Samsung’s smallest, most affordable Galaxy S21 sets the stage for 2021 phones with style and without breaking the bank, and it’s future-proofed with 5G technology so advanced that the networks to support it don’t exist yet. But I know small size and high quality isn’t a broadly appealing combo and until the inevitable discounts kick in and the new 5G networks are launched, its price feels too high for its capabilities.
A Colorful and Comfortable Body
The smallest premium Android phone right now is a little bigger than last year’s. At 5.97 by 2.80 by 0.31 inches (HWD), it’s slightly wider than the S20’s 2.72 inches, but narrower than both the iPhone 12 (2.82 inches) and the S20 FE (2.93 inches). I count 2.8 inches wide as the maximum for a one-handed phone, so we’re riding the edge here. At 6.03 ounces, it’s heavier than the S20 (5.75 ounces) and the iPhone 12 (5.78 ounces), but lighter than the S20 FE (6.67 ounces).
The Galaxy S21 family, from left: S21 Ultra, S21+, S21
The S21 experience starts with a bright, colorful, flat 6.2-inch 1080p AMOLED screen at 120Hz. The colors seem a bit richer and higher-contrast than on the S20 FE, which only has a 60Hz screen. The phone has a plastic back, as the S20 FE does, and comes in gold, gray, pink, purple, red, or white, with a three-camera module as a slightly raised accent in the corner.
I know some people get worked up over back panel materials, but honestly, I prefer plastic over glass. as plastic is less likely to scratch, less slippery, and less fingerprint-attracting. (A metal back, which the S21 Ultra has, is best.)
I’m happy to say that the second-generation Qualcomm ultrasonic fingerprint sensor works more quickly and accurately than last year’s. I did have some trouble with face recognition, though, both with and without a mask on.
The S21 comes with 128GB or 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. Unlike on the S20 FE, there’s no microSD card slot. There’s also no headphone jack; you can plug in USB-C headphones or go wireless.
Headphone jacks and microSD slots are a thing of the past
The Snapdragon 888 Is a Step Forward
The S21-series phones are the first we’ve seen with Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 888 chipset. The S21 benchmarks the same here as on the S21 Ultra, which I describe in more detail in that review (ultimately, it’s about 15% faster on processor and graphics measurements than the last generation). I didn’t see any real difference in performance between this 888-based phone and last year’s 865-based phones.
The Small-Phone Battery Life Challenge
Battery life is where small phones flounder, and the S21 is no exception. Battery anxiety might even be a reason for the relative unpopularity of the iPhone 12 mini.
The S21 has a 4,000mAh battery compared with the S21+’s 4,800mAh and the S21 Ultra’s 5,000mAh. With the screen on full brightness, the S21 lasted for 10 hours, 20 minutes of Wi-Fi streaming time and 7 hours, 20 minutes of 5G streaming time. That’s exactly an hour less, in both scenarios, than the S21 Ultra, and it falls well short of the S20 FE’s Wi-Fi streaming time of 12 hours, 30 minutes. That 5G use range of 7 to 8 hours is just about at the lower limit of tolerance if you use your phone intensively throughout the day.
There’s no charger in the box. Samsung says you can use the included USB-C-to-USB-C cable with a charger you already have, but if your junk drawer only holds USB-A and micro USB chargers, you’ll still have to shell out for a USB-C one. If you buy Samsung’s 25W charger for $34.99, the battery will get to a 39% charge in 20 minutes and a full one in 70 minutes. An older 10W charger, like the one with the Galaxy S20 FE, manages 20% in 20 minutes and a full charge in 95 minutes. The S21 also supports 15W wireless charging, so you can always opt for a Qi-compatible wireless charging pad.
Battery anxiety is definitely a reason to turn to the S20 FE or the 8T. OnePlus addresses the small battery problem by offering ridiculously fast charging, but Samsung doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo.
The Camera Wasn’t Broken, But It Got Fixed Anyway
The Galaxy S21’s camera system is very similar to the S20 and S20+’s in both specs and output. There’s a main 12MP camera, a 12MP 120-degree ultra-wide, and a 64MP, 3x optical telephoto that can get to 12x zoom without digital enhancement tricks.
Here are the Galaxy S21’s three main cameras
The phone claims to have 30x zoom, but of course that’s indistinct at best. 10x is as far as you really want to go, and 3x is the sweet spot.
The 3x zoom images on the Galaxy S20+ (left) and S21 (right) are about the same level of sharpness
The S21 and S20+’s lenses perform similarly when zooming to 3X, but the S21’s images appear to have better color and contrast.
The S21 (right) shows better colors and contrast than the S20+ (left)
Outdoors, the contrast difference between the S21 (right) and S20+ (left) is even clearer
Night mode is slightly improved on the main camera, and vastly improved on the front camera.
The S21 (left) has better Night mode than the S20+ (right)
A front-facing night shot with the S21 (left) is much better than with the S20+ (right)
The whole system stands up pretty well to the iPhone 12. The S21’s colors are generally a bit more saturated. The iPhone 12 judged exposure for Night mode a little better in some circumstances. And the S21 has the optical zoom lens, which only Apple’s Pro phones have.
It’s a tough call between these selfies on the iPhone 12 (left) and the Galaxy S21 (right)
The new Snapdragon 888 processor unlocks other camera capabilities, most notably the Director’s View multi-cam video mode and the improved Single Take mode, which takes a 10-second video and turns it into a bunch of stills, GIFs, and short videos. The phone can also record 8K video at up to 24fps with any of its lenses.
Networking Like It’s 2022
The Galaxy S21, like its siblings, has the new Qualcomm X60 modem, which can combine bands of 5G spectrum in new ways. After speaking to several North American carriers, I just don’t think you’ll see any of those advantages until late 2021 or early 2022.
Like the S21 Ultra, the smaller S21 comes in various models for different countries, with different 5G support, and you should buy the unit that’s appropriate for your country. The US model is a single-SIM phone, with eSIM support disabled, that works on both sub-6 and millimeter-wave networks for all three US carriers. These are also the first Samsung phones to support C-band, the new 5G airwaves wireless carriers just spent more than $80 billion for.
At this moment, the S21 performs just like the S20 series and the iPhone 12 on the US 5G networks. I tested the S21 Ultra and S21 against an S20+ and iPhone 12 on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks near my home in New York City and got pretty much the same performance. That’s because none of the carriers have laid in the new network features that would take advantage of the S21’s hardware. All of the US networks still rely on combining 4G with 5G to offer the best performance, something called non-standalone 5G. T-Mobile has been experimenting with standalone 5G, but that turns out to dramatically lower download speeds in exchange for lower latency, as you’re losing those 4G channels. They need more 5G airwaves before these features become useful.
This may all change in 2022. The new C-band airwaves will be wide enough for Verizon to provide standalone 5G in many cities; T-Mobile will also clear out enough of its mid-band airwaves that standalone will become more common on that carrier, too.https://mashable.com/videos/blueprint:dbl3a5yk03/embed/?player=pcmag
The S21 lacks some of the network frills that the S21 Ultra has, but they’re primarily 2022-era technologies anyway. We are only now starting to see the first Wi-Fi 6E routers, which cost more than $500. (The S21 has Wi-Fi 6, which isn’t even widespread yet.) UWB positioning technology, only present on the S21 Ultra, doesn’t have any real applications at present. The S21 does have Bluetooth 5.2, which improves Bluetooth audio with devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro by letting the phone stream to both earbuds at once, as opposed to streaming to one primary earbud that relays to the other.
It’s also worth pointing out that the unlocked S21 supports millimeter-wave 5G on all networks. With the small S20 and the S20 FE, if you want millimeter-wave, you have to get the Verizon-locked version. AT&T and T-Mobile haven’t made much noise about their millimeter-wave networks or plans over the past year, but they do exist, and if you want to have the potential to get onto those high-speed networks if they expand, then the unlocked S21 is a better bet than last year’s phones.
Samsung got basic call quality down years ago; the only issue is the lack of a headphone jack in the phone or a USB-C wired headset in the box. I’m very happy that the unlocked S21 supports Wi-Fi calling on all three major carriers; earlier unlocked models didn’t support it on AT&T.