Samsung Galaxy S21 + review: secretly the best S21
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Over the past few years, Samsung Galaxy S flagship phones have been split into three flavors: a high-end kitchen sink smartphone, an entry-level device, and that phone in the middle that you probably don’t think of. I spent some time with Samsung’s middle child, the Galaxy S21 + in this loop, and was impressed. Sure, it’s not as powerful as the S21 Ultra, but the form factor, build quality and features are carving a niche in the saturated smartphone market. I would even say the Galaxy S21 + is worth the $ 1,000 asking price for some people. However, when it inevitably goes on sale, the S21 + will become apparent.
Design, fittings, what’s in the box
The S21 + is the sweet spot in Samsung’s new lineup. There is the $ 800 S21 with a 6.2-inch screen and plastic back, and then you have the $ 1200 S21 Ultra with a 6.8-inch screen, glass back and improved cameras. The S21 + shares many design elements with other members of the S21 family, most notably the camera bump and punch hole selfie camera. The S21 + camera sensors are unchanged from last year, but the physical shape of the camera module has changed, seamlessly blending into the aluminum frame. As such, the camera module appears to be a more integral part of the design, rather than a metal island surrounded by glass. I’m a fan of this design, even though it makes some cases a little less secure. The less impressive camera setup on the S21 + also doesn’t upset the phone’s balance as much; Ultra feels very heavy with a huge camera overhang.
The combination of a glass back, thinner body and lighter weight makes the S21 + the best device in the S21 family.
Samsung’s build quality is within the reach of an iPhone, and the S21 + is the best example. I know what you’re thinking: isn’t the S21 Ultra better? Well, yes, in a certain sense. For example, it has better cameras and a big battery, but it is also big and heavy. The S21 + is sleek and attractive by comparison – it’s a whole millimeter thinner and almost 30g lighter than the Ultra. Plus, the screen is just 0.1 inches smaller, and it’s a completely flat OLED panel, not the slightly curved Ultra.
The screen resolution has indeed dropped to 1080p versus 1440p on Ultra, but the clarity, brightness, and colors are still excellent when compared to other phones in this price range. I also like the minimal bezels all over the screen. This device looks like one of those futuristic renders of full screen smartphones from five or six years ago.
From left to right: S21, S21 +, S21 Ultra.
There’s also a new ultrasonic fingerprint scanner underneath the OLED display, and like the Ultra, it’s much faster and more accurate than the old sensor. Performance finally picked up with capacitive sensors and better optical sensors in the display. Just a quick press and the phone will almost always unlock. Given the choice, I prefer the new ultrasonic sensor to the cheaper optical sensors because the screen doesn’t need to brighten up in a dark room to scan your fingerprint.
The S21 + (top) is thinner and lighter than the S21 Ultra (bottom).
The back panel of the S21 + is glass like that of the S21 Ultra. The little S21 has a polycarbonate plastic back, and while it’s a pretty plastic, it’s still not as durable as Samsung’s frosted glass. The combination of a glass back, thinner body and lighter weight makes the S21 + the best device in the S21 family.
Software, performance and battery
I’m not going to bombard you with software quirks here, because the S21 + Android build is essentially identical to the other members of the S21 family. You can check out our S21 Ultra review for a complete description of the software. The bottom line is that Samsung has made some notable improvements this year, but it’s still OneUI. This means that you will have a lot of Samsung apps, a few malware, and some ads that you probably prefer not to see. However, you can clean up most of that with a few tweaks, and I’m happy to see the latest Android on the S21 +, while some OEMs are still launching Android 10 devices. Samsung has even included Google Discover on the home screen. (finally).
The S21 + has the same Snapdragon 888 processor as other S21 devices, so performance isn’t an issue. The phone is very sleek, even when multitasking or installing apps in the background at the same time. Some past Samsung flagships felt like they were asking for a little more power, but the S21 family has plenty of room. The S21 + only has 8GB of RAM, which is 50% less than the Ultra. However, in my experience, 8GB is sufficient for a flagship phone. Apps don’t load from memory unexpectedly, and I might even leave games paused in the background. That’s enough in my book.
While this phone has a slightly smaller battery than the S21 Ultra, 4800mAh seems to be enough for the S21 + as well. Even with heavy use, the S21 + will run smoothly for a day. I see it only takes two days per charge, but it should be possible to increase it with easier use. Probably the 1080p screen helps here. Samsung needs to do something with wired charging, though – 25W just isn’t enough. If you need to buy a separate charger, you can at least use a much faster one.
The S21 + camera is the same as the S21 camera setup, not the S21 Ultra. This means that most of the great things you’ve heard about Samsung’s new cameras don’t apply, but the S21 + still works fine. The S21 + has a 12MP primary, 64MP for zoom and high definition video, and a 12MP ultra-wide camera. While this hardware isn’t as popular as the S21 Ultra, Samsung’s image processing is marginally better this year. White balance looks more accurate indoors, and night mode shots appear noticeably faster. Samsung still does anti-aliasing even when it doesn’t. pretty how aggressive.
The 12MP main sensor has a wide f / 1.8 aperture and large 1.8μm pixels, so it performs well in a variety of lighting conditions. The super wide-angle lens does a great job outdoors, but not as well in low light. Overall, Samsung prefers slower shutter speeds and richer colors. Thus, Samsung photos tend to look brighter and brighter, but they are also more likely to be blurry than photos from, for example, the Pixel.
My biggest problem with the S21 + camera setup is that you don’t have true optical zoom, and Samsung’s processing flaws are easier to spot in digitally zoomed photos. The 64MP telephoto sensor has a lot of free pixels, but that’s not the same as the optical one. And the S21 Ultra gets two cameras with optical zoom this year? It looks like Samsung could have given the S21 + at least one. As a result, you get 8K video recording on the S21 + through the same 64MP sensor. If only there were affordable 8K screens. Suffice it to say that Samsung’s priorities are not up to par.
Should you buy this?
Yes… The Galaxy S21 + is thin, powerful and looks great. The S21 Ultra is undoubtedly the “best” phone, but it is $ 200 more expensive and not as easy to use. The S21 + display is slightly smaller, and the drop in resolution is not an obstacle for me. In fact, I prefer the S21 + Ultra screen simply because it is flat. Death to crooked displays!
Unlike the small S21, Samsung’s middle child has a glass back and a large screen, making it an attractive option for people who don’t need the fancy Ultra camera array. Most of the time, I prefer to use S21 + instead of Ultra … unless I am taking tons of photos. Then I really miss the huge, fatiguing Ultra a little bit. In all fairness, the S21 + may have the best hand feel of any Android phone on the market. The S21 and S21 Ultra have their place, but now I understand the appeal of the Plus variant.
At $ 1,000, the S21 + is expensive. While I don’t think this is a bad price, I believe that a phone in this price range should have better camera hardware. However, the phone is already on sale. At press time, the $ 800 selling price is a killer deal. If you think the S21 + is your phone, it’s worth buying.
Buy if …
- You want a fast, feature-rich phone with a great display.
- The S21 Ultra is too expensive or too heavy for your taste.
Do not buy if …
- You can carry large, heavy phones with you.
- You take a lot of photos and you need the best cameras.
Over the past few weeks, I have split my time between three members of the S21 family. It can’t be denied that the S21 Ultra is the “best” phone in the group in terms of specs, but it’s actually not the best storage option. This phone is heavy and uncomfortable, but the S21 + is pretty darn sleek. I feel like I hold this phone well – the weight and balance are such that I don’t get nervous without the case, while the S21 Ultra always feels like it wants to slip out of my hand. The flat screen on the S21 + is definitely an advantage, and the 1080p resolution didn’t bother me.
Aside from the pleasant form factor, the S21 + is a great phone overall. It’s fast, lasts for a day, and runs the latest version of Android. Samsung’s software has been a major stumbling block in the past, but it has gotten a lot better in recent years. It’s not a Pixel, but Samsung’s slightly more understated UI and the promise of four years of updates make the deal even better.
For many people, it all comes down to the camera. The S21 Ultra has a much more impressive shooter – I mean 10x optical zoom, wow. The S21 + camera setup is just normal by comparison. There is no optical zoom, and Samsung’s digital zoom processing is no better than 2x. However, if you don’t take a lot of photos, a 12MP main sensor will do, and it’s a good idea to be able to shoot ultra-high-definition video.
At press time, the S21 + retails for $ 850 from Samsung (unlocked), which is $ 350 less than the S21 Ultra. If you don’t crave an Ultra camera module, you should buy the S21 +.