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Samsung Galaxy S21+ review: The right choice?

Is Samsung’s new ‘value flagship’ Galaxy, the right choice? We find out.

S21+ price in India starts at Rs 81,999. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

On paper, the Galaxy S21+ seems like a decent update to last year’s Galaxy S20+. Samsung is using new materials. There is a faster processor and 5G support. A bigger battery too. But things are not that simple.

Maybe it’s got something to do with the Galaxy S21 Ultra which is so good, one’s bound to take that into account and place it on a pedestal of some kind despite its higher asking price – and then review the Galaxy S21+ as some kind of a ‘lite’ version trying to play the balancing act between feature set and affordability. Things were easier with the Galaxy S20+ because the Galaxy S20 Ultra was just about alright—so the Galaxy S20+ ended up being great value for money.

There is also the thing about Samsung making some odd choices with the Galaxy S21+, downsizing on a formula that we’ve come to expect – and often take for granted – from a phone of its class. But while that’s somewhat justified in the West where the phone is priced $200 less than last year’s model (something that most reviews take into account), in India, Samsung chose not to do that. The Galaxy S21+ price in India starts at Rs 81,999 (the Galaxy S20+ cost Rs 73,999 at launch and price was increased to Rs 77,999 post GST hike). Considering that it packs Exynos inside, it could have been priced lower.

Also Read Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Dark knight rises

The Galaxy S21+ is getting some competition from the Galaxy S21 as well which is essentially the same phone with a smaller screen and smaller battery (and plastic build) for Rs 12,000 less. Then there is the iPhone 12 (starting at Rs 79,900), a tough rival that, considering all facts and figures, is selling like hot cakes.

The Galaxy S21+ as such, finds itself in quite a predicament and with the Galaxy S20+ now selling for as low as Rs 54,999, question is, is Samsung’s new ‘value flagship’ Galaxy, the right choice? We find out.

Design, build quality, and display

There are no two ways about it. The S21+ is eye-catching. It is bold. It is unapologetic. Next to the S20+, it feels different, fresh— even though in spirit, it is still a very familiar phone.

Like the S21 Ultra, it has a sheet of Corning Gorilla Victus on the back (as well as on the front) with a smooth matte finish that’s pleasing to look at, as well as to hold (if a tad slippery). The camera array is raised and melts into the side frame—which is made of glossy metal. It is an interesting combination, sort of like Samsung embracing the ‘camera bump’ and making it the phone’s marquee design feature. The effect is more pronounced in the phone’s phantom violet colourway where the back and the ‘contour-cut’ camera module plus the outer frame have contrasting (violet/gold) hues.

The S21+ is eye-catching. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

A bump is a bump regardless, and the S21+ is prone to wobble when placed back facing down on a surface.

Where it really differs from the S21 Ultra, is on the front. The S21+ has a completely flat display. I am all for it, but I also liked the subtle curves on the S20+—if I were to pick one, I’d pick that for two reasons. The S20+ approach does a great job at making the bezels less conspicuous while also making the phone more comfortable to hold. The S21+’s flat-out design makes it wider (and sharper) plus its extra heft (200g over 186g in the S20+) makes its less comfortable to use for an extended period.

The S20+ felt more premium overall, while in the S21+, the front and the back seem to be telling a different story.

Luckily, the panel itself is high-quality. Signature Samsung AMOLED if you will. It is same size as the S20+—6.7-inch—but with a 1080p+ cap. It is also 120Hz like the S20+, but it is ‘adaptive’ this time which essentially means that it has a variable refresh rate capable of going as low as 48Hz automatically depending on the content, to keep a check on battery life (the S21 Ultra can go as low as 10Hz).

The S21+ has a 120Hz adaptive refresh rate display. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Brightness can go all the way up to 1300nits (1500nits in the S21 Ultra) which makes it slightly brighter than the S20+ which is (barely) noticeable while viewing HDR10+ content. Contrast is vivid out-of-the-box (this can be fine-tuned in settings) and the punch-hole cut-out is unobtrusive mostly. It is a great display, is what it is, and you’d be hard-pressed to find differences with the ultra-variant unless you keep them side by side.

The ultrasonic in-display fingerprint scanner is same as the one on the S21 Ultra which is to say it has a larger footprint and is an improvement over the S20+’s.

Performance, software

All the S21 phones are powered by the Exynos 2100 in India, which brings among other things, support for 5G. This 8-core chip is based on a 5nm EUV process technology and packs a single powerful ARM Cortex-X1 core clocked at 2.9GHz, three high-performing Cortex-A78 cores clocked at 2.8Ghz and four power-efficient Cortex-A55 cores clocked at 2.2Ghz. This is paired to a Mali-G78 GPU (you can read more about this in detail here). The S21+ specifically comes with 8GB of LPDDR5 RAM and up to 256GB storage—this is non-expandable. Software inside all the phones is Android 11-based One UI 3.1.

The S21+ is a flagship through and through. It unsurprisingly performs like one also. It feels buttery smooth, plays demanding games with ease, and does not get toasty though it does get warm (and stays that way) rather too quickly, sometimes, even doing mundane tasks. It would be interesting to see how the phone holds up in Indian summers. I, and I am sure many do wish, Samsung would launch a Qualcomm-based flagship here, but it is what it is.

All the S21 phones are powered by the Exynos 2100 in India. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

One area where Samsung deserves a lot of credit is software. The company is slowly, but steadily, ramping up its efforts on this front, rolling out frequent updates. It has already confirmed that a phone like the S21+ will get three major Android OS and a minimum 4 years of security updates. In a way, Samsung has one upped Google, which is a big deal, and become the only brand that can—at least in theory—hold a candle to Apple. Maybe next, it could work on simplifying things too. There is also a growing concern that high-end Samsung phones have started to show ads inside first-party apps. Samsung is not the only one doing this (even Apple has recently started pushing ads in system settings for instance) but there is no way to justify this for a phone that costs as much as an S21+ does.

Battery life

The S21+ with its sizeable 4,800mAh battery is a consistently good performer in terms of longevity. Even though the increase in size is marginal, the S21+ has ‘visibly’ better battery life over the S20+ (4,500mAh) and is capable of lasting comfortably for a day, maybe more, depending on usage. Maybe it’s the new processor, maybe it’s more optimized software, or even the FHD+ resolution cap, but the S21+ has really impressed me on the battery front—though not as much as the S21 Ultra which is weird but well within perceivable limits. Our battery loop test gave us 11 hours 32 minutes on the S21+ with screen set to adaptive 120Hz, a respectable figure for an Exynos Galaxy.

What continues to baffle me though is Samsung’s fast charging speeds which feels stuck in the past when rivals are clocking speeds as high as 65W. The S21+ supports 25W fast wired charging, 15W fast wireless charging and wireless power share. And there is—I am sure you have heard—no charger in the box.

Camera

The S21+ has the same cameras as the S20+. So does the S21. Here’s the lowdown:

— 12MP main sensor with Dual Pixel PDAF that sitting behind an f/1.8 aperture lens with OIS

— 64MP telephoto (GW2) sensor with PDAF sitting behind an f/2.0 lens with OIS

— 12MP ultra wide-angle sensor sitting behind an f/2.2 lens

— 10MP front camera

The S21+ has the same cameras as the S20+. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Aside from a few processing-related nitty-gritties here and there and a couple of new software chops like ‘director’s mode’, camera performance on the S21+ is very similar to the S20+’s. You can read more about that here. The TL;DR version is, the S21+ cameras (particularly the main camera) can shoot well-detailed photos with good dynamic range and ‘mostly’ true-to-source colours across different lighting conditions. Aside from a little over-sharpening here and there, the S21+ has, what I like to call, a consistent camera system. The telephoto is a nice addition up to 10x zoom range (it can go further up to 30x) and the ultra-wide offers a wider perspective if at a cost of all-round detail. Low-light performance is good, not great, which is where the iPhone 12 comes out a winner. The iPhone 12 also does better at portraits, and videos. The S21+ can shoot 8K videos (at 24fps) but Dolby Vision recording on the iPhone 12 simply hits it out of the ballpark.

If cameras are a priority, then the S21 Ultra is what you should be looking at. Not the S21+. That the S21 gets you the same cameras at a lower price doesn’t help the S21+’s case either.

Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S21+?

The S21+ is not an easy recommendation. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

While things were well cut out in the case of the S20+, the S21+ is not an easy recommendation especially at its current price—Rs 81,999 for 8GB/128GB and Rs 85,999 for 8GB/256GB. My advice is, if you are looking to get one, you should go all out and buy the S21 Ultra instead. If the whole point of getting an S21+ is so you can get an S21 Ultra-like experience at a more affordable price, the regular S21 is what you should be looking at. That’s just more bang for the buck kind of deal. Better yet, the iPhone 12 is also an excellent value should you be willing to switch sides.

As for the S21+, it is a good phone with all the bells and whistles of a high-end flagship, but it is bested by its own siblings—S21 Ultra in terms of the no-holds-barred experience and S21 in terms of affordability. A silver lining for those who may fancy the S21+ is that Samsung phones tend to be discounted sooner rather than later—you should just wait for that to happen.

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Also Read REVIEW | With iPhone 12 Mini, Apple made small phones great again

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