Unlike the S21 Ultra, which has a quad-camera setup on the back with a 108-megapixel main sensor and a pair of telephoto lenses, the S21 only has three cameras: a 12 MP main sensor, an ultra-wide one from 12 MP and a 64 MP Telephoto Lens. This telephoto lens also only supports 3x hybrid optical zoom, compared to the Ultra’s 3x and 10x optical zooms.
This difference in hardware means that the S21 only offers a “Space Zoom” up to 30x, as Samsung likes to call it, instead of the 100x on the Ultra. That’s fine with me – never in my life have I ever felt the need to zoom in on a subject 100x, and I doubt most people have either. The Ultra’s higher lenses also offer slightly better quality when you’re between 3x and 10x zoom. On the S21, images beyond the 10x zoom were muddy. But I have found the functionality sometimes useful. I was able to find out what brand of toilets were installed in the building that went up a few blocks away. I still wouldn’t post most of these images on Instagram, but I could see this useful in very specific scenarios.
One improvement Samsung has made here is to offer a zoom lock feature that helps minimize jitter when you’re at 20x zoom and beyond. When you are at this level, a box will appear at the top left of the viewfinder and tap it to set the scene boundaries. As my hand shook, the scene remained steady and I had to move the phone deliberately enough to get away from the locked frame.
Space zoom aside, I appreciated the versatility of the S21’s tri-camera setup. Getting a photo of the cityscape from my window and switching sensors to get wider, closer views was fun. With the new director view mode, you can also get a live preview of what each camera sees and choose your favorite. Director’s View also works for video capture and I simultaneously filmed a beautiful sunset and my reaction from the selfie camera. While recording, I could switch between views by tapping the corresponding thumbnail on the right. This is probably more useful for TikTok and Instagram posts, although it is not natively supported on these apps. You will need to shoot a video with the Samsung camera app and upload your clip.
Some of the other updates that Samsung has highlighted are improved single and night take modes, and for the most part, they feel incremental. There are also new bokeh and lighting options in Portrait mode which Samsung says use AI and 3D depth analysis for more precise outlines and effects. Honestly, I found most of these adjustments to be negligible – the software still can’t apply a natural blur around the strands of hair around my head, but lowering the intensity helped to minimize the difference.
All the new features aside, the cameras on the S21 are mostly decent. The photos and selfies were crisp and colorful, and I sometimes couldn’t tell them apart from the photos I had taken with a Pixel 5. Google’s flagship always takes much sharper and crisper photos, especially when you review the details. But Samsung’s cameras will be good enough for most users and, at least on paper, are comparable to IPhone 12 triple sensor setup. The OnePlus 8T, meanwhile, has a 5 MP macro camera instead of a telephoto option and adds a 2 MP monochrome sensor to the mix.
One surprising thing that sets Samsung flagships apart from the competition is the software. I generally prefer Google’s Pixel UI, and with One UI 3 Samsung has made a few changes to mimic that experience. For one thing, the page to the left of the home screen is now Google’s Discover feed, which is much cleaner than Samsung’s Bixby-infested Daily.
The Gallery app and its built-in editor are also more useful than Android’s, thanks to nifty video editing and screenshot tools. On the S21, if you enable Labs when editing an image, you can use the new Object Eraser to get rid of unsightly background items. As someone living in an inevitable mess, I loved the promise of this feature. You tap on the items you want to delete and the system will highlight them in purple. When you’re done choosing what you want to erase, hit Clear and they’ll be replaced with an automatically generated “background”.
The effectiveness here largely depends on your scene – if the background is clean enough with few patterns and your object has an obvious outline, this tool works fine. But for things like a cardboard box on my door, the S21 eraser was… fine. He removed the box but the background had visible streaks. This is understandable though, the same functionality in Adobe Photoshop still leaves similar marks.
Another bonus is the Samsung Free app (formerly called Samsung Daily) which allows you to watch TV channels, read certain publications and play games for free. I didn’t think it would be so convincing until I found myself staring excessively Kitchen nightmares one night while browsing Reddit. There are dozens of channels available including Paramount Movie Channel, AMC Presents, MTV Pluto, ION Plus, and TV Land Sitcoms. You can watch them on your phone, fullscreen or picture-in-picture, and at the moment I don’t see a way to stream them to my Google TV. It’s a small and maybe underrated feature, but it’s nice to see, especially at a time when every company is trying to sell you a new streaming service.
Performance and battery life
Since I am in the US my S21 came with a Snapdragon 888 (with 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage). Elsewhere, you might get a version with the Exynos 2100, and users around the world have complained about the poor performance and battery life of previous Exynos phones. Those of us in America don’t have to worry – it’s Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line processor and it delivers predictable blazing performance. I recorded the screen while playing around with various blur and portrait lighting modes and jumped in and out of a lag-free TV show.
Typically the phone was left for a day and a half (sometimes even two days) before needing to be recharged. In our video digest test with adaptive refresh rates enabled, the S21 managed 15 hours and 17 minutes with the same 4,000mAh cell as its predecessor. It’s better than the S20, which lasted just over 12 hours, as well as the OnePlus 8T and Pixel 5, despite those two larger batteries.
The battery life will of course suffer if you use more things like 5G and high refresh rates, so I expect to get closer to a day of use every time I travel again. The S21 is also one of the first devices to offer the new WiFi 6E standard which exploits a new spectrum for higher speeds and capacity. Since I don’t have compatible router, however, I was unable to test this.
Unsurprisingly, the S21 is a good phone. It has a powerful processor, a beautiful screen, powerful cameras and a long battery life. It even has useful software and a gorgeous new design in eye-catching colors. At $ 800, the S21 is more reasonably priced than its stable mates. If you prefer a pure Google experience and want to save $ 100, the Pixel 5 may be good enough for you. But the S21 has a more versatile camera setup and a faster processor, making it the best Android phone for the money.