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Samsung Galaxy S21 initial review

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(Cybertech) – Samsung’s new normal is the Galaxy S21. This phone sits in the most affordable position, more compact, but offering all the power of its larger siblings, the Galaxy S21+ and the S21 Ultra.

We’ve spent some time with the new device to bring our early first impressions. As Shirley Bassey said, it’s a little bit of history repeating.

Design

  • 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm, 172g
  • Plastic back
  • IP68 waterproofing

In previous generations, the regular Galaxy S has set the tone for the family, offering a smaller version of the phones in the plus position. That was the case all the way back to the Galaxy S8, the 2017 phone where Samsung moved curved display edges into the mainstream. Prior to that, the Samsung Galaxy S7 occupied the entry-level slot with a flat display, while the S7 Edge sat in a more premium position. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the Samsung Galaxy S21, is that return to a flat display after all these years.

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It was something that the Galaxy S20 FE did towards the end of 2020 and at the time it felt like Samsung exploring a new direction for its phones; now in 2021 the flat display and the plastic back are in, drawing a more distinct line between the S21 Ultra at the top of the table and the S21 at the foot.

But this isn’t just a story about Samsung stripping away premium features. Indeed, some will see that having a flat display is inherently more usable, just as some will see that opting for a plastic back means you’re less likely to smash it on day one.

What’s important about the plastic back is that it doesn’t look or feel cheap. Thanks to the way the camera has been integrated on the S21, with that housing flush against the widened frame of the phone in that corner, there’s a sense of purpose and style to this phone that you don’t get elsewhere.

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Let’s face it: as good as the Galaxy S20 FE is, it could be any phone from any number of manufacturers – but the Samsung Galaxy S21 looks unique. There’s nothing else like it on the market, and whether you love it or loathe it, the exuberant camera design is part of the brand identity. It’s very Samsung.

We didn’t think we’d like the Phantom Violet colour, but there’s something about it. There’s a quality in being unique that we admire, the contrasting colours giving this model an edge over the Phantom Grey (likely to be the top seller) which hides the camera a little more.

Of course, Samsung holds onto the IP68 waterproofing, because this is still a premium handset and the size makes it easy to handle and easy to slip into your pocket.

Display

  • 6.2in, 2400 x 1080 pixels, 424ppi
  • Adaptive refresh rate 48-120Hz
  • HDR10+ support

We’ve spoken a little about the display design above, so we’re not going to repeat that here – and most right onto the next decision that might prove controversial. Samsung has cut the Galaxy S21 back to full HD. That means you have a 2400 x 1080 pixel resolution, 424ppi, whereas in previous years, Samsung has offered Quad HD+ displays.

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The reality is that Samsung has always run Full HD+ as the default resolution and many people were happy to accept that, never venturing into the higher resolution that was offered. On a phone with a 6.2-inch display it’s not a huge issue, because you’re talking about really fine detail, but it’s true – in terms of resolution, the S21 isn’t as adept as the generations of phone that came before it. It also, comparatively, now slips in below the iPhone 12 in terms of pixel density.

But the big boost that you get is adaptive refresh rate, with the Galaxy S21 able to shift to refresh rates between 48 and 120Hz to suit the content you’re viewing. That will mean for a static page it will be a low refresh and for a fast moving page, it will increase. There will be less blur on scrolling and better visual performance on games.

Among these changes, Samsung has kept the vibrant and punch display that it’s known for. First impressions of this compact flagship are great, we’re sure that the display will please many.

Hardware and specs

  • Exynos 2100 or Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, 5G
  • 8GB RAM; 128GB/256GB storage options
  • 4000mAh battery

As with previous versions of Samsung Galaxy S phones, you’ll either find the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100 powering your phone. While that will likely still divide the critics, the structure of these two platforms is now a lot closer than it has been in previous years, which bodes well for Samsung.

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We’ve not spent enough time with the Galaxy S21 to fully evaluate its performance, but first impressions are of a slick and powerful handset. There are fewer options this time around, with 8GB RAM and either 128 or 256GB storage, but the big change here is the removal of the microSD card slot.

That, for many, will be the biggest downside to Samsung’s repositioning of the Galaxy S. For many years, Samsung has been the brand where you could buy lower storage and boost that with the cheap memory card. However, with data costing less and streaming so prolific, it does beg the question of whether people really need to carry so much local content on their devices these days.

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There’s a 4000mAh battery in the Galaxy S21 and we suspect this will probably last rather well, but we’ve not had the chance to full test its performance. There’s no charger in the box this time around, so you’ll have to use one you’ve already got, or buy Samsung’s 25W charger as an accessory.

Wireless charging is supported, as well as reverse wireless charging.

Cameras

  • Triple camera system
    • Main camera: 12-megapixel, 1.8µm pixel size, f/1.8 aperture, OIS
    • Telephoto: 64MP, (3x optical / 30x digital zoom) 0.8µm, f/2.0, OIS
    • Ultra-wide: 12MP, 1.4µm, f/2.2
  • Selfie: 10MP, 1.22µm, f/2.2

As was the case with the Galaxy S20, the S21 has three cameras on the back taking a different approach to the Ultra. We’ve not had the chance to fully assess their performance, but we’ll walk you through the details.

The approach is completely different to the Ultra, opting for a 12-megapixel main camera with large pixel – 1.8µm. It’s a restrained approach and the same taken by the iPhone and Google Pixel, aiming to give better results because it doesn’t have to use pixel binning from smaller pixels which is what happens in high resolution sensors.

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That leaves the main, ultra-wide and front cameras very much as they were before on the S20 and we found they worked pretty well. They sit with a 64-megapixel telephoto camera, aiming to give you the 30x digital zoom.

Well, that’s not entirely true, because Samsung is giving you access to the 64-megapixel sensor to shoot at full resolution if you want to. That means it will take 64-megapixel photos like a main camera, rather than using it as zoom.

The Galaxy S21 supports a full range of new shooting features, as well as enhanced video capture with 4K 60fps offered on all the lenses, while 8K 24fps is offered from the back cameras, again coming from that 64-megapixel sensor.

As we said, we’ve not had the chance to full assess the performance of the camera, but we’ll bring you the results as soon as we can.

First Impressions

You might be tempted to dismiss the Samsung Galaxy S21 out of hand – plastic back, no microSD, that flat display – but you’d be wrong to do so. The Galaxy S21 is a premium phone, with some unique design features that stands it apart from many rivals in this space.

There are important things that still stand out about this phone: there’s plenty of power, the display is still great and the camera is loaded with potential. Even better, it’s a little cheaper than the Galaxy S20 was at launch.

We’ll bring you our full verdict on the Samsung Galaxy S21 in the near future.

Writing by Chris Hall.



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