Samsung Galaxy S21 5G Review: Standard Flagship

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Samsung came out of the blocks earlier than usual in 2021, beating its personal best last year in the process by debuting its new Galaxy S21 series in January rather than February.

Whether the early launch will help snow ball into enough momentum for a strong quarter remains to be seen, but regardless Samsung aims to set the tone before any of its Android competitors can, while also trying to give the iPhone 12 lineup a run for its money.

We currently have either end of the Galaxy S21 trio in for review currently, but with all chronological orders, we start with the regular model in the lineup – the Galaxy S21 5G.

This iteration might not get as much attention as the Plus and Ultra models will, but for most consumers want a taste of Samsung’s new flagship series, the S21 5G is likely their first option.

Having spent the past few weeks with the smartphone, here’s how it stacks up to what we expect in a flagship device, as well as whether you should consider upgrading.

What’s in the box!

Before we touch on those elements, let’s address the elephant in the room – packaging.

The S21 series is shipping sans charger or earphones, with only a USB Type-C cable in the box to keep the S21 5G company. While we think ditching the charger in the name of being environmentally friendly is a smokescreen to sell more product (sorry, tin foil hat is off now), we were quite surprised that the S21 5G did not ship with a generic plastic protective cover, as is usually the case these days.

Perhaps this was a simple oversight, but given the fact that consumers have just dropped R17 999 (RRP) for the base model of the trio, having something to protect your new phone out of the box is a must. The fact that Samsung has not included one means another purchase on top of the wattage compatible charger and earphones (wireless or USB Type-C) that you’ll need in order to use the device.

We may be splitting hairs on an expensive piece of hardware, but this is a strategy that Samsung aims to introduce across its lineups, so it’s an indicator of things to come.

Cosmetic changes

Now that we’ve vented sufficiently, let’s get back to the device itself. Looking at design, a few subtle changes are present. The most notable is the camera housing, which is now fused to the aluminium frame. It is an aesthetic that has proved divisive in our (remote working) office, especially depending on what colour option you opt for.

In the Phantom Violet, it is not exactly our cup of tea, but the Phantom Gray that our review model is, looks quite sleek and stealthy.

The other key change is the texture of the back cover, which is described “haze finish” by Samsung. We like the matte effect in the Phantom Gray option, with the added benefit of not being a magnet for fingerprint smudges that the glass back covers are.

The rest of the phone looks like what we’d expect from a Galaxy S device – 6.2″ 2400×1080 display, thin bezels, under screen fingerprint sensor and small central punch hole for the selfie camera.

All in all then, a good job from Samsung, as it has not rocked the boat with its design, nor kept things exceedingly boring either.

Real workhorse

Now on to the important stuff – performance. Here there is little to fault the Galaxy S21 5G on. On the processor front, an Exynos 2100 5G chipset is present, featuring a 5nm architecture and octa-core setup. As such it will keep pace with whatever multitasking or processor-intensive tasks you throw its way. Added to this is 8GB RAM and 128GB storage on this model.

In terms of benchmarking it is easily the best device we’ve tested in some time, registering a 1 081 and 3 316 respective single-core and multi-core result on GeekBench, as well as 6 019 on 3D Mark’s Slingshot Extreme.

As such, it will prove rapid in-hand and should not leave you wanting in any regard. If there is no aspect we do need to note, it’s that the back cover can heat up noticeably when performing processor-intensive tasks, but you would not feel it if a protective cover were in place.

There’s also a 4 000mAh battery present on this model, which is fairly standard for flagship phones these days, but we were able to squeeze out a full two days of use before a trip to a charging point was necessary. How this will play out over time though, especially if you’re using an older lesser wattage charger, remains to be seen. It is for that reason we advise getting a 25W Samsung-branded charger to ensure the battery does not degrade quicker than expected on you.

A handy shot

Next is the aforementioned new camera housing, which plays host to a trio of lenses – 12MP ultra-wide, 12MP wide-angle and 64MP telephoto. The latter option will be your primary lens, and snap large images rich in detail. It also features 3)x Space Zoom as Samsung calls it, which is solid enough, but it is good to see that the company has steered clear of going for too difficult to handle zoom options on this new S21 series.

Overall shooting both indoors and outdoors proved a pleasure, with the native camera app being intuitive in the way it handles focus and adjustment of settings in different scenarios. There is a Pro mode to tinker with, but if you want a simple point and shoot experience that yields great pictures, the S21 5G has you covered.

Final verdict

At R18k the Galaxy S21 5G is not cheap, but neither are similarly specced devices from competitors, and there in lies the problem. This S21 is as solid as they come and even had me thinking of getting it as a daily driver.

Its lack of standout features, however, means that it will struggle to compete not only with the more expensive options in its own series, but also the other options from competitors later in the year. As such, the S21 5G may be a victim of Samsung’s success and the standard that the company has set in terms of flagship phones in recent years coupled with the short turnaround for new iterations to be released.

If you purchased a decent flagship phone in 2020 then, upgrading seems like a waste right now. If, however, it’s been a couple of years, you’d be hard pressed to find a better all-rounder than the Galaxy S21 5G.

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G

7 Score

As solid a flagship as you'll find, the Galaxy S21 5G is a true all-rounder. That said, there are not enough improvements to warrant an upgrade if you purchased a flagship device in 2020. If your device pre-dates that, then the S21 5G is well worth considering as a daily driver.

Review Breakdown

  • Fit For Purpose 0
Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

When he's not reviewing the latest smartphones, Robin-Leigh is writing about everything tech-related from IoT and smart cities, to 5G and cloud computing. He's also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games.

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