dark theme backgrounds, my personal pet peeve. However, I have noticed the screen flickers at max brightness outdoors when switching between refresh rates a couple seconds after you stop touching it. It’s not something that will bother most folks, but if you’re exceptionally picky about your screens, it could be a little frustrating. It still has a hole-punch design, like last year’s phone. Samsung doesn’t bloat its status bar height, though, so it’s almost entirely unobtrusive.
The 6.2″ screen is very smooth at 120Hz, but it also enjoys the benefits of LTPO and an adaptive refresh rate, so it makes less of a dent in your battery compared to last year’s super-smooth screens — more on that later. I found it anecdotally got bright enough for even the strongest direct sunlight, and dim enough it didn’t blind me checking notifications in the middle of the night. Colors can be configured for accuracy or garishness as you prefer. In short: Excluding maybe the resolution, it’s probably one of the best smartphone screens you can get right now, and the in-display fingerprint reader is fast and reliable.
However, there are a couple of other objective downgrades. Samsung went with a 1080p screen in the S21, though last year’s Galaxy S20 has a higher-resolution 1440p display. At these sorts of PPIs (421 vs. 563), you probably won’t see the difference unless you’re really close to the screen, but it is a reason to consider last year’s model. The same goes for microSD-expandable storage and MST for contactless payments at more terminal types.
As you may have read in the news, the Galaxy S21 doesn’t come with a power adapter. All you can look forward to in the box is a USB cable and the usual warranty cards and manuals. If you do need a charger, I’d recommend you either buy Samsung’s directly (it supports PPS, which is a charging standard the phone benefits slightly from), or pick up something cheap and good enough. My first recommendation would be the Aukey Minima. It’s dinky, very affordable, powerful enough, and we reviewed it favorably, though you might not top-up quite as fast as you would with a PPS charger.
Software, performance, and battery
Samsung’s software used to feel complicated due to the company’s kitchen sink-like approach to features, throwing literally everything it could think of into a labyrinthine mess of nested menus and toggles. Things have since changed for the better, and Samsung’s Android 11-based One UI 3.1 is both easy on the eyes and won’t leave you feeling like you need a graduate degree in Samsung Studies to find things. I still have plenty of software complaints, though.
I’m still not a fan of Samsung’s stock launcher and the side-scrolling app layout, though at least we finally have Google Discover — it’s a little more useful for me as a content and news feed than the Samsung Daily/Free garbage previously foisted on us. By default, Samsung Pay can also interfere with the multitasking gesture from the stock launcher.
Out of the box, you’ll need to change tons of settings to make Samsung’s software less frustrating.
Even basic hardware interaction feels wrong sometimes. The default settings make the power button enable Bixby when long-pressed, which is dumb for a few different reasons. One, Bixby sucks. Two, it feels in conflict with the corner-in gesture to trigger the Assistant, which is also enabled by default. The normal app paradigm now is to have one app or service registered to a category of intent or activity, so the idea that you could so easily trigger either Bixby or the Google Assistant and potentially confuse the two is just bad design — pick one or the other. And three, it makes turning the phone off via the power + volume down key a complicated two-handed maneuver, as both buttons are on the same side.
Samsung’s first-party apps are mostly bad, though there are fewer of them these days. The Samsung Store will sometimes try (and fail) to update apps you downloaded from the Play Store, which is annoying, and most of the other built-in apps you’ll want to replace with Google’s (better) versions, like Google Calendar. Samsung’s first-party software keyboard is also laughably bad when it comes to certain corrections — do yourself a favor and replace it with something else. Hang onto Samsung Notes, though; it’s actually pretty good.
Background app management is also a concern. I noticed some delayed notifications using the S21, and developers say the latest version of One UI is much worse about how it treats background apps. And lastly: The ads. We’ve talked about it plenty before, so I won’t beat a dead horse. But, it would be one thing to ad-subsidize an entry-level model or offer a discount, like Amazon does for its Kindles, but it’s entirely another to do it on an $800 flagship phone.
It’s not all bad, though. Samsung’s multi-window tools are the best you can get (which is probably why Google is very wisely going to copy them,) but those benefits aren’t especially useful on such a small display. One UI’s extensive customization options give you more personalization than most other versions of Android, and Good Lock and its various modules expand that even further. Although it’s one of the more visually changed versions of Android, Samsung is very consistent with its design, unlike some other software skins.
There are a lot of smaller perks too, like the Always On Display, some of the best volume controls you can get, and Tasker-like Bixby Routines. It gets hate, but I like the Edge Panel — though the interface for it could stand to be simplified. Sometimes I also like that Samsung broke out Android 11’s new smart home controls menu into a dedicated spot in the notification shade (though I do get confused coming from other phones where it’s in the power menu).
The Galaxy S21’s performance was usually pretty great. I did notice some stutters in Chrome and a handful of notoriously demanding apps (like the Play Store), but that could just as easily be on them. In normal use, I didn’t really notice many dropped frames, making for a generally smooth 120Hz experience. Apps loaded quickly, games like Fortnite ran about as I expected (good enough to get 2nd in a game with randos). Samsung’s phones still don’t quite have the fluidity that OnePlus phones or Pixels do, but they’re very snappy.
However, I noticed that the phone got a little warm in more intense use — seemingly more so than last year’s Galaxy S20. I don’t know if the Snapdragon 888 is to blame, or if the plastic back may be more insulating than last year’s glass, but it can get palpably toasty at times. In warmer summer weather, that could mean it even gets hot.
Battery life was a little inconsistent for me, though generally better than I saw with last year’s Galaxy S20. While I can usually break 6 hours of screen-on time over a two-day period, which I’d consider good, I’ve also seen it dive down to around 5 hours in just a single day, which is merely okay in comparison. I’m told that a 5G mmWave connection can suck it dry even faster, if you’re in an area where that’s an option and you plan to use it. Still, the Galaxy S21 should last you all day unless you’re particularly hard on it.
Measuring PPS charging is difficult with current testing hardware, but the S21 claims to support it. I tested compatibility with 5V and 9V PDOs at charging rates up to 18W.
The camera setup for the S21 sounds exactly identical to last year’s Galaxy S20, and the same as the larger Galaxy S21+, so we refer our readers to our Galaxy S21+ review for more discussion.
Sometimes it feels like Samsung has started leaning away from its previously nuclear-looking colors. Admittedly, winter is a pretty washed-out season, but I don’t grimace as often at the S21’s color choices as much as I did for last year’s Samsung phones, though I think some of my examples above are still oversaturated.
Detail is still not the best compared to something like a Pixel, especially in less-than-ideal lighting. I still find the results can tend to be just a bit texture-destroying and muddy. Sometimes it seems to over brighten scenes just a little bit as well, but I am a little surprised at the dynamic range Samsung pulls out sometimes — especially in low-light. While it can look a little artificial in certain cases, it can also be way closer to what the eye sees.
From wide-angle to 30x zoom.
Both Samsung’s wide-angle and the telephoto are decent cameras. I was actually surprised at some of the detail that the telephoto preserved at its native 3x zoom, but it isn’t particularly useful past that. Even at around 6x, details turn to mud and everything looks like someone went crazy with the sharpness slider on your TV. Technically it goes as high as 30x, but that’s just a number and a novelty with no actual utility. I guess it could help you read a sign or something at a distance, but you won’t be setting any photos you take with it as your wallpaper.
I still prefer to have a Pixel in my pocket if photos are a priority, but I liked many of the shots I took with the Galaxy S21, and Samsung has come a long way.
Should you buy it?
The Galaxy S21 came very close to earning our editor’s choice Most Wanted award. It’s a great phone at a great price. Even if the company made a few cuts compared to last year, as a whole, the S21 is a compelling package for just $800. But the built-in ads are an issue, One UI doesn’t treat background apps as it should, which can interfere with things in ways you can’t predict, and some of the lost features like MST for contactless payments are still a bummer.
If you aren’t targeting a specific size, last year’s Galaxy S20 FE may be worth considering, as it’s $200 less. It has less RAM, an older chipset, no mmWave 5G, and may not age quite as gracefully over time (plus, it suffers some touchscreen issues Samsung can’t seem to fix). But it checks most of the same boxes for a lot less money. The OnePlus 8T may also draw your eye, and it’s a great phone too, but it is also running a generation-old chipset, lacks mmWave 5G, and OnePlus’ commitment to software updates is much worse than Samsung’s these days.
However, Samsung is also the only Android company (at the time of writing) that explicitly promises four years of software updates. That’s a pretty big deal, as software support usually ends long before a phone’s hardware gives out. That means the S21 could last you longer between upgrades than any other Android phone you can buy today, period. If you’re in it for the long haul, the S21 spanks every other non-Samsung choice right now.
We’re early in the 2021 flagship season, and Samsung always lands first, giving it a strong advantage compared to last year’s phones. Right now, I think the S21 is the smaller Android phone to get. It’s not without its “gotchas,” but it strikes a very good balance for the price.
Buy it if:
- You want a phone that will last four years — this will.
- You like Samsung’s software, or you’re upgrading from an older Samsung phone.
- You want something on the smaller side.
Don’t buy it if:
- You need features like MST for contactless payments or microSD expandable storage.
- You want a bigger phone or can spend more.
Where to buy:
Samsung’s Galaxy S21 is available at:
Revisiting the Galaxy S21 so quickly on the heels of our OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro reviews, my opinion of Samsung’s smaller flagship phone has only grown. Even at MSRP and without a sale, the S21 is just such a good value. On top of that, very little about the phone bothers me.
I say this a lot, but it’s true: The long-term smartphone experience isn’t about the things that go right; it’s about the things that go wrong. When everything works as expected, simply and easily, a gadget just blends into the background, and you can focus on the things you need to care about. It’s the things that go wrong which we focus on, distracting us from work or family or whatever and forcing us to address a problem when we should be doing something else. The Galaxy S21 earns weirdly high praise when I say: it does almost nothing wrong.
Now that the OnePlus 9 has landed, I feel like we have a proper gauge to measure the S21 as something other than a lonely 2021 flagship in isolation. And having used both phones, I think the Galaxy S21 beats the OnePlus soundly.
The notification ads from Samsung’s built-in apps continue to be bothersome, and they do make the phone objectively feel cheap compared to the cleaner Oxygen OS experience, but that’s really my only complaint. I used to be a big fan of OnePlus’s software, but Samsung’s just feels more polished these days, and even with the Hasselblad partnership and better sensors in the OnePlus 9, the camera on the S21 usually pleases me more (though it can still pull some weird colors compared to OnePlus and overexpose sometimes).
And I just can’t get over the value of the S21, even at full MSRP. I know, it’s a little crazy thinking of an $800 phone as being a good value, and the OnePlus 9 is $70 cheaper, but there’s more to it than just comparing a pair of prices. Samsung guarantees a whole extra year with its update policy. Samsung’s track record for updating its phones from the last couple of years also beats OnePlus’s very easily (and I wish it weren’t so), and that means the Galaxy S21 will last you longer between upgrades. Amortize that cost over the expected lifetime and you’re saving quite a bit.
We’ve been known to adjust our review scores over time (usually down), but as I’ve used more smartphones this year, my opinion of the Galaxy S21 has only improved. So, we’re increasing our review score by half a point to 9/10 and giving the Galaxy S21 a much-deserved Editors’ Choice Most Wanted award.
We’re still early in the 2021 smartphone season, but even as a long-time Samsung critic, the smaller Galaxy S21 is a big, early winner and my top recommendation for the price and size.