Earlier this year, Samsung launched three new smartphones comprising its 2021 flagship Galaxy S21 series. The Galaxy S21 Ultra is the top-of-the-line model and showcases some impressive camera hardware, which will appeal to those looking for the ultimate flexibility, no matter the cost. We’ve already tested the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and we were impressed with it, but it costs over Rs. 1,00,000.
If you don’t want to spend so much on a smartphone, there are other options that might be good enough. The 128GB storage variant of the Galaxy S21 is priced at Rs. 69,990 while the 256GB variant is priced at Rs 73,999. The Galaxy S21+ is priced at Rs. 81,999 and Rs. 84,999 respectively. In the US, the Galaxy S21 is priced much lower than the outgoing Galaxy S20, but that isn’t the case here in India, which could be because of taxes and currency rate fluctuations. So will the more affordable Samsung Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21+ make the cut? I put them through our tests to find out.
Samsung Galaxy S21+ and Galaxy S21 design
The Samsung Galaxy S21+ and the Galaxy S21 share the same design, and mainly differ in size. Samsung has also played around with materials this time. You get a glass-metal sandwich design with the Samsung Galaxy S21+, and it has Corning Gorilla Glass Victus at the front and the back. The smaller Galaxy S21 has Corning Gorilla Glass Victus at the front but has a plastic back. Under the same lighting, you can see the backs of these phones reflecting light differently. The touch feel is also different, and unsurprisingly, the Galaxy S21+ feels more premium. The one upside of the polycarbonate back of the Galaxy S21 is that it helps keep fingerprints off. However, considering the prices of these smartphones, Samsung should have offered a glass back on the Galaxy S21 as well.
Both these models have flat displays, so curved panels are reserved for the Galaxy S21 Ultra (Review). The Galaxy S21+ has a bigger 6.7-inch panel while the Galaxy S21 has a more manageable 6.2-inch display. You can choose from several colour options in India: Phantom Violet, Phantom Black, and Phantom Silver for the Galaxy S21+, and the same Phantom Violet, but different Phantom Grey, Phantom White, and Phantom Pink for the Galaxy S21. I had both phones in Phantom Violet, which is a new colour scheme for this generation, and really pops. If you want something understated, you might prefer the neutral colour options.
Samsung’s new design curves the metal frame right over the camera module, and you’ll see this on all three models in the Galaxy S21 series. On the Phantom Violet units I had, the frame has a striking gold finish. The frame is rounded along the sides making both smartphones comfortable to hold. The button and port placement is the same on both these smartphones. You have the power and volume buttons on the right, while the left of the frame is completely bare. The SIM tray, USB Type-C port, and primary microphone are at the bottom of each phone. I found the button placement to be convenient on the smaller Galaxy S21, while the bigger Galaxy S21+ needed me to stretch.
I found the Galaxy S21 to be perfect for single-handed use as I could reach all corners of the display without any issues, unlike the Galaxy S21+ which needed some in-hand shuffling. It is also lighter at 169g compared to the latter, which weighs 200g. Both models have IP68 ratings for dust and water resistance.
The Galaxy S21+ packs in a 4,800mAh battery while the Galaxy S21 has a 4,000mAh unit. Samsung has taken a leaf out of Apple’s book, so you don’t get a charger or a set of headphones in the box with either phone. You get a cable with USB Type-C connectors on both ends, which isn’t going to be useful unless you have a charger with a USB Type-C port.
Samsung Galaxy S21+ and Galaxy S21 specifications and software
Samsung has kept the core hardware of both models nearly identical, so if you are looking to buy a smaller smartphone, you won’t be compromising on performance, and that is a good thing. Both the Galaxy S21+ and the Galaxy S21 are powered by Samsung’s own Exynos 2100 5G SoC which is based on a 5nm manufacturing process just like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. You get 8GB of RAM as standard on both these devices but you can choose between 128GB and 256GB storage options. I would recommend the higher storage variants since storage is non-expandable.
Both the Galaxy S21+ and the Galaxy S21 get full-HD+ displays with 120Hz refresh rates. This seems like a downgrade in terms of resolution compared to their respective predecessors, the Galaxy S20+ (Review) and Galaxy S20, which both had quad-HD+ displays. If you do want such a high resolution, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is now the only one that offers that. The Galaxy S21 models all have ultrasonic fingerprint scanners under their displays and they are well positioned and easy to hit.
You get Android 11 out of the box with Samsung’s One UI 3.0 on top, similar to what we’ve seen on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. The UI feels slick and is intuitive to use. Samsung’s Edge Panel, which has app shortcuts, is just a swipe away. I had the March security patch on both these smartphones. Samsung has kept preinstalled bloatware down but you still get a few apps from Google and Microsoft, as well as Facebook and Netflix preinstalled. I found that the My Galaxy and Galaxy Shop apps pushed occasional notifications for offers and news. You can check out our Galaxy S21 Ultra review for more details on how One UI 3.0 works on these new Galaxy smartphones.
Samsung Galaxy S21+ and Galaxy S21 performance
Samsung might have restricted the displays of the two lower-end Galaxy S21 models to full-HD+ resolution, but that hasn’t limited them in terms of performance. The crisp AMOLED displays on both these smartphones offer punchy contrast. The refresh rate on both is set to Adaptive, which means it will change dynamically based on the content on the screen. You do have the option to lock it at 60Hz to preserve battery life though.
Both the Galaxy S21+ and the Galaxy S21 took everything I threw at them without any hiccups. I could multitask between multiple apps easily and apps loaded quickly. The Galaxy S21+ scored 595,576 in AnTuTu while the Galaxy S21 managed to score 536,273 in the same test. In PC Mark Work 2.0, the Galaxy S21+ scored 13,302 points while the Galaxy S21 managed 13,603 points. As for graphics benchmarks, the Galaxy S21+ managed 7,360 points in 3DMark Slingshot while the smaller Galaxy S21 wasn’t far behind at 7,578 points. Given that these smartphones are powered by the same hardware, I was not surprised that there weren’t any huge differences in the scores.
I played Call of Duty Mobile on the Galaxy S21+ at the “very High” settings for both Graphics and Frame Rate. I did not notice any lag or stutter during gameplay. I played for close to 15 minutes and noticed a 4 percent battery drop, which is acceptable. The back was barely warm to the touch.
Battery performance is one area in which these smartphones differ slightly since the Galaxy S21+ has a bigger battery. With my usage, the Galaxy S21+ lasted me about a day and a half while the smaller Galaxy S21 needed to be charged after a day of use. In our HD video loop test, the Galaxy S21+ managed to run for 16 hours and 34 minutes, while the Galaxy S21 ran for 14 hours and 6 minutes in the same test.
Since Samsung does not ship a charger in the box, I tested charging speeds using an 18W charger of my own. The Galaxy S21+ managed to get to 33 percent in 30 minutes and 67 percent in an hour, taking a little more than an hour and a half to charge completely. The Galaxy S21 was quicker to charge thanks to its smaller battery and got to 39 percent in 30 minutes and 79 percent in an hour.
Samsung Galaxy S21+ and Galaxy S21 cameras
Samsung has used the same sensors for the Galaxy S21+ and the Galaxy S21, so you can expect the same camera performance from both these devices. You get a triple camera setup with a 12-megapixel ultra-wide angle camera, a 12-megapixel wide-angle camera, and a 64-megapixel telephoto camera. For selfies, both have a 10-megapixel front camera. You don’t get 100X “Space Zoom” on these phones like you do on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but you do get 30X Space Zoom which should be adequate for most scenarios.
I shot a lot of photos using the Galaxy S21+ and the camera performance was impressive. The smartphone never struggled to lock focus, and metered light correctly every single time. Daylight shots taken with the Galaxy S21+ had excellent dynamic range and good detail. Text at a distance (including on moving cars) was legible. This phone managed to capture good detail in the shadows as well. Colour accuracy was very good, and the AI was quick to detect what I was pointing the phone at. The ultra-wide-angle camera offers a wider field of view while keeping distortion in check. Photos taken with it look good at first, but magnifying these shots reveal that it isn’t as sharp or as detailed as the primary camera.
The telephoto camera offers hard stops at 3X, 4X, 10X, 20X, and 30X zoom levels in the app but you can pinch to set it to any magnification level in between. The phone performs a digital zoom up to 30X and the camera app shows a preview when you go beyond 20X zoom. Photos shot at the 30X zoom level had decent detail even at that high magnification.
Close-up shots were crisp and had excellent detail. The phone also manages a soft blur for the background. Portrait shots had very good edge detection and you can choose between different filters. You also get to set the level of blur before taking a photo.
Samsung Galaxy S21+ close-up camera sample (tap to see full size)
Samsung Galaxy S21+ portrait camera sample (tap to see full size)
Low-light photos from the Galaxy S21+ did not have noise in the output. Brighter areas in scenes had better details compared to the shadows. Switching on Night mode makes the Galaxy S21+ crop into the frame to minimise shakes. It made images slightly brighter and enhanced details in the shadows.
Samsung boasts of 8K video recording with the Galaxy S21 series, which is stabilised but tops out at 24fps. There is no time limit on the footage you can capture, but I noticed that the phone heavily crops into the frame to stabilise the footage. You do have the option to shoot at 4K and 1080p resolution, and the footage was well stabilised. There’s also a Super Steady mode that could stabilise footage while I was pacing. Low-light video stabilisation was good at lower resolutions.
Selfies shot using the 10-megapixel front shooter were crisp. The phone was quick to focus and capture selfies. It also does portraits and could detect my face even with a mask on. Edge detection for portrait shots was quite good and I could set the level of blur before taking a shot. Low-light selfies were also sharp, and did not have noise in the output.
With the Galaxy S21 series, Samsung has changed the relative positioning of these three smartphones. If you want the absolute best, then the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the one to pick. Yes, its size makes it a bit unwieldy, but it has the best cameras and a higher-resolution curved-edge display.
When you look at the Galaxy S21+ and the Galaxy S21, the functional differences are mainly their size and battery life, as pretty much everything else is the same. Samsung has also cut a few corners on the Galaxy S21 by going for a polycarbonate back instead of glass. While this has resulted in a more aggressive price in the US, that isn’t the case here in India. At Rs. 69,990, the polycarbonate back feels like an unwanted compromise.
If you are specifically looking for something compact and powerful, the Galaxy S21 should keep you happy. If you don’t mind the bigger size and higher price, the Galaxy S21+ is the one to pick.