Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: A rose-tinted experience

With a display like this one, there’s not much to complain about

Price
£682 exc VAT
  • Beautiful display
  • Handy camera tools
  • Impressive performance
  • Disappointing battery life

Samsung’s operating income shot up by almost half in the first quarter of 2021, and looking at its latest flagship, it’s easy to see why. The Galaxy S21 is geared towards a 5G-ready audience and comes equipped with the tech giant’s signature stunning AMOLED display, as well as seamless scrolling and superb HDR10+ capability.

However, following a difficult 2020 for Samsung, during which demand for its premium smartphone offering considerably weakened, the tech giant might be trying to remind its customers why they should be willing to pay over £600 for a mobile device. In fact, the Galaxy S21 might be considered an antithesis to the “democratised” Galaxy A range unveiled earlier this year.

Nevertheless, after the pandemic-induced belt-tightening, the Galaxy S21 is proof that consumer tech is rebounding to its usual extravagance, with all of its opulent gimmicks and gadgets. But does it have what it takes to become our favourite Galaxy device?

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: Design

Much like the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 5G model we reviewed at the start of 2020, the S21 model we received is a fun, pleasant shade of baby pink. Although for some reason Samsung named the colour “Phantom Pink”, there’s nothing scary nor ghostly about it; while the Note 20 was clad in a rose gold colour reminiscent of the iPhone 7, while the S21 ventures into more pastel territory.

The matte plastic back visually compliments the pink hue, as well as providing the device with some friction against the user’s hand, making an accidental contact with the ground less likely. The colour is further accentuated by the aluminium frame which encompasses the entire device (as well as its three camera lenses), adding a bit of extra shine. For those seeking a smartphone which is less Barbie, the Galaxy S21 5G also comes in “Phantom Grey”, “Phantom White”, and “Phantom Violet”. 

The latter is one of the most popular phone colours at the moment, being eerily similar to the purple iPhone 12 unveiled last month. In fact, the two phones are very similar in weight and dimensions, with only 6g between the iPhone 12’s weight of 164g and the Samsung’s 170g weight. The S21’s 7.9mm thickness is also less than half a millimeter more than the iPhone.

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: Display

The Galaxy S21 5G’s display is a definite high point of the device, but this isn’t exactly surprising when it comes to Samsung smartphones. The tech giant has been consistently delivering some of the most gorgeous displays on the market, whether it’s last year’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra 5G or the Galaxy S21’s Ultra iteration.

The Galaxy S21 5G is equipped with a 6.2in 1,080 x 2,400 Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen, which is protected from scratches and cracks by Corning Gorilla Glass Victus. It’s smaller than the Galaxy Note 20 by half an inch, making it a slightly more compact option. The difference in sizing might be due to slightly different purposes of the devices: the Note is more business-like and its screen is better suited for taking notes with a stylus pen, which the S21 lacks.

When it came to brightness, our tests revealed a maximum of 406cd/m², which was better than the 340cd/m² offered by the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 5G. The coverage of the sRGB colour gamut was very similar: at 99.6% compared to the 100% achieved by the Note 20 5G. However, HDR10+ capability is where the Galaxy S21 excelled, with a maximum brightness of 562 cd/m² while playing HDR content.

Lastly, the Motion Smoothness feature is another winner, allowing users to choose between smoother animations with a 120Hz refresh rate, or the standard 60Hz, which comes in useful when trying to conserve battery life.

All in all, the Galaxy S21’s display is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship which makes it seem like you’re not just scrolling through your phone, but fully submerging yourself in it. However, as mentioned above, we wouldn’t expect anything less from Samsung.

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: Camera

Like many other leading smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G comes equipped with a triple camera consisting of a 64 MP telephoto lens, a 12 MP wide-angle lens, and a 12 MP ultrawide lens. 

The Galaxy S21’s camera app comes with the usual options of photo, video, and single-take, which lets the user to film a short video of the subject, based on which different photos are generated, allowing the user to pick the one with the most suitable angle. Apart from these three, the camera tool also includes 12 different modes including panorama, portrait, and even food photography, as well as pro controls for adjusting things like ISO and shutter speed. 

The device is perfect for filming perfectly steady videos thanks to a combination of AI-based image stabilisation, 60fps and HDR10+ supported video capture, as well as 8K and slow-mo recording capabilities. Its front camera isn’t bad either: at 10 MP, it’s perfect for joining a video conference from wherever you might have journeyed to on your lunch break.

One of the most impressive features is the Director’s View, which allows you to film while also monitoring the feeds from all four of the device’s lenses (including front or back cameras) and switch between them. Although it might seem overwhelming at first glance, once you get used to it, it unlocks a whole new experience of filmmaking which will let anyone feel like the next Scorsese.

On the other end of the useful photography tools spectrum is the Air Doodle tool which, as the name suggests, allows you to make notes or illustrations on a photo before it’s even taken. Although quite entertaining to play with, it probably won’t be top of the priority list of most people over the age of 12. Overall, the pictures taken using the Samsung Galaxy S21 were high-quality and vibrant, making amateur photography an exciting experience.

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: Specs and hardware

Performance is equally impressive. Geekbench 5 tests revealed cracking results of 1,090 for single-core tasks and 3,500 for multi-core, compared to the 905 and 1,995 offered by the Note 20 5G. In fact, it was only slightly lower than the iPhone 12’s 1,591 and 4,053. Thanks to 8GB of RAM and the new 5nm Exynos 2100 processor, the Galaxy S21 5G is quick on its feet and was a pleasure to use, but this impacted heavily on its battery life. 

In our tests, the smartphone lasted a disappointing 16hrs 39min – almost a quarter shorter than the Note 20 5G, but comparable to the 16hrs 12mins offered by the iPhone 12. That being said, it’s still not bad: with moderate usage, the phone can easily last you from morning to bedtime, but you might want to pack a charger if you’re headed for a business trip.

What is notable is that the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G’s battery charges at almost lightning speed when plugged into a charger – if you have one, that is, as the smartphone comes equipped only with a double-ended USB Type-C 3.2 cable. Although this might be an environmental choice on behalf of Samsung, which in 2019 pledged to cut down on its plastic use, it could also be a coordinated effort to get us all to switch to its 15W wireless charging.

In fact, Samsung’s dedication to cutting down on potential waste doesn’t end here: the Galaxy S21 5G also comes without any headphones and lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack, which means that either you have to order USB Type-C headphones, or invest in a pair of Bluetooth ones.

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: Features

The Galaxy S21 5G is heavy on security features, offering two types of biometrics: facial recognition and fingerprint scanning, both of which work well. The smartphone also comes equipped with intelligent battery features, which optimise the device’s power consumption by learning your app usage style. Other attributes include IP68 waterproofing, allowing the device to recover from being submerged in a body of water up to 1.5m deep for up to 30 mins, as well as dual-band Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.2 and 5G support. Arguably a must among the latest smartphones, it’s nevertheless important to note that the 5G connectivity won’t be seamless in all parts of the UK.

A feature worth mentioning is the Wireless PowerShare which, as the name suggests, allows users to charge any Qi-compatible device, by using the Galaxy S21 as a 4.5W wireless charger. This way, you can ensure that neither your gadgets, nor your coworkers’ phones will ever run out of battery.

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review: Verdict

Although the battery life could have been lengthier - especially considering the price point - the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G is still one of the best phones we’ve seen so far this year. The Exynos 2100 processor and 6.2in Dynamic AMOLED display make the phone an absolute pleasure to use, while additional features such as the Director’s View or wireless charging capabilities make it a truly universal phone which can be enjoyed by everyone.

Of course, there is room for improvement: the device could definitely benefit from a stylus pen for scribbling down reminders or annotations – especially if you’re more used to the Galaxy Note family which is rumoured to be shelved due to the ongoing semiconductor crisis

Asking customers to spend £700 on a new Galaxy flagship during this time could have been a risk, yet after reviewing the device, it seems to have paid off. In fact, the Galaxy S21 5G couldn’t have come at a better time: with many sectors rebounding after a difficult 16 months and consumers finally allowed to enjoy themselves, investing in a new premium smartphone is a tempting way to start the post-lockdown era. There might be plenty of similar options available, starting with the more budget-conscious Galaxy A52 5G at £399, but if you’re looking for a treat, the Galaxy S21 5G might just be it. Now bring on the Roaring Twenties.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 5G is available for £43 per month with an upfront cost of £29 on the Vodafone network

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G specifications

Screen6.2in 1,080 x 2,400 Dynamic AMOLED 2X
Front camera10 MP
Rear camera64 MP telephoto lens, 12 MP wide lens, 12 MP ultrawide lens
Dust and water resistanceIP68
3.5mm headphone jackNo
Wireless charging40W, with 4.5W Wireless PowerShare
USB connection typeType-C 3.2
Storage options128 GB, 256 GB
Memory card slot (supplied)No
Wi-FiWi-Fi 6
Bluetooth5.0
NFCYes
Cellular data5G
Dual SIMOptional
Dimensions (WDH)5.97 x 2.80 x 0.31 in
Weight170g
Operating systemAndroid 11
Battery size4000 mAh
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