We wanted to review the smaller Samsung Galaxy S21 first (the Ultra review is coming) because all indications are that the 6.2″, 8/128GB at $1249 may be the ‘sweet spot’. Why the sweet spot? Because Samsung and its approved retailers have long sold out their Samsung Galaxy S21 launch shipments. A few S21+ in Phantom Silver are left, and the Ultra is readily available. Certainly, those I have shown it to prefer a more pocketable premium phone (over the 6.8″ Ultra) in the same way that the 6.1″ 4/64GB iPhone 12 (review coming as well) at $1349 is popular with Apple enthusiasts. And on specifications alone, Samsung supplies considerably more ‘bang-for-buck’ if Android is your preference.
But we are not here to pitch Android against iOS. We are here to see what makes the Samsung Galaxy S21 tick. The review covers both the S21 and S21+. The latter is identical apart from a 6.7″ screen, 4800mAh battery, 30g heavier and costs $200 more.
Take a step back – what is a Galaxy S-series phone?
Simply put, it is Samsung’s Android alternative to iPhone. Apple lovers need not read this section. The original Galaxy S fired shots over Apple’s bow in June 2010. I was then a Windows Phone fanatic (damn you, Microsoft for ever letting this amazing, well-ahead-of-its-time OS die). So, my move was to either iPhone or Android.
I had heard horror stories about Android security, so I bought an iPhone 6S Plus (and an iPad Mini 4). I wish someone had told me about its abysmal battery life (less than a day); overheating issues (it would shut down after few minutes of video); terrible low-light photography (that is too kind a description); random shut-downs; lost data from iCloud backups during frequent factory reset/restores; regular Wi-Fi and Bluetooth drop-outs; and more. Was it one rotten Apple in the barrel? A Google search reveals all.
The iPad Mini 4 was also having issues. Very low battery life, faulty cable connector, flashing screen, and randomly not accepting iOS updates. And the Logitech Focus keyboard case was losing letters as I typed (iPhone Bluetooth issues).
I took the iPhone and iPad back. After revealing the litany of issues (carefully documented as journalists are wont to do), I was told I could have replacement Apple products. I stood my ground and received a refund. Perhaps that coloured my attitude towards Apple kit. I then bought a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Galaxy Tab S 10.5 Both are still going strong as hand-me-downs apart from battery life.
I found that my Galaxy pair were way ahead of iPhone/iPad. The S6 had a micro-SD slot, IP rating, a 16MP OIS low-light camera, and the signature Samsung AMOLED screen. It set the hardware and reliability standards that iPhone needed to meet. The Tab S had a micro-SD slot and a beautiful 2560×1600 Super AMOLED screen. I was hooked.
More often than not, I now see iPhone playing catch-up to Samsung Galaxy S-series and vice versa. But it is not an Apples with Samsung comparison. The first is a walled hardware and software garden, and the latter is open-source Android. You can read the interesting Samsung Galaxy model history here
Samsung Galaxy S21 is SM-G991BZ followed by a 4-or 5-letter memory and ‘Phantom’ colour code in Violet, Pink, Gray, White
S21+ is SM-G996BZ or BI – ditto in Silver, Black, Violet (Gold and Red from Samsung direct)
S21 Ultra is SM-G998BZ or BD – ditto in Black, Silver
Do not, under any circumstances but any model with the identifier U, W, N, or none at all. And if it has a Qualcomm SD888, it will not work here. You must buy an Australian certified model as these 5G phones are region locked – the first activation must be in Australia. Don’t buy 5G on the grey market.
First impression – flat
Samsung returns to an easier to use flat screen, sans the curved edge. The aluminium frame is rose gold, and the back is matte-frost Phantom Violet. The wife loves it – I think Phantom Silver is more suitable.
The new camera wrap around ‘hump’ with three symmetrical lenses is on the rear. The single LED flash looks a tad out of place. The camera hump is metallic painted plastic, like the rest of the back, so it may get edge-wear marks.
There has been some valid criticism that the S21 has lost the micro-SD slot and does not come with a wall charger or buds (as per Apple’s lead). I mention this because the battery charge speed will depend on what volt/amp charger you use. Its maximum is 25W. The missing micro-SD is not as much of an issue as it has USB-C 3.2 Gen 1 data transfer at up to 5Gbps to a suitable external SSD. But it is still a black glass slab. If you want excitement, the 5G Samsung Galaxy Fold Z or the Galaxy Flip Z are your options.
Screen – sensible move back to 1080p
Both the 6.2″ S21 and 6.7″ S21+ have a 2400 x 1080, 20:9, Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen. The Ultra has a 6.8″ curved Edge 3200×1440, Gorilla Glass Victus protected screen. It has 48-120Hz adaptive refresh, HDR10+, 1300 nits (peak). But these are theoretical numbers for viewing HDR content. The reality is 430-450nits (typical), 850-880 (max auto) and 1300 for 2% of the screen.
Black levels are excellent, giving it an infinite contrast ratio. Compared to the iPhone 12 (max 639nits), it is considerably brighter. Vivid mode is close to 80% DCI-P3 (movies) with a Delta E of <4 (good). Natural is close to 110% sRGB at a Delta E of 1.4 (excellent). Most will use the Vivid setting. It has adaptive eye care that adjusts blue light levels to the time of day. YouTube plays at 1080p HDR in 24fps at 120Hz but drops to 60Hz for 30/60fps. I am not a gamer, but synthetic tests indicate it will lock at 120Hz for most mainline games. While it is always a shame to see specs drop back from one model to the next, the 1080p screen has no compromises.
2nd Generation Ultrasonic fingerprint works well
I have never really had any issue with the S20 under-glass fingerprint reader, but others have. This is Gen 2 and has an expanded area. In tests, it averaged 9/10 positives and the occasional misread.
Processor – Samsung’s best yet
Exynos 2100 5nm – tri-cluster, Octa-core CPU (2.9GHz X1, 3×2.80GHz A78, 4×2.2 GHz A55): Samsung uses SD888 in the US and China markets. Here we get its Exynos equivalent. Well, it appears that this time around, it beats the Qualcomm.
Mali-G78 MP14 GPU (14 cores and up to 46% improvement over the last): It is the highest scores across most GFX Benchmarks and exponentially ahead of the iPhone in many. It should play all current games at the highest frame rates.
The 8GB LPDDR5 memory (12 on Ultra) is extremely fast. But we got an ‘Out-of-Memory’ error on GFX Benchmarks Manhattan 3.1 battery test (on two review phones), so who knows what is causing that. It does not seem to affect the device in daily use.
128/256GB (220GB free) UFS 3.1 (or 512GB on Ultra) storage: This is very fast, reaching entry-level SSD speeds of 644.68/383.33MBps sequential read/write. The 1TB Orico iv300 (best little external SSD ever!) sequential read/write was 1380/396.05MBps – excellent.
We have changed testing software from Androbench to CPDT – a cross-platform storage tester that is more consistent. Speed comparisons with previous smartphone reviews may not be relevant. One Geekbench 5 single/multi 1032/3238 the S21 is the current fastest single-core result of any Android phone. We also ran a CPU throttling test (15 minutes at 100%). It started at 176,535GIPS and averaged 173,004 – a 6% drop over 15 minutes. Samsung has thermal management nailed.
Comms – the full suite
Wi-Fi 6 AX Broadcom BCM4375B1. Achieved -34dBM and 1200Mbps at 2 metres from the Netgear AX router. This is as fast as Wi-Fi 6 goes, but the S21 Ultra will support Wi-Fi 6E as well
Bluetooth 5.1 supports SBC, AAC, aptX, LDAC and Samsung’s scalable codec. It also supports all BT music and hands-free profiles.
NFC for Google Pay plus MST for Samsung Pay
Ultra-wideband to find nearby compatible devices like car locks etc
GPS – Dual-band and <5m accuracy
USB-C 3.2 Gen 1 5Gbps
Sensors include an accelerometer, barometer, eCompass, fingerprint, gyroscope, hall, light, and proximity. Samsung has succumbed to the combo Accelerometer and Gyroscope, making screen rotation very touchy. Turn that option off until you need it, or you will forever be trying to change orientation. Overall, all top-draw specs.
5G/4G (tests in a 3-bar zone) it is 4G Blue-tick for rural use
The dual sim holder is at the bottom. Take extreme care as it is easy to mistake the microphone pinhole near it. We understand that this is the ‘DS’ model, and there is also an eSIM (Telstra no longer supports in consumer mobile plans). Samsung has not released full specs, which is extremely disappointing to a real deep-dive tech review. From international specs, we understand that it supports:
5G – the only band that counts in n78 for Australia.
It can access bands 1, 3, 5, 8, 20, 28, 38, 40, 41, 77, 78, but we are not sure if all are enabled.
Test: -96dBm/199.5fW on band 28 (exceptionally strong signal strength and is Telstra Bluetick approved for rural use). DL/UL 15/10.4Mbps and 47ms. Network Cell Info (testing app) could see other towers, but the phone locked to the usual one preventing measurement. 5G sub-6Ghz was not tested, but we understand that if you are beside the tower, it reaches 200/20Mbps.
Battery – at least a day
4,000/4800mAh (5000 on Ultra)
25W PD 3.0
15W QI charge
4.5W Reverse Qi charge
The battery shows up on test as 3880mAh – let’s not quibble over the rest. The loss of a charger is not a deal-breaker – it is a $29 option that works with Galaxy S10 5G, A70/80. But it is not a standard charger. It has the following power profiles
PDO: 9V/2.77A/25W (this is what the device mainly uses)
PPS: 3.3-5.9V/3A or 3.3-11.0V/2.25A (also called USB-C PD 3.0)
We have tested all a variety of USB-C PD chargers up to 100W, and they negotiate the correct voltage and amperage. But if you use a USB-A 5V/2A, charge times will at least double. Overall, charge times are faster than the iPhone 12.
Tests (all on adaptive mode)
GFX Bench Manhattan 3.1 (fails this test *)
GFX T-Rex – 314.8 min (5.25hrs) and 5910 frames
Netflix 1080p, 50% screen, Wi-Fi – 8 hrs
Video loop 1080p, 50% screen, local playback – 15 hrs
Web browsing – 10 hrs
100% Load – 4 hrs
Screen-on idle – between 300 and 500mA or approx. 13 hrs
Screen-off idle – <100mA (10-days standby)
Charger 30-minute– 50%
Charger 85 minutes – 100%
Qi 15W 180 minutes – 100%
* I have had review phones fail this test but never an OUT-OF-MEMORY error. We swapped the review unit, and the same error occurs. We understand that this may be specific to the Exynos SoC version. In any case, it is a day plus device.
2.0 speakers – top firing earpiece and bottom down-firing. We are used to this Samsung configuration, and in general, it has fairly closely matched sound signatures in landscape orientation. It has 2 x CS35L41 amps capable of 5.3W output at 1% THD (total 10.6W). You really can’t get better ‘oomph’ out of smartphone speakers. Maximum volume is 75dB for music, notifications and ring tone – quite good. It lacks bass. It is not there until nearly 200Hz and then builds to a solid mid and lower treble. This is more about clear voice than music. It is pleasant enough.
Dolby Atmos means it will decode the metadata steam and downmix to its 2.0 stereo speakers. It makes almost no difference to the native sound apart from adding an Equaliser and pre-sets that give you a very small adjustment. The sound stage (DA off) is quite narrow – just marginally outside the bezels. Our test with the reference Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones was excellent – SBC, AC and LDAC, although you needed to select the codec from Developer Options first.
Build – solid and IP68
Samsung calls it ‘Glasstic’ (glass and plastic or polycarbonate), and we will see a lot more of it in phones. It is lighter than metal, far easier to mould, takes vacuum-deposited paint better, perfect for Qi charging and a little more drop resistant. I won’t take points off because it has an aluminium frame and Gorilla Glass Victus front. All are IP68 up to 1.5m water resistance for 30 mins versus the 1 meter depth of IP67.
Galaxy S21 – 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm x 170g
S21+ -161.4 x 75.6 x 7.8mm x 200g
S21 Ultra 165.1 x 75.6 x 8.9mm x 227g
Android – three upgrades is excellent
Android 11, Security Patch 1/2/21. Samsung states that it will get three OS upgrades (to 14) and three years of security patches. But the latter is not as important in Android 11, where Google’s Project Treble may handle security patches. I like Samsung’s One UI 3.1 – it adds considerable value and features to an otherwise generic OS. And it keeps the familiar old Android three-button navigation for those that need it.
Other – try DeX – you may love it
Samsung’s DeX (Desktop eXPerience) connects both over a USB-C-to-HDMI cable as well as using Wi-Fi. It’s a way to use your phone like a PC with an external monitor. Those who use it understand that you can leave your laptop at home. It is more a Chrome-like experience than Samsung will admit. There is also close integration with Windows. Screen mirror and Chromecast are standard.
3.5mm audio jack – no big issue
Charger – disappointed but not a deal-breaker
Buds – no issue at all as most use BT buds
Micro-SD – had I not got over 1Gbps out of an external SSD, then it may have been an issue
These are victims of progress, and there are similar omissions on iPhone.
The cameras are a very similar camera set-up to the S20 – only it has the next-gen Samsung Exynos 2100 SoC for a little more AI post-processing power. The rear camera is the main snapper, which does 99% of the work, is 12MP. The 64MP is mainly for zoom. Still, 64MP sounds impressive.
Samsung has backed off its super-saturated colours to more natural ones. That explains the 12MP ‘non-binned’ main camera. It relies far more on good optics and the dual pixel sensor than computational photography tricks. Still, the results are what counts, and apart from the Ultra (not yet reviewed), the S21 has flagship results. At this time, DXOMARK has not S21 variant. If this happens, we will update with a link.
Rear camera details:
Main (wide): 12MP f/1.8, 1.8µm, Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS. Uses Sony IMX555 sensor (same as S20)
Ultra-wide and Macro: 12MP, f/2.2, 1.4µm, Dual Pixel Fixed Focus, Super Steady video uses Sony IMX563
Telephoto: 64MP (bins to 12MP), f/2.0, 0.8µm (bins to 1.6um), PDAF, OIS, 1.1x optical zoom, 3x hybrid zoom (30x space zoom) used Samsung S5KGW2
New Director’s mode shows live images from all four cameras. Pick and switch which one to use for recording.
This 10MP, f/2.2 1.22µm, Dual Pixel PDAF, [email protected]/60fps, [email protected] uses Sony IMX374 also used in the S20 series. Screen fill flash. But it delivers a 7.1MP, 61.5° FOV image unless you switch to ‘wide-angle’, then it is 10MP and 68°. That means its cropping the overall 12MP image. Ultra has 108MP/100X space zoom and 40MP selfie. Camera summary: 10/10!
The Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21+ are a minor evolution over the S20 series. In some respects, the S20 has superior specs. For the money, I would rip out and buy the S20 FE (Fan Edition) that at $999 is spectacular value and has a micro-SD slot.
And that may be the key. SamMobile has seen early bench test results for an SM-G990B that it says could be the S21 FE. As you have come to expect from the Galaxy S series, it has a great screen, tonne of power, well above average camera, and good battery life. But no headphones and no charger are just plain mean. After Samsung chided Apple for removing these, I was sure it would keep them.
But the dilemma – it is not as exciting as the S20 was, and it can’t score as well. It is why the S21 Ultra will be a separate review as it has some exciting tech like a Wacom Pen digester to make it a ‘Note’. And we know what is coming in the flagship market. The new Find X3 Pro from OPPO and some other Qualcomm SD888 devices may make the S21 look a little more pedestrian.
Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21+ may just be the sweet spot
The S21 and 21+ offer great flagship value and are more pocketable than the S21 Ultra.
Value for money
Ease of use
Solid build and IP68 – don't worry about the Gasltic back
One day or more battery life
The fastest Android to date (compared to the SD888)
Samsung One UI make Android a pleasure to use
No deal breakers
Failed GFX Bench Manhattan 3.1 battery test - investigating
Samsung is not publishing detailed specs that techies need and love