Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: Should you upgrade?

comp image of a galaxy s23 press image and photo of galaxy s21
(Image credit: Samsung / Tom's Guide)

As you’ll see in this Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21 face-off, Samsung has introduced a lot of improvements to its latest flagships. If you’re using the company’s 2021 Galaxy S21, you might be wondering if it’s time to upgrade. The good news is that the Galaxy S23 has some notable upgrades — enough to justify the $799 starting price.

From the cameras to the display and processor, the Galaxy S23 is a refreshing upgrade after the iterative Galaxy S22 last year. You’ll find that there’s a lot to like this time around, even down to the refined design. Let’s see if the new Samsung S23 is the best Android phone for you. 

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: Specs

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Galaxy S23Galaxy S21
Starting price$799$799
Android version13, One UI 5.113, One UI 5
Display6.1-inch Super AMOLED (2400 x 1080)6.2-inch Super AMOLED (2400 x 1080)
Refresh rate48-120Hz48-120Hz
CPUSnapdragon 8 Gen 2 for GalaxySnapdragon 888
Storage128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB
Rear cameras50MP (f/1.8) main, 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide, 10MP (f/2.4) telephoto with 3x optical zoom12MP (f/1.8) main, 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide, 64MP (f/2.0) telephoto with 3x hybrid zoom
Front camera12MP (f/2.2)10MP (f/2.2)
Battery3,900 mAh4,000 mAh
Size5.8 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches (146.3 x 70.9 x 7.6 mm)6 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches (151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9 mm)
Weight6 ounces (168 g)6 ounces (169 g)
ColorsPhantom Black, Cream, Green, LavenderPhantom Grey, Phantom White, Phantom Violet, Phantom Pink

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: Price and availability

The Galaxy S23 keeps the Galaxy S21’s $799 starting price for the 128GB base model. You can upgrade to 256GB for a little more. Your color options range from Phantom Black to Cream, Lavender, and Green.

The Galaxy S23 goes up to $859.99 for the 8GB/256GB model. 

Just like the Galaxy S21, the Galaxy S23 will enjoy wide availability across North America, the U.K., and Australia. 

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: Design

Galaxy S23 hands-on

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Right off the bat, you can spot the differences in the design between the Galaxy S23 and Galaxy S21. Gone in the Galaxy S21’s contour cut camera module that blends into the frame. The Galaxy S23 has a design reminiscent of the Galaxy S22 Ultra and Galaxy S23 Ultra with the individual lenses aligned vertically. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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The overall aesthetic has changed, too, with Samsung adopting a straighter and more refined look. From some angles, the Galaxy S23 looks more like an iPhone 14 than a Galaxy S21.

The flat display remains, as curves are reserved for the Ultra. The Galaxy S23 remains a similar size to the Galaxy S21 at 5.8 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches (versus the S21 at 6 x 2.80 x 0.3 inches). Weights also stayed pretty consistent at 5.9 ounces and 6 ounces, respectively.

Samsung has upgraded the materials over the past couple of years. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is made with Gorilla Glass Victus front and back, with aluminum side rails. The Galaxy S23 Ultra uses Gorilla Glass Victus 2 (two generations newer and tougher) and "Armor Aluminum", which should mean the newer phone's more scratch and drop resistant than the older one, as strong as it already is.

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: Display

Yet another difference is the screen measurement. The Galaxy S23’s display comes in at 6.1 inches while the Galaxy S21’s Super AMOLED panel measures 6.2 inches. Both use Super AMOLED technology.

Galaxy S23 hands-on

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One major area where the Galaxy S23 pulls ahead is in brightness. With a peak rating of 1,750 nits, the latest Samsung flagship can make itself visible even in the brightest sunlight. And thanks to Samsung’s Advanced Vision Booster, you don’t need to worry about color distortion at those high brightness levels.

The Galaxy S21 sports a max rated brightness of 1,300 nits, which is still brighter than most phones on the market. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

(Image credit: Future)

Both phones share a 2400 x 1080 resolution with a 48Hz to 120Hz refresh rate. While not as low as other devices, the Galaxy S23 can ramp down to 48Hz for more static content to conserve battery life. It’s not the same effect as the Galaxy S23 Ultra’s 1Hz or Pixel 7 Pro’s 10Hz.

The Galaxy S21 also has a 48-120Hz range, so you aren’t losing out on much in this regard if you decide to stay on your current phone a little longer.

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: Cameras

The Galaxy S23 makes some rather significant camera improvements over the Galaxy S21, and it’s where you would see the biggest changes if you chose to upgrade. The main sensor sees an upgrade to 50MP versus the S21’s 12MP. The ultrawide stays at 12MP, while the 10MP telephoto has a dedicated 3x optical zoom. (The Galaxy S21 has a 3x hybrid zoom.)

Galaxy S23 hands-on

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Samsung touts four times the dynamic range on Galaxy S23, likely compared to the Galaxy S22. That theoretically means better colors, highlights, and shadows in the images, adding to the quality. The S23 also enjoys the same Nightography advancements that the Galaxy S23 Ultra has.

The Galaxy S23 can also shoot RAW photos in the full 50MP. The Galaxy S21 does not have access to Samsung’s Expert RAW app since it lacks a full 2x optical zoom. RAW photos give you full access to the image’s different components, unlocking a ton of editing potential. At 50MP, the Galaxy S23 also has a lot more cropping opportunity in case you want to print the photos.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S23 features a 12MP front camera, which is an upgrade over the Galaxy S21’s 10MP. The sharper resolution combined with Samsung’s efforts to improve selfies — including skin tone accuracy — should equal better photos on the Galaxy S23.

As for video, the Galaxy S23 can record at 8K 30 fps, 4K 60 fps, and 1080p 120 fps. The Galaxy S21 tops out at 8K 24 fps with the option for 4K at 60 fps.

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: Performance

The Galaxy S23 sports the new Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy, an overclocked version of the standard Snapdragon 8 Gen 2. It’s core frequency can ramp up to 3.36GHz versus 3.2GHz on the regular version. It has the same Adreno 740 GPU.

Galaxy S23 hands-on back of phone

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Galaxy S21, meanwhile, features the older Snapdragon 888. Whereas you may not notice a ton of speed differences between it and the Galaxy S23, you will note the disparity in gaming performance. Qualcomm really upped its GPU this year, even outmatching Apple in our tests on the RedMagic 8 Pro.

The smaller Galaxy S23 does not feature the Galaxy S23 Plus’ or Galaxy S23 Ultra’s more advanced cooling system, likely due to the svelte body. This could hamper the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, but not in such a way that you’ll likely notice. 

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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The Galaxy S21 can’t keep up in any benchmark, but Qualcomm made a lot of advancements in the last two years. If you want the best performance on an Android phone, the Galaxy S23 reigns supreme for the time being.

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: Battery and charging

The Galaxy S21 did not have amazing battery life. Its 4,000 mAh power pack struggled with the 120Hz display and the Snapdragon 888’s demands. We haven’t tested the Galaxy S23’s battery life yet, but we’re hoping it’s improved over the Galaxy S22.

Galaxy S23 charging port

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But the battery is smaller than the Galaxy S21’s at 3,900 mAh. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 should be a more efficient chipset, so maybe things will balance out.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

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The Galaxy S23 keeps the same 25W wired charging, just like the Galaxy S21. Samsung doesn’t include a power brick, so you’ll need to get your own.

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: Software

The good news is that both the Galaxy S23 and Galaxy S21 run Android 13. The new flagship uses the newest One UI 5.1, which offers a few updates to personalization, a new stacked widget system, Bixby text call, modes and routines, and apps auto-suggested at different times of the day.

Galaxy S23 hands-on bixby calling

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Furthermore, the Galaxy S21 will get One UI 5.1 in the coming weeks as part of Samsung’s 4-year update policy. As far as we know, the Galaxy S23 gets an exclusive setup feature where you can copy over your network information, Samsung accountand Google account from an older Android phone via a QR code and Bluetooth LE.

Other than those few things, the software on the Galaxy S23 and Galaxy S21 are remarkably similar, and will continue to be so when Samsung pushes the One UI 5.1 update to its older flagship. 

Samsung Galaxy S23 vs. Galaxy S21: Outlook

Galaxy S23 plus hands-on

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While we couldn’t recommend the Galaxy S22 over the S21 as an upgrade last year, the Galaxy S23 appears to be enough of an improvement over the Galaxy S21 to warrant  consideration. The new chipset, big camera enhancements and brighter display are all worth it to us, as you can see in our Galaxy S23 hands-on review.

The jury is still out on the Galaxy S23 as a whole, but based on what we’ve seen so far, you may want to think about trading in your Galaxy S21 if you’re due for an upgrade.

Jordan Palmer
Phones Editor

Jordan is the Phones Editor for Tom's Guide, covering all things phone-related. He's written about phones for over six years and plans to continue for a long while to come. He loves nothing more than relaxing in his home with a book, game, or his latest personal writing project. Jordan likes finding new things to dive into, from books and games to new mechanical keyboard switches and fun keycap sets. Outside of work, you can find him poring over open-source software and his studies.