Samsung Galaxy S21 5G - key specs
Weight: 169 g
Screen: 6.2 inches AMOLED (120Hz, HDR10+)
CPU: Exynos 2100 / Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
GPU: Adreno 660
Rear cameras: 12MP + 64MP + 12MP
Front cameras: 10MP
Battery: 4,000 mAh
OS: Android 11
To sum up this Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: if you want a flagship phone but you're not keen on paying over the odds, this is the obvious choice.
Samsung kickstarted 2021 with the highly anticipated launch of the Samsung Galaxy S21 series. Since then, it has proved to be a winner.
Even now that the Samsung Galaxy S22 series is likely to be just around the corner, as things stand last year's lineup is going to be hard to beat.
Not only are they the best Samsung phones so far, but they’ve also all ranked towards the top of T3’s guides to the best Android phones, and the best phones overall. One even took a slot in the list of the best gaming phones you can buy.
Shortly after January's Samsung Galaxy Unpacked event, we got our hands on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra which struck gold with a 5-star rating, it was later crowned the Best Phone at the T3 Awards 2021.
Not long after that, I tested out the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus which I rated 4 stars. Both had plenty to boast about including stunning screens and feature-packed cameras, as well as eye-watering price tags to match.
Not everyone wants to fork out $1,000 or more on a phone though, and I can’t blame them, especially considering most of us keep a phone for a couple of years before upgrading again.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 5G is the cheapest in the range, and while it may not be the leader of the pack, it has certainly been one to watch this year. It's a scaled-back version of the phone, which ultimately makes it cheaper and much more accessible.
Samsung Galaxy S21 series: video overview
This video runs through the entire Samsung Galaxy S21 range, explaining the key specs and features of each phone.
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: price and what’s new
Directly from Samsung, the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G is available with 128GB of storage for $799.99 in the US, £769 in the UK and AU$1,099 in Australia. You can also buy it with 256GB storage for $849.99 / £819 / AU$1,199. To see more prices from around the web, take a look at the widgets on this page.
When it comes to outlining what's new about the phone, the first thing to say is that the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G is a couple of hundred dollars cheaper at launch than its predecessor was, so naturally, there have been some adjustments to make that possible.
Samsung has refreshed the look and feel of the phone, getting rid of the curved screen and standalone rear camera notch on the back of the Samsung Galaxy S20, replacing it with a flat display with a camera module that's integrated into the frame. I’m not convinced it actually looks better, I prefer the design of the Galaxy S20, but that’s for you to decide. Elsewhere, the resolution of the display is lower than it was before going from 1440 x 3200p (QHD) down to 1080 x 2400p (FHD+) although Samsung has kept the 120Hz refresh rate and HDR10+ support.
Other than that, the phones are largely the same. The camera hardware is pretty much identical, and despite having different chipsets, their processing power is similar too. Both phones use a 4,000mAh battery and 25W charging, as well as having the potential for wireless charging. So whether the newer handset is an improvement on its predecessor or not is debatable.
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: design and display
As you would expect from Samsung, the Galaxy S21 5G is a good-looking phone. Three camera lenses sit on the back, the module seamlessly wraps around the corner of the phone as if a part of the frame, as opposed to sticking out of the back casing. It comes in three colourways: grey, white, violet and the version I’ve been testing out is pink.
The glass back on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has been replaced with plastic on this phone. It makes it feel less premium yet will definitely make it more durable in the long run. To boost the overall look of the phone it does have a glittery sheen on it, but even so, it’s quite clear this is an area Samsung has saved some money on.
One thing I really like about this phone is its size, the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G measures 15.17 x 7.12 x 0.79 cm and weighs 169g which suits my smaller hands well. That means it happily slips into pockets and doesn’t stick out like so many other smartphones.
On the front, the flat 6.2-inch screen has a hole-punch style selfie camera centred along the top with super-slim bezels around the sides. Like all of Samsung’s phones, you’ve got a USB-C port, volume controls and power button placed around the frame. There’s still no 3.5mm headphone jack, that’s only really worth knowing if you’re still clinging onto your old wired headphones, though.
The display resolution of both the Samsung Galaxy S21 and the S21 Plus is now down to Full HD+ so the only phone in this series that has a better quality screen is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra which has a WQHD display. Full HD+ is enough to suit most people, it doesn't give you the wow factor but you have to make sacrifices somewhere if you want a flagship-tier smartphone for a more mid-range price.
Even on this base version of the phone, you still get the 120Hz refresh rate. The screen is a complete pleasure to use, it’s silky smooth to swipe, tap and scroll on. Streaming video from the likes of Netflix has depth and plenty of colours thanks to HDR10+ support, and with 1,300 nits peak brightness, it’s visible even in bright sunlight.
Unlocking the handset can either be done through a password, facial recognition or the in-display fingerprint sensor. With masks blocking my face whenever I’m out and about, I always opt for the fingerprint and Samsung’s is one of the best, working consistently and quickly every time.
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: cameras
The camera module on the back houses a 12MP main lens, a 12MP ultrawide lens and a 64MP telephoto lens, on the front there’s a 10MP selfie camera.
That’s the same as the Galaxy S20, but what’s new is a range of shooting modes like Zoom Lock to stabilise the shot as you zoom in or Director’s View which shoots videos from the front and rear cameras simultaneously.
As you can see in the gallery above, shots in daylight come out looking clear and bright. They're well exposed and well balanced if a tad oversaturated at times. Shots close up to the subject have loads of intricate detail, while cityscapes don't feel too busy because there's plenty of depth. You don't get anywhere near the level of precision as you do from the S21 Ultra yet you don't get left feeling hard done by after snapping shots on this camera either.
When it comes to the zoom, being able to shoot based on the Zoom Lock makes things much more stable above 20x zoom. The shots aren't really usable but for picking up information further than the human eye can see, it is very useful and much more effective than what most other phones offer.
Shots in low light are better than they used to be on the Galaxy S20, a welcome improvement that you'll actually make use of a lot if you're the type to take lots of photos when you're out and about in the evening.
You do get a lot for your money with the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G’s camera system
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: performance
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G - Geekbench 5
Single-Core Score: 716
Multi-Core Score: 3,464
Under the hood, the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G packs the Exynos 2100 chipset, alongside 8GB RAM and either 128GB or 256GB of storage. In some other international regions, the phone uses the Qualcomm SM8350 Snapdragon 888. Unlike previous generations of the Galaxy phones, there’s no MicroSD card slot to expand the storage.
Matching up to the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus, the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G achieved Geekbench 5 scores of 716 in single-core and 3,464 in multi-core, with 6,731 in OpenCL. That’s close to similarly priced handsets like the OnePlus 8 Pro and even pricier handsets like the Oppo Find X3 Pro. It’s actually not that far off the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s scores either. So despite not being the absolute fastest option out there, this is still a speedy smartphone that will cope with everything from photo editing to mobile gaming without any problems at all.
The battery is the same size as in its predecessor that being 4,000mAh - I tested it out by running a local video for two hours on full brightness. In that time the battery level dropped by 14% suggesting that it would have lasted over 14 hours in total. So it'll easily last the whole day and then some. 25W fast charging means it charged up pretty quickly as well, although there's no wall charger in the box, you just get the cable. It does support wireless charging too.
Running on Android 11, you’re sure the get the best user experience there is. Everything is simple, smooth and it looks good. With mostly just Google and Samsung's own apps pre-installed, there’s no wasted time with unnecessary apps. You’ll also have access to Samsung DeX which extends your phone into a desktop experience through a wired or wireless connection. As well as displaying your phone onto a bigger screen, it can also help to make file transfers even easier between your phone and your PC.
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: verdict
Ultimately, if you already own the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G, then it’s really not going to be worth the upgrade to the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G. They’re just not different enough to make it worth it.
For anyone looking to upgrade from another phone though, it will definitely be worth it. You get a great camera, long battery life, speedy performance and the best Android experience from a flagship phone that doesn't cost the earth.
Some might be put off by the plastic design, and not everyone will be a fan of the lower quality display but for most those will be minor downsides in an otherwise fantastic phone. If you aren’t willing to spend above the odds then this really is the obvious choice.
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: also consider
For a bigger screen and a bigger battery, you should look towards the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus. Or, if you’re after the very best of everything, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is where you’ll find that.
Another phone with a similar price tag you should consider is the OnePlus 9, it’s similar in terms of performance and display quality but has a bigger screen and more flashy design than you get here, as well as a slightly more sophisticated camera system.
For a phone with more of a focus on display quality, consider the Sony Xperia 1 II. Its 6.55inch screen is razor-sharp with balanced colours, it’s a fantastic handset for watching TV shows and movies on your commute. Plus, the camera is excellent.
- For something a little more affordable, check out the best cheap phones