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

By Liu Hongzuo - 13 Feb 2021

Overview, Design & Handling, Display & Audio, User Interface

Note: This article was first published on 21st January 2021

Samsung Galaxy S21 in Phantom Violet, Samsung Galaxy S21+ in Phantom Black, and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra in Phantom Silver.

Overview

With Samsung eager to start a new year on the right foot, the Korean brand has taken the initiative to launch its Galaxy S21 series phones earlier than their usual Feb-Mar cycle. 

Together, the three models (Samsung Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21+, and Galaxy S21 Ultra) bring a combination of new flagship processors, pro-grade cameras, and incremental improvements alongside 5G-readiness.

Across the board, all three handsets sold in Singapore use the Samsung Exynos 2100 chipset, marking it the official transition over to 5nm chipset architecture, much like Apple's iPhone 12 range and Huawei's Mate 40 series smartphones. We're curious to learn if Samsung's own brew is able to hold up in such a competitive chipset and smartphone market, especially with Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 smartphones due to come later this year.

New features and major improvements were made to photography and videography despite having camera hardware similar to last year's Galaxy S20 series phones. There's Director's View with two more sub-features for more videography options, and then there's Cinematic 8K Snap for lifting still images out of 8k24fps videos. Single Take, Portrait Mode, and even Space Zoom got some upgrades.

While the three new Galaxy S phones didn't see too many changes, the phones come with the latest Android 11 operating system underneath Samsung's One UI interface out of the box.  What doesn't come out of the box is the charging adapter, which Samsung has decided to exclude in the Galaxy S21 retail package. 

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra gets a special mention here, because it received the further upgrades beyond the series-wide tweaks. S Pen support comes to the S21 Ultra. It also has two telephoto rear lenses, making its 100x Space Zoom more powerful. But are these enhancements enough to differentiate the Ultra from the regular models? 

Also, will the Exynos-backed Galaxy S21 series even hold up in such a competitive smartphone ecosystem? Is rushing the three phones for an early launch the right move? Let's find out.

  Samsung Galaxy S21 Samsung Galaxy S21+ Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
  Samsung Galaxy S21 Samsung Galaxy S21+ Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Launch SRP
  • From S$1248
  • From S$1498
  • From S$1798
Operating system
  • Android 11 (One UI 3)
  • Android 11 (One UI 3)
  • Android 11 (One UI 3)
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)
Built-in Memory
  • 8GB (LPDDR5)
  • 8GB (LPDDR5)
  • 12GB or 16GB (LPDDR5)
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
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
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
Storage Type
  • 256GB
  • No microSD card slot
  • 256GB
  • No microSD card slot
  • 256GB or 512GB
  • No microSD card 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
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
Weight
  • 169g
  • 200g
  • 227g

 

Design & Handling

Across all three device models, Samsung kept most of its original Galaxy S design language without changing too much. The Korean brand took great care in showcasing its Contour Cut Camera housing design on the phone at its official launch, but the rest of the Galaxy S21 body is very similar to the Galaxy S20 series. 

Contour Cut Camera adds a dimension of premium finish to the camera housing because Samsung chose to make it merge with the Galaxy S21’s metal frame. The housing sits flush with the rear camera lenses, while the housing itself is a raised bump with chamfered edges. The S21 Ultra’s housing has the biggest bump between the three devices, while the regular S21’s bump was almost negligible. 

Galaxy S21 Ultra's rear camera housing is thicker than the others.

The real differences come in the handset’s finishing of choice, and the subsequent appeal it has for its users. Both Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ use a frosted Haze finish juxtaposed against a high-polish Contour Cut Camera housing and frame. At the same time, the Galaxy S21 Ultra has a matte finish complementing its half-polish housing. The different polish lends the “feature phone” look to the S21 and S21+, while the S21 Ultra adopted a corporate-friendly demeanour. 

The S21 has Phantom Grey and Phantom White if you want a muted look, while the S21+ has Phantom Black and Phantom Silver, the two plainer-looking colourways that are also on the S21 Ultra. Phantom Violet, the flagship colour for the S21 series, is only available on the regular S21 and S21+. We think it’s a lost opportunity for the S21 Ultra since you’re limited to its monochrome palette there. 

Phantom Violet has had a mixed reception among netizens, but we wouldn’t know for sure unless Samsung decides to put a flashy S21 Ultra out for sale. We think Phantom Violet is a good effort towards making two conflicting colours work together (rose gold and lavender), so Samsung wasn’t kidding when they said that the S21 phones in Phantom Violet would stand out - for better or worse.

On the handling end of things, the phones feel comfortable to hold and control. The S21 Ultra has an ideal grip and body even though it’s 0.1mm thicker and 7g heavier than the S20 Ultra. If we had any handling issues, it’d be how the volume and power buttons are positioned on all three models. The phones don’t have identical bodies, yet the buttons are identical in size and spacing across all three phones. The S21+ buttons are most awkward of the lot, with the S21 Ultra being the most natural.

Besides looking pretty, the phones all come with IP68-certified water resistance. Of course, we’ve not done anything more drastic than splash some water on them, but the S21 phones don’t have any issue dealing with droplets of rain or water, which is a typical use case than dunking the devices into the bathtub.

It’s a real shame that there’s no more microSD card expansion across any Galaxy S21 models. While the phones have sufficiently large internal storage capacities (256GB for all three variants and an additional 512GB model for the S21 Ultra), it will take a little bit of admin time to properly move and categorise your media files when switching over to the new Samsung flagships if you previously chose to save them on microSD. 

 

Display & Audio

The Galaxy S21 and S21+ have the same display sizes and panel quality as its predecessors. They sit at 6.2 inches and 6.7 inches respectively, with Dynamic AMOLED 2X display and an Infinity-O camera cut-out at the top. The displays are HDR10+ certified, have 120Hz maximum refresh rate, and Dynamic Refresh Rate that adjusts between 48 to 120Hz, depending on the content viewed. Like the S20 variants, the S21 and S21+ are flat display panels.

What did change was the pixel fidelity on these two models. Previously, the S20 and S20+ had 1440p (also known as QHD+ resolution). The Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ instead offer a lower FHD resolution at 2,400 x 1,080 pixels. During our hands-on session with Samsung, the brand said it went with 1080p panels since users of the regular and Plus variants aren’t actively switching over to 1440p in the display settings. So, if you’re a user who knows or cares about display resolutions and doesn’t mind the extra battery drain for better graphics, the option is no longer there for you.

Despite the lower resolution, Samsung’s AMOLED panels have been nothing but excellent to the eye. Choosing Dynamic AMOLED 2X once again for the panels isn’t lazy, and that’s because it’s highly rated for colour accuracy, as seen in the vibrant images. Again, we wished Samsung didn’t take away 1440p resolution option in the regular and Plus variants, because it did set the bar in display expectations for other Android phones that dared to compete.

Sample image on Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has a 6.8-inch, curved Dynamic AMOLED 2X rated at 3,200 x 1,440 pixels resolution (WQHD+). It has all the panel perks from the S21 and S21+, although its Dynamic Refresh Rate can be as low as 10Hz for better battery efficiency. Also unique to the S21 Ultra is a new maximum peak brightness of 1,500-nits, up from the predecessor’s 1,200-nits. Sure, it’s going to drain your battery, but you can count on the S21 Ultra for clarity when it’s most needed, even under bright sunlight.

A new (or rather, improved) display enhancement is Eye Comfort Shield. That’s a snazzy name for automated blue-light reduction in the S21 phones. Samsung said that it auto-adjusts blue light output based on your usage patterns, which is different from blue light reduction based on the day's hours. This is helpful if you don’t necessarily have a typical day-night cycle because of work or personal commitments. Folks working in healthcare, logistics, and entertainment industries come to mind. It’s not something the majority would absolutely need, but it’s an inclusive feature that’s useful.

 

UI & Features

The new phones are functionally similar, if not identical to the preceding Galaxy S20 series. Still, there are some improvements to look forward to, like One UI 3 and the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s S Pen support.

 

One UI 3

The Galaxy S21 series uses the Android 11 operating system, but it’s cloaked under Samsung’s One UI 3 interface. One UI 3 is very similar to past One UIs in form and function, save for a few aesthetic changes. 

The lock screen is less cluttered than One UI 2’s. The pull-down notifications have a translucent background instead of opaque. The volume indicators are a chunkier, iOS-like bar instead of a thin blue slider with a dot indicator. 

Functionally, it’s like Android 11, so it’s a union between the latest Android operating system perks like Notification History and One-Time Permissions for apps, as well as Samsung’s software magic like App Pair. However, you’ll still get Android 11 and One UI 3 on slightly older devices like Galaxy S20 and Note20 phones, so it’s not solely reserved for folks who buy the Galaxy S21 phones.

 

Galaxy S21 Ultra with S Pen

With Wacom’s partnership, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra packs S Pen compatibility alongside support for some third-party styluses. According to Samsung, it’s compatible with any S Pen, including older models and the ones from Samsung’s tablets. 

We tested with an S Pen from a Galaxy Note20 Ultra device we had. True enough, the Galaxy S21 Ultra could capture all the basics, like swiping and annotating. The Galaxy S21 Ultra also has a translucent contextual menu that pops up only when an S Pen touches the display - it’s the same menu that appears on the stylus-native Galaxy Note phones. We further confirmed S21 Ultra’s S Pen support by taking the S Pen to the regular S21 and S21+, and those phones didn’t budge at all.

However, not every S Pen feature is available on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. For instance, Air Gestures requires Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and neither can you tag the S Pen button to launch a specific app (like Camera) on the Galaxy S21 Ultra without BLE. That, however, is more of a limitation of passive styluses and S Pens.

Samsung sells two Galaxy S21 S Pens separately - a regular Galaxy S21 S Pen which you can buy with an official cover (starts at S$88) or a standalone Galaxy S21 S Pen (S$58 in Black). There’s also a bigger, longer S Pen Pro active stylus with Bluetooth features that can offer Air Gestures and a remote shutter/trigger key. The Pro edition S Pen is however currently not available in our market until further notice. 

Not only is the S Pen sold separately, but the Galaxy S21 Ultra also doesn’t have a built-in S Pen slot. If you have every intention of moving from a previous Galaxy Note device and retaining your stylus mastery, you’ll need a cover that can store the S Pen for you. In a way, while the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s S Pen support is a nice perk and it helps the Ultra variant stand out a little more from the pack, the phone isn’t a true successor to the Galaxy Note series, since it’s not fully accommodating of an S Pen in more ways than one.

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