Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus full review
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus is the awkward middle child of the S21 family: it’s slightly bigger and better than the standard Galaxy S21, but it’s not quite the all-singing, all-dancing Galaxy S21 Ultra – but that’s not to say there’s not a place for the Galaxy S21 Plus in this big, crowded world.
The bigger display and better battery life of the Galaxy S21 Plus make it more tempting than the entry-level model, and with a price cut compared to the S20 Plus, it’s much cheaper than the high-end S21 Ultra too. But with so many similarities to its predecessor, is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus worth the money? Well…
Design and build
While the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus shares similarities with its predecessor, design certainly isn’t one of them, with the entire S21 range sporting a more sophisticated look complete with a new rear camera housing that almost merges with the bezels that surround the phone.
It’s a premium look to suit Samsung’s flagship Galaxy range, and the new colour options – particularly the gold and purple combination supplied for review – look great, but if purple isn’t your thing, it’s also available in silver, black, gold and red, although the latter two options are exclusive to those buying directly from Samsung.
That colourful rear is protected by glass, an upgrade from the ‘glasstic’ rear of the standard Samsung Galaxy S21, giving it a more premium feel in the hand, and the matte finish means it’s not much of a fingerprint magnet either.
Flip it over and you’ll find a flat 6.7in AMOLED display with tiny bezels and a centrally placed holepunch selfie cam, offering an 88.6% screen-to-body ratio.
Some may be disappointed at the departure of the curved edges featured in recent releases, and while I agree that curved displays look nicer than flat counterparts, manufacturers never really nailed the palm rejection tech. That meant mispresses were commonplace, and there were also issues with text curving around the edges in apps, so it’s a smart move overall.
It’s likely that after using the phone for a day or two, you won’t even notice the lack of curved edges – I certainly didn’t.
But despite the large display on offer, the Galaxy S21 Plus doesn’t feel particularly large or heavy in the hand, measuring in at 75.6 x 161.5 x 7.8mm and 202g. Of course, this will depend on personal preference, so you might be better with the smaller 6.2in Galaxy S21 if you struggle with larger smartphones.
There’s also IP68 dust and water resistance on offer, meaning the S21 Plus is fine to use in the rain, and it might even survive a dunk in the water – although I wouldn’t leave it submerged for too long if I were you, as water damage isn’t actually covered by Samsung’s warranty. You’ve been warned.
In a world where new smartphones generally boast more cameras, more pixels and more power, Samsung took the rather controversial decision to scale back the resolution of the Galaxy S21 Plus compared to its predecessor. While last year’s S20 Plus featured a high-res QHD+ panel, the S21 Plus tops out at a Full HD+ resolution. On paper, at least, that’s a big downgrade.
In real life, however, it’s barely noticeable – even with a large 6.7in AMOLED display on offer. It’s likely that only those who have been using the S20 Plus that’d notice a downgrade when watching high-res movies, but with relatively few changes on offer, chances are there won’t be many S20 Plus users investing in the new model anyway.
For the rest of us, the display boasts a 394ppi pixel density that leaves text, apps, photos and games looking crisp and sharp, and the bright 409nits display means it’s fine for use outside too. Plus, more pixels require more power, so why waste valuable battery life on something you won’t notice most of the time? Full HD+ is likely the sweet spot for most.
Besides, one of the likely reasons for ditching the high-res display is that you previously had to choose between a high resolution and high refresh rate, and given that the 120Hz refresh rate is much more immediately noticeable, it’s likely that most S20 Plus owners opted for the latter.
This time around you’ve got the adaptive 120Hz refresh rate as standard, making animations and scrolling a buttery-smooth delight. It’s smart enough to automatically adjust the refresh rate from as little as 48Hz all the way up to 120Hz, depending on what you’re doing, in a bid to improve battery life. Gaming will get you the full 120Hz experience, while less graphically focused tasks like listening to a podcast will reduce the refresh rate, and it’s usually on the money.
Resolution and refresh rate aside, the other big change on offer is in the in-display ultrasonic fingerprint scanner, which is 70 percent larger than that of the S20 Plus, making it easier to locate and unlock your phone.
Some have complained about the performance of the in-display scanner of the S21 Plus, but I haven’t found this to be the case, successfully scanning my print and unlocking the phone most of the time, and the larger area means it’s easy to initiate the scan too.
Specs and performance
Samsung famously likes to split its processor offering in its flagship Galaxy S range, which usually results in those in the US getting access to Qualcomm chips while most of the world uses Samsung’s own Exynos chipsets. And, considering the fact that Qualcomm’s chips usually offer better performance and battery life than the Exynos chips, it's been a pain-point for UK and European buyers – until now.
No, Samsung hasn’t decided to ship a Qualcomm-enabled Galaxy S21 Plus around the world – the 5nm flagship Snapdragon 888 is still a US exclusive – but the Exynos 2100 chipset has come along leaps and bounds, finally offering comparable performance to Qualcomm’s option. Being based in the UK, this review will focus on the Exynos-powered variant of the S21 Plus.
The big question is, how does it perform in benchmarks? It’s good news for the Exynos-powered Galaxy S21 Plus, hitting 3589 in multi-core Geekbench 5 CPU tests and 43fps in the highest quality Aztec Ruins OpenGL GFXBench benchmarks, easily competing with most of the competition in 2021. You can take a look at the benchmark breakdown here:
Of course, benchmarks are a good way to quantify performance, but it never tells the full story. In real-world performance, the Galaxy S21 Plus is blisteringly fast: apps open instantly, it can handle media-heavy apps like Twitter and Facebook without a hint of stutter and it can power high-end mobile games like Call of Duty Mobile without breaking a sweat.
That super-fast experience is further enhanced by the buttery smooth 120Hz refresh rate, making the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus a joy to use on a daily basis.
Like its standard sibling, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus sports 8GB of RAM as standard. That’s more than enough for the average joe, but if you’re the type to multitask and edit/export videos on the go, the S21 Ultra’s 12- or 16GB of RAM may be more up your street.
That’s paired with either 128 or 256GB of storage, but unlike some rivals, this is more important as there isn’t a microSD card slot on any of the S21 range. Considering it has long been a strong advantage for Android phones compared to the iPhone, it is disappointing to see it disappear from Samsung’s 2021 flagship Galaxy range – especially if you intend on recording a lot of videos and downloading a bunch of apps.
In terms of connectivity, expect to find the latest and greatest including 5G, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0 and support for ultra-wideband (UWB), allowing for easier location of Samsung’s new Bluetooth tracker among other SmartThings benefits.
When it comes to software, the Galaxy S21 Plus runs Android 11 with Samsung’s One UI 3.1 skin. Samsung’s One UI has come a long way in the past few years, offering unique features including Samsung DeX support, and it’s generally slick in operation, but there are some nuances to get used to if you’re coming from a device running stock Android.
It’s worth noting that while the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus will get the upgrade to Android 12, don’t bet on it happening anytime soon. Even if Google releases the software in the next few months, Samsung is a little slower than the likes of OnePlus when it comes to releasing the update to its existing range, and we don’t envision it hitting before the end of 2021 or, more likely, early 2022.
One area that has remained largely unchanged is the camera department, with the Galaxy S21 Plus sporting what is essentially the same setup as that of the S20 Plus, compromised of a 12Mp main snapper, 12Mp ultra-wide and a 64Mp telephoto lens with 3x hybrid zoom. That may sound disappointing, but considering the great performance from the Galaxy S20 Plus, it’s not a huge complaint.
As expected, shots from the main 12Mp rear snapper are detailed, vibrant and offer great colour accuracy, and the f/1.8 aperture means it excels in the low-light department too, further enhanced by the camera’s dedicated Night Mode. It’s a versatile snapper that you’ll likely be using most of the time.
The 120-degree ultra-wide-angle captures more of the scene with a slightly more warped fisheye perspective that can distort at the edges, but depending on what you’re snapping, it’s not really much of an issue. It’s ideal for landscape photography, and it’ll be great to capture group shots once we can all begin meeting up in large groups again.
It’s not quite as capable in low light as the main snapper with an f/2.2 aperture, but using it in conjunction with the Night Mode usually produces decent results.
The telephoto lens offers a 3x hybrid zoom that produces results you’d be happy to share on social media, but that quickly stops as you increase the digital zoom to 10x, 20x or the maximum 30x zoom. The digitally magnified shots generally lack any real detail, comparable to CCTV footage from the early 00s, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be using it all that often.
On the flip, you’ll find a 10Mp selfie camera that’s bright and detailed enough for selfies and, arguably more important during a pandemic, it’s great for video calls too.
That’s all very familiar, but the lack of hardware changes meant Samsung could focus on improving the software side of things.
One such new feature is Director’s View, allowing you to take photos and videos using the front and rear cameras at the same time. That’s great for vloggers that want to capture reaction shots as they’re recording footage on the rear camera, merging the two shots into one without the need for editing software, and it generally works pretty well. You’ve even got a preview of all three rear cameras at once, allowing you to preview and change lens mid-recording.
There are also improvements to the Single Take mode introduced on the Galaxy S20 range, which for the unitiated, takes photos and videos using all three rear-facing cameras at the same time and, using AI, presents what it thinks are the best shots. It works much the same as it did previously, but with the new addition of slo-mo video support, making it a handy feature when trying to get a snap or a video of a fast-moving subject like a child or a pet.
What is slightly disappointing is the return of [email protected] video – it was present on the Galaxy S20 range at the same framerate, and given the boost in performance and the claims of [email protected] video on offer from both the Snapdragon 888 and Exynos 2100, it’s disappointing not to see an increase on the Galaxy S21 Plus. Even 30fps would’ve provided slightly smoother high-res footage.
In reality, though, it’s unlikely you’ll be shooting in 8K anytime soon given the huge file sizes and the lack of 8K TVs to be able to actually enjoy the extra detail on offer. More useful are the [email protected] or 60fps options and 240fps slow-mo modes also available on the Galaxy S21 Plus.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus sports a 4,800mAh battery, but as we know from previous Samsung phones, a large capacity doesn’t equate to great battery life – it also depends on how power-efficient the chipset is, and that’s traditionally where the Exynos chipset has struggled.
The good news is that Samsung has made strides in that department. The Galaxy S21 Plus comfortably makes it through a full day with moderate use, including texting, taking the occasional photo and playing a game or two of Call of Duty Mobile, and if you use your phone less often, it could extend to around a day and a half before needing a top-up. You could further extend it by capping the display refresh rate at 60Hz, but where’s the fun in that?
Interestingly, Samsung has dropped the fast charge of this year’s range, capping it at 25W compared to 45W on offer from last year’s model, but Samsung claims that it’s due to improved efficiency of the 25W charging capabilities.
It’s not a claim that can be easily tested though, as Samsung followed Apple’s example and has decided not to ship earbuds or a charging brick with the S21 range, assuming that most already have a charger handy, allowing the company to reduce overall environmental waste. If you do need a 25W charger to get untethered quickly, Samsung currently sells them for £29/$19.
There’s also 10W wireless charging support, and if you need to top-up your Qi-enabled wireless earbuds or smartwatch, there’s 5W reverse wireless charging on offer too.
Samsung’s mid-tier Galaxy S21 Plus comes in at a cool £949/$999 for the 128GB/8GB combination, and there’s also a 256GB/8GB combo that’ll set you back an additional £50/$50 at £999/$1,049. That may sound expensive – and it is – but it’s much cheaper than the S20 Plus, particularly in the US, which launched at a whopping £999/$1,199.
The new design on offer from the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus looks great, and the new colour options add a vibrant feel to the flagship smartphone. There’s a glass rear, offering an upgrade in feel compared to the glasstic rear of the standard Galaxy S21, and the matte finish means it’s not a fingerprint magnet either. Some may lament the lack of a curved display, but without the mispresses that came hand-in-hand with curved displays, most will likely appreciate the shift back.
Though the display has had a downgrade in resolution from QHD+ to FHD+, it’s likely that you won’t notice a difference in real-world use. Besides, it means you can make the most of the 120Hz refresh rate, something not available at QHD+ on the S20 Plus, and a reduced resolution improves battery life too.
Speaking of, Samsung has finally cracked the chipset formula and produced an Exynos chipset capable of competing with offerings from Qualcomm, offering both blistering fast performance and all-day battery life with moderate use – great news for anyone looking to pick up the Galaxy S21 Plus outside of the US.
There may be a problem when it comes to charging, though, with Samsung following Apple’s lead, ditching both the charging brick and headphones this time around. If you need a 25W charger to take advantage of the fast-charging tech, you’ll have to pick one up separately.
There aren’t many changes in camera hardware on offer, but with great performance from last year’s S20 Plus camera offering, it’s not a huge disappointment. It allowed Samsung to focus more on the software, introducing the multi-camera Director Mode and improvements to the One Take functionality too. Those wanting more capable cameras should go for the ultra-premium Galaxy S21 Ultra.
There isn’t enough here to tempt S20 Plus owners to upgrade, sharing many of the same features and, in some respects, a downgrade in specs, but it’s a great option for those coming from an older smartphone wanting to experience a 2021 flagship.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus: Specs
- 6.7in Full HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 48Hz-120Hz display
- Ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensor
- Gorilla Glass Victus (front and back)
- Metal frame
- 5nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 888/Samsung Exynos 2100 SoC (market dependant)
- 8GB RAM
- 128GB/256GB non-expandable storage
- Rear cameras: 12Mp main, 12Mp ultrawide, 64Mp telephoto
- 10Mp front-facing camera
- Stereo speakers
- Android 11 w/ One UI 3.1
- Samsung DeX support
- IP68 dust/water resistance
- WiFi 6
- Bluetooth 5.0
- UWB (ultra-wideband) support
- 4800mAh battery
- 25W fast charging (includes PD charging support)
- 10W wireless charging
- Reverse wireless charging
- 75.6mm x 161.5mm x 7.8mm
- 202 grams
- Launch colours: Phantom Black, Phantom Silver, Phantom Violet
- Samsung.com exclusive colours: Phantom Gold, Phantom Red