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Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review: Buy the S21 instead

Expert Reviews logo Expert Reviews 05/03/2021 Nathan Spendelow
a close up of a remote control: Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review: Buy the S21 instead © Expert Reviews Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review: Buy the S21 instead
Mobile phones

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Sitting comfortably between 2020’s best-value handset (S20) and the one with all the bells and whistles (S20 Ultra), I forgot last year’s S20 Plus actually existed. Not that it ever deserved to fade into obscurity; but it was neither cheap enough nor quite good enough to stand out.

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The S20 Plus’ successor, the Galaxy S21 Plus, is in the same position. It’s a good phone, but sitting in between the wallet-decimating Galaxy S21 Ultra and the cheaper Galaxy S21 (while not offering much more) it’s rather difficult to know what to do with it.

Samsung Galaxy S21 review: What you need to know

The Galaxy S21 Plus is mostly just the bigger sibling of the regular Galaxy S21. It shares the same specifications as the cheaper model, except it has a bigger battery (4,800mAh) and a larger screen (6.7in). Like the S21, the Plus also lacks the massive 108MP camera and WQHD+ display of the four-figured Galaxy S21 Ultra.

Inside is Samsung’s latest Exynos 2100 chipset, which for the first time delivers mostly similar performance as its Qualcomm rival, the Snapdragon 888. It also comes with a healthy 8GB of RAM, with a choice of either 128GB or 256GB of internal storage.

Just as it did last year, the S21 Plus has a 120Hz screen, although the native resolution has dropped to FHD+ (1,080 x 2,400) this time around. Three cameras make an appearance on the back of the phone, made up of a combination of a 12MP main sensor, 64MP telephoto lens and a 12MP ultrawide unit. It also has 5G connectivity as standard and runs Android 11.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review: Price and competition

The best news, however, is that the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus is cheaper than last year’s phone. Costing £949 at launch (instead of £999) that’s still quite a lot of money for most people, but a saving is still a saving, no matter how little is knocked off the price.

Contract prices (at the time of writing this review) start at roughly £44 a month, with an upfront cost of £45.

How does this compare with the rest of the lineup? The Galaxy S21 is £769 and the most expensive of the trio, the Galaxy S21 Ultra, will set you back a hefty £1,149. As for its non-Samsung counterparts, the starts at £999, and Amazon for just shy of £900.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review: Design and key features

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus has a revamped look for 2021 as well as a new matte finish on the rear. The camera housing on the back of the phone has received a facelift, too, and is now squeezed into the top left corner, lacking the sharp corners of last year’s Galaxy S20 Plus.

Like the Galaxy S21, it also comes with a new colour choice – “Phantom Violet” – which is close in appearance to a metallic purple and looks lovely in contrast with the gold camera unit. I was sent the “Phantom Silver” model for review, which isn’t quite as eye-catching and lacks the two-tone look, but it still has a nice metallic shine to it.

There’s no dedicated Bixby button again, thankfully, although Samsung’s bumbling digital assistant is still lurking in the shadows and can be summoned by a long press of the power button on the right side of the handset.

The phone supports 25W fast charging via USB-C, as well as 15W wireless charging and it can wirelessly charge compatible devices, such as the Galaxy Watch 3 and Galaxy Buds Pro.

A word of caution before we continue. If you’re planning on making the move from iPhone to Samsung, or you don’t already own a USB-C plug, you might need to buy a new charger. Only a USB-C to USB-C cable is included in the box and Samsung’s official 25W charger will set you back another £17.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review: Display

At 6.7in across the diagonal, the Galaxy S21 Plus’ Dynamic AMOLED 2x display is roughly 5% larger than the basic Galaxy S21. It shares the same FHD+ (1,080 x 2,400) resolution, though, as well as a smooth refresh rate of 120Hz. Just like last year, a tiny hole-punch notch sits at the top in the centre and this houses the 10MP (f/2.2) selfie camera and the in-display fingerprint reader, which happens to be 1.7x larger.

Quality-wise, the S21 Plus’ screen is as good as any other. It covers 96% of the sRGB colour gamut in the phone’s “Natural” display profile, with a total volume of 98.6% and an average Delta E of 2.02. I’ve got pretty much zero complaints here, especially since the screen’s maximum brightness managed to reach a dazzling 1,099cd/m2 when viewing HDR video. The likes of Stranger Things and Star Trek: Discovery never looked so good, and it almost makes me miss the daily commute. Almost.

Image of Samsung Galaxy S21+ 5G Smartphone SIM Free Android Mobile Phone Phantom Black 128GB (UK Version) © Provided by Expert Reviews Image of Samsung Galaxy S21+ 5G Smartphone SIM Free Android Mobile Phone Phantom Black 128GB (UK Version)

Samsung Galaxy S21+ 5G Smartphone SIM Free Android Mobile Phone Phantom Black 128GB (UK Version)

£824.00 Buy now

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review: Performance and battery life

Depending on where you live, the Galaxy S20 Plus is either powered by an Exynos 2100 (UK) or Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 (US). Historically speaking, this is usually bad news for UK consumers, since Samsung’s equivalent usually falls flat in the stamina and processing stakes but things aren’t quite as bleak this year.

Whichever processor you’re landed with you can expect 8GB of RAM as well as a choice of 128GB or 512GB of storage, depending on how much you’re willing to spend. This can’t be expanded via microSD but the good news is that all Galaxy S21 models come with 5G support as standard so anything you need to access in the cloud should download pretty swiftly.

If you’ve already read my Samsung Galaxy S21 and S21 Ultra reviews, then chances are you know what’s coming in the benchmarks. In the Geekbench 5 multi-core CPU test, the Exynos 2100 outperformed last year’s Exynos 990 by roughly 30%, and it matched the Snapdragon 888 inside the (much cheaper) Xiaomi Mi 11.

chart, bar chart © Provided by Expert Reviews

In terms of graphics rendering, the S21 Plus has received an even bigger boost. With an average frame rate of 54fps in the challenging on-screen GFXBench Car Chase benchmark, the S21 Plus doubled the score of the previous model.

chart, bar chart © Provided by Expert Reviews

At 4,800mAh, the Galaxy S21 Plus’ battery is 20% larger than the cell found inside the regular Galaxy S21. I was worried that the increase in screen size might negate any potential battery benefits but the S21 Plus lasted two hours longer in the video playback test, and beat last year’s S20 Plus by almost an hour.

chart, bar chart © Provided by Expert Reviews

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review: Cameras

Weirdly, the Galaxy S21 Plus has ditched the depth-sensing camera this year, and instead uses the same combination of rear-facing camera units as the cheaper model. For the uninitiated, this consists of primary 12MP (f/1.8), 64MP (f/2.0) 3x zoom and 12MP (f/2.2) ultrawide cameras.

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Most of the changes come from the software side of things, though, including the ability to grab a still image from 8K video footage and being able to display a live view of all three cameras simultaneously, switching between them on the fly while recording. Portrait mode has also been updated with improved depth estimation and virtual lighting options.

How did the cameras fare in our tests? Quite well, as it turns out. As with the rest of the lineup, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus’ images are rich with detail, with excellent use of HDR and colours that look as if they’re going to leap right out of the screen. My only complaint is that I found I often had to adjust the exposure slider down a notch or two; the auto-exposure has a tendency to boost the brightness of an image a bit too much for my liking.

a group of people in front of a building © Provided by Expert Reviews

I’m particularly fond of the S21 Plus’ Night mode, however. Placing the same image side-by-side with the iPhone 12 Pro, colours looked more balanced (the iPhone has a warm hue), and it also did a terrific job at picking up shadowy details without adding too much visual noise.

a group of people on a sidewalk © Provided by Expert Reviews

As for the telephoto capabilities, the S21 Plus lacks the 100x magnification of the Ultra, instead allowing you zoom to a maximum of 30x. Not that you’re going to want to do that very often, though, since images taken above 10x lack detail and are a bit of a mush. There’s no doubt the tech is impressive, it’s just that you’re not going to want to print the picture out and frame it on your wall.

a clock on the side of a building © Provided by Expert Reviews

With video, you can record up to 8K resolution at 24fps, with the option to record 4K at 60fps, fully stabilised. Video looks crisp and detailed, although there’s not much use for 8K at the moment, especially since there’s a good chance you don’t own an 8K TV yet, and the S21 Plus’ screen is only FHD+ anyway.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus review: Verdict

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my final thoughts on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus are largely the same as they were for the S21. It’s an astonishingly good, top-shelf handset, and it’s a smartphone that should serve you well for the coming years, if you can afford it.

Image of Samsung Galaxy S21+ 5G Smartphone SIM Free Android Mobile Phone Phantom Black 128GB (UK Version) © Provided by Expert Reviews Image of Samsung Galaxy S21+ 5G Smartphone SIM Free Android Mobile Phone Phantom Black 128GB (UK Version)

Samsung Galaxy S21+ 5G Smartphone SIM Free Android Mobile Phone Phantom Black 128GB (UK Version)

£824.00 Buy now

Is it worth spending the extra £180, though? Probably not. The entry-level model is still the best value of the bunch, since the S21 Plus’ only benefits – a slightly better battery life and a marginally bigger screen – aren’t the most groundbreaking of bonuses. Save yourself a bit of money and buy the Samsung Galaxy S21 instead, an extra two hours of battery life for almost £200 more really isn’t worth it.

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