Samsung Galaxy S21+ review: Samsung’s forgotten middle child deserves your attention
For the last several years, Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S phones have been split into three variants: a kitchen sink smartphone at the high-end, an entry-level device, and that phone in the middle you probably don’t think about. This cycle, I’ve spent some time with Samsung’s middle child, the Galaxy S21+, and I came away impressed. It’s not as capable as the S21 Ultra, of course, but the form factor, build-quality, and features carve out a niche in the saturated smartphone market. I’d even go so far as to say the Galaxy S21+ is worth the $1,000 asking price for some people. When it inevitably goes on sale, though, the S21+ is a no-brainer.
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
The S21+ is the middle ground in Samsung’s new lineup. There’s the $800 S21 with its 6.2-inch screen and plastic back, and then you’ve got the $1200 S21 Ultra with a 6.8-inch screen, glass back, and improved cameras. The S21+ shares a lot of design elements with the other members of the S21 family, most prominently the camera hump and the hole-punch selfie camera. The S21+ camera sensors are unchanged from last year, but the physical shape of the camera module is different, merging seamlessly with the aluminum frame. The camera module feels more integral to the design this way, no longer an island of metal surrounded by glass. I am a fan of this design, even if it does make some cases a little less secure. The less impressive camera setup on the S21+ also doesn’t upset the phone’s balance as much; the Ultra feels very top-heavy with that huge camera hump.
Samsung’s build quality is within spitting distance of the iPhone, and the S21+ is the finest example of this. I know what you’re thinking: isn’t the S21 Ultra better? Well, yeah, in certain ways. It’s got better cameras and a larger battery, for instance, but it’s also big and heavy. The S21+ is svelte and sexy by comparison—it’s a full millimeter thinner and almost 30g lighter than the Ultra. Plus, the screen is only 0.1-inch smaller, and it’s a fully flat OLED panel rather than the slightly curved one on the Ultra. The resolution does take a step down to 1080p, but the clarity, brightness, and colors are all still excellent compared to other phones in this price range. I also love the minimal bezels all the way around the screen. This device looks like one of those futuristic all-screen smartphone renders from five or six years ago.
Left to right: S21, S21+, S21 Ultra.
There’s a new ultrasonic fingerprint reader under the OLED, as well, and like the Ultra, this one is much faster and more accurate than the old sensor. The performance is finally up there with capacitive sensors and the best optical in-display sensors. Just a quick tap, and the phone almost always unlocks. Given a choice, I prefer the new ultrasonic sensor to cheaper optical sensors because the screen doesn’t have to ramp the brightness in a dark room to scan your fingerprint.
The S21+ (top) is thinner and lighter than the S21 Ultra (bottom).
The back panel on the S21+ is glass like the S21 Ultra. The baby S21 has a polycarbonate plastic back, and while it’s a very nice plastic, it still doesn’t feel as sturdy as Samsung’s matte glass. The combination of the glass back, the thinner body, and the lower weight make the S21+ the best-feeling device in the S21 family.
Software, performance, and battery
I’m not going to bombard you with software specifics here because the S21+ Android build is essentially identical to the other members of the S21 family. You can check out our S21 Ultra review for a full rundown of the software. The gist is that Samsung made some notable improvements this year, but it’s still OneUI. That means you’re going to have a lot of Samsung apps, a few bits of bloatware, and some ads you’d probably prefer not to see. However, you can clean up most of that with a few tweaks, and I’m happy to see the latest version of Android on the S21+ while some OEMs are still launching devices with Android 10. Samsung even included Google Discover on the home screen (finally).
The S21+ has the same Snapdragon 888 as the other S21 devices, so the performance is not a problem. The phone is buttery smooth, even when multitasking or installing apps in the background. Some past Samsung flagships felt like they were begging for a little more power, but the S21 family has plenty of headroom. The S21+ has “only” 8GB of RAM, 50% less than the Ultra. However, 8GB is still sufficient for a flagship phone, in my experience. Apps don’t get booted from memory unexpectedly, and I can even leave games suspended in the background.
While this phone has a slightly smaller battery than the S21 Ultra, 4,800mAh appears to be plenty for the S21+, too. Even with heavy use, the S21+ has no trouble making it through a day. I’m seeing just shy of two days per charge, but it should be feasible to push it further with lighter usage. The 1080p screen probably helps here. However, Samsung needs to do something about its wired charging — 25W just isn’t fast enough. If you’ve got to buy a separate charger, you should at least be able to use a much faster one.
The S21+ shares its camera setup with the S21 rather than the S21 Ultra. That means most of the great things you’ve heard about Samsung’s new cameras won’t apply, but the S21+ still does alright. The S21+ has a 12MP primary, a 64MP for zoom and high-res video, and a 12MP ultrawide. While this hardware doesn’t up the ante like the S21 Ultra, Samsung’s image processing is a little better this year. The white balance looks more accurate indoors, and night mode captures seem noticeably faster. Samsung does still over-smooth images, even if it’s not quite as aggressive.
The 12MP primary sensor has a wide f/1.8 aperture and big 1.8um pixels, so it does well in various lighting conditions. The ultra-wide does a fine job outdoors, but it’s not as good for low-light. In general, Samsung favors longer exposures and pumped up colors. So, Samsung photos tend to look brighter and more vibrant, but they’re also more likely to be blurry than a photo from, say, a Pixel.
My biggest problem with the S21+ camera setup is that you don’t have true optical zoom, and Samsung’s processing foibles are easier to spot on digitally zoomed photos. The 64MP “telephoto” sensor has a lot of pixels to spare, but it’s not the same as optical. And the S21 Ultra gets two optical zoom cameras this year? It seems like Samsung could have given the S21+ at least one. The upshot is that you get 8K video recording on the S21+ via that same 64MP sensor. Now, if only there were any affordable 8K screens. Suffice it to say, Samsung’s priorities are out of wack here.
Should you buy it?
Yes. The Galaxy S21+ is slim, powerful, and it looks great. The S21 Ultra is undeniably a “better” phone, but it’s $200 more expensive and not nearly as comfortable to hold. The S21+ display is just a little smaller, and the drop in resolution isn’t a deal-breaker for me. In fact, I prefer the S21+ screen over the Ultra simply because it’s flat. Death to curved displays!
Unlike the baby S21, Samsung’s middle child has a glass back panel and a larger screen, making it an appealing option for people who don’t need the Ultra’s fancy camera array. Most of the time, I prefer using the S21+ to the Ultra… unless I’m taking a ton of photos. Then I do miss the enormous, fatigue-inducing Ultra just a bit. Honestly, the S21+ might have the best hand-feel of any Android phone on the market. The S21 and S21 Ultra have their place, but I understand the appeal of the Plus variant now.
At $1,000, the S21+ is on the pricey side. While I don’t think it’s a bad value, I believe a phone in this price range should have better camera hardware. The phone is already popping up on sale, though. As of this posting, the $800 sale price is a killer deal. It’s worth buying now if you think the S21+ is the right phone for you.
Buy it if…
- You want a fast, feature-packed phone with a great display.
- The S21 Ultra is too expensive or heavy for your tastes.
Don’t buy it if…
- You don’t mind hauling around big, heavy phones.
- You take a lot of photos, and you want the best cameras.
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