Tuesday, 23 March 2021 15:29

Samsung S21 review - Samsung's most polished Galaxy S flagship yet Featured


Free from folds and creases, Samsung's S21 is super fast, recognisable from the back with the camera array, with a UI that is as close to iOS while delivering everything you expect from Android.

If you're an Android user, there are choices. You can go for the absolute "purity" of Google Pixel smartphones, with both 5G equipped Pixel 5 and 4a models offering solid upper-mid-range performance and Android's own UI that many other Android makers decide to layer something on top of.

You then have what are arguably the very best Android smartphones you can buy, which are those from Samsung. Samsung has made absolutely no secret over the years over how much it has copied the iPhone's look and feel, be it the hardware or software, right down to the very first Samsung Galaxy.

Samsung's biggest Android challenger was Huawei, and had the US government not crippled Huawei's ability to seamlessly run Google Play, it would be even more so today, with Samsung probably the biggest winner from the Huawei ban.

Even so, Huawei has also shamelessly copied many elements of iOS, just as Samsung's UI 3.1 has done, although hey, if you're going to copy someone, copy the best.

Huawei's smartphones push the technological edge with screens, cameras, processors and more that keep Samsung and Apple on its toes, and even though Huawei's latest smartphones are unable to run Google Play without various hacks that the average user is never going to try, it can still run a surprisingly massive range of Android apps without issue.

But Samsung's S21 series with 5G has proven popular, selling triple the number of S20 models sold in January in the US, according to NotebookCheck, and even if Samsung has had to do various discounts to achieve that, discounts which are very rare for Apple to be doing, the S21 range is popular, although it is telling that Samsung has already launched new A-series models at cheaper prices, and a Samsung S21 FE (fan edition) is also expected, all of which help Samsung to sell hundreds of millions of Samsung phones in aggregate each year.

Then there are all of the other Androids, be they from Nokia, Motorola, LG, Oppo, Realme, Xiaomi, Alcatel, TCL and so many others. Most of these brands also have flagship models that seek to challenge Samsung's and Apple's dominance with design, price and features, with Oppo's Find X3 Pro featuring the reverse of Apple's iPhone 11 and 12 camera array, with the latest Snapdragon 888 processor and more.

Meanwhile, all of those brands (including Samsung) also have a range of phones, from entry level through to lower, middle and upper mid range, through to flagship smartphones, to cater to every price point, although at the lower price points you obviously sacrifice performance, even if features like big screens are at every price point.

But when it comes to flagships, Samsung S series alongside its Note series is the top of the line, and even then there are flagships upon flagships.

The true flagship is the Samsung S21 Ultra, with its 5 cameras and even Note stylus compatibility, which is effectively equilike the iPhone 12 Pro Max from Apple, with the S21+ in the middle, and the S21 itself being like the iPhone 12.

The analogy of good, better and best with the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra doesn't exactly fit, because the S21 is a great phone. If you have any earlier Samsung or any earlier Android, you'd be thrilled with this phone. There's no giant notch, just a small cutout for the camera, which is much more of an all-screen display.

The golden surroundings of the triple camera array on the back of the S21 are designed to be noticeable and to scream out to others that you are sporting a Samsung, just as the triple camera array of the iPhone 11 and 12 screams out to everyone that you have an iPhone 11 or 12.

S21 camera quality is more than good enough for everyday users. CNET did a comparison between both the S21 and the iPhone 12, and while the S21 has a telephoto lens the iPhone 12 lacks (you need to go to an iPhone 12 Pro or Pro Max for that) which means better zoom photography, with the iPhone 12 only able to do digital zoom, iPhones do better video recording, and for everyday users, you'll just use whatever smartphone you have and you're sure to be happy.

Meanwhile, more advanced photographers will get the higher spec'd Samsung S21 Ultra or iPhone Pro Max with an appropriate camera app, or will use a DSLR camera or better quality dedicated video camera.

There's an in-screen fingerprint reader, which the iPhone lacks, and while the Face ID style of face unlocking is presumably not as secure as Apple's, and certainly isn't as fast, it works.

Any app I've run on the S21 runs as smooth as silk, as befits a brand new flagship, and of course with full Google Play support as always, the whole thing is effortless to update. Just about every app you can think of is available, save for apps still exclusive to iOS, such as most of Apple's own, but also apps like the latest social media wunderkind, Clubhouse, which its developers say will come to Android but isn't there yet.

There are also monthly security updates to Android, and while Samsung doesn't make the latest version of Android available anywhere near as quickly as Google does for its Pixels, Android OS updates do come, seemingly at least a couple of major OS versions.

Of course, Android users are still advised to run some kind of anti-malware software, to use the Google Play Store rather than third party app stores and to avoid interesting sounding apps from developers you've never heard of that could be malware in disguise, no matter which brand of Android they're using.

iOS users do have protective apps available, including ones like the Guardian Firewall for iOS, with Android having plenty of firewall apps too, but where you should install anti-malware on your Android, you don't need to on iOS.

Apple has also had issues with dodgy apps from third party developers, but it's rare - you hear many more stories of rogue Android apps than on iOS, that's for sure, although that's not something that Samsung can exactly control.

Widgets on the Home Screens? Android has had that for years, iOS has only recently caught up, although one could easily argue that Apple's implentation is more consistent.

But swiping left and right through open apps is something Samsung's One UI 3.1 copies Apple's iOS at doing, and those who have defected from iOS would appreciate the functionality.

Phone calls also sound clear and sharp - but I haven't used a smartphone in years that gave me any issues with calls.

It's no secret that I'm an iPhone user and judge all smartphones by that metric. I prefer the safety of iOS, the consistency of the UI across iPhones, the superior integration of the ecosystem across all of Apple's devices and more.

Samsung has been the best copier of all that, even as Huawei has also tried to create such an ecosystem, and even Google too, although the mythical Pixel Watch is still nowhere to be seen.

Samsung has even copied Apple in that it no longer offers a headphone jack, no longer offers headphones and it doesn't even offer a power adapter, with the headphone jack and lack of power adapter things that Samsung mocked Apple for, before turning around and doing the very same thing.

But iPhones didn't exist, and if I had to use a Samsung S-series, I would be very happy with the S21, or its bigger brethren. The S21 range really is Samsung's top of the line, and while its very recently announced mid to upper-mid-range A series (see the YouTube unpacked event from March 18 here) will be friendlier on wallets and prove solid competition to all of Samsung's Android competition, the S-series and Samsung's Note series are its shining best and brightest.

If you're an existing Samsung user and want to upgrade, or you use another brand of Android and want to see what it's like on the Samsung side of the fence, any of the S21 models would be enticing for the vast majority of everyday smartphone users.

The S21 os a beautiful phone, has great design, and of all the Android devices, only Samsung has the range of accessories that iPhones are famous for.

I'm currently using a transparent EFM Zurich case which is sturdy and strong and shows off the phone nicely. While EFM has even more sophisticated cases with even better D3O protection, its Zurich case is more than enough for most users.

Its features, according to the company, are "moulded air pockets for incredible corner and bumper protection and has antimicrobial protection built in that kills 99.99 per cent of germs, offering a clean and hygienic protective case drop tested to 2.4m" - and at $29.95 this Zurich case is definitely affordable for anyone.

So, if you want to upgrade to a flagship phone with top quality features, in a size that isn't of Ultra or Pro Max proportions, and at a price that starts from $1249 in Australia for the 128GB S21 with 6.2-inch screen, with proportionately higher prices for the S21+ and S21 Ultra, which start at $1549 and $1849 respectively and go up by $100 more for each model if you want 256GB capacity, then Samsung is ready and waiting for you to upgrade.

Personally, I'd advise to at least get the 256GB models as there's no more MicroSD card slot in these Samsungs, something else copied from Apple, but that said, in the age of Google Photos and other cloud storage solutions, you could certainly get away with 128GB storage sizes - at least we no longer live in a world of 16, 32 and 64GB capacities for flagship phones as we once did several years ago.

There are also deals from all of the phone companies who will want to sign you up to 12, 24, or 36 month plans (depending on the carrier) at discounted prices with great deals for unlimited calls and texts, and gobs of data.

All in all, the S21 is Samsung best flagship yet, with the S21+ and S21 Ultra even better. You just have to decide whether Samsung offers the features and benefits at the price you want to pay, given so many choices, which even extends to a burgeoning refurbished market that offers last year's models at ever better prices, without the worry of devices that are stolen or damaged.

Either way, we still live in the golden era of smartphones, and while future AR glasses and headsets threaten the rectangles of glass we all carry, that's the world we live in today.

If you're still using an Android that's more than a couple of years old, you're probably now running an outdated version of Android, so please do consider upgrading to a new model from anyone, and enjoy all the benefits!

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

Alex Zaharov-Reutt is iTWire's Technology Editor is one of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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