The year is still young and we are already seeing our first heavyweight smartphone battle of 2021. Samsung has released its lineup of Galaxy S21 phones (go.pcworld. com/gl21) a little earlier than usual this year, and it clearly has Apple’s newest phone in its sights. Samsung hasn’t reinvented the S21 so much as it’s retooled it to take on the iPhone 12 (go.pcworld.com/i12p), with a lower price point, sharper design, and some new camera tricks. I’ve had a chance to review both, and here’s how the two $800 phones stack up.
Samsung’s Galaxy S is always at the forefront of Android smartphone design, and the S21 continues that tradition. Samsung has crafted a truly unique design where the metal sides seamlessly blend into the camera array, as if it were snapped onto the back. The back is made of plastic rather than glass, but it still has a premium feel, even if it’s not quite as luxurious as the S20.
Of course, the iPhone is no slouch in the looks department. Apple introduced a new, flatter design with the iPhone 12 that has a retro charm reminiscent of the iPhone 4, and it feels great to hold. The square camera array is nearly identical to the iPhone 11’s and not nearly as unique as the S21’s.
The two phones are very similar in size. The S21 is slightly bigger and a bit heavier. However, Samsung has done a fantastic job of distributing the weight on the S21, so it doesn’t feel as heavy as it weighs in specs:
Galaxy S21: 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm, 171 grams
iPhone 12: 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.4mm, 164 grams
Both phones come in a variety of colors that basically boil down to personal preference, but Samsung’s unique design stands out here as well. The camera array is treated as a design element and is made to stand out with a bold metal housing. It’s one of the most unique designs Samsung has ever made, and it makes the iPhone 12 look—well, a little stale.
My pick: Galaxy S21.
DISPLAY Now that Apple has gone OLED and Samsung has gone Full HD, the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S21 have very similar displays:
Galaxy S21: 6.2-inch Flat FHD+ Infinity-O Display (2400x1080), 421ppi, 120Hz
iPhone 12: 6.1-inch Flat Full HD+ Super Retina XDR (2532x1170), 460ppi, 60Hz
Marketing terms and tenth-of-an-inch difference aside, the only real distinction between the two displays is the refresh rate. Samsung is once again using a 120Hz screen on the S21, and this year it’s adaptive, meaning it will switch dynamically from a high refresh to a low one, depending on what you’re doing, in order to save battery life.
You’re also choosing between a hole or a notch. The iPhone 12 sticks with the rather large notch at the top of the screen that houses the TrueDepth camera and sensors for Face ID, while Samsung has a small hole in the center for its selfie camera.
The iPhone 12’s display is excellent, and, thanks to the speed of system on a chip, it feels extremely fast. But the S21 takes it a step further with its buttery-smooth scrolling, which feels effortless.
My pick: Galaxy S21.
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