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Hands-on review: Samsung Galaxy S21 5G
Fri, 12th Feb 2021
FYI, this story is more than a year old

While there is absolutely an argument to be made that innovation in the smartphone industry is stagnating, very few can deny that the last few years have ushered in a growing trend of affordable, quality smartphones.

While most of the attention is usually focused on the higher end of flagship lines, which can cost upwards of NZ$2,000, I think it's absolutely worth taking a closer look at vendors' standard flagship devices, which are becoming increasingly more affordable without sacrificing the most sought-after features expected of a phone in 2021.

This is definitely true of the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G, the standard model of the Korean retail giant's latest flagship line.

With an RRP of $1,399 and coming in four colours (grey, white, violet and pink), the Galaxy S21 packs in everything an everyday user would want in a smartphone. 8GB of RAM is more than enough in a device this small, ensuring concurrent apps run smoothly — I had no troubles flicking from app to app, sometimes running 25+ simultaneously.

The screen especially wowed me. It was a marked improvement over last year's S20, which incidentally cost $200 more at launch than the S21. The Dynamic AMOLED Infinity-O display featured 2400 x 1080 resolution (421 ppi), and an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate, which made scrolling Twitter a smoother experience than any other I'd had. When I set my personal iPhone X next to the S21 and scrolled the same feeds simultaneously, the comparison was particularly damning for Apple.

The camera was also a hit. Three lenses adorn the back: a 64MP telephoto with hybrid optical zoom, a 12MP wide-angle, and a 12MP ultra-wide-angle. The 3x zoom on the telephoto lens got the job done, but I do wish Samsung went a bit further with the zoom capabilities on this model: for comparison, the S21 Ultra features an x100 Space Zoom.

Despite this, the lenses combined to take some very pretty shots, and combined with the AMOLED screen they came out looking vivid and dynamic.

One of the new features of the S21 is the Director's View mode in the Camera app, which enables users to take video with both the back lenses and the front-facing camera active, allowing for the increasingly popular reaction video: vloggers can now react on camera to opening a PR haul while also showing the package on camera. While I didn't make much use of this feature, I can appreciate its utility in a vlogger's/influencer's repertoire.

The size of the phone was also perfect for me. At 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm and 171 grams, it fit perfectly into my hand and slid easily into every pocket I tried. I'm still not sure what the craze is about giant smartphones — doesn't that defeat the point? Anyway.

The battery was also great — fast charging meant the S21 never took more than one and a quarter hours to charge, and a full charge would usually last me two full days.

Honestly, there's not much I can fault this phone for, apart from perhaps the lack of a charger in the box. At $1,400, it's definitely a mid-range phone monetarily, but its features push it more into high-end territory. For example, when comparing it to Samsung's high-end flagship, the S21 Ultra, the only differences are the display size and resolution, some camera specs, RAM/storage options, and battery capacity. That spec gap isn't really so large, especially considering the $800 chasm between the two models.

All in all, the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G is definitely worth a look if you're after a smartphone with some brunt and without an intimidating price tag.