Samsung Galaxy S21 review

The first thing that you may notice about the Samsung Galaxy S21 is that it’s cheaper than last year’s equivalent model, the S20. The former is P47,990 while last year’s S flagship launched at P49,990. 

While the price may not seem much of a difference, one big immediate upgrade that the S21 has is its bigger storage capacity. The S21 has 256GB of storage while the S20 has 128GB. The 128GB S21 is not currently slated to arrive in the Philippines. The boost in storage is much appreciated along with the price cut. 

However, you have to know that there are a few things that have been also dropped from the S21. It doesn’t have a power adapter included, only a USB-C cable. You’ll have to reuse adapters you have at home. Mind you, the included cable is USB-C at both ends. You’ll need an adapter that has the small USB-C port. Fortunately, Samsung’s also slashing the price of its adapters in case you can’t find one at home. You can use non-Samsung chargers but there’s a chance you may not experience fast charging. 

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One other thing that you no longer get: a microSD slot. The internal 256GB is all you get, which is a lot, but power users will know how to fill that up.  

Compared to the iPhone 12 mini (256GB), priced at P52,990, the base S21 is looking like a solid choice. First of all, the S21 has a much bigger screen: 6.2 inches versus the 5.4-incher on the 12 mini. More importantly, the S21 has a dynamic refresh rate of up to 120Hz compared to the regular 60Hz found on the mini. The refresh is dynamic as the screen automatically adjusts the refresh rate depending on the application used to save battery life. 

We love the sharpness of iPhone retina displays, but we’d rather have the smoother motion on a 120Hz screen. Beware: 120Hz screens can spoil you. The difference doesn’t seem big at the start but once you get used to it, you’ll look for that smoother motion. Just from the size of the display, you’re getting more phone with the S21. 

The S21 does experience a resolution downgrade from the S20, going from 1440p to regular 1080p. At 6.2 inches, the difference isn’t all that stark. 

Two-tone look, matte finish

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We love that Samsung’s pretty lively with the phone’s design this year, going for a two-tone scheme where the main body has a different color than the camera array. It stands out. It’s always easy to poke fun at a design that doesn’t go by the norms, but the pairing of the phantom violet body with the gold camera array (which marketing calls “contour cut camera design) gives the phone a striking look – nothing over-the-top but enough to set it apart from the rest. 

The S21 phones will have a matte finish as opposed to the high-gloss finish of the S20 series. It’s a matter of personal taste. Generally, I’ve always liked the matte ones. The S21 though has a glass-like plastic back as opposed to real glass on the S21 Plus and S21 Ultra, which may have been a way to cut costs for the entry-level model in their flagship line. 

The curve on the S20’s screen was minimal, and on the S21, that curve is all but gone, with the model going for a flat screen. If you’re missing the curved screen, you’ll have to go for the S21 Ultra. Thankfully, the gold aluminum frame of the base S21 ensures that it maintains a sense of prestige. 

5nm chip, new camera tricks

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One thing that you do get with the S20 is the latest 5nm processor from Samsung, the Exynos 2100 (or in the US, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888), which of course, is faster, pumps out better graphics, and has better AI capabilities than the previous generation. It’s paired with 8GB of RAM. And yes, it’s 5G-capable. 

The fingerprint scanning area on the screen is also larger. It’s not significantly larger but large enough that it’s easier for your fingerprint to register. In previous phones, you had to aim a little bit to get a hit. But so far, with the S21, you can be a little lazy, and not hit the scanner dead center, and still get in. Having used it for a week, the scanning does feel faster than previous models, and you don’t have to press too hard. 

The camera array is pretty much the same from the S20: a 12MP wide, 12MP ultra-wide, and a 64MP tele (3x hybrid optical zoom), and a 10MP selfie camera. But it’s the software improvements that are the star here, which include better image stabilization and better portrait mode with more realistic bokeh. 

Director’s View lets you access Vlogger View, which is one of the most interesting camera features that Samsung has recently introduced. It’s a picture-in-picture mode with the front camera and the rear camera shooting at the same time. I’d imagine it being useful when traveling (if traveling ever becomes possible again that is) or when showing something off or reacting to a real-life scene. One thing though: it might take some practice to shoot properly with the rear camera while keeping your face within the sights of the selfie cam. 

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Director’s View also shows you a preview of how a shot looks from each of the 3 cameras. All the cameras now can also shoot 4K videos at 60fps. 

Single Take, a feature introduced last year, also includes the capturing of slow-motion videos to the mix – a nifty addition. Space Zoom (up to 30x) is also a little more usable now thanks to a Zoom Lock feature which helps the camera lock into a subject and keep it steady. To compare as well, the iPhone 12 mini doesn’t have a tele lens. 

All in all, a thoughtful model from Samsung. It’s cheaper than last year’s model but with more storage, with omissions that are forgivable. It’s a package that, as always, combines a premium design with top-shelf specs – and 5G – that’ll get you through most everything for a good while. –

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.