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Samsung Galaxy S21 review

The standard model of Samsung's flagship series gets tested out.
Image taken by Drew Evans of CNET

A little bit earlier than we’ve come to expect, Samsung has launched the latest range of its flagship S series. With three phones released in the range, the Galaxy S21 is the standard model, and compared to a lot of other premium smartphones - it’s pretty affordable too.

So what’s new about the Samsung Galaxy S21? How do the specs look? Should you splash your cash or save it for another smartphone? Let’s find out.

First impressions and design

DSC06155 Image taken by Drew Evans of CNET

The Samsung S21 is a very good looking phone. We got our hands on the pink variant which is eye-catching and stylish. This S21 is the standard model of the range, so instead of glass on the back you’ll find a plastic casing. This might give it slightly less of a premium feel, but it helps keep the cost down and still looks good.

The three rear cameras sit on top of each other, on the right-hand side. The gold coloured finish meshes particularly well with the pink design.

Flip the phone over to get a look at the 6.2 inch screen, complete with punchhole selfie camera that sits unobtrusively in the top middle position. As with the previous series, the key buttons sit on the frame on the right. The power on button sits just below the volume rocker.

If you want to use the power button as a traditional on-off switch , you’ll have to alter it within the settings. To access the settings menu, just hit both the volume down and power button simultaneously.

Rounding out the overall design of the phone, the charging port sits at the bottom of the phone.

Display

Screen wise, the S21 has a FHD+ display with an adaptive 120 Hz screen refresh rate, which makes getting through menus and scrolling through Twitter a smooth experience. Adaptive means it provides a higher rate when you need the performance and spares the battery when you don’t.

So whether your just scrolling through your daily socials or streaming an HD movies, you’ll always have an enjoyable screen experience on S21.

However, one issue that you might face is with the screen’s level of brightness. It is likely to struggle when faced with intense sunlight. Even when on maximum brightness the result wasn’t overly impressive.

The screen does still come with a fingerprint sensor built-in meaning that you’re able to forgo that awkward fumble for a scanner that’s typically on the side of a phone.

Facial unlock is also available if you prefer to secure your smartphone that way. If you want to keep it old school, then you can always set a pattern or password.

Camera

The cameras on the S21 are generally the same as last year’s effort, but with some software update to help you take even better photos.

There is a 64MP telephoto, 12MP wide angle lens, as well as a 12MP ultra wide camera. The selfie camera is 10MP.

The hardware may be the same but the tech giant has at least brought new features to the party. Less giant leaps forward and more improvements to what has come before

An interesting new feature is that of the Director Mode. This gives you a view of the rear cameras which you can instantly cut between during filming.

This might be useful if you’re looking to do a bit of basic filming to impress your fans on YouTube.

Other features at your disposal include, Night Mode, Portrait for photo and video, Panorama, and slow-motion. There is even a food photo mode for all the Instagram foodies.

If you’re looking to take video and pictures all at the same time, then you might want to check out the Single Take mode.

This feature allows you to video a scene and then the phone selects what it thinks is the best footage, which you can then select from. It will even make editorial decisions for you, such as changing the speed of the footage and adding music.

This will be a handy mode for anyone who has been named photographer in chief for a family wedding and is desperately trying to keep up. For all the bells and whistles it boils down to the simple question of does the phone take good pictures and video? And to that we say, yes it does.

We took a couple shots of a willing canine and the images turned out to be sharp with a good level of brightness to them. In fact, when looking at other pictures of a red chair and white door we found that the images came out a tad too bright to be a picture-perfect (pun intended) rendering.

This won’t be a major problem for most people, who will enjoy being able to take good looking photos of family gatherings, nights out, and the perfect Insta selfie.

The purists will have to do a bit of settings tweaking to strike the right balance. The Pro mode allows some control over things like, contrast, white balance, and focus.

The mode isn’t particularly helpful in explaining what each feature does and so might not be easy for beginners.

The selfie snapper impressed as it gave us the option to choose between a natural or brighter setup.

If you select the latter you can use the sliding scale to manufacture the right lighting experience.

Performance and battery life

To facilitate the smooth running of the phone the S21 comes with 8 GB of RAM. The handset should also offer plenty of memory to store those important moments.

The standard S21 comes in two forms. A 128GB version and the 256 GB variant. Unfortunately, there is no microSD slot on the phone, so you’ll have to make do with what the phone offers.

The S21 worked well during our time with it and displayed no obvious signs of lag or slowdown. The base model packs exactly the same battery as the S20 at 4000mAh.

This will comfortably get you through the day with ordinary use, but if you’re planning an intense day of streaming the battery will drain much quicker.

With intent screen usage we took the battery down from 69% to 40% in just under two hours.

For those who are prone to dropping their phone, you will be pleased to know that the S21 has received an important upgrade. According to Corning the new Gorilla Glass Victus can survive a drop onto a hard surface from up to 2m.

The handset also holds an IP68 water and dust resistance. This means that it should be able to withstand immersion in water up to 1.5 m. So don’t be too worried if you accidentally drop it in the sink.

Accessibility

DSC06165 Image taken by Drew Evans of CNET

Is the Samsung S21 good for people with a visual impairment?

Notable features

  • Magnifier
  • TalkBack
  • Read aloud apps

The Samsung S21 is good for people with a visual impairment.

The device has all the traditional features of an Android phone plus one or two added extras prepacked. This includes a high contrast keyboard.

One of the biggest features in the Android suite is TalkBack. The option serves as the phone’s screen reader.

Once switched on it will read everything in a selected field, including notifications, apps, Internet articles, as well as battery and signal bar levels.

TalkBack does its best to make a phone accessible even to people with no sight.

Enabling the function does however change how you interact with your phone.

Rather than using a single tap to open an app, or one finger to pull down the notifications bar, you will need to tap twice to open an app, and use two fingers to see notifications.

Because the interface requires multi-finger gestures those with a visual impairment and a physical disability such as cerebral palsy may find using their phone tricky.

We recommend avoiding TalkBack if you can, and instead focus on font and display size, as well as using a reliable read aloud app.

Speaking of a read aloud app, the Samsung S series does not have one preinstalled. We recommend installing Text to Voice Read Aloud from the Google play store. It’s reliable and easy to work with.

If you need something read aloud, select the text, then select share on the appearing menu and finally choose the app. If that doesn’t work simply select the text, and then paste it into a text message space, and follow the previous steps.

It sounds a little convoluted, but trust us it is a quick process.

Is the Samsung S21 good for people with hearing loss?

Notable features

  • Hearing aid support
  • Live caption
  • Set hearing balance

The Samsung S21 has a good range of options for people with hearing loss.

The phone comes with hearing aid support on board as well as the ability to set a preferred balance between your left and your right ear.

You can also switch to Mono audio, which channels sound typically intended for the left or the right ear into one stream for both.

The Hearing section of the Accessibility menu boasts the handset’s best feature. Live caption is an option which when switched on, captions most types of audio visual media. This is regardless of whether the app itself has a subtitle track or not.

From Twitter videos, to a BBC sounds podcast, the system will caption the broadcast from scratch and via the phone. This goes for live or pre-recorded content.

When we tested the software it was very accurate although not perfect. It also worked quickly and may be too fast for some to keep up.

Live caption will work so long as the app in question grants access to its audio stream, and is not a music app.

This is a great feature for those that want to enjoy a favourite TV show or stay in the current affairs loop, whether they can hear audio or not.

Is the Samsung S21 good for people with a physical disability?

Notable features

  • Assistant menu
  • Universal switch
  • Touch and hold delay

Your experience will largely depend on what kind of weight you feel comfortable holding. The standard S21 comes in at 169g the plus variant is 200g, while the Ultra is a hefty 229g.

This is even heavier than last year’s Ultra which only weighed in at 220g so you can be sure it is going to feel very heavy at first. On the other end of the spectrum the standard addition is light and easy to hold.

Once the phone is switched on there are a few useful assets at your disposal. Not least among them is the Assistant menu.

Not to be confused with either Google assistant or the Accessibility menu itself, Assistant menu provides a virtual control panel. This movable control provides one touch options for actions that would otherwise require either physical button presses or more complex finger gestures.

For example, you can take a screenshot, pinch zoom, trigger notifications, and the volume controls. This is a handy tool for those people who struggle to move their hands around the phone, or perform multi-finger gestures. Universal switch is also available on the device.

Also known as Switch access, it allows for specialist buttons called switches to perform functions like app selection.

Buttons can be connected via Bluetooth or USB. Samsung also claims the ability to assign actions based on head or eye movement.

Value and verdict

The Galaxy S21 is a great new smartphone and a worthy standard model of Samsung’s flagship lineup.

You get a tried and tested camera setup complete with software improvements, a big, bright screen, 5G connectivity and a nice new design.

Sure, it’s not a drastic overhaul on the S20, but at a price of £779, it’s a premium specced-smartphone that’s available at a great price - especially when you compare it to some other smartphones on the market.

If you’ve got an older Samsung and you’ve got an upgrade coming up - it’s a no-brainer. And if you do want something a bit flashier, there’s always the S21 Plus or S21 Ultra to choose from.

Right now, Vodafone has some great deals on the S21. Take a look at our pick of Vodafone's Samsung Galaxy S21 deals.

Need help picking a smartphone? Compare all the latest handsets in our Handset League Table

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