Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Galaxy S20: What Difference Does a Year Make?

The Samsung Galaxy S21 has arrived, and at first glance, you may wonder whether it’s really that much different from last year’s Samsung, the Galaxy S20. The new phone benefits from a more powerful processor, enhanced camera software, and a slightly finessed design. On the other hand, the screen has a reduced resolution, while it also does away with the S20’s microSD card slot. As such, it’s not immediately obvious whether it’s a better phone overall than the S20.

To help you decide which of these phones you’d prefer, we’ve put the Samsung Galaxy S21 and the Galaxy S20 through a rigorous comparison test. We look at their specs, designs, displays, performance, cameras, and software, which together should give you a clearer indication of which is the right Galaxy for you.

Specs

Samsung Galaxy S20 Samsung Galaxy S21
Size 151.7 x 69.1 x 7.9mm (5.97 x 2.72 x 0.31 inches) 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm (5.97 x 2.80 x 0.31 inches)
Weight 163 grams (5.75 ounces) 171 grams (6.03 ounces)
Screen size 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X
Screen resolution 3200 x 1440 pixels (563 pixels per inch) 2400 x 1080 pixels (421 ppi)
Operating system Android 11 Android 11
Storage 128GB, 512GB 128GB, 256GB
MicroSD card slot Yes No
Tap-to-pay services Samsung Pay, Google Pay Samsung Pay, Google Pay
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
RAM 8GB (12GB in the U.S.) 8GB
Camera Triple-lens 12-megapixel wide, 64MP telephoto, and 12MP ultrawide rear, 10MP front Triple-lens 12MP wide, 64MP telephoto, and 12MP ultrawide rear, 10MP front
Video 4K at up to 60 frames per second, 1080p at 30 fps 8K at up to 30 fps, 4K at up to 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps
Bluetooth version Bluetooth 5.0 Bluetooth 5.0
Ports USB-C, 3.2 USB-C, 3.2
Fingerprint sensor Yes, in-display Yes, in-display
Water resistance IP68 IP68
Battery 4,000mAh

Fast charging (25W)

Qi wireless charging

4,000mAh

Fast charging (25W)

Qi wireless charging

App marketplace  Google Play Store Google Play Store
Network support All major carriers All major carriers
Colors Cosmic Gray, Cloud Blue, Cloud Pink, Cloud White, Aura Red Phantom Gray, Phantom White, Phantom Violet, Phantom Pink
Prices $999+ $799+
Review score 3.5 out of 5 stars Hands-on review

Design, display, and durability

The Samsung Galaxy S21 may look much like the Galaxy S20 to the casual observer, but there are a number of differences worth highlighting. Most notably, the S21 features razor-thin bezels around its edge-to-edge display, making it look even more impressive than the S20. It also comes with a new camera module, which slopes around the near edge of the phone’s rear, giving it a nice contemporary look (not that the S20 looks outdated).

That said, the S21 is nearly 10 grams heavier than the S20, as well as 2mm wider. This isn’t a massive difference, but when the S20 was already fairly large (particularly for a model that was supposed to be the “smallest” of its series), you may feel a very slight drop in comfort. Added to this, the S21 features a plastic back, whereas the S20 boasts a very sleek glass back, something which makes it seem more refined.

More noticeably, Samsung has decided, for whatever reason, to reduce the S21’s display quality. Its screen offers 2400 x 1080 pixels, which is good enough as it stands. However, it falls noticeably short of the S20’s display, which packs 3200 x 1440 pixels, providing you with 563 ppi. By contrast, with the same sized screen (6.2 inches) but fewer pixels, the S21 musters only 421 ppi.

Both phones come with an IP68 rating, meaning they can withstand immersion in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. You could argue that having a plastic, rather than glass, back provides the S21 with a little more durability than the S20. This may be true, but with its superior resolution and more sophisticated glass rear, this opening round goes to the S20.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S20

Performance, battery life, and charging

Samsung Galaxy S20 charging port
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends.com

In the United States, the Samsung Galaxy S20 shipped with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, which is still a mighty processor. It isn’t quite as powerful as the newer Snapdragon 888, mind you, but if you are (once again) in the U.S., the S20 ships with 12GB of RAM as standard, compared to the 8GB you get in the rest of the world. This is also the amount of RAM the S21 ships with (in the U.S. and elsewhere), so even if it does have a newer chip, the 4GB difference will cancel out any advantage it might otherwise have had.

Things get even worse for the S21 when it comes to internal memory. Both it and the S20 provide 128GB of internal storage, yet the older phone contains a microSD card slot, while the newer does not. This is likely a big drawback if you happen to need extra storage space, and if you tend to take photos and videos at a healthy pace, you may find that your phone’s internal storage fills up fairly quickly.

Our review of the S20 found that its battery was dependable if a little underwhelming, lasting about a full day under moderate-to-heavy usage. This is also likely to be the case for the S21 since it uses a battery of exactly the same size, coming in at 4,000mAh. However, without giving the newer phone a full review, we won’t know for sure since software changes may result in greater efficiency.

Winner: Tie

Cameras

The Samsung Galaxy S21 and the Galaxy S20 feature the same basic camera setup. Equipped with 12MP wide and 12MP ultrawide lenses, they also both offer a 64MP telephoto lens. This beefy telephoto camera provides a 3x optical zoom, giving you more detail with close-up shots. However, the support for a 30x digital zoom is more of a nice gimmick than anything else, given the relative lack of clarity.

Our review found that the S20 is a very good all-around camera phone, taking very nice pictures in most settings. The same is likely to be true for the S21 since its hardware is basically identical to the S20’s. Its three rear lenses (and also its selfie camera) offer the same number of megapixels as the S20’s, while they also feature the same aperture sizes and the same components (such as dual-pixel autofocus).

This may be changed, however, by software improvements, with Samsung adding a new version of its useful Single Take mode, as well as adding a Vlogger View mode that lets you shoot video with front and rear lenses at the same time. Without giving the S21 a full road test, we won’t know if such features actually provide a better camera overall, although it may be the case that the S21 is slightly better than the S20. At the moment, we’ll trust Samsung that it’s improved the cameras in the S21 and award it the win by default, but that could change after our review.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21

Software and updates

Samsung Galaxy S20 screen
Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends.com

While the Galaxy S20 launched with OneUI 2/Android 10, it’s now supporting OneUI 3, which is Samsung’s skin of Android 11. Likewise, the S21 will launch with OneUI 3 and Android 11 out of the box, so you won’t notice any difference when it comes to software.

Both phones will also receive updates at the same time. In the past, Samsung’s track record in rolling out Android updates has been a little patchy, although S20 users received Android 11 within about four months of Google releasing the OS, which was also the timeframe within which Samsung delivered Android 10 to its users.

Winner: Tie

Special features

5g feature image

When it comes to special features, the Samsung Galaxy S21 and S20 are largely the same. They both support 5G, although the S20 supports the faster mmWave band only if you use it with Verizon. By contrast, the S21 supports mmWave as standard, meaning that you have a better chance of enjoying the fastest 5G speeds with it.

Aside from 5G, both phones support a silky smooth 120Hz refresh rate. As the term suggests, this refreshes the screens of each phone at a much faster rate, making it seem much more fluid and realistic. The S21 has a dynamically changing display, but it remains to be seen how large a difference this makes.

The S21 also features the aforementioned Vlogger View mode, as well as a Director’s View mode, which lets you see thumbnails of all of the phone’s lenses while shooting video so that you can switch intuitively from one to the other. This is something the S20 doesn’t have, yet the balance is restored by the simple fact that the S20 ships with a charger, while you’ll have to buy one separately (or have one left over) with the S21.

Winner: Tie

Price and availability

The Samsung Galaxy S21 is available for preorder from January 14 and starts from $799, with a 256GB model available for $849. It will support all major carriers and will be sold pretty much everywhere.

The last time we checked, the Galaxy S20 is sold out on Samsung’s official store. However, we’ve seen it being sold through online retailers such as Amazon and Best Buy, where you may be able to find it unlocked for around $749 (it was launched at $999). It’s also supported by all major carriers.

Overall winner: Samsung Galaxy S21

It’s a narrower win than you might expect, but the Samsung Galaxy S21 is the better phone — just not by much. The Samsung Galaxy S20 boasts a sharper display, a more elegant-looking glass rear, an only slightly-worse camera, much the same battery life, a microSD card slot, 4GB more RAM (if you’re in the U.S.), and it comes with a new charger.

By comparison, the Galaxy S21 has a few software updates for its camera, a slightly more powerful processor, smaller bezels around its screen, and, um, that’s about it. Samsung set out to better the last generation, and it has — just — but for a lot of people, it’s going to make more sense to stick with their existing Galaxy S20 or to buy the older phone if you’re looking for a new daily driver.

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