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Samsung Galaxy S21 forces a lot of trade-offs — here’s everything you give up

Samsung Galaxy S21 review
(Image credit: Future)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is generating a lot of buzz — but it's not for what Samsung added but for what has been taken away. Now, before we go any further, it’s important to recognize that the Galaxy S21 is priced at $799, which is $200 less than the Galaxy S20. So it’s clear that Samsung felt it needed to cut some corners to hit that cost.

However, the list of trade-offs is pretty extensive here, from the lack of a charger in the box and less RAM to no microSD card slot. Did Samsung make the right calls? Let’s assess the caveats one by one.

No charger in Galaxy S21 box

Following Apple’s lead with the iPhone 12, Samsung decided not to include a 25W charger in the box with the Galaxy S21. The official reason: Samsung wants to support its Galaxy community in the “journey” of reusing the accessories that they already have and making “sustainable choices in their daily lives to promote better recycling habits.”

We get it. Not including a charger is better for the planet. But if you don’t have a fast charger and want top speeds, you’ll have to pay extra for a 25W charger, which costs anywhere from $15 to $35 depending on discounts. 

Bottom line: It may be good for the environment but annoying if you don’t already have a fast charger. 

No microSD card slot

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra no microSD card

(Image credit: Future)

The Galaxy S20 lineup included a microSD card for expansion, allowing you to add up to 1TB of storage. Now, if you want more storage, you’re going to have to pay extra upfront. 

Stepping up from 128GB to 256GB on the Galaxy S21 costs an additional $50. The same thing goes for the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Only the S21 Ultra offers a 512GB model as well, which will cost you $1,379, or a $180 premium.

Maybe Samsung surveyed people before it dropped this feature, but it’s hard to ignore how an upgrade cheap microSD cards are. Right now you could add 256GB to an older Galaxy S20 for $35. 

Bottom line: A microSD card slot has been one of the big advantages for a handful of Android phones over the iPhone, so it’s sad to see this perk go. 

A plastic Galaxy S21 back

Samsung Galaxy S21 review

(Image credit: Future)

Samsung started to embrace polycarbonate - aka plastic - backs on flagship-grade phones with the Galaxy S20 FE, and the trend continues on the Galaxy S21. When you tap the back of the phone, you do notice the difference in terms of how it feels and sounds.

The Galaxy S21 Plus and the more premium Galaxy S21 Ultra both use Gorilla Glass Victus on thier backs. 

Botton line: It’s not easy to tell just looking at the Galaxy S21 that it has a plastic back, so it really comes down to your tastes.

Lower resolution display

The Samsung Galaxy S21 display is better in the sense that it’s now dynamic. The AMOLED panel scales from 120Hz down to 48Hz automatically to help save on battery life when a high refresh rate isn't needed. 

However, Samsung has downgraded the resolution from QHD to full HD, so you’re getting a lower resolution. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra has a sharper QHD screen.

Bottom line: Given that Samsung has been shipping its phones with 1080p turned on by default, I don’t think most S21 owners are going to notice. 

The Galaxy S21 has less RAM

If you look at the specs for the Samsung Galaxy S21, it takes a step backwards compared to the Galaxy S20 in terms of RAM. While the S20 packed 12GB of RAM, the S20 features only 8GB. 

The higher-end Galaxy S21 Ultra comes with 12GB of RAM standard and is also available with 16GB if you want to pay more.

My guess is that Samsung believes that the performance gains offered by the new Snapdragon 888 chip make up for the loss in memory. 

Bottom line: The less RAM could hurt multitasking performance but we won’t know for sure until we run our benchmarks. 

No more MST support for Samsung Pay

Contactless payments, such as Samsung Pay, have been on the rise for a while now, and are only increasing as the coronavirus makes handling cash much less palatable. But with the Galaxy S21, Samsung Pay is now less versatile.

Samsung decided to remove the MST feature from Samsung Pay, which allowed Samsung phones to work with credit card readers that only support magnetic stripe technology. 

Samsung made this decision in light of “the rapid adoption of near field communication (NFC) technology by consumers and businesses.”

Bottom line: Paying for items in smaller shops that have not embraced NFC won’t be possible. But in general, I don’t think everyday users will be impacted too much. 

Galaxy S21: Did Samsung make too many trade-offs?

Overall, the Samsung Galaxy S21 seems like a solid phone for the price based on our testing thus far. But Samsung is asking you to give up a fair amount when you add up all of the caveats. I personally don't think that the 1080p screen is a big deal, and so far having less RAM doesn't seem to be slowing this phone down.

However, while it's good for the environment, I think Galaxy S21 shoppers will be annoyed at the lack of a charger and the option for adding more storage. For $100 less, you can get both a microSD card slot and charger in the box with the Galaxy S20 FE, even though it has a slightly slower chip and its cameras aren't quite as advanced.

If you want a true no-compromise flagship, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the way to go, but its $1,199 price could be out of reach for many.

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for nearly 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.

  • StanThrax
    Hey dude. You want to check your article? There's a number of basic typos in there. It's kinda throwing me off. Esp the part where you compare the S20 to the S20.
    I got the shaper screen one. It's probably sharper. But there's more and its a bit unprofessional.
    Stay safe!
    Reply