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Samsung Galaxy S21+ review: The middle child

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(Cybertech) – The middle child in Samsung’s trio of 2021 smartphones is the Galaxy S21+. With the Ultra category emerging in 2020 to steal the crown from what was once the top phone that Samsung offered, it sees this big screen model slipping into an awkward place.

The S21+ loses the regular S21’s compact appeal, while it doesn’t have all the features of the S21 Ultra, which is the true flagship of the family. So where exactly does that leave the Samsung Galaxy S21+?

Design and build

  • Dimensions: 161.55 x 75.6 x 7.86mm / Weight: 200g
  • IP68 waterproofing
  • Plastic rear build

The Samsung Galaxy S21+ slips into that middle position in the family of three. Once the large phone of the bunch, it’s not quite as large as the Galaxy S21 Ultra, so it doesn’t look quite as impressive.

The new Samsung Galaxy S21 models all get a new design compared to the previous generation, characterised by the camera surround that’s integrated into the frame of the phone – or it appears to be at least. In some colours of this phones – such as the Phantom Violet, pictured here – that makes something of a feature of those three lenses on the rear.

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Opt for Phantom Silver and things are perhaps a little more subtle, but it’s the Phantom Black finish of the S21 Ultra remains our favourite.

There’s a premium look and feel to the phone overall, supported by IP68 waterproofing (for up to 30 minutes, so the classification says), although there are some design changes here compared to the Ultra. The Plus has a flat display for starters, so there’s no curves to the edges, and it has a plastic back.

A lot has been written about what should or should not feature on a flagship phone – and many will argue that plastic shouldn’t be used. It’s really a baseless argument, given how well suited it is to phones, and having used the S21+ for some time we can’t say it’s any better or worse than glass.

It’s the finish that is important and here. It’s matte, has a lovely texture to it, and doesn’t suffer from fingerprints or smears. It’s so far removed from the old days of hard glossy plastic shells that the two are hardly comparable.

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Stereo speakers persist, with the subtle ear speaker joined by a speaker on the bottom of the phone and capable of producing great audio, ideal for gaming or ad hoc music listening.

As with the S21 Ultra, there’s also a minor design quirk with the microphone. The mic is on the bottom next to the USB-C, but has moved a lot closer to the centre of the phone than in previous years because the SIM tray is also on the bottom of the phone. We’ve found that this can lead to the microphone hole sometimes being covered when holding the phone in portrait, if you’re supporting it with a finger underneath, which could block your voice in calls.

Display

  • 6.7-inch AMOLED, 2400 x 1080 resolution (392ppi)
  • Adaptive refresh rate (48-120Hz)
  • HDR10+ support

There’s a 6.7-inch display on the Samsung Galaxy S21+. It’s bright and vibrant and everything you’d expect from a Samsung phone.

What might come as a surprise is that Samsung has limited the resolution of this device to Full HD+, so it’s a lower pixel density than you get on the iPhone 12 Pro Max as one example.

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It’s not a huge problem but it is a change. Samsung has been offering higher resolutions on this level of device for a number of years, but has always used Full HD+ output as the default within settings. Unless you went looking for more resolution, you’d probably use that setting without ever thinking about it.

Yes, it can’t render fine detail as precisely as phones offering a higher resolution, but we’ve never found that to be a problem. Things still look great – and even if there was a Quad HD+ option, we’d stick to Full HD+ anyway, because it helps reduce the drain on the battery.

To that aim, the Galaxy S21+ also offers adaptive refresh rate. This will let the phone dynamically change the refresh rate between 48Hz and 120Hz to suit the content on the display. This means you’re not draining the battery by the screen refreshing at the top rate all the time, but at the same time means it can step-up to deliver the smoothness of a faster refresh rate when it’s needed. If you don’t want it, you can opt to stick to 60Hz instead.

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On the whole the display is great: it’s a wonderful size and quality for gaming and watching movies, and great for power users too. Lacking the curves at the edges means it perhaps doesn’t have the wow factor of previous devices – but we do prefer a flatter display, because it’s just a little more convenient.

There’s one final gripe, which is only limited to those wearing polarising glasses. The polarising layer on our review model runs vertically (portrait orientation), at which point the phone can almost black out if you’re wearing such sunglasses. It’s minor point, but at the same time, plenty of phones avoid this problem.

Hardware and performance

  • Exynos 2100 or Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
  • 8GB RAM; 128GB/256GB storage options
  • 4,800mAh battery
  • 5G connectivity

When it comes to the hardware in the Galaxy S21+, you get the same Exynos or Qualcomm power that you’ll find in the Galaxy S21 Ultra, so this is one area where there’s very little difference.

In Europe, the Galaxy S21+ gets the Exynos 2100, new hardware where Samsung seems to have taken steps to address the performance gap between itself and Qualcomm. That plays out well, because the Galaxy S21+ is every inch the flagship performer.


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This is a phone that runs slick and fast, taking on any challenge you throw at it without hesitation. Having put a lot of time into games like Call of Duty Mobile and PUBG Mobile, that power and display really plays to that gaming experience, boosted by the great speakers.

This is backed up by a fingerprint scanner that’s speedy to unlock the phone.

The loss of the microSD card for storage expansion is slightly disappointing. Samsung has long offered this convenience option, but now you’ll have to settle for the device that has the storage you need – and you have the choice of 128GB or 265GB. With the advent of streaming over storage, that might not be a huge issue for many though.

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The battery life in the Samsung Galaxy S21+ is actually pretty solid. Having seen Samsung struggle with battery on some of its phones over the past few years, the experience is now a lot better.

This is a phone that will get you through a busy day with ease – throw in a few hours of gaming at the end of the day and it will still last out to bedtime. The display’s big brightness will of course put a big dent in that use-case, as will intensive camera use, but on the whole it performs well.

A competent camera

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

The camera system on the Samsung Galaxy S21+ is the same as it is in the Galaxy S21. That’s a slight change from the Galaxy S20 models where the S20+ got itself an additional time of flight sensor. That sensor’s absence isn’t really missed here, but again, that does reduce the benefits you’re getting for choosing the larger device this time around.

The story of this camera is, as a result, the same as it is for the Galaxy S21. It’s not quite up to the quality of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which remains a better overall camera, but at the same time there’s a lot that’s good about this setup.

The main camera chooses to stick to 12 megapixels rather than using pixel combining, meaning those ‘pixels’ on the sensor are larger than comparable higher-resolution sensors. The results are good, although perhaps not as sharp as the Galaxy S21 Ultra (maybe there’s a lens change?), but unless you get the images side-by-side you’d never really notice.

Photographs are bright and vibrant, with Samsung’s Scene Optimiser playing its part in making images look perhaps a little more lustrous than they were in reality. That AI system will also deliver things like night shots without engaging the proper night mode, meaning that in point-and-shoot use you’ll get good results without having to really think about settings at all.

But the experience is bettered with things like the night mode – which will swing in to give longer exposures for much clearer nighttime photos. The S21+, like many of its rivals, will turn dim shots into something usable – and it’s a system that’s very easy to use.

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Samsung has also ditched its live focus naming and is now calling it ‘portrait’, which will likely mean that more people use this mode for attractive background blurs. It works on the front and rear cameras, with a range of options to spice up your photos and make them a little more interesting. The edge detection is pretty good, although it will get confused with slightly tricky backgrounds. You can edit the effects you might apply using Samsung’s own Gallery app, but we’ve often found that Google Photos is worth using to clean things up for a better result.

In truth, there’s not a huge difference in daily performance from the main camera here compared to the Galaxy S21 Ultra – as you can see in our comparison on the Ultra vs regular S21 models. But it lacks the big resolution on that sensor, so has a little trick up its sleeve instead.

The “telephoto” camera on the Plus has a 64-megapixel sensor that will let you shoot with the full resolution if you want – but that also reveals one of the details about the lens. There’s no magnification on the lens, so the 3x zoom you get is actually just a sensor crop – and the rest of the zoom out to 30x is all digital. Whether you want 64-megapixel photos or not is a different question: you can zoom and crop to get details you won’t have on the 12-megapixel camera, but we’re not convinced it’s worth the effort.

It’s in the telephoto performance where there’s a night and day difference between Galaxy S21+ and the S21 Ultra – the latter which will give you decent photos at 10x optical and beyond. Still, there’s fun to be had with the zoom on the Galaxy S21+, but it’s never going to deliver results at such a high quality, with things getting mushy fairly quickly at the longer zoom.

One of the reasons there’s a higher resolution sensor is to allow for 8K video capture, while 4K video capture is also available through all the other cameras (at up to 60fps too).

As always, the ultra-wide is fun to use, giving a fresh view on things. Samsung has also boosted some of its pre-packaged modes. There’s Single Take to create a collection of photos and videos and present them to you to choose your favourites after the fact. It’s ideal for capturing a moving scene when you can’t decide the best way to capture it.

New is Director’s View – which is like the ultimate vlogger mode – so you can film yourself as well as see the view through the three lenses on the back, allowing you to switch to a better camera view as you’re filming. It’s fun, if you’re one of those people who always wants to be included in the shot.

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Overall, there’s a lot of satisfaction that will come from the Galaxy S21+ camera. It’s dynamic and capable, with each of the lenses justifying its existence, but there will always be that lingering feeling that it’s not the best that Samsung offers. It also sits uncomfortably close to the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE in terms of performance – a phone that’s nearly half the price.

Software from Samsung

Samsung has always heavily customised its devices. That’s always drawn criticism from the pure Google Android crowd – who think it’s all unnecessary and responsible for lag, or for the number of pre-installed services from Samsung that duplicate something that Google has already provided.

Samsung’s One UI interface is a slick experience, though, and we can’t say the performance is hugely different to Android proper. Indeed, Google seems to regularly add features that Samsung debuts – so if anything, One UI can feel like it’s a little ahead of the pack.

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There is duplication however. Even though Samsung and Google seem to be moving closer together, you’ll still find Samsung apps where you might want Android apps. That’s not a problem, though, as you can remove most of this stuff and install Google apps instead – Gboard, Chrome, Google Messages, etc, all make for a better experience.

But this is a user interface that’s also packed with functionality. Dive deep into the software and there’s a lot on offer, giving you plenty to customise, tweak or adjust to make the experience your own.

Our favourite, however, is the Samsung adoption (at last) of Google Discover. This can sit in the slot to the left of the home screen, meaning you can easily get to Google’s feed of stories for you. You can also change the “devices” tab to use Google Home instead of SmartThings which, again, is evidence of a wider acceptance of integrated Google services on Samsung devices.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy S21+ is a solid flagship device, offering a great experience and making for a great daily smartphone of choice.

It faces challenges, however, not only sitting in the shadow of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, which is clearly better, but also from last year’s more affordable Galaxy S20 FE model.

The S21+’s display is a star and really is the centrepiece of the experience, delivering a silky smooth experience that’s powered by the hardware at this phone’s core.

Overall, this is a great phone for those looking for a big screen Samsung experience and who don’t want the ultimate zoom camera included.

Also consider

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Xiaomi Mi 11 

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A great design with Snapdragon 888 power, delivering smooth performance. There are some software quirks, but you get a good display and some decent (and very different) cameras for an affordable price.

Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Mike Lowe.



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