As far as we’re concerned, the Samsung Galaxy S21 is a hit, so I decided to put my trusty Pixel 4 XL to rest and take up the S21 Plus as my new daily driver. Though I plan to use my iPhone 12 also, Android works better for me and my needs. Still, I hesitated about going all in with Samsung.
See, I’ve used Nexus, OnePlus, and Pixel phones for years. I’ve reviewed others from the likes of Asus and Huawei, but I always come back to Google or OnePlus for my personal device. Samsung has usually rubbed me the wrong way, especially back in the days of its old Android skin called TouchWiz. To be honest, the last phone I used regularly from the Korean phone maker was the Galaxy S5, which first debuted in 2014.
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But Samsung has matured since the S5, and the new Galaxy S21 is a fantastic device. Long gone are the days of TouchWiz — all hail One UI, the new king. Superciliousness aside, I actually found myself liking One UI on the S21 and S21 Plus I’ve tested. It’s clean, intuitive, and full of useful tweaks and features.
The spartan take on Android that you’ll find on the Pixels and Android One devices still appeals to me, but Samsung’s additions really do stand out. However, as much as I like the S21 and S21 Plus, a few things continue to bug me. Let’s discuss.
Galaxy S21: What I like
There’s a lot to love about the Galaxy S21. From the display to the raw power, it’s one hell of a phone. I find that I prefer the 6.2-inch model for almost everything except gaming, where the 6.7-inch Plus shines with its larger screen and bigger battery. 2021 is still young, but these devices are going to be hard to beat when we round up the best phones.
The S21 display: Samsung has long been the king of smartphone displays. Though it often supplies them for other phone makers, it keeps the best screens for itself. Each Galaxy S and Note phone in recent memory has had a beautiful display, rich with vibrant colors and deep blacks. The Galaxy S21 is no different, but the addition of a high refresh rate just makes it better.
The Galaxy S20 introduced fast display refresh rates to Samsung phones last year, but the S21 ratchets things up with an adaptive 48Hz - 120Hz mode as well as locked 60Hz one. The former is great if you like Android to be as smooth as possible, though the battery does take a substantial hit from this. If battery life is more of a concern, lock it at 60Hz and you’ll still have an incredible AMOLED display.
Brightness is another highlight with this year’s Samsung phones. Both the S21 and S21 Plus get plenty bright enough outdoors, even in direct sunlight. Coming from my Pixel 4 XL, which was barely legible in the sun, I thought this was great.
The S21 cameras: Samsung has made a lot of headway in recent years with its mobile photography. Though they face fierce competition from the likes of Google and Apple, Samsung’s phones can hold their own in a lot of situations. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is certainly one of the best camera phones right now, and the regular S21 and S21 Plus aren’t too far behind.
In my experience, Samsung has typically brightened its images a little too much in the past, so I was hoping things would be different with the S21. While not completely toned down, both of my review units put out mostly accurate shots. I still find the Pixel and iPhone to be more true to life, but I think most people will be happy with what they’ll get with the S21’s cameras.
The front camera on the S21 also puts out decent selfies, opting for softer, warmer shots. Again, they’re not as accurate as, say, the iPhone 12, but I think many people will prefer them for posting to social media. All told, while I like other phone cameras better, I was really impressed with the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus’ photography performance.
The S21’s design: The Galaxy S21 series is just a really pretty trio of phones. From the new contour on the camera module that blends seamlessly with the frame of the phone to the beautiful color options, the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus look way better than my panda Pixel 4 XL. Both of them fit wonderfully in my hands, versus the sharp edges on the iPhone 12, and I love just looking at them.
The S21’s extremely slim bezels just add to the experience. I get excited to show people how much screen there is relative to the rest of the phone. I think the last time I wanted to show off my phone was with the red OnePlus 6, which I still think is a beautiful device to this day.
Samsung did an excellent job designing the Galaxy S21 series. Even though the S21 Ultra is a bit wonky with its overabundance of cameras, all three phones look amazing. I was fortunate enough to receive the purple S21 and S21 Plus and, being a sucker for fun colors on phones, I love them.
The S21’s performance: Using the new top-tier Snapdragon 888 processor from Qualcomm, the Galaxy S21 family is currently the most powerful series of Android phones available. While still trailing the iPhone 12 by a slim margin, you won’t find anything the Galaxy S21 can’t do. Gaming, photography, mirroring to Windows, using DeX, the phones do everything seemingly effortlessly.
I’ve noticed the S21 Plus, which is my new gaming phone, heats up a bit in demanding titles like Call of Duty: Mobile or when streaming PC games via Steam Link. That said, it’s by no means unmanageable, especially if you use the incredible Razer Kishi (on games where the controller is supported).
All told, I think the S21 and S21 Plus rank as the most fun phones I’ve used in a long time. While my previous devices weren’t slouches by any means, I find that Samsung’s latest devices do everything better. There is no lag across the system, no dropped frames in local games (there are some in Xbox Game Pass and Stadia, but that could be down to network issues), and enough battery life to get through the day with no problems, even with the adaptive refresh mode enabled. Even my Pixel 4 XL would hiccup in the official Twitter and Reddit apps and when opening apps from the Recents menu.
Galaxy S21: What I don’t like
My list of complaints for the Galaxy S21 is not very long, which surprised me. I found that I was able to adapt to One UI very easily coming from my Pixel. However, there are a few things that I’d like to mention.
One UI features turned on by default: Samsung is well known for its habit of throwing a ton of features into its phones. If you go all the way back to the Galaxy S3 and S4, those devices were chock full of weird tech experiments, like Smart Stay. Most of these didn’t work so well and were easily ignored. The company has toned things down a bit in recent years, opting to offer truly unique experiences, like the S Pen on its Galaxy Note devices and now the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
When I was setting up the Galaxy S21 for the first time, thought the process was pretty simple. But as I got into the system and started getting going, I noticed that there was this annoying dock that would pull out from the right side right where I trigger the back gesture. Or, Autofill wasn’t popping up to sign me into my apps.
To fix these things, I had to go digging in the settings — you can save yourself some time by checking out our S21 tips and tricks. The Edge Panel was in Display, Autofill was buried in General Management. I would have preferred there be options during setup — do you want Edge Panels enabled, do you want to use Samsung or Google Autofill, do you want the nav bar or gestures, and so on.
I had to go off on my own to get these things sorted out. Granted, I came from a non-Samsung device, but the experience was nonetheless irritating. Setting up my Galaxy S21 Plus later on wasn’t so bad. I knew what things to tweak, and it brought over a lot of the settings I had on my S21. But if you’re new to the Samsung universe, you may run into some frustrations.
Some S21 camera complaints: I know, I talked about how I liked the S21 cameras earlier, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. Samsung has long had a tendency to blow things out in its mobile photography. Some people like this look, the bright and cheery rendition of an otherwise grey day, the sometimes aggressive face smoothing in portraits or selfies, and so on. That’s fine, but I’m used to Google’s spectacular Pixel cameras and switching over to the S21 was a bit of shock in this regard.
On one overcast day, I took out the Galaxy S21, iPhone 12, and Pixel 4 XL for a photoshoot. The latter two phones reproduced the lighting and colors correctly, which were rather drab. A blue car that blazes in the sunlight was rather muted, the red of a fire hydrant a bit more somber than it would be under direct sunlight. I prefer that, since the phone is capturing something that’s nearly true to life. For perspective, my DSLR does this, too.
But the S21 cameras brightened up the scene considerably. A bush in the foreground was made a deep, almost vibrant green. The blue car, dull and very dark to the naked eye, was suddenly bright and the fire hydrant, while still quite red, popped more in the background. As I looked at the image this phone put out, I didn’t like it. That’s not what my eyes saw and I found it rather inaccurate.
Galaxy S21: Outlook
The things I like about the Galaxy S21 far outweigh the things I don’t like. In fact, I only have two major complaints with the phones and after years of resisting Samsung, that’s really not too bad.
I’ve only had about a week with the Galaxy S21, so time will tell if I still enjoy using the phone in the long-term. However, I think my opinion will remain the same.