Samsung Galaxy S21 Series Hands-On: Sleeker, Faster, But at What Cost?
January 14, 2021 Andrew Cheng

The Samsung Galaxy S21 smartphones are here, and while they don’t look radically different from their predecessors, there are noteworthy upgrades under the hood. Not only are they faster now thanks to the new Exynos 2100 processor, there are also other incremental upgrades that make them more polished, complete flagship smartphones.

However, there are some odd hardware changes here and there that won’t sit quite well with folks who have certain expectations of the new phones, especially with the Galaxy S21 and S21+. Anyway, without further ado, let’s get to the hands-on.

First, let’s talk about one of the biggest hardware revisions: both the Galaxy S21 and S21+ feature 6.2-inch and 6.7-inch screens respectively with only a 1080p resolution. That’s right, they no longer have the 1440p screens of their predecessors, which is quite odd for high-end, flagship smartphones at this price point. Did I mention that the S21 also has a polycarbonate back?

Granted, the Galaxy S21 and S21+ still have 120Hz screens with support for adaptive refresh rate now. This allows the two phones to dynamically switch between 48Hz to 120Hz refresh rate depending on what’s shown on the screen, which should meaningfully improve battery life. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, on the other hand, is even better in this regard: its 6.8-inch 1440p screen can adjust between 10Hz to 120Hz.

Beyond the refresh rate of these screens, all three Galaxy S21 smartphones have Dynamic AMOLED 2X panels, which look fantastic. Even though the S21 and S21+ only have 1080p displays now, they still look great with bright, vibrant colours and excellent viewing angles. It’s worth noting that these two devices have flat screens, while the S21 Ultra has subtle curves on either sides of its display.

Another feature that’s exclusive to the Galaxy S21 Ultra is S Pen compatibility, though the stylus is not built into the phone itself like the Galaxy Note series. Instead, you’d have to get the S Pen from either the Galaxy Tab S7 or the dedicated case for the phone that comes with the stylus as well. Basically, if you want a built-in S Pen, you still need to get the Galaxy Note 20 or Note 10 series.

As mentioned, the Galaxy S21 series is powered by Samsung’s brand new Exynos 2100 chipset fabricated on a power-efficient 5nm process. According to Samsung, this processor offers 20% faster CPU and 35% better GPU performance compared to its direct predecessor. These are pretty big numbers, though we’d have to put it through real life use first to see if there are any tangible improvements.

For what it’s worth, these phones certainly feel very fast in my brief time with them.

Speaking of fast, I am absolutely amazed by the new ultrasonic fingerprint sensor under the screens of the Galaxy S21 smartphones. Not only is it 1.7 times bigger now, the sensor can accurately recognise my fingerprint almost instantaneously – a quick tap is all it takes for me to unlock the phone. It’s great that Samsung finally improved its finicky ultrasonic fingerprint sensor.

When it comes to battery life, I’m confident the Galaxy S21 smartphones will be able to deliver better longevity than their respective predecessors. After all, they are powered by a more power-efficient 5nm chipset now, not to mention the fact that both the S21 and S21+ have lower resolution – but not quite as power hungry – screens now.

As for battery capacity, the S21 retains the 4,000mAh battery of the S20, while the S21+ gets a larger 4,800mAh cell (compared to the S20+’s 4,500mAh battery). The S21 Ultra, on the other hand, sports a 5,000mAh battery.

Last but definitely not least is the camera system of the Galaxy S21 smartphones, which is now housed in a “Contour Cut” camera design that gives the phones a unique aesthetic that I personally quite like. This is especially the case with the Phantom Violet colourway of the S21 and S21+, which draws attention to the phones’ dual tone design.

Both the standard Galaxy S21 and S21+ have the same triple camera system. It is made up of a 12MP f/1.8 primary sensor, a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide angle shooter, and a 64MP f/2.0 telephoto lens that can do 3x optical zoom or 30x Space Zoom, which is really digital zoom. These two phones also have a 10MP f/2.2 selfie camera on the front.

Naturally, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is equipped with a more sophisticated quad camera system headlined by a 108MP f/1.8 primary shooter. There’s also a 12MP f/2.2 ultra-wide angle lens, a 10MP f/2.4 telephoto sensor (3x optical zoom), and get this: another 10MP f/4.9 telephoto camera that can do 10x optical zoom. Collectively, this allows the S21 Ultra to do 100x Space Zoom. It also has a laser autofocus system and a 40MP f/2.2 selfie camera.

In my short time photographing with the Galaxy S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra, they certainly feel more capable than their predecessors. This is especially true with the S21 Ultra – the laser autofocus system can lock in focus quickly, and the two telephoto sensors noticeably improve the camera’s zoom performance.

But it’s worth noting that I only managed to test out the camera performance of these phones in a well-lit environment. For a fairer assessment, I’d need to put the camera systems through their paces in more challenging lighting situations in a full review.

All in all, the Samsung Galaxy S21 series is definitely more polished than its predecessor with some meaningful (albeit incremental) upgrades. Based on my brief time with the three smartphones, they seem to improve on many aspects that matter to end users, including better performance, improved camera systems, fast screens with adaptive refresh rate, and of course, sleeker-looking designs.

That being said, we’re still missing a vital piece of information that will set expectations for the Galaxy S21 lineup: pricing. It’s a given that the retail prices of these new phones will be higher than before, and it’s really a matter of how much Samsung will increase them. For context, the Galaxy S20 series retailed from RM3,599 to RM4,999 at launch last year here in Malaysia.

While I’m quite impressed with the refinement of the Galaxy S21 smartphones – and I can see the justification for a price increase – pricing the phones too high from their predecessors may drive potential customers away, especially in a price sensitive market like Malaysia. We expect Samsung Malaysia to reveal the local pricing of the Galaxy S21 series soon, and we’ll update this hands-on once we have the relevant information.

Update: Samsung just revealed the Malaysian pricing of the Galaxy S21 series; it retails from RM3,699 to RM5,899. Click here to learn more!