Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G review: The sequel is never as good
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G has a lot to live up to. Last year, the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE was among the best Android smartphones of the year. The combination of specifications and value made it an easy recommendation for people who might want to play in the Samsung space, and even play in the Samsung flagship space, but not spend quadruple digits to do it. Fast-forward to today, and Samsung is trying to do the same thing, but something seems off. Actually, a lot of things seem off. Let’s start with timing.
A long-awaited phone
The Galaxy S20 FE debuted in September 2020, approximately seven months after the Galaxy S20 series, and four months prior to the Galaxy S21 series. Yes, there was a Note release in there, which is noteworthy (no pun intended) but not significant. This time, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G is coming out almost a year after the launch of the S21 series, and just weeks before the launch of the S22 series. Not ideal, but consider the competition.
In the past, in the budget flagship space, you typically had the OnePlus series of phones, an LG release or two, maybe a Moto “flagship,” and the Pixel. OnePlus graduated to full flagship status, LG is out of the game, and to put it politely, Motorola is targeting a different kind of audience. But the Google Pixel 6 changed the game in late 2021 and remains one of our most loved phones of 2021. Plus it’s 100 less than the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G.
Suffice it to say, there are a lot of question marks surrounding the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G.
In 2020, the Galaxy S20 series launched at 999 and up. The Galaxy S20 FE launched at 699, a full 300 cheaper than its closest flagship sibling. In 2021, the Galaxy S21 series launched at 799, putting the S21 FE at just 100 less, and as already mentioned, 100 more than the Google Pixel 6.
Suffice it to say, there are a lot of question marks surrounding the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G. I’ve spent the last 10 days on T-Mobile’s 5G network putting it through its paces. In short, I wanted to find out if the phone cuts the right corners to make it the same value as its predecessor despite the imminent launch of the S22.
Design and hardware
In terms of design, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G doesn’t really break the mold compared to its siblings. The camera bump on the back seems less obtrusive, but that might be because my comparison device is the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Like the other flagships, the camera bump blends naturally into the back and side of the phone, but it lacks the S21’s two-tone approach, opting instead for a single housing. It’s nicer because of the lack of seams, but more boring being just a single color.
Around the sides, you have a power button and volume rocker on the right, a single speaker port, a USB-C port, and a SIM tray. On the front, you get a gorgeous 120Hz AMOLED panel that I’ll discuss in more detail below. There’s a single hole-punch at the top to accommodate the 32-megapixel selfie camera and the same reliable under-display ultrasonic fingerprint sensor at the bottom.
On the inside, the phone houses a Snapdragon 888 processor. My review unit has 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, but you can opt for 8GB/256GB if you prefer. There’s a 4,500 mAh battery that supports 25-watt fast charging or 15W wireless charging. All told, these are all respectable specifications for a 2021 flagship. The only (barely) outdated hardware is the processor now that the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chip is available. I don’t blame Samsung for sticking with the Snapdragon 888, but I give it less of a pass given that the S20 FE came out with the top-of-the-line processor at the time.
One area where Samsung did not cut any corners is in the display. This is a 6.4-inch 2400 x 1800 dynamic AMOLED panel that is just a touch smaller than the previous generation but keeps the same 20:9 aspect ratio. The phone is comfortable to hold and use one-handed, but I wouldn’t mind if Samsung shaved off another third of an inch or so.
The display itself is gorgeous, with amazing viewing angles and color reproduction. It’s a 1080p panel, so it’s not the highest resolution on the market. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since a lower resolution will help battery life considerably, especially when you have the phone running at its 120Hz refresh rate. Personally, I can rarely tell the difference between a 60Hz and 120Hz refresh rate; it simply doesn’t impress me when it’s there, nor does the lack of it bother me. You may (and probably will) have a different preference, and more power to you.
I usually increase the brightness so I can take in the rich detail of the games I play or the movies I watch, but with the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G, I simply didn’t need to.
In a surprising twist, I hadn’t noticed just how bright the display was until I was into the fifth or sixth day of my review and I realized I hadn’t turned the brightness up at all, for anything. That’s unusual for me. While I typically use around 70% brightness on a phone, it’s not uncommon for me to crank it up to 100% when watching videos or gaming. I usually increase the brightness so I can take full advantage of HDR10 and take in the rich detail of the games I play or the movies I watch, but with the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G, I simply didn’t need to.
One aspect where Samsung continues to struggle mightily is touch rejection on the edges of the screen. This is a flat panel, but accidental touches on the edges are maddening, rendering games like Call of Duty Mobile virtually unplayable. Only after adding a case does the situation improve, but it does not disappear entirely. Granted, my pudgy sausage fingers are likely to blame, so again, your mileage may vary, but I’m sure I’m not the only one with the problem.
While I’m complaining about the oversensitivity of touch on the phone, allow me to also complain about the lack of touch sensitivity on this phone. This mainly cropped up while gaming, but I found small touch targets exceedingly hard to press, like buttons in Call of Duty Mobile or even small squares in games like Sudoku. Again, I know I have big fingers, but the Sudoku game, in particular, surprised me because I don’t have that issue with any other phone.
Performance, battery life, and connectivity
Overall, battery life was below average, considering its size. This is a 4,500 mAh power cell, and I regularly went to sleep with the phone hovering in the teens or single digits, percentage-wise. That’s after a day’s worth of bouncing between four email addresses. Discord, Reddit, Kindle, and the full suite of Microsoft apps (Teams, Outlook, and more). That also typically includes a fair amount of gaming on Call of Duty Mobile, Sudoku, and other games here or there. This phone will get you through a full day’s activity, but it may struggle in those final hours.
- PCMark Work 3.0 Performance: 13711
- Geekbench (single/multi-core): 873/2284
- GFXBench Aztec Ruins Open GL: 27fps
- 3DMark: 5062
In terms of performance, the phone packs a Snapdragon 888 with 6GB of RAM, which is enough to power through just about everything. If I’m being really picky, I notice a very occasional stutter during gaming sessions, but overall I have no complaints. Connectivity seems to be really solid, or at least as solid as my phones get in the dead zone of T-Mobile signals I live in. I had no problems with dropped calls nor spotty internet, which also didn’t manifest on my iPhone 13 Pro.
Cameras and video
On the camera side, there’s very little difference between the S21 FE and S20 FE. Both phones carry three camera sensors for ultrawide, wide, and telephoto lenses. The main and ultrawide cameras both have 12MP sensors, while the telephoto camera sits at 8MP. There are some subtle differences in what the newer set of cameras can capture, such as 1080p at 240 frames per second (fps), but overall you’ll find little difference between the S20 FE and the S21 FE on the back.
Portrait mode is one of the best I’ve seen, easily picking out the edges of your subject while blurring out the background.
In broad daylight, all the cameras perform quite well. One subtle difference I noted was how the main camera seems to capture brighter colors at a warmer temperature than the other two sensors. This is especially true for reds, which tend to get oversaturated.
Portrait mode is one of the best I’ve seen, easily picking out the edges of your subject while blurring out the background. If you do some close-up pixel peeping, you’ll find it’s not perfect, but it’s very good. That’s true for the 32MP front-facing camera as well as the rear.
As for video, it’s pretty decent. Stabilization is lacking both during the day and at night. Especially at night, you’ll see a little bit of judder when walking. What’s disappointing about this is that this trait is also present in the front-facing camera. Previous Samsung phones I’ve tested going back two generations have always had rock-steady stabilization on the front-facing camera, making it ideal for vloggers who like to walk and talk to their camera. That simply isn’t the case here and it’s really disappointing.
At night, you can definitely grab some great snaps as long as there’s ambient light. Both the ultrawide sensor and the telephoto sensor lose detail when you’re looking at anything that doesn’t have a sharp edge. That means text will be fine, but the texture of a statue will get lost. That’s not surprising, since lowlight performance pushes most cameras to their limits, not just this phone. Video footage at night is not great, but also not terrible. Useful footage will be the exception, not the rule, but you will get lucky from time to time.
Zoom is not great past the 3x telephoto lens. The Galaxy S21 FE is capable of hybrid zoom up to 30x, but you shouldn’t use it unless you’re looking for photos to use as models to practice your watercolor painting. The singular exception to that rule is the moon. While the resolution is not great for moon shots, Samsung’s A.I. scene detection can still get you a great handheld shot of the moon. It’s a party trick, sure, but it’s really impressive.
Overall, the camera performance on the Galaxy S21 FE is slightly less capable than current competitors. Don’t get me wrong, the cameras are still very good, but they fall short of the greatness that can be found on the iPhone 13 or the Pixel 6.
Software and features
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G ships with Samsung’s One UI 4.0, which is based on Google’s Android 12. Mostly, this is Samsung’s show, though; there’s little recognizable as being inherently Google here. Yes, the software can make system UI changes based on your wallpaper, but most of the options available were muted blues and grays rather than the bright orange from the sunset in a photo that I made into my wallpaper. It was a little disconcerting.
A lot of One UI is done right, though, with large labels for menus at the top of the scree, and buttons reachable near the bottom; that’s standard fare for One UI. One area that still needs improvement is in the app drawer. It’s a side-scrolling affair that isn’t bad in and of itself, but you can’t roll over from the beginning of the menu to the end. Put simply, if you’re on the screen with the As and you need to open Zillow, you have a lot of sideswipes in your future.
Overall, I like One UI, but I prefer Google’s approach to Android. From the animations to the theming to the app drawer, it just adapts to my style a little bit more.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is in such a weird place it’s hard to wrap my head around it. Most notably. the question I find myself asking is why? Why does this phone exist? The next generation of Galaxy smartphones will be introduced in just over two weeks as of this writing. At the moment, there are worse ways that you could spend 700 on a smartphone. But that’s not really an endorsement. Depending on where the S22 series lands in terms of price and specifications, this may be a great deal, or it may be a questionable purchase where a little extra money can bring you a lot more phone.
To be frank, while this is a really good smartphone on its own at its price, Samsung probably would have been better off just not releasing it at all, or launching it directly next to the S22 as a “budget” alternative.
Is there a better alternative?
Yes. Both Android and iOS have better alternatives to this phone, depending on your tastes. Neither the Google Pixel 6 nor the iPhone 13 cameras have the optical zoom capability, so that’s one point for Samsung. But both phones outclass the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 5G in many other ways including software, camera processing, and design. This phone is just too little, too late.
How long will it last?
Samsung covers its phones with a typical one-year warranty. The Snapdragon 888 processor and plastic build will help it stand up throughout a normal 24-month phone cycle. While the plastic back doesn’t feel as premium, it will handle falls and impacts better. The processor and RAM should be future-proof for at least that long as well.
Should you buy it?
No. Simply put, the Google Pixel 6 is a better phone in almost every way, and it costs 100 less to boot. If you prefer the iPhone, the iPhone 13 is no slouch either. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good phone, but it’s coming at a weird time. The only reason you should buy this phone is if you absolutely want a Samsung flagship, but you don’t want to buy an almost year-old phone in the Samsung Galaxy S21, nor a more expensive brand new phone in the S22. That’s an oddly specific set of criteria, but that’s also Samsung’s bread-and-butter — a phone for all budgets.
Adam had been writing in the tech space for nearly a decade. When not hosting the Benefit of the Doud podcast, he can be…
Samsung today announced an update to one of its more popular phone lines.- the A-Series. It’s updating the well-received Galaxy A13 with a new A14 this week. This new model comes with Android 13, a big screen and battery, 5G support, and a decent camera set-up for a price that won’t break the bank.
Samsung highlights a few things over the A13 and A13 5G, including the more modern design with flatter edges popularised by the iPhone 12, support for fast charging, and high-resolution cameras. The A1X series are low-priced phones, so each new feature comes with a compromise.
Are you looking for Samsung Galaxy S20, S21, or S22 deals? Since Samsung introduced the Galaxy S22, this is a better time than ever to shop for cheap Samsung Galaxy S20 deals.- and Galaxy smartphone deals are exactly what we’ve got. From the big-box online stores to mobile network service providers, we’ve combed the web to bring you all the best Samsung Galaxy S20 deals, bundles, and carrier offers available right now with discounts that can save you hundreds on a new Samsung Galaxy S20, S21, and S22 models. If you love all things Samsung and want to see what else is on offer at the moment, then head on over to these Samsung Galaxy Note 20 deals once you’re done here. We may see supply chain issues, shipping delays, low inventory, and even more materials shortages.- like what’s happening with the computer chip market. If you’re ready to see what’s available, check out our top picks below. Today’s best Galaxy S20 deals
The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra may not be Samsung’s latest flagship, but it’s still a beast of a machine. Featuring a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip, four rear camera lenses, a silky 120Hz refresh rate, and support for the S Pen, it will do pretty much everything you want it to do. If that weren’t enough, it also looks gorgeous, boasting ultra-fine bezels around its edge-to-edge display, as well as a redesigned camera nodule that looks very sharp. If you want even more protection, check out our list of the best Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra cases and covers.
Upgrade your lifestyleDigital Trends helps readers keep tabs on the fast-paced world of tech with all the latest news, fun product reviews, insightful editorials, and one-of-a-kind sneak peeks.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: A great 700 phone that comes at an awkward time
The Galaxy S21 FE offers a lot for the price, but the Galaxy S22 may be coming soon. And the Pixel 6 brings some serious competition.
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom’s Guide.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Fe
Between the Galaxy S20 FE’s success and the deluge of leaks we saw beforehand, the Galaxy S21 FE may be one of Samsung’s worst-kept secrets. A follow-up to Samsung’s previous midrange Galaxy S phone, the new S21 FE starts at 700 and launches on Jan. 11. Despite being 100 cheaper than the regular Galaxy S21. it has the same processor and comes with a larger screen, a triple-lens camera and support for both versions of 5G. The S21 FE checks all the boxes most people would expect from a modern phone. The performance is snappy, it takes great photos and can last for a long time on a single charge.
These attributes make the Galaxy S21 FE a promising option if you want a relatively affordable new Android 12 device. You won’t get some of the costly extras found on more premium phones.- like a fourth camera lens, a crisper telephoto lens or a super sophisticated design.- but you’re not compromising by going for Samsung’s cheaper option.
This advertising widget is powered by Navi and contains advertisements that Navi may be paid for in different ways. You will not be charged for engaging with this advertisement. While we strive to provide a wide range of offers, this advertising widget does not include information about every product or service that may be available to you. We make reasonable efforts to ensure that information in the featured advertisements is up to date, each advertiser featured in this widget is responsible for the accuracy and availability of its offer details. It is possible that your actual offer terms from an advertiser may be different than the offer terms in this advertising widget and the advertised offers may be subject to additional terms and conditions of the advertiser which will be presented to you prior to making a purchase. All information is presented without any warranty or guarantee to you.
Watch this: Galaxy S21 FE review: Samsung’s new phone gives the Pixel 6 some competition
However, the Galaxy S21 FE may end up feeling lost in Samsung’s lineup and the broader Android phone market. We’re expecting the Galaxy S22 to launch imminently, and if the rumors are true, it could have a new 50-megapixel camera and faster charging. Plus, the 600 Pixel 6 is slightly cheaper than the Galaxy S21 FE and was named one of our favorite phones of 2021. Although the Pixel 6 doesn’t have the S21 FE’s third camera lens, it’s loaded with Google-specific features that could make it more appealing for some.
The Galaxy S21 FE feels exactly like what it is: a previous-generation phone. That’s not a bad thing; after all, buying older phones can be a great way to save money. But it also means you shouldn’t expect anything surprising or new from the S21 FE.
A sleek but basic design that looks a lot like the Galaxy S21
The Galaxy S21 FE looks almost identical to the Galaxy S21 from the front. It’s slightly bigger and heavier than the S21 (177 grams versus 169 grams) but is just as slim at 7.9 millimeters thick. For me, the S21 FE’s 6.4-inch display and light build provide the right balance of screen space and ease of use: It’s bigger than the 6.2-inch Galaxy S21 but just a hair smaller than the 6.5-inch Galaxy S20 FE. Samsung’s previous-generation midrange phone.
The Galaxy S21 FE’s screen uses Samsung’s Dynamic AMOLED technology and has an FHD Plus resolution just like the Galaxy S21. The pixel density, or number of pixels per inch, is lower than the Galaxy S21’s since the S21 FE’s screen is larger, but the difference isn’t noticeable. Photos, games and news articles all look sharp and bold on the S21 FE’s screen. It has a flat-edge screen just like the Galaxy 21 and Galaxy S1 Plus, which I actually prefer over the pricier Galaxy S21 Ultra’s slightly curved sides.
On the back, you’ll find the same camera bump as on the Galaxy S21. Both phones have a matte finish that looks more elegant and doesn’t pick up fingerprints as easily as Samsung’s older phones (although it still does get smudgy, so you’ll want to use a case). The Galaxy S21 does, however, have some design accents that make it feel like a more expensive phone, such as the glossy metallic finish on its camera module and sides.
Samsung’s Galaxy S21 FE looks almost exactly like the Galaxy S21
Though it’s a nice enough phone for 700, the real problem in my opinion is that Google has raised the bar for what’s expected of a midtier phone. Google’s 600 Pixel 6 has an eye-catching two-tone glass design with sharper corners that almost makes it feel similar to the Galaxy Note. Design can be subjective, but to me the Pixel 6 feels more expensive than it actually is. The Galaxy S21 FE is sleek and lighter than the Pixel 6, and some might find it easier to use with one hand, but it doesn’t leave the same impression.
There’s also an in-screen fingerprint reader and facial authentication for unlocking the device, which I generally found to be pretty reliable. You won’t find expandable storage on this model as was the case with the Galaxy S20 FE, but Samsung is selling its new phone in another variant that comes with 256GB of storage (the base model has 128GB).
A big battery and solid performance
Battery life was a highlight for the Galaxy S20 FE. and the Galaxy S21 FE seems to follow in its footsteps so far. Like the Galaxy S20 FE, the Galaxy S21 FE comes with a 4,500-mAh battery, which is larger than the regular Galaxy S21’s 4,000-mAh battery.
The Galaxy S21 FE still had 32% of its battery left after a full day and a half’s worth of usage. That’s not too shabby, especially since I had the motion smoothness setting on high, which cranks the screen’s refresh rate up to 120Hz. That results in faster scrolling but also typically means shorter battery life.
Samsung’s new phone comes with the same processor as the Galaxy S21, which means the US version runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888. That chip is found in other high-end phones like Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3 and the OnePlus 9 Pro. so the S21 FE should be able to keep up with those devices easily.
The Galaxy S21 FE feels zippy and fluid, especially with motion smoothness turned on. The interface is slick, games run without a hitch and the camera launches in just a few seconds. Samsung also says the S21 FE supports a response rate of 240Hz, allowing for even quicker reaction times in game mode like the rest of the Galaxy S21 series. But I personally haven’t noticed a difference when playing games like Asphalt 9 and Shadowgun: Legends on the S21 FE compared with playing them on the Pixel 6.
The Galaxy S21 FE scored about the same as Galaxy S21 but higher than the Pixel 6 on Geekbench 5, a benchmark test meant to assess the phone’s performance in general tasks. However, it scored slightly lower than both the regular S21 and Pixel 6 on a separate benchmark called 3DMark Slingshot Unlimited for testing graphics performance. Check out the results below.
Samsung’s new phone has a triple-lens camera that’s similar to the Galaxy S20 FE’s camera setup. There’s a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera, a 12-megapixel wide camera and an 8-megapixel telephoto camera with a 30x digital zoom.
Based on my experience, the Galaxy S21 FE seems to hold its own against the Pixel 6’s 50-megapixel camera and the standard Galaxy S21, but with some important differences. The S21 FE’s images are rich in detail and color, and the camera performs well in different lighting conditions.
Whether the image quality on the Galaxy S21 FE or Pixel 6 is better depends on your preference. Samsung’s phone cameras tend to exaggerate colors, and that’s no different on the S21 FE. Some people might prefer Samsung’s more colorful shots, but Google’s images looked truer to their surroundings most of the time. (Note: I didn’t change the camera settings on either phone prior to testing other than to adjust the Pixel’s 6 crop ratio.)
Overall, I think the Pixel 6’s photos provided the best balance of consistency and accuracy, but it’s safe to say that both phones are capable of taking really great pictures. Photos taken on both phones looked the same in some cases, but the images below of a green bush really highlight the difference between Samsung’s and Google’s cameras. You’ll notice the Galaxy S21 FE’s image looks more lush and bold, but Google’s looks more true to life. For example, you cab see notes of red near the tips of the leaves in the Pixel 6 photo below. They aren’t even visible in the Galaxy S21 FE’s image.
Check out the gallery below to see more photo samples from the Galaxy S21 FE and Pixel 6.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera testing: See how it compares to the Pixel 6 and Galaxy S21
The bigger difference between these phones is in the photography features they offer. The most notable distinction between the Pixel 6 and Galaxy S21 FE is that Samsung’s phone has an 8-megapixel telephoto lens in addition to a 12-megapixel wide and ultrawide lenses. The Pixel 6, by comparison, just has two lenses: a 50-megapixel main lens and a 12-megapixel ultrawide lens. As a result, the Galaxy S21 can achieve closer zoom shots with up to a 30x digital zoom, while the Pixel 6 provides a 7x zoom.
Both the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 FE have triple-lens cameras, but the telephoto lens on the regular S21 has a higher-resolution sensor (64 megapixels versus 8 megapixels). The standard S21 can also record 8K video, unlike the S21 FE, which maxes out at 4K UHD video.
At first, I didn’t notice much of a difference in the quality of zoomed-in shots when comparing images taken on the Galaxy S21 FE and Galaxy S21, as I noted in an earlier version of this review. But the more I’ve spent use the Galaxy S21 FE, the more I’ve noticed this discrepancy. While both phones produce similar images when photographing objects like street signs, the Galaxy S21 was able to capture more detail in other scenarios. Take the photos below, both of which were captured at a 10x zoom. You’ll notice the bush’s branches have more texture and detail in the Galaxy S21’s photo than the S21 FE’s.
Galaxy S21 FE
Hardware aside, each phone comes with its own array of shooting modes and software. The Galaxy S21 FE, unsurprisingly, has a lot in common with the regular Galaxy S21 in this regard. You’ll find familiar modes like Single Take, which lets you capture multiple images and video clips with a single press of the shutter button, Super Slow-Mo video and Night Mode, among others.
You can also record video with the front and rear cameras at the same time on the Galaxy S21 FE. But this feature is more limited than the Galaxy S21’s Director’s View; you can’t toggle between the three rear lenses when shooting in this mode as you can on the Galaxy S21.
Google, meanwhile, has a few software-based tools that make its device stand out. One of my favorites is Face Unblur, which, as its name suggests, can capture sharp images of peoples’ faces even when there’s movement in the scene. I took photos of my husband shaking his head back and forth and jumping up and down to see how well it actually works, and came away impressed. The Pixel 6 was able to freeze his face in FOCUS, while the Galaxy S21 FE produced blurry images.
Galaxy S21 FE
The bottom line
There isn’t much to say about the Galaxy S21 FE other than that it’s a solid phone for 700. It’s another sign that the definition of a high-end phone is starting to change as once-premium features like 5G, borderless displays and multilens cameras begin trickling down to more affordable devices.
That being said, I’d recommend waiting until Samsung announces the Galaxy S22 lineup before making a decision. Samsung typically launches its new Galaxy S phones early in the year, and rumors suggest the next generation could come with a 50-megapixel camera and faster charging. Even if you don’t need those upgrades, you might as well wait so that you can make a more informed choice.
I’d also suggest considering the 600 Pixel 6 before you make a decision. Samsung’s phone has an extra telephoto camera lens for better zoom shots, and it’s also lighter than Google’s phone. But the Pixel 6 has a more distinguished design and Google-specific goodies like the ability to have Google Assistant screen spam calls and wait on hold for you.
Pixel phones also typically get Android software updates more quickly than phones from other smartphone makers, and Google typically creates exclusive features just for Pixel phones. Since the Pixel 6 is the first phone to run on the company’s own Tensor chip, we’ll probably see even more of that down the line.
But Samsung’s phone has a big advantage: it supports both sub-6GHz and millimeter-wave versions of 5G. The situation is a bit more complicated with the Pixel 6, as only certain carrier models support both versions. What’s more, the versions that support both also tend to cost more, as my colleague Eli Blumenthal reports.
If you’re the type of person who would rather buy last year’s phone at a discount, the Galaxy S21 FE is probably for you. That being said, you should consider which features matter to you most. Both phones have great cameras, but if you take a lot of zoomed-in photos you might be better off with the Galaxy S21 FE. However, if you like the idea of having Google Assistant screen your calls and want to get the latest Android features right away, the Pixel 6 is the way to go.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Real Samsung fans might wanna skip this one
It’s been a while since I last used a Samsung smartphone as a daily driver. In fact, the last time I used a Samsung device, it ran Android Gingerbread with the infamous TouchWiz skin. As such, I was actually a little excited to try out the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE when Rory handed it to me, especially considering that the Galaxy S20 FE it replaces was viewed as one of the best devices from Samsung in a while.
Samsung though certainly took their time with actually launching the Galaxy S21 FE. While the Galaxy S20 FE appeared back in October of 2020, the Galaxy S21 FE would only show up in January this year. Perhaps they were worried it would cut into their sales of the Galaxy Z Flip 3, which was a pretty solid smartphone in its own regard. Nevertheless, the Galaxy S21 FE has indeed launched, and is positioned pretty much as the more ‘affordable’ version of Samsung’s flagship smartphones.
The model we got was the higher specced one, with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. However, almost immediately after unboxing it, it certainly didn’t feel as though I was holding a supposedly ‘flagship’ smartphone.
Life in plastic, it’s not fantastic
As Rory also notes in his hand-on with the device, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE really doesn’t match the same kind of near-flagship pedigree that the Galaxy S21 series or even the Galaxy S20 FE has. It still comes with Samsung’s much maligned ‘Glasstic’ polycarbonate back, and the camera bump isn’t a separate metal component like its fellow S21 series siblings. Instead, it’s just the same polycarbonate material that sweeps upwards into the linear camera bump.
It results in the camera bump feeling like an afterthought from Samsung, almost as though it was an attempt to maintain the design philosophy of the Galaxy S21 series while using the cheapest materials they can find. The matte black finish on the plastic back does give it a really nice ‘professional’ look though, especially compared to the plethora of flashy colour-changing smartphones in the upper midrange segment these days. There’s some upsides too of the matte plastic back, such as fingerprints not being as noticeable. Of course, if you rather your smartphone double as a fashion statement, the Galaxy S21 FE also features a white, olive and lavender colourway.
As a whole, you end up with a device that looks and feels as though it’s in the wrong Samsung lineup. If I hadn’t known any better and you told me this was the latest and greatest in the midrange Samsung Galaxy A series, I genuinely might believe you. At the very least, there’s IP68 water and dust resistance, while the front of the device also has a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass Victus over it in case you want a reminder of how glass actually feels like.
Of course, the Galaxy S21 FE wasn’t made with only stunning looks in mind. Instead, it’s supposed to offer the same flagship-level of performance you expect in a Galaxy S series device while being a little cheaper too. So let’s talk performance then, shall we?
It’ll keep your hands warm
When the Galaxy S20 FE debuted in Malaysia, it was almost immediately a hit with the Samsung fans here thanks to it being the only member of the Galaxy S20 lineup with a Snapdragon chip inside it. However, with the Galaxy S21 FE, Samsung has instead decided to ship it with the same Exynos 2100 system-on-chip that powers the rest of the Samsung S21 series too, rather than something like the Snapdragon 888. I won’t go on too much about the specific differences between the two chipsets, but it’s a bit of a shame considering that the local market does seem to prefer Snapdragon chips rather than Exynos ones.
As for how it actually performs, well the short answer is that it’s alright, but also won’t blow your socks away. Generally, I’m quite a heavy user with my devices, and often have plenty of apps running in the background too. This includes everything from social media stuff like and. messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Discord, some content streaming like YouTube and TikTok as well as stuff like Spotify, Waze and the like. For the most part, the Galaxy S21 FE holds its own with these apps, and barring a couple of stutters here and there, day-to-day performance was fine.
It’s also the first time I got to properly experience OneUI 4.0 and I’ve got to say it’s pretty decent to use. Things like the diagnostics, the widgets and stuff seem decent, and the UI itself is quite slick to use and easy to navigate around. It’s not a pure stock Android experience of course, and there’s also plenty of Samsung apps around.
Gaming though is a bit of a mixed bag. The Galaxy S21 FE technically handled most of the games I threw at it, such as RL Sideswipe, Pokemon Unite and Magic: the Gathering Arena. However, when there’s plenty of animations on the screen, frame rates seem to take a minor hit every now and then. What I really wasn’t expecting though was how warm the back of the phone gets when playing games, even for a short while. When I play a game of MTG Arena for instance, in just about 20-30 minutes, the phone becomes noticeably warmer, and the resolution seems to be taking quite a hit as well. Plus with all the ongoing issues surrounding Samsung throttling apps and games, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s causing all of this heat.
Furthermore, battery life is fine but again it isn’t great either. There’s a 4,500mAh battery that will last me the day, but squeezing more out of it might be a bit tougher. The screen was mostly on at between 50-70% brightness and as I mentioned I pretty much used it as I normally would with any other device, with around six hours of screen time and about 14 to 15 hours of time on battery. Most of the time I would end the day with about 20-30% of battery life remaining. Furthermore, unlike the previous Galaxy S20 FE, the Galaxy S21 FE also lacks a charging brick in the box. It does have reverse wireless charging though, which came in pretty handy a couple of times.
Good, but not great cameras
In the camera department, we’ve got a triple rear camera setup on the rear housing a main 12MP, f/1.8 wide camera, a 12MP, f/2.2 ultrawide camera and a third 8MP, f/2.4 telephoto camera. The front of the Galaxy S21 FE meanwhile has a 32MP, f/2.2 selfie camera.
Overall, the camera app was simple to use, though sometimes required digging through the settings and the ‘’ tab to find all the features. The photos also turned out for the most part fine, and will do just well on social media, but lack that final bit of sharpness and clarity to make it stand out amongst the crowd of upper midrange smartphones with big camera claims. They often have pretty solid colours too, with bright and vibrant images.
However, the cameras will struggle a bit in low light conditions, with images noticeably much more noisy once the lighting isn’t as complementary. Turning on night mode makes it somewhat better, as long as you don’t zoom in and notice the post processing at work that is. You will want to find a balance though, as every now and then shots end up blown up and overexposed.
It’s not all bad though
I might be coming off a little bit harsh on the Galaxy S21 FE so far, but that’s honestly because I expected so much more from it especially seeing how great of a smartphone the Galaxy S20 FE was. However, there are some positives on the Galaxy S21 FE, most notably of which is its display.
It has a 6.4-inch, FHD Dynamic AMOLED 2X display that is absolutely brilliant. The Galaxy S21 FE gets really bright when you need it too, and colours are absolutely gorgeous on the display. One particularly striking note was how deep the blacks get viewing content, with excellent contrasts throughout the screen. That made watching movies and videos distinctly enjoyable, and is no surprise considering Samsung’s history of having some of the best smartphone screens in the market.
If there was something I had to nitpick though, it would be that the 120Hz refresh rate isn’t adaptive. The lack of an adaptive refresh rate means that it’s stuck at 120Hz the entire time, even when it doesn’t need to such as when I’m reading an article or when the game I’m playing maxes out at 60fps. This is also perhaps helps to explain why I didn’t get much more battery life out of the Galaxy S21 FE.
You don’t watch content silently though, and so any great display needs to be paired with some solid speakers too to really complete the audiovisual experience. Here, the Galaxy S21 FE falls ever so slightly short of the mark, but is still pretty good in its own regard. The stereo speakers are fine for most applications, but lacks just that little bit of oomph compared to something like an iPhone 13, while also not getting as loud. Nevertheless, unless you’re a huge audiophile—which I’m not—-you’ll likely find the stereo speakers on the Galaxy S21 FE good enough. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with a 3.5mm audio jack, but you can switch the Bluetooth codec to something like LDAC.
Another plus point that the Galaxy S21 FE has going for it is that it launches with Android 12 out of the box. Samsung has recently promised to provide up to four major Android OS upgrades, with up to five years of security patches too. With the Galaxy S21 FE launching with Android 12, this means that if you were to get one of these for yourself, you could ostensibly keep using it until Android 16 rolls around or maybe even longer too. This kind of software support was previously unheard of in the Android space, and is a clear sign of Samsung’s intent to take on Apple’s near-legendary status in this regard.
And yet, with all that being said…
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is simply too little, too late
Let me be clear, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is by no means a bad smartphone. As I’ve pointed out, it has a pretty solid display and audio, and the fact that it launches with Android 12 out of the box means that you could technically use it until Android 16 rolls around thanks to Samsung’s promise of four major Android OS upgrades. But Samsung simply took way too long to actually release the device, and with these the value proposition of the Galaxy S21 FE has been significantly diminished.
- Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 8GB RAM 128GB storage – RM2,899
- Samsung Galaxy S21 FE 8GB RAM 256GB storage – RM3,099
In just a month since the launch of the Galaxy S21 FE, Samsung launched the Galaxy S22 series. We’ve already highlighted the notable differences in specs between the Galaxy S21 FE and the Galaxy S22, but the main takeaway is that the Galaxy S22 is the much better device compared to the Galaxy S21 FE, with only the smaller display the one thing the Galaxy S22 loses out to the Galaxy S21 FE in. And yet despite that, there are people who would prefer a more compact device, in which case it becomes an almost outright win for the Galaxy S22 over the Galaxy S21 FE.
The Galaxy S22 comes with a 6.1-inch FHD AMOLED display, while on the back of the device—gasp, it’s real glass this time! Furthermore, it on paper has better cameras too, with the Galaxy S22 series as a whole seeing a number of not insignificant upgrades in the camera department from Samsung. And perhaps a little ironically, it comes with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 too; Snapdragon chips have long been the fan favourite SoC here in Malaysia, and the use of the Snapdragon 865 in the Galaxy S20 FE was undoubtedly one of its biggest selling points here.
However, the Galaxy S22 will cost you RM600 more, with the 128GB model starting at RM3,499 while the 256GB variant goes for RM3,699. Now RM600 is a lot of money, I know. But honestly though, if you were already about to shell out nearly three grand for the Galaxy S21 FE, the RM600 extra to get the Galaxy S22 could be well worth it, assuming you don’t mind the smaller display. There are other non-Samsung alternatives as well of course, such as the Motorola Edge 30 Pro that’s priced at RM2,699. It’s also the only other Snapdragon 8 Gen 1-powered device currently available in Malaysia at time of writing.
That being said, we know that many of you firmly prefer paying a little more for a Samsung-branded device than other brands, perhaps due to familiarity with One UI or maybe you find Samsung Pay too convenient to live without. If you really do want to consider a ‘flagship’ device from Samsung, the Galaxy S21 FE remains a tough sell. But, if—and this is a big if—Samsung ends up giving it a significant enough price cut to make its price to performance ratio much better, then maybe you could consider the Galaxy S21 FE. And perhaps they will too, seeing as Samsung Malaysia has just recently announced a limited time RM300 discount for the Galaxy S21 FE. The Galaxy S21 FE simply came about too late, and much of its shine has since been overshadowed by the Galaxy S22 series.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE feels like a disappointing remake
Laptop Mag Verdict
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE follows the same recipe as the Galaxy S20 FE, but delays and strong competition in the affordable flagship market make it feel like reheated leftovers.
- Versatile camera system
- Excellent software support
- Powerful Snapdragon 888 processor
- Unique and comfortable design
- Bright 120Hz display
- – Mediocre battery life
- – Lacks adaptive 120Hz display
- – Galaxy S22 is coming soon
- – Disappointing telephoto lens
Why you can trust Laptop Mag
Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing products and services so you can choose the best for you. Find out more about how we test.
Price: 699 OS: One UI 4.0 (Android 12) Display: 6.4-inch (2,400 x 1,080 pixels) Dynamic AMOLED 2X with 120Hz CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 RAM: 6GB Rear cameras: 12MP wide (ƒ/1.8); 12MP ultra-wide (f/2.2); 8MP 3x telephoto (f/2.4) Front cameras: 32MP (f/2.2) Storage: 128 or 256GB Battery: 7:47 hours (120Hz); 9:15 (60Hz) Size: 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.32 inches Weight: 6.2 ounces
The Galaxy S21 FE has a tough act to follow as the Galaxy S20 FE was one of our favorite phones of 2020 and 2021 and while it sticks to the same recipe, some of the ingredients are past their sell-by date.
Taken as a whole, the Galaxy S21 FE is still solid hardware with a Snapdragon 888 processor, a triple camera array with telephoto, a bright and vivid 120Hz display and a large 4,500mAh battery. However, the 699 price point that made it a standout in late 2020, now places it just 100 shy of the main Galaxy S series that is about to be refreshed again and 100 more than the excellent Pixel 6.
The proximity of the Galaxy S22 (and other flagship launches) along with a lack of significant upgrades to the hardware make the Galaxy S21 FE hard to recommend, at least at full price. But if you can find a deal, there is still plenty to like about this phone.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE price and configurations
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE starts at 699, which includes 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage. For 70 more, you double your storage to 256GB and also bump up to 8GB of RAM.
If you are going to keep the phone for more than a year or two the upgrade is worth the cost as RAM and storage limitations both can slow your phone down over time.
While the Galaxy S21 FE matches the launch price of the Galaxy S20 FE, it’s much harder to get excited about its 699 price point when the excellent Pixel 6 undercuts it at 599 and the Galaxy S22 is due to arrive soon and presumably will stick to a 799 price point.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE design
The Galaxy S21 FE design predictably follows that of the Galaxy S21 models with the Contour Cut Camera housing that blends seamlessly with the top and sides of the phone providing a distinctive Samsung look. It’s subtler than the original Galaxy S21 as the camera housing is smaller and color-matched to the back of the phone.
Like the Galaxy S21 and S21 Plus, the S21 FE uses a polycarbonate back rather than glass. And while I know some are put off by this, I find it really pleasant to hold and it should do better with the occasional drop. It also makes the phone incredibly light at 6.2 ounces despite measuring 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.31 inches. For a device with a 6.4-inch display that’s impressively compact, smaller and lighter than either the Pixel 6 (6.2 x 2.9 x 0.35, 7.3 ounces) or OnePlus 9 (6.3 x 2.9 x 0.32, 6.8 ounces). The iPhone 13 (5.8 x 2.8 x 0.3, 6 ounces) undercuts it, but with a much smaller 6.1-inch display.
The Olive colorway on my review model is subdued, but a welcome change from the typical options. The silver lining the camera lenses and sides of the phone offers at least some contrast, but overall it’s pretty staid. If that isn’t to your taste, you can also choose from Phantom Black, Phantom White or Lavender. From a size and usability standpoint, I think the Galaxy S21 FE is one of the best phones I’ve used in some time, but I’m less enamored with the look as it doesn’t pop as much as the Galaxy S21 did with its contrasting camera housing. Ultimately most people will put a case on the phone anyway, which will change both the feel and the look, but for naked phone purists, the Galaxy S21 FE is a slightly mixed bag.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE offers IP68 dust and water resistance certification, which should help it hold up to the rigors of daily life. While the back may be polycarbonate, Samsung didn’t skimp on the glass up front with Corning Gorilla Glass Victus keeping your display safe from cracks or scratching.
As per usual, the ports and buttons are kept to a minimum with a power/multifunction button and volume rocker on the right and the USB-C port and SIM card slot at the bottom.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE display
Samsung’s mobile displays are second to none, and though the Galaxy S21 FE does drop the ball in one key area, it’s not display quality. The 6.4-inch FHD (2400 x 1080 pixels) Dynamic AMOLED 2X display offers a 120Hz refresh rate that stacks up well against any of the flagship competition. That one drawback? It’s not an adaptive refresh rate, so unlike the original Galaxy S21 models or most other current flagships, you need to switch between 60Hz and 120Hz manually.
We’ll get to the ramifications of that decision in the battery life section. However, the display remains gorgeous, and the 120Hz refresh rate delivers buttery smooth visuals in the core OS and the growing number of apps that support a high refresh rate.
I turned to Life in Color with David Attenborough and watched the “Seeing in Color” episode to test the display. The varied and vibrant blues and oranges of the mantis shrimp are beautifully rendered on the Galaxy S21 FE display, and the tiny fibrous projections from its legs offer a glimpse at how exquisitely sharp the phone’s display is as well.
Our lab testing was equally effusive for the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE, with the phone reproducing 78.5% of the DCI-P3 color gamut in its Natural color setting. The iPhone 13 (78.1%) came the closest to matching it, while the Pixel 6 (71.5%) and the OnePlus 9 (73.8%) couldn’t quite match up. However, the Android phones all support a Vivid mode if you want a more saturated look, here the S21 FE again came out on top (146.9%), but this pushed the OnePlus 9 (141.3%) well beyond the iPhone.
Our Delta-E color accuracy test results (lower is better) were reasonable, but not outstanding for the Galaxy S21 FE at 0.29. The iPhone 13 leads among this group at 0.26, while the Pixel 6 (0.28) and OnePlus 9 (0.27) slot in between them.
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE fared well in our brightness test with a peak of 704 nits. That couldn’t quite match up with the Pixel 6 (843 nits) or the iPhone 13 (795 nits), but it narrowly overpowered the OnePlus 9 (696 nits). These phones are all easily bright enough for use in direct sunlight, so don’t let this tip you one way or the other.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE cameras
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE features the now-familiar triple camera array on the back with a wide-angle, ultra-wide and telephoto lens. This is one area where the S21 FE does still stand out versus other phones in its price range as typically you only see a telephoto on top-tier flagships.
However, the sensors are similar to the Galaxy S20 FE, not the Galaxy S21, with a 12MP wide-angle at f/1.8 with optical image stabilization (OIS) and dual pixel autofocus, a 12MP ultra-wide at f/2.2 and an 8MP 3x telephoto at f/2.4. Around the front, you have a 32MP selfie camera at f/2.2. It’s not a bad collection of sensors by any means, but it feels stagnant and while Google’s Pixel 6 lacks a telephoto, its primary wide-angle sensor is a considerable upgrade from anything the Galaxy S21 FE has to offer.
Regardless, the real question is how do these sensors perform in real-world usage, and overall I’ve been happy with the results I’ve gotten from the Galaxy S21 FE. Samsung is nothing if not consistent with the photo processing on its phones and the S21 FE again cranks the saturation and brightness up to 11, which some love and others hate. I see both sides of the argument, there’s a hyperreality to Samsung photos that at times I feel captures how I actually wanted a scene to look, while occasionally I’m left feeling like it looks completely fake.
While Wisconsin’s weather has been pretty bleak during my time with the Galaxy S21 FE (I was excited to see the temperatures soar up to 25 degrees once), the blue sky has managed to peek through occasionally, and the Galaxy S21 FE was ready to take advantage. These shots of a mural on the side of a restaurant show the good side of its saturation with the Cloud-streaked sky contrasting with the vivid (if exaggerated) red building.
In a similar vein, this night shot of a statue of a Beefeater in an inexplicably U.K.-themed ally near my home gives a bright pop to the red uniform even in minimal lighting. The Galaxy S21 FE doesn’t stand up to the likes of the iPhone 13 or Pixel 6 when it comes to low-light photos, but a little ambient light goes a long way for it.
The ultra-wide performance is similar; here’s that same mural shot again and you’ve got virtually identical brightness and coloring, which is exactly what you want. That holds true in daylight; low-light photography falls off considerably on the ultra-wide due to its weaker aperture, lack of OIS and smaller sensor size.
The telephoto is the weakest link in the chain for the Galaxy S21 FE. While I still prefer that it exists as you can get usable photos at a distance that you would otherwise miss, it’s such a significant drop off from the primary that it’s harder to know when it will be worth it. Samsung allows you to push all the way up to a 30x zoom with it, optical is 3x, but as you can see in the samples, things fall apart rapidly after even 5-6x unless you are able to stabilize.
Samsung’s Galaxy S21 FE really is for fans only
All products featured here are independently selected by our editors and writers. If you buy something through links on our site, Mashable may earn an affiliate commission.
Samsung’s more budget-friendly stab at last year’s Galaxy S21 is certainly a capable Android phone, but you’re better off with a Pixel.
- Brilliant 120Hz display
- Snapdragon 888 5G chip runs beautifully
- Cameras are still good
- Not a good value compared to Pixels
- No charger in box
- Disappointing battery life
- No headphone jack
Sometimes a phone can do pretty much everything right and still be sorta hard to recommend. That’s where I’m at with the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (opens in a new tab).
Samsung’s latest (the FE stands for “Fan Edition”) is somewhat of reimagining of last year’s Galaxy S21. On paper and, for the most part, in practice, it’s an impressive offer: A bigger screen and bigger battery to go along with a similar triple-camera array and the same premium Qualcomm Snapdragon processor as the S21 for 100 less. Last year’s flagship S21 launched at 800 and the S21 FE retails at 700.
And all of that is fine! It’s good, even. This is a really nice Android phone that’s a better value than the original S21. But the “Fan Edition” part of the name is apt; unless you’re really devoted to Samsung’s product ecosystem, there are better values out there in the world of mid-range Android phones.
A beefy lad
The first thing you’re likely to notice once you get your hands on the S21 FE is that it’s not exactly small. In fact, it’s actually a little bit bigger than the more expensive S21. Sorry if you have small hands — this phone isn’t for you.
- 6.4-inch AMOLED screen with 120Hz refresh rate vs. 6.2-inch on S21
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G processor in both phones
- Rear triple-camera array: 12MP wide and ultrawide lenses, 8MP telephoto vs. 64MP telephoto lens on S21
- 32MP front camera vs.10MP on S21
- 4,500mAh battery vs. 4,000mAh on S21
- Either 6GB or 8GB RAM vs. 8GB only for S21
- 128 or 256GB storage on both phones
In other words, this is a slightly bigger phone than the S21 with an incredibly high refresh rate, a high-end processor, and slightly altered cameras. You’ll have to spend 770 for the model with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage, which makes it only a 30 discount from last year’s 8GB/128GB model. That’s…not a great value, honestly. An extra year (plus the imminent announcement of 2022’s Samsung flagships) would’ve ideally reduced the price just a bit more.
Aside from those differences, the two phones are physically and functionally pretty similar. Like the S21, the S21 FE has a razor-thin bezel around the display with the selfie cam nested in a hole-punch slot at the top center of the screen. All three rear cameras are stacked in a vertical, rectangular bump on the plastic backside of the phone. Power and volume buttons adorn the right side while the bottom features a USB-C port for charging and a SIM slot. And finally, the S21 FE comes in four colors: graphite, lavender, white, and olive.
As I hinted at before, the size of the S21 FE is going to be a turn-off for some people, myself included. I don’t have especially small hands but I still have to two-hand the phone to navigate Instagram and because the system-level back button is on the bottom right corner of the screen, while many apps put important functions (like Instagram Stories) on the upper left corner. I recently had to replace my iPhone and went with the 2020 SE model simply because it’s smaller than the newer, fancier models.
Tech companies, please give us more phones we can use with one hand.
I also strongly feel that a more budget-friendly take on a flagship should include a 3.5mm headphone jack, but the S21 FE doesn’t have one. People who want cheaper versions of phones may not have expensive Bluetooth headphones and shouldn’t have to buy a USB-C dongle just to use their wired earbuds. There are several ways in which 2020’s Google Pixel 5a is a better value than the S21 FE (and we’ll get to some of them later), but a major one is that Google’s 450 handset has a headphone jack.
Oh, one more thing: Samsung says the S21 FE is capable of fast charging like the other S21 models, but the FE doesn’t come with a charger at all. A USB-C cable is included in the package, but I couldn’t test out the fast charging because I wasn’t going to shell out 50 for an official charging brick (opens in a new tab) from Samsung. Big thumbs down to all of that.
size doesn’t mean less speed
Samsung may have cut corners to (marginally) downsize the S21 FE’s price, but the good news is that performance didn’t take a hit.
The Snapdragon 888 5G processor from last year’s phones is still here and still provides plenty of juice for all your daily smartphone tasks. I could switch from researching the amusing, extremely southern names of Georgia Bulldogs quarterbacks over the years (shout out to current Bulldogs like Stetson Bennett IV and Jack Vandagriff) to yammering about those names to my friends on and Discord without a hitch. All the while, I was streaming podcasts from Spotify and occasionally bopping over to YouTube to watch game highlights or other such distractions.
This is admittedly helped by the blazing fast 120Hz refresh rate. Everything just feels so smooth. A couple of other quick things to note about usability: Unlocking the phone via facial recognition and the in-display fingerprint sensor both worked almost flawlessly for me. The fingerprint sensor on the S21 was irksome for our reviewer last year, but not for me this time around.
I sincerely don’t have any complaints about the moment-to-moment process of using the S21 FE. I only wish I could do it for longer without needing to plug in.
Bigger battery, but could be better
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the S21 FE is its battery life. I can’t directly compare it to an S21 because I don’t have one of those on hand, but the big increase in the spec sheet wasn’t really reflected when I actually used the dang thing.
To be more specific, I got about 12 hours out of a full charge while doing the things I always do on my phone: Streaming podcasts, vomiting my brain’s wastewater out onto my feed, occasionally watching YouTube videos, reading articles about sports, and chatting with the homies on Discord. This also included a couple of relatively brief (about 45 minutes total) excursions outside into the 5G zone (more on that in a second), which may have put a little more stress on the battery.
I suppose dropping the refresh rate down to 60Hz would save some battery, but why the heck would I do that? The brilliant display is one of the main selling points of this phone. Compromising that just to compensate for a battery that could be better goes against everything I believe.
That’s a tad dramatic, but the point is that there are other Android phones in this price range that can last much, much longer. For instance, Google’s Pixel 6 starts at 600 and can get you through an entire day. You don’t even need to shell out the extra few Benjamins for the Pixel 6 Pro to get a battery that’s easily better than what’s on offer in the S21 FE.
G still isn’t reliable
As a quick aside, the S21 FE is a 5G-compatible phone and Samsung helpfully provided a 5G-ready SIM card from T-Mobile for testing purposes. As always, the quality of 5G service varies greatly not only depending on which city you’re in, but it’s literally also down to which street you’re on at times. However, T-Mobile is supposed to have the best 5G service around. That was not my experience.
I was able to get some decent download speeds in my Brooklyn neighborhood, topping out at around 300Mbps. That’s fine! The only problem is the network couldn’t sustain that consistently. Trying to watch YouTube videos on the go in 1080p or higher resulted in frequent buffering breaks if I happened to round a corner where the signal wasn’t strong enough.
If, for some reason, 5G is a major selling point of the S21 FE for you, I can’t promise a great experience in that regard.
I’m not real thrilled about certain aspects of the S21 FE, like the battery life or the price. But Samsung usually doesn’t mess around with its phone cameras, and I’m happy to report that you can still get some really great shots on this slightly downgraded set of lenses.
In particular, I was impressed by the nighttime photography feature. This is standard fare in plenty of phones now, but sometimes post-processing for dark photos makes them look a little too much like they take place in fake daytime instead of capturing the feel of being out in darkness. Nighttime is great. It’s atmospheric. My fellow Michael Mann-heads understand this; Collateral would look like crap if it took place during the day.
Anyway, nighttime shots on the S21 FE look nice.
Of course, portrait mode is here, too, and I’ve got no qualms with how those shots come out on S21 FE. You can adjust blur intensity on the fly to produce just the right bokeh effect for your photos.
The most noteworthy downgrade from the old S21 is that the 64MP telephoto lens was replaced with a measly 8MP one. As a result, highly zoomed in shots don’t look super sharp. You’re allowed to zoom as high as 30x, but I wouldn’t recommend that. Every shot I took like that turned out blurry and ugly.
Just look at what the telephoto lens did to my boy Gengar!
For all the grousing I’ve done about various setbacks with the S21 FE, at least the cameras are still pretty darn good.
For Samsung fans only
On its merits, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is a high-performing Android phone that doesn’t cost as much as a flagship, with a solid set of cameras and an excellent display. I’d easily recommend it in a vacuum. Unfortunately for Samsung, we’re not in a vacuum and there are just better values out there for Android lovers.
I just can’t see a compelling reason to go with this phone over either the Pixel 5a or Pixel 6. The former is a massive discount at 450 and has a much better battery, terrific cameras, and the all-important headphone jack. The only downside is the 60Hz refresh rate. If you want a higher refresh rate and don’t care about a headphone jack, the Pixel 6 is only 600 and delivers a 120Hz display to go along with a similarly excellent battery and Google’s great cameras.
The best case I can make for the S21 FE is if you really care about seamless connectivity between your phone and external Samsung devices like the Galaxy Buds 2. However, you can just download the Galaxy Wearable (opens in a new tab) app from the Play Store, so even that is a minor inconvenience at worst.
If you’re a massive Samsung fan and can’t deal with Android phones from other brands, you’ll find plenty to like about the Galaxy S21 FE. Everyone else should get a Pixel.