Shootouts

Samsung Galaxy S21, S21+, S21 Ultra review: Distilled excellence

By Liu Hongzuo - 13 Feb 2021

Benchmark Performance, Battery, Conclusion

Benchmark Performance

The Singapore market gets Galaxy S21 series phones with Samsung’s latest 5nm chipset, the Exynos 2100. The chipset packs an integrated 5G modem, so you’re getting 5G compatibility (both mmWave and sub-6GHz) out of the box. According to Samsung, it has 10% higher overall performance and 20% less power consumption than its 7nm Exynos 990 found in the Galaxy S20 and Note20 series. If you want to dive deeper into Exynos 2100, the article’s here.

We would love to benchmark the Exynos 2100 phones against other handsets with 5nm chipsets, but the only Android-based one that’s out thus far is the Huawei Mate 40 Pro with its 5nm Kirin 9000 processor. Qualcomm already announced the Snapdragon 888 mobile platform, but a 2021 phone with that 5nm chipset has yet to arrive on our shores. That leaves us with the Apple iPhone 12 series since those iOS phones have a 5nm A14 Bionic chipset. We’ll also have to make do with comparing to previous flagships for now. Finally, we’re pitting it against the S20 series to look out for any visible improvements.

Note: the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra benchmarked here is the variant with 12GB RAM with 256GB storage. There’s also a variant with 16GB RAM and 512GB storage available for sale in Singapore.

  Samsung Galaxy S21 Samsung Galaxy S21+ Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Huawei Mate 40 Pro OnePlus 8T Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max Samsung Galaxy S20 FE Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (128GB) Samsung Galaxy S20+ Samsung Galaxy S20
  Samsung Galaxy S21 Samsung Galaxy S21+ Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Huawei Mate 40 Pro OnePlus 8T Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max Samsung Galaxy S20 FE Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (128GB) Samsung Galaxy S20+ Samsung Galaxy S20
Launch SRP
  • From S$1248
  • From S$1498
  • From S$1798
  • From S$1598
  • From S$899
  • From S$1068
  • From S$1898
  • From S$1498
  • From S$1298
Operating system
  • Android 11 (One UI 3)
  • Android 11 (One UI 3)
  • Android 11 (One UI 3)
  • Android 10 with EMUI 11
  • OxygenOS 11, based on Android 11
  • iOS 14
  • Android 10 (One UI 2.1)
  • Android 10 (One UI 2.1)
  • Android 10 (One UI 2.1)
  • Android 10 (One UI 2.1)
Processor
  • Samsung Exynos 2100, 5nm octa-core (2.9GHz + 2.8GHz + 2.2GHz)
  • Samsung Exynos 2100, 5nm octa-core (2.9GHz + 2.8GHz + 2.2GHz)
  • Samsung Exynos 2100, 5nm octa-core (2.9GHz + 2.8GHz + 2.2GHz)
  • HUAWEI Kirin 9000 5G octa-core (1 x 3.13GHz Cortex-A77, 3 x 2.54GHz Cortex-A77, & 4 x 2.05GHz Cortex-A55)
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 865
  • A14 Bionic
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 (2.8GHz)
  • Exynos 990
  • Exynos 990
  • Exynos 990
Built-in Memory
  • 8GB (LPDDR5)
  • 8GB (LPDDR5)
  • 12GB or 16GB (LPDDR5)
  • 8GB RAM
  • 8GB/12GB RAM
  • LPDDR4X
  • 6GB RAM
  • 8GB (LPDDR5)
  • 12GB
  • 8GB
  • 8GB
Display
  • 6.2-inch, Dynamic AMOLED 2X, Infinity-O
  • 2,400 x 1,080 pixels (421ppi)
  • 120Hz adaptive refresh rate
  • Eye Comfort Shield
  • 6.7-inch, Dynamic AMOLED 2X, Infinity-O
  • 2,400 x 1,080 pixels (394ppi)
  • 120Hz adaptive refresh rate
  • Eye Comfort Shield
  • 6.8-inch, curved, Dynamic AMOLED 2X, Infinity-O
  • 3,200 x 1,440 pixels (515ppi)
  • 120Hz adaptive refresh rate
  • Eye Comfort Shield
  • 6.76-inches 2,772 x 1,344 pixels (~456 ppi) OLED, 90Hz refresh rate, 240Hz touch sampling rate
  • Always-On Display
  • 6.55-inch / 2,400 x 1,080 pixels (402 ppi) / 120Hz refresh rate / Fluid AMOLED Display
  • 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR display
  • 2,778 x 1,284 pixels resolution
  • 458 pixels per inch
  • HDR
  • TrueTone
  • 6.5-inch, Super AMOLED, Infinity-O
  • 2,400 x 1,080 pixels (407ppi)
  • 120Hz refresh rate
  • 6.9-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X Infinity-O display
  • 3,200 x 1,440 pixels
  • 511ppi
  • 6.7-inch, Dynamic AMOLED 2X, Infinity-O
  • 3,200 x 1,440 pixels
  • 525ppi
  • 6.2-inch, Dynamic AMOLED 2X, Infinity-O
  • 3,200 x 1,440 pixels
  • 563ppi
Camera
  • Rear:
  • 12MP, f/1.8, wide-angle 1.8µm, Dual Pixel AF, OIS
  • 12MP, f/2.2, ultra-wide, 1.4µm, 120° FOV
  • 64MP, f/2.0, telephoto, 0.8µm, PDAF, 3x Hybrid Optic Zoom
  • Front:
  • 10MP, f/2.2, portrait, 1.22µm, Dual Pixel AF
  • Rear:
  • 12MP, f/1.8, wide-angle 1.8µm, Dual Pixel AF, OIS
  • 12MP, f/2.2, ultra-wide, 1.4µm, 120° FOV
  • 64MP, f/2.0, telephoto, 0.8µm, PDAF, 3x Hybrid Optic Zoom
  • Front:
  • 10MP, f/2.2, portrait, 1.22µm, Dual Pixel AF
  • Rear:
  • 108MP, f/1.8, wide-angle 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS
  • 12MP, f/2.2, ultra-wide, 1.4µm, 120° FOV, Dual Pixel AF
  • 10MP, f/2.4, telephoto, 1.22µm, Dual Pixel AF, 3x Optical Zoom
  • 10MP, f/4.9, telephoto, 1.22µm, Dual Pixel AF, 10x Optical Zoom
  • Laser AutoFocus sensor
  • Front:
  • 40MP, f/2.2, portrait, 0.7µm, PDAF
  • Rear:
  • 50MP Ultra Vision Camera, f/1.9
  • 20MP Cine Camera ultra-wide angle f/1.8,
  • 12MP Telephoto Camera, f/3.4, OIS
  • Front:
  • 13MP, f/2.4
  • 3D Depth Sensing Camera
  • Rear:
  • 48MP, Sony IMX586, f/1.78, 4-in-1 pixel binning (1.6µm @ 12MP)
  • 16MP, Ultra-Wide-Angle, f/2.2, 123° FOV
  • 2MP Macro
  • 2MP, Monochrome
  • Front:
  • 16MP, Sony IMX471, f/2.4, 1.0 µm
  • Rear cameras:
  • Triple 12MP camera system with lidar scanner
  • Ultrawide: 13mm, f/2.4
  • Wide: 26mm, f/1.6
  • Telephoto: 65mm, f/2.2
  • 5x optical zoom range
  • 12x digital zoom
  • Sensor-shift image stabilisation for wide
  • OIS for telephoto
  • Smart HDR for all cameras
  • Night Mode for wide and ultrawide cameras
  • Deep Fusion for all cameras
  • 4K, 60fps
  • Dolby Vision 4K, 60fps
  • Slow-motion up to 240fps at 1080p
  • Front camera:
  • 12MP, f/2.2
  • Night Mode
  • Deep Fusion
  • Smart HDR
  • Rear:
  • 12MP, f/1.8, wide-angle 1.8µm, Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
  • 12MP, f/2.2, ultra-wide, 1.12µm, 123° FOV,
  • 8MP, f/2.4, telephoto, 1.0µm, 3x Optical Zoom
  • Front:
  • 32MP, f/2.2, portrait, 0.8µm, tetra-binning, re-mosiac algorithm
  • Rear:
  • 12MP, 120°, f/2.2, 13mm (ultra-wide), 1.4µm
  • 108MP, 79°, f/1.8, 26mm (wide-angle), 1/1.33", 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS
  • 48MP, 24°, f/3.5, 103mm (telephoto), 1/2.0", 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS, 10x hybrid optical zoom
  • 0.3MP, f/1.0, time-of-flight 3D, (depth)
  • Front:
  • 40MP, 80°, f/2.2, 26mm (wide), 0.7µm, PDAF
  • 12 MP, f/1.8, 26mm (wide), 1/1.76", 1.8µm, Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
  • 64 MP, f/2.0, (telephoto), 1/1.72", 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS, 3x hybrid optical zoom
  • 12 MP, f/2.2, 13mm (ultrawide), 1.4µm, Super Steady video
  • 0.3 MP, TOF 3D, f/1.0, (depth)
  • 12 MP, f/1.8, 26mm (wide), 1/1.76", 1.8µm, Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
  • 64 MP, f/2.0, (telephoto), 1/1.72", 0.8µm, PDAF, OIS, 3x hybrid optical zoom
  • 12 MP, f/2.2, 13mm (ultrawide), 1.4µm, Super Steady video
Connectivity
  • LTE / 5G (NSA, SA, Sub6)
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, hotspot, Bluetooth 5.0, A2DP, LE
  • GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS, GALILEO
  • NFC
  • LTE / 5G (NSA, SA, Sub6)
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, hotspot, Bluetooth 5.0, A2DP, LE
  • GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS, GALILEO
  • NFC
  • LTE / 5G (NSA, SA, Sub6)
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, hotspot, Bluetooth 5.0, A2DP, LE
  • GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS, GALILEO
  • NFC
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax, 5G NR (primary SIM), 4G FDD LTE, dual-band, hotspot, DLNA, Bluetooth 5.2, A2DP, LE, GPS, AGPS, GLONASS, BeiDou, Galileo, USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C, NFC
  • 5G NSA, 5G SA, LTE, Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax (2.4G, 5G, 2x2 MIMO), NFC, Bluetooth 5.1 (aptX, aptX HD, LDAC, AAC, SBC), A-GPS, Beidou, Glonass, Galileo, GPS (L1+L5 Dual Band)
  • 5G (sub-6GHz)
  • Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax/b/g/n/a/)
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • Ultra-wideband chip
  • LTE / 5G (Sub6)
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, hotspot, Bluetooth 5.0, A2DP, LE
  • GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS, GALILEO
  • NFC
  • Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax/ac/n/b/g/n/a)
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS, GALILEO
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, hotspot, Bluetooth 5.0, A2DP, LE
  • GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS, GALILEO
  • NFC
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, hotspot, Bluetooth 5.0, A2DP, LE
  • GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS, GALILEO
  • NFC
Storage Type
  • 256GB
  • No microSD card slot
  • 256GB
  • No microSD card slot
  • 256GB or 512GB
  • No microSD card slot
  • 256GB internal storage
  • Huawei Nano Memory expansion (up to 256GB)
  • 128GB/256GB internal storage
  • UFS 3.1 2-lane
  • 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
  • 128GB or 256GB
  • microSDXC up to 1TB (uses shared SIM slot)
  • 128GB internal storage
  • Internal 128GB, UFS 3.0
  • microSDXC (uses shared SIM slot)
  • Internal 128GB, UFS 3.0
  • microSDXC (uses shared SIM slot)
Battery
  • 4,000mAh
  • 25W Super Fast Charging
  • 15W Wireless Fast Charging
  • 4,800mAh
  • 25W Super Fast Charging
  • 15W Wireless Fast Charging
  • 5,000mAh
  • 25W Super Fast Charging
  • 15W Wireless Fast Charging
  • 4,400mAh
  • 66W Huawei SuperCharge
  • 50W Huawei Wireless SuperCharge
  • 15W Huawei Wireless Quick Charge (Qi wireless charging)
  • Reverse wireless charging
  • 4,500mAh
  • 65W Fast Charging (10V/6.5A)
  • Built-in lithium-ion
  • Up to 20 hours video playback
  • 4,500mAh
  • 25W Super Fast Charging
  • 15W Wireless Fast Charging
  • Wireless PowerShare
  • 5,000mAh Li-Po
  • 4,500mAh Li-Po
  • 4,000mAh Li-Po
Dimensions
  • 71.2 x 151.7 x 7.9mm
  • 75.6 x 161.5 x 7.8mm
  • 75.6 x 165.1 x 8.9mm
  • 162.9 x 75.5 x 9.1mm (vegan leather 9.5mm)
  • 160.7 x 74.1 x 8.4mm
  • 160.8 x 78.1 x 7.4mm
  • 74.5 x 159.8 x 8.4mm
  • 166.9 x 76 x 8.8 mm
  • 161.9 x 73.7 x 7.8 mm
  • 151.7 x 69.1 x 7.9 mm
Weight
  • 169g
  • 200g
  • 227g
  • 212g
  • 188g
  • 226g
  • 190g
  • 220g
  • 168g
  • 163g
Video Support
  • 4320p@24fps, 2160p@30/60fps, 1080p@30/60/240fps, 720p@960fps, HDR10+
Audio Support
  • 32-bit/384kHz audio

 

JetStream 2.0

JetStream 2 is a combination of a variety of JavaScript and Web Assembly benchmarks, including benchmarks that came before like SunSpider and Octane. It primarily tests for a system’s and browser’s ability in delivering a good web experience. It runs a total of 64 subtests, each weighted equally, with multiple iterations, and takes the geometric mean to compute the overall score.

 

AnTuTu 

Note: As of 9th March 2020, all AnTuTu benchmarks were removed from the Google Play Store. This move likely arose from Google's attempts to relieve the Play Store of apps that violate their policies. AnTuTu is working with Google to restore their app listing. For this review, we used the APK file that was available on AnTuTu's website.

AnTuTu is an all-in-one benchmark that tests CPU, GPU, memory, and storage. The CPU benchmark evaluates both integer and floating-point performance, and the GPU tests assess 2D and 3D performance, the memory test measures available memory bandwidth and latency, and the storage tests gauge the read and write speeds of a device's flash memory.

 

Geekbench 5

Geekbench CPU is a cross-platform processor benchmark that tests both single-core and multi-core performance with workloads that simulate real-world usage. Geekbench 5 scores are calibrated against a baseline score of 1000, which is the score of an Intel Core i3-8100.

Note: The Geekbench 5 benchmark could not run on Huawei Mate 40 Pro, and its score is also unavailable on Geekbench's rankings.

 

3DMark Sling Shot Extreme and Wild Life

3DMark Sling Shot is an advanced 3D graphics benchmark that tests the full range of OpenGL ES 3.1 and ES 3.0 API features including multiple render targets, instanced rendering, uniform buffers and transform feedback. The test also includes impressive volumetric lighting and post-processing effects. The test's Unlimited mode ignores screen resolutions.

We’re also collecting scores with 3DMark’s new benchmark, Wild Life. Below are the test’s Unlimited Mode scores which showcase mobile graphics/gaming performance for apps using the latest APIs.

 

Performance Benchmark Remarks

Of the three phones, the S21 Ultra and S21+ had no issues with prolonged and demanding benchmarking. However, the regular S21 heats faster after each benchmark test and would give inconsistent results after the device reaches hand-warmer temperatures. If you have a habit of using demanding apps on your phone, like gaming or video recording, you might want to consider at least the Galaxy S21+ for extended, uninterrupted usage.

Additionally, the S21 had slightly lower performance scores than the S21+ and S21 Ultra. We couldn’t exactly pinpoint why that’s the case when the three phones have identical chipsets and processor clock rates. The lower scores are consistent, so we believe the S21 operates as intended despite having similar components to its pricier counterparts. This leads us to believe that the smaller frame of the S21 might probably not have enough surface area for an adequately sized heatsink to maintain the higher sustained performance seen in its larger siblings.

With the Galaxy S21 series using the 5nm architecture Exynos 2100 chipset, the scores beat last-generation 7nm chipsets soundly. They’ve generally scored even better than the Huawei Mate 40 Pro, which has a current-generation 5nm chipset (the Kirin 9000). Compared to previous S series phone debuts, the S21 series and its new Exynos 2100 chipset have a strong showing in performance increments and is a welcome change.

What’s left to observe are the benchmark scores of the competing Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, which reported even higher numbers via Qualcomm’s testing. We can say that the Exynos 2100 chipset seems promising with flagship-tier performance. Whether it’s competitive enough next to its rivals, remain to be seen as more 2021 flagships pop up over this year.


 

Battery life

Our standard battery test for mobile phones has the following parameters:

  • Looping a 720p video with screen brightness and volume at 100%
  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity turned on
  • Constant data streaming through email

The Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Ultra had the same battery capacity as its predecessor (4,000mAh and 5,000mAh respectively) while the Galaxy S21+ saw an increase of 300mAh (to its new 4,800mAh total). Samsung managed to keep the S21 series’ battery uptime similar to its predecessors despite the leaps in performance. 

The phones’ 25W wired fast charging capability was snappy too. The Galaxy S21 took 70 minutes, Galaxy S21+ took 74 minutes, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra took 60 minutes to go from 0% to 100% with a compatible, third-party fast-charging adapter. It’s a pity Samsung has decided to leave out a charging brick in the phone’s packaging, especially when the phones already come at a premium price.

The phones are also capable of 15W wireless charging, and it works seamlessly. The constraints of time and not having a Samsung-provided wireless charger meant that we’d not had the opportunity to clock its wireless charging speeds at the time of publishing. 

 

Conclusion

At a glance, Samsung has made one of its better Galaxy S launches in recent years with the Samsung Galaxy S21 series. They put the phones out early, yet managed to deliver a powerful and beautiful trio. Each device - be it the regular, plus, or Ultra variant - were stylish in their ways, and cater very well towards everyday use.

Sure, the counter-argument here could be that Samsung didn't do very much outside of video-recording features to make S20 buyers pull the trigger on an S21 unit. But if we compared the S21 phones to older Samsung flagships, or even other Android flagships from last year, it's a compelling buy. A strong Exynos performance spells well for a market that's conscious about getting their money's worth, and the stunning imaging quality along with its robust imaging suite of features dispel any doubts about the Galaxy S21 series doing well in our little island.

If we look at each handset as individuals, the strongest draw would be the Galaxy S21 Ultra. It's not just the ease of use during photography, or the massive battery capacity, or the delicious 1440p display. The Galaxy S21 Ultra's S Pen support gives casual Galaxy Note users a reason to consider switching over to the Galaxy S series instead - more so if it's an ageing Note on hand. With a starting price of S$1,798 for 256GB and pre-order bonuses worth S$350++, it's irresistible next to the S20 Ultra (which launched with a higher sticker price for less storage). 

Rounding off the phone's overall polish are other Ultra-only niceties, like 4k60fps recording on all rear lenses and 12-bit RAW photo option, truly exalting the 'pro-grade cameras' marketing spiel peddled by Samsung.

While the Galaxy S21 seems like the financially savvy alternative out of the three at S$1,248 for 256GB, it also had lower performance despite having the same components. If you don't need HDR10, you could consider the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE instead, with similar-enough performance scores, equally1080p-quality panel, more battery life, and a compelling S$1,168 launch price for 256GB storage (or even the 128GB edition for just S$1,068). The Fan Edition alternative also comes in a wider selection of colourways, so you're not exactly losing out on funky appearances, either.

If a new Galaxy S21 series device is what you need, and you don't want to fiddle around with an S Pen, then there's the Galaxy S21+ that goes at a palatable S$1,498 for 256GB, simply because it's just 0.1-inch smaller than the curved S21 Ultra's display. It has better battery uptime than the regular version, stunning performance that matches or betters the S21 Ultra, and it still comes in Phantom Violet if you don't like boring monotones.

While it sounds like a lot of praise for the current batch of Galaxy S phones by Samsung, we're also not blind to the missteps that came with the Galaxy S21 series. If you ask us, the Koreans should've kept microSD compatibility instead of removing it, and bring back 1440p on to the S21 and S21+ for the people who actually know how to use them. The real shame is the removal of a charging adapter. Indeed, Samsung could've found it in them to at least give a universal fast-charging adapter, considering the sticker prices of these premium devices.

Trespasses aside, it's clear that Samsung managed to distil what was already excellent in their Galaxy S series, and started 2021 on the right foot. 

You can learn more about the availability, where to purchase and pre-order details of the Samsung Galaxy S21 series here.

Ratings breakdown
  Design Features User-friendliness Performance Value Overall

Samsung Galaxy S21
8.5 8.5 9.0 8.0 7.5 Click to view the pros and cons.

Samsung Galaxy S21+
8.5 8.5 9.0 8.5 8.0

Click to view the pros and cons.


Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
8.5 9.0 9.0 8.5 8.0

Click to view the pros and cons.

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