Samsung Galaxy S21 +, analysis: being the middle brother sometimes means going unnoticed
Without major events on the horizon, Samsung did not want to wait any longer and just released the year they presented their new high-end. A high-end that, like last year, bets on a trio of smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra at the most advanced end, the Galaxy S21 at the most modest, and in the middle the Samsung Galaxy S21 +, the protagonist of this analysis.
Until recently, talking about 'plus' was talking about a flagship, but since last year Samsung has taken a weight off this surname with the arrival of the 'ultra'. The S21 + doesn't have the best camera or screen, but it's still a full-fledged high-end. Let's see how it behaves in our in-depth review.
Samsung's designs have evolved a lot over the years, but the brand has been able to retain a recognizable style. The Galaxy S21 + retains that Samsung DNA but introduces some changes from the previous generation and its appearance gives us that sense of novelty that we expect in a newly launched device.
In this case, the changes are in the rear, the part where the manufacturers have more room to play. Samsung abandons the shiny backs and now gives way to a matte finish that feels great. The color of our unit is silver (Phantom Silver) and, although it gets less dirty than a glossy back, it is not the color that best resists fingerprints (matte black takes the prize in cleaning).
In the first impressions, I commented that they did not seem slippery, but the truth is that the model that I tried the most was the S21 Ultra in black, which has a slightly different finish (it is not so smooth). I find the Galaxy S21 + a bit slippery and, as it is also a large mobile phone, I have missed a silicone case to have a better grip. Of course, its rounded edges and corners help the grip to be comfortable and nothing gets stuck.
Continuing with the changes to the rear, we must talk about the camera module, perhaps the most differential point of the design. It is still rectangular in shape and in the same position, but now it covers the entire corner of the mobile and blends into the frame. It sticks out a bit and makes the phone wobble when put on the table, but it's not an exaggeration either. Also comment that the finish of this part is more metallic and the silver color a little lighter, making it contrast with the rest of the rear.
We go to the front and we meet again with an outstanding compaction exercise. The bottom frame is slightly wider than the rest, but it is hardly noticeable, and the hole for the front camera is not intrusive.
A key aspect here is that the curved screen disappears. This year the curve is reserved only for the S21 Ultra, leaving the S21 + and S21 with fully flat screens. Perhaps aesthetically the curve may be more attractive, but in daily use, the flat panel is appreciated, especially when making gestures from the edges.
Returning to the issue of size, as I said the S21 + is a large mobile. Okay, not as much as the Ultra, but it's still pretty roomy. All in all, when compared to terminals with a similar screen, the S21 + is lighter than most, while also including a larger battery. Here we must once again highlight Samsung's compaction effort.
To close the design section, let's review the elements we have on the edges. On the right are the volume and power buttons, the press is good and we do not detect creaks, although perhaps they are a little high, and depending on what position it takes a bit to reach to increase the volume. On the lower edge, we have the speaker, the USB-C, the SIM tray, and the microphone. Here I have to say that the location of the microphone makes it very easy for us to cover it with our finger when holding the mobile and it has happened to me several times that I have recorded stories or sent audios in which a part was not heard because I had covered the microphone without giving me account. Once I detected it I was careful not to repeat it, but even so, sometimes it happens and it is quite annoying.
One of the decisions of the S21 family that makes the difference with previous models has to do with the screen, specifically the resolution. Despite carrying the last name 'plus', neither it nor the S21 just have QHD + screens, but they stay with FullHD +. It is the first time that Samsung cuts the resolution in its high range and, although the display is good, it is a step back.
In the Samsung Galaxy S21 + we have a 6.7-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2x screen and FullHD + resolution, or what is the same, 2,400 x 1,080 pixels. With this setting, the density stays at 394 dots per inch. Is it enough to get good sharpness? Sure, but it's far from the 525 dpi of its predecessor. I have compared it to a QHD panel and the difference is noticeable especially when we look at details in images or certain texts. You have to look at a lot, but unlike it, it is there and we must not forget that we are talking about a high-end terminal and you can demand much more.
Regarding color reproduction, Samsung has us used to a certain saturation, although it is not excessive and, if it bothers, we can always opt for the Natural mode that offers more neutral tones. We also have an option to adjust the white balance and the Vision Saver mode that limits blue light when it gets dark.
As the title of this section says, what Samsung has not cut is in the refresh rate and here the three members of the S21 range have a maximum frequency of 120Hz. Of course, we cannot always force 120Hz, but we have an adaptable model that regulates it according to needs, something that comes in handy so that battery consumption does not skyrocket. The screen feels very fluid, and the haptic feedback is snappy and accurate, too.
Finally, the maximum brightness has seemed more than enough to be able to see the content outdoors without a problem and the automatic brightness is quite obedient and quick to adjust when we change the environment.
Although the plus thing no longer means being the best of the family, in the sound we have a level of experience. The double speaker gives a quality sound, with a more than enough volume peak that does not distort and above all a very balanced stereo.
We have two speakers, one on the bottom edge and one on the top, integrated between the screen and the frame. Normally the volume is usually higher in the lower speaker and the upper one is a kind of support for a more enveloping sound, but in the case of the S21 + we have practically the same volume in both sources.
In addition, if we accidentally cover the lower speaker when playing or watching a video (it does not usually happen if we hold it with the speaker pointed at our right hand), we do not have the feeling of running out of audio because the other speaker makes up for it. The same does not happen with the microphone, which as I have already mentioned is quite easy to cover, especially if we are recording vertically or sending a voice note. Finally, comment that there are no headphones included in the box or minijack adapter to USB-C.
Samsung is always committed to launching its high-end Exynos processor in some markets (including Europe) and Qualcomm in others. The usual thing so far was that there was a difference in performance between the two, always in favor of the Snapdragon of the moment, which this year is the Snapdragon 888. In the absence of testing the first devices with the latest chip of the American firm, it seems clear that the Exynos 2100 that assembles the S21 range has taken a leap in power and the gap is not going to be as wide as other years.
During the test, I cannot complain about fluency. The Exynos 2100 and the 8 GB of RAM are enough to carry out the usual day-to-day tasks without lag or jerks, as well as other more demanding such as Genshin Impact games or edit 8K video. At specific times we have noticed some pull within the camera app especially and with some transitions, although it seems more a matter of software than of the hardware itself. Then we leave you the results of the benchmarks where you can see a clear improvement over the previous Exynos 990.
Before closing this section, we briefly talk about biometrics. In this generation, the 2D face unlocks + fingerprint sensor combo under the screen is maintained, with the difference that the sensor area has been expanded. The unlocking is fast and now it seems that there are fewer errors since, although we put the finger a little displaced, it usually recognizes us thanks to that larger area. Facial unlocking is also fast and is usually the best option if we do not have a mask, although it is less secure.
The Galaxy S21 + is the model that most benefited in terms of battery with the generation jump. His brothers retain batteries of the same capacity as previous models, but the Galaxy S21 + goes up to 4,800 mAh (the S20 + has 4,500 mAh). The experience with the autonomy of the S21 + is good, but the increase in milliamps (and the decrease in resolution, that also counts) do not suppose a notable improvement over what we already saw.
The experience with the autonomy of the S21 + is good, but the increase in milliamps (and the decrease in resolution, that also counts) do not suppose a notable improvement over what we already saw.
Throughout the test, I have kept the adaptive frequency activated. Depending on the use (especially if we are connected to WiFi or using mobile networks) the duration of a full charge ranges between 20-25 hours, with about 6 hours of screen. Correct figures but somewhat gray for a battery that is close to 5,000 mAh.
Regarding charging, we have fast charged, but since there is no charger in the box, the charging time will depend on the adapter we use. In my case, I used the 18W Pixel 4 XL charger, and the charging time was a little over an hour and a half. The S21 + accepts a 25W charge, so that time could be shortened if we have a compatible charger.
Samsung has one of the most complete layers of the Android landscape, for better and for worse. On the good side, we have a very solid ecosystem at the function level, many of them very practical, and one of the largest ranges of customization options that we can find. On the bad side, we have the consequence of a fairly loaded layer, and that is that lag often shows its paw, even in flagships. With the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra the experience was a bit irregular for this reason, but in the case of OneUI 3.2, the version that Galaxy S21 + brings, I have noticed improvements in this aspect and the lag has been anecdotal (although it has not disappeared completely ).
Let's first see what apps we find when starting the Galaxy S21 +. This time we have not found the initial menu that lets us choose which additional apps we want to install and which we prefer to discard, but what comes is what there is.
On the home screen, we find the Galaxy Store in a prominent position, but also with the Play Store and the Google apps folder. On a second page, we have other functions such as Samsung Free (Samsung's news app), Game Launcher, and Microsoft's apps folder.
When we open the app drawer we have other third-party apps like Facebook, Spotify, or YouTube Music. All of them can be uninstalled, except for OneDrive and most of the apps in the Google folder (it only leaves us with Drive, Google Photos, and Play Movies). In the case of Samsung apps, we will also be able to uninstall most of them.
Speaking of Samsung's own services, the firm no longer "forces" us to use Bixby with that dedicated button that we also (at first) couldn't customize. Now there is no additional button, but in advanced settings, we can configure the start button to open the assistant or the app we want if we double-tap. One UI is a layer with many options of its own and that it does not force us to use them is certainly a step forward.
About customization, as I said we have a huge range of options. We can add themes, customize the home grid, if we want an app drawer or not, use navigation buttons or gestures, and much more. We also have the Edge Content sidebar, which we can customize to our liking to show shortcuts to apps, contacts, Smart Select tools, or even the part of the time. Oh, and it also lets us completely disable it.
In the advanced functions, we find the connection to Windows and Samsung Dex. The connection with the PC works quite well and I have found it especially practical when it comes to managing notifications directly on the PC and not having to be aware of the mobile. In the case of Samsung DeX, the ease of connection stands out (now everything goes wireless if we connect it to the PC if it is a monitor you have to use cable) and how well the mobile interface adapts to the big screen, although due to use that I give it, the connection to Windows has been more practical, which by the way cannot work at the same time.
The number of options that One UI offers can be overwhelming, but it allows us to customize almost everything and it is worth taking the time to leave everything to our liking.
Parental controls, digital health, Maintenance, and Game Launcher are other functions that we find in the settings panel and that show the depth of One UI as a layer where there is practically no lack and the options are so many that it can overwhelm. Personally, I am more of Android stock, but without a doubt, One UI offers a great experience, although you have to dedicate time to leave everything to your liking, and it is worth doing.
Samsung renews its commitment to the triple camera, but this year they leave the ToF on the way. The S21 + does not have the dual telephoto system of its older brother, but the main lens is accompanied by a single zoom and an ultra-wide-angle. This is how the cameras of the Galaxy S21 + look:
Ultra-wide: 12 megapixels (1.4µm), fixed focus, f / 2.2 aperture, and 120-degree angle of view.
Angular: 12 megapixels (1.8µm), Dual Pixel autofocus, f / 1.8 aperture, 79-degree angle of view, and optical stabilizer (OIS).
Telephoto: 64 megapixels (0.8µm), phase detection autofocus, f / 2.0 aperture, 76-degree angle of view, 2x optical zoom, and optical stabilizer (OIS).
Front camera: 10 megapixels (1.22µm), autofocus, f2.2 aperture, and 80-degree angle of view.
Before going into the matter, a comment that although Samsung details the zoom as 3x optical-hybrid, in tests we have found that the real optical zoom is two (that's where it jumps to the other lens). It is a point to take into account since if we use the zoom button that appears above the shutter button it will always take us to 3x (then we see the differences). If we want to stay in the real optical zoom we will have to choose it within the zoom options that appear when clicking on any of these shortcuts.
The camera app maintains its usual layout and structure. Samsung lets us choose the modes we want to have on the main screen, which by default only includes Single Capture, photo, and video. It is appreciated to be able to customize this section since this way we can have at hand the modes that we use the most and remove the ones that we do not (ahem, single capture).
On the main screen, at the top, we have classic tools such as flash, timer, aspect ratio, and resolution, animated photo, or filters. However, we have to go to Camera Settings to be able to activate or deactivate automatic HDR (no, we cannot force it manually). We will also have to open settings if we want to disable stabilization in the video. They are the only two settings that are somewhat hidden, otherwise, the app is intuitive and well organized.
In good light, the main lens produces detailed images, with a wide dynamic range and vivid colors, but not as saturated as in the past. As I said, HDR is automatic and we will not be able to activate it when we want, but it will appear when the scene requires it. It generally comes into action when necessary, although it would not be bad to be able to deactivate it (or vice versa) at will, especially to see the difference.
The image does not seem to have weaknesses when we look at it in its entirety, even on large screens, but when we take out the magnifying glass and go to detail we find a bit of aggressive processing, with watercolors even in favorable situations like this and it is something that worsens if the light goes down a bit, such as on cloudy days. We must insist that it is not something that we are going to notice with the naked eye, but if we get analytical and go to the maximum detail.
The problem is solved if we use the 64-megapixel mode, which shoots with the telephoto lens and not with the main sensor. Here we see that the detail is much more marked throughout the image, especially in complex areas such as the glass structure, and when enlarging we do not find the watercolors of the previous example. The downside of shooting at maximum resolution is that we will not be able to zoom or use modes such as portrait, night, or pro, but if we want maximum detail, it is undoubtedly the best option.
When the light falls, the loss of detail is more pronounced and the watercolors are seen almost with the naked eye. In the general plan, it is well resolved in terms of colorimetry and white balance, but when zooming in we see that the definition is lost especially in the distant planes.
In static planes and with less depth it retains a lot of sharpness despite the fact that the light conditions are not favorable. Very well resolved the texture of the cat's hair and the blur of the flower in the foreground
The night mode will come in handy to enhance the sharpness of night shots like this one, in which there is enough lighting but the loss of detail is already beginning to be noticed. It is not a brutal change, but it shows. In this case, the shot was quite fast (about two seconds) but if the scene is darker it can take up to six seconds. In cases where there is almost total darkness, it manages to raise the exposure quite a bit although the detail suffers.
We move on to the ultra-angular lens, which gives a lot of play in architecture or landscape photography and gives us very spectacular images like this one. The colorimetry is very on par with what the main sensor achieves, although the dynamic range is more limited and the detail also suffers, something that on the other hand is common in angular lenses in which we usually have a smaller and smaller sensor opening. Also, in this case, the focus is fixed and there is no optical stabilizer as in the other two lenses.
When facing it with the main lens in a scene as contrasted as this one, the dynamic range limitation is better seen. In both HDR was activated, but the wide-angle lens has more difficulties to contain the highlights and the whole area of the background is somewhat burned. Less detail is also appreciated in general with the angle, something that logically worsens in scenes at night or in low light.
The third lens is the telephoto lens, which as we have already said gives us two optical magnifications. Again we have a good result in favorable scenes like this, with good definition even when zooming in, correct colorimetry, and good dynamic range. The optical stabilizer seems to help a lot in low light scenarios where it is easy for the photos to be shaky and in general, the images are much better than with the wide-angle.
As I said above, the direct access button to the telephoto lens takes us to three "optical-hybrid" zoom increases, I put it in quotation marks because to this day we are still not very clear about how this system works and Samsung does not explain it either, but Let's see how the images look if we go to those three magnifications.
At the detail level, we do not appreciate much difference with the optical zoom, something normal since we go from 2 to 3 increases only. In this image, we had abundant natural light and it manages to solve all the details of the facade well.
However, when the light fails we do see differences. With three increases the colors come out more "washed" and the noise is appreciated with the naked eye. If we enlarge a crop we see that in both examples it has difficulties to process edges and there is noise, but it is more exaggerated in the case of the image on the right.
We have already seen the result of the three lenses separately, but it does not hurt to see how those three views that Samsung offers us in the zoom shortcuts, from the ultra-angular to the three default zoom increases. Even taking into account the weaknesses of the angle and that the zoom is not actually the real optical one, it is a quite versatile proposal and I have used these accesses often. By day there is no problem using the 3x zoom, but at night I do recommend avoiding it and opting for 2x to minimize the loss of detail. The angle is also not very usable at night, but here the night mode can help a lot.
If we want we can go further and zoom up to 30x, but it is not highly recommended if you want a usable photo. Up to 4 or 5x can be saved and 10x is not bad at all, but beyond that, we have very blurred images despite the new stabilization system. It helps to frame the part we want to take out, but it does not improve the result.
One of the novelties that come with this new generation is the portrait mode. To begin with, it is no longer called 'dynamic focus', but rather portrait mode, and it also introduces different lighting modes very much in the style of what we have seen on the iPhone for a long time.
Although it also works with objects, it seems that it has been prioritized for people, and not only because these lighting modes only work if they detect a face, but because clipping on objects tends to fail more often, as in the photo above where there are parts that have been left off the map. Here it can help to lower the intensity of the blur a bit so that the edge is not so noticeable, since by default it applies a lot.
In portraits of people, the cut tends to be more correct and, although there are logical errors in complex areas such as hair, the result is generally good. The photo on the left was taken with the default blur mode and the one on the right with the studio mode that focuses on highlighting the face but maintains a fairly natural look.
The rest of the options are much less natural. The black background is usually the worst, but if we choose well the environment where to take the photo, it is possible that it will be attractive. Here it was a photo outdoors and during the day, so the white background looks more, perhaps with a dark background and a harsher light would have been better. There is also an option that applies a kind of gradient background (let's forget the closed eyes) and finally a color highlight that puts the entire background in black and white. New features are welcome, but after trying them I have my doubts that I would use them very often.
The selfie camera performs surprisingly well and the portrait mode, while it doesn't have such a precise cutout, also delivers. The correct detail, but when enlarging we miss an extra point of sharpness in the skin, especially when the light is scarce. The beauty mode comes quite naturally by default, only with a little softening of the skin, although if we want to go further, it lets us edit the skin tone, refine the jaw and enlarge the eyes.
Although we only have a camera, Samsung offers us two views for the front camera. By default, it always shows us the cropped view (right), which gives us a tighter angle and a smaller image. Personally, I would prefer to have the full view by default since it takes advantage of the entire sensor and covers a greater angle, but from settings, we cannot configure this.
Dynamic range is usually one of the weak points of secondary cameras and in the case of the S21 +, it has surprised me for good. For example in these photos, in the preview, the sky was very burnt, but the HDR work after shooting recovered all the detail of the background and even the cloudy sky.
We close the camera section with the videos. The 8K recording is one of the highlights and now allows us to zoom up to six times. However, although the definition is higher, the stabilization leaves a lot to be desired and in the end, it is better to shoot 4K if we are going to make videos in motion.
Recording in 4K handheld camera, we have much more stable shots and we can also make use of a greater zoom range, from wide-angle to 12x. Of course, the quality drops a lot if we take it to the extreme and it is also lost with the wide-angle lens, especially if there is little light. Another point to keep in mind is that lens jumps will be very noticeable in recordings.
When activating the super stable mode we have much more stabilized shots, but at the cost of losing a lot of quality, in addition to the fact that in this mode we will not be able to zoom gradually, but the only option is to jump between the main lens and the telephoto lens. Another point to consider is that in this mode we will only be able to record in FullHD at 30fps, neither 4K nor, of course, 8K.
To close, we have two slow-motion recording modes. With normal we get clips in FullHD resolution, while in super slow mode the quality drops to HD. The result is quite good as long as we have well-lit scenes