Skip to main content

Hands on: Samsung Galaxy S21 review

The Galaxy S21 is Samsung’s MVP for 2021 – most value-driven phone

What is a hands on review?
Samsung Galaxy S21
The Samsung Galaxy S21 is available in a variety of colors
(Image: © Future)

Early Verdict

The Galaxy S21 is Samsung’s MVP for 2021 – its most value-driven phone. It has a large 6.2-inch display, new camera software and the latest chipset specs among Android phones. It does dial down the resolution, replaces the glass back with polycarbonate, and ditches expandable storage via microSD card, but it’s all in the name of dramatically slashing the price, which everyone can appreciate in today’s economy.

For

  • Affordable for a Samsung flagship
  • New camera software

Against

  • No microSD card slot
  • Misses some Ultra perks

Surprise! The Samsung Galaxy S21 is launching more than a month earlier than anticipated, and here’s another delightful plot twist: its price is significantly cheaper than last year’s flagship smartphone from the company – and we mean significantly.

Fitting for these difficult times, the Galaxy S21 is $200 / £130 / AU$250 cheaper than the Galaxy S20 at launch just 11 months ago, and you’re still getting an upgrade to the camera software, the internal specs, and the in-screen fingerprint, which is now 1.7x larger.

It’s Samsung’s way of rivaling Apple’s new entry-level iPhone 12 mini – only with the Galaxy S21 you’re getting a full-size flagship phone with a larger 6.2-inch display, 3x camera zoom capabilities (there’s no zoom whatsoever on an iPhone 12 mini or iPhone 12), and an almost 80% larger battery. Value is why Samsung tops our best phones list yearly.

‘Everything Epic’ is the marketing tagline for Samsung’s new phones, which also include the 6.7-inch Galaxy S21 Plus and 6.8-inch Galaxy S21 Ultra. You’re not quite getting everything with the S21, but Samsung is calculating that you’re ready to buy into its vision for the future of non-foldable smartphones.

You see, Samsung is taking away features to get to this shockingly low price point – and there’s a good chance most people won’t miss them. The company wants you to let go of smartphone staples like the microSD card slot (gone), charger inside the box (missing), and the glass back (replaced by a plastic/glass stand-in called polycarbonate). 

If you just got over the demise of the 3.5mm headphone jack, you may have trouble with these changes; but Samsung, like Apple before it, is reducing e-waste and selling chargers separately at a reduced price, and the polycarbonate back was used on the Note 20 without much fuss.

There was no sequel to the Galaxy S10e when the S20 series launched last year, and it was missed among consumers who were hoping for a true flagship Samsung phone with 5G at a reasonable price. The S20 asking price was too high for most of those people, and the S21 remedies this – and we’re here to test it out over the coming days and weeks.

Samsung Galaxy S21 release date and price 

The Samsung Galaxy S21 release date is Friday, January 29, 2021, for most around the world including those in the US, UK and Australia. The phone was officially unveiled on January 14, and pre-orders are now live in those territories as well.

The Samsung S21 price is remarkably lower than the S20 was at launch, and the company has cut a few specs down including the display and microSD support to be able to make this possible.

The Galaxy S21 price starts at $799 / £769 / AU$1,249 for a version with 128GB of space and 8GB of RAM. There’s also a 256GB and 8GB of RAM variant, and that costs $849 / £819 / AU$1,349.

The Galaxy S20 5G price started at $999 / £899 / AU$1,499 so this is quite a bit cheaper than 2020’s phone due to the slight cut in specs. If you want the very top-end specs, you’ll be looking for the Galaxy S21 Ultra that has a much higher price but sports elements like a WQHD+ display and expandable storage.

Design and display 

Image 1 of 3

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: TechRadar)
Image 2 of 3

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: TechRadar)
Image 3 of 3

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: TechRadar)

The Galaxy S21 has a 6.2-inch AMOLED display and matte finish in four colors: Phantom Gray, Phantom White, Phantom Violet, and Phantom Pink. It looks like things haven’t changed too much from the S20, outside of the shiny finish being exchanged for a matte one.

Look closer though and there are changes. Samsung’s new flagship gets a flat instead of a curved screen, and the Full HD+ resolution is now your only option, dialed back from Quad HD.

You don’t have to choose between the 120Hz refresh rate and Quad HD resolution here, as was the case with the S20, as the latter isn’t available. Many people won’t notice, as 1080p is a more than adequate resolution for most people on a phone of this size.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

(Image credit: Future)

The in-screen fingerprint sensor area is now larger in the S21 lineup, meaning your wayward thumb has a better chance at logging into your phone than on the previous two generations of Samsung’s handsets. 

It’s also supposedly faster to recognize your fingerprint, but we’ll need more time to test that out – if so, it’ll be a huge relief when wearing a mask (something Apple's Face ID isn't able to fix).

What you’re missing compared to the S21 Plus and S21 Ultra is the glass back, while the S21 Ultra counts the curved display edges, Quad HD resolution, and S Pen compatibility as exclusives, along with larger screen sizes.

Camera and battery 

The Galaxy S21 camera hardware hasn’t changed, as Samsung’s biggest sensor upgrade happened between the Galaxy S10 and S20 generation. This year it’s all about the software, and Samsung finding a way to slim down the camera module. 

It’s another triple-lens rear array: 12MP main camera, 12MP ultra-wide, and 64MP telephoto capable of a 3x hybrid optical zoom. All three of these proved capable of taking excellent photos on the S20 (it’s among our best camera phones) along with the 10MP selfie camera on front, and things could be even better here, thanks to updated night and portrait modes.

Image 1 of 3

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

(Image credit: Future)
Image 2 of 3

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: TechRadar)
Image 3 of 3

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Samsung has enhanced its Single Take camera mode, which captures both photos and videos at the same time – it can now do slow-motion video, too – and the all-new Director’s View lets you vlog using both the front and rear cameras simultaneously. All of the cameras – front and back – are capable of capturing 4K video at 60 frames per second, and the main rear camera can do 8K at 24 frames per second, although it’s very cropped in.

The battery is also unchanged from last year, with a 4,000mAh capacity. A year ago this was enough to last us through a day, and there were two options for charging: Samsung’s 25W Fast Charging via USB-C, its Fast Wireless Charging 2.0, plus Wireless Power Share to Qi-charge other devices (aka reverse wireless charging). 

The one thing missing this year is compatibility with the 45W chargers that worked with the S20 series. Samsung told TechRadar that it’s made optimizations to the 25W charging capabilities of its new phones, so 45W charging wasn’t that significant a benefit.

Performance and software

We’re not able to talk performance yet, but this is the first device to use the latest generation of chipsets: either Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 (US) or Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 (just about everywhere else). We haven’t tested either before, and it’ll be interesting to see if Android phones will be able to close the gap with Apple’s often faster A series of chipsets.

The lower-than-expected S21 price is good news if you need more than 128GB of internal storage, as it makes the 256GB model a bit more attainable. Both versions are paired with 8GB of RAM, which is certainly enough to run smartphone tasks, and Samsung DeX, which can turn a monitor into a virtual desktop computer.

The fact that there’s no microSD card slot in the S21 series of phones means you should probably opt for the 256GB model if you plan to take a lot of 108MP photos and 4K or 8K video.

The S21 runs Android 11 along with Samsung’s One UI 3.0 skin, which is among our favorite software interfaces. Just know that it may be nearly a year before you see Android 12 on this Samsung phone, even if Google releases the update in August.

Early verdict 

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: TechRadar)

The Galaxy S21 is Samsung’s new entry-level flagship phone that’s fit for 2021. It has a large 6.2-inch AMOLED display, a new matte finish in four attractive colors, and the latest chipset from Qualcomm or Samsung.

While you’ll hear that the camera hardware doesn’t break new ground, and that the screen resolution is ‘just’ Full HD+ (but still at 120Hz), the S21 is a value-driven proposition for anyone who won’t miss the microSD card slot or charger in the box.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.