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Hands on: Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review

Creating bigger rifts

What is a hands on review?
Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus
(Image: © Future)

Early Verdict

The Plus model in the Galaxy S range was Samsung’s flagship phone just a couple of years ago, but with the introduction of the S20 Ultra last year it took something of a backseat. The gap between the models widens with the S21 series, and it feels like Samsung is very much pushing the most demanding users in the direction of the Ultra – very much like we saw it do with the Note 20 series. The S21 Plus could become a hard phone to recommend, given that last year’s S20 Plus has the same camera setup and screen size, but with a higher resolution; the S21 Plus has a better chipset and a larger battery, but anyone looking for either of those should look at the S21 Ultra, which ups the game in every way.

For

  • Exynos 2100 looks to be a good chipset
  • Larger fingerprint sensor

Against

  • Screen resolution lower than last year’s model
  • Camera setup identical to last year’s S20 Plus

Following the same template as last year, Samsung has released three Galaxy S21 models, with the Galaxy S21 Plus handset, which was the flagship device just a couple of years ago, sitting in the middle of the range.

While the main difference between the S20 Ultra and S20 Plus was the camera setup, this year Samsung has created a clearer distinction between the two models.

Now, the Samsung Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus aren't as top-end with Samsung pushing power users and serious Galaxy enthusiasts towards the Galaxy S21 Ultra. We've yet to have the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus into our test labs, but we've reviewed the other two phones in the series that you can see below.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus release date and price

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus was announced on January 14 alongside the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Ultra during the company’s virtual Unpacked event, with Samsung unveiling its 2021 flagship range a month or so earlier than in previous years.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus release date is set for January 29 2021 in most regions, including the US, UK and Australia. You can pre-order the handsets now in each of those regions as well.

The Galaxy S21 Plus price starts at $999 / £949 / AU$1,549 for the 128GB and 8GB of RAM variant of the phone. There’s also a 256GB / 8GB version, but we’ve yet to get confirmed prices for that.

That price is notably cheaper than the Galaxy S20 Plus launch price, particularly in the US – that phone launched for $1,199 / £999 / AU$1,649 in 2020. This is mostly because the company has opted for Full HD+ display rather than a higher-resolution QHD panel – we’ll dive into that more below.

Design and display

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus

(Image credit: Future)

Looking at the front of the Galaxy S21 Plus, not a whole lot has changed compared to last year’s S20 Plus. The new model is a little wider and heavier, but you don’t really feel that in your hand; it’s well balanced, and as we’d expect, the S21 Plus feels every inch like a premium phone.

Flip it over and the new-look camera block merges into the body – looks much nicer in real life than in leaked pictures we’ve seen. The S21 Plus will be available in Phantom Black, Phantom Silver and Phantom Violet. All models have a glass back with a matte finish that does a good job of keeping fingerprint smudges to a minimum. 

The volume keys and the power/Bixby buttons are both located on the right side, with the bottom of the phone housing the SIM tray, the USB Type-C port and a speaker. There’s an additional speaker on the top of the unit, while the glass back enables wireless charging and reverse wireless charging. 

The S21 Plus has the same 6.7-inch sized screen as the Galaxy S20 Plus. However, for some reason, Samsung has reduced the maximum resolution on the S21 Plus which is now restricted to Full HD+ rather than QHD. Another key difference between the display on the S21 Plus and the S21 Ultra is that the former doesn’t support the S-Pen. Thankfully, the screen on the new phone does still support a 120Hz maximum refresh rate.

The in-screen fingerprint sensor on the S21 Plus and the other S21 handsets is larger than the one on the S20 phones, and Samsung claims it’s also faster, so unlocking your phone should be easier.

Camera and battery

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S21 Plus camera array comprises a 12MP wide lens, a 12MP ultra-wide lens and a 64MP telephoto lens that’s capable of 3x hybrid zoom. If all that sounds familiar, it’s because those are the exact camera specs we saw on the Galaxy S20 Plus last year. 

The new Exynos 2100 chipset’s ISP and improved AI capabilities will likely help to produce better image quality, but whether that also means a better/faster camera experience overall is something we’ll only find out when we put the S21 Plus through our full review process. 

When it comes to video, Samsung has introduced a new Director’s View mode, which enables you to capture video from multiple cameras simultaneously – for example, you can use the front and back cameras to capture reactions as well as your main video. 

Samsung has increased the battery capacity of the S21 Plus to 4,800mAh from 4,500mAh on the S20 Plus, and combined with the more power-efficient processor we’re hopeful that this will mean the S21 Plus has better battery life than its predecessor, although we didn’t have much to complain about in terms of the S20 Plus’s battery performance.

Performance and software

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus

(Image credit: Future)

A lot is riding on Samsung’s Exynos 2100 processor, the chip that’s powering the S21 lineup outside of the US, including the S21 Plus that we tested. In the US the phones will have the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, and with Galaxy phones running on Samsung’s own chips having played second fiddle in the past to models using Qualcomm processors in terms of performance and battery life, Samsung is hyping up the Exyon 2100 this year.

The phone certainly felt extremely zippy and smooth during our hands-on time with it, but that’s not the most reliable measure of performance. We’ll have to wait until we get the phone in for a full review to see what advances Samsung has made over its last-generation chip, and how it compares to the Snapdragon version of the S21.

The Galaxy S21 range is 5G all the way. Samsung is also doing away with separate 4G-only and 5G models this year, something which never really made sense to us – why would anyone choose a 4G-only only version of a flagship phone when a future-proofed 5G is also available, even if it costs a bit more?

The Galaxy S21 is running Android 11 with Samsung’s OneUI 3.1 overlay. The two big changes we saw were the inclusion of Google feed instead of Samsung daily, and Google Messages for texting instead of Samsung’s messaging app. Interestingly, the Samsung messaging app was also present on the phone, but wasn’t set as the default and wasn’t on the home screen. We’re glad to see Google feed, as Samsung’s version was very underwhelming.

Early verdict

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus

(Image credit: Future)

The Plus model in Samsung’s 2021 Galaxy S lineup feels like a slightly odd inclusion. . While the S21 Ultra clearly excels in every way, the S21 Plus feels like a phone that Samsung has intentionally restricted, short-changing it in terms of key features. Yes, it has the new Exynos 2100 chipset in some regions, and a bigger battery, but the screen resolution is lower than on last year’s S20 Plus, and the camera setup stays the same as that phone’s.

All of this makes us feel that the S21 Plus isn’t the update that many fans were hoping for. We don’t want to jump the gun, and we’ll wait until we’ve put the phone through our full review process before making a definitive judgment. What is clear at this stage, though, is that the S21 Ultra is the clear choice for those looking for Samsung’s top handset in 2021.

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.