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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE hands-on: Entering the twilight phone
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (“fan edition”) is a phone that feels out of time and place. Many expected the device to debut months and months ago. Now, in January 2022, it finally arrives bearing last year’s name, last year’s specs, and last year’s design, leaving it slightly out of step with Samsung’s lineup. Samsung hasn’t explicitly said why the phone didn’t show up in 2021, though it likely has something to do with the ongoing global chip shortage. Whatever the reasons, the S21 FE is here now at CES 2022.
This mid-range device includes a respectable set of capabilities packed into a surprisingly simple piece of hardware that’s priced to sell. In Android Authority‘s Samsung Galaxy S21 FE hands-on, you’ll read our first impressions of Samsung’s latest smartphone.
More info: The complete Samsung Galaxy S21 FE buyer’s guide
Design: More vanilla than killah
The Galaxy S21 FE blends the best aspects of the S20 FE and S21 design elements in a way that makes it a more attractive and cohesive smartphone than its predecessor.
As expected, the S21 FE has a Gorilla Glass Victus front panel, a metal frame, and a plastic rear panel. The front and back panels are basically flat, while the frame is rounded generously. These components are shaped to resemble the bolder Galaxy S21 but in a way that’s slightly muted. For example, the camera module of the S21 is almost garishly large. Samsung toned it down for the S21 FE, and the camera bump has a much lower profile.
Moreover, the Galaxy S21 features a two-toned look (on some colorways) thanks to the contrasting colors used for the frame and the rear panel. The S21 FE is simpler thanks to the single color of the frame and panel. Speaking of colors, Samsung will sell the S21 FE in Olive, Lavender, White, and Graphite. Samsung lent us the Graphite color. I like the matte finish.
The S21 FE is a comfortable size and shape that balances out nicely.
The size is somewhat surprising. Samsung reduced the screen’s measurement by 0.1 inches compared to the S20 FE, allowing it to shrink the S21 FE’s footprint in every dimension. It’s shorter, narrower, and thinner, as well as lighter, which all make it a pleasure to hold and use. It is a comfortable size and shape that balances out in a nice fashion.
Samsung did well with the materials and build quality. The front and rear panels are fitted into the frame snugly. Nothing about the phone feels cheap, despite the plastics used for the back surface. This seems like the appropriate time to mention that the phone meets the IP68 rating for protection against dust and water. It can handle a 30-minute dunk in about five feet of water.
Functional elements built into the frame are kept to a minimum. The power button and volume toggle on the left edge are a bit thin, but they deliver good action. There’s a USB-C port on the bottom edge, which is also where you’ll find the SIM card slot. Sadly, the S21 FE loses microSD support. Believe it or not, the phone has stereo speakers, and they sound pretty decent on first pass. There’s no 3.5mm headphone jack.
More reading: Samsung Galaxy S21 vs S20 FE
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is a bit more vanilla than the standout S21, but that’s to be expected for a mid-range device. It’s a solid smartphone, even if it borders on boring.
Display: Feature to beat
Samsung fitted the S21 FE with an excellent display. Based on what our eyeballs see, it’s a class leader for the price.
The S21 FE’s Dynamic AMOLED display measures 6.4 inches across the diagonal, a hair smaller than the S20 FE’s 6.5-inch panel. It carries over the same FHD+ resolution at 2,340 x 1,080. It boasts a 120Hz refresh rate for smooth scrolling action and a fast 240Hz response rate for gaming. There’s a punch-hole cutout for the selfie camera centered near the top edge.
Further reading: Display specs and terms explained
Though these specs are largely carried over from last year’s model, the screen is impressive. The size and resolution combination works well, meaning on-screen elements such as icons and text look crisp and sharp. Colors are boosted a bit, which is typical for a Samsung panel, but you have plenty of options to customize the display’s vividness, brightness, and tone to suit your preferences.
Bottom line, you’re getting a solid panel here from Samsung.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE: Hot or not?
Performance and power: A small bump
Many of the core specs of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE are carried over from the S20, though there’s one large exception. Where the S20 shipped with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, the S21 relies on Qualcomm’s newer Snapdragon 888. The 888 is the same chip found in the S21 family. It was also the most popular SoC for flagships and high-end mid-range phones throughout 2021. Qualcomm has replaced the 888 with a newer chip, though that silicon has yet to ship in any consumer products.
Beyond the processor, however, the S21 FE offers the same memory and storage options as its predecessor. That means 6GB of RAM paired with 128GB of storage or 8GB of RAM paired with 256GB of storage. In our limited time with the phone, it felt fluid and fast.
Then there’s the battery. It’s a direct carry-over from the outgoing phone. The battery has a capacity of 4,500mAh. It supports wired charging speeds of 25W (brick not included) and wireless charging speeds of 15W. We haven’t had an opportunity to assess the S21 FE’s battery life, so stay tuned to our full review for those details.
Related: The best wireless chargers
5G is on board as well. Samsung says a single global version of the S21 FE is being sold, and it supports both sub-6GHz and mmWave 5G. The latter is generally only available in the US, but those of you in markets with sub-6GHz service should be well covered. We also expect to thoroughly test the S21 FE’s 5G performance in our forthcoming review.
Cameras: Same same but different
Much like the core performance specs of the phone, the S21 FE carries over the S20 FE’s trio of cameras. It has a 12MP primary camera, a 12MP wide-angle camera, and an 8MP telephoto camera. The 32MP selfie camera is a replica as well. Based on the specs sheet, the camera arrangement is exactly the same as the outgoing phone, down to the aperture, field-of-view, and feature set, such as 3X telephoto and 30X Space Zoom. That’s a bit disappointing. I don’t need more pixels, but it would have been nice to see a change-up in the sensors or the lens capabilities, such as improved apertures or altered fields of view.
The one aspect of the S21 FE that should offer it slightly better imaging performance when compared to the S20 FE is, of course, the upgraded processor. The Snapdragon 888 has a better image signal processor on board, giving the S21 FE an edge over its predecessor. Moreover, the S21 FE offers one additional feature: Dual recording. This allows you to capture content using the front and rear cameras simultaneously.
We’ll offer a full assessment of the S21 FE’s cameras in the days ahead.
Software: A solid upgrade
If there’s one advantage the S21 FE has out of the box, it’s the software experience. The phone is one of the first from Samsung to ship with Android 12 and its One UI 4 skin from the get-go.
After using the phone for just a few moments, we can say that the basic software and its performance are quick. No bugs cropped up during our time with the device, and many of the core elements of Android 12, such as the automatically generated color palettes, are present and accounted for. There’s also the new Privacy Dashboard, which offers security and privacy controls gathered in a single spot.
Related: Everything new in Android 12
What’s more, Samsung promises three years of OS updates and four years of security updates for the phone. Samsung has one of the best upgrade commitments in the market, and that’s good news for the Galaxy S21 FE.
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE specs
|Samsung Galaxy S21 FE|
6.4-inch Dynamic AMOLED
FHD+ (2,340 x 1,080)
120Hz refresh rate
240Hz touch sampling in gaming mode
Gorilla Glass Victus front
Plastic rear panel
Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 (US)
Exynos 2100 (Global)
6GB or 8GB
128GB or 256GB
No expandable storage
Battery and power
25W wired charging
15W wireless charging
Reverse wireless charging
No charger in box
-12MP primary (ƒ1.8, Dual Pixel AF, OIS, 79-degree FoV)
- 12MP ultrawide (ƒ2.2, 123-degree FoV)
- 8MP telephoto (ƒ2.4, 3x optical zoom, OIS, 32-degree FoV)
- 32MP single (ƒ2.2, 81-degree FoV)
Dolby Atmos support
No 3.5mm headphone jack
In-display optical fingerprint sensor
5G: Non-Standalone (NSA), Sub-6GHz, and mmWave
Enhanced 4x4 MIMO, up to 5CA, LTE D/L Cat.19 (1.6Gbps)
LTE U/L Cat.18 (211Mbps)
One UI 4
Dimensions and weight
155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm
White, Graphite, Olive, Lavender
Overall, there’s plenty of promise
It’s hard not to feel a little let down by the Galaxy S21 FE. Sure, Samsung did a fine job updating the phone’s appearance to match the larger S21 family. It’s a better-looking phone than its predecessor, no doubt. But the company clearly held back when it came time to outfit the device with its defining features. Other than the processor, nearly all the internal specs were carried over from the older S20 FE phone, which leaves the S21 FE coming across as outdated and potentially unprepared for soon-to-be-released competitors.
First impressions aside, there’s plenty of room here for the S21 FE to stretch its legs and prove its mettle. Stay tuned for our full review of the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE.