Space zoom aside, I appreciated the versatility of the S21’s tri-camera setup. Getting a photo of the cityscape from my window and switching sensors to get wider, closer views was fun. With the new director view mode, you can also get a live preview of what each camera sees and choose your favorite. Director’s View also works for video capture and I simultaneously filmed a beautiful sunset and my reaction from the selfie camera. While recording, I could switch between views by tapping the corresponding thumbnail on the right. This is probably more useful for TikTok and Instagram posts, although it is not natively supported on these apps. You will need to shoot a video with the Samsung camera app and upload your clip.
Some of the other updates that Samsung has updated are improved single and night take modes, and for the most part, they feel incremental. There are also new bokeh and lighting options in Portrait mode which Samsung says use AI and 3D depth analysis for more precise outlines and effects. Honestly, I found most of these adjustments to be negligible – the software still couldn’t apply a natural blur around the strands of hair around my head, but lowering the intensity helped to minimize the difference.
All the new features aside, the cameras on the S21 are mostly decent. The photos and selfies were crisp and colorful, and I sometimes couldn’t tell them from the photos I had taken with a Pixel 5. Google’s flagship always takes much sharper and sharper photos, especially when you examine the details. But Samsung’s cameras will be good enough for most users and, at least on paper, are comparable to IPhone 12 triple sensor setup. The OnePlus 8T, meanwhile, has a 5 MP macro camera instead of a telephoto option and adds a 2 MP monochrome sensor to the mix.
One surprising thing that sets Samsung’s flagships apart from the competition is the software. I generally prefer Google’s Pixel UI, and with One UI 3 Samsung has made a few changes to mimic that experience. For one thing, the page to the left of the home screen is now Google’s Discover feed, which is much cleaner than Samsung’s Bixby-infested Daily.
The Gallery app and its built-in editor are also more useful than Android’s, thanks to nifty video editing and screenshot tools. On the S21, if you enable Labs when editing an image, you can use the new Object Eraser to get rid of unsightly background elements. As someone living with an inevitable mess, I loved the promise of this feature. You tap on the items you want to delete and the system will highlight them in purple. When you’re done choosing what you want to erase, hit Clear and they’ll be replaced with an automatically generated “background”.
The effectiveness here largely depends on your scene – if the background is clean enough with few patterns and your object has an obvious outline, this tool works fine. But for things like a cardboard box on my door, the S21 eraser was… fine. He removed the box but the background had visible streaks. This is understandable though, the same functionality in Adobe Photoshop still leaves similar marks.
Another bonus is the Samsung Free app (formerly called Samsung Daily) which allows you to watch TV channels, read certain publications and play games for free. I didn’t think it would be so convincing until I found myself staring excessively Kitchen nightmares one night while browsing Reddit. There are dozens of channels available including Paramount Movie Channel, AMC Presents, MTV Pluto, ION Plus, and TV Land Sitcoms. You can watch them on your phone, fullscreen or picture-in-picture, and right now I can’t see a way to stream them to my Google TV. It’s a small and maybe underrated feature, but it’s nice to see, especially at a time when every company is trying to sell you a new streaming service.