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Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Which Android flagship will win?

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21
(Image credit: OnLeaks/Tom's Guide)

Google's Pixel 6 won't arrive until the fall, but it's already generating considerable buzz. First, there's the possibility of new cameras for the phone — a tantalizing prospect since Google's Pixels always rank among the best camera phones. Google could also start building its own phone processors, starting with the Pixel 6, as it looks to distinguish itself from other Android phones.

But if the Pixel 6 is going to rank among the best Android phones, it will have to challenge the Samsung Galaxy S21. Samsung's flagship arrives early in the year and usually sets the tone for other Android handsets. This year's version was no exception, as the Galaxy S21 lineup delivered fast-refreshing displays, a powerful telephoto and the best performance for an Android phone at the time.

It's a high bar for the Pixel 6 to clear. And though we'll have to wait for that phone's official announcement, we do have enough information via leaks — some of it even confirmed by Google — to form some early impressions.

Our Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 face-off looks at how these two Android powerhouses will stack up once Google’s phone arrives this fall. Our early verdict is that this ought to be quite a showdown among the best Android phones.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 specs

Pixel 6 (rumored)Pixel 6 Pro (rumored)Galaxy S21Galaxy S21 Plus
Screen size6.4 inches6.7 inches6.2 inches6.7 inches
Refresh rate120Hz120Hz48-120Hz48-120Hz
CPUGoogle WhitechapelGoogle WhitechapelSnapdragon 888Snapdragon 888
Rear camerasMain + ultrawideMain + ultrawide + telephoto12MP main, 12MP ultrawide, 64MP telephoto12MP main, 12MP ultrawide, 64MP telephoto
Battery size4,500 mAh5,000 mAh4,000 mAh4,800 mAh
Android versionAndroid 12Android 12Android 11Android 11

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 price

When Google came out with the Pixel 5, it tried to distinguish itself from other flagship phones by offering a dramatically lower price — the Pixel 5 debuted at $699. It's going to be a lot harder for Google to draw that distinction with the Pixel 6, though, because Samsung went and dropped prices on its phones, too.

The Galaxy S21 debuted at $799 — a $200 drop from the Galaxy S20 that came out the previous year. Likewise, the Galaxy S21 Plus also dropped $200 from its predecessor's price to cost $999. Both those phones are still more expensive than the Pixel 5, but not by much — at least in the case of the S21.

The Pixel 5 came in a single configuration last year, but that's expected to change with the Pixel 6, as Google allegedly has a Pixel 6 Pro in the works. Think Pixel XL, with a bigger screen and a few more impressive features. Going that route might allow Google to hold the line on its Pixel 6 price, too.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 design and display

Based on leaked images purporting to be the Pixel 6, Google looks to be mixing things up from past Pixels. The spartan design we've grown accustomed to is making way for a busier look, highlighted by a horizontal strip of cameras that stretches across the upper third of the phone. There's an accent color hovering over that.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21

Pixel 6 Pro render (Image credit: OnLeaks/Digit)

It's quite a contrast from the Galaxy S21's elegant look. Both the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 Plus sport flat edges, making them easy to grip and cutting down on any inadvertent touches on the edge of the display. The rear camera module blends into the frame of the phone, so that the array doesn't jut out like it does on other phones (including the Pixel 6, based on those renders). While the Galaxy S21 Plus sports a glass back, Samsung used plastic on the S21 to help lower the cost of that phone.

The standout feature on the Galaxy S21 family is the adaptive display Samsung uses on its flagship phones. Both the 6.2-inch Galaxy S21 and 6.7-inch Galaxy S21 Plus adjust how fast their screens refresh based on your activity — more intensive tasks like scrolling and gaming happen at a fast 120Hz refresh rate for a more immersive experience.

Google Pixel 6 Pro vs. Samsung Galaxy S21

Galaxy S21 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Pixel 5 featured a 90Hz refresh rate, though you had to head into the phone's settings to toggle between the faster rate and the more conventional 60Hz setting. Google is rumored to be bumping the refresh rate up to 120Hz, though there's no word on whether that will be an adaptive display or not.

After offering a single Pixel 5, Google is expected to go back to two different sizes for the Pixel 6. The standard phone will offer a 6.4-inch display, while the screen on the larger model — known as the Pixel 6 Pro — will hit 6.7 inches.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 cameras

Google may be one of the biggest players when it comes to mobile photography, but it's the Galaxy S21 phones that have made the biggest strides in recent months. The $1,199 Galaxy S21 Ultra gets all the attention, thanks to its 108MP main camera and dual telephoto lenses, but the cameras on the S21 and S21 Plus impress as well. 

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21

Galaxy S21 Plus (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

We're particularly taken with the 64MP telephoto cameras on both phones, which are capable of a 3x hybrid and 30x digital zoom. (A Zoom Lock feature uses AI to steady your shoot when you zoom in that much.) Additionally, both the S21 and S21 Plus feature 12MP main and ultrawide cameras to complement that telephoto lens.

Google is a recent convert to the school of multiple lenses, adding a second camera as recently as the Pixel 4. The Pixel 5 swapped out that phone's telephoto lens for an ultrawide angle shooter, keeping the lens count at two. Pixel 6 rumors suggest Google's upcoming phone will make the leap to three cameras — at least in the case of the Pixel 6 Pro. That phone will feature telephoto, wide and ultrawide lenses while the standard Pixel 6 will likely keep the wide/ultrawide setup. Rumors point to the Pixel 6 Pro getting a larger 50MP main sensor, too.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21

Google Pixel 6 3D model (Image credit: Concept Creator)

While the new hardware will be interesting to see on the Pixel 6, it's usually the software that sets Google's camera phones apart. We expect Google to introduce new photography features with the Pixel 6 that will eventually find their way to other Android phones.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 performance

Samsung usually gets a head start on other phones by virtue of launching the latest Galaxy S models early each year. That allows Samsung to be the first phone maker to feature the latest Snapdragon silicon in its phones. In the case of the Galaxy S21, that turned out to be the Snapdragon 888 system-on-chip, the best performing Qualcomm chipset we've yet tested.

Other Snapdragon 888-based Android phones have come along that have bested the Galaxy S21's benchmark results, usually by optimizing the chip for performance or by packing in extra memory. But the S21's results — a 3,302 multicore result in Geekbench 5, for example — bested last year's top Android phones and narrowed the gap with the iPhone 12. Both the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus feature the Snapdragon 888, flanked by 8GB of RAM.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21

Galaxy S21 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

So how does Google respond, especially since last year's Pixel 5 used a chip from the Snapdragon 7 series as a cost-cutting measure. Google could go in that direction again — between the Snapdragon 780G and Snapdragon 778G, there are plenty of solid Qualcomm chipsets to choose from that don't cost as much as a Snapdragon 8 series system-on-chip. Or, Google could go back to what it did with the Pixel 4 and earlier, using the top-of-the-line Qualcomm silicon in its phone like other Android flagships.

There is a third route, though, and it's generating an increasing amount of attention. Rumors suggest that Google may develop its own chip, currently code-named "Whitechapel." This would, theoretically, give Google control over both the hardware and software of its phones, similar to what Apple enjoys with the iPhone.

We don't know how a Google-built Whitechapel processor would compare to the Snapdragon 888 in the Galaxy S21 (though rumors suggest the chip will sit somewhere between a Snapdragon 888 and 865). But it's certainly an intriguing part of any Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 comparison.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 battery and charging

Battery life was not a strong point for Pixel 5, which rode its 4,000 mAh battery to a below-average result of 9 hours and 29 minutes on our battery test. (We have phones surf the web continuously over cellular until they run out of power.) Google is rumored to be trying out bigger batteries for the Pixel 6 — a 4,500 mAh power pack for the main model and a 5,000 mAh battery in the Pixel 6 Pro.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21

Google Pixel 6 render (Image credit: Jon Prosser x rendersbyian)

It won't take much for the Pixel 6 to leapfrog over either the Galaxy S21 or Galaxy S21 Plus in our battery test. The S21 Plus turned in a so-so result of 9 hours and 41 minutes on our test, while the S21 struggled to a 6 hour, 31 minute result. That latter number came with the S21's adaptive display feature enabled; when we set the display refresh rate at 60 minutes, the Galaxy S21 turned in a more respectable time of 9 hours and 53 minutes. But turning off the S21's marquee feature just to get average battery life seems like a really big asterisk.

The Pixel 5 charges at 18W, a bit slower than the 25W charging speeds the Galaxy S21 enjoys. There's no word on whether Google plans to boost that for the Pixel 6. There's also the issue of the charger itself — Samsung doesn't include one with the Galaxy S21, following the example Apple set with the iPhone 12. It's unclear at this point if the Pixel 6 will include a charger, but at this point, it could be a way for Google's flagship to distinguish itself.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 software

Samsung's trying to do better for its users on the software front. The Galaxy S21 is supposed to get three years of Android updates, along with four years of security updates. That means the Galaxy S21 family, which shipped with Android 11 installed should make it to Android 14 in 2023, with security patches available for another 12 months.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21

Android 12 (Image credit: Future)

That puts Samsung on level terms with Google, at least when it comes to software updates, as Pixel owners get three years of updates as well. However, the Pixel 6 will still enjoy a slight edge over Samsung. It's likely to ship after Android 12 comes out, so it will debut with Google's latest OS already installed. The Galaxy S21 likely won't get the new version of Android until the end of the year at the earliest.

Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 outlook

The final word on any Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21 face-off will be written once Google's phone arrives in the fall. But at this point, it's shaping up to be an intriguing match-up, especially with Google finally adding more lenses to the rumored Pixel 6 Pro model. We're also interested in finding out if rumors of Google's Whitechapel chips are true, and what that means for performance relative to a high-end Snapdragon chipset like the one found in Samsung's Galaxy flagships.

The Pixel 6 and Galaxy S21 figure to duke it out for Android phone supremacy. Stay tuned to see how things shake out between these two devices.