Galaxy S21 5G review: Premium features, compact size, and reasonable price

galaxy-s21-1.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    9.3 Spectacular
  • $799.99

Pros

  • Small size in a sea of large slabs
  • Lovely design with matte finish back
  • 5G support for all bands
  • Highly capable rear cameras
  • Competitive pricing
  • High-end internal specifications

Cons

  • No charger in the box
Samsung Galaxy S21 series: More affordable, highly capable, elegant phones

I use my smartphones as work tools so I personally focus my attention on the high-end flagships. This year Samsung is making a competitive pitch to also consider the entry level flagship Galaxy S21 5G with a starting price $200 less than last years Galaxy S20. The S21 5G is likely to appeal to those looking for a high-quality Samsung phone that can be easily pocketed or held in one hand.

After a couple of weeks with both the S21 and S21 Ultra, I preferred the smaller S21 when going out for a run or walk and when heading out to run errands. The bigger display of the S21 Ultra was more compelling for my aging eyes and the camera performance for situations needing higher zoom levels is better.

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The Galaxy S21 5G starts at $799.99 with four color options. The phone is available for pre-order with all kinds of trade-in and launch offers as well which could make the phone as low as $99.99 with the right trade-in.

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G specifications

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
  • Main display: 6.2 inches, 2400 x 1080 pixels resolution (421 ppi), Dynamic AMOLED Infinity-O with adaptive 120Hz refresh rate
  • Operating system: Android 11
  • RAM: 8GB LPDDR5
  • Storage: 128GB internal storage (256GB available)
  • Cameras: 64MP rear f/2.0 telephoto with 3x hybrid optic zoom, 12MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera, and 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide camera (120 degrees field-of-view). 10MP f/2.2 front-facing camera.
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.0 LE, ANT+, GPS/Galileo/GLONASS/Beidou, NFC, UWB
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, Barometer, Ultrasonic Fingerprint Sensor, Gyro Sensor, Geomagnetic Sensor, Hall Sensor, Proximity Sensor, RGB Light Sensor
  • Dust/water resistance: IP68 rating
  • Battery: 4000 mAh non-removable with fast wireless charging. Wireless PowerShare is also available.
  • Dimensions: 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm and 171 grams
  • Colors: Phantom Gray, Phantom White, Phantom Violet, and Phantom Pink

The only differences between the high end S21 Ultra 5G and the S21 5G is the display size and resolution, camera specifications, RAM/storage options, and battery capacity. The display and battery are driven by the size of the device so you are getting a lot of phone for $400 less.

Also: Samsung Galaxy face off: Is the S21 Ultra or Note 20 Ultra best for business?

Hardware

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The Galaxy S21 is a lovely piece of hardware, especially in the Phantom Violet and rose gold color. My wife and daughters have commented on it a few times and it definitely appeals to them. The smaller size is also attractive to people looking for a smaller size phone that is easy to handle and place in your pocket.

One significant difference in the design between the S21 and the S21 Ultra is the back material. Both have matte finishes, but the S21 is composed of plastic instead of Gorilla Glass Victus. I have zero concerns with the use of plastic given it is more likely to survive a drop. Many people also put their phone in a case so the material of the back is of little concern. The fact that matte finishes are used is more important since there are no fingerprints that appear when you hold and use the phone.

The Super AMOLED display is gorgeous and the 120 Hz adaptive display provides a flawless display experience. The S21 is slightly different than the S21 Ultra with display refresh ranges between 48 and 120 Hz on the S21 and 10 to 120 Hz on the Ultra. I was unable to see any differences in my time with both devices.

Another display difference that may appeal to some people is the display is flat on the S21 while it is slightly curved on the S21 Ultra. The curvature on the S21 Ultra is less than on previous Samsung phones and I never experienced any inadvertent screen activations. Screen protectors for flat glass panels also tend to stay lint-free along the edges and are usually easier to apply.

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The volume and power/Bixby buttons are on the right side. The USB-C port, second speaker, and microphone are on the bottom. The front-facing 10MP camera is centered on the front of the display, very close to the top of the display. It's a very small hole-punch camera that is barely noticeable on the S21.

There are three cameras on the back of the S21 with solid results from each. There is clearly a difference in the zoom capability between the S21 and the S21 Ultra, as shown in my image gallery contained in the S21 Ultra review and in various other camera comparison articles and videos on the internet.

Wi-Fi 6E support is included in the S21, but I wasn't able to test this out since I do not have access to a 6E network. It's great to have as it provides some future-proofing to Samsung's latest flagship smartphone. UWB is also present and offers a bit of future-proofing since we are just starting to see applications for UWB technology.

Also: Samsung Galaxy S21 starts at $799.99, launches Galaxy S21 Plus, Galaxy S21 Ultra with camera upgrades

Software

The Samsung Galaxy S21 5G launches with Android 11 and Samsung One UI 3.1. The January 1, 2021, Android security update is present on our review unit. Samsung has an excellent track record over the past couple of years with the monthly Android security updates and seems to be getting a bit better with the major Android updates.

One thing I am pleased to see on the S21 is the ability to have Google Discover on the far left home screen panel. You can still switch to Samsung Free, but it's great to see Samsung providing users with options. In the past, I always turned off this panel because I didn't find Samsung's offering very compelling. This is the same for me with OnePlus and its old Shelf home screen panel.

Facebook is installed by default, but rather than just disable it you can now fully uninstall it, and I certainly did as soon as I fired up the app launcher. We still find some Samsung apps, such as Internet, Messages, Samsung Notes, Samsung Health, and a few others, but you are given the option to select these apps during setup so you do not have to install them all and have more control over your phone than you did in the past.

DeX wireless support is provided so you can connect the S21 Ultra to a PC or monitor and enjoy a PC-like experience powered by the S21. We also see excellent integration with Microsoft Outlook, To-Do, and Teams, which is perfect for enterprise customers. It's impressive to attach a small Galaxy S21 to something like the NexDock Touch and have a laptop experience all powered by a small and very capable smartphone.

The camera software has been improved with a new feature called Director's View that is designed to help with collaboration, especially during these times of social distancing and remote work. With Director's View enabled you can quickly toggle between the different rear cameras on the phone while having the option to record yourself side-by-side or picture-in-picture format so that you can share information better with your teams. This seems like a great option for my on-site shipyard inspection team to share fabrication, installation, and testing experiences with me located in a home office thousands of miles away.

The Single Take option in the software has also been enhanced with more filters and effects so you have more fun options for creativity. Night mode has also been greatly enhanced and I've had excellent results with the Galaxy S21. The previously named Live Focus appears now as Portrait, which is nice to see since that's what the rest of the world has been using for quite a while. Other modes in the camera include AR doodle, Portrait Video, super slow motion, and more.

I've always enjoyed Samsung's Gallery app for managing and editing my photos so was pleased to see it updated to include settings to sync to OneDrive from right within the Gallery. In the past I always had to install the OneDrive app and remember to setup photo backup. Given that I'm an Office 365 subscriber with plenty of storage in OneDrive this Microsoft integration is great to see. The Gallery app can also be setup to automatically create curated collections of photos and videos and present them as stories. Manual story creation is also an option for S21 owners.

Edge panels are also available for S21 users so I quickly setup my favorite contact shortcuts, weather, and metric ruler panels. Link to Windows, Smart View sharing to other Samsung devices (like my Samsung TVs), and all of the other Samsung goodies are present in the S21.

Daily usage experiences

If you are thinking of any new Galaxy S21 device, then I highly recommend you place your order before Friday, 29 January, when all of the awesome trade-in and launch offers expire. Samsung offers more than anyone else when it comes to trade-in offers, but also make sure to check out your preferred carrier. For example, T-Mobile offers significant savings with a wider array of phones available for trade-in.

The Galaxy S21 5G feels quite small to me since I've been using big phones for the past year, including the last couple of weeks with a S21 Ultra 5G in my other pocket. The size is likely to be very attractive to those with smaller hands or who want a more portable phone. With my aging eyes and big hands, I'm all in on large smartphones for my own use.

There is no S Pen on this model, but that's to be expected for an S Series phone and the 6.2-inch display doesn't lend itself that well to stylus use or split-screen view. I've enjoyed movies and music on the phone with excellent audio performance. Battery life has also proven to be quite good with a full day of use easy to achieve with various workday experiences.

Cellular reception has been great, call quality is fantastic, and 5G connectivity has kept my phone calls up in spotty areas. If you are looking for high-end specifications at a reasonable price, the S21 is clearly a candidate to consider. Samsung's S21 smartphones set a high bar for everyone else in 2021, starting at a price of $800.

The Phantom Violet has a lovely shade and looks great with the rose gold camera array. There is a lot to like in this new entry-level flagship from Samsung and the $200 reduction over last year's model is sure to be seen as a great move after a tough 2020.

Where To Buy

Price
$799.99

Where To Buy

Galaxy S21 5G (128GB Phantom Gray)

Part Number: sm-g991uzaaxaa
Price
$799.99