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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Galaxy S20: comparing flagship Samsung phones

Samsung Galaxy S21 (L) and Galaxy S20 (R)
Samsung Galaxy S21 (L) and Galaxy S20 (R) (Image credit: Samsung)

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is Samsung's newest update in its line of flagship phones, replacing 2020's Galaxy S20 in the company's line-up. Samsung often finds its top handsets in our list of the best phones you can buy, and its newest is no exception.

If you don't have time to read all our coverage on both the old and new Samsung phones, you may be wondering about the differences between the two handsets. As the image above shows, the Samsung Galaxy S21 isn't a wholesale re-imagining of its predecessor, with the changes being quite subtle.

We've written full reviews of all Samsung's new phones, and have tested them for weeks, so we know what the Galaxy S20 and S21 phones are like and how they run. So if you're considering buying one of the company's newest devices, or just want to know how they compare, we've got you sorted.

Samsung Galaxy S21

Samsung Galaxy S21 (Image credit: Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Galaxy S20 price

The Samsung Galaxy S20 came with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, with a price of $999 / £899 / AU$1,499. In some regions, a 4G-only version of the phone (with 8GB of RAM) was also available for £799 / AU$1,349.

The Galaxy S21 is more affordable than that, thanks to some downgrades we'll get to later. It costs $799 / £769 / AU$1,249 for which you get 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Note that there's no 4G version of this phone.

With the newer device it appears that instead of developing brand-new features and ideas, for the Samsung Galaxy S21 the company has sought to find more affordable ways of offering the Galaxy S20's features. Sure, the S21 remains an expensive phone, but less so than its predecessor.

Design

Samsung Galaxy S20

Samsung Galaxy S20 (Image credit: Future)

As the pictures show, the Samsung Galaxy S21 doesn't bring a huge redesign of the Galaxy S20, with the only key visible difference being a slightly different-looking camera unit.

There is also a second change that the pictures don't show. While the Samsung Galaxy S20 has a glass back, the Galaxy S21’s rear is made of 'Glasstic', or plastic that's meant to feel more similar to glass.

This material is cheaper, and although it doesn't feel as premium as glass, it is more durable and therefore better for gripping in the hand. In a recent survey, we found many phone fans actually like this plastic material.

Aside from those updates, both phones comes with USB-C ports, plus power buttons and volume rockers mounted on the sides of the handsets, but no 3.5mm headphone jack.

In our Galaxy S21 review we said "it’s unlikely to feel as top-end as the Samsung Galaxy S20", so if you want a premium-feeling phone and have the choice, the S20 is the one to opt for.

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

The Samsung Galaxy S20 was available in three colors: blue, pink and gray. The S21 brings back the gray color, but also comes in white, violet, and a slightly different kind of pink.

Display

The Samsung Galaxy S21 display is actually a downgrade from the Galaxy S20. Both phones have 6.2-inch displays, interrupted by punch-hole cut-outs at the top, 120Hz refresh rates, HDR10+, and in-display fingerprint scanners. However, the resolution of the S21 is lower than that of the S20.

While the Samsung Galaxy S20’s screen resolution was 1440 x 3200, or Quad HD, the Galaxy S21 is only 1080 x 2400, or Full HD+. We found that on the S21 videos still look pretty great, and the lower price may justify the change.

Samsung Galaxy S20

Samsung Galaxy S20 (Image credit: Future)

Before you rush to assume the Galaxy S20 is therefore better, it's worth pointing out that the S20 can only use its QHD resolution or the 120Hz refresh rate, not both at the same time. So, for all intents and purposes, you'll be getting the same experience on the S21 as you may have done on the S20.

Cameras

On paper, it seems the Samsung Galaxy S21 comes with identical cameras to the Galaxy S20: a 12MP main unit, plus 64MP telephoto and 12MP ultra-wide snappers. And it seems even the sensors and lenses are the same. Both handsets also feature 10MP front-facing cameras.

The changes with the Galaxy S21 come by way of the camera modes; the S21 brings some upgrades to those we saw in the Galaxy S20, in particular for video recording.

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

New is Director's View, which lets you view video recordings from all three rear lenses at once, and enables you to jump between them when you want. There's also Vlogger View, whereby you can record video from the front and rear cameras at the same time.

The Samsung Galaxy S20's Single Take mode has also seen an improvement in the S21, with better AI and a heavier emphasis on slow-motion recording in order to capture great pictures. In our review we liked the addition of slow-mo shooting to the mode.

But unless those new camera modes appeal, you might not find the experience of shooting with the Samsung Galaxy S21 very different to the Galaxy S20.

Samsung Galaxy S20

Samsung Galaxy S20 (Image credit: Future)

Features and specs

In terms of software, the Samsung Galaxy S20 came running Android 10 but the Galaxy S21 bumps that up to Android 11. Both have Samsung's One UI laid over the top, however, and you'll be able to update the S20 to the newer software - but it won't likely get as many subsequent updates as the S21.

The chipset situation is rather messy. The Samsung Galaxy S20 uses the Exynos 990 processor in Europe and Asia, and Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865 elsewhere. The Galaxy S21 uses the Exynos 2100 in Europe and Asia and the Snapdragon 888 everywhere else.

Both versions of the chipsets are roughly equal in terms of processing power and battery efficiency, although in a contest Snapdragon chipsets generally come out on top. In our Galaxy S21 review using an Exynos 2100 phone, though, we found the difference between the chipsets is less pronounced.

Intriguingly, the Samsung Galaxy S20 came with 12GB of RAM and 128GB of storage (unless you opt for the 4G model, which has 8GB of RAM). The Galaxy S21 is only available with 8GB of RAM, but can be bought with 256GB of storage as well as 128GB.

Samsung Galaxy S21

(Image credit: Samsung)

Battery life

Both the Samsung Galaxy S21 and S20 include 4,000mAh batteries, but thanks to software and chipset improvements, we'd expect the former to offer slightly better battery life. The difference isn’t likely to be massive, though.

In our reviews of both phones, we found they offered roughly day-long battery lives, though the S21 occasionally didn't last that long.

The phones also both have 25W wired charging, as well as wireless powering and bilateral charging, which lets you use the handset as a wireless charging pad to power up other devices.

Overall, battery and charging is an area where there aren’t very many differences between the two devices.

Samsung Galaxy S20

(Image credit: Samsung)

Takeaway

The Samsung Galaxy S21 isn't a huge step up on its predecessor – in fact, it's a downgrade in more ways than one, and a sideways step in other areas.

However, the Galaxy S20 was more expensive at launch, and has been discontinued now. If you can find a Samsung Galaxy S20 for cheaper than the Galaxy S21, it may be a better purchase for you – but hunting one down might be a tall order.

As such, the Samsung Galaxy S21 is probably better value for money.