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Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: Too little, too late?

By
January 14, 2022
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE rear panel over tracks
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Samsung has churned out a fine piece of hardware in the Galaxy S21 FE. It’s got a nice screen, strong battery life, and speedy performance. Too bad it’s overpriced compared to its predecessor and better value alternatives, and hits the market mere weeks ahead of the Galaxy S22 family.

What we like

Solid build quality
Above-average display
Very good battery life
Speedy performance
Good software and upgrade commitment

What we don't like

Camera outgunned by alternatives
Priced too high

Our scores

Battery
Display
Camera
Performance
Software
Design
Audio
Value

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is here to serve as a more affordable option to Samsung’s full Galaxy S21 flagship. Samsung says the phone offers “fan-favorite features” like top performance and a solid camera packed into a stylish piece of hardware that fits naturally into the greater Samsung ecosystem. It does those things, to some degree, but the timing of the phone’s arrival to market is off, as is the price point, and that leaves the Galaxy S21 FE standing in a strange spot. Can the “Fan Edition” phone overcome its odd positioning and win over the hearts of Samsung fans? Find out in the Android Authority Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
$699.00 at Amazon
About this Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: I tested the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review unit over a period of 10 days. It was running Samsung One UI 4, based on Android 12, on the November 21 security patch. The unit was provided by Samsung for this review.

What you need to know about the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE left front profile
Eric Zeman / Android Authority
  • Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (6GB/128GB): $699 / €749 / £699
  • Samsung Galaxy S21 FE (8GB/256GB): $769 / €819 / £749

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE walks a razor’s edge between the popular but aging Galaxy S20 FE and the equally successful Galaxy S21. The idea is that the Galaxy S21 FE delivers most of the Galaxy S21’s experience at a price point more befitting of an affordable flagship.

The 2020-era pairing got the formula mostly right: the $699 Galaxy S20 FE — our 2020 Editor’s Choice phone of the year — was a solid alternative to the $999 Galaxy S20. More importantly, it arrived at an appropriate point in the middle of the Galaxy S20’s lifecycle, making it a natural device to recommend to those who couldn’t afford the full-fledged model. On paper, the story of the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S21 FE isn’t nearly as well-timed, with the latter launching at just $100 less than the vanilla Galaxy S21 and mere weeks ahead of the expected release of the next generation of Galaxy S phones.

Check out: The best Samsung phones

Samsung is selling two memory/storage variants of the Galaxy S21 FE, one with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage and another with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. Only $70 separates the two models, which means you can upgrade for not a whole lot. The phone comes in four colorways: White, Graphite, Olive, and Lavender. Samsung lent us the Graphite model for review. The phone is being supported widely by US carriers, including AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, as well as the usual slate of third-party electronics retailers.

The US and European model ships with the Snapdragon 888 processor, though some global variants of the phone will pack the Samsung-made Exynos 2100 SoC instead. Samsung began selling the Galaxy S21 FE in selected regions on January 11.

How is the hardware?

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE on snow showing screen.
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Samsung took the one significant visual design characteristic of the Galaxy S21 — the raised corner camera module — and made sure the S21 FE featured it prominently. There is a bit of a change in the way it is presented, but the basics are there. Specifically, the over-large styling of the module and the way it cozies up to the side rail are similar to the Galaxy S21’s looks, but the Galaxy S21 FE doesn’t feature the two-tone shading of its flagship siblings. It’s the type of downgrade you’d expect on a lesser phone, however.

The Galaxy S21 FE is a mixed slab. It boasts a flat Gorilla Glass Victus panel on the front, a rounded metal frame, and a plastic rear panel. The curved shape of the aluminum frame is particularly comfortable when holding the phone. The back is flat except where it bends just a bit along the edges where it meets the frame. It’s a fairly straightforward-looking phone. I’d call it a bit of a step up from the Galaxy S20 FE, which wasn’t as cohesive in its looks. I’m not necessarily a fan of the new Olive color, but the other shades are solid. Sadly, Samsung did away with the brighter shades that were available to the Galaxy S20 FE.

See also: The best Samsung Galaxy S21 FE cases you can get

Sizing of the Galaxy S21 FE is well balanced. Samsung was able to keep the dimensions in check, thanks in part to the average-sized 6.4-inch screen. It’s big enough without being too big and you’ll have no problem stuffing it into your pocket. The phone is fairly light, too, which helps reduce or prevent hand fatigue during prolonged use. The plastic backing gives me more confidence in carrying it around without a case, but surely some will feel better about wrapping it up in some protection — check out our picks at the link above. The phone meets the IP68 rating for protection from dust and water, which is increasingly common for affordable flagships. I let it sit in a bowl of water for a few moments and it turned out fine.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE right rear profile near rocks.
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Samsung did a good job assembling a quality piece of hardware. The smooth Gorilla Glass and metal frame go a long way towards giving the phone a better-than-mid-range appeal. The plastic rear panel in no way feels like glass despite Samsung’s marketing, but the matte finish works really well and helps prevent fingerprints from mucking it up.

The Galaxy S21 FE passingly resembles the fancier Galaxy S21 but doesn't carry the same sex appeal.

Functional controls for the phone are the bare minimum. A small power button and stubby volume toggle populate the right edge of the phone. Travel and feedback are good, though the buttons are too thin for my tastes. It’s like pressing on wire. There’s no headphone jack, but you’ll encounter the USB-C port and SIM card tray on the bottom edge. The SIM card tray supports two physical SIM cards, but does not accommodate a memory card. The Galaxy S20 FE did have microSD support, so that’s a disappointing change between the two phones, though it does match the Galaxy S21.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE left front profile on rocks
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

In sum, there’s absolutely nothing objectionable about the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE design and hardware. Samsung took a rather basic approach to building the phone. It passingly resembles the fancier Galaxy S21 but doesn’t carry the same sex appeal.

What’s the screen like?

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE display in hand
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Samsung reduced the Galaxy S21 FE’s screen size a smidgen compared to the S20 FE, but it is otherwise identical in terms of core features and performance.

The Galaxy S21 FE’s AMOLED display measures 6.4 inches, with an odd 13:6 aspect ratio. Samsung packed 2,340 x 1,080 pixels into the panel, which gives it an FHD+ resolution and a pixel density of 403ppi. There’s a punch-hole selfie camera centered near the top edge of the panel.

More reading: Displays specs and terms explained

The screen is surely large enough for all your apps and content. It’s not a Note-sized monster and instead matches the screen dimensions of the Pixel 6. I found it to be in the Goldilocks zone — just right. The resolution is more than dense enough, particularly for this class of device. FHD+ means it renders games and videos to a crisp enough standard for the price. I found on-screen elements were sharp and clean.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE front panel on rocks
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Like the 2020 model, the Galaxy S21 FE offers a 120Hz refresh rate. There are two settings: 120Hz and 60Hz. Samsung set the Galaxy S21 FE to the 120Hz option by default. This means scrolling behavior looks a bit smoother when using apps like Twitter and YouTube. The Galaxy S21 FE also includes a 240Hz touch sampling rate when you’re in gaming mode, an upgrade from the Galaxy S20 FE, which means it reacts to your touch input faster than many other phones.

The S21 FE’s faster 240Hz touch sampling rate gives it an advantage over slower screens when it comes to gaming.

You’ll find a proper number of advanced tools for controlling the screen’s behavior. In addition to basics such as dark mode and blue light settings, the Galaxy S21 FE permits owners to choose from several pre-defined color profiles, as well as set their own white balance and even custom-tune red, blue, and green levels to get the look they want.

The Galaxy S21 FE’s screen doesn’t have quite the same visual impact of the Galaxy S21’s, which is a tiny bit brighter and slightly more pixel rich, but it’s more than good enough for the price point.

How good is the Galaxy S21 FE’s battery life?

Samsung took the Galaxy S20 FE’s 4,500mAh and carried it over to the Galaxy S21 FE. That’s a little bit larger than the regular Galaxy S21’s 4,000mAh cell too. What you need to know is that it should get most people through a day without much worry.

Check out: Here are the Android phones with the best battery life

It’s actually impressive that Samsung was able to keep the size of the battery the same as its predecessor since the Galaxy S21 FE itself is thinner and lighter than the S20 FE. I tested the phone for more than a week and I never had trouble using the phone from breakfast to bedtime. It always ended the day with at least 30% charge to spare. It never surpassed more than a day and a half of battery life, however; something to keep in mind.

As for charging speeds, the Galaxy S21 FE supports 25W wired charging and 15W Qi wireless charging. You’ll need a Power Delivery PPS charger to get the top charging speeds, but you won’t find a charging brick in the box. You’re on your own to supply one. We tested it with an Anker Nano II 30W charger and it usually took about 90 minutes to recharge fully — nothing to write home about, but not terrible either. Wireless charging speeds on our 18W wireless charger were notably slower at more than two hours. The phone does offer reverse wireless charging for accessories, so you can power up your headphones or smartwatch when needed.

The Galaxy S21 FE’s battery life doesn’t go out of its way to impress. Instead, it delivers just the right mix of features and performance for this class of phone.

How powerful is the Galaxy S21 FE?

Like many Samsung smartphones, there are two major versions of the Galaxy S21 FE: one with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor and one with a Samsung Exynos 2100 processor. The Snapdragon model is being sold in the US and select other markets in the West, while the Exynos model is found in regions such as India. Whichever processor you get, the Galaxy S21 FE comes with either 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage or 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. Samsung lent us the Snapdragon-equipped 6GB/128GB model for testing purposes. We prefer to see at least 8GB of RAM on flagship-level phones as it helps to keep more apps running at once. Moreover, one of the Galaxy S21 FE’s top competitors, the Google Pixel 6, has 8GB of storage, as does the Galaxy S21.

See also: Snapdragon SoC guide — All you need to know about Qualcomm’s processors

As far as everyday performance goes, the phone absolutely flies. Even though the Snapdragon 888 itself is now a full year old, it is a welcome step up compared to the Snapdragon 865 that was in the S20 FE. I found the Galaxy S21 FE to be a smooth operator across the board no matter the task at hand, including more intensive 3D games such as Asphalt 9. And the 888 is a better option for gaming than the Tensor processor in the Pixel 6.

When it comes to performance, the Galaxy S21 FE is indeed superior to the Galaxy S20 FE and about equal to that of the Galaxy S21.

We ran the usual set of benchmark apps, including AnTuTu, GeekBench, and 3DMark, and the phone put up respectable scores that stopped just short of being outstanding. In most of the tests, the Galaxy S21 FE bested between 75% and 80% of competing devices. That means it handily outperformed the vast majority of entry-level and mid-range phones. It scored on par with competing Snapdragon 888 devices, such as the Galaxy S21 or Oppo Find X3. With our homegrown Speed Test G benchmark, the Galaxy S21 FE scored one minute 22 seconds, which is right on par for a Snapdragon 888 phone.

What you really need to know here is that the Galaxy S21 FE is indeed superior to the Galaxy S20 FE and about equal in performance to that of the Galaxy S21. In other words, it performs as well as Samsung says it should.

How good are the Galaxy S21 FE’s cameras?

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE camera closeup from left
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

One area Samsung didn’t improve much between the Galaxy S20 FE and the Galaxy S21 FE is the camera. Sure, the lenses may look bigger thanks to the revamped rear hardware, but the sensors themselves and their core capabilities are carried over from one generation to the next.

The main camera has a 12MP sensor at f/1.8 with OIS and dual pixel autofocus — same as the pricier Galaxy S21. The ultrawide camera also has a 12MP sensor at f/2.2 with a really wide 123-degree field of view. Looking to shoot some zoomed shots? The telephoto camera boasts an 8MP sensor at f/2.4 with 3x optical zoom and 30x Space Zoom, which is Samsung’s fancy branding for its hybrid optical/digital zoom. The Galaxy S21 FE also packs the same 32MP sensor at f/2.2 as the S20 FE, with a fairly standard 81-degree field of view.

More reading: The best camera phones you can get

How does the camera fair? Everyday shots you take outdoors during the day or indoors with good lighting turn out bright with that typical Samsung color boost. I was mostly happy with focus and white balance, though things were sometimes a little soft. The camera defaults to auto HDR, and the tool manages to balance things out in decent fashion even in high-contrast scenes. It’s a solid main shooter.

Hopping to the ultrawide, which is a 0.5x zoom compared to the main camera, is fun when you want to squeeze more into the frame. Ultrawide shots are definitely softer than those taken from the main camera, but the color profile and exposure are about the same. HDR isn’t as effective with this camera and you’re more apt to get overexposed or underexposed spots in photos with overly bright or dark regions.

Things really soften up with the telephoto. It does alright, but not nearly as well as the Galaxy S21. The native 3x shots are exposed well enough and not too noisy, though clarity was sometimes on the soft side. I like that the camera’s controls make it easy to jump from 0.5x to 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x, 10x, 20x, and 30x with little buttons. You’ll find 20x and 30x Space Zoom to be mostly worthless in terms of real-world results. The shots are simply too noisy and lacking in focus and detail.

The Galaxy S21 FE includes a dedicated night mode for shooting in the dark. It’s the same night mode available on other Samsung phones, which means it takes a longer exposure and you have to hold still when shooting. Results vary widely depending on the light, what you’re shooting, and how still you hold the phone. I’ve seen better results from other phones.

Shooting selfies? The selfie camera does a fair job when it comes to color and exposure, but images are a bit soft in terms of focus. You’ll also spot a fair amount of grain, particularly in darker environments. Portraits, whether taken with the rear camera or the front camera, are pretty good. The separation between the subject and background is good and the amount of blur is nice without being too much. Edge detection is hit or miss when it comes to your hair.

The one significant new feature Samsung added to the camera is dual capture. This mode allows you to record video from the front and rear cameras at the same time. There are two views: split-screen (50-50) or picture-in-picture. I like that you can prioritize either the front or rear camera when in picture-in-picture mode. The results are about what you’d expect from such a feature. I do wish you could snap photos in this mode, but you cannot.

The one significant new feature Samsung added to the camera is dual capture.

Other camera modes include AR Doodle, pro mode, panorama, food, portrait video, pro video, super slow-mo, slow-mo, hyperlapse, and of course Samsung’s Single Take, which captures a blend of still photos and videos. These all work the same as they have on most Samsung phones over the last few years and the selection strikes a nice balance between fun and functional.

Last, video. The S21 FE maxes out at 4K resolution at 60fps. There are plenty of advanced features, including an HDR 10+ “Samsung Lab” mode which means it’s a feature that’s still under testing. The high-res video footage I shot looked good on my 4K monitor, though contrast was a little flat.

See also: Photography terms explained

Bottom line, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE has a good camera for the price point, though it doesn’t quite match today’s leading devices. Most notably, it’s outgunned by the less expensive Google Pixel 6 unless you really want a telephoto shooter. The Galaxy S21 FE may soon be swamped by a wave of new flagships — including the Samsung Galaxy S22. While the majority of people will be satisfied with the S21 FE’s camera, those looking for the best possible experience may benefit from holding off until we see what arrives in the first few months of 2022.

Full-resolution photos are available in this Google Drive folder.

Anything else?

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE display on red background
Eric Zeman / Android Authority
  • Software: The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE ships with Android 12 and One UI 4. It’s among the first phones from Samsung to ship with the latest operating system from Google, and that’s a good start. One UI 4 is a solid update to the One UI 3 family, and it takes advantage of the new Android 12 features in a respectable way. For example, you’ll notice the new speaker/microphone alerts in the notification bar when the phone is using those features, as well as the precise/approximate location dialog box. One UI does a fair job of adopting Android 12’s automatic color palette feature, but the options aren’t quite as good as those you’ll see on the Google Pixel 6 devices. In all, however, it’s a solid software experience.
  • Support: Samsung has made firm commitments to software updates for its phones and is now promising three years of OS updates and four years of security upgrades. That’s better than most other phone makers at the moment, which means your S21 FE will remain up to date longer than most.
  • Biometrics: Basic biometrics are on board. Samsung added an ultrasonic fingerprint reader to the display. It’s positioned just a bit low on the phone’s face, but training and using it are no problem at all. It is generally the best/fastest way to unlock the phone. There’s also a basic face recognition feature, though it’s not the super-secure type that relies on dedicated hardware.
  • Stereo speakers: There’s no headphone jack, but you do get stereo speakers with the Galaxy S21 FE. The speakers actually sound pretty good. You’re not going to get the loudest, clearest sound in the world, but you’ll get enough volume to fill a small room and enough clarity to discern the highs from the lows whether listening to music or watching videos.
  • 5G: The Galaxy S21 FE supports both sub-6GHz and mmWave 5G. While the former gets you 5G access across the US and parts of Europe, mmWave is mostly used in the States. Samsung provided a T-Mobile SIM card with our review unit and we were able to put the phone’s 5G to the test. It really worked out well. T-Mobile coverage in my area is good and download/upload speeds were snappy. Obviously, your mileage will vary depending on where you live. You also get Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0 to round out the connectivity suite.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE specs

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
Display
6.4-inch Dynamic AMOLED
FHD+ (2,340 x 1,080)
120Hz refresh rate
240Hz touch sampling in gaming mode
Materials
Gorilla Glass Victus front
Metal frame
Plastic rear panel
Processor
Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 (US)
or
Exynos 2100 (Global)
RAM
6GB or 8GB
Storage
128GB or 256GB
No expandable storage
Battery and power
4,500mAh
25W wired charging
15W wireless charging
Reverse wireless charging
No charger in box
Cameras
Rear:
-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)

Front:
- 32MP single (ƒ2.2, 81-degree FoV)
Audio
Stereo speakers
Dolby Atmos support
No 3.5mm headphone jack
Security
In-display optical fingerprint sensor
Water-resistance
IP68 rating
Connectivity
Wi-Fi 6
Bluetooth 5.0
NFC support
Networks
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)
Software
Android 12
One UI 4
Dimensions and weight
155.7 x 74.5 x 7.9mm
177g
Colors
White, Graphite, Olive, Lavender

Value and competition

Galaxy S21 FE Green Back RGB
Samsung Galaxy S21 FE
Samsung's 2021 flagship finally gets a "fan edition"
The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is very similar to the vanilla Galaxy S21. However, it pares things down a bit in order to slash $100 from the MSRP.

Here’s where things get really complicated for the Galaxy S21 FE. The raw retail price of the phone is $699 for the 6GB/128GB model, which is what most people will choose, and $769 for the 8GB/256GB model. On their own, these prices don’t seem unreasonable. You’re getting a solid piece of hardware that has a decent screen, good battery life, a top-shelf processor, and a camera setup that comes close to flagship-class despite the hardware beginning to show its age. Not to mention, you get Android 12 out of the box and a firm update commitment. So far so good.

Let’s reel things back a minute, however, and look at how the Galaxy S20 compared to the Galaxy S20 FE ($699). The S20 FE had a solid $300 price advantage over its sibling. From that perspective, the Galaxy S20 FE was a legit bargain compared to the Galaxy S20. The differential between the Galaxy S21 ($799) and the base model Galaxy S21 FE is only $100, at $799 and $699, respectively. Further, the Galaxy S21, now a year old, is often discounted to $699 or less. That puts the Galaxy S21 FE in a really awkward spot. Despite its age, the Galaxy S21 has a more polished design, better secondary cameras, and marginally better core specs than the Galaxy S21 FE. In other words, it is really hard to recommend the Galaxy S21 FE over the Galaxy S21 — particularly if the Galaxy S21 is available on sale.

Which should you buy? Samsung Galaxy S21 FE vs Galaxy S21

Keeping things focused on Samsung for a moment, we have to point out that the Galaxy S22 family is expected to arrive soon. Really soon. Like, February soon. Pricing for the Galaxy S21 successor isn’t clear yet, but if the Galaxy S22 lands at a price point that’s anything close to the Galaxy S21’s $799, then the Galaxy 21 FE’s story gets even murkier. Then there’s the Galaxy A series. The Galaxy A52 5G ($499) is still an excellent phone for the price that loses some raw power, but provides much of the same experience as the Galaxy S21 FE for $200 less.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE rear panel showing camera
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Then there’s the elephant in the room. The Google Pixel 6 ($599) is an absolute bargain. The phone has an excellent camera, solid performance and some AI-powered perks, and the best software commitment you can get from any Android phone. Moreover, you get special Pixel-exclusive features directly from Google, such as Call Screening, Now Playing for music discovery, Live Caption, and others.

The Motorola Edge (2021) ($699) is another solid offering. It has a larger display, higher-capacity battery, and the main camera is packing way more megapixels than the Galaxy S21 FE. The OnePlus 9 ($599) has dropped in price by a significant $130 these days and it’s still a solid performer despite its age. You can score the truly capable Apple iPhone 13 ($799) for a little bit more, though of course that steps away from the Android ecosystem.

In other words, if the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE doesn’t quite float your financial boat, you’ve got options.

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE review: The verdict

Samsung Galaxy S21 FE right front profile near rocks
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Samsung conjured up a solid smartphone in the Galaxy S21 FE. On the surface, there’s nothing objectionable about the phone at all. Samsung managed to get many of the tent poles firmly in place.

It’s attractive (if a touch simple), slim, and lightweight. I genuinely appreciate the quality of the materials and the tight assembly. The screen is very good, battery life is above average, and it delivers better performance than most phones in its price class. Samsung managed to ship the phone with the latest version of Android and it comes with a very respectable OS and security update commitment.

Samsung shipped the phone with the latest version of Android and it comes with a respectable OS and security update commitment.

Where the phone stumbles is its pricing compared to the competition. The phone simply doesn’t have the price advantage it needs to stand apart from the Galaxy S21. In the US, there’s little reason to opt for the Galaxy S21 FE over the Galaxy S21 with the small $100 price delta. Budget-conscious power users in regions where the Galaxy S21 has an Exynos chipset may be tempted by the Fan Edition, but most should still favor the real thing. Moreover, if the Galaxy S22 arrives soon with anything close to the Galaxy S21’s $799 price point, the Galaxy S21 FE will basically be dead in the water.

Related: The best Samsung Galaxy S21 FE alternatives

And that’s without getting into the compelling alternatives that may have more appeal than a phone that should have launched six months ago. The Pixel 6, in particular, is simply a better buy than the Samsung for the moment, especially if you care about camera results and software.

There’s nothing wrong with the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE. However, there’s something to be said for pricing and market timing. Pushing a phone that should have launched in mid-2021 in early 2022 seems like folly, particularly since we know Samsung is nearly ready to debut its next flagship.