Samsung Galaxy S21 smartphones: The best and worst features

Samsung cut a few corners to make this premium phone more affordable.

samsung galaxy s21 primary backyard
Ryan Whitwam/IDG

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The new Samsung Galaxy S21 family has gotten a mostly positive reception, thanks to some notable hardware and software improvements. These phones are faster and more feature-rich compared to last year's S20s.

However, it's not all roses in Samsung-land. The S21 series has its fair share of disappointing features you'll have to accept. Here are the best and worst features you need to know about before buying Samsung's latest devices.

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The best features

Galaxy S21 Ultra camera

samsung galaxy s21 ultra cam Ryan Whitwam/IDG

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra's camera offers two optical zoom cameras, in addition to the 108MP primary and 12MP ultrawide.

Samsung's top-of-the-line Galaxy S21 Ultra this year comes with a suitably high-end camera. The camera on last year's S20 Ultra exhibited several flaws, like an inability to focus reliably.

The new setup on the S21 Ultra works better. There are also two optical zoom cameras in addition to the 108MP primary and 12MP ultrawide.

All these camera focal lengths mean you can snap photos of objects at various distances without losing any resolution to digital zoom.

Google Discover

Samsung finally had to admit that Bixby Home wasn't working. People want Google Discover on the home screen, and the S21 family finally delivers that option.

samsung galaxy s21 discover Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Samsung gives you the choice between Samsung Free and Google Discover.

When you swipe over to the left-most panel, you can choose between Samsung Free and Google Discover. Samsung Free is scarcely any better than Bixby, though. 

Discover offers personally tailored links to content around the web. Discover is also accessible in the Google app, but it's much more convenient if it's just waiting for you on the home screen.

Style

samsung galaxy s21 style Ryan Whitwam/IDG

The Galaxy S21 handles the camera module gracefully, so it looks like part of the design.

The S20 family from last year looked a bit plain, but the S21 phones have a slick corner-justified camera module that merges seamlessly with the frame. The module successfully makes the camera hump look like an integral part of the design, rather than a random island in a sea of glass. If Samsung really plays this up, it could be brand identity on the level of the iPhone notch.

S Pen support

samsung galaxy s21 s pen Ryan Whitwam/IDG

The S21 Ultra is the first Galaxy smartphone to support S Pen, and it's backward-compatible with existing S Pens, too.

Before this year, Samsung's excellent S Pen stylus was limited to the Note devices. The S21 Ultra, however, is the first member of the Galaxy S series to have the necessary digitizer in the screen to understand S Pen input.

You can use any S Pen, even one from an old Note phone. Samsung also makes a few stylus/case combos for the S21 Ultra, if you want something a little easier to carry around.

New fingerprint sensor

samsung galaxy s21 fingerprint sensor Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Samsung has upgraded the fingerprint sensor with the new Galaxy S21 smartphones.

Samsung has been using ultrasonic in-display fingerprint sensors since the S10. They worked, but not as well as the old capacitive variety.

With the S21, Samsung has moved to a new generation of Qualcomm ultrasonic tech. As a result, unlocking the S21 is faster and much less prone to errors compared to older Samsung phones.

The worst features

No microSD

samsung galaxy s21 no sd card slot Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Samsung kicks the SD card slot to the curb with the Galaxy S21 smartphones.

For years, Samsung was the guardian of removable storage on Android. Those days have ended. With the S21 family, Samsung has given up on  the venerable microSD card.

The UFS storage in Samsung phones is blazing-fast, to be fair, and the base 128GB is enough for most people. The highest storage available is 512GB in the S21 Ultra, but the $180 upsell is more expensive than a big microSD card would be.

A plastic back

samsung galaxy s21 plastic back Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Samsung saved some pennies by going with a plastic back for the Galaxy S21 smartphone, but it feels like a step backward.

Samsung's cheapest S21 is a very good value at $800, but it had to cut some corners to get there. The back of this phone is plastic instead of glass, not unlike the slightly cheaper S21 FE from last year. It doesn't seem entirely "right" to have a flagship phone with a plastic back, but that won't matter too much if you're going to use a case.

No included charger

samsung galaxy s21 no charger Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Samsung skipped the charger accessory with this generation of Galaxy smartphones.

Apple got away with dropping the power brick from the most recent iPhones, so Samsung is doing the same. It's less wasteful, sure, but it's also annoying when a high-end phone lacks accessories.

The S21 family charges at 25W, but you'll need to get a third-party adapter or use an old one you have sitting around. A charger that can hit 25W on these phones is only $10-15, but it's just one more thing you'll have to buy if you don't have a spare.

1080p screens

samsung galaxy s21 1080p screen Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Samsung stepped back from high-res displays with the Galaxy S21, though the 1080p screen is still very nice.

Another cost-cutting measure to keep the S21 series affordable is the move to 1080p screens. The high-end S21 Ultra still has a 1440p OLED, but the S21 and S21+ are both stuck with lower-resolution displays.

This might not be a deal-breaker depending on how picky you are. The 120Hz panels are very high-quality aside from the drop in resolution.

A step backward for Samsung Pay

samsung galaxy s21 samsung pay Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Samsung skipped Magnetic Secure Transmission support with Samsung Pay, removing some backward compatibility with pre-NFC terminals.

Samsung appears to be giving up on its Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST) technology for Samsung Pay. This feature allowed older Samsung flagships to beam your card info to terminals that didn't support NFC, but newer, mobile-optimized payment systems have become more common in the last few years. So, the United States variants don't have MST, which makes Samsung Pay no different than Google Pay.

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