Google Pixel 6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S21: Which Android Wins?

The Pixel 6 is quite possibly the best sub-$800 Android phone you can buy right now. It takes what was great about previous Pixels (namely the excellent camera and software), and adds a strikingly fresh design, a stunning AMOLED display with a 90Hz refresh rate, a new Google-made processor, and a bigger battery than ever. It even soups up its main camera lens by swapping 12 megapixels for a more substantial 50MP.

All in all, it looks like a very compelling smartphone, but it isn’t alone in the category of Android phones that aim to be great all-rounders while also not being too expensive. Another contender in this field is the Samsung Galaxy S21, which also checks a large number of boxes. Its 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED screen is lusciously vibrant, its processor is dizzyingly fast, it sports a versatile triple-lens rear camera, and it also looks stylishly unique. However, which is better: it or the Pixel 6?

We answer this question by taking a closer look at the specs and performance of each phone. By carefully weighing up their pros and cons, we should help you decide which is the mid-range Android for you.

Specs

Pixel 6Samsung Galaxy S21
Size158.6 x 74.8 x 8.9 mm (6.24 x 2.94 x 0.35 inches)151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9 mm (5.97 x 2.80 x 0.31 inches)
Weight207 grams (7.30 ounces)171 grams (5.96 ounces)
Screen size6.4-inch AMOLED, 90Hz refresh rate6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X
Screen resolution2400 x 1080 pixels (411 pixels per inch)2400 x 1080 pixels (421 pixels per inch)
Operating systemAndroid 12Android 11, OneUI 3.1
Storage128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB
MicroSD card slotNoNo
Tap-to-pay servicesGoogle PayGoogle Pay, Samsung Pay
ProcessorGoogle Tensor (5nm)Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 (5nm, USA/China), Exynos 2100 (5nm, rest of world)
RAM8GB8GB
CameraDual-lens 50MP wide and 12MP ultrawide, 8MP frontTriple-lens 12MP wide, 64MP telephoto, and 12MP ultrawide, 10MP selfie
Video4K at up to 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps8K at up to 30 fps, 4K at 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps
Bluetooth versionBluetooth 5.2Bluetooth 5.0
PortsUSB-CUSB-C
Fingerprint sensorYes (in-display)Yes (in-display)
Water resistanceIP68IP68
Battery4,614mAh

Fast charging (30W)

Fast wireless charging (21W)

Reverse wireless charging

4,000mAh

Fast charging (25W)

Fast wireless charging (15W)

Reverse wireless charging

App marketplaceGoogle Play StoreGoogle Play Store
Network supportAll major carriersAll major carriers
ColorsSorta Seafoam, Kinda Coral, Stormy BlackPhantom Gray, Phantom White, Phantom Violet, Phantom Pink
Prices$599+$799+
Review scoreHands-on3.5 stars out of 5

Design, display, and durability

The back of the Pixel 6 in Seafoam color.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Google took past criticism to heart with the Pixel 6. Gone are the days of skimping on design in order to pay for a great, low-cost camera phone, and instead we have a smartphone worthy of 2021. While it does feature a very similar edge-to-edge display to the Pixel 5 (with a punch-hole selfie camera at the top center), its rear is all but unrecognizable, and that’s a compliment. Most notably, it has a distinctive horizontal camera bar running across its width, in which you’ll find the two camera lenses and the flashlight. It’s certainly a radical redesign, resembling something you might find aboard the Starship Enterprise, and we can only salute Google for redeeming itself after the dullness of the Pixel 4a and similar plastic-backed phones.

As impressive as the design of the Pixel 6 certainly is, the Samsung Galaxy has also had something of a facelift. Again, it has a recognizably sleek edge-to-edge display with a punch-hole selfie camera in the top-enter. However, its back benefits from a new rear camera module, which slopes seamlessly into the phone’s shoulder. Coupled with some nice color choices, it looks very attractive, even if it is let down somewhat by the “glasstic” material Samsung has seen fit to use. As for the Pixel 6, its glass rear means that it looks like a more expensive phone.

Both phones are well-matched in terms of their displays. The Pixel 6 comes with a 6.4-inch AMOLED display that carries 2400 x 1800 pixels, making for 411 pixels per inch. With the Galaxy S21, you get a 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED display that also packs 2400 x 1800 pixels, which with the slightly smaller screen makes for 421 ppi. More importantly, the S21 has been graced with a 120Hz refresh, whereas the Pixel 6 has to make do with a nice — but not as impressive — 90Hz rate. Combined with the slightly more advanced AMOLED technology used by Samsung, this heightened refresh rate means that the S21’s display does have more of a wow factor.

Both phones come with an official IP68 rating, so can survive in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. With things being square in this respect, and with the Pixel 6’s slightly more luxurious redesign being balanced out by the S21’s slightly more vibrant display, we’re calling it a tie.

Winner: Tie

Performance, battery life, and charging

Google Pixel 6 in a case.

As with previous models, the Galaxy S21 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, the 888. By contrast, the Pixel 6 uses Google’s very own in-house processor, the Tensor. As with the 888, it’s made using 5nm transistors, which allow more transistors to be fitted into the same space (in contrast to earlier 7nm alternatives), and which in turn make it pretty darn fast. Early benchmarking tests suggest that it is, however, a touch slower than the 888, due largely to its somewhat unusual CPU configuration (two Cortex-X1 cores, two Cortex-A76s, and four A55s). That said, the difference isn’t significant, and with both phones carrying 8GB of RAM, you’ll enjoy similar levels of performance with both.

Similarly, the Pixel 6 and Galaxy S21 also offer 128GB of internal memory as standard, which should be enough for most casual-to-moderate users. They can also be had with 256GB of storage at an extra cost, if you need more space, although neither offers a slot for a microSD card, so you will probably still need to manage your photos and downloads carefully.

In contrast to the Galaxy S21’s 4,000mAh battery, the Pixel 6 feeds on a 4,614mAh cell. Our review of the S21 found that its day-to-day longevity is more or less average, with some battery life remaining at the end of the day, but not an awful lot. This leaves the Pixel in a position to take the lead, and while initial hands-on testing suggests it isn’t as long-lasting as its battery size would have you believe, it does leave you with more power at the end of each day than the S21 (and not to mention previous Pixels).

Both phones also support fast charging, with the Pixel letting you top up at 30W and the Galaxy S21 doing the same at 25W. Taken with the fact that the S21 is slightly faster yet the Pixel has slightly better stamina, this round is another tie.

Winner: Tie

Cameras

Galaxy S21 rear camera module.

The Pixels have long been celebrated for their photographic capabilities, yet the sixth generation finds Google going a step further. While you do still get a dual-lens rear camera (as with the Pixel 5), the 12MP wide lens of yore has been bumped up to 50MP. On top of this, Google has added a laser autofocus, omnidirectional PDAF (phase-direction autofocus), and a bigger aperture, giving it more enhanced capabilities than the Pixel 5’s main lens. For instance, bokeh effects look highly convincing when using the main wide lens, even more so than they did with earlier models. In addition, the Pixel 6 also comes with a 12MP ultrawide lens, which despite not being as impressive as the main camera still adds some very valuable — and highly usable — versatility.

With the S21, you get a triple-lens setup, featuring a 12MP wide lens, a 12MP ultrawide, and a 64MP telephoto. As our review found, it generally takes very attractive photos, except when you enter low-light conditions. In such cases, detail and clarity suffer a bit, with shots becoming noticeably less impressive. This isn’t something the Pixel 6 suffers from, with its night mode handling low-light environments with relative ease.

With this difference in mind, and with the Pixel’s main camera being a little more capable in general than the S21’s, this round is going to Google’s phone.

Winner: Google Pixel 6

Software and updates

Samsung Galaxy S21+ home screen.
Andrew Martonik/Digital Trends

The Pixel 6 runs on Android 12, the latest version of Google’s operating system. It provides one of the most substantial refreshes the system has enjoyed in years, with a design overhaul, new-look notification shade, enhanced privacy controls, a digital car key, and a range of novel features for the Camera app (if you own a Pixel 6 at least). As for the S21, it’s still running on Android 11 with Samsung’s own OneUI 3.1 operating over the top. The latter is more customizable than stock Android (12), while it also tweaks the overall design to give it more of a Samsung flavor. It’s not necessarily better, but some may prefer its flexibility more than stock Android (or vice versa).

For the Pixel 6, Google has guaranteed three core software updates, as well as five security updates. This is likely to exceed what you’ll get with the S21, which, being a Samsung (rather than Google) phone, won’t receive updates as speedily as the Pixel. For this reason alone, we’re also giving this round to the Pixel.

Winner: Pixel 6

Special features

Magic Eraser mode on the Google Pixel 6 Pro.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Both the Pixel 6 and the Galaxy S21 support 5G, including the faster mmWave band. However, the Pixel supports the latter only on Verizon and AT&T, while the S21 supports mmWave only in the U.S. (and China), with users elsewhere having only the slower sub-6Hz range to work with.

On top of this, the Pixel 6 benefits from a wide range of software tricks and features. Most notably, it has a Magic Eraser function that lets you magically remove unwanted objects from a picture, all without needing much in the way of expertise. On top of this, it introduces two complementary features called Wait Times and Direct My Call, both of which help you call toll-free numbers and navigate automated menus without wasting huge amounts of time. There are also the usual Google-only features, such as A.I.-powered call screening, which comes in very handy in giving you advance notice of spam.

With the S21, there isn’t that much else to report aside from the aforementioned 5G compatibility. That said, the phone does support Samsung’s new SmartTag Bluetooth trackers, little sensors you can attach to personal belongings (e.g. keys) and then track with the SmartThings Find app. It’s not momentous, but it could be a big timesaver if you’re the type of person who tends to spend ten minutes before going out looking under your couch.

Winner: Tie

Price and availability

The Google Pixel 6 starts from $599 and is officially released on October 28. It can be pre-ordered now from Google and will be supported by all major carriers.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 begins from $799 and can be bought directly from Samsung, although you might be able to find it for less via various third-party retailers. It’s also supported by all major carriers.

Overall winner: Pixel 6

The overall win goes to the Pixel 6, which beats the Samsung Galaxy S21 in a couple of important areas. Importantly, its revamped camera is certainly superior to the S21’s, while it’s also likely to be better serviced with more timely software updates. In addition, its battery life is going to be somewhat more generous, while its performance is comparable to the S21’s, as is its new design and very inviting display. It’s also worth remembering that it’s officially $100 cheaper than the S21.

Of course, if you can find the S21 at a discount, and if you tend to lean more towards Samsung anyway, you certainly won’t be disappointed by the phone, which manages to cram some premium features into an affordable shell.

Editors’ Recommendations






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