Samsung Galaxy S21 review: Reliably evolved

The right size, the right performance, the right price.
Galaxy S21 Phantom Violet
Overall Rating 4 out of 5

Samsung doesn’t remake the wheel with the Galaxy S21, but despite some backwards steps, this is still a solid performer.

Quick verdict: Is the Samsung Galaxy S21 any good?

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is a great phone. It’s the right size for all hands (even large mitts), packs plenty of powerful performance, and adaptive refresh rate offers a great mix of smoothness and battery preservation. It’s just a shame that once key things have been left out: there’s no charger in the box, no MicroSD port for storage expansion, and the headphone jack is still MIA.

What we like

  • Great screen
  • Variable refresh rate
  • Powerful photography

What could be better

  • No charger
  • MicroSD expansion gone
  • Headphone jack ain’t coming back
Recent Updates: Less than 6 months
Editor's Pick: The Samsung Galaxy S21 has been added to Reviews.org's guide to the best phones in Australia.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is the cheapest of Samsung’s new flagship phones, with a smaller screen than the Galaxy S21 Plus and hardware/cameras that aren’t as flash as the Galaxy S21 Ultra. But that’s not to say the S21 can’t stand on its own.

Where to buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 outright in Australia (from $1,249RRP)
RetailerSamsung Galaxy S21 128GBSamsung Galaxy S21 256GB
Kogan$1,086$1,149
Amazon$1,235.24$1,339
Catch.com.au$1,239$1,347
Samsung$1,249$1,349

Samsung Galaxy S21 mobile plans

Below is an updating list of the 10 most popular Postpaid mobile plans that include the Samsung Galaxy S21 128GB handset.

What are the Samsung Galaxy S21’s main selling points?

Galaxy S21 pink
The Samsung Galaxy S21 in Phantom Pink.

 

A solid all-round performer.

Forget about curved edges, the Samsung Galaxy S21 has a face that’s as flat as its backside. Well, almost. You’ll want to pop it in case (admittedly, like any phone) because the vertical camera stack is raised and doesn’t sit flat on surfaces when laying down face up. Beware when placing it case-less on couch arms, for instance: it tends to slide off.

The S21 is built for eye comfort which, outside of blue-light reduction and an FHD+ screen resolution, is most noticeable when it comes to the high-refresh-rate screen. That screen is reportedly built out of tough Gorilla Glass Victus, but I didn’t drop test it because I didn’t want to have an awkward conversation with Samsung if I happened to damage the screen.

That camera stack on the back boasts 12MP wide and ultra-wide cameras, as well as a 64MP telephoto, with photography and video options that make for great detail and high-resolution results.

What we like about the Samsung Galaxy S21

Galaxy S21 colours
(Left to right) Galaxy S21 Phantom Grey, Phantom White, Phantom Violet and Phantom Pink.

Powerful performance

Even though Australia is one of the markets that’s stuck with the slower Exynos processor vs the speedier Snapdragon international variant, the Samsung Galaxy S21 is still a speedy performer, both during initial setup and everyday use. That initial setup process was pretty painless with Smart Switch making life easier for picking up where you left off with your old handset (except for having to re-enter login credentials).

Everyday performance is where this truly shines. I’m a lazy multitasker, which means I tend to end up having all of my apps open at once, jumping between them constantly. While older handsets take a breath while switching the Samsung Galaxy S21 specs meant it kept up with whatever I threw at it.

Adaptive refresh rate

This is one of those smartphone features that’s tricky to come back from. For the longest time, I’ve been convinced that the only thing wrong with my ageing Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus is the battery life isn’t as flash as it used to be. But despite the S9 Plus having a higher screen resolution, things look and feel better on the S21 because of the adaptive refresh rate. Whether scrolling through news, messing around with apps, or playing games that support it, on-screen movement is handled a whole lot better with the option to go to 120Hz. The fact that it’s not always on also helps preserve battery life.

Surprisingly great battery life

I figured the combination of a 4,000mAh battery life and up to 120Hz refresh rate would lead to lacklustre battery life, but I was wrong. Granted, all my tests were done on a 4G SIM card – knock off a couple of hours for 5G use – but the Samsung Galaxy S21 lasted just shy of a couple of days in my practical tests, with a mix of videos, music playback, and everyday app use. That’s particularly impressive because I hadn’t even activated the overnight battery-preservation mode, which led to an even higher battery percentage in the morning (with the phone left on all night).

What could be better with the Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 in Violet
Samsung Galaxy S21 Violet

Charging options

It’s an unfortunate trend started by Apple with the iPhone 12, but Samsung has followed suit with the Galaxy S21, too. Instead of a charger, you get a USB-C to USB-C cable, which means you’re left with only a couple of charging options. First, fork out extra for a compatible wall charger. Second, connect it to an existing compatible power source. For me, that meant either my desktop or laptop; unfortunately, none of the power banks in my apartment have USB-C ports, which makes charging on the go trickier. In fairness, the S21 will charge via one of your older USB-C charger/cable combos if you’re upgrading from a USB-C handset, though noticeably slower, albeit charging speeds from computers is great.

No more MicroSD

Storage expansion via MicroSD has long been a great selling point for Samsung smartphones. Instead of forking out hundreds of dollars extra for additional capacity, you could use a more cost-effective MicroSD card to boost storage. Not anymore. While the Samsung Galaxy S21 does support dual SIM cards, which is a nice touch, the lack of expandable storage isn’t so flash in light of the increasing size of apps, not to mention high-resolution pictures and up to 8K video recording.

More evolution than revolution

There’s not really any reason for Samsung Galaxy S20 owners to look enviously at the S21 because not a whole lot has changed. And while the launch price for the S21 is cheaper in 2021 than it was for the S20 in 2020, that $250 margin is made smaller when you factor in the need to buy a charger ($69RRP for the official 45W one), a reliance on Bluetooth headphones for music lovers (they’re not cheap), or the reality that you might opt for the 256GB model to ensure you have sufficient internal storage.

Samsung Galaxy S21 camera

The specs may look identical on paper, but Samsung has made some welcome refinements to the Samsung Galaxy S21 camera compared to its S20 predecessor, most notably thanks to a Zoom Lock feature that maintains focus for zoomed shots. When it comes to up-close shots, the S21’s rear cameras do a great job of taking detail-rich and colourful shots in a speedy and user-friendly way. The Modes are a great way to use meaningful configs for jumping between food, night, portrait and pro photography. Check out the results below.

Is the Samsung Galaxy S21 worth the price ($1,249RRP)?

Yes with some disclaimers.

Assuming you’re not already holding a Samsung Galaxy S20 or better in your hand, the S21 is worth the asking price. It’s great to see the cheaper flagship model step away from the $1,500 pricing expectations of recent years, even if those savings assume that you have at least some of the necessary gear – wall charger, Bluetooth headphones, and are okay with no expandable storage – to get the most out of it.