Samsung Galaxy S21/S21+ Review: Incremental at best

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The Samsung Galaxy S21 series has not three, but two distinct experiences. We have already covered the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which is a stellar device. The Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ are not quite on the same level, both in terms of feature set and price tag. The latter is a good thing for consumers though. Samsung wants everyone to be able to experience a flagship device, at varying budgets. But do the trade-offs in the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ make them less worthy?

Design and build

Between the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+, a big differentiating factor is size. The Galaxy S21 is 169 g and 7.9 mm whereas the Galaxy S21+ is 200 g and 7.8 mm. The difference in thickness is minor but the the weight between both devices is noticeable. For people accustomed to lighter devices, the Galaxy S21 may be a good option. However, this comes at a sacrifice. The back of the Galaxy S21 is made from plastic, as opposed to the back of the Galaxy S21+ which is glass protected by Gorilla Glass Victus. This may seem like a downgrade in build coming from the Galaxy S20 but if you use your smartphone with a case, this should not matter.

The back of the phone looks different in different lighting conditions

In daily use without a case, the difference in build may not be noticeable. In fact, the premium aluminium frame gives off a nice feel in the hand. The plastic back also tends to scratch less over prolonged use and is less prone to cracks but arguably, it does not give you a full flagship experience. If you are looking for that and value feel in hand, the Galaxy S21+ may be the better choice. Plus, with a matte finish to either back, both the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ remain smudge free.

The camera housing of the phone grows on you

The smartphones also come with Samsung’s ‘Contour Cut Camera Design’, which we are a fan of. The design makes the smartphones look good giving off a thin appearance in the process. This makes the camera bump on the smartphone also feel quite small, which we appreciate. Unlike the Galaxy S21 Ultra, you also find a contrasting look between the camera housing and back of the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+. They are available in a whole host of different colours with the Galaxy S21+ we are reviewing coming in Phantom Silver.

The ports and buttons on the phone are in familiar places

Other aspects of the build of the smartphones remain identical. They both share an IP68 rating and have the power and volume buttons on the right edge of the device. The bottom houses the speaker, a Type-C USB port for charging and a nano-SIM slot. While you are able to house dual-SIM cards here like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, microSD expansion is now not available on any Galaxy S21 series device. We think this should not have been the case but alas, there is nothing we can do about it now.

Display and multimedia

Owing to the differences in size, a major different between the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ comes in screen size. On the Galaxy S21, you find a 6.2-inch display whereas on the Galaxy S21+, there is a 6.7-inch panel. Despite the size difference, the resolution and type of display remains the same. We find a Full HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X panel here with HDR10+ support and a 1,300 nit peak brightness.

People may prefer the flat screen of the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+

It is a 2,400 x 1,080 resolution panel with a 20:9 aspect ratio and Corning Gorilla Glass Victus protection. You also find up to a 120Hz variable refresh rate on the display, with a range going from 48-120Hz. This variable range means better power efficiency for the smartphone, with it being able to adapt depending on what you see on screen. This is not the same as the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 10-120Hz variable refresh rate however in practice, it does not make much of a difference.

Watching content on the Galaxy S21 series is immersive

The O-dot panel on both smartphones means better immersion when watching content. The Galaxy S21 sports an 87.2 per-cent screen-to-body ratio whereas the Galaxy S21+ has an 88.3 per-cent screen-to-body ratio. There is a slight discrepancy between the top and bottom bezel of the device when it comes size however it is not much. Both the panels are identical when it comes to multimedia consumption, contrast levels, colours and stereo speaker quality, which is all good. But where a difference is evident is when it comes to sharpness. The larger panel of the Galaxy S21+ retaining a Full HD+ resolution is a sacrifice. With the panel size being almost as much as the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the lack of detail is evident, which is something the Galaxy S21 can avoid due to its screen’s size.

You find your full suite of Samsung applications

Falling back on the Galaxy S20 and Galaxy S20+ from last year, both of these had a 3,200 x 1,440 resolution Quad HD+ display. This year, the lower resolution displays on the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ are sacrifices for sure. However, this is only if you used your display at Quad HD+. Last year, we saw many users revert to Full HD+ as it was only as that resolution that the full 120Hz refresh rate was supported. If you are one of those people, this resolution difference may not be a big deal. But if you are someone who values the higher resolution, you may want to think twice, at least when opting for the Galaxy S21+.

Specifications and user experience

On this front, the experience on the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ remains largely the same. Inside, you find the Exynos 2100 octa-core processor alongside the Mali-G78 MP14 GPU. The base variant of each device comes with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. While the general performance of each device should be adequate, if you are someone who likes to store a lot of information, going with 256GB of storage would be the smarter choice especially with no microSD expansion.

As for the other features, we find an ultrasonic fingerprint sensor on both the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+. In practice, it seems to have gotten faster but it did not feel as reliable as on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. With day to day performance, the processor and the RAM of both smartphones holds up fairly well. You will be able to multitask to a decent extent without facing any problems. We have not had any applications give us trouble, even when having multiple games running in the background.

We like One UI 3.1 and the features it brings

This is a result of Samsung’s improved processor, which is great. The smartphones also stay relatively cool throughout usage so long as you do not push the GPU. In more demanding games like TauCeti or Genshin Impact however, the GPU strain results in heating towards the camera region. This is not excessive by any means but we feel it can be tuned down further via software updates. Thankfully though, this does not cause any throttling on the Galaxy S21 or Galaxy S21+.

On the software side of things, both smartphones come equipped with Samsung’s OneUI 3.1 on top of Android 11. We have no major complaints with the software experience here, just like on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. In fact, we found a lot of people speak about the advertisements is Samsung’s user interface. But if you read the terms and conditions prior to accepting various permissions, this is easily avoidable and something that needs more awareness.

Primary camera performance

Moving to the camera performance on the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+, it is identical. Both the smartphones sport a 12MP f/1.8 wide lens, a 64MP f/2.0 telephoto lens and a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide angle lens. From a hardware perspective, this is the exact same setup you find on the Galaxy S20 and Galaxy S20+. In fact, on last year’s Galaxy S20+, you found an extra 0.3MP TOF 3D depth sensor. With the camera system already good from last year, an upgrade is not necessary but is certainly welcome.

The hardware on the primary camera is unchanged from last year

Many of the changes when it comes to the optics of the camera come with the software on the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+. The overall user interface of the camera system is like any other Galaxy, but we are a bit disappointed not to see upgrades to the overall hardware. For instance, Samsung could have worked on improving optical zoom up to 3x. Or, perhaps including a dedicated macro mode on the smartphones, something the Galaxy S21 Ultra has. We did however find that the focus range of the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ is better than the Galaxy S21 Ultra. For instance, the Galaxy S21 Ultra switches to ‘Focus Enhancer’ mode, effectively using the ultra-wide angle lens. In doing so, it loses out on the depth of the image, something that both the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ retains.

We do like Samsung for constantly finding new ways to use the camera system though. For example, you get an updated Single Take 2.0 as well as a feature called Director’s View. The latter has quickly become one of our favourites, as it enables you to simultaneously film using all the sensors of the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+. But that aside, there is no big wow factor when it comes to the Galaxy S21 or Galaxy S21+ camera system. Here, we feel Samsung has reserved all the major goodies for the Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Software features on the camera make the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ stand out

On the video front, the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ can now film up to 8K 24 fps. This is not new but its performance is slightly more impressive. Furthermore, all of the Galaxy S21 series lenses are capable of filming 4K 60 fps video. However, this is restricted on the dedicated telephoto lens. Here, you can film 4K 60 fps using the wide and ultra-wide lens but for zoomed in content, the smartphone will just allow you to zoom in digitally on the primary lens.

Front camera performance

On the front of the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+, you find a 10MP sensor. This resides in the O-dot of the display, giving you some reliable performance. Just like we saw with the Galaxy S21 Ultra, you get an option to adjust your selfie colours between ‘Bright’ and ‘Natural’.

The overall effect of this results in some pleasing images. But when you use the smartphone’s portrait mode, edge detection still needs a bit more work. We were impressed at how well the camera was able to capture both dynamic range and quality though, with its performance being identical to that of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, minus the 40MP mode.

Battery life

Breaking off from the similarities, the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ come with differing capacities. On the Galaxy S21, you find a 4,000mAh cell whereas with the Galaxy S21+, you find a 4,800mAh cell. The batteries on both of these should give you at least a day of heavy usage. With lighter usage, this should push to 1.5-2 days, which is good backup. Converting this to screen-on time, you should be on course for 6-7 hours of screen on-time on average. We think the better battery life here compared to the Galaxy S21 Ultra is due to the Full HD+ resolution of the smartphone.

To compliment this battery, you find support for 25W wired, 15W wireless and 4.5W reverse wireless charging. This is a slower charging rate than what you would typically find on other flagships however it is still fast enough. For example, it takes just shy of one hour to fully charge either the Galaxy S21 or Galaxy S21+. However, you will need to buy a separate charger for the devices, as one is not included out of the box.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ find themselves in a slight predicament. While there is no doubting their flagship experience with their new processor, their upgrades are minor. Plus, considering the lower price of the Galaxy S20 and Galaxy S20+, consumers may be better off with those over the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+. Samsung has made sure though, that the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ are Dh200 cheaper at their starting price compared to last year. The Galaxy S21 retails starting Dh3,199 whereas the Galaxy S21+ retails starting at Dh3,799 and both are currently on pre-order. Customers who do pre-order will also benefit from a free Galaxy Buds Live, a complimentary SmartTag and 1-year of Samsung Care+. You can also take advantage of Samsung’s trade-in policy to save up to Dh2,800.

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