Samsung’s three flagship smartphones of 2021—the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21+, and Galaxy S21 Ultra—are nearly a year old, but they’re still great buys. They’re usually available for a few hundred dollars off their original retail price. These Android devices are packed with the latest in mobile technology, from the speedy Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor to impressively bright 120-Hz AMOLED displays.
If you’re enticed, we’ve rounded up some advice on which model you should buy—if you should buy them at all—along with cases and accessories we’ve tested, plus the best deals and promotions around so you get the most phone for your buck.
Updated November 2021: We’ve added cases and shopping advice for the S21 range.
Special offer for Gear readers: Get a 1-year Subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to WIRED.com and our print magazine (if you’d like). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.
Picking the Right Galaxy
Samsung’s three phones (8/10, WIRED Recommends) have a lot in common. They all utilize the same aforementioned processor, support fast 120-Hz screen refresh rates, have 5G connectivity, and can record video in 8K resolution. None comes with a charger in the box (exactly like the latest iPhone models), and Samsung also stripped out the MicroSD slot, so you can’t expand the base 128 gigabytes of storage. We talk about the fine details here, but here’s a recap of the differences.
This is the Galaxy to get. It’s the most affordable of the bunch (it’s still very expensive!), but it also has the smallest screen at 6.2 inches, making it a great option if you dislike big-screen phones. It has a 4,000-mAh battery that should provide enough juice to last a full day, and a capable 8 GB of RAM. It also has a polycarbonate back, so unlike the other two glass-backed Galaxy phones, this model has one less part that can crack or break. You get the same camera experience in the S21 and the larger S21+. Both models have a 12-megapixel main sensor, a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera, and a 64-megapixel zoom camera that offers up to 30X hybrid optical/digital magnification.
The 6.7-inch screen on this larger model is much better for viewing movies or shows, and the larger body means you get a bigger, 4,800-mAh battery. The S21+ skips the plastic on the back in favor of a more premium Gorilla Glass Victus material that looks nice but is more fragile.
If you want to get the best camera system Samsung has to offer, go with the Ultra. It has a 108-megapixel main camera, a 12-megapixel ultrawide lens, and two 10-megapixel telephoto cameras that support 3X and 10X optical zoom. This camera snaps wonderfully crisp zoomed-in shots. The rest of the phone is similar to the S21+, but there are minor changes. The screen is slightly bigger, at 6.8 inches, though the display has a speedy 120-Hz refresh rate that works at the screen’s maximum resolution. (The lesser models can only hit that high refresh rate at a reduced resolution.) The phone has 12 gigabytes of RAM for faster performance. It also supports Samsung’s S Pen (not included, $40 extra). The 5,000-mAh battery is the biggest in the 2021 Galaxy lineup, and it comfortably lasts a full day.
There are other good phones: You don’t need to spend $800 on a phone. We like plenty of other devices that cost around half the price, like the Google Pixel 5A (9/10, WIRED Recommends), a $450 Android phone that has a great camera, 5G, smooth performance, and nearly two-day battery life. Our favorite high-end phone at the moment is Google’s $599 Pixel 6 (9/10, WIRED Recommends), which has many of the same perks, like wireless charging, not to mention better cameras and smarter software. Read our Best Android Phones and Best Cheap Phones guides for more.
How to Get the Galaxy S21 Unlocked
You should buy your smartphone unlocked. Buying the phone unlocked (instead of from a wireless carrier) makes it easier to switch networks later on. Unlocked phones also have a better resale value, come with less preinstalled bloatware, and receive software updates faster and more frequently.
How much should you pay for one of these phones? The Galaxy S22 series isn’t far off, so you should not pay full price. The Galaxy S21 frequently drops to $650 on Amazon and at select other retailers. The S21+ usually falls to around $800, and while the S21 Ultra has hovered around $1,000 before, it has gone lower—as low as $900. You should try not to pay more than that. However, the S21 range seems to be low in stock everywhere. Here are the best places to find them:
Samsung usually has a few sales of these devices during the year, and you can expect prices to dip again before the year’s end. Your purchase includes four months of YouTube Premium for free (no ads), and six months of SiriusXM Streaming. If you trade in a compatible phone in good condition, you can get up to $600 deducted from the price of the phone. Samsung even lets you trade in cracked phones for up to $550 in credit.
Stock is fluctuating at Amazon lately, but there’s a chance you’ll see steep discounts on these phones again soon. Amazon does have a trade-in program that accepts phones from more manufacturers than Samsung, but you should try selling your old phone first to see if you’ll get more money back. We have a guide on how to do it.
Some models are out of stock at Best Buy. If it’s available, make sure to choose the unlocked model when shopping at Best Buy. You can trade in a compatible phone in good condition to get up to $900 off. The downside is that you must visit a Best Buy store so a clerk can inspect the phone you’re trading in.
Galaxy S21 Deals From Wireless Carriers
If you plan to stick with your carrier or want to upgrade your plan or add a new line, you can also get deals from your provider.
- Verizon: Got an unlimited plan? If you buy a Galaxy S21 or another in the range, you can get $150 off a Samsung Galaxy Watch4. The savings come in the form of promo credit over 24 or 30 months.
- T-Mobile: You can get up to $800 off the S21, S21+, or S21 Ultra when you activate a new line on a Magenta Max rate plan. The savings come via 24 monthly bill credits.
- AT&T: If you’re a new or existing customer, you can get up to $800 off if you trade in a compatible phone and buy an S21 series phone on a 30-month payment plan with an unlimited data plan.
- Visible: Visible has the S21 and S21+ for slightly discounted prices ($792 for the former and $984 for the latter). You’ll get either a $100 or $200 virtual gift card to spend anywhere after 3 full months of service payments, but you need to be a new subscriber and have to transfer your number from an eligible carrier. You can also get a pair of Beats Studio Buds for free.
Our Favorite Cases and Accessories
Unless you like to live on the edge, a case is a must-have to protect your investment. Just know that no case can completely prevent cracked glass if you drop your phone. Still, it can be helpful to use a case, even to prevent everyday scuffs. Here are a few we’ve tested and like.
Out of the many cases I tested, this is my favorite. It has a wonderful texture on the back that makes it pleasant to the touch and a simple design, and it evens out the rear camera bump so the phone doesn’t rock on a table much. It’s still fairly thin, and the bumper has decently raised lips to keep the screen off the ground.
This case is so slim it weirdly makes the S21 Ultra feel thin. The bumper is grippy, though the back is pretty slippery, and it doesn’t gather dust, lint, or fingerprints. You can also swap out the buttons for a neon yellow pair (included) if you want a color accent to make it pop. For something different, I also like Cyrill’s Floral cases (S21, S21+).
If you hate the bulk a case typically adds, consider Totallee. The company is known for making some of the thinnest cases around. The silicone clear cases we’ve linked to will offer some drop protection, but it’s mostly for protecting your device from everyday scratches. It’s the option to pick if you want to admire the design of the S21.
Spigen has long offered simple, cheap cases, and the Liquid Air series is my top pick from its varied selection. It’s slim, has a decent grip, and doesn’t look hideous. In case you didn’t know, two subbrands Spigen owns are Cyrill and Caseology, our top two picks above.
Razer claims its Thermaphene Cooling technology can quickly dissipate the heat generated from the Galaxy S21 when it’s running some heavy-duty games. Whether that’s true or not is hard to tell—the phone was still fairly warm after long playthroughs of Pokémon Unite, but performance remained smooth, so maybe it helped. Either way, buy it if you’re a Razer fan and because it’s stylish, with clicky buttons.
Only the S21 Ultra supports the S Pen, Samsung’s stylus. The stylus is not as feature-filled as the one in Samsung’s Note phones, but it has pressure sensitivity and a fine tip that make it nice for drawing and writing. Samsung has a case that comes with the S Pen ($70) and provides a way to store the stylus. It’s worth picking up if you plan on using the pen on the go, but the case picks up dust and lint too easily and makes the phone even wider.
Want to wirelessly charge your new phone? I like Samsung’s wireless charging pads—they’re simple and do the job. If you have Samsung’s Galaxy Watch4, Galaxy Watch3, Active2, or Active, get the Duo or Trio to recharge it alongside the phone. We have more wireless chargers we tested here.
The new Galaxy phones don’t come with a charging adapter, but they do include a USB-C to USB-C cable. If you don’t have a USB-C charging adapter, this one from Samsung will charge your phone at the fastest speed. This one from Nimble is another good option and includes a USB-A port alongside the USB-C.
Need a tracker to avoid losing your nonconnected belongings? The S21+ and the S21 Ultra both have ultra-wideband tech that enables you to get precise location tracking when you use Samsung’s Galaxy SmartTags. Attach it to anything—car keys, a pet’s collar, a backpack—and use the SmartThings app to find the exact location of an item you misplaced. It works with the regular S21 too, but only with Bluetooth tracking.
More Great WIRED Stories