Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Less is more

January 21, 2021, 4:00 PM UTC

Most years, a review of the new flagship Galaxy phones from Samsung follows a similar pattern. Here are all the great new features and upgrades and here’s how well they work.

But after a year like no other in 2020, when the pandemic put millions of people out of work and phones sales plunged, the usual format doesn’t fit to assess Samsung’s new line of Galaxy S21 phones. In these COVID-battered times, Samsung has actually reduced the price of its best devices, in some cases by quite a bit. In return, some of the specs and features aren’t as good as last year’s S20 phones and even 2019’s S10 phones.

That’s not meant as a criticism, however. As the smartphone era reaches middle adolescence, some specs are overkill. Lots of new features are more suited for keynote demonstrations than use in every day life.

The question for the S21 is did Samsung make the correct trade offs in trimming the flagship to reach a lower price? (Spoiler alert: Yes, it did.)

samsung galaxy s20 ultra and s21 ultra phones
Aaron Pressman/Fortune

Samsung changed the location of the camera bump on the Galaxy S21 Ultra (seen at left in black) compared to the S20 Ultra (right).

Less is more

Let’s start with the prices. The basic S21 with a 6.2-inch screen costs $800 and the similarly outfitted S21+ with an 6.7-inch screen costs $1,000. The top of the line S21 Ultra, which has better cameras and a 6.8-inch screen, costs $1,200. All of those starting prices are $200 less than last year’s equivalent S20 models.

And there’s more. Samsung is offering generous trade-in deals online so the bottom line is a net outlay as low as $88 for a brand new S21, $300 for the S21+, and $500 for the Ultra. The company is even throwing in credits of up to $150 that can be spent on other Samsung products.

So what did Samsung take away? Start with the display. The S21 and S21+ have lower resolution displays than last year (FHD+ versus QHD+). That means there are about 421 tiny pixels illuminating every inch of the screen, a big drop from 563 per inch on the S20 or even the 550 on 2019’s S10 phone.

In theory, that means less detailed images. But in day to day use, I never cared. There may be a few less pixels, but photos and videos still looked sharp and the rich colors from the AMOLED screen technology may be the best and brightest of any phone around. (The S21 Ultra model retains the QHD+ screen from the S20 Ultra.)

Even fewer people will miss the removed microSD card storage slot or, following Apple’s lead, the lack of a charging brick in the box. There’s also less RAM on some models, a reduction that I also never noticed given the consistently snappy performance of every app I tried. Finally, the entry-level S21 model has a plastic back instead of glass like all of last year’s phones as well as the S21+ and Ultra. Again, you’d be hard-pressed to notice.

Many great features from the S20 have been retained. There’s still super handy fast charging. I went from a dead battery to half full in under 30 minutes on a day when I forgot to charge the phone overnight. There’s also still a great photography experience. The phones have basically the same cameras as last year, with the same crazy 30X to 100X zoom capabilities, though with improved software. (More on that below.)

At a time when we’re all still wearing masks in public, thank goodness Samsung kept the under-display fingerprint reader on the phone. Sometimes it unlocked the phone so fast, I’d miss it if I blinked. Out in public with the iPhone 12, I have to type in my PIN to unlock as my mask thwarts the FaceID feature. That leaves me fumbling in line to pay for groceries at the supermarket. But with the S21, I speed through checkout just like the old days.

What’s actually better

There are few improvements worth mentioning on the S21 line.

Start with the styling. Samsung is offering attractive new colors like violet, light brown, and navy blue. And last year’s ginormous camera bumps have morphed a bit. Instead of jutting out from the middle of the back of the phone, they’re now shifted to the corner for a more pleasing appearance and flowing feel.

My S21 review unit, in its new violet color with a light gold camera bump and accents, looks like a piece of fine jewelry. The matte black S21 Ultra unit proves once again that black is slimming. And I don’t miss the slightly curving edges of the display from prior years. The S21 display is flat and boxy, but it still feels great in the hand.

The new phones also use Qualcomm’s third-generation of 5G communications technology to connect to the fastest networks available. The big carriers are currently getting ready to offer 5G on a whole new set of airwaves, known as the C-Band, later this year. The S21 models along with the iPhone 12 line will be among the few phones on the market able to access C-Band 5G on day one.

And while the cameras look quite similar to last year’s on the spec sheet, with their impressive telephoto zooming tricks, it’s the software improvements that stand out. Using the zoom lens last year could be a struggle with finicky autofocus and a jumpy picture that made it hard to frame just the shot you wanted.

This year, Samsung improved the autofocus and added autofocus lock to reduce shakiness. Still, I found pictures at the extreme end of the zoom range were pretty grainy. So 100X is probably more useful as a kind of digital binoculars than for snapping great pictures. But with the improved autofocus, using the mid-range of the zoom, up to about 10X, was easier and produced more winning pics than before.

The top-end S21 Ultra also got a few bonus features all its own. It’s now compatible with Samsung’s S-Pen stylus that used to work only with the Galaxy Note line. This worked perfectly in my testing for jotting quick notes on the screen and generally navigating around apps. But the Ultra has no place to store the S-Pen, unlike the Note’s built-in stylus slot, and I didn’t find myself carrying the pen around much.

The bottom line

So who should buy a Galaxy S21? Certainly not anyone who bought the S20 last year, for obvious reasons. Many of the features were better last year, at least on paper, and Samsung has steadily improved the 2020 phones with software updates.

But for fans of Android phones with a two or three-year-old device, the price of a great looking S21 with its sharp cameras, 5G speeds, and a silly fast processor is so low this year that it should be easy to say yes.

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