I like small phones and I cannot lie. The best-seller list can deny, but when a phone comes in with an itty-bitty screen and I hold it to my face, I’m in love. Samsung’s smallest, most affordable Galaxy S21 ($799.99) sets the stage for 2021 phones with style and without breaking the bank, and it’s future-proofed with 5G technology so advanced that the networks to support it don’t exist yet. But I know small size and high quality isn’t a broadly appealing combo—just look at the poor iPhone 12 mini sales—and until the inevitable discounts kick in and the new 5G networks are launched, its price feels too high for its capabilities. So the less expensive, slightly larger Galaxy S20 FE ($700 list, often heavily discounted) remains our Editors’ Choice winner for Android phones right now.
The Galaxy S21’s bigger siblings are the $1,000 Galaxy S21 and the $1,200 Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s the successor to the S20, which originally listed for $1,000, and it lives in a sort of uneasy coexistence with the S20 FE, which is only a few months old and costs $700.
The fact that the S21 is coming right on the heels of the S20 FE is an artifact of our weird, COVID-19-plagued 2020. The S20 got its overpriced legs cut out from under it by the global pandemic and recession, and then the $800 iPhone 12 arrived and was much cheaper. The S20 FE was an attempt to right Samsung’s ship. The S21 also came out a month earlier than S-series phones usually do. So instead of a February phone following last February’s phone, we end up with a January phone following a surprise October phone, and a bit of a muddle.
After mulling over the S21 for a while, I think that if you choose to buy it now, you’re investing in a longer-lasting phone than if you bought a less expensive S20 FE or, say, a OnePlus 8T ($749). The S21 has 5G network features that don’t mean much now but may lead to better connectivity in 2022 or 2023. So if you tend to trade your phone in after a year or so, the S21 doesn’t obviously outrank the competition, but if you hang onto it for two or three, you’ll see the difference.
The smallest premium Android phone right now is a little bigger than last year’s. At 5.97 by 2.80 by 0.31 inches (HWD), it’s slightly wider than the S20’s 2.72 inches, but narrower than both the iPhone 12 (2.82 inches) and the S20 FE (2.93 inches). I count 2.8 inches wide as the maximum for a one-handed phone, so we’re riding the edge here. At 6.03 ounces, it’s heavier than the S20 (5.75 ounces) and the iPhone 12 (5.78 ounces), but lighter than the S20 FE (6.67 ounces).
S21 Ultra has, is best.)
I’m happy to say that the second-generation Qualcomm ultrasonic fingerprint sensor works more quickly and accurately than last year’s. I did have some trouble with face recognition, though, both with and without a mask on.
The S21 comes with 128GB or 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. Unlike on the S20 FE, there’s no microSD card slot. There’s also no headphone jack; you can plug in USB-C headphones or go wireless.
in that review (ultimately, it’s about 15% faster on processor and graphics measurements than the last generation). I didn’t see any real difference in performance between this 888-based phone and last year’s 865-based phones.
The difference, Qualcomm will surely remind us, is in features. Specifically on the S21, the 888 enables the Director’s View multi-camera mode, the improved Single Take mode, and the improved camera Night mode. It also enables a bunch of 5G features that will become more relevant when the networks catch up to them in 2022. Again, these are described more fully in the S21 Ultra review.
You can see more of what the 888 promises, feature-wise, in our Snapdragon 888 rundown.
Battery life is where small phones flounder, and the S21 is no exception. Battery anxiety might even be a reason for the relative unpopularity of the iPhone 12 mini.
The S21 has a 4,000mAh battery compared with the S21 ‘s 4,800mAh and the S21 Ultra’s 5,000mAh. With the screen on full brightness, the S21 lasted for 10 hours, 20 minutes of Wi-Fi streaming time and 7 hours, 20 minutes of 5G streaming time. That’s exactly an hour less, in both scenarios, than the S21 Ultra, and it falls well short of the S20 FE’s Wi-Fi streaming time of 12 hours, 30 minutes. That 5G use range of 7 to 8 hours is just about at the lower limit of tolerance if you use your phone intensively throughout the day.
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There’s no charger in the box. Samsung says you can use the included USB-C-to-USB-C cable with a charger you already have, but if your junk drawer only holds USB-A and micro USB chargers, you’ll still have to shell out for a USB-C one. If you buy Samsung’s 25W charger for $34.99, the battery will get to a 39% charge in 20 minutes and a full one in 70 minutes. An older 10W charger, like the one with the Galaxy S20 FE, manages 20% in 20 minutes and a full charge in 95 minutes. The S21 also supports 15W wireless charging, so you can always opt for a Qi-compatible wireless charging pad.
Battery anxiety is definitely a reason to turn to the S20 FE or the 8T. OnePlus addresses the small battery problem by offering ridiculously fast charging, but Samsung doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo.
The Galaxy S21’s camera system is very similar to the S20 and S20 ‘s in both specs and output. There’s a main 12MP camera, a 12MP 120-degree ultra-wide, and a 64MP, 3x optical telephoto that can get to 12x zoom without digital enhancement tricks.
C-band, the new 5G airwaves wireless carriers just spent more than $80 billion for.
At this moment, the S21 performs just like the S20 series and the iPhone 12 on the US 5G networks. I tested the S21 Ultra and S21 against an S20 and iPhone 12 on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks near my home in New York City and got pretty much the same performance. That’s because none of the carriers have laid in the new network features that would take advantage of the S21’s hardware. All of the US networks still rely on combining 4G with 5G to offer the best performance, something called non-standalone 5G. T-Mobile has been experimenting with standalone 5G, but that turns out to dramatically lower download speeds in exchange for lower latency, as you’re losing those 4G channels. They need more 5G airwaves before these features become useful.
This may all change in 2022. The new C-band airwaves will be wide enough for Verizon to provide standalone 5G in many cities; T-Mobile will also clear out enough of its mid-band airwaves that standalone will become more common on that carrier, too.
The S21 lacks some of the network frills that the S21 Ultra has, but they’re primarily 2022-era technologies anyway. We are only now starting to see the first Wi-Fi 6E routers, which cost more than $500. (The S21 has Wi-Fi 6, which isn’t even widespread yet.) UWB positioning technology, only present on the S21 Ultra, doesn’t have any real applications at present. The S21 does have Bluetooth 5.2, which improves Bluetooth audio with devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro by letting the phone stream to both earbuds at once, as opposed to streaming to one primary earbud that relays to the other.
It’s also worth pointing out that the unlocked S21 supports millimeter-wave 5G on all networks. With the small S20 and the S20 FE, if you want millimeter-wave, you have to get the Verizon-locked version. AT&T and T-Mobile haven’t made much noise about their millimeter-wave networks or plans over the past year, but they do exist, and if you want to have the potential to get onto those high-speed networks if they expand, then the unlocked S21 is a better bet than last year’s phones.
Samsung got basic call quality down years ago; the only issue is the lack of a headphone jack in the phone or a USB-C wired headset in the box. I’m very happy that the unlocked S21 supports Wi-Fi calling on all three major carriers; earlier unlocked models didn’t support it on AT&T.
When we gave the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE an Editors’ Choice award a few months ago, we called it “everything you need, and nothing else.” That’s still true. The Galaxy S21 definitely moves the bar up, but it does so with features that don’t quite justify the price for now. Yes, there are new camera modes; yes, low-light selfies are dramatically improved. Otherwise, the Snapdragon 888 doesn’t make a noticeable difference in performance, and the improved network features aren’t available yet.
I’m writing this during the week the S21 comes out. You might be reading it months (or even years?) from now. I suspect that the S21 will become a better buy later in 2021: It’ll likely be discounted, and the new network features will be closer to launch. For now, the Galaxy S20 FE still offers a better value for the power and battery life most people want.