EletiofeCheaper Yet Refined, Samsung’s Latest Galaxy Phones Are Great

Cheaper Yet Refined, Samsung’s Latest Galaxy Phones Are Great


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It’s an iterative year for Samsung’s latest flagship smartphones, where the company is simply improving on a year-old design instead of loading up the new devices with breakthrough features. But that’s not a bad thing. In fact, with the new Galaxy S21 series—which includes the Galaxy S21, S21+, and S21 Ultra—what you’re mostly getting is refined versions of last year’s models for a lower price. The small changes, not all of which are rosy, help make these Android phones some of the best money can buy.

Samsung loaned me a Galaxy S21 and a Galaxy S21 Ultra to test. The latter is the stand-out, taking a $200 price cut over its predecessor yet retaining an excellent camera system that just might be the best around at the moment. But even with that price cut, it’s still $1,200. Unless your eyes are on the top prize, the $800 S21 (which also took a $200 cut from the $1,000 S20) will satisfy your needs—though it won’t wow you.

Zoom Chat

I want to start with the only reason anyone should splurge for the S21 Ultra: The zoom camera. No, I don’t mean the fact that you can zoom in up to 100X on faraway objects; the quality at those zoom levels is poor. It’s the 10X optical zoom that really shines.

Do you need that level of zoom? No, but it doesn’t make me feel restricted by the hardware I’m using, which is something I’ve felt using phones with 2X or 3X optical zoom. Many phones don’t even have optical zoom, forcing you to digitally zoom and crop, stripping away image quality. This has been the norm for quite some time, so it’s nice to see Samsung leading the charge for something better. (In the US anyway; there are phones with similar zoom tech, but they’re not sold here.) We’ve reached a point in smartphone camera tech where the quality afforded at 10X is excellent most of the time, and it’s something I desperately want to see trickling down into more affordable handsets.

The camera array on the back of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Photograph: Samsung

I’ve snapped crisp, up-close photos of the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building in New York City, despite standing on the other side of the Hudson River in Brooklyn. The quality does start to dip when the sun sets (due to its narrower f/4.9 aperture, the Ultra’s zoom camera can’t absorb as much light as the other cameras), but it does an admirable job when paired with Samsung’s Night mode. This mode takes several images in the span of a few seconds and uses software to merge them together for a single final image that’s bright and clear.

There’s actually another 10-megapixel telephoto camera on the S21 Ultra this year. It affords 3X optical zoom that produces great-looking shots if you don’t need the higher level of zoom. It’s nice to have two options! The remaining cameras are a 12-megapixel ultrawide that’s excellent for tight spaces or for shooting sweeping landscapes, and a 108-megapixel main sensor for everyday snaps.

I went for a bike ride around Brooklyn testing the S21 Ultra alongside the S21, last year’s S20+, iPhone 12 Pro Max, and Google’s Pixel 5. My takeaway is that most of the time, the Ultra comes out on top—even with the selfie camera! It might not be the best at handling high-contrast scenes or portraits, and colors can sometimes be off, but it often produces the sharpest images of the lot. That’s largely true when using Night mode, though the iPhone and Pixel are far more forgiving of camera shake. If you don’t hold the S21 absolutely still while shooting in the dark, you’ll probably need to retake the shot.

Pair this with the fact that you just can’t get the same quality at 10X zoom on competing phones, and it makes the S21 Ultra something truly special.

What about the standard S21 then? Only the 12-megapixel ultrawide camera is the same. Its main camera has 12 megapixels, and it only has one 64-megapixel telephoto that can go up to 30X hybrid zoom, but at 10X zoom, images aren’t all that sharp. It’s not as fun of a system to use. Overall, its results are comparable to Apple and Google’s phones, which is to say it’s still very good, sometimes edging out the latter.

  • Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Ultra Review Pro Zoom

  • Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Ultra Review Pro Zoom

  • Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Ultra Review Pro Zoom

Photograph: Julian Chokkattu

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, main camera. This photo has a great mix of sharp details (if you zoom all the way in), pleasant colors, and a well-balanced exposure. Nothing is shrouded in darkness. The main 108-megapixel sensor merges pixels so they can absorb more light, resulting in photographs that are 12 megapixels by default. Compare this shot with the following one. 

These Galaxy phones retain their titles as some of the best Android phones for capturing video too. Yes, you can use any of the S21 phones to shoot in 8K, but as nothing really supports 8K playback, I often find you’re better off shooting in 4K at 60 frames per second or 30 fps with HDR. The footage looks great. If you’re running around, you can use the excellent Super Steady mode for smoother video clips (though this only works at 1080p). A new Director’s View lets you film with the front and rear cameras at the same time, in case you want to show off your reaction with whatever’s happening in front of you.

Video quality is still not quite good enough to dethrone the iPhone 12 Pro Max (there’s often a lot of grain in the S21 Ultra), but it comes very close.

Hits and Misses

The Ultra feels more like a camera than anything else, but I swear, it’s a phone too! It has much in common with the S21 and S21+ (we go over many of the fine details here), like smooth performance thanks to Samsung’s use of the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chipset. Games like Dead Cells and Genshin Impact suffer zero stutters, and you’ll have no trouble juggling multiple apps at lightspeed.

The phones’ respective Dynamic AMOLED displays are exquisite too. Whites don’t look as yellowish as last year’s models, an improvement. I watched (and enjoyed) Netflix’s Lupin on the S21 Ultra’s massive 6.8-inch screen, where it looked excellent with punchy colors, inky blacks, and a very bright screen. But the very same screen can also be a detriment; the Ultra is too big. It’s not as uncomfortable to hold as other large-screen phones, but I strongly prefer the 6.2-inch screen size of the S21. It’s much more manageable. (The S21+, which I haven’t tested, has a 6.7-inch screen.)

Everything looks smooth on these screens, thanks to the 120-Hz refresh rate, which lets you see up to 120 frames per second as opposed to the 60 fps standard on traditional smartphone displays. This faster refresh rate helps anything fast-moving, from games to a scrolling Twitter feed, appear smoother and more lifelike. The S21 Ultra is the only phone of the three that can offer the 120-Hz rate at the phone’s maximum resolution of 3,200 x 1,440 pixels. The S21 and S21+ only offer 120 Hz at a slightly lower resolution. But that’s OK, as I never found the S21’s 2,400 x 1,080 resolution lacking.

What’s not as stellar is battery life. It’s not poor, but it’s not great either. If you’re a heavy user (like if you regularly hit more than five hours of screen-on time every day), there’s a good chance you’ll need to plug in before bedtime. The S21 Ultra’s 5,000-mAh battery dipped to 30 percent by 10 pm with around three and a half hours of screen-on time, and the S21’s 4,000-mAh cell hit 23 percent by midnight after four and a half hours of screen-on time. Keep in mind that all of this varies greatly depending on what you’re doing. For most people, these phones will easily last a day. Just don’t expect them to run for long the next morning.

Still, so far so good, right? Here comes the bad news. The S21 phones no longer have a MicroSD card slot to expand your storage. Most people likely won’t care, but it’s a slap in the face to anyone who relies on these cards to transfer files, photos, and other media between devices. Samsung says it offers cheaper storage upgrades (doubling the base amount of 128 gigabytes costs just $50 more), but MicroSDs let you greatly expand your storage (up to 1 terabyte!) for not much more, so it still sucks to see the omission here.

Other stripped out features include Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST), which allowed you to use Samsung Pay at any store that takes credit cards, an actual perk over other contactless payment systems that only rely on NFC. But Samsung says standard NFC adoption in retail sales is widespread enough so … MST gets the ax. Anecdotally, even my local deli takes NFC payments, but the enhanced MST feature is still one of those things that’s nice to have.

Lastly, when you buy a new Galaxy S21 phone, the power adapter and earbuds are no longer included in the box. This move follows a similar one Apple made last year to curb unnecessary electronic waste. Just like Apple, Samsung justifies the change by saying many customers have compatible chargers lying around already. I’d rather see Samsung ask consumers if they want a charger included (for free) or not. Now, if you genuinely don’t have a USB-C adapter, you can fork over an extra $20 to Samsung and get one shipped in its own box alongside the one the phone comes in.

Worthwhile Phones

If those last few drawbacks aren’t of much concern to you, then these remain excellent new phones. Samsung didn’t send me an S21+ to test (it’s very similar to the S21), but I often find the phone in the middle of the lineup isn’t the best value. If you want a larger screen, pay extra for the S21 Ultra so you can take advantage of a much better camera system. Plus, the Ultra now supports Samsung’s S Pen stylus (a separate $40 purchase) in case you want to doodle or jot notes with something other than your fingers.

These phones look smart too. The S21 might have a plastic back (that just makes it more durable), but I love the various colors and accents you can choose from. Phantom Violet and Phantom Pink are my favorites. The S21 Ultra sadly only comes in some dull tones.

But I’d feel guilty if I didn’t say this: If you just want a good, dependable phone, you do not need to pay anywhere close to this much money (especially in this economy). Our top pick for Android phones, the Google Pixel 4A, is just $350 and will do the job just fine.

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