Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

Samsung Galaxy S21 vs. Google Pixel 5: Which should you get?

The new Samsung Galaxy S21 range finally landed at Samsung Unpacked 2021, and if you’re in the market for a new phone, there’s no time like the present. The S21’s appeal is obvious, with its 6.2-inch display with 120Hz refresh rate, powerful processor, and triple camera offerings. But what if the sleek edge-to-edge display and amazing camera of the Google Pixel 5 are calling you?

If you can’t decide between a Google Pixel 5 and the Galaxy S21, we’ve got your back.  We’ll help you decide which phone is worth your hard-earned cash, by comparing them across six core categories, from design to performance and battery life. To find out which one you should buy, keep reading.

Specs

Samsung Galaxy S21  Google Pixel 5
Size 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9mm (6 x 2.8 x 0.31 inches) 144.7 x 70.4 x 8mm (5.70 x 2.77 x 0.31 inches)
Weight 171 grams (6.03 ounces) 151 grams (5.33 ounces)
Screen size 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 6.0-inch OLED capacitive touchscreen
Screen resolution 2400 x 1080 pixels (421 pixels per inch)

Adaptive 48-120Hz refresh rate

2340 x 1080 pixels (432 pixels per inch)

90Hz refresh rate

Operating system Android 11 with One UI 3.1 Android 11
Storage 128GB, 256GB 128GB
MicroSD card slot No No
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G
RAM 8GB 8GB
Camera Triple lens 12-megapixel wide, 12MP ultrawide, and 64MP telephoto rear

10MP front

Dual-lens 12MP wide, 16MP ultrawide rear

8MP front

Video 8K at up to 30 fps, 4K at up to 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps 4K at 60 frames per second, 1080p at 30 fps
Bluetooth version Bluetooth 5.1 Bluetooth 5.0
Ports USB-C USB-C, 3.1
Fingerprint sensor Yes (in-display ultrasonic) Yes, rear-mounted
Water resistance IP68 IP68
Battery  4,000mAh

25W wired charging (No charger included in the box)

15W wireless charging

Reverse wireless charging

4,080mAh

Fast charging (18W)

Wireless charging

Reverse wireless charging

App marketplace Google Play Store Google Play Store
Network support All major carriers Verizon, Google Fi
Colors Phantom Grey, Phantom White, Phantom Pink, Phantom Violet Just Black, Sorta Sage
Price $800 $699
Buy from Samsung Google, Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart
Review score 3.5 out of 5 stars 4 out of 5 stars

Design, display, and durability

Samsung Galaxy S21 colors
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

The Galaxy S21is a good-looking device, with a near bezel-less front and punch-hole selfie camera, and the rear camera pod almost totally integrated into the frame. This is especially gorgeous on the Phantom Violet models, with its differently colored camera module. However, camera pod aside, the design is very similar to the S20.

Unlike the other phones in the range, the S21 has a plastic back — “glasstic” as Samsung calls it — which, although it’s lighter and more resistant to damage than glass, might seem absurd to some, given you’re shelling out $800. In comparison, the Pixel 5’s design feels understated and, dare we say, even a little dated. There’s no premium feel here, although some may prefer the textured aluminum chassis which does feel good in your hand — and the Sorta Sage color injects character into what’s an otherwise fairly unremarkable design.

The Pixel 5 wins bonus points for its weight too — at just 151 grams compared to the S21’s 171 grams, it’s compact and lightweight. For those who find newer phones too big, it may prove the better option of the two.

Speaking of displays, both are impressive indeed with the S21 boasting a 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED display with 2400 x 1080 pixels and an adaptive 48Hz to 120Hz refresh rate. This adjusts automatically depending on what tasks you’re doing — faster if you’re scrolling the web or gaming, slower while looking at still photos — conserving battery life. With 1,200 nits of brightness and more saturation than the Pixel 5, the screen is incredibly bright, crisp, and colorful on the S21, whether you’re playing the latest games or watching videos.

In contrast, the Pixel 5’s 6-inch OLED display has a slightly higher resolution at 2340 x 1080 pixels, with a 90Hz refresh rate and HDR10+ support. Scrolling is beautifully smooth, but those who spend most of their time gaming on their phone may want to opt for the 120Hz refresh rate of the S21.

Both phones are IP68 rated, so both are safe for a dunk in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes.

We were tempted to award the prize here to the S21, with its larger screen, 120Hz refresh rate, and sophisticated Phantom Violet color. However, the premium aluminum chassis and compact, lightweight feel of the Pixel 5 ensure it’s also an excellent choice, so it’s a tie this round.

Winner: Tie

Performance, battery life, and charging

Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

The Galaxy S21 is powered by the Snapdragon 888 processor, which is the top-of-the-range Android processor available in the U.S. right now. Multi-tasking is a breeze, as is gaming, and the latest apps are no issue either thanks to 8GB of RAM. Compare that with the Pixel 5’s Snapdragon 765G processor and 8GB of RAM and it’s clear the Pixel isn’t going to win when it comes to raw power. Though the Snapdragon 765 still provides excellent performance when multitasking or gaming, you may notice a difference when playing the latest games.

The S21 comes with 128GB or 256GB of storage and the SD slot has gone the way of the headphone jack, so the storage you buy is all you’ll ever have. If you’re the kind of person who regularly deletes photos and apps, then the 128GB onboard the Pixel 5 should suit you just fine — but again, there’s no SD card slot, and there’s no 256GB model on offer here either.

Battery life is comparable across both phones. The S21’s 4,000mAh battery should see you through a day of moderate use, but don’t expect to have much more than 25% left by bedtime. Heavier use — such as 8K video recording or gaming — or a day spent traveling will likely leave the battery needing a top-up before the day’s end.

The slightly larger 4,080mAh battery on the Pixel 5 also provides decent battery life, but is likely to need a top-up on busier days. When it comes to juicing up your phone though, the S21 supports 25W wired charging and 15W wireless charging, plus reverse wireless charging for accessories — though it doesn’t come bundled with a charger, just a cable. In contrast, the Pixel 5 supports 18W wired charging and comes with a charger in the box. It supports wireless and reverse wireless charging too — so you can pop your Pixel Buds 2 on the back of the phone to juice them up.

It’s worth noting here that there have been reports of the Pixel 5 dropping Wi-Fi signal, as well as mention of fewer bars when it comes to cellular reception. This is definitely worth considering if you live in an area with poor reception, and could be due to the phone’s metal body.

The S21 takes top place this round. While the Pixel 5’s battery is slightly bigger, the S21’s more powerful processor, storage options, and 25W charging pip the Pixel to the post.

Winner: Samsung Galaxy S21

Cameras

Google Pixel 5
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

The Pixel 5 boasts a dual-lens rear camera setup, with a 12.2-megapixel wide lens and a 16MP ultrawide lens. By contrast, the Galaxy S21’s triple-lens setup comprises a 12MP ultrawide sensor, a 12MP wide main lens, and a 64MP telephoto shooter. The Galaxy S21 features more cameras but also offers newer hardware compared to the older sensor of the Pixel 5, which was first seen on the Pixel 2 in 2017.

It’s worth mentioning that the camera setup on the S21 is identical to that of the Galaxy S20, although Samsung claims enhancements in the image signal processor (ISP) in the new chipset and new processing software make better use of raw data captured by the sensors. Despite this, the photos you’ll end up with are largely similar to those taken on the S20.

Photos on the S21 are generally pretty impressive in good lighting, with great colors and clarity, while the promised processing changes have subtly reduced the blown out and overly warm tones visible in photos on the S20. But in low-light conditions the camera struggles. The front-facing camera, in particular, performs well in daylight, but detail is seriously lacking in less than ideal lighting conditions — even indoors.

What the Pixel 5 lacks in hardware, it more than makes up for in software, with Google Pixel cameras rated amongst the best. You’ll struggle to take bad photos with the Pixel 5, and features like Super Res Zoom — which uses A.I. to enhance photos that use digital zoom — and the ability to switch light sources in Portrait Mode only improves things further.

With the S21 you get A.I. enhanced portrait mode, Zoom Lock stability with A.I. to keep your subject centered even when zoomed, Space Zoom, and Night Mode with enhanced noise reduction for low-light shooting. Speaking of Night Mode, we found it produced solid but not spectacular main camera shots and often over-brightened backgrounds, with blotchy, over-processed grain and soft lines.

Despite the extra rear lens on the S21, the Pixel 5’s cameras make it difficult to take a bad photo — and the S21 just doesn’t perform as well indoors or in low-light conditions, so this round goes to the Pixel 5.

Winner: Google Pixel 5

Software and updates

Google Pixel 5
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Both phones ship with Android 11. The S21 runs Samsung’s One UI 3.1, which feels fairly intuitive, especially if you’re already a Samsung user — even if it does take a fair amount of configuration and tweaking to get it just the way you want it. Samsung generally promises three generations of OS updates, making the S21 a future-proof option. The Pixel 5 runs stock Android and has two years of Android updates guaranteed, so it’s a great long-term purchase.

However, in terms of updates, the Pixel is going to get updates a lot faster than the Galaxy S21. Samsung tends to lag behind the average in update speed, while the Pixel gets the latest update days after it releases. The Pixel takes this.

Winner: Google Pixel 5

Special features

Galaxy SmartTag
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

Both phones boast 5G — the S21 supports every band you could want or need as well as the new Wi-Fi 6E standard, while the Pixel 5 supports mmWave and sub-6GHz bands, for the fastest possible speeds (if you’re already in an area where fast 5G connectivity is available, that is).

The Pixel 5 comes with A.I. features like Hold for Me built into the phone app, so prepare to wave bye-bye to a lifetime spent listening to terrible elevator music. The feature uses Google Assistant to analyze when hold music ends and a customer service representative comes on the line, alerting you and asking the rep to hold while you return to the call.

Samsung is bundling its new SmartTag Bluetooth trackers with Galaxy S21 pre-orders — great news if you’re always losing your keys or wallet — and you can use the SmartThings Find app on your new phone to quickly track down your missing belongings.

Winner: Tie

Price and availability

The Google Pixel 5 is available directly from Google, Amazon, Best Buy, or Walmart in one version with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. It comes in Just Black or Sorta Sage from $650.

You can pre-order the Galaxy S21 from Samsung right now and get $100 free Samsung Credit, a free Samsung SmartTag Bluetooth tracker, so you’ll never lose your keys or wallet again, and four months of YouTube Premium included. Pick up the 128GB model in Phantom Gray, Phantom White, Phantom Pink, or Phantom Violet from $775 or the 256GB model from $825. The S21 will be available from other retailers like Amazon from January 29.

Overall winner: Google Pixel 5

The Google Pixel 5 is the better of the two phones, although ultimately it all comes down to preference. Although the Samsung Galaxy S21 boasts a more powerful processor, bigger screen, 120Hz refresh rate, and sleeker, more modern design, the premium aluminum chassis, more compact, lightweight design, undeniably impressive camera, and A.I. features of the Pixel 5 have landed it the prize.

Editors' Recommendations