Samsung Galaxy S21 review: a fast new flagship smartphone

Samsung’s latest premium smartphone — and the first major device release of 2021 — is the Galaxy S21, a high-end upgrade to last year’s much-loved S20 series. Touted as a handset that puts the ‘epic’ in every day, the S21 continues Samsung’s focus on exceptional smartphone photography, as well as offering upgraded internals, a striking new design, and all the features we’ve come to expect from the Galaxy S range.

After spending several weeks with the standard Samsung Galaxy S21, testing out its performance as an every day smartphone on 4G and 5G networks, here is what you can expect from the Samsung Galaxy S21.

Samsung Galaxy S21: features and specs

Here’s a quick list of the key features and specifications of Samsung’s Galaxy S21:

  • From $1,249 RRP (128GB model)
  • 6.2-inch Flat FHD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen
  • Triple camera setup in rear (64MP, 12MP, 12MP) and 10MP ‘contour cut’ front camera
  • In-screen ultra-sonic fingerprint sensor and facial recognition
  • Android 11 operating system
  • 4,000mAh battery, Fast Wireless Charging 2.0, Power Share
  • IP68 water and dust resistance
  • 64-bit Octa-Core processor
  • 5G connectivity
  • Available in 128GB and 256GB storage sizes
  • Phantom Grey, Phantom White, Phantom Violet and Phantom Pink colour options

Samsung Galaxy S21: pros

  • Impressive cameras with huge suite of features
  • Fast performance and good UI
  • Cheaper than last year’s Galaxy S20

Samsung Galaxy S21: cons

  • Battery life steady, but not exceptional
  • Not a huge update from the Galaxy S20
  • No charger or headphones in the box

Design

Front view of Samsung Galaxy S21 in Violet
Image: Samsung

Admittedly, I wasn’t a fan of the S21’s rear camera design at first, finding the contrasting metal around the lenses to be quite jarring in comparison to last year’s S20. It’s especially prominent in the Phantom Violet colour used for this review, although there are no doubt many users who’ll love this year’s design, particularly as it does make the S21 range easily identifiable.

The matte finish of the phone’s body does help prevent the dreaded fingerprint smudges that glass backs tend to attract, and still feels quite high-end despite the lack of shine. The rose-gold metallic edges of the S21 themselves are distinctly less curved than those of previous Galaxy S releases, which may be a positive if you find flatter sides easier to grip.

The key design feature of the S21 is its 6.2-inch Infinity-O display, which offers edge-to-edge viewing with a smooth 120Hz refresh rate. While the S21 offers slightly less resolution than last year’s S20 —  Full HD+ 1,080 x 2,400, compared to Quad HD 1,440 x 3200 — it’s a difference most phone users are unlikely to notice, with the S21 delivering bright, vivid colours with no obvious drop in quality.

Other design features include a right-side power button and volume control, plus a USB-C port, speaker and SIM card tray on the bottom edge. However, one missing feature that may put off potential purchasers is the lack of microSD support, meaning there’s no option to expand on the device’s 128GB or 256GB on-board storage (depending on your model). While cloud storage is still an option, users drawn to the S21 for its outstanding camera and content creation capabilities may be disappointed by the limited built-in storage space.

Performance and battery

Since the launch of the Galaxy S10 5G in 2019, 5G connectivity has become standard in premium Samsung devices. While last year’s S20 range was offered in both 5G-capable and 4G-only variants, the Galaxy S21 series is entirely 5G-ready, making it a great upgrade option for users still on devices limited to 3G and 4G. The S21 is compatible with Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone’s new 5G networks, which are rolling out across Australian cities and towns — I tested the review device with Optus’ Sydney 5G coverage and found no issues — but keep in mind that your own performance will be impacted by your location, choice of provider and local network traffic.

Overall, the S21’s performance was trouble-free, and the phone had no issues with multi-tasking or split-screen app view. If you’ve been using an older or lower-priced device, you’ll clock the difference in speeds immediately; in fact, the only noticeably slow moments were during use of the camera app (which is to be expected when processing high-resolution images or switching between the S21’s array of lenses and modes), and when unlocking the device via PIN.

The S21 runs Android 11, paired with Samsung’s One UI interface. If you’re currently an Android user, you’ll have no trouble navigating through the S21’s software, and the easy-to-read user manual found in the Settings app also offers great advice on the phone’s basics for newbies. You’ll find a range of tips on topics such as using the camera, mastering the Bixby voice assistant, trying out productivity features, and playing around with fun extras like Emoji and video highlights.

Battery-wise, the Galaxy S21 was steady, but displayed occasional fast drops in charge during data-heavy processes, such as downloading apps and files. While independent benchmarking tests show the S21 to be superior to the iPhone 12 in battery life, your real-world results may vary. I found average-day use of Instagramming, scrolling Twitter, answering emails, streaming Spotify and watching around an hour of YouTube video saw the S21’s 4,000mAh battery comfortably get through a full day on a single charge, but constant, intensive activity such as high-resolution streaming and gaming is likely to drain your device’s power much faster.

I also found hot-spotting from the S21 to a laptop to be somewhat of a power sucker, so be aware if you regularly tether devices to your smartphone’s mobile network. The good news is that 25W charging via USB-C port is fairly fast, so quick top-ups are generally hassle-free, and the S21 is also compatible with both wireless charging and Samsung’s PowerShare feature, for charging between devices. The downside? Samsung has chosen not to package the Galaxy S21 line with in-the-box chargers, so you’ll have to supply your own — either brand new, or repurposed from an older smartphone.

Camera

The star of the show in the S21 series is undoubtedly the cameras. While Samsung has kept other features relatively low-key in its 2021 upgrade, the camera software has been given a serious polish, albeit it with the same triple-lens setup as last year’s S20. You’ll get a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera, 12-megapixel wide-angle camera and 64-megapixel telephoto camera, as well as a standard 10-megapixel selfie cam in front.

A range of fabrics in different colours and prints.
64MP camera shot taken on the Samsung Galaxy S21.

Standard photos taken with the rear camera are crisp and bright, and colours remain vivid, especially in clear lighting — the above shot of contrasting fabrics offers fairly true-to-life colours without editing. A general outdoor shot such as the one below delivers a great contrast in shades, and despite the selection of filters and modes on offer, doesn’t require much retouching.

A grey house with a green lawn and dark storm clouds.
64MP camera shot taken on the Samsung Galaxy S21.

Samsung is especially enamoured with the 64-megapixel lens, which offers 30x digital zoom and 3x optical zoom – a combo that’s great for capturing detail in faraway shots. While using the full 30x ‘space zoom’ results in an obvious and major loss of clarity, shorter distances still retain plenty of detail and quality, as shown below in 1x, 4x and 6x zoom pics.

Boats at Greenwich Wharf
Shots taken on the Samsung Galaxy S21.

Although there’s a huge selection of pro-grade features included on the S21’s camera software, the in-built touch-and-go modes — such as Portrait, Night Mode, Food Mode, and Panorama — offer plenty of variety and options for everyday phone users. Night Mode in particular is a highlight, producing great results in low and no-light conditions.

Two Funko Pop figures on a table in low light
12MP camera Night Mode shot taken on the Samsung Galaxy S21.

Director’s View — which combines the S21’s three rear camera lenses, plus the front-facing camera to deliver a four-in-one frame-in-frame view of your subject or scene — is a fun feature, as are the augmented-reality extras like AR Doodle, Deco Pic and Emoji Camera. Overall, the S21 delivers a great suite of cameras, offering plenty of modes and inclusions to suit both amateur Phone-tographers and more dedicated content makers.

Is the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G worth buying?

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is another solid flagship release from a company that rarely makes a misstep in premium devices (the exploding Galaxy Note 7 notwithstanding). While it’s not a massive leap forward compared to the Samsung Galaxy S20, it does offer a good upgrade if you’re still using an older Android phone, or you’re looking for a reliable and high-end device to switch to from iOS.

Priced at $1,249 for the 128GB model, or $1,349 for the 256GB option, the S21 is cheaper to buy outright than the standard S20 was at launch (which began at $1,349 for the 128GB size). This is largely thanks to small downgrades such as a lower screen resolution — so while the S21 is still far from ‘affordable’, it’s a step in the right direction in an industry where premium smartphones frequently hover at the $2,000 price point.

That being said, if you’re currently using the S20, S20+ or S20 Ultra, your best bet is to hold onto last year’s device and wait for the S22. The lack of major new features means happy S20 owners don’t need to drop everything and upgrade, and many Samsung users may in fact be disappointed by some of the S21’s features in comparison (with the exception of the updated camera software).

If you don’t fall into this category, and want a reliable Android phone with a lightning-quick performance and 5G capability, there’s no reason not to opt for the S21. However, if the price tag is a little too steep, you may want to check out cheaper but equally well-received 5G phones before committing — comparable options include the Google Pixel 5G and Google Pixel 4a 5G, OPPO’s Find X2 Neo and Find X2 Lite, or even the Samsung S20 FE 5G from late last year.

Finally, if you’re tossing up between the newest Samsung Galaxy S series release and the 5G-ready Apple iPhone 12, your decision may come down to personal preference and the features you prioritise. If you’re a diehard Apple fan, there’s nothing about the S21 to compel you to make the switch just yet, and you may prefer the iPhone 12’s camera. However, Android lovers will likely appreciate the strong processing power, bigger battery, and faster refresh rate that the Galaxy S21 offers for a similar outright price to the iPhone 12.

  • Consider the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G if: you want a 5G-ready phone with great cameras and a strong performance, or you’re upgrading from an older Samsung phone. However, S20 owners can wait another year.

Compare Samsung Galaxy S21 plans

You can pick up the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G (plus the S21+ 5G and S21 Ultra 5G) on plans from Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and Woolworths Mobile, on payment terms of 12 to 36 months depending on your provider. We’ve compiled a range of 24-month Samsung Galaxy S21 plans below.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plans

The following table shows selected published 24-month plans for the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G on Canstar Blue’s database, listed in order of cost, from the lowest to highest and then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our tool for mobile phone plan comparison to see a wider range of plans from other providers. This is a selection of products with links to a referral partner.

Samsung Galaxy S21+ Plans

The following table shows selected published 24-month plans for the Samsung Galaxy S21+ 5G on Canstar Blue’s database, listed in order of cost, from the lowest to highest and then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our tool for mobile phone plan comparison to see a wider range of plans from other providers. This is a selection of products with links to a referral partner.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Plans

The following table shows selected published 24-month plans for the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G on Canstar Blue’s database, listed in order of cost, from the lowest to highest and then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Use our tool for mobile phone plan comparison to see a wider range of plans from other providers. This is a selection of products with links to a referral partner.

SIM-only plans

If you’re planning to buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 outright, you’ll need to pair it with a SIM-only mobile plan. We’ve compiled several good postpaid and prepaid options below, but keep in mind that only Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and SpinTel currently offer 5G phone plans.

Here is a selection of postpaid plans from Canstar Blue’s database with a minimum of 10GB of data, listed in order of standard cost, lowest to highest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest. Try using our mobile phone plan comparison tool to see a wide range of plans from other providers. This table includes products with links to referral partners.

Here is a selection of prepaid plans from Canstar Blue’s database with a minimum of 10GB of data each month, listed in order of standard cost, lowest to highest, then by data allowance, largest to smallest. If you want to compare a larger range of offers from other providers, use our phone plan comparison tool. This table includes products with links to referral partners.

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