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OnePlus 9 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: A clear winner

Phone companies have been getting hip to the fact that not everyone wants to spend $1,000 on a phone, but those who spend $800 should still be able to get a flagship experience. After all, $800 is a ton of cash. For instance, while the Galaxy S20 started at $1,000, the Galaxy S21 cuts the cost down to $800.

Of course, OnePlus has been playing in that space for years. While its phones have been getting increasingly expensive, the new OnePlus 9 still costs just $730, which is only a little less than the Galaxy S21 — in fact, it’s around the same price when you factor in the Galaxy S21’s routine discounts.

Given the similar pricing, you might be wondering which device you should go for. That’s why we’ve put together this guide. Here’s how the OnePlus 9 stacks up against the Samsung Galaxy S21.

Design and display

To me, the second biggest difference between the Galaxy S21 and the OnePlus 9 is the design, with the first being the camera. We’ll get into the camera a little later, but for now let’s talk design.

For a long time, it was assumed that glass phones were more premium than plastic ones. And generally, they are. Glass phones usually have a little more heft to them, feel stronger, and have other benefits. But the OnePlus 9 bucks that trend a little.

I’m not sure why it feels so cheap to me. It could be the fact that the actual frame is plastic, not metal. Or, perhaps it’s the fact that the device is quite a bit lighter than the OnePlus 9 Pro. Regardless, I thought the OnePlus 9, which is made of glass, was made of plastic.

The Galaxy S21 is made of plastic, though, and it still feels premium to me. Now, let’s be clear — the Galaxy S21 does feel like plastic. But at first glance, and even first feel, it could be mistaken for a frosted glass similar to that on the higher-end Galaxy S21 Ultra or the iPhone 12 Pro. It’s just a little more dense, plus its metal frame helps make it a bit easier to pick up and hold.

None of that is to mention the actual look of the phones, and the Galaxy S21 wins in this area too. The OnePlus 9 isn’t an ugly phone, by any means, but it looks like a last-generation device. It’s very similar to 2020’s Galaxy S20, with its rectangular camera module. I do like the Winter Mist color option based on the images I’ve seen, though to be clear, I reviewed the Astral Black model.

Samsung rolled the dice on the design of the Galaxy S21, and it paid off. In reality, the changes are relatively minor — with the main one being that the camera module kind of melts into the frame of the phone. But that small tweak makes a huge difference. The Galaxy S21 looks modern, unique, and interesting — at least as far as rectangular glass phones can look. The colors on offer by the Galaxy S21 also look great. My favorite is the Phantom Violet color, which is a kind of gold-on-purple look, but the other colors look nice as well.

Samsung Galaxy S21+
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Now, I get it. OnePlus phones have never necessarily been about flashy designs — they’ve been about speeds and specs. But when it comes to display specs, the Galaxy S21 matches the OnePlus 9 in all but one way: Display size. If you want a large-screen phone, then you may prefer the OnePlus 9 over the Galaxy S21, but if you just want quality, the Galaxy S21 and OnePlus 9 both have you covered. Either way, you’ll get a 1,080p screen with a 120Hz refresh rate — and they’re both responsive and colorful, and look great in general. The Galaxy S21 can also get a little brighter than the OnePlus 9.

Camera

As mentioned, perhaps the biggest difference between the OnePlus 9 and the Samsung Galaxy S21 is the camera. OnePlus has been touting its partnership with Hasselblad for the camera on the OnePlus 9, with the goal being to build a camera that’s on par with, or better than, those onflagship phones like the Galaxys and iPhones of the world. While it’ll hopefully get there, however, for now the Galaxy S21 still beats the OnePlus 9.

On the OnePlus 9, you’ll get a 48-megapixel main camera, a 50-megapixel ultrawide camera, and a 2-megapixel monochrome camera for things like depth-sensing and capturing additional detail. The Galaxy S21, on the other hand, has a 12-megapixel main camera, a 64-megapixel telephoto camera (though the fact that it only has 1.1x optical zoom means the word “telephoto” is a bit of a stretch), and a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera.

While the telephoto camera on the Galaxy S21 isn’t really all that special, Samsung has been working on the zoom tech on its phones for a few years now — and the result is that you’ll still get a decent amount of detail and depth in zoomed photos. That means that the Galaxy S21’s camera is a little more versatile than the one on the OnePlus 9.

The Galaxy S21 seems to be able to capture just a little extra detail, plus the colors it captures are a bit deeper. The OnePlus 9 definitely captures brighter photos, but brightness doesn’t mean high quality.

Everything else

The Galaxy S21 has a better design and a better camera than the OnePlus 9, and in every other area, it pretty much matches the new OnePlus device. On the Galaxy S21, you’ll get a Snapdragon 888 processor with 8GB of RAM. OnePlus keeps the same processor, but has options for either 8GB or 12GB of RAM. The result is that these two phones are able to perform about the same — and you won’t really be able to tell a difference in day-to-day use. If the extra RAM comes into play at all, it will be at the end of the OnePlus 9’s life pan.

You won’t really be able to tell a difference in performance in day-to-day use.

Perhaps the one area in which OnePlus beats Samsung is charging tech. Both phones will last a little over a day on a full charge. But if you do need to top up during the day, you probably want to be using the OnePlus 9. The device supports OnePlus’ Warp Charge 65T tech, which can get it from 0-100% in only 30 minutes, plus it supports fast wireless charging, provided you have the right charger. Of course, none of that matters if you charge your phone up at night and don’t use it for 10 hours of gaming during the day.

Conclusions

The OnePlus 9 is a solid phone, but the Galaxy S21 is just a killer phone. The Galaxy S21 matches OnePlus in display quality and performance, plus it has a much more interesting design and a better camera — all for only a little more money, or even around the same price depending on the discounts Samsung has going. If you’re looking for a high-end phone in the $800 price range, the Galaxy S21 is the way to go.

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