Samsung Galaxy S21 review: A very solid upgrade but no showstopper

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Samsung Galaxy S21 review (Image: SAMSUNG)

Samsung has started 2021 with a bang. We’d usually have to wait until February or March to see the next generation of Galaxy S phones but, like a lot of things right now, Samsung has been forced to change its plans. The all-new Galaxy S21 will arrive in stores later this month, with Samsung hoping that its refreshed handset can rival the recently-launched iPhone 12 and kick cheaper Android competition from the likes of OnePlus and Xiaomi into touch. With a lower £769 starting price, improved rear camera system, adaptive 120Hz display, and no premium for 5G support, it certainly ticks all the right boxes …but what’s it really like to have the S21 tucked inside your pocket and is it worth the money?

Express.co.uk has been using this latest flagship since it was unveiled earlier this month here’s our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Design and Display

With the Galaxy S21, Samsung has shaken things up with a much-needed makeover. We weren’t floored by the appearance of the design of the Galaxy S20 last year, so it’s great to see Samsung trying something new. We’re still a little undecided whether we totally love the new look, which now includes a “Contour Cut Camera” that’s colour-matched to the sides of the phone for a more seamless appearance.

However, one thing is for sure, it’s definitely much more appealing than the bulbous camera bump that stuck out of S20 like an incredibly sore thumb. You’ll also find some fresh new colours available in the S21 range, including a striking Phantom Violet with gold camera casing.

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Along with the new design, another change you’ll notice as soon as you get the Galaxy S21 in your hand as Samsung has moved to a “specially reinforced Polycarbonate material” casing for this entry-level model. That’s marketing speak for plastic, by the way.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

Sadly, the rear case on the S21 is made from plastic (Image: SAMSUNG)

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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The display is fantastic and the fingerprint scanner is also improved (Image: SAMSUNG)

Of course, using plastic does make the device feel far less breakable and a little lighter than some of its all-glass rivals, plus the new matt finish means you don’t get any fingerprints on the case. That’s the bonus of switching to Polycarbonate (er, plastic) but we’re not convinced moving away from more premium materials is the right decision on a device that, although cheaper than before, still costs over £760.

Although the design might divide opinion, the display certainly won’t.

Samsung’s displays remain some of the best in the business and viewing content on the S21’s 6.2-inch edge-to-edge AMOLED screen is an absolute joy. It’s worth noting that to keep the smartphone’s cost down Samsung has switched to a Full HD+ display rather than the more pixel-packed Quad HD technology available on last year’s Galaxy S20.

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To be honest, most people really won’t notice any difference with colours that dazzle and content appearing as crisp as a winter’s morning. Another thing that helps the overall experience is the adaptive 120Hz refresh rate, which changes based on what you are doing on the device.

This basically means you’ll always get silky smooth scrolling …without a battery life hit. It’s a great feature and something that Apple must include on its future devices. This panel also includes a technology called Eye Comfort Shield, which automatically adjusts blue light levels to make it more comfortable to view for long periods.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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The S21 features an improved triple-lens camera (Image: SAMSUNG)

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Camera

Fully testing a camera in lockdown isn’t ideal but we’ve managed to put the S21 through enough testing to confirm it’s a great upgrade.

This triple lens system is ideal for people who simply want to point and shoot.

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That’s all thanks to some clever AI which makes sure things are set perfectly for the different environments you might find yourself in. Basically, you take the photo and the Galaxy S21 then sets about doing all the heavy lifting.

It certainly works as everything we’ve taken on the S21 looks crystal clear, packed with colour and perfectly in focus.

Even tricky photos, such as shooting into direct sunlight, look great and we’ve not really found much the S21 can’t deal with. Even the Night Mode seems improved with the camera taking good shots in almost total darkness.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 review

Samsung Galaxy S21 review – camera test (Image: EXPRESSS NEWSPAPERS)

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

Samsung Galaxy S21 review – camera test (Image: EXPRESSS NEWSPAPERS)

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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Samsung Galaxy S21 review – camera test (Image: EXPRESSS NEWSPAPERS)

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

Samsung Galaxy S21 review – camera test (Image: EXPRESSS NEWSPAPERS)

If you want to start digging into the settings there’s full functioning Pro Mode but to be honest, the results from Samsung’s AI are so good we doubt we’d ever bother. Like most modern Android phones, this device comes with wide, ultra-wide and telephoto lenses which give you plenty of options to get the perfect image.

One very welcome change is the new Zoom Lock option when using the phone’s 30X Space Zoom as this now makes it much easier to keep the camera steady when getting up close to a subject.

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Samsung’s Single Shot mode, which captures photos and a short video clip at the same time, has also been improved with a fun Dynamic Slo-Mo option which slows down and highlights moments in the footage.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

Samsung Galaxy S21 review – Zoom camera test (Image: EXPRESSS NEWSPAPERS)

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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Samsung Galaxy S21 review – Zoom camera test (Image: EXPRESSS NEWSPAPERS)

If video is more important to you then the S21 offers 8K recording and pretty decent image stabilisation which helps keep things smooth when you are on the move. Some new additions to the camera include the Director View, which lets you easily switch between lenses and preview your shots plus there’s a Vlogger View which allows both the front and rear cameras to record at the same time.

Finally, for those selfie addicts, there’s a good front-facing camera which can shift to a slightly wider mode for when we stop having to socially distance.

We really like the overall camera experience on the S21. Yes, The S21 Ultra is far superior but this entry-level flagship offers a really easy way to shoot very good photos and that’s all most consumers will ever ask for,

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Samsung Galaxy S21 review

All models now come with 5G (Image: SAMSUNG)

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Battery, Speed, and Extras

Tucked inside the Galaxy S21 is a bigger 4,000mAh powerpack, which will easily get you through a day and beyond. It’s certainly not some radical update that means you’ll be able to take a weekend trip without a charger, but the S21 has a pretty solid battery life that’s similar to all of its rivals.

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Powering the phone is the latest Exynos 2100 5nm 64-bit system-on-a-chip, which ensures everything you do on the device feel silky smooth and stutter-free. We’ve had no problems with performance and it appears this is a supremely capable smartphone.

Sadly, if you were hoping for the new Snapdragon 888 from Qualcomm, it seems that will only be available for customers in the US.

Other features worth a mention include a much-improved ultrasonic fingerprint scanner, which unlocks the phone in a flash. This security sensor is a vast improvement over previous Samsung phones, which we often found slightly unreliable and irritating to use. Unlike the optical in-display fingerprint readers found in the likes of OnePlus and Huawei devices, the ultrasonic variant is able to scan your fingertip when you’re caught out in the rain.

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The S21 continues to be water-resistant, so it should cope with a dip in the bath and the odd accidental spillage, plus there’s support for wireless charging and Samsung’s Power Share tech, which can refill other devices and accessories simply by placing them on back of the phone.

One thing that is sadly missing is the lack of expandable storage. This is a big change from Samsung and one not all fans will welcome. Make sure you pick the right phone for your needs as once it’s full you’ll have to delete files rather than being able to slot a MicroSD card into its shell.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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The Samsung Galaxy S21 is fully water resistant (Image: SAMSUNG)

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: What’s Not In The Box

Yes, the rumours were true. Samsung has followed in the footsteps of Apple and ditched the plug and headphones from the box. It’s a bit annoying, but we understand why this change has been made. Samsung says it’s designed to cut down on electronic waste, which can only be a good thing. Like Apple, it also allows Samsung to reduce the size of the packaging, which means more phones can be shipped at the same time.

Of course, unlike Apple, Samsung relies on USB-C, which is a standard across the industry. So, you’ll be able to use a number of chargers, from laptops, headphones and Nintendo Switch consoles, to top-up your shiny new Galaxy S21. That should make the transition a little smoother for Galaxy fans compared with Apple, which changed its charger so older cables wouldn’t work with the cable supplied in the box.

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However, if you haven’t upgraded your phone in a little while, you might not have an abundance of wall plugs with USB-C. And that’s what you’ll need for the included charging cable with the Galaxy S21.

If you need to buy a compatible plug, you can purchase a 15W variant for £24 from Samsung, which is pretty pricey. Although there are no headphones in the box, Samsung is offering a free pair of Galaxy Buds Live wireless earbuds if you pre-order which should ease the pain slightly.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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Samsung Galaxy S21 review (Image: SAMSUNG)

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: UK Price

It’s pretty unusual for things to get cheaper but that’s exactly what’s happened with the S21. The entry-level model with 128GB of storage starts from £769 and includes 5G.

Last year’s S20 started from £799 and didn’t feature this latest network technology. In fact, you had to pay an extra £100 for 5G meaning the S21 is now over £130 cheaper than its similarly specced predecessor.

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As we mentioned earlier, if you pre-order today you’ll also get a pair of Galaxy Buds Live and a new SmartTags tracker which clips to your bag and reveals its location should it go missing.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

Samsung Galaxy S21 review (Image: SAMSUNG)

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Final Verdict

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PROS • New lower price and 5G – Improved design – Solid battery life – Great screen
CONS • Plastic case feels a bit cheap – No expandable storage – No big innovations over the S20

There’s no question the S21 is a very solid smartphone. Samsung’s new flagship has everything most people will ever want, including that great 120Hz high refresh-rate OLED display, powerful performance from a 5nm chipset, and decent battery life.

The camera will also take perfect snaps for the family album and the fact you now get 5G without having to pay a premium is a big added bonus.

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The fact that it now costs £769 is also a smart move from Samsung as it makes it cheaper than last year’s S20 and also undercuts the iPhone 12, which starts from £799. Although, if you want the same 128GB as the £769 Galaxy S21, you’ll need to fork out £849 at the Apple Store – making this is pretty sizeable undercutting from Samsung.

So there’s plenty to like but, sadly, we’ve not been left wowed massively by this new device and there’s certainly no big innovations over last year’s phones. The fact it’s made from plastic also means you don’t quite the premium feel many may expect from a flagship.

Of course, if you want all the extra bells and whistles then the S21 Ultra is probably the device to consider as that phone gets a bigger display, quad rear camera with 100X Space Zoom and the ability to scribble on the screen with an S Pen.

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If you buy the entry-level S21 then you won’t be disappointed as it’s another good phone from Samsung. We’re just not quite sure it does enough to make it the must-have Android phone right now.

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