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Samsung Galaxy S21 vs Google Pixel 5: The Ultimate Android Smartphone Showdown

The Samsung Galaxy S21 and Google Pixel 5 are two of the most impressive and popular Android smartphones on the market today. While both flagship devices deliver exceptional performance, brilliant displays, and cutting-edge camera capabilities, there are some key differences that set them apart. In this in-depth comparison, we‘ll take a closer look at how the S21 and Pixel 5 stack up in terms of specs, features, real-world performance, and more to help you decide which one is the ultimate Android phone for your needs.

Design and Build: Premium Materials Meet Sleek Aesthetics

At first glance, the Galaxy S21 and Pixel 5 showcase distinct yet equally stylish designs. The S21 features Samsung‘s signature glass and metal construction with an eye-catching camera bump that seamlessly blends into the phone‘s aluminium frame. It‘s available in a range of sleek colors including Phantom Gray, Phantom White, Phantom Violet and Phantom Pink.

In contrast, the Pixel 5 opts for a more understated look with a recycled aluminum unibody and a textured "bioresin" coating on the back for improved grip. The square camera module and fingerprint sensor are neatly tucked in the upper left corner. You can choose from Just Black or the light green Sorta Sage colorways.

Both phones feel solid and premium in the hand, although the S21 has a slight edge in terms of overall build quality. However, the Pixel 5‘s compact size (144.7 x 70.4 x 8 mm vs 151.7 x 71.2 x 7.9 mm) and lighter weight (151g vs 169g) may appeal more to fans of smaller devices. The two phones are also IP68 rated for water and dust resistance, so you don‘t have to worry about accidental spills or splashes.

Display Showdown: AMOLED Excellence

Moving on to the display, both the S21 and Pixel 5 feature gorgeous AMOLED panels with vibrant colors, deep blacks, and wide viewing angles. The S21 sports a slightly larger 6.2" screen with a centered hole-punch cutout for the selfie camera. It boasts a higher FHD+ (2400 x 1080) resolution at 421 ppi and an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate for ultra-smooth scrolling and animations.

Meanwhile, the Pixel 5 has a 6.0" OLED display with the same FHD+ resolution (432 ppi) and a 90Hz refresh rate. While not quite as fluid as the S21, the Pixel‘s screen still looks fantastic with excellent color accuracy and outdoor visibility. It also has uniform bezels around the display and a smaller hole-punch camera in the upper left corner.

Both displays support HDR10+ content and get sufficiently bright for easy viewing in harsh lighting. However, the S21 can hit a higher peak brightness of 1300 nits compared to the Pixel 5‘s 610 nits in high brightness mode. Samsung‘s screens are also known for having more saturated, punchy colors whereas Google aims for a more natural look.

Camera Comparison: Versatile Shooters with Distinct Strengths

Smartphone cameras have become incredibly important and the S21 and Pixel 5 are two of the best in the business, although they take somewhat different approaches.

The Galaxy S21 packs an impressive triple rear camera setup consisting of a 12MP main sensor, 64MP telephoto lens, and 12MP ultra-wide shooter. This allows for a versatile range of shots from ultra-wide landscapes to crisp 3X hybrid optical/digital zoom. The main sensor has large 1.8μm pixels and a bright f/1.8 aperture for excellent low-light performance.

Other standout features include 8K video recording, improved Night mode, and Samsung‘s Single Take mode which captures a variety of photos and videos with a single press of the shutter button. The S21 also has a 10MP f/2.2 front-facing camera for sharp, detailed selfies.

The Pixel 5 keeps things simpler with a dual rear camera module featuring a 12.2MP main lens and a 16MP ultra-wide alongside an 8MP selfie cam. While it may lack the telephoto reach and crazy high megapixel count of other flagships, Google makes up for it with its unmatched computational photography prowess.

The Pixel 5 consistently captures beautiful photos with spot-on white balance, exposure, and dynamic range in virtually any lighting situation. Google‘s Night Sight mode remains the gold standard for low-light photography, producing bright, clean shots where other phones struggle. The ultra-wide camera, while not class-leading, is still very good and the Portrait Mode is as impressive as ever with excellent subject isolation.

In terms of video, the Pixel 5 tops out at 4K/60fps for the main camera and 1080p/30fps for the selfie shooter. It has a capable video stabilization but overall video performance isn‘t quite at the same level as the iPhone 12 or S21. Still, point the Pixel 5 at pretty much any scene and you‘re almost guaranteed to get a great shot.

So which phone has the best camera? As is often the case, it depends. For sheer versatility, pixel-peeping detail, and video capabilities, the S21 comes out ahead. But if you prioritize dynamic range, color rendition, and low-light performance, it‘s hard to beat the Pixel 5, especially with its more forgiving and user-friendly image processing.

Software Comparison: One UI vs Stock Android

Software is an area where the S21 and Pixel 5 differ quite significantly. While both run Android 11 out of the box, Samsung and Google take very different approaches to the user experience.

The S21 runs Samsung‘s One UI 3.1 software skin on top of Android which adds a ton of extra features, customization options, and visual flair. One UI has come a long way in recent years with a more refined aesthetic, less bloatware, and genuinely useful add-ons to stock Android.

Some standout One UI features include system-wide dark mode, Edge Panels for quickly accessing apps/contacts/tools, one-handed mode, and Bixby Routines for automating phone settings based on your usage patterns. Samsung DeX allows the S21 to power a near desktop-like experience on an external display.

Overall, One UI is feature-rich and highly customizable but it‘s not for Android purists who prefer the cleaner look and lighter footprint of stock Android.

That‘s where the Pixel 5 comes in. As a Google phone, it runs the latest, unmodified version of Android with tight integration of Google‘s apps and services. The result is one of the smoothest, most responsive interfaces you can get on a smartphone today. While the Pixel 5 may not have all the bells and whistles of One UI, the core Android experience is sublime.

The Pixel 5 also comes with some nice Google-exclusive features not available on other Android phones. These include the Pixel Recorder app, which can transcribe your meetings/interviews/lectures in real-time, Now Playing which identifies music playing around you on the lock screen, and Hold for Me which has the Google Assistant wait on hold during phone calls and notify you when a real person picks up.

Another big advantage of Google phones like the Pixel 5 is that they are always first in line for the latest Android versions, security patches, and new features via Feature Drops. Samsung has gotten better about rolling out more timely updates for its flagship phones, but if staying on the cutting edge of Android is a priority, Pixels are the way to go.

Performance and Battery Life

Under the hood, the Galaxy S21 and Pixel 5 are equipped with very different internals that make for two distinct performance profiles.

The S21 comes with Qualcomm‘s top-of-the-line Snapdragon 888 SoC, one of the fastest, most advanced smartphone chips currently available. Paired with 8GB of LPDDR5 RAM, Adreno 660 graphics, and speedy UFS 3.1 storage (128/256GB options), the S21 absolutely screams through any task you can throw at it: apps open instantly, gaming graphics look stunning, and resource-intensive workflows are handled with ease.

Take a look at these benchmark results comparing the S21 and Pixel 5:

Benchmark Galaxy S21 (SD888) Pixel 5 (SD765G)
Geekbench 5 (single-core) 1,116 596
Geekbench 5 (multi-core) 3,300 1,604
AnTuTu 660,000+ 320,000+
3DMark (Sling Shot Extreme) 7,891 3,305

As you can see, the S21‘s Snapdragon 888 offers roughly twice the CPU performance and over 2.5X the graphics might compared to the Pixel 5‘s mid-range Snapdragon 765G chipset. Now, this doesn‘t mean the Pixel 5 is slow by any means – in normal day-to-day usage it still feels very snappy and responsive thanks to the clean, streamlined software. But for the absolute highest performance ceiling and future-proofing, the S21 is simply on another level.

The story is a bit different when it comes to battery life, however. The Pixel 5 packs a 4,080mAh battery while the S21 has a slightly smaller 4,000mAh cell. In terms of screen-on time, the two phones are in the same ballpark with around 7-8 hours of mixed usage.

However, in the GSMArena battery endurance test, the Pixel 5 lasted notably longer across the board:

Battery Test Pixel 5 Galaxy S21
Talk time 31:56h 28:46h
Web browsing 15:56h 10:28h
Video playback 19:43h 15:41h
Overall Endurance Rating 110h 87h

These results make sense considering that the Snapdragon 888 in the S21 is a more power-hungry flagship SoC compared to the 765G‘s focus on efficiency. The Pixel 5‘s more modest 90Hz display also likely contributes to its superior battery performance relative to its capacity. Both phones support fast charging, wireless charging, and reverse wireless charging, although the S21 has a faster 25W wired charging speed compared to the Pixel 5‘s 18W.

Price and Value

As flagship smartphones, neither the Galaxy S21 nor the Pixel 5 are what you‘d call cheap. However, there is a considerable price delta between the two.

The Galaxy S21 has a starting MSRP of $800 for the base 128GB model while the 256GB variant goes for $850. Meanwhile, the Pixel 5 undercuts it with a single 128GB SKU coming in at $700.

On paper, the S21 offers more bang for the buck in terms of raw specs and features. You‘re getting a faster, more capable SoC, an extra telephoto camera, a larger, brighter 120Hz display, and double the storage option.

That said, the law of diminishing returns kicks in at the high end of the smartphone market. For most regular users, the Pixel 5‘s excellent still photo quality, ultra-smooth software, and stellar battery life will be more than enough to justify the $100 savings. Google‘s more forgiving and consumer-friendly approach to image processing and the tighter integration with Google services will also be more appealing to the average person.

Of course, if money is no object and you simply want the most premium, full-featured, and technically impressive phone, the S21 fits the bill to a tee. It‘s truly a powerhouse device with industry-leading performance and a robust feature set that leaves very little to be desired.

Final Verdict

After extensively comparing the Samsung Galaxy S21 and Google Pixel 5, it‘s clear that both are highly compelling Android flagships that cater to somewhat different users. To recap:

You should buy the Galaxy S21 if you:

  • Want the absolute best performance currently available in an Android phone
  • Prefer a larger display with a super smooth 120Hz refresh rate
  • Need a versatile camera system with telephoto zoom and top-notch video
  • Enjoy a feature-rich software experience with endless customization
  • Don‘t mind paying a bit more for premium specs and materials

The Pixel 5 is a better choice if you:

  • Prioritize compact design, lighter weight, and one-handed usability
  • Value the simplicity and instant updates of clean, stock Android
  • Want the best point-and-shoot camera with superior low-light performance
  • Need the longest possible battery life on a single charge
  • Prefer saving a few bucks while still getting a premium experience

Ultimately, you can‘t go wrong with either of these excellent Android phones. The "right" choice will depend on your specific needs and preferences. But whether you end up Team Galaxy or Team Pixel, you‘ll be getting one of the best smartphones money can buy today.