The Samsung Galaxy S21 5G is slightly inferior to its bigger sister models in the test, but still proves to be an excellent and above all still fairly handy high-end smartphone. It performs very well in almost all lab tests: The display is very bright and colorful, the performance is beyond reproach, and the photos of the triple camera are very nice in all lighting conditions. The main drawback is the still good, but unspectacular battery life. It is also a pity that Samsung omits a memory card slot in addition to the headphone jack this time. And those who don’t have a suitable power adapter and wireless headphones at home will have to buy them separately, since they are missing in the scope of delivery.
Very good OLED display with 120 hertz
Very good performance
Great photo quality
No SD card slot
Video recordings under low light
Samsung Galaxy S21 5G in test: Premium phone in a plastic casing
Samsung’s new smartphone generation consists of the three devices Galaxy S21 5G, Galaxy S21 Plus 5G and Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G (review). The Galaxy S21 5G does not have to hide from its bigger siblings: The Plus version has practically the same features as the standard model, but it is a bit bigger. The Ultra model has even more camera features besides a larger screen for photo enthusiasts. However, the regular Galaxy S21 5G feels best in the hand, and you pay less here than for the larger models.
The camera module on the back of the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G also integrates very elegantly into the design. However, the camera is not embedded in a matte glass back here, but in a matte plastic back made of polycarbonate material. That is not necessarily bad – plastic is light and less susceptible to drops. However, this material choice already caused a small outrage among high-end smartphone enthusiasts in the Galaxy S20 FE 5G (review). On paper, it is a bit less “premium” than the S21 Plus and S21 Ultra, but we do not mind that one bit even in a direct comparison. The devices feel virtually the same to us, regardless of whether matte glass or matte plastic. We consider the Galaxy S21 to be a very nice smartphone with a high-quality build.
Colorful and bright 6.2-inch display
The 6.2-inch OLED display of the Galaxy S21 is flat and does without curved edges. It has a Full HD Plus resolution (2,400 x 1,080 pixels) and thus a pixel density of just under 423 ppi. The display is very sharp. The Galaxy S21’s screen pleases with its rich color representation since it covers a whole 146 percent of the standard RGB color space. The DCI-P3 color space, which is relevant for HDR videos, is covered by a full 100 percent. HDR10+ is also no problem for the Galaxy S21. Those who like to watch movies on the phone will get their money’s worth here.
The checkerboard contrast of 165 to 1 gives little reason for criticism, but some rivals offer a bit more. However, the differences are hardly relevant in everyday use. On the other hand, we are impressed by the maximum brightness, which we measured at 1,027 candela per square meter (cd/m²). Thus, the screen is easy to read even in direct sunlight, and HDR movies look dynamic. If you manually turn up the screen indoors, it still reaches a very good 542 cd/m².
You can set the refresh rate to a power-saving 60 Hertz or to an adaptive 120 Hz in the display menu. Animations and scrolling movements look very smooth in 120 Hz mode. To save power here, the screen automatically adjusts down to 48 Hz when the situation allows it. The screen of the Galaxy S21 Ultra even reaches 10 Hz.
The Galaxy S21 shoots strong photos in the test – with three lenses
The camera setup of the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G is the same as that of the Plus model. The photo and video quality is also the same. Samsung uses a main camera with 12 megapixels and a fast f/1.8 aperture. In order to capture details as losslessly as possible, there is also a 64-megapixel telecam that magnifies three times compared to the main camera. The f/2.0 aperture is sufficiently fast, and the zoom lens also has an image stabilizer to minimize camera shake. For some landscape and group shots, you will still find an ultra-wide-angle lens with f/2.2 aperture on a 12-megapixel sensor. The 10 megapixels of the selfie cam are okay.
The test lab photos of the main camera are very detailed in daylight conditions, although the Galaxy S21 Ultra can deliver even more in a direct comparison. Some details are lost in dim light, so the Galaxy S21 comes even less close to the Ultra – but the quality is still very strong. Smartphone photo enthusiasts will definitely get their money’s worth here. By the way, the Galaxy S20 (review) gets a marginally better score in our lab test in a direct comparison. This is mainly due to the measurements in the areas of “resolution” and “noise”. The Galaxy S21 5G effectively has a slightly lower resolution than the S20 in our synthetic tests – especially in low light – and produces a bit more noise. However, these are only details. In a subjective comparison, the photos are top.
Great performance – battery life is okay
A flagship of the Galaxy S21 lineup is also the very strong performance. The Galaxy S21 5G is equipped with Samsung’s Exynos 2100 system-on-chip – accompanied by 8 GB of RAM – which did not give us any reason for criticism in the test and, as expected, outperformed the already strong predecessor. Thus, the Galaxy S21 5G achieves 14,491 points in PCMark for Android. In comparison, the S20 scored 11,925 points. It loads our test PDF very quickly in 1.9 seconds – which is almost iPhone 12 level. So far, Apple has been unrivaled in this test. The predecessor still lingered over 5 seconds here. The graphics unit also takes a step forward: With 101 frames per second, the Galaxy S21 works 26 percent faster than its predecessor in the GFXBench Manhattan graphics test (onscreen).
In our battery tests, the Galaxy S21 5G delivers a satisfactory, but not outstanding performance. Of the three Galaxy S21 models we tested, the standard variant is the most likely to run out of lights. This was the case after 10 hours and 46 minutes in our online runtime test. That does not knock you off your feet, but the result is not bad either. Since it is a demanding test scenario where the screen is permanently on and the phone automatically opens websites, scrolls on them and plays videos, most users should easily get through the day. However, it might be different after two years – when the battery performance decreases. Samsung proves that it can be better with the slightly bigger Galaxy S20 SE 5G. It lasted 14.5 hours in the test.
The battery is fully recharged in less than 100 minutes. If you are in a hurry, you can look forward to a charge level of just over 50% after 30 minutes of fast charging. Unfortunately, Samsung does not include a power adapter in the scope of delivery. If you have a power adapter with a USB Type-C jack at home, you can use it. We used the official Samsung power adapter (check it out on Amazon) with 25 watts of charging power. Wireless charging has been part of Samsung’s upper class for many years, and the Galaxy S21 5G is no exception. If you want, you can even charge Qi-enabled peripherals wirelessly via the phone. Qi is the standard for wireless charging.
Successful configuration, but Samsung cuts down on features
Besides a power adapter, Samsung also omits headphones in the scope of delivery. Unfortunately, the manufacturer has also removed the SD card slot. Thus, you have to be sure that you have chosen a model with enough storage when you buy it, because upgrading is no longer possible. At least the surcharge from the 128 GB model to the 256 GB version is only 50 Euros, which is reasonable.
The Galaxy S21 is protected against water, dust and other dirt according to the IP-68 standard.
NFC is on board and thus enables mobile payments via Google Pay or Samsung Pay, among others.
Bluetooth is included in the latest version 5.2 and USB with Type-C jack in the 3.1 standard.
The Galaxy S21 Plus can be unlocked biometrically via facial recognition and a very fast and reliable ultrasonic fingerprint scanner in the display.
Another word about 5G support: The integrated 5G modem supports all 5G frequencies that are important in Germany, for example, for the 5G expansion in rural areas. Up to now, many smartphones have had problems when LTE and 5G frequencies are very close to each other, for example, at 1,800 MHz for LTE and 2,100 MHz for 5G (Telekom) or 800 MHz for LTE and 700 MHz for 5G (Vodafone). This is because at present, every 5G smartphone has to connect to an LTE “anchor frequency” for the first time before the mobile network forwards the devices to the 5G network. (Read more in our 5G test) The Galaxy S21 series supports parallel operation of 1,800 MHz and 2,100 MHz for 5G and LTE anchor frequency. The 800 MHz and 700 MHz combo also used in the Vodafone network is still not possible.
The introductory prices of 850 Euros for the Galaxy S21 5G 128 GB and 900 Euros for the Galaxy S21 5G 256 are slightly lower than those of the previous generation, which is remarkable. The prices are high, but not exorbitant. Experience shows that they will also drop significantly in the next few months.