My week with Samsung Galaxy S21 5G
Richard Howard • February 16, 2021if( has_post_thumbnail( $post_id ) ): ?>
When it comes to the top of the heap regarding Android phones, the Samsung S series is always in the discussion. As an iPhone user, I haven’t been particularly engaged in the discussion. Thing is, I was a die-hard Android user until a few years ago when the convenience of an iPhone in my MacBook workflow converted me. We here at Ting Mobile HQ figured it might be interesting to see what a prodigal user’s thoughts were on one of the better Android phones available today. Here’s my honest Samsung Galaxy S21 5G review.
I’ve always liked Samsung’s “elegant simplicity” motif. I tested out the Phantom Gray model; it’s arguably the pinnacle of that style amongst the available color options (that being said, purple is my favorite color so I have a bit of a phone-crush on the Phantom Violet). It feels just as premium as it looks, which we’ll talk more about later. As I expected, the 6.2” form-factor felt perfect in my hand. Interestingly, on navigating through the phone, it also felt less foreign to me than other Androids I’ve used recently. This is likely due to having owned a Samsung in the past and the enjoyment of using a Really Nice Phone (capitalization is my brain’s).
So far, so good.
With the Galaxy S21, you get a 6.2-inch Full HD+ Dynamic AMOLED display with a 120 Hz refresh rate. Translation: it’s really darn nice. Colors pop, it’s bright and high-resolution media looks fantastic. The 120 Hz refresh rate is important because this dictates how many times images on your screen are updated per second (all of your screens do this quicker than the eye can see). 60 Hz is typical, so this screen refreshes twice as frequently. The result is super-smooth scrolling and incredibly clear high-resolution videos.
Who are we kidding, this is why you’re reading this Galaxy S21 5G review. Let me assure you; unless you’re a grump that hates fun and pretty pictures, you’ll almost certainly fall in love with the S21’s camera set.
As S-series aficionados have come to expect, regular daylight pictures are exceptional.
These great pics are due to the fact it uses identical (on paper, at least) lenses as the S20, which is good news. However, some software upgrades have made it even more usable. It’s a long list, so here are some of my favorites.
Samsung’s Night Mode is more impressive than ever. Just look at the photos below of an indoor nighttime shot with and without Night Mode on. My honest reaction was, “What manner of sorcery is this?”
This is an extreme example from near darkness; if you’re simply in a low-light situation, the resulting picture is of considerably higher quality.
Space Zoom with Zoom Lock
Thanks to software wizardry, 3x zoom on the S21 almost looks as though you’re using a true telephoto lens. Up to 10x is still quite good—past that, things get pretty pixelated. 30x Space Zoom is, in my opinion, only good for making sure that guy down the block isn’t messing with your sweet Honda Civic. If you must capture something that requires between 20x and 30x magnification in a handheld situation, the Zoom Lock feature is a must and does a good job of taking a stable picture.
One of Samsung’s strengths is understanding what the people want, and what the people want is to create a ton of content to share as quickly and impressively as possible. Enter Single Take mode. Click the shutter once, move the camera around to capture the scene for up to 15 seconds, and the S21 creates a mini gallery of videos, loops and still photos complete with filters. To be honest, I thought this would be the part of my Galaxy S21 5G review where I called Samsung out for gimmicky pandering, but the results in this mode are actually very usable most of the time. Hard pass on the cheesy background music for the loops though.
On some phones, allowing you to adjust parameters like ISO and shutter speed usually found on professional cameras is little more than a gimmick. With a phone like this that takes shots rivaling those of some DSLR cameras, it’s a useful tool that will allow knowledgeable photographers to harness the full capabilities of the S21 5G’s camera.
Still not impressed? The video capabilities of this phone were a knockout for me. You have the option to record at 8K, but I actually found 4K recording preferable and stunning. It’s a nice touch that you can choose your FPS (frames per second) rate, which allows you to give a different feel to your videos. Then there are the different video modes.
8K Video Snap is a feature that would make me record at 8K—it allows you to select sharp still images from your Ultra HD video. By the way, you can immediately create a GIF as well for much hilarity. Vloggers are going to be all over Director’s View, in which you can switch between the main, telephoto and wide-angle cameras in real-time, all the while talking to your viewers from a picture-in-picture selfie-cam view. Pro Video, like its still counterpart, allows you to adjust advanced camera settings. Steady Mode employs extra movement control over the run-of-the-mill video stabilization and is excellent for keeping up with fast-moving objects or if you still haven’t come to terms with the fact that your career as a skateboarding videographer isn’t going to happen. Hey, we believe in you.
The S21 is darned fast. While I can’t say more than it’s certainly on par with other late-model flagships I’ve used, I was often surprised by how quickly apps opened and its ability to handle whatever was thrown on it. And throw things at it I did. The only time the S21 seemed to be putting out some effort (but still performed excellently) was when I heartlessly started filming a wide-angle HD video while simultaneously casting the screen to my smart TV. Power users will be happy, and the average Joe will never have to worry about running out of processing power.
For such a powerful phone, I was quite impressed with its battery life. I may not be out and about as much these days, but with the S21 5G having lasted me as much as two days on a single charge, I can only imagine it easily gets through a day of average to slightly-above-average use.
One of Samsung’s goals with the S21 5G was to make it considerably more affordable than the S21+. In my opinion, they made smart decisions that don’t negatively impact the desirability of the phone to folks who’d like to save a couple hundred dollars. A smaller display was one, choice of some materials was another. The S21 back is made of polycarbonate plastic, as opposed to the glass found on the S21+ and S21 Ultra. It is of high quality though and actually feels a bit like glass, albeit not precisely the same. That also means that it’s somewhere between a run-of-the-mill plastic back and glass not only in terms of its look and feel, but also in how much it loves fingerprints. On a whole, I think the S21 5G looks and feels like a premium phone.
My temptation to go into an old-man rant about the lack of connectivity in new phones isn’t going to change anything, so I’ll spare you any fist-shaking at the clouds. As is par for the course now, there’s only one port here—a USB-C. And in the box you’ll get… a USB-C cable and a SIM tool.
Pro-tip: before your shiny new Galaxy S21 5G arrives, ensure that you have a charging block that takes USB-C as opposed to regular USB aka USB-A, and either Bluetooth headphones or a dongle to facilitate using your old wired headphones.
Verdict on the Galaxy S21 5G
It’s the moment of truth in this Galaxy S21 5G review—what does the iPhone guy think of this highly-touted Android? In short, the S21 is an excellent phone. The camera is spectacular, it’s powerful as all heck, it’s good looking and importantly, it’s intuitive and easy to use. Also, it’s great that there’s an S21 for every user. Need a bigger display and a more premium finish? The Galaxy S21+ 5G has you covered. Power users who desire a fire-breathing monster of phone with an outrageous camera set can level up to the S21 Ultra 5G.
Now, I’m not going to pretend I’m about to swear off iPhone and go everywhere wearing an Android hat, but without a doubt, I can report that the Samsung Galaxy S21 is a killer phone. To anyone in the market for an Android, I’d highly recommend checking it out. At $799 in the Ting shop, it’s a great price on a true flagship phone.