In the last 5 years, Xiaomi’s Redmi line of smartphones has completely dominated the budget smartphone space in India. Their formula was a potent one which upended Samsung’s dominance in the Indian market over the years. By providing the latest and greatest specs, and being first to introduce premium specs at the sub Rs 20,000 price point, Xiaomi has become the new Nokia in India. Its model has been so successful that now Xiaomi faces stiff competition from Chinese brethren Realme which is following the same path.
Along the way, the smartphone industry veteran and still the numero uno globally, Samsung has also learnt a thing or two. In 2019, it launched its M-Series targeting Xiaomi’s budget-friendly Redmi Note series of phones. It has upped the features and hardware capabilities on its entry point devices alongside elevating the software experience beyond what one is getting on the likes of other Xiaomi and Realme.
The new M21 is the culmination of this flex by Samsung. It hasn’t copied everything that the Chinese competition has done — it brought some unique Samsung strengths to the table. In doing so it has created a very capable phone which is now a viable alternative for anyone looking to avoid a phone from a brand originating from China.
A lot has been going on and there is a false sense of banter against the Chinese brands, but the main reason why reviewers have given high marks to phones from companies like Xiaomi and Realme has been the fact that they have been really good and affordable. Today, I can say the same thing about the M21 from Samsung which bodes well for the ecosystem. This is not a phone which is good because it’s become fashionable to hate on Chinese brands — it’s just good, perhaps better in more ways than one, at least when compared to its competition.
- The most distinct and premium thing about the M21 is its display. It gets an AMOLED 6.4-inch screen which is leagues apart from what one is getting on phones from Chinese manufacturers. This is Samsung doing something uniquely Samsung. Sure, you’d get a bigger screen and perhaps even ones with a high refresh rate, but if you are looking for pure fidelity and technical superiority, then the M21’s screen is the one. It looks beautiful with vivid colours, great viewing angles and acceptable brightness levels. It is a delight to watch videos on with it even supporting Widevine certification for high-resolution Netflix videos. It is the best screen you can get on a phone costing less than Rs 15,000.
- Samsung’s software is now better than Xiaomi. It can be argued that its software is also better than Realme or Vivo’s, just falling behind Nokia which uses stock Android One. OneUI on the M21 comes with a litany of Samsung apps coupled with Google software which may not be ideal, but visually and functionally it is far more intuitive and responsive than software that we’ve seen on other phones in the price range. You can also expect to work better with Samsung’s ecosystem of products while also being more secure. At least on a basic level, you will not be paranoid about security as a phone from a Chinese brand considering the deterioration of India-China relations. This also means that this phone will be more acceptable as a work phone at MNCs and Indian companies.
- When you have a 6,000mAh battery in a phone that’s not running a latest and greatest processor, you can expect great battery life. And you bet, this phone has stupendous run time. Often I’ve experienced more than 10 hours of screen on time on this phone considering it is also paired with a power-efficient AMOLED screen. It can run and run, more so any other phone at its price point. It also supports 15-watt fast charging which isn’t the greatest but it isn’t bad. Sometimes, I’ve also managed to use this phone beyond two days without charging it.
- Samsung’s design language is all about functional ergonomics. Sure, this is made out of plastic and it doesn’t feel as premium as say a Redmi Note 9 Pro- but then the lightly curved back means that the phone nestles perfectly in your palms. It is also very light which means its a comfortable phone to hold on for long durations even if that means you’re binging on a season of Dark just on the phone. Its plastic build also means that it is not as susceptible to cracks and harsh physical damage if you tend to drop your phone a lot. It will hold its own.
- The basics are done right on this phone. It gives you an FM radio, you get a 3.5mm headphone jack and the call quality is fantastic on it. The rear-mounted fingerprint scanner is also quite accurate and fast, while the mono speaker is also decent enough. All this doesn’t sound mind-boggling but it gets the job done.
- Samsung has graced the phone with a good camera system. It gets a triple camera system that uses a combination of a 48-megapixel sensor coupled with an 8-megapixel 123-degree wide-angle camera and a 5-megapixel depth sensor. It takes good photos in most lighting conditions except for low-light. For low-light imaging, one needs to use the night mode which can be slow and noisy. Portrait photos aren’t impressive but that’s the fringe use case. It even gets a 20-megapixel selfie camera and for video, it can shoot at 4K 30 frames per seconds and do slow-motion video at 240 frames per second — the quality is another story.
- Samsung isn’t breaking new ground with the processing hardware – but it is nice that one can get this phone with 64GB storage and 4GB RAM on the base model itself. The eight-core Exynos chip is decent for daily tasks mostly due to the clean software. It is an efficient package which works well for most people. Though gaming is a weak spot of this phone for everything else, it will be very good.
- The Exynos processor isn’t in the league as the Qualcomm Snapdragon 720G that’s being used in many competing phones. It is just a generation behind on all outperformance. It blows away the Samsung in gaming metrics and also helps with better camera processing which is reflective in video footage.
- Videos from this phone are flat out — not great. If you’re the type of person who will be recording a lot of videos, then this may not be the phone for you. Even the selfie photos aren’t anything to write home about while low-light imaging pops out like a sore thumb.
- Samsung has done well on the basics but the one thing that they have compromised on is the haptics. If you use the default keyboard app, then you get no haptic feedback almost like an iPhone. Haptic feedback is almost non-existent across the system which is strange for an Android phone but you can get them to work with third-party keyboards in a very spongy way. If you will type a lot on this phone for work, then this may become an issue.
- Samsung chose ergonomics over flamboyance which means you don’t get the glass and metal sandwich in the construct of this phone. You don’t get shimmery colours, though even its plastic back is quite a fingerprint magnet. This is a phone which is functional and will not try to woo with its looks.
Should you buy it?
Samsung has made a great budget phone which can be a primary phone or a secondary one depending on your budget and needs. It is just that the South Korean vendor has made different compromises than its competition. It has elected for a vastly better screen, more ergonomic design and friendlier software over brute force hardware specs and designs that may look nice but could be prone to catastrophic damage. Performance remains good as long as you don’t do nerdy things like gaming – while the cameras will also satisfy the needs of most people. It does so in an understated way with epic battery life proving to be a worthy alternative to a Xiaomi phone in the sub-Rs 15,000 price point for the first time in 5 years.
The timing couldn’t be better for it as it comes at a time when many people are looking for alternatives that aren’t from a company of Chinese origin — and boy this is one hell of an alternative. For me, it is just plain better.