Samsung’s Galaxy S21 line offers wild cameras that can make a pro of any user

Daniel Howley
·Technology Editor
·5-min read

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 smartphones are now available, and while they offer big upgrades in performance, displays, and design, the standout feature is their cameras.

Adding impressive 3x optical zoom capabilities to the $799 Galaxy S21 and $999 Galaxy S21+, and a whopping 10x optical zoom to the $1,199 Galaxy S21 Ultra, Samsung is banking on the phones’ cameras to steal the show. And they’re certainly worth the hype.

To be sure, some camera features — like one called Space Zoom that uses software to zoom in on a subject — are unnecessary and don’t even create better photos. But if you’ve got an older Galaxy phone or are an Android user in need of an upgrade, the S21 line is worth checking out.

Here are the best features.

  • Three sizes, each with 5G connectivity

  • S21 and S21+ get 3x optical zoom

  • S21 Ultra gets 10x optical zoom

  • S21 Ultra packs S Pen stylus support

Cameras that can really zoom

The S21 line’s cameras are its biggest selling points. The S21 and S21+ come with ultra-wide angle, wide-angle, and telephoto cameras, while the Ultra gets ultra-wide, wide-angle, 3x telephoto, and 10x telephoto cameras.

Photos I took with the S21 and S21 Ultra looked clear and crisp. A low-light image I took of my cat looked slightly better than a similar low-light shot I took using the iPhone 12 Pro, with the S21’s photo offering a bit more detail and color.

A photo taken using the S21 Ultra's wide-angle camera. (Image: Howley)
A photo taken using the S21 Ultra's wide-angle camera. (Image: Howley)

But the main attraction of the cameras is their zoom capabilities. The S21 and S21+ feature a 3x optical zoom, which outpaces the 2x optical Zoom on the iPhone Pro. The benefit of optical zoom versus software powered zoom, is that optical zoom uses actual glass to zoom in on a subject rather than manipulating an image — resulting in a clearer subject.

A photo taken from the same vantage point, zoomed in on the middle tower. (Image: Howley)
A photo taken from the same vantage point, zoomed in on the middle tower. (Image: Howley)

The 3x zoom on the S21 and S21+ proved rather impressive, offering a better opportunity to capture subjects from afar. The 10x optical zoom on the S21 Ultra was even more impressive, making a photo of the skyline from my apartment appear as though it were shot professionally.

A photo taken from the same position as the prior two. (Image: Howley)
A photo taken from the same position as the prior two. (Image: Howley)

The S21’s Space Zoom, however, still leaves a lot to be desired. Space Zoom is a feature that uses software to zoom incredibly close to a subject. The S21 and S21+ offer 30x Space Zoom, while the S21 Ultra gets 100x Space Zoom. But since it relies on software, the results using either version of the feature were blurred photos that lacked detail. If anything, it’s more of a novelty than something that should sway your buying decision.

This low-light photo shows how the S21 is able to capture fine details in settings with poor lighting. (Image: Howley)
This low-light photo shows how the S21 is able to capture fine details in settings with poor lighting. (Image: Howley)

New styles and adaptive displays

Samsung has made slick changes with the Galaxy S21 line’s designs. The S21 and S21+ sport flat-style displays, while the S21 Ultra gets Samsung’s signature curves on its display’s left and right edges.

I prefer the styling of the S21 and S21+, as they have a cleaner, sharper appearance than the Ultra. In terms of size, the standard S21 features a 6.2-inch AMOLED display, while the S21+ gets a 6.7-inch AMOLED panel. The S21 Ulta, for its part, comes with a 6.8-inch AMOLED screen.

Each of the phones includes adaptive refresh rates, meaning on-screen movement, such as swiping through apps, playing games, or scrolling through web pages can provide different frame rates depending on what the particular software calls for.

The S21 Ultra, S21+, and S21. (Image: Samsung)
The S21 Ultra, S21+, and S21. (Image: Samsung)

The higher a panel’s refresh rate, the smoother on-screen action looks. But constantly refreshing the screen uses up more battery power. That’s where the ability to lower the refresh rate comes in, helping the S21 line save battery life when a higher refresh rate is unnecessary.

The S21 line’s panels offer vibrant images that will make anything you view jump off the screen. “The Great British Baking Show,” which is about as colorful of a show as you can get, looked gorgeous on all three of Samsung’s devices with colorful cakes and frosting popping alongside the show’s green countryside setting.

Powerful processor and plenty of battery

The S21 line comes with Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 888 chip across the board. Both the S21 and S21+ also get 8GB of RAM and your choice of 128GB or 256 GB of storage. The S21 Ultra, however, gets 12GB of RAM and 128GB or 256GB of space. You can also opt for an S21 Ultra with a ridiculous 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage space.

The S21 Ultra also benefits from the ability to use Samsung’s S Pen stylus. Like the Galaxy Note line, you can use the S Pen to write on the display to take notes or select apps.

As far as battery life goes, the S21 lasted throughout a day of scrolling the web and social media, watching videos on Hulu, and obsessively checking my emails and Slack. The S21+ gets a slightly larger battery than the S21, so expect that to last longer, with the S21 Ultra getting even more than that.

Should you get it?

The S21 line embodies the best aspects of Samsung’s smartphones. I prefer the styling of the S21 and S21+ to the S21 Ultra, and don’t care enough for the 100x Space Zoom or using a stylus to make the Ultra my go-to device. And for most people the S21 will be the smartphone of choice, as well. The screen is large without being too big, and it offers solid performance and battery life along with a top notch camera system.

The Ultra is a fine choice for those who only want the most ostentatious device available, but it’ll also cost them a pretty penny. For everyone else, stick to the S21.

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