While pricing in general has to be a part of the combined equation, when a reviewer like me has to present a wholesome verdict on a piece of tech, it's generally left as an aside, a footnote at the end. There's reasoning behind that, because generally, what is considered adequate pricing, or even competitive pricing, is a very personal thing. Some consider a Galaxy Z Fold 2's $2000 price tag cheap, at least compared to the unique functionality on offer, and some are offended by the very notion of paying more than $399 for something like a new phone.
But pricing has to be mentioned at the top of this piece, because what Samsung did here is worth debating and pondering. See, as the $600-800 price bracket has heated up over the past few years, manufacturers have been trying to come up with creative solutions to offer consumers. The "iPhone" is now in that price bracket, and so is the regular OnePlus of the year. Samsung showed their hand last year with the launch of the Galaxy S20 FE, a way for them to offer flagship level quality at what was considered a more budget-friendly price point.
But that was a mere hors d'oeuvre, a prelude to this. The Galaxy S21, Samsung's first complete flagship to buck the trend, offers itself up at a "mere" $799.99, a considerable price drop of $200 compared to last year's S20. So what are you getting for your money?
At the face of it, not many corners have been cut to reduce the price by one fifth. You get the same Exynos 2100 (or Snapdragon 888 in the US) SoC, the same charging capabilities and the same basic feature set as on the larger S21+. Sure, there are compromises, but we'll get to those in a bit. The main point here is that the S21 feels like a 2021 flagship in every conceivable way, so to have the price cut down, well, it really is something.
First up, some would argue that Samsung's choice of materials on the regular S21 is one of its biggest offences, but really, it's a nothingburger. Instead of glass we get so-called "glastic", or actually a polycarbonate back with a matte finish, leaving no fingerprints or smudges. The rails are still aluminium, and the overall fit and finish are premium - there simply can be no argument there. It also just weighs in at 169 grams, giving fans of lighter flagships something truly one-handable. But as previously stated, no One Plus-esque concessions here, so you get the latest Gorilla Glass Victus, and IP68 certification for water and dust. What we have sacrificed, and that's on all models, is expandable storage. It's clearly less of a sting on the cheapest model in the range, still it is sad to see it go.
Let's talk about the screen then. Any obvious sacrifices here? Well, in a sense, yes. You get a 6.2 inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X screen at a dynamic 120Hz, alongside HDR10+ support and 1300 NITS peak brightness. But, it's "just" 1080p. Again, some were quick to berate Samsung for going with a lower-resolution screen, conveniently forgetting that larger displays on the S20 Ultra for instance had to go 1080p to get the 120Hz refresh-rate last year. While 1440p is demonstrably sharper, no argument there, I just didn't notice it. The pixel density is 421ppi, and Samsung just knows how to properly tune colour, sharpness and vibrancy. It's top stuff, it really is. Oh, and it's completely flat, which is clearly the result of bending to consumer preference.
Under the hood we find the Exynos 2100. Some will immediately scoff at again being forced to utilise Samsung's own SoC, instead of the Snapdragon variant in the US. This time, the difference between them is a lot less apparent though. In our GeekBench5 benchmark the Exynos 2100 scored 1101 compared to 1125 on the Snapdragon 888 in single-core, and on multi-core test the 2100 came out ahead with 3729 next to the 888's 3699. In our AnTuTu 8 test the 888 did pull ahead by about 5% though, but it lost out in battery consumption with 1%. We have seen other media with similar closeness, but with the Snapdragon coming out ahead. The point is that it's still there, that annoying difference, but it's so inconsequential that it's much harder to point your finger at.
That goes for the 8GB's RAM and the 128GB UFS 3.1 storage. Sure, it's less, but is it less in such a way that you'd notice it? No, it really isn't, and when looking at offerings from OnePlus and Apple, it's in the right ballpark. I would've liked to see storage solutions for these kinds of phones start at 256GB though, but with more in-cloud storage solutions becoming more accessible, that seems unlikely. In truth, regardless of whether it's PUBG Mobile, The Elder Scrolls: Legends or even Diablo Immortal, which we got to play a little bit, the 8GB RAM, the Exynos 2100 and its onboard Mali G78 MP14 GPU is a powerhouse, where I can guarantee you won't ever experience regular slowdowns.
You get all the Samsung fringe features too. Thanks to the Exynos 2100, the supersonic fingerprint reader is around 20% larger, and a little more reliable too, Samsung DEX continues to improve, and the stereo speakers are better than expected. Also, it's 4000mAh battery did end up comfortably lasting me a day and a half between trips to the plug, and 25W charging is nowhere near as fast as Warp or VOOC, but it won't destroy your battery in a few years either.
And then there's the camera. Love or hate the new design, the "bump" is less pronounced, and it won't rock as much on a table as previous models. The new set-up consists of a 12 megapixel f/1.8 26 millimetre wide, a 12 megapixel f/2.2 13 millimetre 120 degree ultrawide and finally a 64 megapixel f/2.0 29 millimetre telephoto with 3x optical zoom. While not much has happened hardware-wise since the S20, the software has been updated. That means that the Single Take feature now is more responsive, and can record in slow-motion too. There's also Director's View, that lets you record from both the front and back at the same time.
In addition, it can zoom all the way into 30x Space Zoom, which isn't particularly useful, but it's much more stable, and you can more easily lock your frame in place, letting you take more steady shots. In addition, it does have Optical Image Stabilisation on the telephoto lens for added stability.
Overall, I found the cameras to once again brush competition to the side with excellent sharpness, lovely colour science and general broad dynamic range. The Night Mode has made dramatic advancements compared to the regular S20, drawing in more light, and maintaining sharpness without making images too noisy.
There are sacrifices here, surely, as you can probably tell. Glastic, 8GBs of RAM, a 1080p screen, but I'd argue that all these cuts were made where it absolutely made the most sense. Ultimately, you get the most accessible S-series flagship to date, and while an iPhone can shoot better video, a Pixel can take better stills and a OnePlus has the least cluttered UI, as a package, I'd definitely recommend the S21.