The Samsung Galaxy S21 is the smallest and most affordable variant out of the new triumvirate of flagship phones that include the Galaxy S21 Plus and Galaxy S21 Ultra.
While it’s the smallest of the trio, it still bears the illustrious pedigree that has seen its predecessors dominate the Android market and retains much of the same hardware including the high-powered Exynos 2100 processor save for some modest differences in size, cameras, storage, battery and display. It also still has a flagship worthy price tag with the 128GB version costing RM3,499.
In terms of how it stacks up with its siblings, the Galaxy S21 bears closer resemblance to the Galaxy S21+ with the same rear triple camera setup and same front camera module, identical processor and design.
Screen sizes differ slightly though with the Galaxy S21+ being a bit larger though both it and the Galaxy S21 has a similar dynamic 120Hz refresh rate and FHD+ resolution. Battery sizes also differ slightly with the S21+ having a slightly larger 4,800mAh battery versus the smaller 4,000mAh on the S21.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra is a beast apart from its lesser siblings with a more powerful and sophisticated camera array that has a stunning 100x Space Zoom, a larger battery and a breathtakingly beautiful 120Hz WQHD+ Super AMOLED display. You can check out our Galaxy S21 Ultra review here.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Review – What’s in the Box
This time around, Samsung has opted to omit most of the accessories typically bundled with their phones and only bundles the Galaxy S21 itself wrapped in a plastic protective sleeve, a SIM eject pin along with a single USB C charging cable on the premise that most users will already have their own chargers and preferred headphones.
On the bright side, this means that you have an exceptionally slim and light box that doesn’t resemble the traditional chunky packaging that comes with a phone.
Galaxy S21 Review – Design
The Galaxy S21 bears the same design language and aesthetics as its other siblings with a unique camera looking camera housing that’s slightly raised from the rest of the backplate and which flows and wraps across the entirety of one corner of the phone that they’ve dubbed as a ‘Contour Cut’.
Rather than being a purely aesthetic choice, close observation reveals that there are practical reasons behind this design choice as the raised camera housing also allows Samsung’s engineers to slightly recess the triple camera array and its lenses within the housing in order to protect it from the usual scratches encountered in daily use.
There are some design lessons here learned from the earlier Galaxy S20 but the biggest upgrade here in the looks department here is that the ‘Contour Cut’ camera housing is done up as a seamless and aesthetically pleasing addition that syncs with the rest of the phone rather than just a huge bump of glass and cameras jutting out from the back as an afterthought.
The top and left of the phone is bare but the right side hosts a volume rocker and power button with the base holding a dual SIM card tray, one of a matching pair of stereo speakers and a USB-C port for charging and data transfer duties.
Unfortunately, the phone lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack so you’ll have to rely on wireless earbuds like the new Galaxy Buds Pro for private listening.
Up front is the biggest draw to the Galaxy S21, it’s 6.2-inch Full HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X display which has a 120Hz dynamic refresh rate, a wide 20:9 aspect ratio and is otherwise flat unlike the curved edges of the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
The bezels are incredibly thin on every side with the top packing a tiny punch hole for the 10MP selfie camera and a tiny grille for the second speaker to form a matching pair with the one at the base. It also has an ultrasonic fingerprint reader under the display.
When held, the Galaxy S21 feels wonderfully well built with an excellent heft and tactility befitting a flagship phone. Unlike its siblings, Samsung has opted to construct the backplate out of polycarbonate instead of metal and glass though the front display still benefits from tough Corning Gorilla Glass Victus. The phone is also rated IP68 for water and dust resistance too.
Our test sample came in a matte shade of Phantom Violet with the ‘Contour Cut’ camera array done up in a shade of metallic bronze which extends to its sides. This works out as a highly fingerprint resistant light purple paint job that, combined with the striking bronze camera housing, makes the Galaxy S21 one of the best looking phones of its size.
The matte finish also helps make it a bit grippier than usual and the phone is compact enough that it can be comfortably held one-handed even with people with smaller hands. Detractors may knock the plastic finish but it works to its advantage as it saves a bit on weight and also makes the phone more resistant to drops and nicks too.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Specifications and What’s Important
Under the hood, the Samsung Galaxy S21 for Malaysia uses an Exynos 2100 processor that’s built on a 5nm process and which integrates a 5G modem with mmwave and sub-6 support though we aren’t able to test it as there’s still no 5G yet in the region.
Phones for our region come with 8GB RAM and either 128GB or 256GB of non-expandable UFS 3.1 storage. Unfortunately, this generation of the Galaxy S series omits microSD card slots so what storage you have is what you have to work with indefinitely.
Here’s the other specifications in the Galaxy S21 review for your edification:
|Price||128GB RM3,499, 256GB RM3,699|
|Display||6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X, 1080 x 2400 pixels, 120Hz refresh rate|
|OS||Android 11 with One UI 3.1|
|Camera||12MP F/1.8 w/ Dual Pixel, PDAF, OIS + 64MP F/2.0 w/ PDAF, OIS, 3x zoom + 12MP F/2.2 ultra wide [rear] / 10MP F/2.2 Dual Pixel, PDAF [front]|
|Battery||4,000mAh 25W fast charging, wireless charging, reverse wireless charging|
|Size/Weight||151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9 mm / 169g|
Some of the more important key takeaways here is that the Galaxy S21 supports WiFi 6 and lacks Ultra Wideband (UWB) tech versus the Galaxy S21 Ultra which has WiFi 6E and said UWB but these technologies aren’t widespread yet so it’s more of a matter of futureproofing and aren’t necessary as yet.
In any case, if you’re eyeing the Galaxy S21, you’re prioritising a compact form factor and performance, both of which the phone is able to offer in spades.
Galaxy S21 Benchmarks
Nitpickers will compare the Exynos 2100 processor in the Galaxy S21 to the Snapdragon 888 that graces selected Galaxy S21 models in China and the United States, but the gap between the 2100 and 888 SoCs is perhaps one of the narrowest in recent memory.
On paper, the Exynos 2100 gives the Snapdragon 888 a good run for its money for battery life and edges out slightly in multi-core benchmarks. Unfortunately we have yet to acquire a sample phone with a Snapdragon 888 chipset though the ROG Phone 5 has appeared in the market and is currently up for preorders.
The Galaxy S21+ and the S21 Ultra both have the same identical processor so you’re not missing out here though the S21 Ultra does have more RAM. In terms of benchmarks, here’s what the phone scored:
|Geekbench 5.3.2 Single core score||995|
|Geekbench 5.3.2 Multi core score||3,265|
|3D Mark WildLife||3,855|
|3D Mark WildLife Unlimited||5,832|
|3DMark SlingShot Extreme – OpenGL ES 3.1||Maxed Out|
|3DMark SlingShot Extreme Unlimited – OpenGL ES 3.1||8,362|
|3DMark Sling Shot Extreme – Vulkan||4,930|
|Work 2.0 Performance||12,262|
|PCMark Work 2.0 Battery Life||8 hours 28 minutes|
In terms of performance, the Galaxy S21 will have an equivalent performance envelope to the S21+ which has the same 8GB RAM and identical processor.
The Galaxy S21 Ultra in general beats it across almost every benchmark by a comfortable margin but theoretical performance in benchmarks isn’t an indicator of actual performance in the field. You can refer to our Galaxy S21 Ultra review here.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Performance
Getting it up and running out of the box only takes a few minutes and it’s a doddle to transfer your apps, contacts and other content from your old phone to the Galaxy S21 via Samsung’s Smart Switch app.
During the course of our Galaxy S21 review, we toted it around as our primary phone for a couple of weeks after converting from a Galaxy Note10 and its slimness, lightness and power did not disappoint.
Performance on the Galaxy S21 is worthy of a flagship phone and it handles everything tossed at it in a buttery smooth fashion. The phone tackled games like Genshin Impact and Call of Duty Mobile on maximum settings without issue and was easily able to swap between a host of multiple open apps in swift succession that included Chrome, Gmail, a couple of games and more.
The provision of a 120Hz refresh rate Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen in the Galaxy S21 enables it to serve up one of the best visual experiences available in a phone. Not all games support a full 120Hz refresh rate though the biggest benefit is a smoother overall user experience when you’re browsing, going through the menus and general interactions on the phone. Once you’ve gotten used to a 120Hz display, it’s hard to go back to a conventional 60Hz panel.
Colours are beautifully vibrant while the FHD+ resolution is more than sufficient for all but the most finicky users seeing the 6.2-inch diagonal screen size. Clarity is excellent under daylight and after sundown, it has an Eye Comfort Shield mode that filters out blue light from the spectrum and a Dark Mode to make it easier on the eyes.
The refresh rate is dynamic, meaning that it can slow down when viewing static content like an ebook and speed up to the full 120Hz if you’re gaming or scrolling a page. Alternatively, you can lock it to a fixed 60Hz to save on battery life.
Under the hood, the Galaxy S21 runs Android 11 overlaid with Samsung’s own One UI 3.1 user interface which is so far one of the smoothest, most intuitive experiences seen on Android phones.
The small size of the phone means that it’s easy to wield one-handed though this also means that your fingers occasionally block what you see on the display when you’re gaming.
On the bright side, the provided stereo speakers are excellent with great volume and decent detail as smartphones go which lets you enjoy movies and games in a more visceral manner.
In terms of battery life, the Galaxy S21 serves up very respectable endurance, helped in part by its modest display size, efficient new processor and large battery. In PCMark’s battery benchmark under Adaptive settings for the display, it managed an excellent 8 hours and 28 minutes of screen-on use time which ensures all day battery life and likely over a day of normal usage. You’ll likely achieve two day’s worth if you nix the Adaptive mode for the display and keep it to just 60Hz but you’ll lose out on the smooth scrolling experience.
Under practical usage scenarios with either WiFi or data on all day with a combination of web browsing, gaming, emails, and a few minutes worth of phone calls and Google Maps, it was easily able to last an entire day with plenty left past sundown though it’s still prudent to charge it for work the next day. Under more relaxed usage scenarios, the phone is easily able to last two days.
Seeing as it lacks a bundled charger, we used the UGreen 65W GaN charger to see how fast it’d charge under optimum settings. On paper, the Galaxy S21 has a 4,000mAh battery with 25W charging with USB PowerDelivery with Programmable Power Supply (PPS) support.
From dead zero, it was able to charge to about 50% in 35 minutes and a full charge in about an hour and 16 minutes with wired charging using the 65W GaN charger without any toggling slower charging modes. The Galaxy S21 also has 15W wireless charging and the ability to wireless charge off other devices.
Galaxy S21 Cameras
The Galaxy S21 has a primary 12MP F/1.8 Dual Pixel camera with OIS, a second 12MP F/2.2 camera with a 120-degree ultra wide angle camera and a third 64MP F/2.0 camera with PDAF, 3x optical zoom as well as OIS like the main camera.
Combined, this setup allows users to snag 12MP stills with up to 30x hybrid ‘space zoom’ for snaps, up to 10x digital zoom for videos and up to 8K@24fps video.
The front camera is a single 10MP camera capable of taking stills and up to 4K@60fps video. Having a single front camera sensor seems like a modest afterthought but the selfie camera boasts of autofocus which is somewhat of a rarity for front-mounted cameras.
The addition of One UI 3.1 gives a host of new photo modes and helpful additions to the camera interface. For starters, Single Take mode has been enhanced to be smarter in selecting footage and it can take longer snaps in order to offer more variety in captured shots.
It also has a new Director’s View that lets you see a live preview from all the cameras so that you can make informed decisions when you’re shooting video from all three rear cameras.
In terms of camera performance, the Galaxy S21 ‘s primary 12MP does not disappoint and I was able to obtain excellent stills even as a casual point-and-shoot. You can also opt for full resolution 64MP shots which defaults to the 64MP camera on the phone.
Captured stills under daylight from the ultra wide, primary and telephoto camera had good levels of detail with good dynamic range and slightly more vibrant colour saturation than the usual which does make images look a bit punchier.
The 64MP stills are captured in a 4:3 aspect ratio and are brimming with detail under daylight though shots in dimmer light are on the grainy side at 64MP full resolution as it lacks the AI embellishments used in the main 12MP camera.
When it comes to zoomed shots, the Galaxy S21 is capable of excellent snaps at 3x zoom and even at 10x hybrid zoom under daylight. Unfortunately the sweet spot is at 3x and 10x for zoomed in shots. Beyond that at up to maximum 30x zoom, shots even in ideal lighting are grainy.
Night shots retain good detail and dynamic range on auto mode but the provided night mode enhances them to an impressive degree, subtly boosting detail and brightness in a natural fashion to yield excellent shots though at the cost of a 4-second shutter delay.
Zoomed in shots in dim light and at night are understandably a bit on the soft side though retaining good dynamic range and a fair amount of detail that’s usable for social media.
The Galaxy S21 is also capable of capturing excellent video with 8K@24fps captured using the 64MP camera at up to 6x zoom while 4K@60fps video and under is captured using the primary 12MP camera.
Captured 8K video looks fantastic though editing them is a challenge and TVs haven’t quite caught up yet barring Samsung’s latest Neo QLED TVs with native 8K panels.
By and large, you’ll get most of your usable footage with 4K@60fps. The stabilisation and smoothness of captured video was excellent with good detail and colour reproduction.
You’re getting an excellent camera system on the Galaxy S21 that’s among the best we’ve seen short of Samsung’s larger S21 Ultra which has a more sophisticated camera array.
The S21 Ultra may have a staggering 100x Space Zoom and better optical zoom but this is balanced out by its significantly larger size and weight, factors which favour the Galaxy S21 with its pocketable size as a rapidly deployable point-and-shoot. The Galaxy S21+ has an identical camera setup as the Galaxy S21 so it will have similar performance.
Should You Buy the Samsung Galaxy S21?
The Samsung Galaxy S21 may be the smallest among its siblings the Galaxy S21+ and S21 Ultra but it is every bit as powerful in its own right with the same Exynos 2100 processor, super smooth 120Hz Super AMOLED display and impressive rear cameras capable of capturing great stills and 8K video.
If you haven’t hopped onto the Samsung ecosystem and want to experience what a flagship phone has to offer or you’re looking for a premium compact phone, the Galaxy S21 is a superb choice that’s highly deserving of our Gold award.
For those looking to use it for content creation, it’s best to get the larger 256GB version and pay a bit more to as 8K and 4K video uses up storage fast.
For those looking for a similar form factor on a budget and can live with a few compromises, the Galaxy S20 FE in its 4G and 5G incarnations is well worth a look.
Galaxy S21 Review unit courtesy of Samsung Malaysia. Available for purchase online at the official Samsung online store.
Samsung Galaxy S21
Samsung Galaxy S21
The Galaxy S21 is a superb compact flagship phone with a brilliant 120Hz refresh rate Super AMOLED display, a great rear camera array capable of 8K video and excellent overall performance. If you want the ultimate uber phone, the Galaxy S21 Ultra awaits.
Surprisingly beautiful faux metal finish
Excellent build quality
Great battery life
No expandable storage
No charger or earbuds in the box
No 3.5mm audio jack