I think the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE was a proof of concept that succeeded. It brought enough flagship elements to deserve the title but then experimented with dropping a few non-essentials in order to drive the price down, at a time when the market needed it.
Think about it! Do you really need your display to be curved? Do you really need the back of your phone to be made of glass? Can you really tell if your display is Quad HD+? More important, would you trade any of these elements for a less expensive price?
The result was a massive hit. I still debate the name because I feel fans will drift more to features than price, but it also helped pave the way to a new approach for Samsung had up next.
This is the Galaxy S21, what Samsung calls the Every day Epic, I’m gonna call a true phone for the fans. See, instead of a smaller and expensive flagship, or a watered-down offering, what we have here is a new approach that is seriously out to compete.
There’s a reason why I chose to do this review before the Ultra. If you look at the S21 lineup I think this is the sleeper hit. In many ways, this is almost the same phone as its bigger brothers, but with a couple of minor tweaks to bring a dramatic drop in the price tag.
To provide some context, do the math: what flagship devices can you buy today for around 700 bucks? In the US we’re talking OnePlus 8T — which has a debatable camera and fewer flavors of 5G — Google Pixel 5 — with a mid-ranger chip and fewer cameras — or iPhone 12 — which is comparable but has less refresh rate and fewer cameras. And then once you consider the aggressive pre-order deals Samsung is offering, I think you get the point.
The Galaxy S21 is seriously the best offering money can buy in its price range, but I know what you’re thinking: What’s the catch? Well honestly, not much. Take the hardware, for example. Like its more expensive brothers, this is the best looking Galaxy S launch I’ve seen, with a more cohesive and fashion-centric design that can clearly be seen in all the color options, with this Phantom Violet looking like jewelry.
The camera hump no longer seems like this necessary evil in a corner and is now better protected by this contour cut design. Same aluminum build, the strongest Gorilla Glass Victus at the front, and really what changes is that it’s a polycarbonate back instead of glass. Now, we call it glasstic for a reason. If it looks like glass and feels like glass, but doesn’t break like glass or get all smudgy, is this really a bad idea? I actually think this is a better option for most users.
The internals are pretty much a similar story. You get the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, with the same RAM and storage options as the Plus model, matched with all flavors of 5G, reverse wireless charging, water resistance, a pretty large battery, and really all you’re missing is the ultra-wideband feature that enables tricks like the digital car key that you’ll need a new car for anyway.
And then probably one of my favorite changes with the S21 is that by popular demand, the display finally got flat. Heck if this is another way to drop the price, it should be a general practice. Like its larger sibling, this is a 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X at Full HD+ resolution. This means the display adjusts between 48 and 120z based on your usage and reduces eye fatigue with an auto-adjusting blue light filter.
Colors are vibrant, but under Samsung’s new approach to not over-saturate. There’s also a larger and faster ultrasonic fingerprint scanner under this display, which proved to be a joy to use during this pandemic. At this price, few phones support HDR10+ or go as high as 1300 nits, and the built-in dual speakers are plenty loud.
Now, what I wasn’t expecting to ever praise is One UI, but this is another reason why I’m calling this a Fan Edition. Samsung is finally getting almost everything right. The average consumer might care about the changes in aesthetics, which I seriously consider barely noticeable. Really I’m just glad this is all based on Android 11, cause now that means notifications won’t be a convoluted mess, with conversations now stacked at the top.
What I care about is choice, and the idea of finally being able to choose the Google feed on the left of the launcher is huge. Subtle changes like having Google Pay set by default, even if you can easily switch to Samsung Pay. Google Home devices as an option over Samsung Smart Things. If only we could call on these devices from the power button instead of Bixby, and I’d be golden.
Don’t get me wrong, elements like Samsung’s new Smart Tags make me prefer Samsung’s services. The new Samsung Free app that now blends the company’s TV channels into your phone is just proof of how much the company’s ecosystem has evolved. There is now a benefit in grabbing a pair of Galaxy Buds Pro, Galaxy Watch 3, and even a Samsung TV.
Given the reduced footprint and the software philosophy, using this phone in day to day use has been quite pleasant. I seriously thought battery life would be a problem, but I’ve been ending days for the past week just fine, and the same can be said about phone calls.
Now, at this price point, what breaks any device that’s not a pixel or an iPhone is the camera, but this is where things get interesting. In a weird move, Samsung has chosen to keep the same specs as last year, though we know the chip now brings a new ISP to assist. Also, even if I have no scientific confirmation of this, if you were to compare the specs of the primary camera with an iPhone 12 Pro Max, it even seems like if this is that exact same sensor, or is at least just as capable.
I recently did a small little comparison in my first impressions video with the S21 Ultra, and most viewers were debating which phone was which. During the day whether you’re going ultra-wide, primary, or in 3X telephoto, the results are fantastic. Samsung continues to tone down its saturation without affecting dynamic range or detail. So long as you stick to what these cameras can do optically and forget about 30X, you’ll be fine. I even get the impression that this primary sensor is large enough to produce some really nice natural bokeh.
At night the results are also fairly good if you stick to the primary sensor. Samsung does offer a night mode on all cameras, but the results are not at all something I’d blindly trust.
What’s impressive is selfies, both during the day or after applying night mode. Once you disable the beautifying modes, you’ll see lots of detail and fantastic dynamic range even in very brightly lit scenarios, and the separation provided by portraits is also pretty good for this being software.
I also see some dramatic improvements in video. I notice less warping as you walk, less over-sharpening, and an overall very balanced shot if you have enough light. This might actually be the first time that I’d say I feel comfortable with an Android phone and that even applies to selfie video. Now if I don’t waste your time talking about Director’s View or Super Steady, it’s because it’s still limited to 1080p. They’re great ideas, but they are limited at a time when this phone can already do 8K video.
To conclude I think the concern of most consumers when buying a flagship is if their money is well invested unless the price is reasonable. In that sense, I think that’s precisely what makes the launch of the Galaxy S21 so important. We live in difficult times, and to see companies figure out ways to make price tags more realistic is what the market needs. Yes, this is a more cohesive design, and finally getting more choice in software is also to praise, but I think the bigger story here is the price.
With great design, features, performance, battery life, and cameras, all at an affordable price tag, the Samsung Galaxy S21 deserves our Pocketnow Editor’s Choice for the best bang for the buck smartphone in 2021 so far.
It’s not perfect in any way. I’m sure many will be skeptical about the Glasstic, or the loss of expandable storage, or the lack of certain accessories in the box. Just do yourself a favor, again, do the math. The phone starts at $799. That $200 price drop alone is way beyond what the accessories cost. If you want double the storage it’s just an extra $50, and then if you were to pre-order you can get it for as low as $99 with a trade-in plus a smart tag and $100 in store credit to buy the missing accessories.
If I had to pick between flagship features and a future-proof processor over having a charger in the box like Google did, I’d pick the flagship processor. Heck Apple even dropped the accessories and made the iPhone 12 silently more expensive, with one less camera and half the storage.
I think you understand where I’m going with this. I honestly didn’t think I’d like this phone so much, but if you’re in the market for an affordable flagship without compromise, the Samsung Galaxy S21 is our best recommendation in this price bracket.